Thursday, August 02, 2007

Eternity For Atheists, My Ass!

The New York Times published an interesting piece recently. In it, the author, Jim Holt, all but concedes God can be dismissed; that atheists are right. But then he pulls the emergency brake on the whole "mortality of the mind" idea:

If God is dead, does that mean we cannot survive our own deaths? Recent best-selling books against religion agree that immortality is a myth we ought to outgrow. But there are a few thinkers with unimpeachable scientific credentials who have been waving their arms and shouting: not so fast. Even without God, they say, we have reason to hope for — or possibly fear — an afterlife.


Fear indeed. I think its funny to note that while Jim Holt alleges the existence of some impeccably credentialed scientists who believe in an afterlife, he does not name them, cite them, or otherwise support this claim.

But he does throw a few names and "theories" around, so let's take a look. The first person that James quotes is Bertrand Russell, a significant and respectable name to be sure, but he only quotes Bertrand for his opposition to the afterlife, and clearly states that Bertrand was not into the afterlife theory.

So the first name that James Holt produces in support of his atheistic afterlife theory is William James. Who was he? A philosopher who lived about 100 years ago, that’s who. Not a scientist with impeccable credentials:

A little more than a century ago, the American philosopher William James proposed an interesting way of keeping open the door to an afterlife. We know that the mind depends on the physical brain, James said. But that doesn’t mean that our brain processes actually produce our mental life, as opposed to merely transmitting it. Perhaps, he conjectured, our brains allow our minds to filter through to this world from some transcendent “mother sea” of consciousness. Had James given his lecture a few decades later, he might have used the radio as a metaphor. When a radio is damaged, the music becomes distorted. When it is smashed, the music stops altogether. All the while, however, the signal is still out there, uncorrupted.


What a horrible analogy! The radio waves come from a material radio wave transmitter, the radio signals are easily detectable, and putting a big wall of lead between the radio and the transmitting tower will stop the signal, even if the radio is still fully functional. So, can we put some kind of proverbial lead wall between our perfectly functioning bodies and the afterlife/immaterial consciousness, at which point our bodies would fall to the floor, and then would resume normal function when the barrier is removed? Methinks not.

Additionally, would this radio signal analogy apply to all life forms? Yes or no? Perhaps insects, or plants, or even bacteria also require this signal? Or would the need for the radio signal be restricted to only humans? Or maybe only vertebrates? If the line is drawn somewhere across the wide spectrum of life we know of today, wouldn't this imply that the "radio signal" is not even necessary to the operation of the human? Like in the same way that the existence of a radio signal, or lack thereof, is not necessary for the radio receiver itself to be properly functioning?

Moving on, Jim Holt conjures up another "impeccable" name:

In the 1970s, a new hope for survivalists emerged: the near-death experience. In the best-selling book “Life After Life,” a doctor and parapsychologist named Raymond A. Moody Jr. presented a number of cases in which patients who had flat-lined and then been revived told of entering a long tunnel and emerging into a dazzling pool of light, where they communed with departed loved ones.


Doctor and parapsychologist Moody. Ahhh yes, the most impeccable of the impeccably credentialed! Is this the same experiment where the near-deathers saw different colored lights according to their religion? How unusual is it for someone who is about to die, or close to death, to dream of conversing with long deceased loved ones?

To use an already tortured analogy, this is the same as hearing a CD player playing music, and then concluding that the music must be coming from some "radio waves" rather than from inside the device itself. Why can't these "radio waves" be detected directly? If the existence of object A can be inferred by the effect it has on object B, then object A is also being affected by object B, and therefore object A can be detected, in principle, if we can already detect object B (which in this case we can).

In other words, there is no reason to think that these immaterial things and dimensions cannot be detected, especially if their effects can be clearly seen on detectable objects. I've already written about this argument in detail here.

Next, Jim Holt switches gears and makes an appeal for a material, and not an immaterial, afterlife:

The most interesting possibilities for an afterlife proposed in recent years are based on hard science with a dash of speculation. In his 1994 book, “The Physics of Immortality,” Frank J. Tipler, a specialist in relativity theory at Tulane University, showed how future beings might, in their drive for total knowledge, “resurrect” us in the form of computer simulations. (If this seems implausible to you, think how close we are right now to “resurrecting” extinct species through knowledge of their genomes.)


At least Tipler can do better than a radio wave analogy. However, Tipler is not silly enough to promote an afterlife in the traditional sense, and perhaps Holt doesn't understand the significant difference between these two brands of immortality. I will concede that a material afterlife is far more plausible and realistic than the traditional/immaterial variety, but as far as traditional/immaterial afterlifers are concerned, the exclusively material afterlife may as well be no afterlife at all. A material afterlife is an altogether different bag, and I've explored the differences between the two in a couple of posts.

Jim Holt finishes off by quoting Vladimir Nabokov, who was an author, and not a scientist:

“Life is a great surprise,” Vladimir Nabokov once observed. “I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.”


Precisely. And that surprise is, "Holy shit! My consciousness doesn't exist any more!"

12 comments:

BlackSun said...

Great post Aaron. In order to even think "Holy shit..." you would have to have a kind of consciousness.

I think it's impossible for those who are conscious to imagine what it's like not to be conscious. So they assume it will never happen.

When the time comes, I don't even think we're conscious of losing consciousness. Just like we would never hear or feel a bullet to the brain.

Intergalactic Hussy said...

Its sad that some have to believe in some afterlife because they fear death. Aren't we passed kindergarten? Many theists really do come off as children believing stories too much. Even D&Ders know that its just for fun.

Why is no afterlife really that difficult for some to imagine? You're dead; you don't know the difference. LOL

Great post!

Aaron Kinney said...

Re: BlackSun

Totally. I think its kindof ironic or paradoxical that people wont be able to know if their consciousness expires upon their bodily death. In some twisted way, it can be somewhat of a surprise. In that its such an unexpected surprise that youll never even know it ;)

breakerslion said...

Candidate for Offspring Murder Club Thwarted! Off topic, but thought you would want to know.

Aaron Kinney said...

Hi Beakerslion,

Yea I saw that. Ive been considering giving the guy an honorable mention, and its one freaky story, but Im not quite decided if I will write this one up yet...
Thanks for the headsup!

Mikayla Starstuff said...

I wouldn't even care if there were some highly intelligent, credentialed scientists who did believe in an afterlife. I'd still highly doubt that that belief has anything to do with science, or that they have any corner on the truth about souls that I do not have, unless they have some decent evidence to the contrary. Even scientists are entitled to their own beliefs and opinions about non-science stuff just like everyone else.

breakerslion said...

"So, can we put some kind of proverbial lead wall between our perfectly functioning bodies and the afterlife/immaterial consciousness, at which point our bodies would fall to the floor, and then would resume normal function when the barrier is removed? Methinks not."

Welcome to the idea bowling alley. Your devil's advocate for today, breakerslion.

A person clinging to this idea might point out that there is no known way to block cosmic radiation. So maybe Cosmic rays are the source of all life, sentience, and the American Way? They might then ask that you prove that it isn't, cleverly shifting the burden of proof like some oh-so-clever clever person. The answer to this lies in Biology and Neurology, to whit, the actions of nerve tissue that causes thought and movement are measurable, reproducible, and take place in a self-contained biochemical system. One cannot point to any sequence in the process and say, "Cosmic rays are required here."

Aaron Kinney said...

Good point, Beakerslion.

I didnt think about cosmic rays. But as you so clearly pointed out, the cosmic rays are not required to explain any function of the brain.

I dunno if youve read Hitchens' "God is Not Great" yet, but Id like to bowwow a line from him right now:

"The hypothesis works without that assumption."

:)

Alan said...

The NYT writer loses all credibility by referring to scientists with 'unimpeachable credentials.' Religions are into infallability, not science. Although I work with a number of scientists whose narcissism would come across as infallability - few in the scientific disciplines would admit the idea of 'unimpeachable credentials.'

Aaron Kinney said...

Thats an excellent point Alan. I hadnt thought of it that way, but its absolutely correct.

Thanx! :)

Colton said...

Hi Aaron,

With all due respect, your post was not very well-researched or convincing.
You write:"So the first name that James Holt produces in support of his atheistic afterlife theory is William James. Who was he? A philosopher who lived about 100 years ago, that’s who. Not a scientist with impeccable credentials."
William James created "functionalism", the mother theory most modern psychological theories. While he was also a philosopher, it could hardly be said that he wasn't a scientist of the highest caliber.
You continue with:"What a horrible analogy! The radio waves come from a material radio wave transmitter, the radio signals are easily detectable, and putting a big wall of lead between the radio and the transmitting tower will stop the signal, even if the radio is still fully functional. So, can we put some kind of proverbial lead wall between our perfectly functioning bodies and the afterlife/immaterial consciousness, at which point our bodies would fall to the floor, and then would resume normal function when the barrier is removed? Methinks not."
I think you are taking the analogy to literaly. As far as I can tell, Holt's analogy meant that information that is not readily detectable may still nevertheless exist. Nowhere does he imply that this information is non-physical.
There is an abundance of evidence for the afterlife, which you seem not to be aware of. Have you ever heard of Frederic Myers? From http://www.trans4mind.com/spiritual/myers1.html: "Within a few weeks of Myers's death in 1901, some very strange communications began to be received by psychics in England, the United States and India. They came through automatic writing to a total of a dozen psychics and continued for a period of thirty years and then later by his fellow leaders of the Society for Psychical Research, Professor Henry Sidgwick and Edmund Gurney as they too died. What was strangest about them was that they made no sense. Or perhaps they did - for they were so mysteriously worded that it almost seemed their meaning was being deliberately concealed. And most of them were signed, "Myers." In all more than three thousand scripts were transmitted over thirty years. Some of them were more than forty typed pages long.
But although the text of the messages seemed indecipherable, the 'instructions' which often accompanied them were clear. These instructions repeated a number of themes. The 'script' should be sent to a particular person, who would turn out to be one of the other psychics involved. Or it should be sent to the Society for Psychical Research. And that although its content may seem to be senseless, it was in reality anything but: it was an attempt by the deseased communicator to prove his continued existence. These instructions and explanations were, in fact, frequent and explicit. "Record the bits," wrote Myers, "and when fitted they will make the whole." And again, "I will give the words between you that neither alone can read but together they will give the clue."
...
Myers was trying to prove that the mind of the medium could not be the creator of the message: how could it be when the message was only a fragment which made no sense unless linked with other, equally 'meaningless' fragments. Myers was quite explicit about what he was doing. He was causing a dozen psychics, in various widely separated parts of the world, not only to refer to the same topic - often a highly obscure one - but to do so in ways which were complementary. Like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle, these 'pieces' did more than refer to the same theme; they did so in ways which were intricately intertwined. Those who studied and tried to interpret these 'jigsaw puzzles' called them cross-correspondences.

The simplest case involved the repetition of particular themes drawn from various language and literary sources. On April 24, 1907, while in trance in the United States, an American medium named Mrs Piper three times uttered the word "Thantos," a Greek word meaning 'death,' despite the fact that she had no knowledge of Greek. Such repetitions were often a signal that cross-correspondences were about to begin. But it had begun already. About a week earlier, in India, Mrs Holland had done some automatic writing, and in that script the following enigmatic communication had appeared: "Mors [Latin for death]. And with that the shadow of death fell upon his limbs." On April 29th, in England, Mrs Verrall, writing automatically, produced the words: "Warmed both hands before the fire of life. It fades and I am ready to depart." This is a quotation from a poem by nineteenth-century English poet, Walter Landor. Mrs Verrall next drew a triangle. This could be Delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. She had always considered it a symbol of death. She then wrote: "Manibus date lilia plenis" [give lilies with full hands]. This is a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid in which an early death is foretold. This was followed by the statement: "Come away, come away, Pallida mors [Latin for pale death]," and, finally, an explicit statement from the communicator: "You have got the word plainly written all along in your writing. Look back." The 'word,' or 'theme,' was quite obvious when these fragments, given in the same month to three mediums thousands of miles apart, were put together and scrutinized. And in view of the lifelong interest of the communicator, it was certainly an appropriate theme. Death."
About your comment about NDE's being "dreaming", please note that many such theories are created by psychologist's, who have practically no training in brain physiology. From victorzammit.com:
"(They) just don't have the knowledge...So much rubbish is talked about Near-Death Experiences by people who don't have to deal with these things on a daily basis. So I'm absolutely sure that such experiences are not caused by oxygen shortages, endorphins or anything of that kind. And certainly none of these things would account for the transcendental quality of many of these experiences, the fact that people feel an infinite sense of loss when they leave them behind (Fenwick 1995: 47).

As a consultant neuro-psychiatrist he constantly works with people who are confused, disoriented and brain-damaged and as Dr Fenwick points out:

What is quite clear is that any disorientation of brain function leads to a disorientation of perception and reduced memory. You can't normally get highly-structured and clearly remembered experiences from a highly damaged or disoriented brain (Fenwick 1995: 47).

He likewise refutes the endorphin argument:

As for that stuff about endorphins, we're boosting the effect they have all the time because thousands of people are given morphine every day. That certainly produces calmness, but it doesn't produce structured experiences (Fenwick 1995: 47)."
Some other websites you may want to check out:
http://www.members.global2000.net/~periph/

cfpf.org.uk

Please look at all data before making decisions.

solerso said...

All of the supporters of this blog seem to share one characteristic with most of the believers Ive talked to, that is doubt. All of you reiterate the same argument over and over again;i cant see the afterworld, no high scientist authority man has ever told me i can believe in it so its not real, it WILL NOT BE REAL.Many of the greatest minds of the human species have, and some still do believe in an after world, Im not ready to accept "Aaron"the great's
absolute and final wisdom on this, blasphemous as that may be.