In what sense are belief in an afterlife and belief that death is the absolute end compatible? The logic of the terms seems to make this hopeless: life either ends or it doesn’t, right? A closer look complicates things, and seems to show a landscape where most of those who believed philosophically in an afterlife were also committed to the idea that death was an absolute end of human life in a robust, unqualified way.
Philosophical accounts of the afterlife are accounts of human cognition. Plato comes first, with a theory of learning that builds all knowledge around a sensory core. The theory of recollection is always a recollection from sense data, so that a disembodied soul could exist in the Platonic theory but it could not recollect, and all attempts to articulate the direct vision it will have are not systematic or literal but mythical and allegorical. After death there is a knowledge of things themselves, but without memory, speech, or the passive reception of anything tangible.
Having no truck with myth or allegory, St. Thomas relies heavily on negation to articulate a theory of an afterlife. The soul is said to know by turning to itself and its own act, but STA is clear elsewhere that the soul’s own knowledge of itself is a habitual act that is concomitant with reflecting on sensible givens. There seems to be even less content here than in Plato, since the object of the intellect is no longer seen as recollected but as continuously abstracted, whether from intuition or from memory. .
Aristotle seems to describe the sort of cognition that a disembodied intellect can have in De anima 3:5, but the passage is so obscure that a long history of commentators think Aristotle inexplicably stops talking about the soul in 3:5 and decides to talk about God. it’s better to read the passage as a literal account of potentially-disembodied cognition, though the hiatus between 3:5 and the rest of the text is apparent. He is no longer clearly talking about a self, at least so far as self involve a coherence of memory or of a unified intellectual action. The soul is no longer present to the world but to itself and to nothing more.
In one sense, my argument is tautological. We can have no intuition of post-mortem existence before we have that intuition. What I stress is that, on all accounts of post mortem existence, the intuition or learning of all objects we have ever known must be taken away, and we not only cease to be in the cosmos but we also cease to be cognitively present to any exterior domain. This is not a matter of sloughing off the body and entering into the light, which is just another metaphor that we can’t cash in for any literal value. The soul leaving the body doesn’t go out into the room or to anywhere at all, since “place” is just another metaphor.
This allows a good deal of room for a claim that death is a real end or annihilation of the self. When Sam Harris points out that the thought that your soul goes somewhere when it does is as silly as thinking that your eyesight goes somewhere when you’re blinded, he is biting into a truth that needs to be preserved, but it can be preserved by all those who defended a rational sense of personal immortality. Nothing about you “goes anywhere” when you die. The cognition is of nothing auditory, tactile, savory, quantified, colored, nor of any idea that is elicited or built off of these. It’s hard to put your finger on anything on such an account of human cognition that makes it different from annihilation. But for all that, the immortality argument remains just what it was.
The only cash value of the “soul leaving the body” seems to be an account of death that sees it as the soul entering into itself.