GQ as GD: Facts vs. opinions re: the afterlife and other unprovable stuff

I am prepared to be shown that I am wrong about this, because it’s bound (or maybe it isn’t?, we shall see) to get all science-y, and I freely confess that my brain shrinks like testicles on ice when people start throwing equations around. On the other hand, I have a pretty solid grasp of logic. So it will be interesting to see how this goes. (rubs hands together)

I started a thread (I swear I cannot think or type that phrase today without hearing Barry Gibb singing it in my head… “I stahted a thread…which stahted the whole board fighting…”) in GQ, asking about what Jews believe regarding an afterlife.

CC dropped in to inform everyone, in no uncertain terms, that the factual reality was that there is no afterlife.

Which led me to start a thread in the pit about what CC had said. The “pit” part was the threadshittyness of his having made his remarks in my GQ thread, but I also took him to task for the assertion itself, and that didn’t really belong in the pit, but it did start to generate some discussion. I’d like to have that discussion now.

Helluva prologue, eh?

SO… here’s what I’d like to discuss: is it considered legitimate, in terms of logic, reason, English, science, whatever disciplines or metrics apply, to state that “It is a fact that there is no afterlife.”

My belief and contention is that such a statement is not accurately made, because it is impossible to know, therefore it is an opinion. Let me be clear: I’m interested in discussing the way we determine what is a genuine “fact” vs. what is an opinion, not the particulars of the afterlife or absence of one.

To prevent any wasted time: I do not know whether there is an afterlife. I do not even know what I believe about it. Sometimes I think there might me some kind of energy existence that persists, but I rarely find myself leaning towards believing that the personality persists after death. But it doesn’t matter anyway, since that’s not really the topic, only how we arrive at our determination of certain unprovable ideas.

Several interesting posts were made in the pit thread.

Here they are:

Which is my point: how can you say it is so or not, since you have no way to test your assertion?

That is what I think should be the correct view. You cannot definitively declare there isn’t one.

That was in response to my OP, where I was paraphrasing a quote I think is meaningful: that it is arrogant to believe that the limits of our perception are also the limits of what there is to perceive. That just seems very obvious to me, otherwise we are saying: We know everything there is to know. Period.” and that’s certainly not true. We (the smarty pants among us, anyway) have frequently believed that we had figured it all out, there was nothing left to discover…then we discovered new things. Hell, is it even possible to know everything, for all questions to be answered?? Maybe, but my view is that the only way it would be is after we’ve visited every single planet and moon and star in every single galaxy in the entire universe and catalogued the facts about all of them, plus everything in between, and last time I heard, the universe was probably infinite and I can’t even wrap my head around the idea of infinity, so…good luck with that.

I never claimed that it was equally logical. HOWEVER… what are the lines? That’s what this thread hopes to answer. I’m comfy dismissing the dragon in the garage, I’m not comfy dismissing the afterlife. I’m not entirely sure why, and I’ll have to think about it, but I’d love to hear theories from others.

Now this exchange really caught my eye and it was the one that made me decide I had to start this thread.

What is meant by an “educated” guess in this exact instance? What education does CC or Really Not All That Bright or anyone else have that directly leads to the conclusion that there is no afterlife?

Because everyone considering this question is alive.

And if there is an afterlife, it in no way follows that there must be a way for the living and the afterliving (hehe) to connect, so the apparent fact that the afterliving don’t send messages telling us about what afterliving is like can’t be held up as a solid piece of evidence for the non-existence of an afterlife, only for the non-existence of communication between the living and the afterliving. Right?

On the other hand, we do have some very interesting anecdotal evidence for the possibility, at least, that there might actually be an afterlife, in the form of the reports of people who have “died” and come back, most of whom, if not all, report very similar things.

The most amazing of these was a story…I’ll try hard to find the details, but it was on TV…about a woman who was, for all intents and purposes, very much dead because the doctors killed her to save her. Again, my details are fuzzy, please don’t bust me for that, but my memory is that she had a very scary brain tumor that was right on the brainstem itself, the part that operates your breathing, heart, etc., and it was absolutely impossible to do a thing unless they “killed” her first. So they drained her blood, cooled her, blah blah, brought her back, and she had jaw-dropping details about being outside her body and watching, plus more.

There were two reasons, I think, why her story was exceptional, if not actually unique, and both had to do with the way the surgeons “killed” her. First, the biological steps the doctors took ruled out the usual explanations given for “seeing the light” - endorphins flooding, electrical stuff…like I said, I’ll try to find it, just flow with me for now, the key part is that her body wasn’t subject to any of that because of the way it was stopped, and that was a biological fact. But she reported all of it anyway.

Secondly, because of the way the surgeons killed her, they actually stopped brain activity in some astonishing way (I KNOW I’LL TRY TO FIND IT!) which means her reports of being outside her body, which I seem to recall including telling the doctors things they said while she was actually dead and her brain was dead, are simply impossible to explain since she, and her brain, were fucking dead. (on top of the deep anesthesia, and as someone who has had an “awareness” episode under anesthesia, I’m here to testify that she could not possibly have been having an awareness eipsode while she was simultaneously dead by pretty much every measure.) No hearing, no perception, no dreaming… no.

Now, I’m not saying this proves an afterlife! I don’t know. But what I do know is that the show that I watched was a reputable one, first of all, so I feel pretty confident that even if I didn’t remember exactly, I’m close, and it’s pretty damned amazing and unexplained, AND… this and other reports are at least more than there is for NON-existence of an afterlife, even though they are usually explained away. Not proven to be false, just given a pretty plausible explanation. And that distinction is meaningful in this discussion.

This is my understanding, and as such, I continue to say it is not accurate to say that there is no afterlife and call it a fact. Nor is it accurate to say there IS an afterlife and call it a fact, although, as I just finished typing, my limited knowledge is that we have a teensy weensy bit more possible evidence for than against.

And finally, I think this all came out of my long time affection for Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Evolution as Fact and Theory”, which is brilliant and contributed enormously to my understanding of how science operates, and, once you read the following, shows why I argued with CC in the first place (it’s only part of the essay, which is posted all over the web and totally rocks):

So, while I get how one can think that the afterlife doesn’t exist… on what basis (assuming Gould knew his shit, and I think we can agree he did) can we say it is a FACT that there is no afterlife? Has it been “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”? if it has, I’m okay with that, I’d just like to be educated as to how.
But my understanding from all of this is that the afterlife cannot be falsified and neither can the absence of the afterlife, so the yes or no of it is opinions, not facts.

But, using my admittedly incomplete reasoning (I’m here for the education, which is why I called this GQ as GD- I think it’s really a GQ, but the nature of the issues we’re discussing makes it GD, and if it was started in GQ it would be moved or closed PDQ) maybe dragons in the garage are just as much a matter of opinion…are they? My gut tells me they aren’t, but I’m exhausted trying to lay this all out already so someone else can tackle it.

I’m completely open to getting an education here. These are some big ideas, and I would love to learn something new.

So…have at it, if you will.



Anyone making the assertion that there is an afterlife needs to offer scientific proof that such a thing exists. Lacking proof, we say “there is no evidence of an afterlife”. Can we say “there is no afterlife”? Technically, no.

My thoughts exactly.

I guess we can lock it up now! :wink:

I am, of course, taking about a scientific discussion. If we’re discussing matters of faith, then all bets are off.

Still, there comes a point where there isn’t a whole lot of space between “there is no x” and “there is no evidence for x”. We’re not still looking to see if there is some guy in a chariot who drives the sun across the sky.

This post is to address the issue of fact vs. opinion that was brought up by Nzinga in the other thread and quoted in the OP.

An opinion may be about something for which there is no factual answer (e.g. “This movie sucks!”) But it is also possible (in my opinion ;)) to have an opinion about a matter that has a factual answer which is, at least currently, inaccessible. I may have an opinion about whether intelligent life exists on some other planet, or about whether the Riemann Hypothesis is true, or about whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were both actually written by a guy named Homer, or about whether Obama will be reelected in 2012. There either is or is not an afterlife, but unless there’s some information I’m not aware of that would definitively settle the issue, the question is subject to difference of opinion.

I think you’re right, but when framing the issue in a debate one must be careful not to commit the fallacy of balance :slight_smile:

Two opinions on a factual matter not settled are not necessarily equal in weight. Intelligent life on another planet is a heck of a lot more likely to be true than the existence of an afterlife, for example.

Even that’s a matter of opinion. Opinions differ widely over how likely it is that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe; and as for how likely an afterlife is, I don’t know how you can even assign a probability to such a thing (at least not without making some assumptions that not everyone will accept).

I think that there’s tremendous use in having a third category: belief.

A fact is something that is true.

An opinion is an aesthetic judgment – or, if you reject the idea of an objective morality, a moral judgment.

A belief is a personal conclusion about the truth value of a fact.

So: it may or may not be a fact that there is an afterlife in which we get wings and harps.

It is my belief that there is no such afterlife.

It is my opinion that such an afterlife would suck.

Steophan’s supposed statement of fact is more accurately classified as a belief.

Note that virtually all statements of fact are statements of belief. Some, however, are more supportable using different belief systems–for example, the scientific method offers very little support for belief in an afterlife, whereas fundamentalist Christianity offers tremendous support for such a belief.

And the space is getting smaller all the time, as supposed evidence for the afterlife doesn’t pan out, and as we understand the physical world and our brains more and more.

The question for Stoid is: at what point does “there are almost certainly positively no unicorns” become “it is a fact that there are no unicorns?” The answer to this question would seem pretty much the same.

Okay, that strikes me as a useful distinction.

I thought the scientific method was a method, not a belief system.

Well that’s the point. We understand how intelligent life may arise, though we are missing some details. And moreover we know that it is possible, because we are here. Further, the vastness of the cosmos may not immediately mean that it has happened elsewhere, but it certainly modifies the likelihood.

The number of assumptions we have to make for an afterlife, by comparison, are staggering.

A paradox: even if there is an afterlife, it may not be possible to cross between worlds in the reverse direction. In other words, if you’re dead, you may be alive somewhere else, but it is impossible to communicate with the living.

It would be impossible to prove that such a system exists, but it would be consistent with rational observation, which suggests that all “communication” is fraud or wishful thinking.

Personally, my money is on the “when you’re dead, you’re dead” philosophy.

Yeah, what Thudlow said.


If I claim that it is impossible for me to fly by flapping my arms or impossible for me to blow up a mountain by spitting at it, no one will give me any speeches about how “That’s just a belief, you can’t prove it.” It’s only when it comes to things like gods and the afterlife that suddenly these special definitions of “impossible” and “facts” come into play.

Going by the standards we apply elsewhere in our lives, yes it is accurate to claim “It is a fact that there is no afterlife.” We make such claims of fact all the time, even against claims far more plausible than the existence of the afterlife. Such as the conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were a hoax; people on this very board claim that it is a fact that the Moon landings happened, but if they applied the same standards that are applied to religion they could say no such thing. After all, a worldwide conspiracy to cover up faked Moon landings doesn’t even violate physical laws the way gods and afterlives do.

The existence of a ghost in the machine, a spirit personality that is distinct from. albeit linked to, the brain.

That ghost being immaterial.

That immaterial ghost being able to survive after the brain has ceased to exist.

Those are some of the larger assumptions.

Afterlives violating the physical laws of the universe would only be relevant if we were talking about an afterlife that existed within this physical universe.

Yeah dude, that’s because, as Charles Darwin noted, it’ s not possible to test the afterlife. Of course there is a different definition for claims that are inherently untestable.

But let’s *test *whether you really believe what you say. You go tell your wife that it is a *fact *that you don’t love her. After all, you have no testable, objective evidence for that belief. And you don’t want to suddenly start using special definitions of “facts”. So tell her that it’s a fact that you don’t love her, and that it is impossible for you to love her.

Let us know how you get on. :rolleyes:

Not strictly speaking, no.

To have an afterlife, you need to first have a pre-existing life that survives death. That pre-life must exist within this physical universe.

If that pre-life, the ghost in the machine, violates the physical laws of the universe that is a problem.

Some philosophies, notably some Buddhist, say that the pre-existing life itself is real, and the brain effectively acts as a receiver for that life. That neatly explains away the ghost-in-the-machine, but it also means that the afterlife exists within this universe.

You’ve got a Catch-22 on this one. Either the afterlife exists in this universe, and violating the physical laws of this universe is problematic for it, or else the pre-life must be able to survive to leave this universe, in which case the pre-life can not violate the physical laws of the universe.

I have a request. Can someone give me an example of a “fact”?

The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
There’s snow on the road outside my window.
Elephants are larger than shrimp.
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, and Daniel Day-Lewis starred in the film.
Consciousness being an emergent property of the brain, it cannot survive the destruction thereof.