Is There Life after Death?
By Merle Hertzler
Are we going to live forever? Suppose that you are in an airplane that crashes on takeoff. Your body is consumed by fire. Nobody is able to find enough of your body to identify the DNA. Does your mind still live? How could it? For the mind is associated with brain function. All of your thoughts, emotions, memory, and decisions occur in the brain. If the brain is annihilated, how can it think? Isn't that the end?
Many get around this argument by believing in what is known as dualism. Dualism teaches that the soul and the brain are two separate things. And so, the argument goes, the brain can die, but the soul would live on. Dualism supposes that the thoughts and the memories occur in an immaterial soul, not in the brain. Could the brain simply be an input/output device that gathers information from the senses and tells the soul what is going on? Could the brain get commands back from the soul, and then guide the body to follow the soul's directions? There are many problems with that concept.
Look, for instance, at amnesia. When elderly people suffer a stroke, or when trauma occurs to the brain, patients often lose the ability to remember things that happen after that tragic event. Now why does this happen? If memories occur in the soul, then the soul must have lost an important function--the ability to remember new things. But it is not the soul that has been damaged. It is the brain that has been damaged. So why does damage to the brain affect the functioning of the soul? Some will argue that the damage to the brain prevents the soul from knowing what the brain perceives. But that is clearly not what is going on here. For the essence of the person--what dualism calls the soul--is still communicating with us. The mind's senses are still working. The "soul" is still able to communicate and observe. But the person forgets about the communication. Why? The answer is obvious. Memories must be stored in the brain. Since a part of the brain is damaged, the brain no longer stores new memories.
When the brain is affected the mind is affected. If the brain does not develop properly, the personality does not reach maturity. If the brain slows down and goes to sleep at night, the soul also sleeps. Think about that. If your soul is something different than the brain, why does the soul go to sleep? Why can't it just keep on being your soul, even though the brain goes to sleep and has stopped giving it input from the world? Why isn't your soul awake while your brain sleeps? It doesn't work that way. When the brain is affected the mind is affected.
Evidence shows that we inherit our basic personality through our genes. As the brain matures thinking patterns develop based on the person's genetic makeup. How is it that genes can affect our personality? I can understand that they could affect brain organization, but how can they change a separate, immaterial soul? Surely genes must direct the brain's physical development, which then influences the personality development. Personality must be a function of the brain, not of a separate entity known as the soul. How else could genes have such a significant effect on the personality?
A patient with Alzheimer's enters a period of altered mental capability due to brain disease. How can a dualist explain it? Is the soul of the Alzheimer's victim unchanged by his physical condition? Then why do we see such radical differences in the person? Are we to imagine that the mind of the Alzheimer victim is normal, while the person's behavior and memory become confused? Is the mind working normally, but somehow the body is disconnected from that normal mind? That is clearly not what happens. The body is not separated from the mind. The person's speech and actions retain some of the person's character. The person is still in touch with some memories. The spark of that person's self is still there. But it is severely altered. Why? It is because the brain is being altered. Since the mind is a function of the brain, it too becomes altered.
Are we to believe that death does for the Alzheimer victim what no medicine can do? Does death suddenly restore the mind to full functioning? How could that be? The effects of the disease gradually destroy the brain, and this destroys the mind. How then can the total destruction of the brain at death cause the mind to be restored?
If the soul is separate from the brain, exactly how is this communication taking place? As far as we can tell, brain function consists of movements of electrons and chemicals. How could our soul communicate with this brain? Does the soul somehow start moving electrons around in our brains so that the brain knows to move a certain muscle or to command the mouth to say a certain word? But how can the stuff of the soul push particles? Wouldn't a soul push right through an electron, just like spirits supposedly pass through walls? And if souls actually push molecules or electrons around, why can't they push the molecules that are outside of the brain? If your soul can push molecules in your brain, what is to prevent it from pushing molecules in my brain? But none of this can be observed in nature. Nowhere do we find evidence for souls deflecting molecules. So how can a non-physical soul affect the electro-chemical movements of the brain? It seems it cannot. So maybe the soul really is nothing more than a function of the brain.
Previously, we have looked at evidence that we have evolved from lower animals. Do apes have souls? Do snakes, fish and germs have souls? If not, exactly when was a soul inserted for the first time? Was the first being to have a soul raised by someone without a soul? It is difficult to see how an evolved creature would have a separate, immaterial soul.
For these reasons, many of us come to the conclusion that memories are stored in the brain, and that it is the brain that thinks.
Yes, I know, you can see that your conscious mind is in there telling the body what to do. Your consciousness is in charge--or so it seems to you--and it controls the body. And you equate that consciousness with a soul that is separate from the body. But could it be that our minds are fooling ourselves into believing the consciousness is in charge? Could it be that the physical brain is really in charge? I know it sounds crazy, but the evidence indicates that this is what happens.
It has been shown that the brain decides to do things before the person is aware that the decision was made. One experiment that verified this involved subjects who were told to decide to bend their wrist while watching a slow spinning disk. They were told to tell the experimenters exactly where the disk was when they decided to bend their wrist. The experimenters used this information to determine exactly when the person was aware that he was making the decision. The subjects were also hooked up to sensors to detect brain waves. The sensors could detect the brain activity that occurred when the subjects made a decision to act. It turns out that the brainwaves started before the subjects were aware that they were making a decision. Now if you asked the subjects, they would tell you that they made the decision consciously at the moment that they were aware of it. But the instruments indicate otherwise. The evidence indicates that the brain cells had begun to fire, and started the process of commanding the hand to move before the person was consciously aware of the decision. 
Could it be that our brain cells are running the show, and that what we call the conscious mind comes along and fills in the story after the fact? This kind of after-the-fact consciousness has been demonstrated in another experiment. Here is how it worked. A red dot was projected onto a screen. Then the red dot was turned off and, a split second later, a green dot was projected near the spot where the red dot had been. When people saw this, they reported that they saw the red dot start to move to the side, then change suddenly to a green dot as it moved along, and then continue on to the new location as a green dot. Now, obviously this is not what they saw. There was no moving dot that changed colors. The dot had never been in the middle. But the conscious mind told the story that the dot had traveled along the path, that a particular event happened in the middle, and that the dot's color had changed from red to green at that spot. The conscious mind was sure that it had observed this happen. It was mistaken. 
So it appears that our minds rewrite history. Just like the historians in the novel 1984 rewrote history to reflect what Big Brother wanted, a similar thing must have happened in the minds of the subjects of that experiment. Their minds had known that objects don't usually just disappear and immediately show up several inches away. Their minds had known that, in such instances, the object probably moved from point A to point B. So their minds rewrote the story to be more plausible. Their minds rewrote the memories so well that the conscious mind was sure that the revised story was true. They were sure they had indeed observed the dot changing colors in the middle position, even though the dot had never even been there.
You have probably observed the mind rewriting memories. A significant event may happen to somebody, and immediately he tells us what happened. A minute later you hear him tell the same story, but it is a little different this time. An hour later, the story has been modified further. We hear the same story the next day and the next week, and each time we hear it, it is a little different. And often we can observe a trend in the rewrite. What the person thinks he should have said soon becomes a memory of what he actually did say. Now sometimes the person may be deliberately deceptive. But often the person is not trying to lie to us. He is an honest person. But his mind is changing the story, even though he is not trying to deceive us. Folks have probably observed a similar thing in you and me. Our minds gradually and unconsciously change the memories of the past so that they conform to what makes sense to the mind.
Notice that the memories of the person who actually saw a red dot disappear and a green dot appear to the side are the same as the memories of the person who saw the dot move and change colors. One memory reflects the truth, and one is a reinterpretation, but our minds cannot tell the difference. Our minds are being misinformed about what our memories remember, and the conscious mind believes the lies that are being told to it.
Notice also that it is our memory of past events that is fundamental to our consciousness. Suppose that you had no ability to remember anything. You would be constantly aware of your current state at each moment, but you would be totally unaware of anything that had happened a microsecond earlier. It would be like listening to a music CD that was stuck on the same chord. Now that would not be real music. Music requires change, and so does consciousness. To really mean anything, our consciousness must consist of an awareness of the narrative that has brought us to the current state. But, as we have seen, this narrative is often freely changed by our minds, and we are not aware of it. We think we have conscious memories of how the story has unfolded, but what we call our conscious memory is only the modified story that our minds create. What we call "consciousness" is really the story that brought us to where we are. The problem is, this story is somewhat illusory, as our minds are constantly creating that story, and it doesn't exactly match the facts.
So perhaps this explains how our minds can deceive ourselves into believing that there is a soul inside that is making the decision, even though the data shows that the decisions were made before we were aware of them. Perhaps our minds continuously create the story we call consciousness, and write it in such a way that we think the consciousness is making the decisions.
Think about it. Where do your decisions come from? When you decide to speak, for instance, where do those words come from? You really don't know, do you? Think about all that is involved in creating spontaneous speech. Your brain contains information about thousands of thoughts that you could express. You have a vocabulary of thousands of words that you can use, and your brain knows the definition of each. And these words must be put together according to the syntax of your language so that they make sense. But you don't remember sorting through your mental dictionary to look up the meanings of all relevant words to select the proper words to express the thought you chose. No, you just speak and the right words present themselves to your mouth. And you and your listeners both hear the sentence at the same time. But where did the words come from? If your soul is the speechwriter, why isn't the soul aware of how the speech was written? Why isn't your soul aware of looking up the meanings of all the words it uses? It seems that, behind the scenes, something must be working to form those sentences for your conscious mind. Perhaps this "something" is nothing more than the millions of neurons in your brain. They must be working behind the scenes to write your speech for you. You and I think that our conscious mind is speaking, but the conscious mind isn't even aware of how the speech is being written.
Many Christians seem to recognize that thoughts come to us fully formed. Many will even ascribe different authors to the thoughts that stream through their minds. It is interesting to hear them describe the experience. They will tell me that Satan was saying something in their minds, and then they responded, and then God said something, and then Satan responded, and then Jesus said something, and then the old nature spoke, and then the Holy Spirit spoke, and then the new nature agreed, and so on. It must be interesting being them! There are enough of people inside to have great conversation! But perhaps they are mistaken. Perhaps thoughts originate, not from various competing spirit beings inside the mind, but from various coalitions of neurons in the brain.
Science indicates that there are millions of neurons working in our brains, and that this activity produces thoughts. It is a cacophony of voices, with many different ideas competing inside. But somehow the winning thoughts come to the top and present themselves as a string of conscious ideas. But the real work is done among all of these neurons. The consciousness is along for the ride, observing the finished work that the neurons have put together. And the consciousness rewrites its memories in such a way that it seems to us that our consciousness is making the decisions.
But our thoughts apparently come from our brains, not from an immaterial soul.
Life after death
Now we know that the brain stops when we die. If our memories are in the brain, where do they go at death? And how can the inherited personality survive if the very brain that produced it is destroyed? It seems that it too must be gone. If my memories and personality are gone, how can I still be said to exist?
Some would say that some part of a person lives on, even though the brain that held the person's memories in life is destroyed. Does God somehow make a duplicate of all that we remember, desire, and think? And does he somehow download those memories to a spiritual copy that continues on after death? It seems unlikely. Suppose it happens. Would the spirit that lived on really be that person? Wouldn't it be a copy? If God makes an eternal copy, what is to prevent him from making multiple eternal copies? Isn't it absurd to imagine multiple copies of you living forever, all being called "you", and all being a continuation of your current self? Could all of these copies be rewarded for your life on earth? Isn't that absurd? It seems to me that it is just as absurd to imagine a single copy of you living forever and continuing your life.
So maybe neither a soul nor a copy of the brain survives death. But what about resurrection? Perhaps the mind lies dormant until God puts it back together in a resurrected body. But how can that happen? What about the bodies of people that died 1000 years ago? Their bodies have disintegrated, and the constituent atoms are spread throughout the world. Some of those particles are certainly in your brain now. Some atoms may have been part of many people's brains throughout history. To which brain will they go in the resurrection?
So, it seems to me, that it is unlikely that our minds survive death. If you and I are going to find the good life, we will need to make the most of what we have here. Let us make this life count.
But where does this leave God (if he exists)? If he is not preparing a place for us, what is he doing for us in this life? Let's explore that next.
1 . Dennett, Daniel C., Consciousness Explained (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1991) pp. 162-163
Copyright ÓMerle Hertzler 2002, 2005, 2006. All rights reserved.