Monday 31 January 2011

Is there life after death? Yes/No/Maybe

From BBC TV programme The Big Questions, broadcast yesterday:

Can you answer this question in 16 minutes? Indeed you can: the answer's "no."

Maybe you think that's too glib, and some effort ought to be expended assessing the evidence. But in this discussion the evidence is not in evidence — that is, no-one actually presents any. The person who gets first go (Mohammed Hatehit, from Didsbury Mosque) simply assumes the existence of the soul, and uses its separateness from the body as definite proof of life after death: you bury the body, but where does the soul go? It must go somewhere. However, if the soul doesn't exist then obviously it doesn't go anywhere as it wasn't there to begin with. (He doesn't suggest why the soul, if it exists, couldn't be buried with the body....)

Spiritualists such as Steven Upton like to cite anecdotal evidence of communication with "the other side" — but as Michael Marshall of Merseyside Skeptics ably points out, such parlour tricks can be convincingly replicated by stage magicians.

Anglican bishop Stephen Lowe demonstrated a shade of tentativeness — so typical of the Church of England — that threatens to subsume Anglicanism beneath a welter of uncertainty. At least Penny Mawdsley from Sea of Faith was prepared to concede that there are Christians who don't believe in God.

Jewish Chronicle columnist Angela Epstein's comment that she sees this world as "almost a waiting room for the world to come" is symptomatic of faith that casts reality as something inferior to unreality. This is the kind of thinking that leads to notions of the Rapture. Why bother doing anything at all, if we're simply enduring this life while waiting for eternal bliss?

Naturally this 16-minute discussion couldn't conclude without someone (it was Ajmal Masroor) proposing Pascal's Wager — an argument so bad that anyone using it should be automatically disqualified from participating.