Assortments of Thought

The Unknowability of Death

Posted on: June 17th, 2010

Of all the “big” questions humanity has always faced, perhaps none is bigger than the mystery surrounding death. Indeed, the question of what happens to people when they die, if anything at all, has been speculated on quite persistently and earnestly throughout history. Even today, beliefs in some form of afterlife are prevalent, as are beliefs in a whole range of paranormal phenomena from ghosts and spirit communications, to past life memories, out-of-body experiences, and extrasensory perceptions. And some people even go so far as to live their lives in accordance with what they believe awaits them on the other side. Yet as understandable as this is, for a whole host of reasons based on the personal possibilities of a greater reality, the fact remains that we don’t know if one exists, and much less what it’s like if one does. In fact with a fairly simple analysis, I believe, we can be certain that such knowledge is extremely difficult for us to obtain, which only highlights that what we can definitely learn about are our lives, and not are deaths. Thus it would seem while we may be able to make some reasonable speculations about an afterlife, we should nonetheless avoid worrying about it too much, for we should focus on and live our lives for what we see they are, not by the largely speculative possibilities of what might lie beyond.

To see why knowledge of a greater reality is so difficult to obtain, consider the difficulties in interpreting some common paranormal phenomena. It’s not too unusual, for instance, for the smell of tobacco smoke to be reported in allegedly haunted places, yet if we accept that ghostly tobacco smoke is real, we reach two equally difficult possibilities. By the laws of chemistry, a substance doesn’t appear without a corresponding reaction, yet people can’t smell things unless particles of it are in the air. Therefore, ghostly tobacco smoke is seemingly impossible, as are other ghostly smells. Likewise, if we accept that some spirit photographs are real, captured when people didn’t see anything unusual, we have to ask how a camera could pick up what someone’s eyes couldn’t see, when of course both things sense the same thing, reflected light. In fact when it comes to ghosts and much of their reported behaviors or related phenomena, such as chilling a room or even simply being seen, the laws of science just aren’t compatible, presumably barring such phenomena from even being possible. (See the editorial “Why Ghosts Can’t Walk Through Walls … and More — Scientific Arguments,” by Lucian Dorneanu at Finally, given that by all scientific accounts, consciousness exists only within people’s brains and input is received only through the senses, all out-of-body experiences and extrasensory perceptions are seemingly impossible as well. In short, then, a simple analysis of any number of paranormal phenomena from ghosts to ESP will quickly reveal that not only are such phenomena unaccounted for scientifically, they often outright contradict established fact, whether such facts originate in science or just through the logic of everyday experience.

Thus in trying to account for paranormal phenomena, just two broad possibilities arise, and rather simple ones at that. The obvious one is what the skeptics have maintained all along: paranormal phenomena aren’t real, in the sense that they can all be accounted for by phenomena that aren’t paranormal at all. Whether they arise from misinterpretations or fraud, many of them aren’t possible according to science and logic, and so must have normal explanations. Again, this much sounds obvious. However, then there’s the second possibility: paranormal phenomena really are real, which is to say, they really do occur outside the bounds of rational explanation. Although this sounds impossible at first, strictly speaking, there’s no reason to believe that the laws of physics are all-inclusive and the final word of our existence; there may be a greater reality with rules we can’t even begin to fathom, of which what we perceive is just a small part. In this case, paranormal phenomena can’t be explained logically or scientifically precisely because they emanate from a realm beyond our science and philosophy. Contradictions between such phenomena and the laws of science are thus expected and ultimately irrelevant.

If this second possibility seems hard to grasp, perhaps an analogy might help. Although it’s still beyond our technological capabilities, imagine we created a computer program in which intelligent, sentient people lived, as programmed and placed there by us. Further, suppose we programmed it so that they perceived a world just like our own, one that followed the laws of science as we know them, laws that they could in time discover through their own scientific investigations. Finally, imagine we programmed violations of those laws every so often, perhaps placing ghosts of people long dead, providing people with near-death experiences, or transferring information from one person into another. Such violations would be paranormal phenomena to the people in the computer, things they couldn’t explain because they violated their scientific laws. In time then, they might suppose that some greater reality existed, of which their own was just a part. If they did, of course, they’d be right. None of their laws would be absolute or even necessary; no one would die simply from being removed from the simulation, so long as their data were retained elsewhere in the computer; and in fact, every single thing and every person would be, in the real world, just signals in a few circuits. Such would be their souls, their very essences, no matter that they couldn’t feel them, in sharp contrast to everything they ever knew about themselves or experienced. In short, they would encounter genuine paranormal phenomena, contradictory to their laws, yet real nonetheless, just as we maybe do ourselves.

Thus we see how our existence could be just a small part of something much bigger, and something very fundamentally different. The analogy isn’t perfect, in that it implies, for instance, that an overseer is necessary for such a greater existence, but most significantly, it shows just how impossible it would be to gain knowledge of such an existence. Just like the people in the computer, who could never learn about the realm outside the program, how could we ever learn about a similar reality of our own? To be precise, everything we know, everything we’ve learned, has come from logic and reason, whether that means science or philosophy, and has ultimately been based in countless everyday experiences. Which is to say, to learn, we rely on our environment following laws, rules that we can pick up on and use for interpretation and prediction, even as we build on what we already know. But a greater reality necessarily follows it’s own laws, laws that are above our own, and laws that we have absolutely no concrete knowledge of to start with. Thus we know nothing about our potential greater reality to start with, and we have no way to definitively learn anything about it either. And so when it comes to a potential hereafter, we’re at the greatest impasse imaginable.

Of course, that’s not to say that we can’t make some reasonable speculations on a greater reality, beyond just musing over the possibilities. In particular, suppose we pick some common feature of an afterlife, say a supreme being or reincarnation. If we temporarily assume such a feature exists, then from there, we can reason about what else that would imply for an afterlife as well as our lives, and we can do so reasonably well, I think. For instance, see my post “What God Would Never Ask,” in which I assume that God exists, and then reason to something He would never ask us to do based on our conception of Him. This assumption approach works on specific possibilities so long as you make the assumptions, and while it ultimately doesn’t mean anything concrete if you have no way of justifying the assumptions, at least you can argue mere possibilities into truly substantial positions. That’s actually saying a lot, even if you still don’t have anywhere close to definitive proof or broad understanding.

Finally, when it comes to reasoning about whether a greater reality exists at all, without looking at any specifics whatsoever, there too is some hope. While observed paranormal phenomena often contradict with the laws of science and everyday experience, rendering it impossible to use them to explain connections between our reality and a potentially greater one, the fact remains that they’re observed. Hence if the alternative possibilities can be ruled out in specific cases, leaving no logical explanations, that can then be taken as evidence that something beyond our reality indeed exists. Again, what that something is would remain entirely in doubt, but you could figure whatever it is, it’s there. I probably don’t have to add here either that aside from formal investigations, personal experiences with ghosts, talking boards, out-of-body experiences, extrasensory perceptions, and the like are probably pretty convincing in their own right. So in short, maybe establishing that some greater reality exists is reasonably possible as well.

Even so, methods of learning about a potential afterlife remain dubious, really, and if that highlights anything at all, it’s that what we can reasonably learn about are our lives, and not are deaths. We can make assumptions and reason from there, and we can discount “rational” explanations to distill support for a greater reality in its broadest sense, but as for ever truly learning anything, it seems we can’t. And when you can’t learn anything that’s at least close to definitive about something, basing decisions or actions on it is fruitless. Hence there’s ultimately no point in living our lives based on what we think might become of us after death–in fact doing so could even prove harmful whether in this life or beyond–because we just can’t know what awaits us with anything close to certainty. Far more doable is to focus on what we see our lives and our interactions with those of others to be, and live and act in accordance with that. And indeed, as one final thought, if we could ever determine what are lives are truly about, never mind how that’s so big a question as to have a whole branch of philosophy devoted to it, perhaps that would give us the biggest clues about our deaths of all. In short, before we can understand death, we have lives to finish living, and as ironic as it may seem, perhaps they might ultimately provide the greatest answers of all.


Applemin, D.S: “What God Would Never Ask,” March 19th, 2010, at The Assorted Blog of Applemin as of June 17th, 2010.

Dorneanu, L: “Why Ghosts Can’t Walk Through Walls … and More — Scientific Arguments,” May 26th, 2007, at as of June 17th, 2010.

©2010, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.


1 Response to "The Unknowability of Death"

This is a very interesting piece and I enjoyed reading it. I must say I am a believer in ghosts. I would also like to add that my wife had an NDE in “94” and she said it was the most enjoyable state of peacefulness she has ever known. She was really mad when they made her breathe again. I think she is still angry about that! Thank you for posting this article.

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