Friday, August 1, 2014

The Burden of Proof

Our beliefs collect around the things we do not know for sure.  I know my hand is on the end of my arm, and I can verify that by asking you if you can see or feel my hand.  This, I will call knowledge.  Belief is what you’d have if I asked you if my hand was on the end of my arm without showing you my arm, and you said yes or no.

I don’t know what I’ll have for breakfast tomorrow, and I have no belief system around my lack of knowledge.  Why not? 1) I don’t always want to know exactly what I’ll have for breakfast - I often enjoy a surprise. 2) I’ve had many breakfasts before, and I can relax into my knowledge of breakfast in some form, based on experience.  I don’t need to believe in breakfast.

Many people would like to know what is going to happen to them after they die, for it is clear death happens to others.  No-one alive can say for sure what will happen to them after they die, because it hasn’t happened yet to them.  They may claim knowledge of a past life, they may believe in reincarnation (some essential energy again taking form, with an imprint or residue of a previous life), they may belief in heaven.  But when asked to prove this knowledge, it turns out to be a belief.  There may be claims to a tradition of belief, and there are billions of people who believe different things about that which they have no knowledge of, or partial knowledge.  If you are not sure about something but are motivated to believe, it is psychologically pacifying to successfully convince others of your view.  

The motivation for belief

What is the motivation to know what happens after we die?  When I look at an apple tree, it has a life and eventually dies.  Seeds are spread and there are more apple trees, but this particular version of an apple tree turns slowly into compost after growth and maturity, then soil, and back to the nurturing aspect of the earth.  I don’t know what the consciousness of the tree is - all I have is my human sensory apparatus, limited as it is in seeing only a certain spectrum of color, only a certain range of sound, only a certain subtlety of touch, taste and smell.  So I don’t know what the tree is perceiving, feeling or thinking.  Does the tree reincarnate?  What difference does it make to me?  None, because I’m not concerned about this particular version of life reincarnating or going to tree heaven.  I’m worried about my version.

Why am I worried

Why am I worried/concerned/curious about what happens to me after I die? Among many reasons,  I may be afraid “I” will cease to exist.  Why is this a problem?  It wasn’t a problem for me that the tree dies.  When one has a full experience - a great meal, great sex, a good nights sleep - satisfaction is present.  We don’t immediately start thinking about the next meal, the next intimacy, the next nap, because we truly enjoyed and were present for what did happen.  I would be motivated to look for a belief about some sort of continuation of “me” after death if I didn’t have a full experience of life, just as you would be concerned about the next meal if you were still hungry after eating too quickly without tasting.

More that this

Mindfulness traditions generally advocate periods of stillness and silence.  One reason for this is to create an environment where the more subtle aspects of our experience can rise out of the noise.  Our senses have evolved to perceive a certain range of experience.  Other animals have senses that are much more keen that ours.  An eagle’s mind may be naturally more still than a humans’ might ever be, his senses more acute and mind more able to perceive than ours. North American indigenous peoples saw the eagle as a brother, and a force of wisdom and balance. Yet, other traditions postulate enlightenment  is possible only for humans; a state of ultimacy which when attained allows the felt interconnection to all of life.  These are a beliefs as well.  Perhaps the reason our felt connection to life is absent to begin with is the particularly human motivation to continue in some form after death - in other words, the inability to surrender to and enjoy life as it is, which includes its dissolution.


In honesty, I do not
know what will happen to me after death.  And that is all anyone can say, honestly.  Claims of past lives do not stand up to the kind of proof we would deem necessary to convict someone of a crime.  The traditions that suggest transmigration or rebirth could be correct, or they they could be wrong.  The traditions that suggest our behavior - or the karma we generate in this life - will affect the next life as some sort of postmortem retribution might also be right or wrong.  In any case, without and experience of this I’d be adopting a belief.  To live closer to the felt reality of life, personally I’ve found the less I invest in beliefs about life, the more time I have for real experience - experiences that include introspection, inquiry, silence and meditation.

The burden of proof about any matter lies with those that suggest it is true.  Our legal system in Canada was designed to recognize the folly of human belief, and presumes innocence unless the accused is proven guilty.

The burden of proof about that which we do not presently apprehend lies with those that claim it to be true.  Life is innocent of heaven, hell, transmigration or any other concept, unless proven otherwise.