23 January 2015

There is No Life After Death, Sorry.

Is there life after death? This question has been important to people for at least 100,000 years. Now we can definitively say, "no, there isn't." What we know about how the universe operates rules out the possibility. You only live once. This can only be a disappointment to many people. On the other hand, now that the question is settled, we can get on with the serious business of deciding how we ought to live with this situation.

In this essay, I begin with a longish introduction in which I recap some important points made in previous essays about the idea of life after death. I look at the dynamics of afterlife beliefs and challenge the view that the concept of the afterlife is beyond the reach of empiricism. If you're familiar with my treatment of this material you can skip the intro. I then settle in to explore an argument made by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll which purports to show that no afterlife of the kind described by either Christianity or Buddhism is permitted by the laws of physics. I will finish by considering the ethics of debunking traditional beliefs and some reflections on our existential situation.

In October, 2014, Sean Carroll accepted the Emperor Has No Clothes Award, organised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and gave a short acceptance speech (watch the video). In this speech he says "We can say, there is no life after death... sorry". It so happens that in the same week I watched the video, one of my colleagues wrote something about our Buddhist teacher's belief in rebirth. She said that while he acknowledged that one couldn't prove or disprove rebirth, he himself was convinced on the basis of certain experiences he had had. My colleague said that if she'd had that kind of experience, she'd be convinced also. I'd say that this is fairly typical of the type of argument that Buddhists field for rebirth. There are two parts to this type of argument:
  1. the afterlife cannot be factually disproved; and that 
  2. anecdotes about experiences are convincing. 
In other words, I can't prove X, but I believe X, where X is any religious belief. This is just what my mum says about God, for example.

This problem of private experience being generalised into ontological conclusions is a perennial one for religions. When we try to draw valid conclusions about public reality from one-off private experiences we are apt to make mistakes; when those private experiences involve altered states of consciousness, then we almost always make mistakes. Our conclusions might feel right, but they've usually got more to do with what we want to believe than what reality is like. When someone is already convinced of a proposition, then any experience that supports the proposition will feel salient, and any experience which does not will feel irrelevant. The more the experience can be interpreted as supporting the belief, the more salient it will feel. A question I cannot yet address is why outlier experiences—drug induced hallucinations, religious visions, oceanic boundary loss—might seem more real than baseline reality, even hyperreal, rather than less real. The question of how real experiences feel is crucial to an overall understanding of how we value experiences.

The Dynamic of Afterlife Beliefs

As individuals trying to reason, we seem, almost inevitably, to fall prey to a wide variety of biases and/or logical fallacies. The explanation for the woeful performance of individuals on reasoning tasks put forward by Mercier & Sperber, says that as individuals putting forward an argument, we are powerfully, inherently, biased to select evidence and supporting arguments that support it. It is only in arguing against a proposition that we think to select counterfactual information. We seem to have evolved to reason in small groups where proponents make the strongest case for their favoured outcome, and opponents argue against it, and collectively the group selects a course of action which most appeals to the largest number (or to those with most influence). See An Argumentative Theory of Reason. In this view, the most common reasoning problem, confirmation bias, is a feature of reasoning, not a bug. It also means that reasoning doesn't work well in highly polarised situations or where everyone has strong beliefs that distort how they assess the saliency of information. Clearly, discussing religious beliefs with religieux is a situation where reason is likely to work poorly. So, one of the reasons we draw incorrect inferences about public reality from private experience might be that we are affected by religious views on top of our usual biases and fallacies. 

The argument put forward by Sean Carroll effectively says that an afterlife would be a kind of miracle because it breaks the laws of physics. Hume's essay Of Miracles gives us a useful criteria for assessing the testimony for miracles:
"No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish."
Anecdotally, many of my colleagues in the Triratna Buddhist Order find the falsehood of an afterlife more miraculous, less credible, than the testimony that there must be an afterlife of the Buddhist kind. Usually, the testimony in question is about outlier experiences that seemed hyperreal and are judged to be of extraordinary value and significance. For such intuitions about experience to be false would seem miraculous. Again, my mum has the same argument from experience for God.

One of the key points to understand is how we make decisions. While we do employ facts, there is research to show that we assign information a weight or a measure of salience at an emotional level. When faced with competing information about the same decision, we assess which information is salient to our decision by how it feels. We know this because people with specific damage in the mediodorsal-prefrontal cortex, which is involved in emotional regulation, lose the ability to weigh facts in this way. We make decisions based on what feels right and then find reasons post hoc. This is something the advertising industry has known for many years, dating back to the 1920s and the influence of Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays. See for example, Torches of Freedom. The whole spiel about Homo sapiens (thinking people) having reason as our highest faculty is quite wrong. We're seldom any good at it. We emote our way through our lives with post hoc rationalisation to cover our tracks.

The idea of an afterlife is ubiquitous in human cultures. For a self-aware living being, whose raison d'être is continuity, the fact of inevitable death creates an intense cognitive dissonance. Apart from the obvious wish not to die, the afterlife also serves as a clearinghouse for reconciliation of our moral accounting records (which is why karma must keep track of our deeds): actions must fit consequences and, since they obviously don't in this life (aka the Problem of Evil), then they must in the afterlife. The afterlife is almost always tied to the idea of an entity which survives the death of the body and contains our essence (i.e., a soul). Certain types of experiences suggest that the perceiving mind can exist as a separate entity from the physical body. This leads to ontological dualism: to the assumption that matter and spirit are different types of stuff (see especially my essay Metaphors and Materialism; also Origin of the Idea of the Soul). I've cited this passage from Thomas Metzinger's book The Ego Tunnel several times, but it seems to be essential to understand this:
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (p.78)
However, when studied closely, these experiences do not support ontological dualism or the idea that the mind is a separate entity or made from a different kind of stuff from matter. Buddhists also tend to describe their afterlife beliefs in dualist terms (partly because morality requires personal continuity to be coherent even across one life time, let alone many) and then add specific metaphysical caveats when challenged, so as to avoid violating Buddhist axioms that forbid persistent entities. These caveats vitiate personal continuity, and therefore morality, but this problem seems to go unnoticed. So the dynamic of afterlife beliefs is like this:
  • The fact of universal death creates cognitive dissonance. 
  • According to testimony, certain experiences appear to demonstrate that consciousness is not tied to the body, but can exist independently.
  • So the idea that something might survive the death of the body and continue to "live" seems plausible.
  • Emotional weighting of facts (salience) makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable.
  • Since the finality of death causes intense cognitive dissonance, post-mortem survival seems preferable.
  • We make the leap from probable/preferable to actually true; and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance created by the fact of death and been consistent with our other beliefs.
(Adapted from my 2012 essay on the plausibility and salience of rebirth.)
All that remains is for Buddhists to adapt this to avoid an unchanging entity, which we do by saying that any entity is conditioned and changes (and is this only conventionally or notionally an entity).

The Proposition that the Afterlife is Beyond Empiricism

The idea that one can neither prove nor disprove rebirth is a proposition formulated within a framework which is strictly dualistic in the Cartesian sense of an absolute distinction between matter and spirit. In this framework no empirical evidence is salient to the question of the afterlife, because it comes from the wrong realm: as one dualist Order colleague explained to me, in a mood of high dudgeon some years ago, "no study of matter, however thorough, can tell us anything at all about consciousness." The afterlife, being concerned with the realm of spirit, is not accessible to empirical methods.

The problem here is one of definitions. The dualist defines the afterlife in dualistic terms. Those terms include the explicit assumption that empirical methods don't apply to the spirit realm. If one accepts the dualistic frame of reference, then there can be no argument. The afterlife is axiomatically beyond empiricism. But the definition is circular. Empiricism cannot see the afterlife only because we have defined the afterlife as invisible to empirical methods.

Buddhist texts certainly do not define the afterlife as invisible. Indeed, one of the memorable visions of my own teacher involves seeing pretas in their pretaloka. How can we possibly explain this leakage from the spirit realm into the realm of matter? If it is possible to see pretas, then they ought not to be invisible to empiricism. Why do we allow dualists the luxurious the exception that some people can see spirits and yet disallow empiricism? We will develop this line of enquiry below.

A more fundamental question is this. Why should we accept the dualist definition in the first place? Buddhists tend to argue from testimony about experience: especially from so-called "spiritual experience". One of my teachers tells me that, based on his "meditative experience", he cannot imagine there not being an afterlife. But, once again, we're in the territory of making inferences about reality from unusual private experiences. To take a non-Buddhist example, Gary Weber, who vividly describes his awakening experience in terms easily recognisable from traditional Buddhist accounts, insists on the basis of his experience that the universe is absolutely deterministic and that free will is an illusion! Why? Because his main teachers are proponents of Advaita Vedanta and this is their doctrine. Weber describes how free he is and, in the same breath, denies that he is free at all. It appears that even the awakened are not to be trusted to tell us about reality.

I've put considerable effort into undermining the idea of dualism. I've tried to show that it is not credible and does not produce meaningful predictions. Dualism is a bad theory. Monistic theories, by contrast, continue to make predictions about how the mind operates that turn out to be accurate. (See, for example, this article on ghosts). Sean Carroll's argument will take this a step further. The dualistic matter/spirit framework has nothing to do with Buddhism. I've tried to show that such matter/spirit dualism is an ontological conclusion that is not supported by the epistemology of Buddhism.

I should add that many, but not all, of the people who are involved in this argument on the dualist side are, at best, poorly educated in the sciences. Their understanding of science is frequently a caricature. But they are egged on by people who should know better, whose attraction to dualism has overcome their education. A clique of social scientists with axes to grind about objectivism is also involved, who muddy the water by attacking the very idea of objective knowledge. To these last, Sean Carroll has a witty repost on his Twitter profile: "If the blind dudes just talked to each other, they would figure out it was an elephant before too long." I used this as the starting point for a meditation on whether experience really is ineffable. Too many philosophers are solipsistic. They do philosophy as though one cannot talk to another person or compare notes on experience, or as though this is not a valid source of knowledge. Buddhists do this almost without fail, and it hobbles their ability to think about the world.

As Sean Carroll is quick to insist, empiricism comes with many caveats. We certainly cannot explain everything in the universe. Far from it. There are huge gaps. But science is an ongoing and progressive endeavour, and it is by far the most successful knowledge-generating activity in the history of knowledge. The shift in knowledge just in my lifetime has been staggering. One of the ironies of arguing with dualists is that they invoke the limitations of empiricism: you cannot explain everything. True. But why does that open the door to any old interpretation that happens to appeal? What ever happened to saying "I don't know"?

This is perhaps enough background for newer readers to allow us to proceed to considering the proposition that there is no afterlife. 

Sean Carroll's Argument

Carroll's argument begins with a series of propositions: 
  1. The mind is the brain. 
  2. The brain is made of atoms. 
  3. We know how atoms work. 
  4. When you die there is no way for the information that was you to persist.
We'll work through these assertions as he does, with a few extra comments thrown in.

1. The mind is the brain

The brain is the mind in space, and the mind is the brain over time. 
Past experience shows that dualists are already switching off, if they are reading at all. Carroll is what they call a "materialist" and what I would call a substance monist. Indeed, his view (as he says in the video) is that Quantum Field Theory accurately describes reality: reality is fields. All the reliable evidence we have points to a universe composed of fields. When we look at these fields the nature of them means that what we actually see is matter and energy. After centuries of studying matter in controlled ways there is no behaviour of matter and energy, at the scale relevant to the functioning of human beings, that has been observed under controlled conditions, which requires extra laws of physics. Thus, the only sensible philosophical view is monist. We might not know how the mind works, but we have no reason to propose some other thing that can interact with matter. This will become a refrain: if it can interact with matter we'd have detected it by now. In this view the mind is a function rather than a thing or stuff. The mind is what the brain does.

However, we have a legacy view which is dualist. This legacy is probably as old as anatomically modern humans and it says, mainly on the basis of interpretations of private experiences, that the mind not made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe. The view is that there is a stuff we might call "spirit" that makes up an invisible and intangible "world of spirit" in parallel to the world of matter and energy, and that this spirit animates our bodies (which are otherwise cold dead matter). We now have secular versions of this dualism which argue that experience cannot be explained in monist terms, famously associated with Dualist philosopher David Chalmers and the so-called "Hard Problem of Consciousness". However, all dualism does is deflect the Hard Problem, it does not answer it. What's worse, is that it defines the Hard Problem as insoluble, because the stuff that consciousness is made of cannot be an object of study. Game over for science.

Invoking an invisible and intangible stuff that somehow undetectably also interacts with matter and energy to make us alive and conscious is not logical. Either the second stuff interacts with matter and energy and can be detected in the usual ways, or if it cannot be detected in the usual ways then it cannot interact with matter and energy. If it does not interact with matter and energy, then, for example, we could not see it or hear it the way that people claim to. Equally, a "body" made of this second stuff could not see or hear, either. A subtle body would either be completely unable to interact with the world (to see it, hear it, feel it) or we would be able to detect it. There are no other options.

1.1 Objections

One objection sometimes put forward is that the brain is not complex enough to generate consciousness. I think we still have legacy issues with the concept of "consciousness", which the study of ancient Buddhist thought only highlights, since it conceives the mind in entirely different terms. Even so, the complexity of the brain is effectively unimaginable: 100 billion neurons with an average of 1000 connections each, can generate 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 unique states. There is no question of the brain being complex enough.

Some who reject Carroll's first proposition try to explain consciousness using the brain as TV receiver analogy. In this, the brain is still necessary for consciousness, but it is a passive receiver of a "signal" from "beyond" the physical world. This is ruled out by Sean Carroll's friend, neuroscientist Steven Novella. He argues that to compare the brain to a TV that simply displays the information beamed into it, is a false analogy.
A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch? - The Brain Is Not a Receiver.
Disrupting the reception of the "signal", via, say, brain damage, does not simply distort the image of the show, it changes the plot and the characters. The brain simply cannot be a passive receiver. The brain is actively involved in creating consciousness. This is the only way to explain the correlations that we observe. Correlation is not causation, except when it is.

In fact, I slightly disagree with Sean in this area. I think the mind is created by the body as a whole. Certainly, the brain is the concentrated centre for the operation of mental events, but the mind function involves all of our body's systems: neural, endocrine, sensory etc. Our minds arise as an emergent property of being embodied in the way that we are. Our minds are defined, not simply by where signals are processed, but by how they are generated and transmitted. They are defined by the fact that brains clearly evolved to better direct the actions of bodies.

Those who propose a dualist explanation complain that "Materialists" refuse to accept evidence for the second stuff, that they refuse to even look for it; that Materialists scorn research which proves the paranormal, the supernatural, and all that stuff. In fact, scientists do take an interest from time to time and when such phenomena are explored under the rigorous eye of scientific method they inevitably fade from view or quite often turn out to be hoaxes. In fact, huge efforts have been made to validate ESP under laboratory conditions and it doesn't exist. On the other hand, modern day magicians like James Randi and Derren Brown have shown exactly how to spoof many of these effects. One of the originators of the Victorian seance, the Fox Sisters, confessed to their hoax late in life, though this did nothing to dent the popularity of talking to "the other side". The trouble is not that scientists are not interested in evidence for the supernatural, but that believers are too credulous and set the evidential bar too low. They are too willing to ignore debunking and exposure of hoaxes. I know many people who openly want the world to be magical or mystical; who openly and consciously suspend disbelief because they don't want to believe the evidence. Scientists make their reputations by making new discoveries and/or showing how old discoveries have been misinterpreted. Einstein is famous precisely because he overturned the existing paradigm and gave us a completely new way of looking at our world. No one ever got a Nobel Prize for science while ignoring interesting evidence for some new way of looking at the world.

As unpalatable as it sounds, Sean Carroll's bald statement that the mind is the brain, is not far from the truth. I would say that the mind is the body; or better that the mind is a function of the processes that make up the body. We will have more to say on why this must be so under statement three, but for now let us move on to the second statement:

2. The brain is made of atoms

This, I hope, will be fairly uncontroversial. We've been analysing matter for a long time now, we know what all the elements are and how they behave on a gigameter-scale and nanometer-scale (the mysteries are on a tera- and pico- scale and beyond). We understand the chemistry of all naturally occurring atoms (and a handful of synthetic atoms) and can explain the properties of known substances in terms of the properties of these atoms with incredible accuracy. We know how atoms combine into molecules and can predict the properties of new molecules from which atoms they contain. We know how molecules interact to create emergent properties. My bachelors degree was in chemistry, so I'm confident about this. 

Of course, the dualist can still posit super-natural substances or forces that are involved in the structure of the body and brain, substances and forces that are beyond the reach of empirical science, but our refrain still applies: if these supernatural substances or forces interact in any meaningful way with atoms, then we can detect them; if we cannot detect them, then they cannot interact in meaningful ways. Millions and millions of experiments, from detailed observations of our solar system down to the manipulation of single atoms, have failed to find any behaviour of atoms that cannot already be explained. Which leads us to statement number three. 

3. We know how atoms work

Carroll admits that this is controversial. His point is not that we understand all the laws of physics, nor even all the laws that govern atoms. What he is saying is that the laws that are relevant to the functioning of our minds and bodies are known. He adds, "There no room for new laws of physics that would affect how the atoms in your brain actually work". And here is a summary of those laws of physics in one intimidating equation:

"In this one equation are summarised all the laws of physics necessary to understand the atoms in your brain [and body] at the energy, mass and length scales relevant to your everyday lives." 
For more on this equation see Sean's blog: The World of Everyday Experience, In One Equation. For anyone who would like to get into this material in even more detail, Sean has claimed that The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood. There are links on the blog to follow up posts. 

Now, I freely admit that I don't understand all of this. But I don't have to. I do understand enough of it to be confident that the rest of it is true, and I have personally tested out a proportion of these laws, especially where they relate to chemistry.

We don't know it all, by any means, but we know enough. As Sean says:
"If there are any other forces, particles, fields or phenomena they can't affect the atoms in your brain and body because either they are so weak that they could not affect the atoms, or we would have found them. Those are the only two options." 
So, for example, we might not understand dark matter, but dark matter has no appreciable effects on human beings. We could dive into a swimming pool full of dark matter and simply fall to the bottom without interacting with any of it. This is not so weird. Every second millions of neutrinos from the sun pass through our bodies, indeed pass right through the earth, without ever interacting with our atoms. Dark matter's effects are only evident on the scale of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. We might not fully understand the Higgs Boson, but it's only evident on the scale of subatomic particles accelerated to 99.99999% of the speed of light and smashed into each other or in the second or so after the big bang. The macro effect of the Higgs is gravity, which we can predict with astonishingly high accuracy using the science of Einstein. Indeed, Newton and Laplace will suffice for everyday use. Yes, there is a huge amount to learn, but it's at the extremes, not in the middle. As far as the human-scale world is concerned, "at the energy, mass and length scales relevant to your everyday lives," we understand it quite well enough to predict the behaviour of atoms at levels of precision well beyond what we can perceive.

Because this is the state of knowledge, it reinforces proposition one. If there were another stuff out there, or in here, that could affect our brains, we would have found it by now. The mind cannot be a different kind of stuff or we'd have found that stuff. There is nowhere for the mind to hide. This kind of argument, that something is hiding just beyond the detectors is what is known as a God of the Gaps argument. God, or the supernatural or whatever, is always just beyond the current state of our knowledge of the universe. But the picture of physics is so well worked out now, that there are no gaps big enough to fit the mind into it. If, for example, the mind turns out to be a product of quantum vibrations in micro-tubules in neurons, rather than the interaction of neurons themselves, it won't change the basic fact that the mind is the brain. And we understand the principles of quantum states too.

3.1 The Map is Not the Territory

Against this is "the map is not the territory" argument. It is true that our mathematical models are incredibly comprehensive and accurate, but this does not mean that we understand reality. As human beings we never have direct access to reality. By reality, we generally mean the facts about sense objects that are independent of our minds. Since our perceptions are always mediated by the brain, at best, we're operating at one remove from reality.

Against this limitation on individual perception is the fact we can compare notes on what we observe and use this to factor out the component due to individual minds. What is left is what the universe is like. Some dismiss this "consensus reality". What I'm thinking of is not just something that people agree to. The observations I'm thinking of compel us to a single conclusion. Reality must be like this and not like that. It's how we have been able to establish what kinds of forces operate on atoms and develop mathematical descriptions of the resulting behaviour. Atoms are predictable. There's no question but that atoms exist at the energy levels relevant to human existence. Of course, we know that atoms are made up of smaller entities and, as Sean Carroll says, the whole of reality is more accurately conceived of as interacting fields. But the fact remains that if there were another force acting on atoms we'd see it and we don't see anything that is not attributable to the known forces: gravity, electromagnetism and the two nuclear forces. If there is a supernatural force, then it is too weak to have any effect.

Even the most ardent Dualist must admit that our maps are pretty good. We can now manipulate individual atoms and even their smaller constituents to create computers, communications networks, GPS satellite networks, vaccines, and all that kind of stuff, based on our maps. The maps are accurate beyond the perception of any person.

Similarly, by comparing how different people experience the same object, for a large number of objects, we can tell what the mind is like. This is what neuroscientists have begun to do. So, in fact, we have a pretty good idea of what reality is like, and we're beginning to understand how the mind works (with a lot of information coming from how the mind breaks down; cf First Person Perspective).

3.2 It's Just a Theory

Another counter-argument is the "It's Just a Theory" argument. It is true that we cannot absolutely prove these scientific theories, as Sean Carroll himself has written about (See his blog What I Believe But Cannot Prove). In an absolute sense we cannot prove anything, and this leads some people to conclude that no certain knowledge is possible. Relativism of this kind ought to undermine all explanations equally and yet, somehow, it does not. Somehow, it is treated as a justification for dualism or mysticism. Taken literally, no certain knowledge means no knowledge at all. No assertions of fact can ever be valid. This seems like an unproductive stance to take. Arguing "I know that there can be no knowledge" is a tautology.

A scientific theory is a not "just a theory" in the sense that any old theory can be substituted and work just as well. In order to be accepted as a scientific theory, an explanation must explain relevant observations. Carroll uses the example of Einstein's General Relativity proposed a century ago this year. Not only did it explain an existing problem, the precession of the perihelion of the orbit of mercury, but it made a series of new predictions that could be tested (Wikipedia has a list of these predictions). For example, General Relativity predicted that light travelling close to masses would follow a curved path because masses curve space-time. This was confirmed by observing stars during a solar eclipse in 1919. Subsequently General Relativity has survived every test. To the limits of experimental accuracy General Relativity predicts the behaviour of matter and energy on large scales. For example, our GPS satellites would not work if we did not factor in relativity because time passes quicker for satellites in orbit than it does for people on the ground because masses slow down time! Far from being 'just a theory', General Relativity is a theory that has withstood intense testing and scrutiny to the point that there is no reasonable doubt about it. If non-believers can think of a new test that will prove General Relativity wrong then they are welcome to try. Fame and Nobel prizes await the person who succeeds. (See also the video 'Why Science is NOT Just a Theory').

The hypothetical possibility that a theory might be disproved does not invalidate the theory. At some point the theory of General Relativity must be reframed in such a way as to marry it with quantum mechanics (though Stephen Hawking has said he doubts this will ever happen), but the chances are that General Relativity will not be invalidated by this; it will simply become a special case of a more comprehensive theory. Carroll says of his view of the universe:
"...it would be unreasonable for me to doubt it; those beliefs add significantly to my understanding of the universe, accord with massive piles of evidence, and contribute substantially to the coherence of my overall worldview."
And just to repeat,
"...at the energy, mass and length scales relevant to your everyday lives" we know all the laws of physics... "If there are any other forces, particles, fields or phenomena they can't affect the atoms in your brain and body because either they are so weak that they could not affect the atoms, or we would have found them. Those are the only two options." 
There is no reasonable doubt that we know everything we need to know about atoms to rule out the afterlife. Which brings us to statement four.

4. When you die there is no way for the information that was you to persist
“The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things, sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” — Sir Arthur Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World, 1915)
If propositions 1-3 are true, and to the best of our knowledge they do seem to be, then everything we are depends on the arrangement of atoms in our bodies. Everything. Indeed, we know that if we start to disorder those atoms, especially in the brain, then we begin to lose parts of ourselves. One of the most poignant examples is dementia. As parts of the brain are damaged or replaced by scar tissue, memories fade, the personality is distorted and the intellect fails. The person we knew gradually fades from view, until they are gone quite a while before the body dies. No form of death is pleasant, but watching a person die slowly this way is especially painful. There's no question, but that the destruction of the brain leads to the destruction of the mind. If the mind were not the brain we would not expect the devastation of dementia to be so complete. It would not matter if the brain was destroyed because the mind is not the brain. But this is what we see: destroy the brain, destroy the mind.

Here, again, there are exceptions. The brain is extraordinarily plastic. So people who suffer from hydrocephalus, for example, can end up with a brain volume of about 10% of average and still function. It's not clear how this affects the number of neurons, and since humans have widely differing brain sizes but a very similar number of neurons, the volume issue is less interesting than it seems at first. A 5ft tall woman will have considerably less brain volume that a 7ft man, but may have considerably more intellectual capacity. Some epilepsy sufferers have had half their brain removed and continued to function. In this case, the part of the brain removed was diseased and not functioning anyway, so the loss of it was not as catastrophic as it might be for a healthy individual. Typically, this operation is an extreme reaction to one side of the brain producing almost constant seizures and the ending of seizures is a good trade off for any down-side of the radical excision of one side of the brain. Still, it is remarkable how the brain adapts.

The main reason that the information that makes up 'me' is lost in death relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in any closed system entropy increases. If we add milk to coffee, they mix spontaneously and form an homogeneous mixture. Unmixing the mixed milk and coffee is more or less impossible. A living being takes in low entropy energy and excretes high entropy energy, thereby allowing it to maintain the order of its atoms that might otherwise tend to become disordered. When we die this process stops and our atoms quite quickly become disordered and the information stored as ordered atoms that constitutes "us" is lost. Five minutes of not breathing and the disorder is irreversible.

And, because there are no significant gaps in the physics, there is nowhere for something that survives the destruction of the brain to hide. There's nothing extra to survive your death; there's no way for your consciousness or your karma to be transmitted to another brain. There's just no room for that to happen. For Buddhists, this argument is especially salient. The history of Buddhist ideas is dominated by the problem of continuity: too much and it starts to look like a soul, too little and karma cannot work. Different sects push the boundaries in both directions, almost always attracting derision from their fellow religionists. Physics, it turns out, says that beyond any reasonable doubt there is and can be no personal post-mortem continuity. If we are relying on a God of the Gaps argument for consciousness, we just ran out of gaps for the mind or the spirit to hide in.

It's game over for the afterlife and we have to start rethinking religion. Really. It's time to start over. Sean Carroll, speaking specifically to the conclusions people draw from near death experiences, puts it like this: 
"There are only two choices: some ill-defined metaphysical substance, not subject to the known laws of physics, interacts with the atoms of our brains in ways that have thus far eluded every controlled experience ever performed in the history of science, or, people hallucinate when they're nearly dead."
And yet some people, presently the majority of Buddhists, think option one sounds better. The idea that our special experiences might not be precious insights into the nature of reality, but something far more mundane does not appeal to the religious. And this is understandable. 

If I say that the light I "saw" and the voice I "heard" were a manifestation of White Tārā (to use an example from my own life) then I get a certain amount of kudos from my peers. Visions are seen as important confirmations of religious faith and articles of that faith. The vision is vouchsafed to the devotee who is pure of heart, so those who have visions are held in high regard. If I am embedded in a religious context, then my vision reinforces my status in the group and my own faith in the tenets of the group. On the other hand, if I deny the validity of the vision I am placing myself in opposition to the will of the group which will make them hostile to me. Either the group will try to coerce me into compliance or it will shun me (at worst kill me). There is a small chance that I will influence the will of the group to change its view. In reality, my best hope is to provide ammo for more charismatic group members who have a better chance of swaying the collective will, by refining and extending the arguments we rely on to get a decision. Which is what I see myself doing.

Even some people who are well versed in the laws of physics (at least one colleague of mine has a Cambridge degree in physics) believe in an afterlife. Perhaps because the social cost of not believing is so high? Perhaps because an unfair universe seems unbearable? Perhaps they are just confused? I don't really know. Certainly, most people have only the vaguest grasp of science and can hardly be expected to base their beliefs on an understanding of physics. A patent example of this was a recent BBC radio documentary featuring novelist and "Professor of Contemporary Thought" at Brunel University, Will Self: Self orbits CERN. Self is famously well versed in the English language and specialises in use of obscure and archaic words. He has a huge vocabulary. But he is so hopelessly lost when confronted by the scientists involved in the CERN project that he confesses that he does not believe that they can be doing what they say they are. He literally does not believe in the Large Hadron Collider. If one of Britain's leading intellectuals is so hopelessly lost, then what hope for the average person?

Honouring the Experience

One of the qualities which has marked our Thomas Metzinger for me is the inclusiveness of his vision (something Sean Carroll lacks). Metzinger has said that a theory of consciousness which did not account for out-of-body experiences is just not interesting. The scientific study of consciousness is still relatively young. When James Crick joined the Salk Institute in 1976, less than forty years ago, the field was just getting started and was hardly taken seriously. It is understandable that scientists would want to start with the basics, to try to understand the generalities. Perhaps they can be forgiven for putting the mystical and the weird to one side to begin with. On the other hand, secularists are often a bit dismissive of unusual experiences, though I think this is slowly changing. Studies of meditators meditating are currently quite popular, and the surge in interest in using mindfulness techniques for health and wellbeing are helping to fuel this. It may not last, but I think the frontiers of human experience are likely to become more interesting to scientists as they bed down the basics. Scientists like Olaf Blanke are studying the once inaccessible out-of-body experiences and can now routinely induce them in subjects. What they learn extends our understanding of the mind.

Even when challenging the interpretation of such experiences, it's important to acknowledge that, for the person having the experience, it can be very significant. In seeking a different explanation, we might inevitably create tensions. Demystifying or de-romanticising experience is likely to be painful for the mystic or romantic. We do need to be sensitive to this. Attacking someone's beliefs with no regard for how that person feels is unethical. I know that other essays I've written on this subject have upset people. I don't aim to upset anyone, I aim to convey my understanding of what's going on (though I am susceptible to various human flaws).

In seeking to understand, we can draw two kinds of conclusions: what knowledge tells us about the world, and what it tells us about the mind. We already know that it's possible to fool the mind. Just look at optical illusions, let alone hallucinations. We need to allow for this in our calculations. It may be that a certain type of experience, say oceanic boundary loss, cannot be interpreted literally. We are not literally one with the universe. We do not leave our body during an out-of-body experience. However, that kind of experience can legitimately change the way we relate to the world, and especially to the people in it. The feeling of being 'one with everything' can break down artificial barriers between people. Imagine if we all had the experience and could all relate to the other more easily and positively? It's an optimistic vision. It inspired a lot of people in the 1960s even if their route in was via LSD. Altered states of consciousness alert us to new possibilities. They remind us that the brain is flexible. Such experiences are inherently interesting, even if we don't buy into ancient explanations of them.

It ought to be possible to hold both the underlying explanation and the philosophical conclusions. And if there is some tension, then it is likely to be a creative tension. That said, I know many Buddhists would like to cast me out of the Buddhist community for even expressing these views. One of the most senior members of the Triratna Order is insistent that one cannot be a Buddhist if one does not believe in rebirth (fortunately others are more of my mind). This is a widespread view. But if the afterlife is not true, then Buddhists have no choice but to change their minds and their spiel. It's difficult to admit we got it wrong after so many centuries, but if we truly believe that everything changes, then embracing this change ought to be possible.

The Afterlife is a False Consolation

The afterlife most familiar to most scientists in the West is Abrahamic: one dies and goes to heaven to meet God and live forever (only infidels go to hell). Carroll inveighs against this version of the afterlife. However, the points he makes are relevant to the Buddhist afterlife. We sometimes forget that the appropriate comparison is not heaven = saṃsāra, but heaven = nirvāṇa (a point that was clearly not lost on the early Buddhists who used this comparison on a number of occasions). The main point is that there cannot be a perfect state of being in reality. Perfection denies the physics of life which is all about change. Perfection is a state of zero change and thus perfection is the opposite of life. Perfection requires an alternate reality, i.e., heaven or nirvāṇa, but nothing could live in that reality.

Perfection is not even a desirable state. In fact, living forever would be unbearable, even if our every whim were granted, because getting what we desire is never ultimately satisfying (desire simply shifts to a new object). The Upaniṣads and early Buddhist texts highlight an alternative idea to satisfying all desires, which is to be perfectly free of desire. But this is not possible for the living either, and can only find completion in death. Sean Carroll goes further and warns against fetishing happiness. When we make happiness our goal we tend to end up on the hedonic treadmill. This is because we associated happiness with pleasure or satisfying desires. And desires, as above, can never be ultimately satisfied.

In other words, this godless, reductionist, materialist has adduced two of the main points of Buddhism as important principles for living, and presents them without any super-natural super-structure. It shows that we can be moral, and even wise, without the burden of traditional religious beliefs.

The end of the afterlife is a bitter pill for Buddhists, because it means that our traditional narratives of karma and rebirth are over. If I say "Karma is dead" it is of the same order as Nietzsche's pronouncement "God is dead". Without the afterlife, karma cannot ensure the fairness of the universe. Many people come to Buddhism because of an experience of unfairness (illness, death, divorce, etc.). And they are attracted to the idea that things balance out. But, unfortunately, we have to let this idea go. And experience suggests that Buddhists can be quite hostile to this suggestion.

The end of the Myth of the Afterlife is a beautiful moment for humans. We are growing up. We are finally seeing things as they really are. We have to deal with things now. We are responsible for what is happening. It means the onus is on humans to both reward and punish more assiduously, and to think very carefully about what constitutes good and evil, because the universe is not going to square things up after death. The universe is ordered, but it is not a moral order. It means that if we want to have meaningful lives we have to put the meaning into life ourselves; and not expect to find it in death.

It's a new world.


25 March 2015
"At the root of the muddle [about consciousness] lies an inability to overcome the Very Large Mistake so clearly identified by Eddington and others in the 1920s—not to mention the lovely Irishman John Toland in 1704, Anthony Collins in 1707, Hume in 1739, Priestley in 1777–8, and many others. The mistake is to think we know enough about the nature of  physical reality to have any good reason to think that consciousness can’t be physical. It seems to be stamped so deeply in us, by our everyday experience of matter as lumpen  stuff, that not even appreciation of the extraordinary facts of current physics can weaken its hold." - Galen Strawson. 'The consciousness myth (revised).' The Times Literary Supplement 27 February 2015 (no. 5839 pp. 14–15)


22 Sept 2020
 See Also: Shermer, Michael. (2017). "Why the You in an Afterlife Wouldn't Really Be You: Memories, points of view and the self." Scientific American 317, 1, 73.  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-ldquo-you-rdquo-in-an-afterlife-wouldnt-really-be-you/

"Memory is a continually edited and fluid process that utterly depends on the neurons in your brain being functional."

"Awareness of our mortality is uplifting because it means that every moment, every day and every relationship matters."  


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