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#257 Knowing that You Are Dead

March 18, 2012

The question that kind of echos in my mind is this

"How do we know we are dead?"

The fact is that if we just ceased to exist, then how would we know? Consciousness seems to undermine the idea that after we die we do not exist at all. I just wanted your opinion on this question and ask you how you would answer this?


United States

Dr. craig’s response


Jorge, your question is so deliciously screwy that I couldn’t resist taking a crack at it.

Now notice that you equate being dead with ceasing to exist. But then it should be obvious that if you have ceased to exist, then you could not know it. That’s because the statement “I know that I do not exist” implies that you exist, since you are the person who alleges to know this fact. So while it is coherent to say, ”I know that I am alive,” it would be self-referentially incoherent to say, “I know that I am dead.”

This asymmetry plays an important role in the appeal to the Anthropic Principle as a response to the argument for a cosmic Designer based on the fine-tuning of the universe. Some people have said that we shouldn’t be surprised that we observe that the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent, interactive agents, since if it were not fine-tuned, then we wouldn’t be here to be surprised about it.

This response is confused. It’s true that we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t observe that we are not alive, since if we were not alive, we couldn’t be surprised about it. But it doesn’t follow that therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that we do observe that we are alive, given the unfathomable improbability of the fine-tuning requisite for our existence.

Therefore, proponents of the Anthropic Principle have been forced to recur to the metaphysical conjecture of the Many Worlds Hypothesis: there exists a World Ensemble of universes, and only those fine-tuned for life have observers in them. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that we do observe that we are alive, since worlds which are not fine-tuned are worlds in which no one is alive and are therefore unobservable. This is where the debate over fine-tuning stands today, and you can see my published work like Reasonable Faith or my debate with Lawrence Krauss for my reservations about the viability of the Many Worlds Hypothesis as an explanation for fine-tuning.

Finally, it’s worth saying that on a Christian view death is not equivalent to ceasing to exist, and therefore it is possible to know that you are dead. Death is merely the separation of our soul from our body, and during the intermediate state between death and final resurrection, the souls of those who belong to Christ enjoy conscious, blissful communion with him as they await the resurrection of the body (2 Corinthians 5.1-10). They therefore are fully aware of their state.

- William Lane Craig