Philosophy of Religion

an online textbook

Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

  • CUNY:  Queensborough Community College

  • CUNY: Graduate School and University Center, School of Professional Studies,

  • SUNY, Suffolk County Community College

Chapter  7: The Existence of Souls and the Resurrection 

Section 4. The Survival of the Soul

The idea of a soul or spirit that is the home to or that part of the human being associated with personal identity and consciousness is common throughout the world and there is much evidence that is has been a rather common belief.  In the Eastern cultures where there is a belief in some non-physical part of a human being there has been the belief that the soul or spirit will eventually become absorbed or extinguished and there will be no survival of individual consciousness or identity.  In Western cultures there is the idea of the survival of the soul or spirit.  It originates at times when the average life expectancy was very low compared to what is the case presently. Perhaps the idea of a survival in some form beyond the obvious end of the life in the physical body was attractive due to the brief and often very difficult life encountered by humans.  Such a belief in survival of personal identity and consciousness provided a number of very positive results.  There would be hope for a future life better than the present life and devoid of problems.  There would be concern to live a proper life while embodied so as to secure the promise of the better life in the next realm.  There would be the hope that justice would prevail if not in this world then in some other where the good would be rewarded and those who transgressed some moral code would be dealt with appropriately, even punished.

While most religions and cultures hold for the existence of a soul or spirit, philosophers have had a variety of views on the matter and some of those views deny the existence of the non physical entity altogether.


Plato thought that the soul could and would exist apart from the body and would exist after the death of the body. He offered a "proof" for this position and was the first to do so in writing that we have any evidence of doing so. He offered several different proofs or arguments none of which are convincing today. They are held to be specious arguments or terribly flawed and unconvincing. He held that humans were composed of bodies and souls but the soul was more important and immortal. His arguments used premises which we question today. For example, Plato thought that he could conclude that the soul could exist independent of the body because it acted independently from the body when it engaged in pure thought. This is no longer accepted as true since it is equally evident today that without a physical brain thought appears unlikely to occur. Plato thought that the only way to explain how people come to know things is that they are remembering the knowledge implanted in their souls when the souls were in the realm of pure thought and eternal forms before entering into the body after which they forgot as they became confused by physical emotions an feelings and limited experiences through the senses.  This is no longer accepted as the best explanation of how people come to have knowledge.  None the less,  Plato is credited with being the first human to attempt to set out any sort of a proof that humans had souls and that they survived the death of the body and that they were immortal.  He offered these arguments in the Dialogue he wrote titled the PHAEDO.

Descartes also believed that the soul existed prior to and separate from the body (see Meditation II of  Meditations on First Philosophy ) and so was immortal.  In his view all of reality consisted of two very different substances: matter or the physical and spirit or the non-physical.  The physical was what would be extended in time and space and the non-physical would not be so characterized.  For Descartes the soul of a human exists prior to and separate from the body.  His proof consisted of argumentation that has been seriously criticized and rejected.  He thought that if he could in some form demonstrate that humans can prove that they exist without first proving that they have physical bodies then that would prove that they did not need a physical body in order to exist.  He thought that his famous claim that " I think therefore I am" established not just that he existed but that he existed without a body as a "thinking thing". A "thinking thing" is a thing that thinks and by that would be included: imagining, conceiving, hoping, dreaming, desiring, fearing, conjecturing, reasoning, remembering  and more.  For him a "thinking thing" needed no physical parts to do what it does.  Modern science has established that there is no evidence of humans that are without a physical body and its brain.  There is no evidence that thought is possible without a brain.  There is much evidence that what has been associated with Descartes' "thinking thing" is now explained solely in terms of the brain and how the brain is physically structured and the functioning of the brain.

David Hume held a variety of objections to the belief in a soul. It was only based upon divine revelation through scripture that he maintained his belief.

READ: On the Immortality of the Soul

Hume's Arguments against the existence of the soul

    1. Metaphysical argument
    2.   No evidence of the soul as a separate , distinct substance. If it did exist it would be ingenerable and would exist before the body
    3. Moral argument: That the Justice of the deity would be called into question because of the eternal nature of the rewards and punishment for finite acts of finite duration

3. Physical Argument : No evidence of survival and there is instead much evidence of decay-alterations, dissolution

Bertrand Russell argued against the existence of the soul.  he thought that we can not prove that the person will survive after death but it is unlikely that there is such survival of thought and consciousness because the mind is associated with the brain and it deteriorates and dissolves after death. For Russell Emotions cause a belief in immortality

    1. people fear death
    2. people need courage
    3. people admire excellence in others and don’t want to loose them to death

John Hick regards the human as a psychophysical person. This person shall be resurrected through a divine act of recreation. Humans will have a spiritual body. To demonstrate the possibility of this event Hick conducts a thought experiment.

Consider John Smith:

    1. he disappears and then reappears somewhere else , e.g., Calcutta, India
    2. he dies and reappears on earth.
    3. he dies and is recreated in another world-the afterlife

Would he , John Smith #2 still be John Smith?

Would he, John Smith #2 be accepted as John Smith?

Heaven and hell exist as the other worlds in which the spiritual bodies exist.

There may be evidence of the existence of a non-physical component of the person:

Parapsychology reports: ESP, telepathy- evidence of the existence of a soul??

Hick concludes that it is not irrational (illogical) to believe in the survival of the spirit or the self. He holds that personal survival is a necessary condition for immortality.


 Hick, John.  “Immortality and Resurrection.”  Philosophy of Religion.   Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.  p. 122-32.  

Summary by Meghan Ramsay, QCC, 2004 

In his article entitled “Immortality and Resurrection,” John Hick discusses the idea of psychophysical re-creation and parapsychology as evidence for life after death.  Hick first discusses the difference between the Platonic idea of immortality and that of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  For Plato, the soul could not be destroyed, as unlike the body, the soul is not a composite material.  However, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the idea of man and the soul has taken on a new meaning.  Hick points out that man is no longer seen as an immortal soul attached to a finite body.  Instead, man is seen as a finite mortal with a psychophysical life who must rely on God to recreate his psychopersona.  This idea of God having to recreate a person through a divine act implies a total reliance upon God in the hour of death.  It also makes one fear that without God s/he faces total extinction—it is only through God and this recreation that one can gain eternal existence beyond the grave.  In order to explain the concept of the recreation of one’s psychopersona, Hick uses an analogy in which a man, “John Smith” disappears from the US and reappears as exactly the same person in India that very moment.  Considering that John Smith is exactly the same (in both the physical and mental/emotional sense), people would have to accept him as the real John Smith.  Hick takes the analogy one step further and states that if John Smith were to die and a new John Smith appeared (once again as exactly the same physical and mental person), people would have to accept this new John Smith as the same person he originally was.  Finally, Hick takes another step and says that if John Smith were to die and his mental/emotional persona were to appear in another dimension (again, exactly the same as the original John Smith’s persona), then it must be that John Smith’s psychopersona was recreated by God. 

            Hick then examines parapsychology as a method to prove the recreation of one’s psychopersona.  Hick focuses on the phenomenon of telepathy as a parapsychological reason to argue for the existence of spiritual life after death.  Hick cites numerous studies on telepathy in which the results were very obviously in favor of the existence of the phenomenon rather than random chance or coincidence.  Hick also points out that in telepathy a thought does not leave one person’s mind in order to enter another person’s mind.  Instead, he postulates that all humans are connected on an unconscious level, and we all constantly influence each other.  It is this connection which allows telepathy to take place.  Hick then discusses the idea that mediums or telepathically sensitive persons may derive the “spirits” that they speak to from the minds of those who knew the dead.  He admits that it is possible that mediums may just be reading the thoughts and memories of the deceased telepathically through the living friends and loved ones.  This does not necessarily bode well for Hick’s theory of the recreation of one’s psychopersona after death—as it requires no input from the deceased.  Hick readily admits that parapsychology may not be able to prove his theory.  Yet he maintains hope that with further research and information, parapsychology may eventually lend proof to the idea of a divine recreation of the psychopersona and life after death.   


The phenomena Hick cites as possible evidence such as ESP and  telepathy could be accounted for as involving psychic abilities among the living who contact other living beings and not at all involving contact with spirits of the dead or evidence of the survival of the spirit after death.  There are other phenomena that would have a more direct bearing on the question of the survival of a spirit or soul after the death of the physical body:

Other Evidence supporting the Post Mortem Survival Hypothesis:

    1. Apparitions
    2. Séances
    3. Reincarnation Memories
    4. Out of Body Experiences- OOBE
    5.    Near Death Experiences - NDE
    6. Death Bed Observations

Unfortunately an incontrovertible demonstration has yet to be made to support the claim that reports of such phenomena are accurate and veridical and adequate to verify the existence of non-physical beings. Studies and experiments continue to be conducted in the hopes of finding support for the post mortem survival hypothesis.  The results remain ambiguous.

Communicating with the dead is something being claimed by a growing number of people who come to be known as mediums.  Their record or accuracy of reports is not that good when submitted to careful examination and their techniques have been duplicated with similar success by people who claim no psychic powers and no communication with spirits but only a clever mind and skill at observing people with deceased acquaintances who in various ways both consciously and unconsciously indicate whether or not the would be or purported "medium " is close in reporting accurately what they know about the deceased persons.


Anthony Flew

Professor Flew is opposed to the idea of personal survival.

He reviews three different views:

1. Platonic/ Cartesian Dualism-In this view humans have both a body and a non-physical soul or spirit.  Flew holds that this view is incoherent because the idea of an incorporeal being is incoherent. Personality is related to corporeal existence.

2.Astral Body- This is a theory that each human has a second body or an astral body that lives in a parallel dimension or universe and it is that body that will survive.  This is rejected because while it is logically possible it is too farfetched and unnecessary. There is no need for this hypothesis.

3. Reconstituted Body- Recreated by God for the afterlife.  After the moment of death God recreates or duplicates the body of the dead person .  It would be this body that the person would occupy in the next realm for all eternity.

Flew's objection is that this is not really the same body. This being would not be the same person. There would be a discontinuity. This is a replica of the person and not the person who was once alive on earth.

Summary of Flew's Position by Christie Kuhn (NCC, 2006)

According to British philosopher, Antony Flew, there are three ways to consider human survival of death. The first is the Platonic-Cartesian way of the disembodied soul, second the astral body way and the third, the biblical reconstitution way. Flew rejects all but one of these survival ways. He considers the astral body way the most logical.

    The idea that we have a duplicate astral body, Flew finds most plausible. Flews conclusion is that if survival is the case the astral body is the way.
    Flew does however state that a large obstacle to the idea of survival exists. This is the fact that,”All men are mortal.” Otherwise stated all men die.
    That stated, Flew suggests that survival is necessary , not sufficient condition of immortality.
    Next Flew begins to describe the Platonic-Cartesian way. Flew describes this as consisting of two moves. He says, the first is to maintain the person and the second is to maintain the soul.
    Flew goes on to suggest, again two moves again. The first move is to claim shadowing, what is ordinarily thought of as the person in another being of the same form.  The next move is to maintain that the shadow being is the real person. This is the astral body way of survival.  
    Third , Flew labels the reconstitutionist way a traditional religious view, rather than in physical research.  Flew goes on to say that Aquinas is the primary reconstitutionist.
According to Aquinas, the soul survives death and waits for judgement day. 
    In the next section, Flew concentrates on the difficulties of each. The reconstitutionist  way focuses on the Replica Objection. Flew states, “ To punish or to reward a replica, reconstituted on Judgment Day, for the sin or the virtues of the old Antony Flew dead and cremated in 1984 is as inept and as unfair as it would be to reward or to punish one identical twin for what in fact don by another.”
    At this point Flew goes on to question, he asks, quoting from another Professor ,C. J. Ducasse, “What would constitute conclusive evidence of survival after death?” Flew goes on to describe a scenario where if a person dies in a plane crash, their soul may survive and speak through another. Flew rejects this idea. At this point, Flew discusses the possibility of ESP and of course finally rejects this. Flew feel compelled to distinguish between in fact possessing ESP and believing you posses ESP and finally genuinely knowing you have ESP.
    Finally, Flew get to the problems with the Astral Body. First, he goes on to say that it is his belief that many philosophers who considered themselves, believers in the Platonic-Cartesians, where actually, believers in astral bodies. Flew says, “…the danger for the protagonist of an astral body view is that in his concern to avoid immediate falsification by presently known facts he may so qualify the nature of the body which he wants to hypothesize that it becomes in effect not a body, albeit elusive, but instead an incorporeal Platonic-Cartesian soul:”A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.””
    In conclusion the most plausible view of survival is a duplicate ethereal body, according to Flew. Unfortunately, the evidence for all soul survival is lacking. Flew chooses the belief that is most logically possible.

Jeffrey Olen

Olen adopts a functionalist view of Personal Identity.  For him, life after death is possible as long as personality and memories remain intact. The person is not the same as a human being.


A human being has intelligence, consciousness, moral responsibilities, rights, language etc..

The criteria for Personal Identity is a body with a brain with memory. The criteria for Person is consciousness. A Human being who is a person is a conscious being. Personal Identity is not sameness of consciousness / body.

A. Psychological States-Consciousness

    1. relies on memory-this is faulty
    2. memories can be duplicated and placed in another
    3. memories can not exist apart from the body-brain

B. Body-Brain identity

    1. body changes over time
    2. brain cells can be duplicated

Personal identity and personhood can not be identified with either continuity of consciousness or continuity of the physical brain!! Continuity of consciousness is possible with different bodies. A consciousness can be programmed / transferred.

Do not identify personhood with sameness of stuff (brain) , but the sameness of consciousness! So, the sameness of functionality is the essential feature of the person and identity. Personhood is located in the functionality of the brain. Olen accepts a materialist view of the personality. Olen accepts that the functioning of the person can be transferred or recreated in another physical entity, e.g. body/brain or computer or alien body!!


“Personal Identity and Life After Death” by Jeffrey Olen 

Summary by Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2004)

At the start of his essay, Jeffrey Olen gives a brief story of two men, John Badger an older man from Wisconsin and Joe Everglade a young man from Florida.  Each man goes to bed, as usual.  However, when morning comes, John wakes up seemingly inside Joe’s body, next to Joe’s wife in Florida, and Joe seemingly awakens in John’s Wisconsin bedroom, in his arthritic body.  Olen then asks whether each man awoke with the other’s memories or whether they switched bodies.  This is a question of what Olen refers to as “personal identity.”  In order to answer the question of John and Joe, one must decide what makes a person who he or she is.  Olen points out that what makes someone a “person” is not the same as what makes up a human being.  According to Olen, the term “human being” is strictly biological.  A human being is an organism made up of certain cellular structure and physical characteristics.  The concept of a person, however, is not a biological one.  In order to illustrate this, Olen states that if we were to find life on another planet that did not have the same genetic and cellular makeup as humans yet had societal and cultural similarities, those beings would not be human beings, but they would, indeed, be persons.   

Olen then outlines some of the characteristics that make a being a person.  They are as follows:

The being must

  • -be intelligent, rational and self-conscious

  • -have beliefs/desires/wants and beliefs about its beliefs/desires/wants

  • -be morally responsible for its actions—“subject to moral praise and moral blame”

  • -be able to be treated in accord with our moral community (it must be granted moral and legal rights)

  • -be able to treat us in the same manner

  • -be able to communicate verbally 

Although, presently, only human beings fit these characteristics, we must be open to the idea that there may exist other beings that qualify for personhood.  Likewise, we must be aware that not all human beings meet the requirements for personhood (Olen cites fetuses as one example of humans who may not qualify as persons).  The distinction between human beings and persons brings about several questions, such as whether it is possible for a human being’s body to house multiple people (successively or concurrently) and whether or not a person survives the death of a human being.   

Olen then discusses what constitutes personal identity.  He states that we have two common criteria, the bodily criterion and the mental criterion, that we apply in order to establish personal identity.  Bodily criterion is applied by physical likeness.  If one looks, moves and sounds like Person X, most likely it IS Person X.    Additionally, the bodily criterion can be applied as a continuous line—for instance, if Person X joined you at 12:00 and has not been out of your sight for 8 hours, it is more than likely that at 8:00, you are still with person X.  Olen points out that occasionally the bodily criterion fails (such as with identical twins), in which case, we apply the mental criterion, by asking questions that only that specific person would remember as happening to themselves.  Olen points out that generally the two criteria do not conflict and that we are free to employ whichever is more convenient for us (or use both, as in the case of identical twins).  However, in the case of John Badger and Joe Everglade, the two do conflict.  In the case of the two men, when you employ the bodily criterion, each man awoke in his own bedroom.  However, the mental criterion provides us with the opposite conclusion.  Thus, one must ask which of the two criteria holds more weight—or what makes one the same person that they were in the past.   

Olen offers John Locke’s ideology that it is “continuity of consciousness” that makes up one’s personal identity.  For instance, if John Badger was a professional thief who woke up with all of the memories of his crimes but was inside of Joe Everglade’s body, and Joe awoke in Badger’s body but had no memory of ever having committed a crime, Locke would argue that the man with the memories of the crimes is the guilty person, as for Locke, memories are what make up personal identity.  Although Olen regards this idea as superficially reasonable, he argues that we must reject Locke’s ideology because we do not always remember everything that happens to us.  For instance, under Locke’s theory, if one does not remember what happened to them on a specific date in the past, it is because the events of that day must have happened to a different person.  Olen finds this rather difficult to believe.  Additionally, he argues that our memories are not always accurate—we have both “genuine” and “apparent” memories.  Thus, memory cannot be the fundamental constitution of personal identity.  In an attempt to circumvent this problem that occurs in Locke’s ideology, other philosophers have attempted to argue that rather than focusing on memory, it is a sameness of self that continuously exists that makes one a person.  However, Olen finds fault with this idea as well because we cannot examine our inner self and find a persistent “experiencer”—instead we only find the experiences alone.  Thus, Olen argues that the fundamental makeup of personal identity is either non-physical or that personal identity does not exist.  He finds it to be unlikely that there is no such thing as personal identity.  Therefore, he examines the bodily criterion as the fundamental element of personal identity.   

Olen argues that the bodily criterion does not face the problems that arise for Locke’s “continuity of consciousness,” as it can be indisputable whether or not a body was in a certain place at a certain time in order to have an experience.  Additionally, the body does not meet the problem of finding the persistent “experiencer”—the body is a continuous physical object that exists through time having experiences.  Thus, for the bodily criterion to be fundamental, as long as we have the same physical materials in the same arrangement (of course allowing for slight certain cellular changes), we have the same person.  Once again, Olen finds the argument superficially viable, but he is not completely satisfied.  Olen suggests that it were it possible to perform brain transplants, a person whose brain, memories and personality traits were transplanted into another body would still be the same person in a different body.  Thus, he argues that it may be necessary to limit the bodily criterion to the brain only.  Therefore, Olen surmises that personal identity is fundamentally related to brain identity.  Yet once again, he is not completely satisfied.   

In order to illustrate his dissatisfaction with this idea, Olen revisits the case of Badger and Everglade.  Everyone involved in the hypothetical situation would be under the impression that the two men had switched bodies.  However, by accepting the bodily criterion, this impression would be impossible.  Thus, Olen attempts to look at ways other than the migration of physical or mental substances from one man to the other in order to explain the situation.  First, he looks at hypnotism, which could be a plausible explanation which would lead to the conclusion that the memory and bodily criteria cannot conflict and are equally fundamental to personal identity.  The memory criterion is fundamental as it determines the brain and its consciousness as central to personal identity, and the bodily criterion is fundamental as we must assume that at least some portion of the body (the brain) must remain the same for personal identity to endure.   

Olen also looks at multiple personality disorder (MPD), where one human being has multiple personalities existing within the same physical body.  Each personality has its own memories and experiences that are exclusive to that personality.  The existence of MPD can lead us to one of two conclusions, depending upon which criterion one gives more weight to.  If one holds the memory criterion at a higher value, a person with MPD has multiple personal identities.  Conversely, if one holds the bodily criterion higher, the person’s singular body leads us to arrive to the opposite conclusion.  Presently, the phenomenon of MPD is described in the bodily sense—one with MPD is a singular person who is severely fractured.  MPD is seen as an unconscious means for one person to deal with many aspects of his or her personality.   

Once again, Olen is not satisfied with the answer.  He suggests that although it may not be continuity of genuine memory that makes up personal identity, but that it may be the embodiment of a particular psychology that makes a human being a particular person.  It is a stream of consciousness, an awareness of multiple states of simultaneous momentary consciousnesses that belong to a set of consciousness that makes up a person.   

Olen then moves into a discussion of whether or not it is possible for a person to survive the death of his/her body.  Olen argues that the terms mind and soul are interchangeable, and that the mind/soul is what makes up ones’ personal identity and that the two cannot be separated.  Olen argues that it is our memories, our stream of consciousness and our relationships with others that we wish to have survive our death.  It would not matter for the physical aspect of our personal identities to survive if the stream of consciousness did not.  It would, as Olen points out, be no different from our bodies returning to the dirt.  Olen uses the argument of philosopher John Hick to provide a view of the afterlife that is consistent with materialism.  Hick argues that after death, God intervenes and reconstitutes the person’s body in heaven.  Olen also points out that reincarnation as it is commonly thought of does not provide continuity of consciousness.  However, he argues, if the memories and personal identity of the person who is reincarnated exist and are simply difficult to reach, reincarnation could be seen as personal survival after death.   

In conclusion, Olen argues that it is possible to have a coherent continuity of consciousness move from one body to another.  Thus, proving that life after death is indeed possible.  In his closing, Olen likens this continuity to the programming of a computer.  He states that if it is possible to program a new brain to have the exact psychology of an original brain, then it is possible that a person can change bodies, thus surviving death by migrating to a new body.   summary of  “Personal Identity and Life After Death” by Olen, Jeffrey in  Persons and Their World:  An Introduction to Philosophy.  Random House, Inc., 1983. 

Science and the Soul

Science offers little to confirm the existence of any entity that is not physical.  Parapsychology as a branch of psychology investigates psychic phenomena and altered states of consciousness.  As a discipline it struggles to maintain legitimacy as a science and has yet to yield evidence of the existence of any non-physical entities.  Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience provide explanations for more and more behavior and phenomena previously attributed to souls or minds that are not physical.

READ: "Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force" By Cornelia Dean



You cannot claim that "souls exist unless and until someone proves that they do not exist."

The burden of proof is always on the claim that X exists rather than on the claim that X does not exist. 

It is a fallacy to claim that "X exists unless or until someone proves that there is no X."

READ: The Burden of Proof

Thus, it is logically impermissible for some one to claim that souls exist until some proof is offered that souls do not exist.  It is physically possible for a human being to write the claim or speak the claim but it is not possible to defend it using reason.



The idea of a soul that survives the death of a body and goes on in some way to live forever is one that is challenged directly as being an undesirable state of affairs for conscious beings. Some would argue that a good part of what makes human life valuable, if not the whole of it, are those experiences humans have while being alive.  The fear of death would be the fear of loss of those experiences.  In good part, if not the whole, the experiences most valued are experiences involving others as well as the self.  Ideas about an afterlife may be generated by a desire to continue those experiences.  However, when serious thought is given to the idea of having experiences an infinite number of times in an immortal mode of existence some, if not all, of the value of those experiences is diminished , if not removed entirely.  Some have argued against the value or desirability of immortality. The number of those who would take the idea of continued human existence seriously enough to imagine its contents are relatively few in number compared to the innumerable humans who have without careful examination of the concept hoped for some realization of the promise of eternal life.

A frightening picture of extended life as a human being in a human body was presented by Jonathan Swift in his Gulliver's Travels in his description of the Struldbruggs.  This was not a tale of infinite existence nor of a continuing state of happiness but one which considers that infinite or eternal life may not be all positive.  It was not a tale of boredom so much a tale of misery and horror.

For some the very idea of immortality itself is one which is problematic and not at all desirable.

 "Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless...; so, in a sense,  death gives the meaning to life."

From Bernard Williams, "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality" in Problems of the Self Philosophical Papers 1956–1972, Cambridge university Press, 1976.

If one accepts that the meaning and value of human life are inextricably linked to both its finite duration and the human awareness of its finite duration then one might conclude that, rather than being a necessary condition for life to be meaningful, immortality would in fact render life meaningless?

On the one hand there are those who may think that  "Only if a man lived forever...could there be any point in living at all."  But, on the other hand, there are those who think that living forever would remove the worth of all human experiences as their infinite repetition would drain value from them.  The realization of this leads some to declare: "Nothing lasts forever, thank God."

Some such as Bernard Williams think that "Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless...; so, in a sense, death gives the meaning to life."   He thinks that from "facts about human desire and happiness and what a human life is, it  follows ... that immortality would be, where conceivable at all, intolerable."  Williams considers the case of  Elina Makropulos (EM) who was given an elixir of life that prolonged it for hundreds of years. He comments that her  "state suggests at least this, that death is not necessarily an evil ... it can be a good thing not to live too long."   He thinks that her case would not be uncommon but it would be shared by humans with such a range of experiences over centuries let alone an unimaginable  amount of time.  "[I]t was not a peculiarity of EM's that an endless life was meaningless...."

Those who would object to his critiques of immortality for human beings raise the possibility that some altered state of affairs for humans who have reached their eternal mode of existence might hold off the boredom born of the tedium of repetition of all possible experiences in an infinite amount of time.  Is it possible that a human might be altered and freed of limitations and contingencies born of mortality without which humans might find everlasting life to be completely fulfilling and  meaningful?  Williams replies that the  " supposed contingencies are not really contingencies... an endless life would be a meaningless one."  Further, he states that humans  "could have no reason for living eternally a human life. There is no desirable or significant property which life would have more of, or have more unqualifiedly, if we lasted for ever."

Must endless existence in an afterlife world (i.e., heaven) be associated with eternal boredom? But "what is it about the imagined activities of an eternal life which would stave off the principle hazard to which EM succumbed -- boredom?"

The profound difficulty is that of "providing any model of an unending, supposedly satisfying, state or activity which would not rightly prove boring to anyone who remained  conscious of himself and who had acquired a character, interests, [and] tastes ... in the  course of living, already, a finite life." 

"Nothing less will do for eternity than something that makes boredom unthinkable. What could that be? Something that could be guaranteed to be at every moment utterly absorbing?   But if a man has and retains a character, there is no reason to suppose that there is anything that could be that."

The problem for any human living on forever would be in the boredom connected with having every and any experience repeated over and over again, in an unending repetition through infinity that it not only removes the value of the experiences but also significantly alters the nature of human life into an unrecognizable form wherein each human being would no longer be capable of sustaining those traits most associated with and constitutive of their character as a unique human being.  In imagination and in fact, human life would be so altered that it would no longer be "human" lacking in fundamental characteristics of human nature.  Human life and character are linked to its finite duration.

Consider this from Greta Christina:

And I haven’t even gotten to the monotony of Heaven. I haven’t even started on how people need change, challenges, growth, to be happy, and how an eternity of any one thing would eventually become tedious to the point of madness. Unless, again, our personalities changed so much we’d be unrecognizable.

I’m with Christopher Hitchens on this one. Heaven sounds like North Korea: an eternity of mindless conformity spent singing the praises of a powerful tyrant. In order for it to actually be perfect and blissful, our natures would have to change so radically, we wouldn’t be who we are. The idea is only comforting if you think about it for a moment — “Oo, eternal bliss and seeing everyone I love forever!” — and immediately start thinking about something else." -- Greta Christina  DoWe Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily FREE INQUIRY, Volume 32, No. 4. p12.June July 2012

The horror of infinite existence with infinite boredom and meaninglessness

It is undoubtedly comforting for some humans to think that they have souls that will survive the death of their bodies and that they would live on forever.  Many humans spend some time imagining what that life would be like and project a continuation and a heightening of experiences that they have had as a human being in a human body on planet Earth.  Some humans can go on for a few minutes imagining and fantasizing about life in the afterworld or life in heaven and eternal happiness. Again for a few minutes there can be some enjoyment in imaging very pleasant experiences. Some can visualize a life in the clouds, the heavenly realm, with wonders and pleasures such as a human mind can conjure.  Some religious traditions even speak or hint of the pleasures of heaven and always in human terms and based on experiences in the body and experiences of the physical world and through the body.  Some may go so far as to think of specific pleasures of the body and food and drink and even sex , even with 72 virgins!  Such imaginings are usually based on the experiences of physically embodied beings and so they are projections of such experiences of a pleasurable or joyful nature. But the concept of the afterlife of the soul is one of an existence of infinite duration.  The afterlife, the heavenly realm, or paradise is forever which means for all eternity which means for all time to come and, most importantly, time without end.  Here we have the idea of infinity and the facts appear to be that few humans can fathom the idea of infinity.  In an infinite amount of time every experience of any kind that any human being or soul could have will be had an infinite number of times.  Infinity consists of an infinite amount of infinities.  There are an infinite number of whole number: 1,2,3,4,5 etc.. and there are an infinite number of fractions between each pair of whole number; e.g., between 1 and 2 there are 1 1/2 1 1/4 1 1/8 th etc...   To exist forever or for eternity is to continue to exist through an infinite duration, without end.  That is some thing that may be conceivable but it is unimaginable. Most people can not get beyond a few visualizations of a few days with some really enjoyable experiences.  Talk of the afterlife of Heaven or Paradise by believers and proselytizers is of wonderful earthlike experiences.  It is not inclusive of the infinite repetition.  In INFINITY there can be an infinite repetition of all possible imaginable experiences an infinite number of times and then varied in their ordering an infinite number of times and each of those variations experienced an infinite number of times and then one has not even begun to experience infinity!!!!

To exist with "eternal life" or to go on "forever" are two phrases that are quite easy to speak about and to write, but difficult to actually think about seriously let alone carefully and critically.  Perhaps the reluctance of most humans to think seriously about infinite existence is precisely because if they do think about it very carefully and very seriously then the idea of eternal life becomes drained of the value it once offered to humans who would think about eternal life quite simply and who think about it as a much desired alternative to death and the end of all consciousness.  However, the hope for salvation and eternal life becomes one that is banished by the clear light of reasoning when reasoning reveals an eternal life to be one of both infinite possibility and infinite actualities so that the thought of living on forever offers not the hope of eternal bliss but of infinite eternal boredom.  No wonder then that the Buddhist idea of Nirvana is linked with the total extinction of the soul, Buddhists consider their salvation as the complete end of consciousness.   Anything short of that extinction is marked by suffering and in the case of eternity it would be the suffering of eternal boredom and meaninglessness.  At least one person has responded to the prospect of eternal boredom and meaninglessness with the humorous response: "Thank God for the Buddhists".

Thinking about eternity is a challenge for humans formed of finite awareness and experiences.  A life of any sort that would have an infinite duration maybe unimaginable in two senses.

1. It is not possible in a finite time or in a few seconds or minutes or hours to form images or to entertain the possibility of continuing existence for an infinite duration.

2. attempts to imagine about continuing existence for an infinite duration will so quickly present the prospect of an existence drained of interest and value and meaning that humans recoil from doing it and so it is "not imaginable".   Humans recoil from such a prospect of seriously imagining eternity because they fear loss of the hope for an eternity of joy.

Claiming that one has imagined something may not be the same thing as actually imagining it, particularly when what is to be imagined is unimaginable.  Unimaginable things are either logical contradictions (square circles) or complexities (milagon) or extremely repugnant (the details of heinous acts) or threatening to the would-be imaginer (loss of that which provides comfort or hope).

For those who believe in the soul and the supernatural realm and believe in eternity there is the claim that there will be a happiness enjoyed by souls that is beyond the ability of a human to comprehend and that it is composed mainly of the pure joy or bliss of being in the presence of the deity and enjoying the "beatific vision".   This attempt to defend the notion of eternal life and make it attractive does essentially call upon humans who would believe it (or hope for it) to thus accept that the human being with human consciousness would be transformed in some way not explainable into some other form of existence in order to survive or escape from the horror of infinite boredom.   It is not the human being that will have human consciousness survive and experience joy or bliss in eternity.  It is some other kind of being.  This is often overlooked by those who are blinded by hope and who do not see clearly with the use of careful reflective and critical thought what exactly is being promised with an eternal life of joy.   Usually the defenders of such eternal bliss take refuge in a retreat from reason with the invocation of mystery and faith when proclaiming that matters related to the infinite are beyond human understanding and a state of being known only to the deity. In this they may be correct in thinking that no human could understand how any human would have anything to look forward to as a human being except the prospect of the horror of infinite boredom and meaninglessness in eternity.  The "I" that hopes to survive and enjoy eternal life will not be the being that lives on.  If there is survival of the self and if it is to be in some mode other than suffering with the boredom of eternity then the "I" will be transformed into some other sort of being in order to endure eternity.  So, the hope of salvation and eternal life for the "self" for "me" will not be fulfilled as promised for the "I" could not possibly be happy for eternity as a human consciousness.

For Bernard Williams and others who think very seriously about infinite existence for a human being there is a fundamental conflict between what makes a human life worth living and death deplorable and an infinite existence as a human being in an afterlife that can not have any meaning or value for a human being because human character itself is formulated with an awareness of mortality making human experiences are precious because they are finite.

Infinite survival in a limited physical body (for those who believe in the resurrection of the body) involves continuation of human consciousness which is a consciousness that is finite and developed in awareness of the  finitude of human life.  This infinite survival would lead to infinite boredom and not joy or bliss as humans would experience everything (even an infinite number of things) an infinite number of times. So the infinite survival of a soul which would continue human consciousness would continue a finite consciousness for all eternity-infinite time. This leads to infinite boredom and not joy or bliss.   So for some who think about this heaven begins to appear "As boring as Hell."

The prospect of an infinity of experiences for a human consciousness to encounter in infinite time (eternity) that both preserves the individual human consciousness (or else it is not the survival of the individual human or the individual self or sense of "I" or "my" soul) and has neither boredom nor pain associated with it is a prospect easy to conceive or speak or write but hard to imagine.  The words have been presented in the previous sentence but what might they mean, if anything?

Is it not possible that in an infinite amount of time or for all infinity (eternity) a soul could have constantly changing experiences?  If so, there would be no boredom.  Well, humans find it hard to imagine an infinity let alone an infinity of constantly changing experiences.  But if such a possibility is considered, then would it be something that would stave off boredom and be in some way pleasurable to the degree that the afterlife is a desirable state of being? No. Human consciousness needs points of reference and a framework in which to place experiences so that they are appreciated and understood.  If there were an infinity of constantly changing experiences it might not be boring but it would very well be chaotic and certainly beyond what currently marks human consciousness.  Human consciousness would be altered from its current nature in order for the experience the infinity of constantly changing experiences to be encountered in a state that would neither be perceived as boring or chaotic or in some way other than pleasurable.  Such a consciousness would not be that of the human who had lived in the body for a finite time and had its identity and awareness formed in that state.  It would not be the survival of the soul of the human being but the continuing existence of some other transformed entity.

In an infinite amount of time all experiences that were presented in the constantly changing set of experiences could be repeated an infinite number of times, but if they were not, one of the experiences that humans appear to value is repetition and so there would be the denial of that in the infinity of constantly changing experiences.

If repetition were allowed then you would not have the infinity of constantly changing experiences and there would need to be some way of providing for the repetition of experiences only to the point where boredom was approaching.  This might be provided for by some all powerful being sensing the approach of the boredom threshold for each consciousness.   But it would present to the conscious being (soul) the infinity of near constantly changing experiences with cycles of repetition just short of the point of boredom in an ever increasing infinity of experiences that would again transform finite human consciousness into some other form of being.

If infinity or eternity is to thought of as being without changes or without repetitions as it would be beyond time or without time then it would be without change.  Time exists with change and with change there is time. If there is no longer to be time then consciousness would no longer exist and so the human being or human identity with consciousness of self would no longer exist.

If infinite survival or eternal life is to be desired it must be seen or thought about as involving joy or bliss or eternal happiness. If a human is to have eternal happiness that part of human nature that is human awareness or consciousness would need to be radically transformed so as to avoid the eternal torment of eternal boredom. Such a transformation of consciousness in the afterlife would change consciousness into one that is not human (not finite and not of the physical realm) and is not the consciousness of the person who lived life in the body as a human being.


  • If this transformation takes place there can not be a finite human body associated with that consciousness.
  • If this transformation takes place there can not be a consciousness that is identifiable as a human consciousness because such a state is finite and formed by awareness of finitude.


Despite the usefulness of the concept of a soul and belief in its existence there are serious problems with it.  Philosophers have problems with the very concept of a soul as well as with the claim of the survival of a soul.  There are also important concerns with the very notion that it is a good thing or desirable to have a soul and have it survive and continue on for all eternity.

The soul has been associated with the mind and what the mind is credited with doing.  As more evidence amasses that it is the brain and its structure and functioning that account for what are associated with the mind the claim that there is a mind separate from the physical brain becomes harder to support. Neuro-science and studies of the brain and its relation to mental phenomena and to human behavior continue to advance and with it there is much to challenge the existence of any non-physical mind.   If there is no mind separate from the brain then what need would there be for the idea of a soul as the seat of the mind?

The lack of some form of empirical evidence (direct or indirect) to support the claim of a soul presents  a major problem for those who would maintain that souls or spirits exist.  Parapsychology investigates a range of phenomena that might support the existence of some non-physical entities or non-physical or spiritual realm.  Unfortunately the results of such investigations have thus far not provided evidence that is clear and consistent and secure and beyond serious criticisms.

The attractiveness of the idea of an essential part of what humans are surviving after the death and decay of the physical body has been and may continue to be be examined as to whether or not it is desirable for individual human consciousness and individual personal identity to continue on for an infinite amount of time.  As more humans live to beyond 80 years of age or so and as many humans examine what that involves and what human consciousness contains, then the hope for infinite continuation may just decrease and with it the need for a belief in a spiritual or non-physical immortal soul.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.  . revised 2009, 2012

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