We are profoundly ignorant about many things in life – what happens after death is just one of them. In our everyday lives, few of us are experts in things like electrics or telecommunications equipment, not to mention the economic system or global climate issues.
At the same time, there is a popular distrust of many ‘experts,’ with fears that there are hidden or self-serving agendas at play.
How do we make decisions from a position of ignorance? How can we evaluate beliefs – such as the existence of God, or life after death – for which there is a general scarcity of evidence?
What happens after we die? Do we even have to die at all?
Most religions are interested in what happens after death. Many Christians hope for a spiritual resurrection in heaven – as well as a physical bodily resurrection after the second coming of Jesus.
Indian ideas about life extension and immortality tend to emphasise a non-physical aspect of a human consciousness which is doomed into multiple reincarnations unless it can escape this cycle of rebirth. But there are also Indian medicinal and yogic practices which have the aim to indefinitely extend life for hundreds of years in this body, as well as beliefs that those who have escaped the cycle of bodily reincarnation can choose to continue to exist as consciousness – and guide others towards liberation.
Possibly appearing in dreams or even taking a physical form from time to time in my research, I have found that in practice many people slip between ideas of mortality in the body and the idea of immortality (either as a soul, in a physical body) Holding open these ideas the possibility of immortality can have positive effects on health. From a biomedical perspective, this hope might help the body fight illnesses, improve the chances of spontaneous remissions or allow the illness to run its course, it's more equanimity for the person involved. But even if there is no biological change, a focus on the possibility of immortality can help some individuals can disidentify from their bodily pain and develop a more peaceful relationship with their experience as their suffering. When this happens, improbable beliefs in an immortal body or soul can be seen as entirely rational and pragmatic even.
However, when beliefs about immortality exclude attention to the biological physical body, it can have serious negative effects on health, and even cause untimely deaths. So, what we believe about death and our ideas of enteral life can really make a difference as to how we live, how we handle pain and suffering and experience being alive here and now.
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We don’t have enough information for many important decisions in our lives.
In these cases, we act from a position of relative ignorance. What to believe, or who to trust is becomes a subjective and social decision.
In exploring why people might give credence to ideas which may seem inexplicable, my colleague Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist and I have identified several important strategies:
1) Trust in experts: We might look towards external certifications, peer review, or life experience in trying to seek the testimony of those who know more than we do about a subject.
2) Trust in peer groups: Friends or colleagues’ opinions about ‘who to trust’ can be very influential. Sometimes offering contrary opinions or promoting alternative authorities can lead to ostracization from social networks.
3) Trust in personal experience: We each have our past experiences which moderate our judgement of experts and peer groups. But sometimes we all use ‘gut instincts’ or ‘intuition’ as an important deciding factor in who or what to trust.
By thinking about sources for trust and asking critical questions about the effects of beliefs and practices, we can start to more judiciously evaluate beliefs and their associated actions.
For example, we can ask:
- Do these beliefs provide hope and meaning to those who hold them?
- What are the actions people take in response to specific beliefs?
- To what extent do these beliefs and associated activities serve to enrich and help the lives of those who hold them?
- Do associated actions or activities cause harm?
- Are harmful practices or experiences being reinterpreted, rationalised or explained away?
By asking these kinds of questions, it also becomes easier to raise specific objections to beliefs and practices which might cause harm. While other beliefs and practices, even if they cannot be proved ‘true’ – can be very useful and even beneficial for their adherents.
Even if we remain relatively ignorant about things - like what happens after death, we can still evaluate the application of these beliefs and associated practices in people’s lives.
For Further Information
For more information about research on South Asian beliefs in immortality and practices relating to life-extension see www.ayuyog.org.
van Eck Duymaer van Twist, A. and Newcombe, S. (2018) ‘“Trust Me, You Can't Trust Them”: Stigmatised Knowledge in Cults and Conspiracies,’ in Asbjørn Dyrendal, David Robertson and Egil Asprem (eds.) Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion. Brill: 152-179.
Newcombe, S. (2017) ‘Yogis, Ayurveda and Kayakalpa– The Rejuvenation of Pandit Malaviya’ History of Science in South Asia 5(2): 85–120. DOI: 10.18732/hssa.v5i2.29