Shane asked:

What I am about to say is a desperate call for help. i am reaching out to you so that I may be assisted with this dear worry I have been plagued with for several years. Basically, I am paranoid about what will happen to me after I die. Because of argument amongst equally learned, intelligent capable philosophers, I cant figure out what the afterlife (if there is one) will consist of. The reason this is an obsession and highly alarming to me is because several different religions state you must believe such and such in order to escape hell (eternal torture). You can’t simultaneously be a follower of incompatible religions, so it’s like you’re taking an eternal chance in believing anything. Moreover, it seems the superiority of one religion over the other cannot be determined. Philosophers argue about this stuff night and day, and the arguments never end… nothing is ever decided for certain. No one can be sure of anything. Must I believe that when I die, I’ll more than likely go to some sort of hell? My morals aren’t terrific, you know. This is driving me mad. It is something I dwell on ALL the time. Life is so terribly fragile, and any of us could go at any time. I’m at a higher risk of death than a lot because of heart disease in my genes.

What is a man supposed to do in a predicament like this?

You probably have beliefs about the afterlife, but how can you be SURE of them when you are aware of the other equally knowledgeable minds that don’t believe as you do that have solid arguments for their own world view and against your own? You cant say that you’re somehow superior to a whole mass of intelligent minds!

Answer by Craig Skinner

I’m not sure I can help, but I’ll try.

You nail the problem nicely — ‘no one can be sure of anything’, but then ask ‘what is a man supposed to do?’ rather than identify the solution, namely to suspend judgment.

Uncertainty is the human condition. We cant even be absolutely sure about the existence of the external world, the self and causation (Hume), or the truth of science (no hypothesis can ever be proven true or false) or maths (incomplete, and consistency unprovable, as shown by Godel), never mind religion.

We can do no more than live with this uncertainty, proportioning our beliefs to the evidence, as Hume puts it, and suspending belief where evidence is absent or conflicting.

In the West, philosophical response to uncertainty has mostly been to try to formulate a Scheme of Things that aims to match up with The Way Things Are, such as idealism, materialism, dualism, panpsychism, with or without deism or theism. In the East (Buddhism) and for a few in the west (Pyrrhonists), the alternative view is that no Scheme is possible, we can know only appearances, there is no ‘deeper’ or ‘underlying’ reality, and we should suspend belief in anything beyond appearance. Even Kant held that the forms of our intuition and categories of our thought, necessary for any experience at all to occur, allowed knowledge only of appearances, although we might legitimately speculate about underlying reality, including matters such as free will, God and immortality.

Take your pick: a Buddhist/ Pyrrhonist going with the flow (which allegedly dispels illusion, gives peace of mind and reduces suffering), or a struggle to understand The Way Things Are that will be unending and forever uncertain, only probabilistic.

I have speculated on religious matters for over sixty years now. I grew up in a Christian home, but soon became atheistic. As a young man I read Whitehead’s (difficult) work on process philosophy, and was impressed with the idea of all of us, including God, together constantly engaged in an instant by instant process of becoming, so I was theistic for a while. Later I became agnostic. Then, in middle age some serious Biblical study made me an atheist again. More recently I returned to agnosticism, although I dislike the militant, dogmatic, and sometimes philosophically naive, ‘new’ atheism (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens).

But through all this I have been angst-free, unlike yourself. I can see two reasons for this.

First, my job (medical doctor) involved constant uncertainty (is the diagnosis this, that or the other, will she get better, how long has he got, what’s the best treatment) so I never had any problem living with uncertainty.

Secondly, perhaps more importantly, I’ve never had your fears of hell. It’s not that I know the truth about the matter. But at least I can say (and so can you), that if there were a God who metes out infinite punishment to us, flawed, finite creatures as we are, with finite sins, such a being would not command our respect, never mind our worship. And you couldn’t trust such a god to treat you decently even if you feared it. My agnosticism doesn’t include such a horrible being: I definitely believe no such god exists. Maybe your own troubles will cease only when you do the same. It doesn’t mean you need be atheistic, or even agnostic. Religious belief is not contrary to reason, and many critical thinkers, including scientists and philosophers, are religious.

All the best. I hope you will be able to focus more on life before death and dispel your morbid fears.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I don’t have a lot to add to what Craig has said. In my YouTube video, ‘What is death?’ I consider the very scary thought that death, interpreted as the permanent cessation of consciousness, is impossible to prove because ‘permanent’ implies all of infinite future time. No empirical evidence would suffice to establish that I will never, in some far future time, ‘wake up’. And what manner of terrifying things might happen to me when I do?

Wittgenstein in the book he completed shortly before his death On Certainty considers the possibility that general anaesthetic works, not by producing a state of unconsciousness, but rather by causing complete paralysis and the subsequent erasure of the memory of the pain one suffered under the surgeon’s knife. The very thought of such an unquantifiable possibility, immune from empirical verification or falsification, might be sufficient to deter you from ever undergoing an operation.

Irrational fears aside, we have to live our lives according to what can be reasonably predicted based on what we know. But what is ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’ is very much up for grabs if you allow religion into the equation.


Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

This is a famous metaphysical problem. A book that you might find helpful:

Samuel Scheffler Death and the Afterlife