December 12, 2009

Dinesh D'Souza Talks About Life After Death

Kim Trobee, editor
Friday Five

Dinesh D'Souza is the cofounder and director of the Y God Institute. He served as a White House policy analyst during the Reagan administration. He's authored several books, including What's So Great About Christianity and his latest, Life After Death: The Evidence. He lives in California with his wife Dixie and their daughter Danielle.

1. Tell me about your interest in life after death.

I think the topic of life after death is an interesting one, because if you're a religious believer or seeker or even a non-believer, you have to wonder, is that the end or is there something more?

A couple of years ago a close friend of mine got cancer. He is a successful entrepreneur. I remember he said to me that when something like this happens we discover that the apparent normalcy of our everyday life is a bit of a sham, so that we suddenly reorder our priorities. We realize this big wrecking ball that is waiting for us. So I thought it would be fascinating to tackle this issue. I believed in life after death on the basis of faith for a long time, but I've been debating many of the leading atheists around the country, and they deny life after death. And they claim that they do it on the basis of 'evidence.' They say, "We know science. We have been looking at these studies of the brain. We can tell you we've looked inside the human being. We've looked and looked for a soul. We just haven't found anything in there." So they say, "We can tell you on the basis of reason that there is no life after death." So in this book, I kind of tackle the atheists with their own weapons. And I make a case for life after death on the basis of reason alone.

2. You say that modern science lays the groundwork for such belief. How so?

I think that with life after death, it's a tricky subject, because we can't go over to the other side and come back. We can't interview dead people. We don't have direct evidence. So, we're sort of like detectives on a crime scene, and there's no eyewitness, but there are a lot of clues.

The atheists are always saying, "Give us some empirical evidence." And, in fact, there is some. The evidence is not people who have come back from the dead, but the evidence of people who are very near death -- near-death experiences. And these were first publicized in the 1970s and were initially written off as being anecdotal. But now, there are tens of thousands of these near-death experiences. They occur all over the world and there's a similarity to them. The people who have them are often people whose hearts have stopped. So, they're clinically dead or no brain activity is measured. And yet they claim, very interestingly, that even when the body stops, experience in consciousness continues. Now this is remarkable, because it's kind of like saying, "I took the key out of the ignition, and the car kept running." How can this be? So, the atheists have been making a supreme effort to try to discredit these near-death experiences, but to no avail.

3. What are the distinctions between mind and brain, and how do those affect life after death?

The distinction between the mind and the brain is critical for this reason: The philosopher Socrates a long time ago made an ingenious argument for life after death, and it's worth noting for a moment, because we think of life after death as a religious view sustained by the Bible or sustained by faith. But Socrates didn't rely on that. He made an argument based on reason. And what he said was: If we look inside of ourselves, we discover that we human beings are made up of two kinds of stuff. We're made up of physical stuff: our legs, our arms, our lungs. But we're also made up of mental stuff: our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our ideas, our consciousness, our free will. Now those things don't have the same attributes as physical stuff.

If somebody were to ask you, "What is the length of your consciousness?" or "What do your thoughts weigh?" the answer is there's no answer to those questions. Thoughts and consciousness aren't physical things. So as a result, Socrates said they don't have physical attributes. So, physical things break down, bodies decay and die. But, Socrates said that thoughts don't, ideas don't, consciousness doesn't. Those things don't have an expiration date stamped on them in the way that material things do. So, Socrates' argument was: When we die, think of your mind as a kind of vapor in the bottle. You smash the bottle, you haven't smashed the vapor, you've really released it. So Socrates' argument relies on separating the mind from the body or separating the mind from the physical brain.

But what's happened in recent decades is that, drawing on brain science, unbelievers have tried very much to equate the mind and the brain to say they're the same thing. And if they are, then it's very difficult to envision life after death, because no one denies that the neurons in the brain decay and die. If the brain is all there is and our entire mental world, including our conscious, our free will, our moral choices, if all of that is nothing more than the operation of atoms and molecules in our brain, then it's very difficult to see how there could be life after death.

So, what I do in the book is, I have a couple of chapters that show why the mind cannot be reduced to the brain, why the soul cannot be reduced to the simple motion of neurons in the head. The two really are distinct. Now, they go together kind of like the way software and hardware on a computer goes together. And so you need the computer for the software programs to run. If you smash the computer, the software won't function. But again, it doesn't follow that the computer or the hardware is causing the software. The software is actually independent of the hardware. It could run on a different computer. You could download it onto your iPod or a different application, and it'll function just fine. So, all that is a way of saying that our nonphysical realm, while it comes attached to the body, is not the same as the body.

4. In the book, you talk about the Christian view of the afterlife presenting the most compelling argument in favor of such a place. Why is that?

That's very important, because belief in the afterlife is absolutely universal. It's existed in all known cultures. And right away, that itself demands some explanation. Why have all these cultures that haven't always been talking to each other independently derive this idea that we live on after our death?

That being said, there are two main views of immortality: the Eastern view and the Western view. And the Eastern view, which is common to Hinduism and Buddhism, is that we survive, but we don't survive as individuals. Our soul kind of merges with everybody else's soul and with a divine soul into a kind of single oneness and that's all that there is. The Western view, common to Judaism and Christianity, is very different. We survive as individuals. Our soul is ultimately united to a resurrected body. So, who is right? You've got these competing ideas of immortality.

So, in the latter part of my book, I start with a rather interesting and unique claim made by Christianity, which is that life after death isn't merely in the future. It's not just something we have to wait for. In fact, the Jews believe that life after death does occur, but only at the end of the world. So, the Jews are kind of in a long-term waiting period, waiting for the Messiah, waiting for the end of the world. Whereas, in Christianity, the idea is "No! Life after death has already happened in one case. Jesus died and he came back from the dead. He was resurrected." So, He had life after death. And what I say is, alright, let's look at the resurrection. If we can defend the resurrection as a historical event, if it makes sense historically, then the Christian view of the after life rises above the pack. It becomes the one to take seriously. All the other visions of immortality are also ran. So, I look at the historicity of the resurrection and I show that it does hold up by historical standards, objectively applied.

Then in the last section of the book, I explore the radical implications of Christ's teaching about immortality, which is the sort of powerful idea that we can have eternity right now. In other words, we don't just have to wait to die to experience eternity. The moment we become Christians and come into the kingdom, eternal life begins for us at that instant.

5. So what does this mean for our lives right here, right now?

What it really means is that the world beyond the world makes all the difference in our world. And what I mean by that is that if there's no life after death, then we are like passengers on the Titanic. We can rearrange the deck chairs, we can turn up the music – but essentially, we're doomed. If we face that as the philosopher Sartre did – he ended up in despair because he said that means everything we do is pointless; all our past efforts, our current plans, our future projects. Ultimately, there's no meaning to any of it, because we're all going to be decimated by this great destructive force, death.

Now, on the other hand, if there is life after death, that changes the picture totally, because that means that, first of all, we can face death better, knowing that it is not the final end. It is an end, but it is, in some ways, also a gateway to another life. Second, we have a good reason to hope that there is cosmic justice. We have a good reason to hope that good will be rewarded and evil held accountable. That doesn't always happen in this world, but we have good reason to believe it does in the next world. So, we also have a reason to teach morality to our children. And our lives, every day, here and now, take on a meaning and a significance that they wouldn't otherwise have, because we're now part of this larger cosmic drama.

So, all of this is a way of saying that the belief in life after death isn't just about what comes later. It pays very important practical dividends in this world, here and now.