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!"