To feel much for others and little for ourselves, to restrain our selfish and indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.
— Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
In this essay, I offer an original argument for life after death. This is called the presuppositional argument, and it requires a little clarification to show what kind of an argument it is and how it works. Imagine a detective who cannot figure out how his suspect could have committed the crime by himself. For instance, the suspect was indisputably in one location at the time when the body was dumped in another location. Our Lieutenant Columbo puzzles over this and then it hits him: The man must have had an accomplice. Assume an accomplice, and the otherwise inexplicable facts of the case now make sense. So there must have been an accomplice. And even though we don’t know anything about the accomplice, the detective’s hypothesis is persuasive to the degree that it explains the known facts of the case.
Here’s a second example. A woman is baffled by the fact that a man whom she has been dating for years keeps delaying his proposal of marriage. The man keeps telling her that he wants to wait for the right time. She agonizes over the question, “Why won’t he commit?” After a while the woman’s friends start telling her, “He will never marry you. He has no intention of marrying you.” The girlfriends have no direct knowledge of the man or his real intentions. Their assessment is, in this sense, purely conjectural. But it has the merit of being able to explain things that the alternative hypothesis cannot explain. How believable is it that the man who has procrastinated for so long will propose to this woman at some unspecified “right time”? It is much more reasonable to suppose that he is simply making excuses because he doesn’t want to get married, at least not to her. In both these examples there is a presupposition of a fact that is not directly known, but the presupposition is convincing because it makes sense of the facts that are known. The facts become, as it were, an empirical test of the validity of the presupposition.
Here is my presuppositional argument for life after death. Unlike material objects and all other living creatures, we humans inhabit two domains: the way things are, and the way things ought to be. In other words, we are moral animals who recognize that just as there are natural laws that govern every object in the universe, there are also moral laws that govern the behavior of one special set of objects in the universe, namely us. While the universe is externally moved by “facts,” we are internally moved also by “values.” Yet these values defy natural and scientific explanation, because the laws of nature, as discovered by science, concern only the way things are and not the way they ought to be. Moreover, the essence of morality is to curtail and contradict the powerful engine of human self-interest, giving morality an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust. So how do we explain the existence of moral values that stand athwart our animal nature? The presupposition of cosmic justice, achieved not in this life but in another life beyond the grave, is by far the best and in some respects the only explanation. This presupposition fully explains why humans continue to espouse goodness and justice even when the world is evil and unjust.
Notice what the presuppositional argument does not say. It does not say that because there is injustice in the world there must be justice somewhere else. Nor does it say that the human wish for a better world is enough by itself to produce another world that is better. Rather, it begins with the recognition that while science explains much of nature very well, there is a big part of human nature that science does not seem to explain at all. In particular, evolution does a good job of accounting for why we are selfish animals, but it faces immense challenges in accounting for why we simultaneously hold that we ought not to be selfish. Far from facing the facts of life, like every other animal, we continue to cherish ideals that have never been and will never be fully achieved. We are flawed creatures who act as if we ought not to be. We know that we live in an unjust society where the bad guy often comes out on top and the good guy often comes to grief, yet we continue to hold that this is not how it should be. We continue to say things like “what goes around comes around” even though we know that in this world it is not always so. Despite the harsh facts of life, we tirelessly affirm that it should be so. Our ideals, in other words, contradict the reality of our lives. It seems that we, uniquely among all living and nonliving things, seek to repudiate the laws of evolution and escape the control of the laws of nature.
Now why is this? Why do we continue to operate as if there is a better world with a better set of ideals that stands in judgment of this world? I will argue that the best explanation is that there is such a world. In other words, the presupposition of an afterlife and the realization of the ideal of cosmic justice makes sense of our moral nature better than any competing hypothesis.
Before we launch into our discussion, I need to anticipate and answer an objection that will already be surfacing for a certain type of reader. Skeptics will at this point be reacting scornfully to my claim that there are certain features of human nature that seem to defy scientific explanation. The phrase that will be dancing on their lips is “the God of the gaps.” What they mean is that I am appealing to God and the supernatural to account for things that science has not yet explained. As Carl Sagan wrote in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, “As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do.” For the skeptic, the appeal to gaps is a completely illegitimate mode of argument; just because science doesn’t have the answer now, that doesn’t mean it will not have the answer tomorrow, or at any rate someday. In this view, the God of the gaps is the last desperate move of the theist, who searches for the little apertures in the scientific understanding of the world and then hands over those areas to his preferred deity.
Some creationists do employ this kind of “gaps” reasoning in order to posit a supernatural creator. For instance, they contend that science cannot account for the Cambrian explosion, so God must have directly done that. But there is no reason to think that the Cambrian explosion defies natural explanation, even if we don’t have that explanation. So the skeptic’s “gaps” critique works against this type of opponent. But it doesn’t work with me, because my argument does not rely on God at all. In addition, while the skeptic typically fancies himself a champion of science, his whole line of argument is no less unscientific than that of the creationist. For the skeptic a gap is a kind of nuisance, a small lacuna in scientific knowledge that is conceded to exist as a kind of misfortune, and is expected soon to be cleared up. True scientists, by contrast, love and cherish gaps. They seek out gaps and work laboriously within these crevices because they hope that, far from being a small missing piece of the puzzle, the gap is actually an indication that the whole underlying framework is wrong, that there is a deeper framework waiting to be uncovered, and that the gap is the opening that might lead to this revolutionary new understanding.
Gaps are the mother lode of scientific discovery. Most of the great scientific advances of the past began with gaps and ended with new presuppositions that put our whole comprehension of the world in a new light. The presuppositional argument, in other words, is not some funny way of postulating unseen entities to account for seen ones, but rather is precisely the way that science operates and that scientists make their greatest discoveries. Copernicus, for example, set out to address the gaps in Ptolemy’s cosmological theory. As historian Thomas Kuhn shows, these gaps were well recognized, but most scientists did not consider their existence to be a crisis. After all, experience seemed heavily on the side of Ptolemy: The earth seems to be stationary, and the sun looks as if it moves. Kuhn remarks that many scientists sought to fill in the gaps by “patching and stretching,” i.e., by adding more Ptolemaic epicycles.
Copernicus, however, saw the gaps as an opportunity to offer a startling new hypothesis. He suggested that instead of taking it for granted that the earth is at the center of the universe and the sun goes around the earth, let’s suppose instead that the sun is at the center, and the earth and the other planets all go around the sun. When Copernicus proposed this, he had no direct evidence that it was the case, and he recognized that his theory violated both intuition and experience. Even so, he said, the presupposition of heliocentrism gives a better explanation of the astronomical data and therefore should be accepted as correct. Here is a classic presuppositional argument that closes a gap and in the process gives us a completely new perspective on our place in the universe.
Similarly, Einstein confronted gaps in the attempt of classical physics to reconcile the laws of motion with the laws of electromagnetism. Again, there were many who didn’t consider the gap to be very serious. Surely classical Newtonian science would soon figure things out, and the gap would be closed. It took Einstein’s genius to see that this gap was no small problem; rather, it indicated a constitutional defect with Newtonian physics as a whole. And without conducting a single experiment or empirical test, Einstein offered a presuppositional solution. He said that we have assumed for centuries that space and time are absolute, and this has produced some seemingly insoluble problems. So what if we change the assumption? What if we say that space and time are relative to the observer? Now we can explain observed facts about electromagnetism and the speed of light that could not previously be accounted for.
Einstein was able to test his theory by applying it to the orbital motion of the planet Mercury. Mercury was known to deviate very slightly from the path predicted by Newton’s laws. Another gap! And once again there was a prevailing complacent attitude that some conventional scientific explanation would soon close the gap and settle the anomaly. But in fact the gap was a clue that the entire Newtonian paradigm was inadequate. Einstein recognized his theory as superior to Newton’s when he saw that it explained the orbital motion of Mercury in a way that Newton couldn’t.
In the last few decades, scientists have accepted the existence of dark matter and dark energy, again on the basis of presuppositional arguments. Here too the problem arose from some gaps. When scientists measured the amount of matter in the universe, it was not enough to hold the galaxies together. When they measured the amount of energy, it was not enough to account for the accelerating pace of the expansion of the universe. Of course these could be considered mere gaps, soon to be eliminated with some new observation or equation, but leading scientists knew better. They recognized that we already know about the matter and energy that our instruments can measure, and these simply cannot account for the behavior of the universe and the galaxies. Consequently, there has to be some other kind of matter and energy, undetectable by all current scientific equipment and following no known scientific law. The gap, in other words, required a reformulation of the entire scientific understanding of matter and energy. On this basis, leading scientists posited the existence of dark matter and dark energy, and, despite initial skepticism, most scientists have accepted their existence because they help to explain phenomena that would otherwise remain largely unknown.
From these examples, we learn that science regularly posits unseen entities, from space-time relativity to dark matter, whose existence is affirmed solely on the basis that they explain the things that we can see and measure. We also learn that gaps are a good thing, not a bad thing, and the genuinely scientific approach is to ask whether they are clues that lead to a broader and deeper comprehension of things. We also learn how presuppositional arguments work best, both in science and outside of science. The presupposition itself is a kind of hypothesis. It says, “This is the way things have to be in order to make sense of the world.” We then test the presupposition by saying, “How well does it explain the world?” We cannot answer this question without asking, “Are there alternative explanations that work better?” If so, then we can do without the presupposition. If not, then the presupposition, unlikely though it may seem, remains the best explanation of the data that we have before us. We have to accept what it posits until a better explanation comes along. My hypothesis on offer is that “There has to be cosmic justice in a world beyond the world in order to make sense of the observed facts about human morality.” Let us proceed to test this hypothesis.