Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's Next?

Okay, so maybe I don’t post too often here, but when I do, I try to make it worthwhile. This particular jeremiad comes as a result of trying to answer an existential question from my 12-year old son (“Is there a Heaven for us when we die?”) without compromising what I believe, and without bumming him out. I think I accomplished both, but it left me with a whole lotta thoughts, which I’ve tried to organize here ...

Seeing as how we humans are, as far as we know, the only creatures on the planet (maybe in the universe, for that matter, though I personally think the odds are against us being unique, what with 100 billion stars in this galaxy alone, and 100 billion galaxies of similar size just in that part of the universe that we can see) that live in awareness of four dimensions instead of just three, it makes sense that we spend a lot of time wondering What’s Next. And, since we don’t know What’s Next, we also spend a lot of time making up stories about What’s Next. In other words, the afterlife.

(Just to make sure we’re all on the same papyrus here, when I say “afterlife”, I mean the continuation of some immortal, usually immaterial form of consciousness, with memories and thoughts more or less intact. Not reincarnation, which is the supposed continuation of consciousness in a new physical form, albeit with memories of past lives usually blocked by death and/or birth trauma, and not some kind of gestalt entity that’s metaphysically more than the sum of various individuals. I mean, purely and simply, the soul -- the continued existence of the mind after the body has gone kerflooie.)

We’ve had various legends and beliefs about life after death ever since we stopped getting our knuckles dusty, if not before. Cro-Magnon cave art in Altamira, Lascaux and bunches of other prehistoric timeshares attest to this. Contrary to popular belief, religions didn’t start out simple and get more complicated as civilizations did. If you want proof, just take a stroll through the Fields of Aaru, ancient Egypt’s version of Heaven -- if you can get in, that is. First you have to be mummified, an excruciatingly drawn-out process involving, among other indignities, having your brain scooped out through your nose. (Of course, being already dead makes it easier, I suppose.) Then you have your heart weighed by Anubis; if your ticker’s no heavier than a feather, you get to pass Go; if not, it’s eaten by Ammit the Devourer, a demon made of equal parts lion, hippo and crocodile. Ouch. And once you get past Anubis, it’s still many a long kilo to Paradise, along a road beset with cranky, knife-wielding demons. And you thought Saint Peter’s Pearly Gates was a tough room.

We can debate the excesses and foolishness of various belief systems until the holy cows come home -- there’s something to offend everybody in doing that. Nor am I above going for the cheap laugh (e.g., Scientology). But what I want to explore is the notion of the survival of the soul after death. It all comes down to two questions:

1) How much evidence is there for an afterlife, and --
2) How much evidence is there against?

The answer to the first question is easy: Zero. Nada. Zip.
The answer to the second is easy, too: Oodles.

So, first off -- what objective evidence (remember, according to the Scientific Method a hypothesis must be testable, and the way it’s tested is through means that are empirical and measurable) is there for life after death?


At this point, most people immediately point indignantly quivering fingers at NDEs (Near Death Experiences). They mention the commonality of such experiences, which surely serves as proof for those not too blind to see. After all, if one dying person sees a glowing tunnel with a numinous light at the end, that could just be the last gasp of oxygen-starved tissue, but if a whole buncha people have in essence the same experience (minor details, like your mileage, may vary), then that’s proof, right? Can I get an “Amen!”?

Well, no. It could be the Local to Harpland, but it could also simply be that the brain is hardwired to create such hallucinations at the moment that our mortal coils get shuffled off. (Having done my share -- and probably yours, too -- of woo-hoo drugs, I’m personally convinced that this is the way to bet -- but I still acknowledge that I have no proof of this.) Still, the commonality of NDEs don’t mean doodley-squat, since they’re all subjective. If I see someone about to die get on the last train to Croaksville, then they’ve got my attention. Plus a lot of Hosannas.

Okay, so what about the evidence against? Simple - so simple that it’s practically impossible to believe so many millions can willfully ignore it. We’ve mapped and charted every last bit of the brain, and we know what mental functions correspond to where. (And don’t even start with that crap about only using ten percent of the brain. The only people that’s true for are the yokels who believe it in the first place.) More importantly for this argument, we know that damage to the brain’s physical sites causes corresponding damage to the mind.

And that’s it. We’re done. Case closed.

We know that ischemic strokes can cause infarctions that starve the brain of oxygen, and a direct result of this can be mental impairment. We know that brain trauma can cause a near-infinite variety of cognitive dysfunctions, sensory impairment, paralysis and other problems. We know that damage to the frontal lobes causes problems with sequencing tasks, lability, aphasia; that parietal injury can cause troubles with reading, writing, mathematical ability and coordination; that temporal lobe trauma can cause memory loss, asexuality and aggression.

To name but a few.

So -- if we are possessed of immortal souls that are bound to our physical forms during life, yet can somehow be cast, free and unharmed, from the brain’s mooring at the moment of death, does it make any sense whatsoever that, up until that moment, physical brain injury can cause devastating consequences to the mind?

We all die. It’s the single universal experience shared by every one of us (I’m not counting birth, since we’re not really conscious beyond a rudimentary stage when we’re born). But we all die, and, if religion is to be believed, we’re all conscious in some form or other beyond the veil. All of us, including the greatest savants and thinkers of our species. If there is a world beyond, then it includes such minds as Einstein, Archimedes, Edison, da Vinci ... a list much too long to even begin to inventory. And we can assume that, in that vast assemblage of knowledge and ability, there must be a few who are interested in letting those of us who are still alive know what to expect in the afterlife.

So I can’t help but wonder:

With the greatest minds in all of human history backing the project for centuries, with brilliance unparalleled in both theoretical and practical applications -- in short, with access to the best and brightest think tank ever -- why hasn’t anybody been able to come up with a more sophisticated way of telling us What’s Next than the Ouija Board?


Steve Perry said...

Given what you believe and what your youngest wanted to know, how did you manage to make him feel okay about the answer?

Michael said...

I think I did. I kinda copped out a little by saying I didn't know -- that no one did, but that if he wanted to believe in God and Heaven, he could go ahead. I didn't go into all the reasons why it's superstition in my book, because at the end of the day, we're all agnostics. (Also told him he wasn't going to die for a long time, and so needn't worry about it now.) He thought about it for awhile, then said, "So God is basically Santa."

Smart kid.

Steve Perry said...

Smart enough to get online and read your blog, I bet.

Michael said...

Hmmm ...

Jonathan said...

Sigh. The age-old question without an answer. Do I believe in a supreme being, that there is something after all of this? My logic says no. My heart says no. But regardless, do I want to believe? Certainly. I think whether one admits it or not, no person wants death to be the end.

I am reminded of three excerpts from Cormac McCarthy that I jotted down while reading (I do that often while reading something that hits me - is that odd?). The first from The Crossing:

Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from.

The second from All the Pretty Horses:

In all cases I refused to believe in a God who could permit such injustice as I saw in a world of his own making.

The third from Blood Meridian:

For let it go how it will, he said, God speaks in the least of creatures.
The kid thought him to mean birds or things that crawl but the expriest, watching, his head slightly cocked, said: No man is give leave of that voice.
The kid spat into the fire and bent to his work.
I aint heard no voice, he said.
When it stops, said Tobin, you'll know you've heard it all your life.

Have you read any McCarthy? It is a theme that seems to run through all of his stories, the existence and role that God plays in the world.

Surface Tension said...

I think your point about brain damage and what it could mean about the existence of a soul is quite interesting, but I think it hardly qualifies as "objective evidence" (as in, no experiment has proven a connection between brain function and the soul). Trying to use physical properties to disprove a metaphysical theory leaves quite a lot of wiggle room for someone inclined to argue the existence of the soul (a subject on which my feelings are unclear).

J.S. said...

We’ve mapped and charted every last bit of the brain, and we know what mental functions correspond to where.

But that's not really true... What we have are hypothesis that are constantly proved wrong by day-to-day life. I personally have a part of my brain that doesn't work and doesn't send the good hormones, and medecine have no explanation at all for this. Plus, this lack of hormone should have a direct consequence on my behaviour, and it never occured. And that's not a very uncommon phenomenon, to see people with brain damage do things they were not supposed to do. So, yeah, maybe, in the future, we will find the perfect map, but for now, thinking that it can be done is just a pure act of faith...
(excuse my English, I'm French)

Enna said...

When my sister was in Duke medical school a few years ago, they taught her that sightings of a dead loved one never qualify as a delusions, medically speaking. Apparently, they are incredibly common, even among educated, intelligent people with no mental health problems.

It's also not true that the brain has been completely mapped out. For one thing, each person, prior to neurosurgery, must be tested, because the physical areas of the brain that correspond to certain functions vary in some cases for specific individuals. For another thing, no one has identified any particular portion of the brain as the seat of consciousness. My sister's now an anesthesiologist, and she hears accounts of people retaining some level of consciousness even when their brain appears, to all current tests, to be shut down. (This doesn't mean they feel pain - that worse case scenario is extremely rare. Less rare is someone who retains painless memories of events - conversations between doctors, images of equipment -during a surgery when their brain function is virtually nil.) None of this proves that the afterlife exists. But there is more to human consciousness than is explained by modern medical science.