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Death and Immortality

Project Theme 2

Many major world religions concern death and the possibility of our existence beyond death. We will address philosophical issues concerning death and immortality by discussing whether there is a coherent model of immortality, whether belief in the afterlife requires supernaturalism, whether such a belief has implications for the metaphysics of the human person, and whether such a belief can be justified through empirical evidence or philosophical arguments.


The specific research questions related to this theme that we ask include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • According to Shinto, all humans become gods when they die because human souls are small segments of the soul of God. In other words, people will return to where they belong in the afterlife. At the same time, Shinto teaches its followers to avoid death or anything related to death, as death is a source of kegare (defilement). How can we understand these conflicting beliefs about the positivity of the afterlife and the negativity of death? Hirata Atsutane, an eighteenth-century Japanese scholar, maintained that, when we die, we depart utsushiyo (the present world) and go to kakuriyo (the hidden world of gods). In doing so, deceased people in kakuriyo can see living people in utsushiyo but not vice versa. What is the exact causal link between these two worlds? What are the moral implications of kakuriyo?

  • Reincarnation is a central tenet of many Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Belief in reincarnation is underpinned by the doctrine of karma, the causal law specifying how individuals’ prior actions determine their states and characters. This doctrine is initially attractive, as it appears to explain the amount and distribution of good and evil in the world. It also however raises many metaphysical and moral questions. How can karma achieve retributive justice if reincarnated people do not remember what they did in their past lives? What is the origin of the karmic process and how is it maintained? That is, who or what initiates and sustains the process? How can karma avoid the infinite regress of good and evil? Why is death necessary for the operation of karma?

  • For most traditional African religions, human beings survive the deaths of their bodies to become the “living-dead,” entering an imperceptible realm that is located immanently on earth. These religions do not, however, typically posit immortality. Instead, they suggest that imperceptible persons who were once human beings will (perhaps aside from ancestors) at some point die, possibly if human beings no longer remember and honour them. What sort of evidence is there, beyond the testimony of elders, supporting this indigenous African view of what happens to us upon bodily death? Is that evidence stronger or weaker than the evidence favouring immortal souls who enter a transcendent realm? Some African philosophers, including Godwin Sogolo and Oladele Balogun, have advanced pragmatic arguments for believing in this sort of afterlife. Are these arguments convincing? Does the African model of the afterlife avoid the boringness and repetitiveness problems that the Western, eternalist model of afterlife seems to face?

  • According to most Islamic theological schools, including Mutazilah, Asharite and Salafyate, people have bodies in the afterlife even though the afterlife does not take place in the material universe. How can we understand this view? Does it imply that the afterlife is neither entirely physical nor entirely mental? Does such a view entail a version of neutral monism according to which humans are ultimately neutral substances that are neither physical nor mental, or a version of trialism according to which humans are compounds of the mental, the physical, and the neither-mental-nor-physical?

  • Jewish philosophers have disputed the chronology of the messianic era and resurrection. Maimonides argues that the resurrection is a short temporary state and that the world to come involves a disembodied state. Crescas, on the other hand, argues that the world to come is an eternal embodied state following the resurrection of an embodied state. Which view is more tenable? Is this world or the world to come more important? Is God’s main purpose to create this world for us to serve him as per the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Alternatively, is God’s primary purpose his revelation in the world to come, as per Luzzatto?

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