If we do not die with our bodies, then it must be true that there is some part of a person which survives their clinical death, which is distinct from the brain and body. This non-bodily part will be an objectively existing entity, much like the body or any other physical thing. What sort of entity is it? What can we say about it?
We will start by tabooing the word “physical,” and its complement “non-physical.” Intuitively we want to say that the brain and body are physical, whereas this non-bodily part is non-physical. But what does this imply? What is the difference between a physical entity and a non-physical entity? Rather than flopping around attempting to define “physical,” let us just throw this word out entirely. We can say whatever needs to be said using other words.
How are we to get a handle on this question of the non-bodily part? Perhaps in this case the simple approach is the most informative. Imagine having no body. What is left? We no longer see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. But we can still think, feel emotions, and imagine. So, using our simple approach, we will say that all of these are things that the non-bodily part can do.
Under this view, a thought is something happening in the non-bodily part. What is a thought like? The simplest thing would be to say that a thought has the same general characteristics as a physical thing (a table, a chair, etc.). The thought has an objective existence, and its properties include the sort of logical orderliness that physical things have.
It seems simplest to say that there is one kind of existence, which is possessed both by thoughts and chairs. Under this view, a thought is just as real and tangible as a chair. This is a plausible idea. Consider, for instance, the fact that one can imagine something so vividly that it is quite indistinguishable from, “feels just as real as,” one’s bodily sensorum. (You have never done this? Give it a try!) Consider also the fact that some philosophers and mathematicians are inclined to believe that mathematical objects have an objective existence.
Under this view, everything that is imagined is real. There is no intrinsic difference between imagination and physical reality (by which I mean the world which our bodily sensorum shows us). And yet it is obvious that there is something special about physical reality.
Physical reality has a solidity to it. Thoughts are all vague and fleeting, always spinning away into nothingness. One can’t get a grip on them. Physical reality, on the other hand, stays put. We can all see it very well, whereas our thoughts are rather mysterious unto us.
I can imagine a foreign scene so vividly that it feels just as real as physical reality. I can lose myself in that scene momentarily. But I am always pulled back to physical reality. Physical reality has a magnetism to it. Even if all of these experiences are equally real, physical reality seems to be privileged as the experience which I keep being pulled back to.
What accounts for physical reality’s privileged status? Clearly this privileged status is part of the architecture of our experience. It is how the software is written, as it were. Why is the software written this way?
Let us recall that, under our view, the “software” was “written” by God, to help us become enlightened in the most efficient way. It follows that the privileged status of physical reality helps us to become enlightened.
This is easy to believe. Imagine if all possibilities were open to us; imagine if we were totally free to create our reality with our own imagination. We would have a lot of fun; but we would rarely be challenged.
On the other hand, if a person is taken partially out of control of their experience, if they are subjected to the harsh demands of physical existence, if they cannot simply think a happier thought when faced with difficulty, then they will be much more challenged, and they will learn much faster.
Let us retrace the ground we have covered. Postulating life after death requires that we postulate the existence of a part of a person which is distinct from their brain and body. It makes sense to say that this non-bodily part is a thing which can think, feel emotions, and imagine. It has an objective existence which is like the objective existence of a physical thing such as a table or chair.
It follows that thoughts also have such an objective existence, and that everything that is imagined has the same kind of existence as the existence of physical reality. But physical reality is clearly privileged as the experience which we are continually pulled back to. This feature of our experience must have been designed by God to help us learn more quickly. It is easy to see how this is so, because existence in physical reality is much more challenging than an existence in which all possibilities are open and we can choose our experiences with total freedom.