Life after death: Secular ideas

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Dualism

At first glance, the possibility of an afterlife will be accommodated most easily by mind-body dualists. Dualism is the belief that people possess both a material and a non-material nature: a body and a soul, a ‘ghost in a machine’. The classic presentation of dualism is to be found in Descartes who claims that it is perfectly meaningful to talk of a person existing without a physical form. This separation of body and soul seems intelligible, on the surface at least. We understand what it is to be a subject of experience – to feel, to think, to will – and those activities appear to be partly independent of our physical selves; whatever the value of the evidence claimed from near-death experiences, the notion is at least coherent; and many people live happily with the possibility of communicating with the disembodied spirits of their dead friends and family.

Although the body clearly does not survive death, the dualist account allows for survival of the non-material element: the soul, spirit or mind. Descartes considered the human soul simple, indivisible and immortal, and thus able to continue its existence after the death of the body. This notion is a common one but it is not without problems. For a person to survive death, in a crucial sense they must be the same person after death as before. The criterion for this identity is elusive and constitutes its own domain of philosophical enquiry. In a straightforward sense, to survive is to continue being who you are now: with your likes and dislikes, quirks, obsessions and so on. But this is difficult to imagine

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