Thursday, July 06, 2006

Peter Pan and the Afterlife

Most humans in the world today believe in some form of afterlife. But is there any evidence for an afterlife? I don't think so.

There are generally two reasons why a person believes in a thing or idea:

1. Observed evidence forces a person to accept the proposition as true. For example, before telescopes, people used to believe the Earth was flat because it looked flat to them from their point of view. But once telescopes were developed, a new perspective was attained, and people eventually accepted that the Earth was spherical.

2. The desire to satisfy an emotional want or fear produces an idea independently of evidence. Sometimes these ideas are later defended through fake or misattributed evidence. For example, people are typically very afraid of the idea of their consciousness one day expiring, and are very distressed by the idea of death (which is reasonable), so they invent afterlife ideas to alleviate their fears and feel a kind of comfort through providing an answer to a burning question in their mind. Unfortunately, the reason for the idea being accepted (emotional desire) is no reason to suppose that the idea is correct at all.

Number 1 starts with evidence, and then ends with a conclusion. Number 2 starts with a desire for a satisfactory conclusion, provides the conclusion, and then sometimes goes around trying to find evidence for the conclusion after the fact. Number 1 is based on objective reality, and number 2 is based on subjective emotional desire. Which one is more likely to be true?

Now its time to play a game. I will propose two scenarios. In each scenario, think about the question posed at the end. Answer it in your head, and think about why you gave the answer you did to each scenario. Then think about afterlife belief, why people believe it, and if it is likely to be true:

Scenario 1: I insist to you that I can fly like Peter Pan. You ask me why I believe this. I inform you that I was given pixie dust by a fairy earlier in the day, and that I am thinking a happy thought, and suddenly my feet rise off the ground. I then shoot up into the sky like Peter Pan right before your very eyes. At this point, would you believe that I could fly like Peter Pan?

Scenario 2: I insist to you that I can fly like Peter Pan. You ask me why I believe this. I tell you that I believe it because a fairy visited me and told me that I could. I also say that it "feels" to me like I can fly when I think about the ability. I tell you that I read a book that described Neverland where a boy named Peter Pan could fly at will, and that a fairy who knows Peter Pan told me that I had this ability as well. I also ask you if you would like to be able to fly like Peter Pan as well. I also say that if you think you can't fly like Peter Pan, then you've already defeated yourself. But when you ask me to demonstrate to you that I can fly, I tell you that I can't to it yet, or at least not at the moment. And when you ask me to produce the fairy, or some evidence of the fairy telling me this, I tell you that I cannot provide any fairy evidence. At this point, would you believe that I could fly like Peter Pan?

What can we say about afterlife belief? Is there evidence for it? I have not seen any evidence for it, although I have seen evidence against it. To be fair, some people indeed think they have seen evidence for it. If any of my readers know of any "evidence" for the afterlife, I invite them to provide it in the comments section.

But many afterlife-believers will admit that they have not seen evidence for the afterlife. They just believe it because of faith, or because of a holy book, or because of what their parents or friends told them. To those people I ask them to reflect on why they specifically believe in an afterlife (in other words, how they acquired that belief), and if that reason is justified.

I should also note that some people believe that they have "evidence" for an afterlife through a message from God, Jesus, Allah, or other deity that spoke directly to them through telepathy or some other (unverifiable outside of their own head) means. To those people I ask them why they think that it was another entity communicating to them, and not just their own minds telling them what they want to hear? And I ask them if they can present any evidence to support their belief of having a deity communicate directly to them?

And if they really do believe that a deity spoke to them just because they "feel" it, then would they believe me if I insisted that I could fly simply through proof of my "feeling" it, and through my insistence that a fairy told me personally that I could?


BlackSun said...

Not only do they insist that they can fly when they really can't, if you press them on it, they become angry and accuse you of "disrespecting" their beliefs.

Aaron Kinney said...

Not only that, but I think that claiming the ability to fly like Peter Pan, while being admittedly ridiculous, is much more sensible than invoking a whole other dimension of existence after death.

I would love to see an afterlifer give me a straight answer to whether or not they would believe scenario #1 or scenario #2, and why.

cay said...

I always like arguments based on evidence (being a science teacher) but I have to say that even before telescopes were developed, the Greeks thought that the Earth was round. Their evidence? The shadow of Earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse was round! (And the observation that celestial objects were spherical). Galileo did, however, have a problem with nebulae...damn amorphous things!

Francois Tremblay said...

My answer would be "no" to both scenarios. Even if you demonstrated, I would have to assume that you are using the David Blaine method (crane with cables) and are pranking me. "Aaron is actually flying" would take a while to get to.

olly said...

I'm with Franc on this one. It would take more then a simple observation by my own eyes to get me to 'suspend disbelief' as it were. Even our eyes can decieve us, so I'd want something more concrete then just one observation.

Part of what this highlights too, beyond the factor of wanting something to be true, and then finding a way to justify that want, are some of the same issues I have with Kantian pure reason on the other side of things. Even if an afterlifer could come up with a logically bulletproof set of reasoning as to why the afterlife exists, I would fail to believe in it.

In the end, observable (and repeatedly observable at that) reality trumps reasoning every time.


Intergalactic Hussy said...

Ahhhhhh sooo many years of brainwashing that needs to be undone...might as well say Praise the Unicorn Gods! Or hail the Tooth Fairy! Any time someone says to suspend disbelief, are they including Peter Pan, Leprechauns, et al? What makes Jesus, god, or any of those folktales (religion) any different? The mere fact that it's popular? Defending one's beliefs with the fact that the masses believe the similar makes no sense...because we all know the masses are asses (don't mind the cliche, it's just accurate). I just can't have a logical or reasonable debate with anyone who believes in a religion... because by believing in religion, one has already labelled his/herself illogical. I believe in being a good person here and now, living it up, and science/technology.

Aaron Kinney said...

To Franc and Olly:

But if you saw me fly with your own two eyes, it would be much more compelling, and would make you consider the possibility more, than if I merely told you that I could fly without demonstrating it, right? I mean, theres a difference between trying to falsify a claim by dissecting evidence presented for it, and denying a claim when no evidence is presented whatsover, do you agree?

Cay and Atheisthussy,

Thanks for the comments :) And I didnt know that the Greeks thought the Earth was round, but that is pretty cool info. Again, its conclusions based on observable evidence, which kicks ass!

LegionofEternalDarkness said...

one thing i must ask of you aaron. If there is no afterlife, what is it in fact like?

How can i descibe this state of "complete unbeing?" I cant even say what comes after death is like an eternal sleep because our brains are alive and working while we sleep, even though it feels like time lapsed everytime we enter a dreamless sleep. When we sleep, this is how it is:

Conciousness > sleep > Conciousness

yet, in a bigger scope its way different:

unbeing > life > unbeing

but wait how about this:

eternity of unbeing > life > eternity of unbeing (as you suggest)

Wow thats a long time. And its the exact opposite of the sleep cycle. In the sleep cycle there are 2 points of referance. In the life cycle, youd say there is only 1 point of referance. So sleep cant possibly be like post-death, although its the damn closest way to describe it from my perspective. The only way i can describe sleep to you is that it feels like nothing, which is what i think of when i think how it was before i was born. There like the exact same way. but in sleep, after a while you wake up. Just like how i "woke-up" from death.

LegionofEternalDarkness said...

One more thing to clarify the "strangeness" of the concept above.

Ok so the universe began 13 some billion years ago right. Well in all that time You didnt exist. Now your here for a measly lets say 90 of those years, which is being super generous. So after than transition we call death, we have an eternity of nonexistance? basically forever?

that 13 billion years sure did pass by fast but thats nothing compared to infinite time. even the universe would restart at sum point. And why not redevelope me or you at sum point?

bookjunky said...

I don't disagree with you, although I agree with those who say more than one demonstration would be required. Preferably you could get that fairy to give pixie dust to me and other people.

That said, my atheist daughter-in-law swears she has seen ghosts. No explanation for it, but she says she saw her husband's grandmother when they visited the old family home, and then identified her from a picture. She has no explanation for what happened. Obviously she is not alone in this experience.

So what is the explanation of these events? Just suggestibility + hallucination? That seems probable. But I still have an open mind, although all the concrete evidence I have seen points to no afterlife.

olly said...


You are right, it would certainly pique my interest enough for me to want to investigate more, that I don't deny... I simply am saying that with only one demonstration, I'd still call bullshit.


Why does it matter if you can't describe it. Just because language fails us, doesn't mean that reality ceases. Perhaps it is a form of our language that hasn't been sufficiently developed enough to describe the phenomena. Ask someone 2000 years ago to describe a quark, see how far you get.

The point is, it's not much of an argument to say that, because you can't describe something, it doesn't exist. Language doesn't change reality, it only effects our perception of that reality.


Aaron Kinney said...

If I were to fly like Peter Pan right in front of you, for you to still be skeptical is understandable. But WHY is it understandable?

Because past observed EVIDENCE has shown that people cannot magically defy gravity.

Buy Olly was totally on the right track for example when he said that a visual demonstration of Peter Pan flight would prompt him to investigate further for more EVIDENCE, to either verify or refute what he saw me do.

Either way you look at it, the only conclusions that can ever be arrived at regarding Peter Pan claims, or even demonstrations of flight, are based on EVIDENCE.

Observable, testable, repeatable experiments are the only was humans ever get to know anything. Even the smallest babies instincively go through this process when they learn how to walk and talk and identify objects and such. We are all hopelessly reliant on observation of facts to arrive at conclusions about what we believe is true and what is not.

That is why faith is a total bullshit concept that deserves nothing but scorn and derision and ridicule. It is anti-knowledge, anti-thought, anti-learning, anti-reality, and anti-life.

Faith is where one tries to promote the absence-of-merit as merit itself.

Fuck faith.

breakerslion said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
breakerslion said...

"That is why faith is a total bullshit concept that deserves nothing but scorn and derision and ridicule. It is anti-knowledge, anti-thought, anti-learning, anti-reality, and anti-life."

Bu-bu-but... you can't join our club unless you flush your brain down the toilet (assuming someone has not already done it for you) and believe what we tell you to.

Once you know what religion isn't (real), then you must ask yourself what it is. It is a huge, widespread, and lucrative scam that will defend itself like a feral cornered beast in order to survive. The more you attack, the more desperate and morally bankrupt it becomes in its own defense. The tragedy of the human condition lies in the acceptance of the increasingly outrageous and stubborn claims of the religious world even as known science and history discredits them. The clinging to known falsehoods bespeaks desperation. The reliance upon all manner of superstition to bolster belief in supernatural phenomenon in general is also despicable. I cannot believe the fever pitch of superstitious propaganda that is continuously being cranked out to support this rotten make-believe empire.

Κοιλάκανθος said...

Many people here said that Faith is a total Bullshit concept. This is totaly wrong of course for faith is one of the basic needs of humanity, is what initialy ,made us create civilizations....With faith started the religion and the first organized groups started forming cultures. Aside from that, many people here displayed a rich repertoir of ignorance which is not bad as it is something that changes.. We must have an open mind with all aspects of information that we come upon in our life...There are no rules and fixed laws....even basic concepts in science like gravity and light can not be explained to their effect...neither can scientists explain how thoughts work, how memories are stored...they can only see their effect as chemical and electrical activity... We are far from having adequate knowledge to even understand our perpose of existance....and here is were faith enters, for faith brings hope....I find it really hard to believe that from plane rock came a species such as ours that is able to ask such questions about purpose of existance, that can create theories of the birth of cosmos etc etc. Science in the sub-quantum field has recently made several discoveries including one that proves that two particles originating from the same source, can have telepathic connection....Before throwing in the trash things that billions of people across the ages believed, it is better to do our own extensive research, for knowledge is the real power.I am sure nobody in the end will lose.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Aaron for posting this blog. It is addictive to believe in an afterlife as I did for too many years, maybe to mask the pain of separation from the deceased. In my imagination I could talk with those who had departed the physical plane. However, the danger in afterlife belief is in placing less value on the current physical existence in hopes of a "next life" in either Heaven or being reincarnated on Earth. This is a hidden danger unrecognized by many as the daily stresses of life seem more escapable if one images an eternal afterlife scenario and has religious dogma to back up an otherwise crazy idea. Instead of trying to live healthy and change destructive patterns to better fight chronic diseases, some "afterlifers" simply state "I'm going to be with Jesus soon." and continue to physically abuse their bodies by eating an improper diet, not exercising, and worrying too much about the "souls" of non-believers.