Whether or not there is life after death has been widely debated for many centuries. Many people who have been declared clinically dead have been jolted back to life — some of them unwillingly — after experiencing very powerful, benign presences and seeing lights that beckon them onward to an unknown but unmistakably beautiful and transcendent place.
Since this has happened innumerable times over the centuries — sometimes to people who had no prior belief in God — many think that this is proof positive that there is indeed an afterlife.
Clearly, the presence of heaven is a major tenet of Christianity, a place where souls go to enjoy a theosis, or union, with God and the Infinite. Other faiths, such as Hinduism, feature central ideas about the presence of an afterlife — even multiple afterlives.
“One (life) is enough for me”
Albert Einstein’s religious views have been widely studied, but unfortunately just as often misunderstood. Einstein stated that he believed in the pantheistic God of the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
In other words, he did not believe in a personal God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings, a view which he described as naïve. He clarified that, however, stating “I am not an atheist,” preferring to call himself an agnostic, or a “religious nonbeliever.” Einstein also quipped that, as regards a life after death, “one life is enough for me.”
However, Einstein himself acknowledged that the problem of God was the “most difficult in the world” — a question that could not be answered “simply with yes or no.” Even this greatest of human intellects conceded that “the problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.”
In his younger days, as he was beginning to ponder for himself about the nature of God and the universe, Einstein recalled thinking “Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.”
Some scientists, however, have taken it upon themselves to declare definitively that there is no life after death, giving no accreditation for human experience throughout our existence.
“Laws of physics are completely understood”
Dr. Sean Carroll, who is a cosmologist and physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, stated this week that “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood” and everything that happens to us must therefore be within the boundaries as set by our physical selves alone.
In order for there to be an afterlife, he holds, human consciousness would have to be something that is entirely separated from our physical body, which indeed decays and dies. And Carroll maintains that it is not.
Our minds and consciousness, Carroll avers, are nothing more than a collection of atoms and electrons which essentially give us our mind. The laws of the universe do not allow these particles to operate after our physical demise, according to Dr Carroll
He stated: “Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die.”
Carroll believes that the Quantum Field Theory (QFT), the theory that there is one field for each type of particle, explains how the existence of an afterlife, or an eternal soul, is impossible.
As an example, all the photons in the universe are on one level and all the electrons and every other kind of particle also have their own field.
Carroll states that if life did go on in some way after our physical deaths, experiments in the quantum field would have already shown the existence of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces”. As he says in an article for Scientific American: “If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death.
“Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that ‘new physics’ to interact with the atoms that we do have.
Carroll believes that if this is understood by all scientists, it can be a way forward in creating a new understanding of just how the human mind functions. He concludes: “There’s no reason to be agnostic about ideas that are dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science.”
Big Bang theory created by Catholic priest
But the man who is responsible for the creation of what became known as the Big Bang Theory, explaining the origin of the cosmos itself, was none other than a Catholic priest, who believed there was no contradiction between his belief in God or an afterlife and cosmology.
According to the Big Bang theory, the expansion of the observable universe began with the explosion of a single particle at a definite point in time.
Georges Lemaître, who was born in Belgium 1894 and lived until 1966, had the unlikely resume of being a cosmologist and a practicing Catholic priest.
The mind-blowing idea of a big bang first appeared in 1931 in a paper by Lemaître. Accepted by nearly all astronomers today, it was a radical departure from orthodox scientific thought back in the 1930s. Many astronomers at that time were even uncomfortable with the idea that the universe could be expanding.
The concept that the entire observable universe of galaxies had all been created in one instant, “with a bang,” seemed laughable.
Lemaître studied theoretical physics after WWI, later going into the seminary and being ordained as a priest in 1923, later becoming an abbot. He then pursued scientific studies with the English astronomer Arthur Eddington, who stated that Lemaitre was “a very brilliant student, wonderfully quick and clear-sighted, and of great mathematical ability.”
“Hidden even in the beginning of the Universe”
The astronomer-priest subsequently studied in the United States, where he visited most of the prominent centers of astronomical research, eventually earning his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1925, at age 31, Lemaître was made a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. Just one of a few priests who engaged in such high-level scientific research, Lemaître’s religion remained equally as important to him as did science.
In 1927, Lemaître published a paper that gave a compelling solution to the equations of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity regarding an expanding universe. Lemaître’s solution, involving the expansion of the universe of galaxies, was far ahead of his time.
Together with astronomer Edwin Hubble’s observations, Lemaître’s paper convinced the majority of astronomers that the universe was indeed expanding, and this revolutionized the study of cosmology.
A year later, Lemaître explored the logical consequences of an expanding universe and boldly proposed that it must have originated at a finite point in time.
Appealing to the new quantum theory of matter, Lemaître argued that the physical universe was initially a single particle — the “primeval atom” as he called it — which disintegrated in an explosion, giving rise to space and time and the expansion of the universe that continues to this day.
Clearly, there is a resonance between the Big Bang theory and the story of Creation as expounded in the Bible, when God created the Heavens and the Earth in a relative blink of an eye, and this was recognized immediately by the Pope in Rome, along with other religious figures at the time.
However, Lemaitre said of his own theory that it still had mysteries that were ultimately unfathomable, since “For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”
God in symmetry of the universe
Many people across the world have seen and appreciated the uncanny beauty and mathematical precision of what is called “the Golden Ratio;” in other words, the symmetrical perfection of many plants, animals and processes in the natural world and across the entire universe.
This leads them to believe that there must be a mind — of some cosmic sort — behind all of creation, and thus a deity that we are all a part of in some way.
Professor Cheryl Praeger, the recipient of the 2019 (Australian) Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, explains her beliefs thus: “More than 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato believed that we ‘only explore what is already there,’ and ever since, mathematicians and philosophers have debated the question of whether humans create mathematical concepts and objects or discover them.
“I do not expect all mathematicians to feel as I do: that their research uncovers parts of the universe, and thereby part of God’s creation.
“There is no consensus about this, and I would not expect there to be,” Praeger admits. “In particular, I would not expect all mathematicians of faith – and as a Christian I am one – to feel as I do: that their research uncovers parts of the mathematical universe, and thereby part of God’s creation.
“There are many major research projects I am involved with and plan to tackle in the next years, in collaboration with my colleagues across the globe, that will help us understand better the mathematics of symmetry – and in turn, perhaps, the natural symmetry of the universe.”
Life after death: Improbable beliefs “can be rational”
Dr. Suzanne Newcombe, of the UK’s Open University, explores our beliefs in an afterlife and how they can impact our mortal lives. As she says, “What we believe about death and our ideas about eternal life can really make a difference as to how we live, how we handle pain and suffering and experience being alive here and now.
“In my research I have found that in practice, many people slip between ideas of mortality in the body and the idea of immortality (either as a soul, or in a physical body) and holding open these ideas of the possibility of immortality can have very positive effects on health.
“From a biomedical perspective, this hope might help the body fight illnesses, improve the chances of spontaneous remissions or allow the illness to run its course. It’s more equanimity for the person involved. But even if there’s no biological change, a focus on the possibility of immortality can help some individuals ‘disidentify’ with their bodily pain and develop a more peaceful relationship with their experiences of suffering.”
“When this happens,” she explains, “improbable beliefs in an immortal body or soul can be entirely rational and pragmatic.”
“The human mind cannot grasp the universe”
Einstein himself had explored the idea that humans could not understand the nature of God or an afterlife. In an interview published in George Sylvester Viereck’s book “Glimpses of the Great,” published in 1930, the brilliant scientist responded to a question about whether or not he defined himself as a pantheist. He explained:
“Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.
“May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues.
“The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.
“That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly.”
Einstein concluded his thoughts by saying “Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”