Death is Not the End: How Humanists Can Think About the ‘Afterlife’

I believe in the human spirit.

When I say “spirit”, I really mean “spirits”. And when I say “spirits”, I really mean what you might think of as “ghosts”. Not a very humanist way to talk about the topic, I know. But by the end of this, I think that you might also believe in ghosts.

I’ve never been haunted before. Still, there are moments – as I climb a staircase or check my email – when I suddenly see, all around me, the outlines and shadows of the countless people who make my life possible.

I believe that thinking about these “ghosts” can help humanists find a meaning or purpose in life – and in the end of life.

The Human Environment

Not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.
A talking pencil

If you are reading this, you probably live in a world built for you by other humans.

If you are reading this on a machine (and you are), that mechanical device exists because millions of people worked for centuries to create a world in which we can beam words to each other through invisible signals in the air.

You’ve heard of some of them: Edison, Tesla, Einstein, the good people of NASA. Others are more obscure – like Douglas Engelbart, who invented the hypertext that you probably used to find this article.

And of course, there are the people we don’t think about by name, if we think of them at all: The factory workers who assembled your machine, the roboticists who assembled the machines that helped assemble your machine, the truck drivers who drove the trucks holding the raw materials required to build your machine, the workers who built the roads that carried the raw materials required to build your machine…

…and heck, if you really want a full explanation of everything that happens in the creation of some modern-day tool, you may want to start with something simple. Like a pencil.

(I promise this will all make sense by the end of the post.)

The Goals of Ghosts

Hungry Ghost Realm - MarenYumi / Flickr, Creative Commons License Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Preta-gati, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the Third Buddhist Realm of Existence

Though I believe in “ghosts”, I do not believe in heaven, karma, or even the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. When our brains cease to function, we are gone. To paraphrase Descartes: We do not think, and therefore we are no more.

But while we no longer have an active influence on the world after we die, parts of ourselves live on.

Last year, one of my closest friends lost her grandmother, whom she loved very dearly. She is also a humanist, and we wound up talking about how to deal with death when you can’t rely on that almost universal phrase: “She’s in a better place now.”

Here are some messages I wrote during that conversation; I still believe in these words.

If we assume there is no “afterlife”, then we also tend to assume that whatever makes a life valuable occurs between birth and death. But our actions have impacts that can outlast our own lives.

I don’t know what your grandmother’s goals were, but I imagine that they included “raise a happy family and leave the world better than I found it”.

You are her granddaughter, and you are a joyful person who I can’t imagine raising anything but an joyful family–so the “happy” is there. And you are highly passionate–and effective!–about making the world a “better place”.

By helping put in motion the chain of events that led to you existing today, your grandmother ensured that the world would keep moving closer to her ideals–and thus, her life continues to be “successful” for as long as her impact on the world is felt.

And if this life is all we have, I can’t imagine a better fate for us after death than that we get to have the world keep moving in our preferred direction.

I think it is possible to enhance the meaning of your life by setting things up so that you can have a “successful afterlife”, by using your resources to plan for a good future without compelling anyone to do things that aren’t good for them.

This perspective doesn’t necessarily ease the pain of those who grieve—not right away, at least—but I think it can be a valuable framework for approaching the concept of death in general, and for thinking about what it means to live a good life given the (for now) inevitability that the collection of experiences called “you” will someday no longer exist.

To summarize: Alongside Philip Kitcher and David Cain, I believe that the impact of a person’s life does not end in death – and that, in many ways, we can help the world carry on in the direction of our goals for years after we die. And others can, to some extent, preserve our “lives after death” by acting in ways that magnify the meaning of what we accomplished.

The Construction of Human Projects

In “The Human Environment”, I argued that the world around us exists because of the life’s work of millions of people, many of them long dead.

In “The Goals of Ghosts”, I argued that our impact on the world continues long after we die, and that our lives might become more “meaningful” due to the actions of the people we’ve influenced.

Together, these points explain what I think about when I say “the human spirit”.

Every person has goals. The nature of these goals depends on many factors: Age, experience, cognitive ability, and whether one has the good fortune to grow up with enough money and free time not to have to spend most of one’s life simply working to survive.

But whether your goal is “bring water back to my children” or “build a working fusion reactor”, it is connected to some intrinsic value that you hold (ending thirst, or providing sustainable energy). And you likely hope that, even if you can no longer carry out the goal, progress toward the goal will continue.

Many of our goals are shared with other people, even if those people are strangers. Robert Bussard may never have met Taylor Wilson, but both men have worked on the “human project” of generating fusion power.

When I say “human project”, I refer to any endeavor that a large group of people, working across time and/or space, have committed themselves to furthering or completing. Some of these projects are huge and general and involve the work of millions:

  • Putting electric light in a billion homes
  • Wiping polio from the face of the earth
  • Ending involuntary death (in progress)

Others are simpler: The construction of a house, for example.

Many houses in the city where I live were built in the 19th century, by workers whose great-grandchildren are now retired. But people still live in those houses. I like to think that the people who built the houses, if they could look upon the lives of those who still find shelter within them, would be pleased that their work remained useful.

(Heck, by writing for Applied Sentience, I am in some sense furthering the project of freethinkers like Mary Anne Evans and Felix Adler. Certainly good motivation to finish this post!)

As the world grows more complicated, and networks of human interaction expand across the globe, more and more of the projects we work on are “human projects”.

Each human project consists of collaboration between three groups:

  1. Dead people whose plans persist into the present
  2. People now living who further those plans (and sometimes add new plans to the project)
  3. People of the future who will continue our work after we die

I think of “the human spirit” as the collective force driving all of our human projects.

(The term actually sounds pretty cool when you use it that way. “My laptop is a triumph of the human spirit!”)

Last Words

Here’s the one-sentence takeaway:

The human spirit is a real, explicable thing: The collected dreams, desires, and projects that have driven the lives of people in the past, present, and future, as they strove to better themselves and the world.

To get the full effect, after you finish this sentence: Look around the place where you are sitting, and think about the people who made the things you see.

(Did you think about it?)

If you did, write a comment and tell us what you thought about!  And may the rest of your life be a triumph of the human spirit.

Aaron Gertler (Yale University)
Aaron GertlerAaron is a member of the class of 2015 at Yale University. After he graduates, he hopes to live his life in a way that makes the lives of other people significantly better, unless he gets distracted by his dream of becoming a famous DJ/novelist/crime-fighter. His interests include electronic music, applied psychology, instrumental rationality, and effective altruism. If his beliefs are inaccurate, you should tell him so as directly as possible. You can follow him on Twitter @aarongertler, and he also writes for his own blog.

6 responses to “Death is Not the End: How Humanists Can Think About the ‘Afterlife’

  1. Pingback: The Human Spirit | Alpha Gamma·

  2. Your thoughts most definitely made me think a bit; even as a relapsed Catholic / quasi-witch, I have problems accepting the patriarchal, no-sin-or-else idea of an Afterlife. Your ‘Spirit Equation’ is perfect: we are fueled by heroes of a Past, we have a species hubris to continue during our own often tragic existence, and we hopefully attempt to generate the propagation of all human thought.

    Diegetically, all of our heroes come from the well of past experience or the imagined future.


  3. Your thoughts on the human “spirit” are spot on, I enjoyed the piece. The problem is (as it is often) in use of the language you employ to explain your thoughts. I’m not an expert, but it does seem your point (my single pencil pun) could be “watered down” as the majority of readers have strong mental associations with the “supernatural” terminology. Those terms and that lexicon seem lost to the rational, at least for the near future. At the least, I’ve encountered many who accuse us of accosting “their” language and twisting it to “trick” them. We know this is not the case, but in discourse with those of faith I’m often accused of not understanding or not possessing “respect” for these “very real” phenomena. I guess I’m just saying we need to be cognizant/explicit when we employ the lexicon “owned” by those that create their own truth. We need new language or fresh terms to explain thoughts like those you expressed. Words that aren’t already claimed by the current dominant use of language.


  4. Pingback: Grappling with Comfort & Death as a Humanist | Applied Sentience·

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