Should We Care About the "Afterlife"?
Heidegger vs. Metaphysics
Before we dive in to today’s question, I hope you’ll enjoy two new poems of mine, just out in Tablet.
Plato argues for the immortality of the soul.
The major monotheistic religions imagine some kind of heaven or hell awaiting us on “the other side” of this life.
Eastern religions posit reincarnation as a basic truth of existence.
Unless you’re an Epicurean (materialist), you likely believe—or toy with believing—that consciousness outlives the body, even if you don’t quite know what that means.
But we don’t actually know what happens on the other side, if there is one. And, besides the testimony of those who have fantasies, drug trips, or “Near-death” experiences, none can claim expertise in the matter. Mythology grants us the image of a chaperone who goes between this world and the other one, but lived experience does not.
Everything we can say about life after death, including that there is no life after death, is speculative.
The operative question, then, can’t be “how do we know anything about the afterlife?”—but instead, why should we care to ask, given that our epistemological tools are ill-adept to the object.
This is Heidegger’s question—and his answer is that we can’t help but care, because whatever we say about the afterlife says something about how we value our own lives now.
It’s somewhat annoying to the scientific enquirer in that it renders the original, metaphysical question a non-question. Yet Heidegger isn’t saying that our speculation isn’t or can’t be valid—he’s simply saying that speculation is always and more importantly a commentary on life as lived.
Bioethicists are confronted with the question of when life ends; but biologically defined end-of-life says little about the meaning and purpose of life.
One reason heaven is an ethically persuasive postulate, even if it is scientifically weak, is that it grants us a goal—the purpose of life is to gain entry into heaven and avoid damnation. To those who reject such a view, but still insist that life has meaning, the burden becomes—what takes the place of that externalized goal; or can life be meaningful without one?
In my estimation, this was Heidegger’s project—to claim and demonstrate that life can be and is meaningful whether or not there is a heaven. To the extent that you believe life requires heaven to be meaningful, Heidegger is not a neutral analyst, but a philosophical foe. Yet Heidegger isn’t saying heaven doesn’t exist (this we don’t know)—only that we cannot escape our condition of not knowing, and shouldn’t try.
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