We obviously do know what happens after death. We die and that’s it. Why is there so much literature on this subject in philosophy and why does this concept gain special status?

We have determined, empirically, that consciousness cannot exist without a brain or atleast a material substance. We’ve manipulated brains that result in various different conscious experiences. We even experience a lack of consciousness when we sleep, so why wouldn’t we when we die?

All standard objections to this knowledge rely on how we can’t disprove that consciousness can’t exist without a mind. But then you can’t know anything since you can’t disprove an infinite number of things. However, rarely are the people who propose life after death perennial skeptics with all other knowledge claims. They are obviously inconsistent.

I’m simply having trouble understanding why the claim of life existing after death or even the idea of a conscious, completely immaterial being get special status in philosophy compared to invisible pink unicorns. Is this again a result of persistent human irrationality?


5 Answers 5


Given that a large part of people world wide believe in some form of afterlife, it's only natural that it is also a topic for philosophy. Why wouldn't it?

  • The idea that consciousness survives death arguably predates philosophising on whether consciousness survives death.

    When an idea has taken hold in society (especially if you personally believe it), it is not unreasonable to philosophise about it. Philosophy is a means to identify flaws with the idea (although any given person might not get to that point, and this doesn't really tell us why philosophers haven't already universally rejected the idea).

  • It's an extremely appealing idea.

    It's perhaps the most appealing idea (that's also at least vaguely plausible on some level).

    People like to think that they can reason objectively, putting aside emotion. But in reality, human reasoning is strongly biased by emotion. So people try to find some chain of reasoning under which it would be true, and they're blinded to varying degrees about flaws in said reasoning.

  • Philosophy is not science.

    Philosophy shifted a lot of topics to science, but they're still stubbornly hanging on to consciousness.

    Under a scientific lens, all signs point away from the idea that consciousness survives death.

    But the objection would be that consciousness and life after death is beyond the ability of science to study. This isn't all that plausible, considering how much science has already shown about consciousness. So then the claim became that there's a mind-brain separation, but then you'd have to find some convoluted explanation for how the two interact, and you'd get to the question of why you need the mind part of that at all (as in whether it explains anything).

    There are things one can reasonably philosophise about here. Although doing so seems to not be going that well on any level for the pro-"life after death" side (but I do reject their position, so take that for what it's worth).

  • Modern scientific understanding is ... modern.

    Ideas take a while to be accepted by and to propagate through society.

    Much of the philosophising about consciousness happened while our understanding of our brains was still in its infancy, where those ideas may have seemed more plausible.

    And no matter how much contrary evidence science provides, it can't strictly disprove things that were never falsifiable to begin with. So people keep hanging on to that belief.

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    +1 I'd say consciousness after death is beyond science (as long as there is a convoluted explanation it is unfalsifiable). Science is more valuable if it resists mission creep. Sep 4, 2023 at 9:04
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    +1 quite complete and open minded considering the arrogance of the OP in their question. Having a scientific backgroud I can even add that science is not as black/white concepts as OP tends to think. Many serious scientifists believe in religions, and science is still young, Many things we don't know. Quantum studies still baffle our conception of what seems obvious (no real separation between apparently separate physical bodies, particules that can be synchronized thousands of kilometers away)...
    – Kaddath
    Sep 4, 2023 at 10:53
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    Would you call someone who doesn’t believe in monsters, goblins, fairies, the world being a cube, or the universe being run by an invisible pornstar, arrogant? If many philosophers wrote about these subjects and then someone called them out for it, would you call that person arrogant?
    – user62907
    Sep 4, 2023 at 11:00
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    @thinkingman well you come to a Philosophy forum claiming you know everything about life and death and respond to all comments with non arguments and aggression, so yes that is my opinion about you. What angers you so much about this topic that people shouldn't even be able to talk about it? Why not try arguments instead of strawman fantasy figures again and again? Science is not a magical word you can hide behind, please
    – Kaddath
    Sep 4, 2023 at 11:19
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    Yes. We should be consistent, and not talk about things we are not certain of.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 4, 2023 at 11:36

We obviously do know what happens after death. We die and that’s it.

Actually, no one knows. You seem pretty hung up on providing 100% solid evidence; when it comes to an afterlife, we don't have much proof to go on either way. You like to compare the idea of an afterlife to unicorns, but unicorns like this are everywhere, especially if you are coming from another point of view. The universe didn't exist before the big bang, and then suddenly it did? That's a unicorn. There are 1018 stars in the universe, but no detectable lifeforms (a.k.a. Fermi's paradox)? That's a unicorn. Primal soup formed amino acids, then DNA, then cells, then humans? That's a unicorn. Quantum physics was considered a unicorn by Einstein.

And so it makes sense that one of the biggest unicorns of all – that one specific lump of organic matter called 'The Brain' would produce Consciousness and Qualia, even though they have no influence on the survivability of the body as a biological machine and thus have no reason to exist – is subject to fierce philosophical debate. Philosophers like David Chalmers use the 'zombie argument' to make a valid case that brains and consciousness aren't coupled in the way you propose at all, and it is in fact becoming mainstream in neuroscience that consciousness is a by-product of information transfer or even a property that all complex systems posses. When you think about it, why would 80 billion neurons lead to consciousness, but not 80 trillion transistors? Even your laptop might be conscious.

I'm sure you would call that a unicorn, just as I suppose you would take offence at the notion of 'free will', claiming that science has 'proven' we are deterministic machines. To dismiss all of these debates as being about 'unicorns' demonstrates a failure to grasp the full complexity of the discourse, ánd the nature of philosophy. As Paul Chamberlain said: áll truth claims must be proven, not just positive ones. The fact that many of the smartest philosophers debate these ideas to this day is not a testament to 'human irrationality' as you arrogantly put it, but to the fact that 'the hard problem of consciousness' is really hard. We just don't know enough about it.

And so when it comes to life after death, rather than bickering about the (non)existence of invisible unicorns, I would quote Wittgenstein: "Worüber man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen."

PS. I'm an atheist who doesn't believe in an afterlife.

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    I like a man who quotes Wittgenstein in German! Sep 4, 2023 at 12:56
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    Or a quadrillion atoms in a microbe. They function under the same laws, and use more or less same processes, some even communicate with each other using electrical pulses like neurons do, so there is very little that makes a bunch of bacteria different from a brain. theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/… Sep 4, 2023 at 13:11
  • A unicorn is just a horse with a horn that, depending on who you ask, maybe has some abilities that we haven't seen before. You point out other things that exist, and equate this with "unicorns like this are everywhere", but in the analogy, that actually seems closer to "horses and baboons and elephants and geckos exist". Yes all those things exist... and we have evidence of all of it. The unicorn-ness of the unicorn is not in its improbability in the grand scheme of things, but in the total lack of evidence we have for it, and for the difficulty with which it may fit into reality as we see it
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 4, 2023 at 13:35
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    Nice answer +1. I've changed the code-formatting to quote-formatting. Of course please choose what you prefer
    – Rushi
    Sep 4, 2023 at 13:35
  • "when it comes to an afterlife, we don't have much proof to go on either way" - that's questionable. We know what the brain consists of and which parts of the brain is responsible for which mental functions; when those are damaged, that changes someone's personality overnight. When someone has a disease or as they age, their brain and behaviour changes in predictable ways. We only have empirical evidence of consciousness existing within a brain. In light of that, having consciousness outlife your brain seems not only highly improbable, but I suspect that might need to break a few physical laws
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 4, 2023 at 13:43

Scientists say that dark energy and dark matter constitute 95% of the total mass–energy content. We don't know anything about that 95 % apart from the fact that it exists.

There is lot of room for things that cannot be explained in terms of the Universe we know of. It only makes up mere 5 % of the totality, after all. Let alone in terms that should fit our understanding. It does not cover even 1 %.

The unknown is 20 times bigger than the Universe we have observed, and we don't yet understand our universe either.

I am with the people who don't reject the possibility of something that does not fit our universe. It is only rational to assume that it is very likely that the rest, the 95 %, might contain some surprises.


All kinds of nonsense is treated seriously in philosophy, so why single out life after death?

The notion of life after death is one that many humans harbour in the hope it might be true. It is promoted by many religions as a reason for people to behave in a certain way, as they claim that certain types of behaviour are punished or rewarded in the afterlife. As a result, millions of children are conditioned to take it seriously, and some of them grow up to be philosophers.