Excerpted from N. F. Gier "Humanistic Self-Judgment and After-Death Experiences" in Geddes MacGregor, ed., Immortality and Human Destiny. New York: Paragon House, 1985, pp. 3-20.

For a related article see N. F. Gier, "Last Judgment as Self-Judgment: Kant, Autonomy, and Divine Power," Indian Philosophical Quarterly 28:1 (January, 2001), pp. 15-32.

Note 1: in this article a "humanist ethics" is defined as a moral theory in which human beings have the capacity to conform to the moral law and/or achieve the good life on their own powers.

Note 2: Recent critics of the after-death experiences have offered good counter arguments.  Particularly compelling are the facts about what a person experiences with the gradual shutting down of the brain and especially the demise of the occipital lobe that controls vision. Dark tunnel vision with a bright light at the center is exactly what one would experience in such a state.  The critics, however, still have to explain the detailed accounts of the actions in and the contents of the room that unconscious patients are able to relate.

H. H. Price’s View of the Afterlife

English philosopher H. H. Price has given one of the most persuasive arguments for the possibility of after-death experiences. Price argues that we could conceive of such experiences on the basis of an analogy with dream experiences. He contends that dream worlds and the hypothetical "next world would be realms of real mental images." As Price states: "Mental images are not...imaginary at all. We do actually experience them, and they are no more imaginary than sensations" ("Survival and the Idea of Another World," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 50 [January, 1953]).

Mental images do indeed resemble percepts. This similarity gives credibility to those accounts of mediumistic communication in which the dead find it difficult to believe that they are dead. "This is just what we should expect," says Price, "if the next world is an image-world." Price goes on to observe that such a world is no less substantial than the world of some European philosophers, who claim that the world is nothing but sense data arranged according to custom and habit. Price’s after-world is built along similar lines: "Such a family of interrelated images would make a pretty good object. It would be quite a satisfactory substitute for the material objects we perceive in this present life. And a whole world composed of such families of mental images would make a perfectly good world."

Such a world would be spatial-temporal as well as being filled with qualities. We would, for example, be able to tell the head from the tail of a dream tiger; we would be able to see color and spatial arrangement of its stripes; and we would experience the exciting temporal sequence of the tiger chasing us through an Indian forest. Therefore, the dream world has definite spatial-temporal relations and contains extended, bounded entities. Concluding that "there is no a priori reason why all extended entities must be in physical space," Price suggests the possibility of some nonphysical body.

Contemporary Near-Death Studies

Price has given us a coherent and meaningful conceptual framework for after-death experiences. In contrast to other scenarios, Price’s hypothesis is both compatible and continuous with earthly human existence. Recent scientific work with persons who have had close encounters with death offers some tentative, yet tantalizing, evidence that Price’s ideas may be more than just hypothetical. Definite patterns have emerged in the 3,000 cases studied so far, and I shall extract the points which are relevant with regard to Price’s hypothesis and my humanist eschatology.

Almost without exception, the patients reported that they found themselves outside their physical bodies. Although most of them did not speak of a spiritual body, they all described their experiences in terms of definite spatial-temporal relations. According to the accounts, the subjects claimed to have had supernormal powers, e.g., the ability to see into other rooms. Kenneth Ring’s patients also reported a "state of heightened mental clarity dominated by a (subjective) sense of logic, detachment, and rationality" ( Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience [New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980], p. 92; see also Michael B. Sabom, Recollections of Death [New York: Harper & Row, 1981]; and Raymond A. Moody, Life after Life [New York: Bantam Books, 1976]).

Except for one study done by Maurice Rawlings, there were virtually no accounts of negative experiences and no signs of external judgment. Contrary to widespread opinion, even those who survived suicide attempts told of feelings of bliss and contentment. Maurice Rawlings claims that up to half of his cases contained "hellish" elements. Rawlings contends that most researchers interview their subjects too late, and that the negative dimensions of their near-death encounter have all been suppressed. As a cardiologist involved in many resuscitations, Rawlings has had the opportunity to speak to these people soon after their traumas. (See Maurice Rawlings, Beyond Death’s Door [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978].).

Ring does not deny the possibility of some negative elements in the near-death experience, but he suspects that Rawlings has exaggerated their frequency. First, Rawlings, like Raymond Moody, has no statistical control over his data. Second, the suppression hypothesis does not seem to be borne out by data drawn from other areas, like bad drug trips. Third, Michael Sabom is also a cardiologist involved in resuscitation and he does not report any hellish accounts. Fourth, Rawlings does not hide the fact that he is writing from a conservative Christian standpoint and that he is intent on demonstrating that the negative experiences are the result of not turning to the Lord. But Ring points out that Osis and Haraldsson’s cross-cultural study, containing many non-Christians, did not show signs of judgment or damnation (pp. 193-4).

Most of the subjects interviewed said they went through a dark tunnel to a realm of light. Moody’s patients said that they met a great being of light, identified by many as Jesus or God. Sabom and Ring’s subjects did not report so much an individual being as a presence that which was usually not described in religious terms. Moody’s being of light is explained in terms of total compassion--gentle and persuasive, never judgmental--and this being instigates a total review of the subject’s life.

Only twenty-five percent of Ring’s subjects reported life- reviews with the highest frequency among accident victims (55%). Ring’s patients generally described the life-review in terms of a crucial decision about whether to go back to the body or to continue on to final death. One subject reported that the presence gave him a choice, and another woman said who "had a decision to make was totally up to me (pp. 67, 73). One suicide survivor gave the following account: "The only thing I felt judged by would be myself. Like in the very beginning, when I thought about these things, all these terrible things, then I thought about the good things, then it felt like I’d just run through my life and I’d think of all the stupid things... all the mistakes I’ve made. I think the judging was mainly myself judging myself" (p. 169).

On the basis of this report and others like it, Ring suggests that the presence is actually the higher self encouraging the ordinary self on to full self-actualization. Ring himself has been profoundly influenced by Paul Brunton, an English mystic who explains the preceding point this way: "Through (the Overself’s) eyes he will gaze afresh at the total impression rather than the episodal detail of his early life. Through its revelatory eyes he becomes his own incorruptible judge" (The Wisdom of the Overself [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1945], p. 55).

Critics say that there must be natural explanations for these experiences. Some, for example, have proposed that  some of the details--a long, dark tunnel, loud ringing noises, a brilliant light--might simply be a mental replay of the process of birth. Still others claim that these experiences constitute some type of hallucination. In their books Ring and Sabom gives plausible counter-arguments to these and other naturalistic explanations of near-death encounters. In contrast to most of the reports, Ring and Sabom’s investigation of 220 subjects was done under rigorous empirical controls. For example, Sabom was able to demonstrate that his clinically dead subjects were able to give correct descriptions of medical attempts to revive them.

Zoroastrian Self-Judgment

Ring and Sabom stress the tentativeness of their conclusions, and much more careful work has to be done in this area before we can even begin to understand these intriguing accounts. Contemporary near-death experiences compare most favorably with two ancient religious traditions--Zoroastrianism, and most extensively, Tibetan Buddhism. Zoroastrian scriptures describe the soul hovering close by the corpse for three days and three nights. In addition, there are strong elements of self-judgment; and, at least in Pahlavi scriptures, a limited period of trial and tribulation after death.

The Zoroastrian first meets his good deeds in the form of a beautiful maiden. At first the eschatological pilgrim does not realize that the maiden is his good deeds, so the maiden corrects him: "I am no girl but thy own good deeds, O young man whose thoughts and words, deeds and religion were good" (quoted in R. C. Zaehner, The Teachings of the Magi [New York: Oxford University Press, 1976], p. 134.) The maiden then goes on to describe the details of the man’s virtuous life. The wicked people, on the other hand, are dragged off by demons, and they are met by an ugly hag, a symbol of their evil deeds. Zoroaster describes their demise: "Long-lasting darkness, ill food, and wailin--to such an existence shall your conscience lead you by your own deeds, O wicked ones" (Yasna 31:20). These ideas of self-judgment go all the way back to Zoroaster’s Gathas: "They shall be tortured by their own souls and their own consciences" (Yasna 46:11); "may all of their actions turn against them with hostility" (46:8); "...their sorrows shall be self-induced, if they persevere in their hostility. Their own consciences would not only bring on their ruin, but would form part of their punishment" (31:20).

R. P. Masani, a modern Zoroastrian from the Bombay Community, believes that the greatest contribution of Zoroastrianism is a clear doctrine that virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment. In contrast to earlier Zoroastrians, Masani and his fellow believers reject the notion of afterlife altogether: "Heaven is simply the  best life or the region of best mental state, and Hell is the worst life or the region of the worst thought" (Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life [New York: Macmillan, 1968], p. 74).

This concept of self-judgment most likely stems from the Zoroastrian insistence that God is perfect goodness and that such a God could not inflict the pain of punishment. As R. C. Zaehner has said: "According to the Zoroastrian the Moslem God is not good, neither does he pretend to be, while the Christian God advertises himself as good, and plainly is not" (Zaehner, op. cit., p. 55; see Isaiah 45:7). As Ahura Mazda can create no evil, the pain of any Hell must come from demons independent of God’s power or, as the Gathas indicate, must be self-inflicted. Ahura Mazda does instigate the final ordeal of molten metal, but it is clear that the suffering depends on the person’s nature, for the righteous swim in this fluid as if it were warm milk.

Buddhist Self-Judgment

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol) throws some interesting light on contemporary accounts and offers the most consistent support for a humanist eschatology. As in Zoroastrianism, the soul remains in the vicinity of the dead body for some unspecified time. It is imperative that a priest be present for the death rites and, specifically, to read the Bardo Thödol. This scripture comes from the 8th century C.E. and is designed as a guide for the soul during the 49-day intermediate state, the period between incarnations.

Right at the beginning of the first bardo, the soul meets a clear radiant light, which, in Mahayanist Tibet, is a symbol of the Dharmakaya, the Body of Law, the Buddhist Godhead itself. If the soul is advanced enough and recognizes the light as the Buddha, then the soul can immediately reach Nirvana. Most souls, however, pass through the experience of the light without realizing that it is their own true essence. This is the Buddhist equivalent of Ring’s hypothesis that the being of light is ones true self.

During the first bardo on the sixth day, the soul is met by "forty-two perfectly endowed deities, issuing from within thy heart, being the product of thine own pure love" (The Tibetan Book of the Dead, trans. W. Y. Evans-Wentz [New York: Oxford University Press, 1960], p. 121). The priest emphasizes that "these realms are not come from somewhere outside (thyself)....They issue from within [thee], and shine upon thee....They exist from eternity within the faculties of thine own intellect. Know them to be of that nature" (pp. 121-2).

By the eighth day, blissful interaction with one’s good deeds is finished and it is time to confront one’s evil deeds. They will come as "fifty-eight flame-enhaloed, wrathful, blood-drinking deities...who are only the former Peaceful Deities in changed aspect--according to the place (or psychic-centre of the bardo-body of the deceased whence they proceed)...(p. 131). Here, even though it is still possible to be liberated, most souls, even  well-trained yogis, panic and attempt to seek refuge from the symbolic projections of their own evil deeds. In Tibetan Buddhism the hellish experiences come late, and this might be the reason for their virtual absence in the contemporary reports.

The Bardo Thödol provides an excellent working model of Last Judgment as self-judgment. The focus of the after-death experience is exclusively moral. We are forced to acknowledge our thoughts and deeds and to accept them as our own. This process may take, as it does in Buddhism, the form of a dialogue with peaceful and wrathful deities, but we are continually reminded that these external forms are nothing but the past productions of our own hearts.

Critical Remarks

There are obviously problems with the model I have constructed. First, careful readers will have noticed the phrase "forced to acknowledge" in the last paragraph. A fundamental axiom of humanist ethics is that authentic persons will not allow themselves to be coerced. Kant’s idea of a kingdom of ends is one in which the sovereign rules by the dictates of reason such that any of its laws would be completely compatible with laws made by self-legislating citizens. Although no ethical objectivist, except for perhaps an adherent of Jainism, would conceive of the moral law acting in the same way as the law of gravity, it is not at all impossible that the moral law, especially in the after-world, would impress itself upon us in a particularly compelling way, one which would not necessarily undermine moral autonomy.

Many of us, usually in times of death-threatening situations, have had the experience of seeing our entire life before the mind’s eye. Such experiences must initially be connected with the brain’s memory function, but how these images could be generated in an out-of-body experience has yet to be explained. In any case, the life-review arises independently of the will. If the life-review is some sort of natural reflex, then it would not compromise moral autonomy.

This argument, however, does not take care of the problem. Even if the life-review is not initiated by a will--either human or divine--people could still refuse to own up to the acts of their lives. They could pat themselves on the back for their good deeds, but then refuse to acknowledge their immoral acts. As a response, I thought I could argue that we are always a harsher judge of ourselves than others ever could be, but the wide-spread practice of self-deception appears to be an insurmountable barrier to a successful defense of such an optimistic view of self-judgment. Even apart from the debilitating effects of self-deception, human beings are always much more adept at directing moral judgment outwards rather than inwards.

Buddhism and other religions of reincarnation have a  solution to this problem: persons who are reluctant to take responsibility for their acts must continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they do so. Reincarnation, however, is incompatible with humanist ethics for several reasons. First, the law of karma represents the strictest expression of moral objectivism and requires that moral perfection, sometimes through thousands of lifetimes, be reached. One could argue that moral objectivism does not necessarily require that we become superhumans, for this would become a form of spiritual Titanism. Second, reincarnation through thousands of lifetimes raises the problem of personal continuity and identity, a problem discussed thoroughly by John Hick in his Death and Eternal Life. It is not clear that reincarnationists can defend themselves successfully on this point.

With regard to a humanist ethic, Buddhism does have the fewest liabilities among the Indian alternatives. One of the basic problems of reincarnation arises from the belief in an eternal soul substance, which is the locus of an eternal personal identity. There are at least two problems with this soul substance: (1) how can the unchanging soul at all relate to the changing ego? and (2) how can such a pure soul carry karma from one life to another? In Questions of Milinda, the Buddhist monk-dialectician Nagasena argues brilliantly that personal continuity and moral responsibility can be grounded in a phenomenalist view of the self. Human selves are nothing but bundles of skandhas which acquire karma, and the karmic debt is passed along even though one bundle dissolves and is rearranged for rebirth as another person.

Buddhism also differs from other Indian philosophies on the question of moral perfection. The key to the Buddha’s middle way is not some heroic, and ultimately self-indulgent, attempt to become a pure soul like the God Ishvara of the Sankhya-Yoga philosophy. Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth requires only that we stop craving. Ordinary desire--aiming only at those goals which can be attained--is acceptable, but craving must be stopped completely. Sankhya-Yoga and Jainism are inclined to spiritual Titanism while Buddhism generally is not.

The Buddhist solution to the problems of personal continuity is not without its problems, and the goal of not-craving could be interpreted as inimical to Western humanist ideas. First, the ability to stop craving may require the same superhuman efforts of the Yogi’s emulation of Ishvara. The Buddha once claimed that since he was without craving, he was "neither a god nor a gandhabba nor a yakkha nor a man" (quoted in David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 112.) Second, humanists should be allowed to participate in the full range of human experience--most certainly craving–as long as they are willing to take responsibility for their acts. Therefore, humanist ethics must presently reject the idea of reincarnation and suffice with a limited afterlife and a simple, perhaps Nirvana-like end, after one has been reconciled with all of one’s deeds and thoughts.

Humanists might object that I have added an unacceptable burden by insisting that thoughts as well as deeds must be a part of the judgment process. This might be interpreted as an unwelcomed intrusion of Asian philosophy into European  humanism. In the West persons are legally responsible only for outward acts and not inward sins. Indeed, libertarians believe that we should be free to sin in private acts involving ourselves and consenting adults. It is not true that this notion is exclusive to the eastern tradition, for we do have Jesus admonishing us that lust in the heart is just as reprehensible as lechery in deed. St. Augustine was the first Christian philosopher to reflect at length on this problem, and his arguments about sinning while dreaming in the Confessions have been taken seriously by at least one contemporary philosopher. (See William Mann, "Dreams of Immorality" a paper presented at the American Philosophical Association meeting, Pacific Division, March, 1982.) The argument is especially strong if we assume that dreams are bona fide human experiences. We of course agree with Price that the after-world is best conceived as a type of dream world.

It is true that in our dreams thoughts and deeds do merge into one. This phenomenon may be similar to what the Arab Aristotelians meant when they proposed that Gods knowledge is "productive": namely, that things are created directly from thought itself. Furthermore, there would be no division between the consciousness and the unconscious, or other normal psychological distinctions. Price believes that if "repression is a biological phenomenon, [then] the threshold between conscious and unconscious no longer operates in the disembodied state" (op. cit., p. 357).

This is perhaps a clue to the solution to a problem discussed earlier: self-deception and averting one’s eye from one’s own deeds would no longer be possible. Price says that "the secrets of [the] heart will be revealed and there will be no refuge from the ultimate moral imperative of full self-judgment. Price speculates that disembodied souls could communicate telepathically, so thoughts and deeds would merge into one.

Furthermore, if self-deception is due to the biological body and its passions, as Plato and others have held, then this time-honored psychological tactic would simply not be available. Near-death patients also speak of telepathic communication, and recall that Kenneth Ring’s subjects report that reasoning and objectivity dominated their experiences. Although telepathy is not part of Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of Hell, his psychological insights in No Exit are applicable at this point. Sartre’s classic play not only offers us a sober reminder of the ease at which we deceive ourselves, but his existentialism embodies crucial elements of the humanism which informs my current speculation. We are what we will ourselves to be, and we are therefore fully responsible for the acts we have committed.

While various evasive tactics are possible in our worldly lives, there is no place to hide in Sartre’s Hell. Inez tell Garcin that "You have us in the nude all right; and Garcin agrees that--we’re naked, naked right through, and I can see  into your heart" (No Exit and Three Other Plays [New York: Random House, 1948], pp. 29, 31). With all escape routes barred, each of them finally confesses; they can no longer hold any secrets. Garcin, Inez, and Estelle slowly realize that the pain of being exposed for what they are and the difficulty of coming to grips with their deeds are far worse than all the anticipated tortures of the traditional Hell. As Garcin concludes: "There’s no need of red-hot pokers. Hell is–other people" (p. 47).

While much of the action involves the judgment by others, there are also basic elements of self-judgment. Garcin states: "There were days when you peered into yourself, into the secret places of your heart, and what you saw there made you faint with horror....Yes, you know what evil costs" (p. 43). The door to the cell finally opens mysteriously, and the prisoners are momentarily elated by the prospects of escape; but they realize that they will never escape the final reckoning which they carry around inside of them. Sartre is much more pessimistic about human nature than the Buddhists, but their Hell would contain just as many wrathful deities as Sartre’s.

Eschatologies East and West have both assumed a general working axiom: the type of after-death experiences will depend on the type of lives we have led. There is no question that many people lead similar lives, including similar desires and actions. If there is an afterlife, it is conceivable that these people would then find themselves in the same place, one essentially of their own making. Dante’s nine levels of Hell are designed according to a person’s principal sins (lust, greed, gluttony, etc.), and the great number of realms (loka) in Hindu eschatology is based on the same reasoning.

Price finds these traditional views compatible with his own speculations about the after-world: "If this is right, an image-world such as I am describing would not be the product of one single mind only, nor would it be purely private. It would be the joint product of a group of telepathically interacting minds and public to all of them. Nevertheless, one would not expect it to have unrestricted publicity. It is likely that there would still be many next worlds, a different one for each group of like-minded personalities" As Garcin tells Inez: "You are of my kind" (p. 44).