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  • Denis Pepin

Exploring Death: From Facts to Faith

Updated: Mar 30

Elderly couple holding hands in autumn forest
As they walk through the autumn forest, this elderly couple reflects on their life journey and their faith in the face of death.

Science is the systematic study of the natural world, based on observation, experimentation, and evidence. Science can explain the process of dying, which is the gradual or sudden breakdown of all biological functions that sustain a living organism.

For example, science can measure the vital signs of a dying person, such as their heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and brain activity. Science can also describe the cellular and molecular changes that occur in the body after death, such as the loss of oxygen, the release of enzymes, the breakdown of proteins, and the growth of bacteria. Science can also analyze the genetic and environmental factors that influence the lifespan and health of a living organism, such as the role of DNA, aging, disease, and nutrition.

However, science has no way of verifying the existence of any supernatural phenomena after death, which are based on conjecture and faith. Supernatural phenomena are events or entities that are beyond the scope of natural laws and explanations, such as ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, gods, and miracles. Science cannot test or observe these phenomena, because they are not subject to the same rules and methods that apply to the natural world. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife, a soul, or a consciousness that transcends the physical body, because these concepts are not defined or measured by scientific standards. Science cannot answer the question of what happens after death, because it is not a scientific question, but a metaphysical one.

There is no reliable evidence or observation that supports the existence of an afterlife, a soul, or a consciousness that transcends the physical body. When a person dies, their body undergoes a series of physical changes, such as rigor mortis, decomposition, and skeletonization. Rigor mortis is the stiffening of the muscles due to the lack of ATP, which is the energy source for muscle contraction. Decomposition is the process of decay and decomposition of organic matter by bacteria, fungi, insects, and other organisms. Skeletonization is the exposure of the bones after the soft tissues have been consumed or eroded.

The mind, which is the result of the brain and its activity, also ceases to exist. The brain is the organ that controls the nervous system, which regulates the functions of the body and the senses. The brain also produces mental processes, such as thoughts, emotions, memories, and personality. The brain depends on the blood supply and the oxygen delivery to function properly. When the blood circulation stops, the electrical activity of the brain stops within 20-40 seconds and the brain cells start to die within minutes. The mind, which is the product of the brain, also disappears with the brain.

Some people claim to have near-death experiences, which are subjective and inconsistent reports of seeing a bright light, feeling a sense of peace, and encountering deceased relatives or spiritual beings. Near-death experiences are phenomena that occur when a person is close to death or has been clinically dead and then revived. Some common features of near-death experiences are: a feeling of leaving the body and observing it from above, a sensation of traveling through a tunnel or a dark space, a vision of a bright light or a being of light, a review of one’s life and its meaning, a meeting with deceased relatives or spiritual beings, a feeling of love, peace, and joy, and a choice or a force to return to the body.

However, these experiences can be explained by natural causes, such as oxygen deprivation, hallucinations, or memory distortions, and they do not prove the existence of an afterlife. Oxygen deprivation is the lack of oxygen in the brain, which can cause visual and auditory distortions, such as seeing flashes of light, hearing noises, or feeling vibrations. Hallucinations are false perceptions of reality, which can be caused by drugs, stress, trauma, or mental disorders. Hallucinations can involve seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not there, such as images, sounds, or sensations. Memory distortions are errors or changes in the recall or recognition of information, which can be caused by suggestion, bias, or interference. Memory distortions can involve mixing up, forgetting, or inventing details, such as events, names, or places.

Some people believe in an afterlife based on faith and revelation, not on evidence and reason. They follow the teachings of various religions, which have different and often contradictory concepts of the afterlife, such as heaven and hell, reincarnation, purgatory, or nirvana.

Heaven and hell are the destinations of the souls of the righteous and the wicked, respectively, according to the Abrahamic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Heaven is a place of eternal bliss, where the souls enjoy the presence of God and the angels. Hell is a place of eternal torment, where the souls suffer the wrath of God and the demons.

Reincarnation is the cycle of rebirth of the soul in different bodies, according to the Dharmic religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Reincarnation is governed by the law of karma, which is the principle of cause and effect, where the actions of a person in one life determine their fate in the next life.

Purgatory is the intermediate state of purification of the souls of the imperfect, according to the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Purgatory is a place of temporary suffering, where the souls undergo cleansing and preparation for heaven.

Nirvana is the state of liberation from the cycle of rebirth, according to Buddhism. Nirvana is a state of peace, happiness, and enlightenment, where the soul attains the ultimate truth and reality.

Some religions also believe in the resurrection of the body, which is the belief that the dead will be raised and restored to life at the end of time. The resurrection of the body is a doctrine of the Abrahamic religions, which hold that God will judge the living and the dead, and grant them eternal life or eternal death, according to their deeds. The resurrection of the body is also a doctrine of some sects of Zoroastrianism, which hold that Ahura Mazda will defeat Angra Mainyu, and restore the world to its original perfection.

These beliefs are based on the authority of sacred texts, traditions, and personal experiences, which are not verifiable or falsifiable. Sacred texts are the writings that are considered to be inspired by God or a divine source, such as the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, the Tripitaka, or the Avesta. Traditions are the customs and practices that are passed down from generation to generation, such as the rituals, ceremonies, festivals, or laws. Personal experiences are the encounters and events that are perceived by the individual, such as visions, dreams, miracles, or revelations.

These beliefs often appeal to the human desire for meaning, justice, and hope, but they also create fear, guilt, and intolerance. Meaning is the sense of purpose and significance that a person derives from their life and actions. Justice is the principle of fairness and morality that a person expects from themselves and others. Hope is the feeling of optimism and confidence that a person has for the future and the outcome of their goals. Fear is the emotion of anxiety and dread that a person feels for the unknown and the unpleasant. Guilt is the emotion of remorse and regret that a person feels for their wrongdoings and failures. Intolerance is the attitude of hostility and rejection that a person shows towards those who have different beliefs and values.

I do not share these beliefs, because I value logic and reason over faith and revelation. I approach the question of what happens after death from a philosophical perspective, which is based on logic and reason. Logic is the system of rules and methods that governs the validity and soundness of arguments and inferences. Reason is the faculty of the mind that enables the use of logic and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

I explore various questions related to death, such as whether it is possible to know what happens after death, whether it is rational to fear death, whether death gives life value or makes it absurd, and whether there is a moral duty to prolong or end life. I do not have a definitive answer, but I have a tentative opinion. I think that death is nothing to be feared, because it is either a state of non-existence that cannot harm me, or a state of bliss that cannot be worse than life.

I base this opinion on the arguments of some ancient and modern philosophers, such as Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, and Nagel. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who argued that death is not an evil, because it is the absence of sensation and perception, and therefore, it cannot affect us. He said, “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not." Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who followed the teachings of Epicurus, and elaborated on his argument. He said, “Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us."

Hume was a Scottish philosopher who argued that death is not to be feared, because it is a natural and inevitable part of life, and therefore, it is not contrary to reason or nature. He said, “I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death, that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it. And though perhaps the situation of a man’s health or fortune did not seem to require this remedy, we may at least be assured, that any one, who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to it, was curst with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper, as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortunes.

Nagel was a contemporary philosopher who argued that death is not a misfortune, because it does not deprive us of anything that we value, and therefore, it does not make us worse off. He said, “If death is an evil, it must be accounted for in these terms, and the impossibility of locating it within life should not trouble us. If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.

I also think that death does not make life meaningless or absurd, but rather gives it urgency and significance. I base this opinion on the arguments of some existentialist and humanist philosophers, such as Camus, Sartre, and Russell.

Camus was a French philosopher who argued that life is absurd, because it has no inherent meaning or purpose, and it is confronted with the inevitability of death. He said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” However, he also argued that we can create our own meaning and value in life, by rebelling against the absurdity and embracing the freedom and responsibility that we have. He said, “The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing."

Sartre was a French philosopher who argued that existence precedes essence, which means that we are not defined by any predetermined nature or destiny, but by our choices and actions. He said, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." He also argued that we are condemned to be free, which means that we have to face the consequences and the anxiety of our decisions, without relying on any external authority or excuse. He said, “We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free.

Russell was a British philosopher who argued that life is not meaningless, but rather full of possibilities and opportunities, and that we can find happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of knowledge, love, and beauty. He said, “The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in hours of despair."

I think that I have a moral duty to live well and to respect the lives of others, but not to prolong or end life artificially. I base this opinion on the arguments of some ethical and political philosophers, such as Kant, Mill, and Rawls.

Kant was a German philosopher who argued that morality is based on the categorical imperative, which is the principle that we should act only according to the maxims that we can will to be universal laws. He said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." He also argued that we should treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as an end in itself, and never as a means only. He said, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."

Mill was a British philosopher who argued that morality is based on the principle of utility, which is the principle that we should act to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. He said, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” He also argued that we should respect the liberty and autonomy of individuals, as long as they do not harm others. He said, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."

Rawls was a contemporary philosopher who argued that justice is based on the original position, which is a hypothetical situation where rational and impartial agents choose the principles that would govern their society, behind a veil of ignorance that prevents them from knowing their own identity and circumstances. He said, “Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities." He also argued that the principles that would be chosen in the original position are the principles of equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle, which allows social and economic inequalities only if they benefit the least advantaged members of society. He said, “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all."

To conclude, the question of what happens after death reveals a sharp difference between science and metaphysics.

Science explains the physical and biological aspects of death, but cannot prove or disprove the existence of supernatural entities or concepts like the afterlife, soul, or consciousness.

Metaphysics, on the other hand, relies on faith and personal experiences to propose various ideas about the afterlife, which may offer comfort or cause distress.

Philosophy, unlike metaphysics, uses logic and reason to explore the meaning and value of life and death. Some philosophers argue that death is not a bad or scary thing, but a state of non-existence or loss. Others suggest that life’s meaning can be created by individuals, despite the challenges and absurdity of existence. Ethics, another branch of philosophy, provides principles and frameworks for moral actions and social justice in relation to life and death.

In summary, the investigation of death covers different domains—scientific, metaphysical, philosophical, and ethical. Science describes the physical processes of death, metaphysics relies on faith and revelation, philosophy examines the meaning and value of life and death, and ethics guides moral and social decisions. Without a clear answer to the question of what happens after death, these different perspectives challenge individuals to think deeply about their existence, mortality, and purpose.


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