Saturday, 4 June 2022

Why are people so certain there's no soul or an afterlife?

Are we essentially souls and will our souls continue on after we die? Both from a philosophical perspective and by virtue of all the evidence, I gravitate strongly towards a "yes" answer.

This is not to say I am certain. For one thing, it all seems very fanciful that at the threshold of death I'll ascend into some other reality, and to perhaps be greeted by dead relatives. We live in a cold, harsh, dreary, material world and it feels implausible, far-fetched, whimsical, and a product of wishful thinking to suppose there's anything beyond this life.

And there's also another reason. The preponderance of educated people, and especially those with a scientific background, emphatically reject the existence of a soul or an afterlife. Indeed, both professional scientists and philosophers appear to be virtually unanimous in this judgement. If so many seemingly intelligent people disagree with me on this issue, and indeed seem so certain in their dismissal of an afterlife, could it be that I am missing something?  That I'm not understanding something?

To be absolutely honest, having extensively read skeptical literature in addition to having thought deeply about this topic for decades, I don't think I am missing anything. I think many educated people are extremely impressed with the phenomenal success of modern science and this has played a pivotal role in encouraging a certain metaphysical view of the world -- namely that the world is wholly material, and that science, at least in principle, can provide a complete account of it. Our fundamental natures, that is what we essentially are, will not be excluded in such an account. Hence, the conclusion is that we are wholly material beings whose behaviour is simply the inevitable consequence of physical laws playing out. In other words, we are no different to any other material object. The existence of consciousness is played down, being reinterpreted as being one and the very same thing as a material process, or even being viewed as simply being an illusion.

Groupthink amongst the intelligentsia reinforces this materialist conception of reality. Even when academics harbour doubts, they are likely to keep such views close to their chests since dissenting views are often ferociously attacked.
One notable example here is the philosopher Thomas Nagel who was ferociously attacked for having the temerity to attack materialism in his book Mind and Cosmos . This despite the fact he rejects both an afterlife and a God.

I think that in something like 500 years time
, an afterlife might well be universally accepted and many people will look back to this time with some bemusement and even bewilderment at peoples trenchant certainty in materialism. They'll be especially bemused and bewildered at those who believe consciousness is an illusion. Indeed, to a certain extent, the behaviourism of the early 20th century is already viewed with incredulity by many. Human beings, including academics, are very prone to believing in the most fatuous things, and it is often only in retrospect that a sufficient number of people recognise this fatuity for what it is.

So intellectually I believe in an afterlife and for the reasons I have expressed in a number of essays in this blog. Nevertheless, the fact that an afterlife feels fanciful together with so many peoples unwavering certainty that this is the only life there is, does give me pause for thought.     

Sunday, 8 May 2022

After death will we be subsumed into a universal soup of consciousness?

After death I don't think our individual selves or souls are subsumed into a universal soup of consciousness, which I regard as being close to the extinction of the individual. Perhaps we survive as distinct entities, but acquire an infinite telepathic identification and empathy with all others, or at least of those souls similar to oneself. So a kind of joining together. This of course need not happen immediately after death, but may be the ultimate destination.


Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Philosophy has been accused of making no progress, does it therefore make it pointless?

 

Science makes progress so why doesn't Philosophy?

Since the scientific revolution of the 17th Century, the progress of science has been a relentless triumphant one. This is vindicated by the fact that it has been extraordinarily fruitful in terms of the prediction and manipulation of our environment, as well as in the creation of our technology. The same cannot be said for philosophy. Why has there been such a lack of progress in philosophy, especially when we compare it to science?

We first have to recognize the difference between science and philosophy. Both disciplines seek to establish the truth. But, although there is overlap, in general, I would suggest that the nature of the truths that each of these disciplines seeks to establish are of differing types.

At a minimum, science seeks to accurately describe how the physical world unfolds and to manipulate the environment in the creation of our technology. Here we can easily see why progress is relatively easily achievable. For i
f someone proposes a scientific theory that describes some aspect of the world, it is in principle susceptible to being tested through our observations. A theory that fails to mirror what we actually observe can be discarded.

Now, let's consider philosophy and specifically the most important questions we can ask ourselves. Questions such as, 'what is the world', 'why is there something rather than nothing', 'does a creator exist', 'do we have free will', 'is there a purpose to our existence'? Or in the realm of ethics where we ask practically important questions such as, 'what is the Good', 'how should we live', 'should society seek to maximise happiness', and so on. All these questions appear to be purely philosophical since it seems there are no empirical investigations we can carry out that can help us to establish the answers to them. The resolutions to such questions have to rely upon arguments alone.

So, what generally (but see the next section) demarcates scientific issues from philosophical ones, at least for a lot of the deeper philosophical questions, is that the former can be tested, the latter has to rely upon arguments.

There's a problem with just exclusively employing arguments though, and it is this. Even if the arguments are sound, other people have to be able to understand them, and a sufficient number of people at that to overturn prevalent pre-existing beliefs. Compounding this problem, people have to be motivated to read the arguments in the first place. How many people are motivated to read an argument that contravenes their implicit beliefs? And, even when they do, might they not be doing so in order to try and pick holes in it rather than adopting an attitude of an open-minded enquiry and a dispassionate search for the truth? If that were not enough, philosophy is extremely difficult. It includes asking the most important questions we humans can ask ourselves, and the process of reasoning to certain conclusions can engender no end of misunderstandings and confusions. Sound reasoning is frequently heavily outweighed by erroneous reasoning that comes to incorrect conclusions.

So the reason why philosophy doesn't progress is due to the fact that on the few occasions where someone has an insight and produces a sound argument for something or other, it does not have sufficient influence amongst other people to gain sufficient traction. People will frequently not be able to comprehend the argument. Or they may feel antipathy towards the conclusion of the argument if it contravenes their entrenched beliefs. More often still, though, philosophical arguments are simply ignored. Contrast this with science. For example, consider the science behind powered flight. Would such science have been convincing in the absence of a practical demonstration? It seems not since the stories regarding the success of the Wright brothers were met at first with ridicule. But seeing is believing. In short, science progresses because people are convinced by what they can see with their eyes. Philosophy generally lacks this validation.

Is philosophy therefore pointless, or even meaningless?

It is commonly felt that because philosophy doesn't progress, at least in the form of universal assent, then it has no use at all. That is to say, it is pointless. Indeed, there are even some that suggest that the questions philosophy asks are meaningless. I suppose the idea here is that if no progress is made, then this implies no progress can be made because the questions themselves are, in principle, unanswerable. And they presume they are unanswerable since they are, quite literally, meaningless.  

I do not think this charge passes muster for one second. First of all, the lack of progress will be for the reasons I mention above. Moreover, clearly many philosophical questions have at least meaning, even the deepest questionsFor example, either there is a creator (however conceived), or there isn't. If the latter, then the whole shebang came into existence by blind fortuity, or by
 happenstance, or by however one chooses to frame it. But, even when rejecting a creator, the question of whether or not there is a creator still has meaning. So, whatever the truth is here, whether there is a creator or not, there is a fact of the matter, even if it is a fact that forevermore lies beyond the ability of human beings to fathom.

There are further reasons to reject the contention that philosophical questions are meaningless, or at least pointless. I mentioned above that what demarcates scientific issues from philosophical ones is that the former is decided by empirical investigations, the latter by arguments. But that was a bit simplistic. It is somewhat more involved and nuanced than this. In fact, there is no rigid demarcation between science and philosophy.

For example, consider 
Galileo's argument that demonstrates that objects of different weights must fall at the same acceleration (see my post Thought Experiments in my other blog). Thought experiments, such as this are, strictly speaking, philosophical. But Galileo's argument is an example of a thought experiment that can be empirically investigated -- namely by dropping two objects of different weights from a high height and seeing if they reach the ground at the same time.

There are also examples of philosophical reasoning or thought experiments that although cannot be empirically established at the time they are articulated, are eventually susceptible to empirical investigation. So, for example, George Berkeley back in the 18th Century in his essay Du Motu produced sound arguments against the notion of absolute space, although his argument was ignored by virtually everyone. Berkeley's insight foreshadowed the rejection of absolute space in the 20th Century that came with the general acceptance of Einstein's special theory of relativity. 

So we can definitively conclude that at least some philosophy is able to establish truths about the world. And what is pivotal to their widespread acceptance is whether they can be empirically investigated -- sound arguments alone are generally insufficient. But whether some sound philosophical argument or insight can be empirically investigated or not is incidental to an argument's soundness. That is, a philosophical argument can be sound, even if it can never be empirically validated.

Should we exclusively refer to science to establish truths about the world?

It seems to me to be clear that our empirical investigations of the world do not always overturn those reached by a process of reasoning. To give one example, if we measure the area of a circle and it differs from πr², we wouldn't conclude the geometrical reasoning establishing it is πr² was incorrect. Rather, we would assume our measuring was inaccurate, or alternatively that it wasn't a perfect circle. Likewise, if we had measured objects of different weights falling at differing accelerations, would we conclude that Galileo's thought experiment was flawed and even pointless? No, because given the crucial proviso that Galileo's reasoning was sound, we should conclude there must have been some mistake in our empirical investigations that only seem to suggest that the heavier an object is, the faster it falls. Perhaps the experimenter was dropping a stone and a feather! 

There is another reason to reject this contention that we should just rely solely and exclusively on science to tell us about the world. Earlier, I said that at a minimum science seeks to accurately describe how the physical world unfolds and to manipulate the environment in the creation of our technology. But the vast majority of people -- and this also includes the vast majority of scientists -- regard science as doing much more than this. They regard science, or at least physics, as revealing to us the ultimate nature of reality. That our scientific theories depict literal states of affairs. That the plethora of subatomic particles and the four forces featuring in our theories in physics, all have a literal existence. There is also most scientists' belief that the success of science entails that materialism, indeed often reductive materialism, provides the correct depiction of reality.1

As many of you will know, I question all of this. For example, see my What physicists claim exists can be doubted, my Self-floating books, my What philosophical questions does science answer?, and my Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out.  

But whether you agree with me or not in any of these essays is simply not relevant. By all means, disagree with me, but this doesn't alter the fact that these issues are philosophical ones, not ones that can be decided by science itself. The problem here, though, is that most people, including scientists, do not appear to understand this. Our scientific education, which in turn smuggles in certain metaphysical suppositions, instils certain beliefs about the nature of the world. We soak up, almost by osmosis, western "wisdom" about what exists, what the world is and so on.

So philosophy, or more specifically metaphysics, is always implicitly involved in forming our conception of the nature of reality. It's just that many people, including scientists, are not aware that it is. They mistakenly think that science validates their metaphysical conception of reality. I regard this as highly undesirable. As those who have read some of my blog will be aware, this in my opinion had led to many fatuous conclusions regarding the nature of the world and what we human beings are.

Let me provide just one example of such fatuous conclusions. Consider the claim that physicists make that consciousness in and of itself lacks any causal efficacy. In reality, everything we ever do, and even think, is the result of the blind interactions of subatomic particles and their forces. But if we strip physics of its metaphysical assumptions and hold that physics merely describes changes in material reality that utilizes mathematical equations, we can see how silly this is. For, when we get right down to it, we are effectively saying that the patterns we observe in the subatomic realm serve to negate our immediate and direct experience of our own causal agency.

Let me go into more detail to try and explicate this further. Firstly, people are immediately aware of their own causal agency.  They then project this concept of causal agency into the material world in order to try and make sense of change within it (i.e. they don't like to suppose the patterns in the material world are just a brute fact). Crucially, they regard such material causes as accounting for all change in the world, this includes our brains too since they are material objects. Couple this with the belief that the brain produces consciousness, then it follows that it will be such material causes that account for the totality of our behaviour, including the progression of our thoughts.  Hence, they now deny their immediate experience that it is their own consciousness per se that is responsible for their behaviour.

Just reflect for one moment how crazy this is. First of all, it seems we were directly cognisant of the mental causal potency of our own consciousness as witnessed by our ability to move our own bodies and think our own thoughts. We thereby inferred the material world is also governed by causes, this time by material causes. We then
turned this on its head.  For we now deny that our own immediately experienced causal agency exists, and in fact, only the inferred causal agency in the material world exists!2

Conclusion


Scientists enjoy a prestige only dreamt of by professional philosophers. Hence, there is a disincentive for philosophers to advance ideas challenging scientists' metaphysical presuppositions. A philosopher doing so risks having their ideas labelled "absurd" and even being mercilessly ridiculed. This in turn runs the risk of their careers being negatively impacted. Because of this, and due to other factors such as groupthink, professional philosophers tend to pander to scientists beliefs. Regretfully, as a consequence, philosophy lacks the impact it should and ought to have. Philosophy's lack of influence is not due to its pointlessness though, it's due rather to the unjustified hegemony of scientists' metaphysical beliefs.
 
 

1 Note that materialism is independent from the question of whether our theories in physics depict a literal state of affairs -- one could be a dualist, for example, and be happy to hold that our theories in physics gives a literal representation of material reality



2 Of course, one can believe both in the causal efficacy of consciousness or mental causality, and material causality too. However, that would contravene physicists belief that the world is physically closed. Physically closed just means they believe that only material causes exist (see a relevant post in my other blog here)

Friday, 8 April 2022

My beliefs regarding a "God".

I'm not an atheist, at least not the modern western kind with the associated beliefs that the Universe is a brute fact, and we are just biological robots with no afterlife and simply create our own meanings to our lives. I do not think we have compelling reasons, or frankly any reasons, to believe any of this.

But I also reject this idea that there is this cosmic superhero type of God who is all powerful and tinkers with the laws of nature to bring about desirable ends. That is, I do not believe in the type of "God" that atheists tend to focus on and ridicule.

I'm not sure what I do believe, I only have a vague feeling. I think such a question is perhaps beyond what we human beings can understand or discern.

But, if pressed, I would say that I tend to gravitate towards the idea that there is a fundamental non-personal ‘spiritual presence’ that pervades and suffuses the entirety of reality. That reality as a whole is somehow infused with this conscious presence that we all somehow partake in. And that all conscious creatures -- indeed all things, all events, everything that has been, everything that will be -- is infused with ultimate meaning. But what such an ultimate meaning is eludes us in our present states.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Is there much point in arguing with others?

Whatever the topic it seems to be a pretty much universal tendency for those who oppose a particular stance or position, to only address the more naïve and weakest arguments for it. And even when engaging with more thoughtful opponents, they tend to attribute to them a more naïve or simplistic position than the one they actually hold and attack that instead.

When challenged on this, they tend to defend this strategy by claiming that many, if not most people, do actually subscribe to the belief in question for the very reasons that they are attacking.

Of course, most people might well believe something for weak or misguided reasons -- or  indeed, often for no reasons at all. But I do not see how this has any relevance to the truth or falsity of a more nuanced stance on the belief in question.

For example, many people believe that evolutionary theory holds that we humans descended directly from apes, or even monkeys. But would attacking such a notion and showing how implausible it is, have any implications for the actual mainstream evolution theory? Obviously not, since attacking such a wrongheaded notion of evolution doesn't touch the idea that both humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor (humans didn't evolve from apes!). But this type of attacking of the more naïve stances taken on a belief happens constantly, for example when attacking the notion of an afterlife.

If we want to show a belief is foolish, we don't achieve this by attacking and ridiculing the weakest reasons and/or evidence, even though many people might be convinced by such weak reasons/evidence. Rather we should seek out the strongest reasons or evidence and attempt to show that it is lacking.

I think the main goal when people argue is to get back-slapped by their supporters and increase their status and prestige amongst them. But I also think they themselves become convinced that they have genuinely confronted the best reasons and evidence. People actually self-deceive themselves that they have genuinely engaged with the more powerful arguments and defeated them. This seems to be pretty much universal, even within the academic community.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

The degrading of our mental faculties as we age

I know I keep banging on about the same topic, but I just find it extraordinary that people (mainly skeptics, but also some believers) think the degrading of our mental faculties arising from a dysfunctional or impaired brain will also apply in any afterlife.  Hence, if someone is suffering from dementia at the time of their death, then they will also be suffering forevermore from dementia in any possible afterlife.  For example, Bill Nye said:

"People my age have a lot of grandparents and parents who are not as sharp, certainly not as athletically capable or physically capable as they were when they were younger.

"And so watching ourselves die is to me, overwhelming evidence that there is no life after death.

"There's certainly no — it doesn't seem to be any reason to think that when you die, you go back to your optimum age at your optimum athletic ability in your optimum intellectual sharpness."

Either:

a) The brain produces consciousness and the self.

b) Consciousness and the self/soul can exist apart from the brain.  However, when the self/ soul is associated with a brain (embodied), the brain affects the self's/soul's conscious states.

If there is an afterlife, at least in the sense of a soul dwelling in some afterlife realm, then "a" cannot be true. So if there is an afterlife we must subscribe to "b".

So assuming "b", any deterioration in our mental faculties that happens as a consequence of a dysfunctional or impaired brain is . .well . . due to the brain and the brain alone... duh... Or, in other words, it's not due to any change in the soul or self. Therefore, there cannot be any implications for our mental faculties in any afterlife. To understand this, consider the following analogy.

Bob has normal visual acuity. One day he puts on a pair of fake eyeglasses that just uses normal glass in the frame rather than lenses.  So his vision is not altered. What if he continues to wear them year after year and never takes them off during this time?  Also, he never cleans the glass nor replaces it? As time goes by, the glass will accumulate dirt and possible damage, and Bob's vision will progressively get worse and worse. But then, one day, he whips the eyeglasses off, and voila! His vision returns to his initial visual acuity.

So why on earth would it be any different for the soul or self? If the brain doesn't create the self, soul, or consciousness, how on earth could the detrimental effects arising from a dysfunctional brain somehow mysteriously linger on when one is in a disembodied state, as in the afterlife?  Our souls will no longer be associated with a brain, hence a dysfunctional or impaired brain cannot possibly affect our mental faculties in any afterlife.  It's just silly to suppose otherwise, and I think people are simply not thinking this through.



 

Sunday, 6 March 2022

Self-floating books

Let's imagine there's a stack of books floating in mid-air. There appears to be no reason for it. 

But suppose someone says we can explain why the top book is there. It's being supported by the book beneath it. The 2nd top book, that is, is exerting a force on the top book keeping it where it is.

Likewise we can explain why the 2nd top book is there -- it's being supported by the 3rd top book. And so on.

But what about the bottom book? Perhaps we can say there's no explanation for that. It's just a brute fact that it can float there mid-air!

But if that is the case have we actually provided an explanation for why any of the other books are there in mid-air? Surely not, we've simply kicked the explanatory can down the road, so to speak.

A similar situation exists in physics.  We observe the regularities of the world and say the reason why there are such regularities is ultimately due to fundamental physical laws and/or due to innate forces as revealed by physics.  Why do these fundamental physical laws or forces exist?  We don’t know, they are just a brute fact about the world with no further explanation.  But given that these physical laws/forces exist, we can explain how they give rise to certain phenomena.

It seems to me though that this is the same type of "explanation" as our floating stack of books. 

Going back to the stack of books.  I said that it might be suggested by someone that the top book remains where it is due to resting on the book beneath it, which exerts an upward force keeping the top book in its place.  But why can’t each book simply be self-floating?  The bottom book appears to have the capacity to be self-floating, so if no further explanation is required here, then why would any of the other books be different?

We imagine that forces exist out there in the world.  But, strictly speaking, we always just see events following each other.  We project forces into the world because we like explanations.  But, especially when we consider such forces do not provide a true explanation, do we have any reasons to suppose that such forces literally exist at all?

Consider computer games.  Our character that we control performs various actions in that game – our character perhaps presses a button in that game environment and a building in that game explodes.  But there are no actual forces here, the game does what it does due to following the rules the computer programmer has implemented.  

Do we have any compelling reasons, or indeed any reasons at all, to suppose our reality is different?  Even if there is no analogical equivalent to a computer programmer or "God", perhaps reality simply exhibits patterns that our physics describes?  But physics doesn't tell us why reality is like it is, it doesn't provide any true explanations any more than it does with our floating stack of books.

Related: 

What physicists claim exists can be doubted

The difference between science and metaphysics

Do scientific explanations actually explain?



Friday, 25 February 2022

The Alleged Problems with Interactive Substance Dualism

I read the following blog post  Arguments Against Mind-Body/Substance Dualism and Responses.  I typed out a response which I posted in my facebook group here  and also as a comment below his blog post.  Unfortunately, despite apparently being sympathetic to dualism, the author didn't accept it.  Normally it is those who subscribe to materialism that refuse to publish my comments! (One example is here).   I reproduce my comment below without alteration. 

All these arguments are ridiculous.

1. Damaged brains lead to damaged minds.

Churchland claims this “comes close to being an outright refutation of (substance) dualism.”

Obviously we can think of many examples where A affects B but where no-one would dream of concluding that A produces B. For example, eyeglasses affect our vision. As the lenses fog up, become scratched, perhaps warped or whatever, our vision will suffer. But then, when we take our glasses off, our vision is restored to what it was originally.

Moreover, just as there is no conceivable mechanism within eyeglasses that could produce vision, so there appears no conceivable mechanism within brains that could produce consciousness.

This damaged brains lead to damaged minds objection can only be rescued if we assume that cognitive ability, moods, memories etc are intrinsic to the soul and should never be able to be changed or altered, or attenuated. But here one would be assuming a materialist conception of personal identity and hence would be begging the question. For the substance dualist has a commonsensical conception of the self. The self is that which makes one feel one is the very same person from one hour to the next, one day to the next, and one year to the next. One’s moods might change from one hour to the next, one’s interests and even intelligence might change from one year to the next, nevertheless, it is still that person that undergoes all these changes. The I or me is the mental substance; contrariwise the moods, cognitive abilities, memories, interests and so on are the properties of the self/mental substance. These properties can change without me ceasing to exist and turning into another person.

2. Problem of embodiment

The critic of substance dualism asks: What is it for the mind to be housed in a body? What is it for a body to belong to a particular subject? The problem of embodiment, argues the critic, makes the union between mind and body mysterious.

What’s really mysterious is what this objection means or amounts to. One could retort that all change and interactions in the entire Universe are equally mysterious. The facts of the Universe are just given and physics merely describes change using mathematical equations. Likewise, it is a fact that my consciousness affects my body as is exemplified by the words that I am typing out now. Although we don’t have the mathematical equations describing such interactions, I don’t see any reason why they should not eventually be forthcoming.

3. Problem of the physical conception of human beings

There is the argument from the physical conception of human beings at the beginning of life. According to this objection, no one views fertilized ova as having minds; rather, these are purely physical entities. But if human beings began as wholly physical beings and nothing non-physical was later added, then they are still wholly physical creatures and substance dualism must be false.

Why on earth would the critic of dualism assume nothing non-material would be added? How can we be conscious at all if nothing is added?

4. Problem of Interaction 

Interactionism on substance dualism maintains that the mind and body causally influence each other. But some philosophers argue that this causes problems: if, on substance dualism, the mental substance is so radically distinct from the physical substance (the mental is, unlike the physical, immaterial, unextended, and therefore has no size, shape, location, mass, motion, or solidity), then they lack commonality necessary for interaction. 

I suggest that the people who voice this objection have a certain view of reality where only certain types of regularity are permitted; namely a mechanistic view of reality where all changes are captured by such contiguous physical chains of causes and effects. Essentially, they hold the view that A influences B because there is some innate power in the world that travels from A to B and necessitates change in B.

But, why must reality be limited to such regularities? Why must causes be contiguous? What permits us to a priori rule out a reality that admits influences from consciousness, or indeed even mystical principles, or magic and so on? Note that in saying causes may not need to be contiguous, we are not contradicting any physical laws. Rather, we are contradicting the mechanistic view of reality, which at best is a presupposition of science, or at least it was a presupposition of science back in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Physics simply tries to model reality based on observations in the past to predict events in the future. We call these regularities physical laws. I do not believe we can impose a priori constraints on the patterns we find there, that is we cannot say reality must conform to contiguous causes. Empirical investigation should guide our beliefs rather than a priori presuppositions. Should we dismiss the phenomenon of entanglement because it contravenes such assumptions? And, if we don't, then the alleged universality of contiguous physical causes and effects is refuted. Where one exception is found, we can surely not be surprised if we find others.

5. Argument from evolution

Churchland says:

The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process… If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.

The evolution story is supposed to explain the origin of our bodies and why our bodies have the characteristics they do. It only accounts for the arrival of consciousness should one assume that consciousness is literally part of the body, or in other words, if one assumes materialism upfront. But, as I have argued elsewhere, materialism is fatally problematic. Apart from that, we have yet again, a clear case of question begging.

Indeed, in order for evolution to account for consciousness, consciousness has to actually do something. But the mainstream view is that the physical world is closed, hence our consciousness is causally superfluous.

(Also see my A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism, under the heading "Various Objections")

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Should the rich be subject to a wealth tax?

I frequently hear the sentiment that it is immoral for Governments to tax people. If people want their money to fund a health service, or to alleviate people's poverty and so on, then it should be voluntary. So, in the context of funding a health service, someone on Meta said:
"Forcing others to do things, even righteous things, is not morally sound. That is also basic common sense".
It seems to me, though, that this is confused thinking, perhaps deliberately so. Think of a rich person who is a socialist. He thinks society ought to be a great deal less unequal than it currently is. Now, he personally can give an appreciable amount of his money away and for no other rich person to do so. But, if he is giving away his money equally to millions of people, that won't make much of a dent in alleviating their poverty since his money, being spread out over so many impoverished people, will make little difference to any of their lives.  So it is fairly futile, all that happens is that he becomes that much poorer. So what he wants is for ideally all rich people to give a percentage of their wealth away, not just him alone.

Let's suppose many, if not most, rich people feel exactly the same way.  That is, they are not in favour of giving any substantial amount of their wealth away if they are the only ones doing so.  But they are in favour of giving a percentage of their wealth away should all other rich people do so too. In that case, by introducing some type of wealth tax, Governments would be forcing them to do what they want as a collective whole. 


There's a relevant article just been published today:

Millionaires call on governments worldwide to ‘tax us now’

It says:

The group, which also includes Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist who made an almost $1bn fortune from an early bet on Amazon, said an annual “wealth tax” on those with fortunes of more than $5m (£3.7m) could raise more than $2.52tr.

That would be enough, they said, to “lift 2.3 billion people out of poverty; make enough vaccines for the world and deliver universal healthcare and social protection for all the citizens of low and lower-middle-income countries (3.6 billion people).”

So rich individuals would be forced to pay this tax, but it is far from immoral since, first of all, it is consonant with what a number of rich people would actually prefer.  But, more importantly, it would alleviate a vast amount of hardship and suffering.  Indeed, I submit it is immoral not to have either a wealth tax or some other measure to help out the most impoverished. 

People might find my following blog post also of interest:

Is there a better alternative to capitalism?


Tuesday, 11 January 2022

What physicists claim exists can be doubted

Do our theories in physics mirror how reality really is? Physicists invoke a bewildering plethora of subatomic particles and sometimes even "strings", warped space-time, extra dimensions and so on to explain our observations of the world.  And, indeed, doing so can often accurately predict what we observe.  But look at the following gif.



In the gif we can see that the movement of the small black circles can be explained if we imagine they reside on the corners of moving invisible equilateral triangles, or alternatively on the corners of moving invisible squares, and so on. 

Invoking alternative, apparently incompatible, invisible mechanisms to explain what we observe can also be applied to the actual physical world.  Watch the short 3 minute video below.



 
If it's the case that distinct differing mechanisms can explain our observations, then this invites the question of whether any of these invisible mechanisms actually exist?  Perhaps they simply function as tools to enable us to predict and ultimately control the world?

On this issue theoretical physicist Mano Singham asks in "The Great Paradox of Science":


If extraterrestrial beings were to visit the Earth at some point, that would imply they possessed technology superior to ours. If we could communicate with them, would we find that the theories of science on which their technological prowess was based were the same or a close approximation to ours (as would be the case if the theories of science are true or approaching truth), or would we find them to be completely different, suggesting that there is no unique truth out there waiting to be discovered?

I think most probably that the aliens conception of reality would be very different from ours. It is my suspicion that it's not truth that physics is revealing, rather physics merely provides the means for improved engineering.  Hence, despite their usefulness, the theoretical entities conjured up by physicists, such as the various subatomic particles, do not have a literal existence.  

Indeed, I am inclined to think that what theoretical physicists allege exists and doesn't exist gets it precisely the wrong way around.  Hence, it seems to me that the various hypothetical entities employed in physics might well not literally exist.  Contrariwise, that colours, sounds, and odours do exist*. 

*I mean by the words 
colours, sounds, odours as we actually experience them so that the external world is literally coloured.  I intend to argue for this in a future blog post.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Thoughts on the Winning BICS Essay

All 29 essays from the 2021 BICS essay contest that have been awarded a prize are now available to download and can be read for free from here. Thus far I have only read the winning essay, which was written by Jeffrey Mishlove. I had previously heard of Mishlove, but had not hitherto read anything by him nor had I watched any of his interviews. So I was not previously aware of his specific beliefs on the afterlife and hence am reading this without any preconceived ideas. Here are my thoughts on his winning essay.

Ideally, how should we judge whether there’s an afterlife? I suggest, firstly, that we need to take a look at the totality of the evidence. Not only that which might seem to support the possibility of an afterlife but also that which might seem to contradict it too. But, secondly, we also need to examine and possibly amend our philosophical assumptions regarding the nature of reality, since such assumptions are the lens whereby we view the evidence. Most pertinently, these assumptions will dictate whether we regard an afterlife as being an extraordinary claim or not. At the end, we hopefully will have obtained a well-rounded appraisal of all the evidence and reasons to allow us to make an informed judgement on this issue.

Unfortunately, in reality, regardless of whether we are discussing the possibility of an afterlife or indeed any other topic, there seems to be this pretty much universal pattern whereby people concentrate on the evidence and reasons supporting the particular position that they happen to favour, but they pay scant regard to any awkward evidence or opposing arguments. This is certainly the case when it comes to debating whether there is an afterlife or not, regardless of a person’s specific belief on this issue. Regretfully, this essay by Mishlove doesn’t break that mould.

Mishlove’s essay predominantly consists in outlining people’s experiences – accounts of NDEs, apparitions, and so on. Doing so is, of course, indispensable. We need to be acquainted with the evidence, get a feel for it. But this is the easy part that can, after all, be obtained by a quick Google search. We also need to do lots of digging. It does not seem to me that Mishlove’s essay adequately fulfils this criterion. Let me justify what I say above by considering a few examples from his essay. 

Near-Death Experiences

Similar to the other avenues of evidence, Mishlove mainly concentrates on the personal experiences of NDErs. Of course, these do sound persuasive, and I do not dispute that a great deal of weight should be attached to them. This is especially so when we consider that, regardless of their prior beliefs, the vast majority of people who have undergone an NDE become convinced there is an afterlife. There are difficulties though for the afterlife interpretation, difficulties that Mishlove neglects to address.

What about, for example, the fact that only something like 10 to 20 percent of people coming close to death recollect an NDE? Is it that only 10-20 percent of us will actually go on to an afterlife with the rest of us simply ceasing to exist? I have actually heard a couple of people independently suggest this, but for reasons I won’t go into here, I find this deeply implausible. Instead, I suggest that only 10 to 20 percent recollect an NDE will either be because:

  1. They forget the experience.
  2. Their souls never became detached from their bodies in the first place (an appropriately dysfunctional body will prohibit any experiences until they detach from it).

But I don’t want to get into details regarding my own thoughts. The point being is that Mishlove should have explored this issue himself. It’s not as if this is unimportant. Indeed, I frequently hear people ask why so few people have near-death experiences. Addressing this, and suggesting answers such as I have hinted at, would surely have been far better.

Peak in Darien experiences and encountering apparitions still alive

Mishlove talks about “Peak in Darien” experiences. These are NDEs where the experiencer encounters a deceased person during their NDE that they did not realise were dead. Should these experiences actually occur – and so far as I am aware the evidence seems to be compelling that they do – then this presents very powerful evidence indeed that the people and entities encountered during NDEs are real, or at least have a real element. They are not, that is, total fabrications of the mind.

So far so good. But what Mishlove doesn’t mention is that sometimes people during their NDEs encounter apparitions of people who are still alive! As Keith Augustine states: “NDE’rs have reported seeing friends out of body with them who are, in reality, still alive and normally conscious”. Augustine goes on to say that seeing such living people “make[s] perfect sense if NDEs are brain-generated hallucinations. The fact that living persons are occasionally encountered in NDEs severely undermines survivalist interpretations of NDEs". (From the chapter "Near-Death Experiences are Hallucinations" in the book The Myth of an Afterlife).

So Peak in Darien experiences and NDE’rs encountering people who are still alive during their experiences, are polar opposites. They are inconsistent with each other since the former suggest these encounters are of a genuine external reality, the latter that they are brain-generated hallucinations. Augustine tries to resolve this by suggesting that some (emphasis as in original) Peak in Darien experiences could arise by chance. Though he then insinuates they might all do so. But he also adds that these visions are rarely documented “prior to learning that the recently deceased persons in question have died leaving plenty of room for inaccurate recall or embellishment about what transpired”. (From the chapter "Near-Death Experiences are Hallucinations" in the book The Myth of an Afterlife).

Is Augustine correct in his conclusion? Not necessarily. As I said in my review of The Myth of an Afterlife:

A crucial question here is whether these NDEs are phenomenologically identical to the standard NDEs where apparitions of dead people are encountered. If they are, then this might suggest that the people and entities seen during all NDEs are likely to be all hallucinations. But, if they are not, and especially if the experience of seeing living people seems less authentic, then this objection loses much of its force.

So we need to know how real the experience of seeing those who are still alive is compared to seeing the deceased. If indeed both experiences are phenomenologically identical, as Augustine simply assumes, then this considerably weakens the evidence for an afterlife provided by NDEs. 

However, I relatively recently discovered that NDE research challenges this assumption. Bruce Greyson in his recent book on near-death experiences called After, says:

It turns out that there are a few NDEs in which experiencers report meeting people who are still alive. In our collection that now includes more than a thousand NDEs, 7 percent involved seeing someone in the realm of the NDE who was still living. But in every one of those rare cases, the experiencer described that person as still living, in most of those cases pleading with the experiencer to come back. None of the NDEs in our collection involved an experiencer mistakenly thinking a person still alive had died.

So this then suggests that those apparitions of people still alive that are encountered during NDEs are phenomenologically dissimilar to those apparitions of people who are deceased.

The point here is that I think it would have made Mishlove’s essay vastly better if he had addressed this difficulty and other difficulties in the evidence. Failing to do so leaves his essay vulnerable to attack and easily dismissed. A $500,000 prize-winning essay arguing for an afterlife needs to be well-rounded and capable of heading off the obvious objections.

Reincarnation process influenced by cultural beliefs

In the psi encyclopaedia entry Patterns in Reincarnation Cases it says:

Sceptics of a reincarnation interpretation of the cases point to the association between beliefs about the reincarnation process and case features such as the presence or absence of sex change and argue that this is proof that people are imagining or constructing the cases in accordance with their culturally-mandated ideas.

Mishlove on this topic in his essay says:

If the afterlife operated independently, according to its own laws and principles, one would expect the intermission length reported by children with past-life memories – as well as gender change between lives – to be unaffected by cultural expectations. This is clearly not so. However, since we are referring to solved reincarnation cases, neither can the results be purely a fantasy based, cultural artifact. Such findings show us we the living can influence the afterlife. People who enter the immediate afterlife will see what they need to see or what they’re prepared or conditioned to see.

Skeptics are saying that our background cultural beliefs should not influence which sex we are born, how long we spend in between our lives before we are reincarnated, and so on. The fact that the research shows they do implies that the evidence cannot be what it seems. And at first blush I’m sure that many, if not most people, would agree with skeptics here. Or at least believe that this constitutes a difficulty for the evidence for reincarnation.

Contrariwise, Mishlove seems to me to be saying that a person’s beliefs on the details of the reincarnation process will carry on into the afterlife and that such beliefs are able to influence the reincarnation process so that it aligns with the implicit expectations of that individual. Why is this explanation superior to the skeptic’s belief that these experiences are simply fabricated? Mishlove thinks his interpretation is required due to solved reincarnation cases -- that is those cases where a previously living person was located and seemed to match up to the previous life memories of a child.

But, of course, this doesn't really resolve the disagreement. What Mishlove and the skeptics both needed to do was dig a bit into the issues. Skeptics implicitly assume that if reincarnation occurs, then the process will be governed by an impersonal natural "mechanism", or in other words a process that is not influenced by a person’s beliefs or desires (what Mishlove describes as the afterlife operating “independently, according to its own laws and principles”). If skeptics could argue that this is indeed a reasonable prior supposition, that is what one ought to expect before looking at the research, then they would have been in a much stronger position to argue that the evidence pointing to reincarnation is unlikely to be what it appears to be. But they don’t. Ideally, Mishlove should have talked about this failure on the part of skeptics and argued -- as I did in this essay -- that skeptics have no good reason to assume it would be such an impersonal natural "mechanism".

Kübler-Ross, Mrs. Schwartz, and the Note

Mishlove outlines an anomalous experience that Kübler-Ross alleged that she had. The story goes that she was approached by a woman, a certain Mrs. Schwartz, who had been dead for the past 10 months. This Mrs. Schwartz insisted that Kübler-Ross must not abandon her work on death and dying. Most significantly, Kübler-Ross asked Mrs. Schwartz to write a note, which she duly did! So the deceased Mrs. Schwartz was aware that Kübler-Ross was about to quit her job, implying she could read Kubler's mind or was aware of her emotional state, and could intentionally appear to her and even write a note using a pen. Mishlove considers this case to be “significant because it combines evidence of identity, spirit materialization, and evidence of intentionality with a life transforming event”.

What are we to make of this episode?  As an aside, I do not consider the prospect of an afterlife to be an extraordinary one. Indeed, the supposition that the prospect is extraordinary seems to presuppose some broadly materialist conception of reality, hence is essentially question-begging. However, this is not to deny that some of the alleged evidence might be extraordinary, and this episode related by Kübler-Ross seems to be a good candidate. We might ask ourselves that if the deceased are able to do this, why do they not do so far more often? Of course, this might be a rare talent amongst the deceased. Nevertheless, we have to be leery about accepting this evidence as being significant as Mishlove does. There is surely a good possibility that Kübler-Ross was mistaken, or indeed that she simply fabricated the entire alleged incident.

Evaluating the Evidence

I’ve mentioned a couple of areas where Mishlove needed to go into somewhat more detail. This advice extends to much of the other evidence too. More specifically, he needed to address the obvious objections that skeptics are liable to mention. Doing so would have made the essay more impartial, objective, and generally well-rounded. Of course, this would have used up more of the allotted word limit. But I think he might well have been advised to skip some of the evidence altogether, particularly rarely encountered anomalous episodes such as the one recounted by Kübler-Ross. 

Let’s now turn to the philosophical issues.

 

Philosophical Considerations

 

The Mind-Body Correlations

Bertrand Russell once said:

"The mind grows like the body; like the body it inherits characteristics from both parents; it is affected by disease of the body and by drugs; it is intimately connected with the brain. There is no scientific reason to suppose that after death the mind or soul acquires an independence of the brain which it never had in life". (Quotation from here).

Many people seem to take it for granted that the brain produces consciousness and they surmise this because when the brain is damaged the person’s mind is also damaged. Such damage not only can result in the diminishing of one’s mental capacities, it often seemingly changes the actual personality. The obvious conclusion is that the brain produces consciousness, otherwise why should the mind be affected?

Indeed, it often seems that this is the sole argument against an afterlife. For example, in The Myth of an Afterlife where each chapter was written by a differing author, the majority of the authors contented themselves with harping on about all the ways our mental life is affected by the brain, going into great detail and frequently repeating each other. In that great huge thick book, it scarcely got beyond that.

So it is imperative that this alleged problem is comprehensively addressed. What does Mishlove say about it? He says:

Gardner built upon William James’ 1897 filtration theory of brain function. This hypothesis likens the brain to a filter or reducing valve, not the source of consciousness. The brain accesses mind-at-large, or universal consciousness, in all its magnificent potency. Then the brain places into the spotlight of awareness a reduced level most useful for biological survival. James presented this theory as a way of accounting for life after death. 

Would all those impressed by the fact a damaged brain leads to a damaged mind and therefore surmise that the former produces the latter, have a sudden change of heart on reading this? I doubt it. Yes, Mishlove makes the very important point that the brain could merely alter consciousness rather than create it, but it surely needs to be elaborated on and fleshed out a great deal more than this. 

For example, there’s the very important issue of personal identity. Will I meaningfully be the very same person after death as I was before? Mishlove links to several short video clips of him interviewing Bernardo Kastrup. In one of them here (in his essay the link is dead for me, but it has the address in footnote 221), Kastrup says: 

[Death is] a dramatic change, you have a physical body and then you don't have one any more. It's naive to expect that it will be just your good old self. What age would you have then, will you be your child self, will you be the self the moment that you died. I mean all kinds of issues open.

As it happens, I don’t agree with Kastrup here. I think we might very well be our good old selves. That is, immediately after death there will be no discontinuity in my sense of self, it will feel that I am simply transitioning out of my body. That is not to deny that my mental faculties might not improve and that my mood, my emotional state, and so on might not change. But it will still be me. I'll leave it at that since I have already comprehensively argued for this in several places already in this blog. See here, here (where I also comprehensively address objections to the filter hypothesis), here, here, here, here, and here

But it is of little avail for me to comprehensively address this damaged brains cause damaged minds argument. I am an unknown who virtually no one will read. For such a crucially important, if not really, the only objection to an afterlife, a comprehensive rebuttal needed to come from someone with a high profile and who will therefore be widely read.  The winning essay of the BICS contest would have been the ideal place. The failure to do so is a tragically lost opportunity. 

The alleged impossibility of dualism

Mishlove says:

Dualism, a major metaphysical school of thought, has the unresolvable problem of how two metaphysically unique substances – mind and matter – can interact.

This is something that those who subscribe to materialism constantly allege.They rarely justify this assertion, and I regard it as nonsense. Indeed, I do not regard this as being a problem at all, least of all an unresolvable one. Essentially, it seems to me that the objection presupposes the mechanistic view of reality, a view that is closely aligned with materialism. I explain more fully my thoughts on this in the following blog post, A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism. Go to “Various Objections, 2. How can the immaterial impact on the material?” 

Why do I regard Mishlove’s claim here to be such an important issue? It’s important because dualism is the commonsensical position that we all instinctively believe. If we are told that it has an unsolvable problem, and we are naïve enough to simply accept this, then the other choices available to us are either some flavour of materialism, or some flavour of idealism. Some might well feel that if this is the choice, then materialism is the sensible option. But materialism, at least the main view, is untenable as I explain here. Moreover, all flavours of materialism are incompatible with an afterlife, at least in the form of an essence or soul surviving death. So we really need some excellent reasons for rejecting dualism. I agree dualism has some problems, though not this particular alleged problem. Idealism has problems too. But the problems with dualism and idealism do not approach the seeming irreconcilable problems that confront all versions of materialism.

The mysterious undefined Hyperspace

Near the beginning of his essay, Mishlove has a subheading, “Hyperspace and consciousness”. Immediately underneath this, he says, “Gardner’s instinct about hyperspace was correct”. However, hitherto, the word “hyperspace” had not been used. Moreover, Mishlove never explicitly defines what he means by this term. Apparently, Gardner subscribed to the notion of a “higher-dimension self”. But if this has anything to do with “hyperspace” as the essay alludes, it is entirely unilluminating since I have no idea what could be meant by such a self. Regardless, I assume not defining the word “hyperspace” was an oversight on Mishlove’s part. But surely he or others must have proofread his essay? 

The way that Mishlove uses the word hyperspace appears to refer to any location that isn’t within our usual 3D space. He further indicates that he is sympathetic to the notion that our normal 3D space is within a much greater hyperspace, a hyperspace that will include any afterlife realm. But, within idealism (which Mishlove subscribes to), space is not some thing or reality existing independently of any conscious entity, rather space is an artefact of minds (see an essay of mine on Berkeley’s idealism). It might be useful to compare it to the virtual reality when we put on a VR headset. Any afterlife realm we find ourselves in we could label “hyperspace” if we so choose. But it would then just be a word signifying nothing. The idea that normal 3D space is within a much greater hyperspace makes as much sense as saying virtual reality is within normal 3D space. In short, I’m not sure that in introducing the word “hyperspace” that anything substantive is being said at all. It just sounds impressive!

Conclusion

I think this essay gives a good overview of all the evidence, but that is where the praise ends. The essay never delves into the evidence and never considers any difficulties for the afterlife interpretation. The philosophical considerations suffer from the fact that, quite frankly, there aren’t any. The only attempt is when “hyperspace” is mentioned. But this is never explicitly defined and I found its meaning to be elusive. 

This essay seems rather reminiscent of the countless popular books extolling the reality of an afterlife. Books that concentrate on the evidence for an afterlife but accept it uncritically. Typically, difficulties with the evidence are rarely, if ever, addressed. Alternative hypotheses are seldom considered. The philosophical thought, if any, tends to be superficial. Those books are all about persuasion. Persuading people it is utterly foolish to reject an afterlife. I would place this essay into the same category as those books.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Hostile reactions to the evidence for an afterlife

I read this Mail article concerning ghosts.

In the comments someone says:
Why we pay the BBC to promulgate such nonsense at further expense to the vulnerable sadly bereaved I have no idea.
I often hear this sentiment that such anomalous experiences shouldn't even be mentioned. So, there are certain characteristic anomalous experiences that have been experienced across human history and across all cultures, but they shouldn't even be mentioned? Shouldn't even be discussed? Why? Because it's obvious that people are simply making up these stories? And this explanation is so obvious that no one should even be allowed to discuss them? Do these "sceptics" ever worry that their conviction is an artefact of the culture they find themselves born in? That had they had lived in a different time or place they would view these experiences very differently? How can they be certain that these experiences are made up or are mere hallucinations? Are we allowed to ask that, or is not even that permitted?

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Bigelow competition for the best essay on the evidence for an afterlife

The results of this competition have recently been announced.  Go here.  Apparently all 29 essays that won a prize will shortly be freely available to read.  I'd just like to make a few comments.

By far the main obstacle to an acceptance of an afterlife is the notion held by the intelligentsia that an afterlife is an "extraordinary claim". Any evidence, no matter how persuasive, is typically simply written off as not being extraordinary enough. This being so, simply outlining the evidence in its various forms will be insufficient if we hope to convince skeptics, particularly so for those of an academic persuasion. The question of why an afterlife is considered to be an extraordinary claim needs to be addressed and rebutted. This involves underlying philosophical issues
(e.g. does the fact damaged brains lead to damaged minds entail the former produces the latter as many skeptics allege?).  Unfortunately, since the competition explicitly asked for the best evidence, I fear none of these essays will devote much space to such issues (the explicit emphasis on evidence is the reason why I didn't submit an essay to the competition myself).

It would have been far better if the competition were open to any essays that persuasively argue that the survival (afterlife) hypothesis is a reasonable one and, furthermore, more reasonable than the annihilation hypothesis. The essays could then have had the option of either simply addressing the evidence, addressing the underlying philosophical issues, or ideally, addressing both. Then the essays, as a collective whole, would be more likely to present a more rounded and robust appraisal of the various reasons to regard the belief in an afterlife as being a reasonable one.

The problem with all the pro-afterlife material that currently exists is that the vast majority of it doesn't touch the philosophical issues and this competition simply perpetuates this imbalance.  My suspicion is that most of these essays will largely regurgitate the evidence that is already out there and will do little to persuade skeptics.  But we shall see.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

A comment on a skeptical article on Near-Death Experiences

I read the following article two days ago:

Can We Explain Near-Death Experiences?

The author concludes that, "NDEs are probably caused by changes in brain activity rather than direct contact with a supernatural dimension".

Why does he think this?

Briefly because:
  1. Strokes, seizures, and brain injuries can lead to experiences reminiscent of NDEs.

  2. Brainwave oscillations have been observed in rats having heart attacks.

  3. Psychoactive drugs -- ketamine, DMT -- resemble NDEs.
First of all, the author assumes the idea that the brain produces consciousness is entirely unproblematic. That's false, it's extremely problematic. There is, what has been labelled, the hard problem of consciousness.  This is a problem engendered by the notion that it is the brain that somehow produces consciousness.  I explore this problem in a few places in this blog.  For example, in part 2 in this blog post and also this blog post, especially from part 3 onwards. Incidentally, I should add that if consciousness is not generated by the body, this doesn't mean there aren't any problems.  Nevertheless, they don't appear to be the apparent intractable problems associated with "the hard problem".     

Secondly, it ignores the fact that there is no detectable brain activity at the threshold of death, which is when NDEs appear to take place.

Thirdly, it ignores all the anomalously acquired information that NDErs give when they come back from the brink.

Clearly, NDE type experiences are facilitated by an appropriately dysfunctional brain. One possibility is that's because the brain produces NDE's, and indeed all other conscious experiences.  But that possibility encounters the difficulties I mention above. Arguably, difficulties that are insurmountable.  

There is another possibility. Let's assume there is an afterlife.  Consider that we do not normally have contact with this afterlife realm whilst in our embodied state. Why would this be the case?  I suggest it would have to be because the brain inhibits access. Sometimes this is referred to as the filter theory of the mind-body relationship.

What, though, if the brain is not functioning correctly?  Could it always perform this inhibiting function regardless of how the brain is altered?  Surely not.  And, if it doesn't, this might occasionally allow our consciousness to have a glimpse of other realities that we may enter into after death (and note the word realities, the afterlife might not simply be one place but might consist of possibly innumerable realms).  Such a hypothesis is supported by not only what we label NDE's, but also mystical experiences, psychedelic trips, and the occasional reports of people recovering their mental faculties near death.  I should also note that recent research into psychedelic induced experiences suggest they are initiated by reduced activity of the brain.  All of which gives weight to the notion that the brain serves to inhibit consciousness rather than produce it.  I address objections to this inhibiting or filter hypothesis here and here (latter half).  

Incidentally, the skeptical article originally included a video that now seems to have disappeared in the two days since I last looked (nor can I locate the video in the link he now provides).   I actually linked to and discussed this video around 5 years ago in my other blog here.  Unfortunately, the link to the video on there is now dead too.  This video is elusive!  Fortunately, it can be watched on facebook here (at least at the time of typing this).

Also see:
NDE’s, burden of proof, and Ockham’s razor
Guardian Article on Near Death Experiences (NDE's)
Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 3: Patterns in Reincarnation Cases are determined by Culture

In the psi encyclopaedia entry Patterns in Reincarnation Cases it says:

Sceptics of a reincarnation interpretation of the cases point to the association between beliefs about the reincarnation process and case features such as the presence or absence of sex change and argue that this is proof that people are imagining or constructing the cases in accordance with their culturally-mandated ideas.  This proposition has been called the sociopsychological or psychosocial theory of past-life memory claims.

For example, David Lester in The Myth of an Afterlife in his chapter Is there life after death?  says:

Stevenson noted that in his best cases the previous person lived in the same region as the current person. But there should be more cases where the previous personality is from a different nation, for there is no reason why deceased spirits should be constrained by space.

And he adds:

There are large cultural variations in the reports, and there is no reason why the characteristics of Stevenson’s cases should vary significantly from culture to culture. Such cultural variation suggests that the belief system of the culture determines the content of the reports. If a culture believes that sex change does not occur from one life to another, then it is not found in the reports.

So, should the reports be fabricated or mistaken, we would expect the characteristics of the cases to align with cultural expectations and desires.  And that is precisely what we find.  Should we conclude that the evidence therefore cannot be what it seems, that it does not point to reincarnation?

We cannot address this question until we have some inkling of what our expectations ought to be on this issue if, in fact, reincarnation does occur.  
Let's suppose we were not acquainted with any of the evidence suggesting reincarnation.  What should be our prior expectations regarding what determines or influences the details of the reincarnational process?  In other words, what is it that governs the sex we will be reborn as, where one is reborn, and what period of time elapses before one is reborn? 


There seems to me to be three broad possibilities (or any combination thereof).

  1. Some impersonal natural "mechanism" largely, if not exclusively, characterises the reincarnational process.  Such a "mechanism" determines what sex we are born, where we are born, and how long we stay in the otherworldly realm before we are reborn.  Neither our thoughts, desires, underlying beliefs, nor any external agent, will have any significant influence in this process.  Such a natural "mechanism" or process might be construed as being akin to the natural laws that describe our familiar material realm.  For example, if we were to find ourselves in the unfortunate position of falling from a high height, our beliefs, desires, underlying beliefs and general psychological state will not be able to prevent us from stopping or slowing down our acceleration towards the Earth.  

  2. Our desires, underlying beliefs, general psychological states, and hence our implicit expectations, do play at least some effective role if not exclusively determines the details of the reincarnational process.

  3. Some external agent(s) of some nature, wholly or partially, dictates the details of the reincarnational process.

If it can be shown that prior to looking at the research into reincarnation that it is more reasonable to subscribe to "1", or at least mainly "1", then this vindicates the skeptic's conclusion that the evidence for reincarnation can be dismissed.  So we now need to look at their reasons for subscribing to "1".

Unfortunately, they don't give any reasons
, or at least not so far as I am aware.  Certainly, David Lester doesn't give any in his chapter in The Myth of an Afterlife where he argues against reincarnation.  My suspicion is that skeptics expectations here are heavily influenced by their background suppositions about the world.  Specifically, that consciousness, whether in the form of explicitly directed intentions or more vaguely in the form of psychological dispositions, plays no effective causal role in the world over and above material processes.  The world, instead, is ultimately entirely governed by impersonal physical laws that are not directed towards any ends.  So why should any supposed realm in-between lives be any different? 

This idea that consciousness plays no effective causal role in the world over and above material processes implies that, broadly construed, some type of materialism is correct.  Which then rules out the possibility of souls reincarnating.  Thus skeptics, by imagining that it is entirely some impersonal process that determines the specifics of the reincarnational process, are to a certain extent, begging the question.  

A world in which reincarnation happens entails that our essential nature is a soul.  This, in turn, implies a world very different to the world in which the materialist imagines we live.  In particular, it seems likely to me that in the afterlife realm our underlying beliefs, expectations, and desires will very much have an influence in what we experience and the environment we find ourselves in.  And, should we reincarnate, influence when, where and what sex we will be when reborn.

This, of course, is just my belief, which could be incorrect.  But we need reasons to suppose the alternative -- an impersonal "mechanism" -- would be mainly responsible.  That neither a soul's beliefs and desires nor any external agent will play anything other than, at most, a minor role in this process.

Unless they are able to advance some cogent reasons, I therefore have to conclude that the cultural variations in the reports only constitute weak evidence against reincarnation.

Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 1: The Increasing Population
Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 2: Reincarnation isn't Falsifiable

Why are people so certain there's no soul or an afterlife?

Are we essentially souls and will our souls continue on after we die? Both from a philosophical perspective and by virtue of all the evidenc...

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