Is There Life After Death?: Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, Sam Harris & More Explore One of Life’s Biggest Questions

We should prob­a­bly not look to sci­ence to have cher­ished beliefs con­firmed. As sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of the world has pro­gressed over the cen­turies, it has brought on a loss of humans’ sta­tus as priv­i­leged beings at the cen­ter of the uni­verse whose task is to sub­due and con­quer nature. (The stub­born per­sis­tence of those atti­tudes among the pow­er­ful has not served the species well.) We are not spe­cial, but we are still respon­si­ble, we have learned — maybe total­ly respon­si­ble for our lives on this plan­et. The meth­ods of sci­ence do not lend them­selves to sooth­ing exis­ten­tial anx­i­ety.

But what about the most cher­ished, and like­ly ancient, of human beliefs: faith in an after­life?  Ideas of an under­world, or heav­en, or hell have ani­mat­ed human cul­ture since its ear­li­est ori­gins. There is no soci­ety in the world where we will not find some belief in an after­life exist­ing com­fort­ably along­side life’s most mun­dane events. Is it a harm­ful idea? Is there any real evi­dence to sup­port it? And which ver­sion of an after­life — if such a thing exist­ed — should we believe?

Such ques­tions stack up. Answers in forms sci­ence can rec­on­cile seem dimin­ish­ing­ly few. Nonethe­less, as we see in the Big Think video above, sci­en­tists, sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tors, and sci­ence enthu­si­asts are will­ing to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ty, or impos­si­bil­i­ty, of con­tin­u­ing after death. We begin with NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller, who ref­er­ences Ein­stein’s the­o­ry of the uni­verse as ful­ly com­plete, “so every point in the past and every point in the future are just as real as the point of time you feel your­self in right now.” Time spreads out in a land­scape, each moment already mapped and sur­veyed.

When a close friend died, Ein­stein wrote a let­ter to his friend’s wife explain­ing, “Your hus­band, my friend, is just over the next hill. He’s still there” — in a the­o­ret­i­cal sense. It may not have been the com­fort she was look­ing for. The hope of an after­life is that we’ll see our loved ones again, some­thing Ein­stein’s solu­tion does not allow. Sam Har­ris — who has leaned into the mys­ti­cal prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion while pulling it from its reli­gious con­text — admits that death is a “dark mys­tery.” When peo­ple die, “there’s just the sheer not know­ing what hap­pened to them. And into this void, reli­gion comes rush­ing with a very con­sol­ing sto­ry, say­ing noth­ing hap­pened them; they’re in a bet­ter place and you’re going to meet up with them after.”

The sto­ry isn’t always so con­sol­ing, depend­ing on how puni­tive the reli­gion, but it does offer an expla­na­tion and sense of cer­tain­ty in the face of “sheer not know­ing.” The human mind does not tol­er­ate uncer­tain­ty par­tic­u­lar­ly well. Death feels like the great­est unknown of all. (Har­ris’ argu­ment par­al­lels that of anthro­pol­o­gist Pas­cal Boy­er on the ori­gin of all reli­gions.) But the phe­nom­e­non of death is not unknown to us. We are sur­round­ed by it dai­ly, from the plants and ani­mals we con­sume to the pets we sad­ly let go when their lifes­pans end. Do we keep our­selves up won­der­ing what hap­pened to these beings? Maybe our spir­i­tu­al or reli­gious beliefs aren’t always about death.…

“In the Old Tes­ta­ment there isn’t real­ly any sort of view of the after­life,” says Rob Bell, a spir­i­tu­al teacher (and the only talk­ing head here not aligned with a sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tion or ratio­nal­ist move­ment). “This idea that the whole thing is about when you die is not real­ly the way that lots of peo­ple have thought about it.” For many reli­gious prac­ti­tion­ers, the idea of eter­nal life means “liv­ing in har­mo­ny with the divine right now.” For many, this “right now” — this very moment and each one we expe­ri­ence after it — is eter­nal. See more views of the after­life above from sci­ence edu­ca­tors like Bill Nye and sci­en­tists like Michio Kaku, who says the kind of after­lives we’ve only seen in sci­ence fic­tion — “dig­i­tal and genet­ic immor­tal­i­ty” — “are with­in reach.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Nick Cave’s Beau­ti­ful Let­ter About Grief

Richard Feyn­man on Reli­gion, Sci­ence, the Search for Truth & Our Will­ing­ness to Live with Doubt

Michio Kaku & Bri­an Green Explain String The­o­ry in a Nut­shell: Ele­gant Expla­na­tions of an Ele­gant The­o­ry

Philoso­pher Sam Har­ris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Dan Parkin says:

    Mat­ter can­not be destroyed. Spir­it Exists in all of us . We as Spir­it s exisit­ed before we entered our phys­i­cal state. After our death our Spir­it stir exists in the Spir­it world wait­ing for Christ Sec­ond Com­ing to return the rest of mankind’s body’s to their Spir­it s. The Ressurec­tion. It’s all explained by God’s mod­ern day Prophet Joseph Smith jr. Don’t assume read and pray for your­self the still small voice will speak to you the truth. Holy Ghost is the third mem­ber of the God­head it’s pur­pose is to bare wit­ness of the truth­ful­ness of Gods and His son Jesus Christ exis­tence. For as we learned in mod­ern day rev­e­la­tion that the God­head is three dis­tinct mem­bers. God the Father. His son Jesus Christ who came down to earth for mankind s Sal­va­tion and the Speak­er of truth none oth­er than the Holy Ghost

  • Randy Morton says:

    Prove it. All you have is a fairy tale that can’t be proven.

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