Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

The Great Beyond

Life After Death: The Evidence, by Dinesh D’Souza (Regnery, 256 pp., $27.95)

Every once in a while there washes up on shore some strange object from the deep. A half-decayed cuttlefish of a kind that no one’s ever seen before. The broken tentacle of a giant squid. An eyeless creature that shouldn’t exist. A phosphorescent patch from the ocean floor.

It’s usually children who find it first, playing in the sand with their shovels and pails. They call their parents over, and then the local sheriff drives up for a look, and before long there’s a crowd gathered there on the beach — lifeguards, and gawkers, and photographers from the local paper, and biologists from nearby schools with their tape measures and scales — all looking down at the odd, misplaced being. And one by one, they rise and turn to stare out at the enormous, incomprehensible sea, shading their eyes and wondering.

Think of Dinesh D’Souza this way: a man who has seen some strange things — gone looking for them, in fact — and now invites us to join him, staring out at the ocean. Both the book he published in 2007, What’s So Great About Christianity, and now his latest volume, Life After Death: The Evidence, reveal that he is no philosopher or theologian; he doesn’t have a diving suit, and he flounders a little when he gets in too deep. 

Still, he says, look at some of the peculiar stuff that’s washed up on the beach: reports of near-death experiences, for instance. Or examine what modern physics has to say about quantum anomalies, dark matter, and multiverses. Or notice the way ethics always seems, in the end, to require a final judgment of us as individuals. “The core of the book,” he notes, “consists of three independent arguments . . . one from neuroscience, one from philosophy, and one from morality.” He admits that none of these is decisive in itself, but, then, the book, he says, “proceeds as a gathering storm, moving from the significance of the issue to its possibility, then its probability, and then its practical benefits, and finally why we should go for it” — where the it is nothing less than the rational conviction that life exists after death.

Dinesh D’Souza is a serious Christian, and he devotes a section of Life After Death to showing that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ makes more sense of the historical data from early Christianity than denial of it does. But the overall purpose of the book is more generally apologetic — which is to say, apologetics in the old sense of the word. For all its dwelling on modern neuroscience and physics, Life After Death is a very old-fashioned kind of book. Thomas Aquinas had much the same purpose for the Summa Contra Gentiles, and what D’Souza aims to show is that a key tenet of Christianity is rational in its own right, without reference to actual faith in Christianity.

Is he right? Well, yes and no. D’Souza first came to wide public notice with his 1991 culture-wars volume Illiberal Education, and perhaps it’s not surprising that even in his new book he is at his best with straight-out attack on the illiberal assumptions of mainstream liberalism. By a wide margin, most Americans believe in life after death, but the militantly “enlightened outlook” of modernity is “largely uncontested in the public arena,” he notes, and it has largely succeeded in shifting the burden of proof onto believers. Reductive materialism has illegitimately borrowed prestige from modern science, and believers have been forced to live with a frustrating “double truth” mentality. The religious must set out to “reclaim” the territory of reason and science that secularists have “hijacked.”

It was Freud who put the modern view most directly: We cannot imagine ourselves not existing after death, because, to do so, we have to imagine that we are somehow present after death to observe our nonexistence. Belief in immortality, he concluded, was merely an epiphenomenon — the froth and spume, as it were — of this little logical circle. 

Of course, Freud’s was not actually much of an argument: The fact that there is a reason that we think something doesn’t mean that what we think is false. And, as D’Souza notes, we ought to take seriously the ubiquity of belief in immortality, whether it’s the Eastern idea of the soul’s reincarnation in various bodies (which D’Souza does not sufficiently distinguish from metempsychosis) or the Western idea of final, individual destiny with both body and soul. The vast majority of human beings have subscribed to one or the other. Even Judaism, unusual in not starting with a concept of immortality, eventually developed a belief in bodily resurrection. 

Life After Death points to a parallel with the curiously universal features reported in near-death experiences — if all these experiences look alike, shouldn’t we think they have some objective basis? — but it is as the book moves into modern science that D’Souza makes his argument clear. Many developments in physics over the past century, for example, seem to indicate the reality of a realm beyond space–time. The verifiable course of evolution, too, indicates a plan: from the inert to the living, and then from the dumb to the self-aware. Even in neuroscience, recent findings (on the placebo effect and neuroplasticity) show that the physical brain cannot explain the human mind.

What D’Souza wants from all of this is what Thomas Aquinas would have called final causation: a sense that we live in a purposeful universe, that we dwell in a reality that is aiming at some goal. And if he succeeded, D’Souza would have the physical universe in parallel with the moral universe. Is would look a lot like Ought, in other words, and we could rationally assume physical immortality, a life beyond our own, just as we rationally assume that moral values exist beyond mere facts. The “presupposition of cosmic justice” is secured by a “legislative realm” beyond the observable world, Life After Death argues. “Taken in conjunction” with the arguments from neuroscience and philosophy, this “provides stunning confirmation that the moral primate is destined for another life.”

D’Souza insists that the morality encouraged by belief in cosmic justice and the afterlife is “good for society.” Good for the individual, for that matter, he says, in an extension of Pascal’s Wager. This looks like a simple social-utility fallacy (the fact that it’s good for us doesn’t make it true; remember Plato’s Noble Lie?). But here’s where D’Souza’s purposeful universe clicks in. If the physical world is aiming at a goal, then morality and reality converge — and there is a rational basis for saying that what is good is also true. 

Or, at least, there appears to be a rational basis. Dinesh D’Souza is a smart and clever writer, but the water is a little over his head when he tries to reach a strong philosophical conclusion. Perhaps we are rational when we hold that the universe is heading toward a goal, but how do we know that this goal befits human beings? Not all purposes are humanly useful purposes, after all, and to get to the conclusion that D’Souza wants, we need the further postulate of a good Creator who loves His creation. 

Surely this last step is still a leap of faith, not syllogistic reason. Life After Death: The Evidence demonstrates that rationality takes us much further than the smug, pseudo-enlightened types think. The ideas of immortality and resurrection are highly rational and coherent, in themselves. As D’Souza shows, it’s not at this point that believers have to offer faith as the explanation of their beliefs. 

Eventually, however, faith must be invoked. The strange things that wash up on shore prove that the ocean is deeper and wilder than we know — but, in the end, we are left standing on the beach and staring out at the sea in wonder.

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