Tuesday, 10 April 2018
A Review of The Myth of an Afterlife
Note: This review is approximately 5,000 words long. I have a longer version that is approximately 13,000 words that I have called A Response to the Myth of an Afterlife that some readers may prefer to read. It incorporates what I write here, but also includes some philosophical arguments.
This is a huge book of 700+ pages with a total of 29 contributors, all of whom sport impressive academic credentials. A good proportion of the book focuses on the tight correlations between mental states and brain states. Just to mention a few examples. Our capacity to understand written and spoken words, or the capacity to speak, are impaired or even eliminated with injuries to certain regions of the brain. Damage to the hippocampal and thalamic areas of the brain can destroy one's ability to store new long-term memories. In addition, radical personality change may be brought about by injury to the brain. The most famous example here is undoubtedly Phineas Gage. We could also point to the effects of drugs that have a propensity to affect our emotions, attitudes, and dispositions. Indeed, even alcohol and caffeine do this. If changes in the brain can bring about such changes, then how could we possibly survive the death of the brain?
It is also stated there is no evidence for a soul, and a soul is not required in any case since a purely physical account can wholly explain what we human beings are. Alleged conceptual difficulties involved in survival are also advanced. Thus, for example, how would we recognise other souls in the afterlife realm if they do not have bodies? How do souls travel from A to B in the afterlife realm, and what is their mode of propulsion? The evidence for survival is also addressed; primarily NDEs, the research by Ian Stevenson for the evidence suggesting reincarnation in the form of children's alleged memories of previous lives, and mediumship. But all such evidence is dismissed as being of very poor quality, at best.
In what follows I will refer to the hypothesis that our consciousness survives the death of our body in some form as, the survival hypothesis. I will refer to the notion that we simply cease to exist when we die as, the extinction hypothesis. I will refer to that which survives as the self. LR refers to my longer review.
2) What is it that might survive?
The various authors are all agreed that if anything survives then it is what we commonly call our minds. That is to say, if anything survives it will be our present psychological make-up with all our attendant beliefs, interests, dispositions, emotional reactions, memories, and so on.
I disagree. Consider how our emotions can change after imbibing alcohol. It may be that one might be more easily aroused to anger, more prone to being upset, more gregarious and so on. Or compare what we are like at the present time to when we were children. We now have a much increased intelligence, we have differing interests, we have differing memories, our emotional reactions are very different.
Despite such changes, it feels to me that I am precisely the same self after a few beers, even though my mood and so on will have been affected. And I still feel that same connection to when I was a child. I still feel like I am the very same person. To reflect my feelings here I therefore propose that the self (or soul) is one’s inner essence, that which makes me me, that indelible sense of a self that has persisted from childhood to adulthood despite my beliefs, hopes, dispositions, emotional reactions, memories all being different. None of these constitute the self rather they are properties or attributes of the self.
As I see it, the problem with the conception of the self or soul that all the authors hold is twofold. First of all, our beliefs, interests, dispositions, emotional reactions, and memories change throughout our lives. Hence, with such a conception of the self, we do not even survive from one year to the next, or indeed come to that, from one hour to the next if we have a few beers. Hence an afterlife seems unlikely. Secondly, their conception of the self doesn’t do justice to our feelings that we are the very same selves throughout our lives.
The first glaring problem with this book then is the authors’ conception of the self or soul. At the very least they needed to defend their conception, at least one of the authors. But none of them do.
3) The Mind-Brain Correlations
However we define the self, doesn't the fact that mental capacities vary according to the intricacy and condition of one’s brain demonstrate, or at least make it highly probable, that consciousness, or the mind, could not exist without the brain?
This certainly seems to be the case for all the authors’ conception of the self or soul. And they use up approximately half the book, 350 pages or so, painstakingly describing all the ways in which brain damage also damages the self as they conceive it.
But what of the conception of the self as I outline it in the previous section? Consider the following metaphor.
“It surely must be obvious to everyone that spectacles (i.e. eyeglasses) actually create vision. Changing the lenses affects the vision in certain characteristic ways. One can make one's vision worse, or better. One can make one be able to see in the distance, but not close up; or conversely, to see close up, but not at a distance. We can invert peoples' vision. We can make people see everything in blue, or red, or green, you name it. Or all blurry. By painting the lenses black we can even eliminate one's vision completely! And all these effects are consistent across different people”.
Of course, we know that spectacles don’t create vision. Indeed, we know in principle that spectacles could not create vision all by themselves since there is no appropriate mechanism, or conceivable causal chain, whereby vision could be created. Extra ingredients are required; namely eyes and the part of the brain dealing with vision.
Other examples apart from spectacles can be considered. Thus, consider a prism. The mixture of coloured lights obtained is not wholly produced by the prism all by itself. Something extra is involved, in this case, the white light that enters the prism. Or consider a TV set. The internal components all by themselves do not produce the programmes. Similar to the prism something else is involved, in this case, TV signals. More generally, if changes in x somehow precipitate changes in y, this might be because x somehow produces y all by itself, but it is also possible that y originates from z or have no origin at all, with x merely altering the form that y takes.
It is my belief that when we consider the mind-body relationship there is likewise an extra ingredient involved. This extra ingredient, I suspect, is the conception of a self or soul as I have presented it in the previous section. This self is comparable to one’s unaided vision. One’s present mind, on the other hand, is comparable to one’s bespectacled vision.
There’s only one attempt by any of the authors to address this conception of the mind-body relationship, and that is from one of the editors, Keith Augustine, who is by far the most prolific contributor to this volume. He considers the TV metaphor. Unfortunately, he completely fails to understand it (see LR section 3).
The question here is how do we know that the mind-body relationship is not of this nature? In LR section 3 I consider various examples of personality change brought about by brain damage but conclude they do not refute the mind-body relationship I have advanced. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it is correct either. Perhaps this notion of a persisting self – that is to say a self distinct from one’s varying mind-states -- is an illusion. And even if it is correct, perhaps such a self is bound up with its brain somehow and couldn’t exist without it. Indeed, if we just consider the mind-body correlations in isolation, then it will seem that the hypothesis that the brain simply creates consciousness is by far the most parsimonious one.
A relevant point here is that if there is an extra ingredient, or self, apart from the brain, then it has never been detected. And if it doesn’t correspond to any part of the brain, then such a self would seem to have to be non-material. Thus, to either establish that materialism is likely to be true, or that any non-materialist position, such as substance dualism, is likely to be false, will suffice to show that such a self is not required. How do the authors fare in this task?
I and many others have made the argument that materialism cannot possibly be correct (see LR section 4). So I was interested to see what the various authors might say against such arguments, and further, what positive reasons they could advance for supposing materialism to be true.
They don’t bother. They neither defend materialism against such arguments, nor do they provide any positive reasons for supposing materialism is true (with the arguable sole exception being a certain Raymond D. Bradley, see LR section 5). Indeed, the authors appear to have an implicit assumption that the mind-body correlations all by themselves very strongly suggest that both consciousness is produced by the brain and that materialism is true. Indeed, they do not seem to differentiate these two positions. But, what we require is a justification of materialism independent of such correlations. Otherwise, we do not have any additional arguments for supposing consciousness is produced by the brain over and above such correlations. Hence, we still have insufficient reason to suppose that the mind-brain relationship is not of the same nature as the aforementioned spectacles, prisms and TV set metaphors mentioned in the previous section.
Although no arguments are made for materialism, there is some attempt, at least by some of the authors, to argue against dualism, and specifically against interactionist dualism. For example, some of the authors believe that even our voluntary behaviour originates from unbroken chains of physical causes and effects. Thus Rocco J. Gennaro and Yonatan I. Fishman in their chapter, The Argument from Brain Damage Vindicated, claim that no “soul-stuff” has been experimentally detected; that is to say, no neurons have ever been detected firing in absence of any physical cause. They are claiming here that no effects of consciousness, at least as considered something separate from physical effects, has ever been experimentally detected.
We need to bear in mind that it will be simply assumed by neuroscientists that some type of materialism is correct. Consequently, any influence from a non-material consciousness will simply not be looked for at all. Any firing of neurons will simply be taken for granted to have been caused by prior physical events. Moreover, even if they were looking, our functional MRI's lack the resolution to make any definitive assertions in this regard. Apart from this, and indeed much more importantly, I regard the denial of the causal efficacy of consciousness to be fatally problematic. Nor does identifying consciousness with physical processes seem to make it any less problematic (I go into detail as to why I believe this in LR section 6).
Another point made by Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman in The Dualist’s Dilemma chapter is that interactive dualism necessarily contravenes at least some physical laws. I am entirely in agreement with their assertion here. But this is no argument at all against interactionism. Why? We simply need to remember that current physical laws, being restricted to the quantitative or measurable, necessarily leave out consciousness in their description of reality (see LR section 4). At best current physical laws merely give us philosophical zombies. It follows then that if consciousness is causally efficacious, then our physical laws as currently formulated, cannot give a complete description of reality. So, necessarily, consciousness contravenes current physical laws somewhere. A new science is required that is not restricted to the merely quantitative.
It is continually stressed throughout the book by the various authors that the thesis that consciousness is somehow produced by the brain is entirely consistent with everything that science teaches us about the world; contrariwise, the notion that our consciousness might survive, is emphatically not.
This is absolute nonsense. There are two possibilities. Either the brain-consciousness relationship is of the production type as the authors believe, or it is of a similar type to the vison – spectacles relationship. In the latter relationship, there are selves that are altered by the brain resulting in our mind states.
How does science decide between these two hypotheses? If we independently conclude that materialism is correct, then there is no problem. For it then follows immediately that consciousness is produced by the brain. But none of the authors provide an argument for materialism. And it’s worth remarking that even if they had successfully argued for materialism, it will have been through philosophical argumentation rather than science, belying their claim that science has shown that consciousness is a product of the brain.
Alternatively, they could accept that materialism is incorrect, and claim that even though consciousness is non-material, it is a simpler hypothesis to suppose that the brain produces consciousness rather than merely altering it.
The problem here is that not only do we not have such a hypothesis but that such a hypothesis necessarily eludes any possible scientific justification, at least while science is construed as studying merely the quantitative/measurable. For if brains produce consciousness, this relationship is of a differing type to any other whereby X produces Y. Normally it is unproblematic; for example, when we examine the internal components of a clock and their interactions, we can deduce that the hands must move. Contrariwise, if the brain produces consciousness, then this isn't explicable through physical chains of causes and effects since at some juncture there is a leap from purely quantitative events to the richness of qualitative conscious experiences. We would need to identify such conscious experiences with a physical process -- that is, independently establish that materialism is true.
The final strategy I can think of would be to have argued that my conception of the self doesn’t make any sense. But, as I pointed out in section 2, none of the authors even attempt any such critique. Indeed, they do not seem to be even aware of such a conception of the self. And again, even if they had attempted to do this and additionally did so successfully, this will have been through philosophical arguments, not through science.
The crucial point then is that science, in this limited sense of mapping out the various correlations, cannot distinguish between the two respective hypotheses of the brain creating consciousness, or merely altering it. This is why a philosophical appraisal of this issue is indispensable. And it is especially important since it seems to me we lack any conceivable mechanism whereby the brain could produce consciousness. Conversely, merely altering it, might not be so problematic. It is therefore flat out dishonest to claim we have overwhelming scientific evidence that the brain produces consciousness.
7) Problems with the Evidence for an Afterlife
Unfortunately, I feel I lack sufficient knowledge of the evidence to provide an informed opinion here. I do though have a few comments to make on David Lester’s chapter, Is There Life after Death, and specifically what he alleges are the “logical problems of reincarnation”. I’ll also take a brief look at Keith Augustine’s chapter, Near-Death Experiences are Hallucinations.
One “logical problem” that David Lester mentions is that when young children apparently recollect a previous life, they do not generally recollect the time in-between lives (data suggests this only happens in around 20% of cases). Related to this is the fact that only a minority of children appear to recollect previous lives, and then only mainly one previous life.
It needs to be pointed out that most people do not remember their childhood before the age of 4 years old, and that most people do not remember their dreams. Does this likewise present a logical problem for the notion we all existed from 0 to 4 years old, or for the notion we all dream? Presumably not, so why does it somehow present a “logical problem” for reincarnation? The fact of the matter is that we can recollect very little even of our past present lives. However memory works, it only enables us to recollect a very small percentage of our past existence, and the further back in time we go, the less and less we are likely to remember. Whatever it might be that prohibits recollection before a certain age, or recollection of our dreams, might also somehow prohibit past life memories and the time in-between lives. Specifically, in respect of the time between lives, perhaps the unfamiliarity of the afterlife environment, or the events in-between lives, somehow makes recollection more difficult. And parents may think such memories of in-between lives are fanciful and discourage their child from talking about them. So I’m not sure this constitutes a problem, least of all a logical one.
David Lester notes that frequently the previous person lived in the same region as the current person. He thinks that the reincarnated person shouldn’t be constrained by space and therefore there should be many more cases where people are born in different nations. He also thinks that cultural beliefs, for example that sex change does not occur from one life to the next, should not actually be reflected in the case reports. This implies that he thinks that our expectations, beliefs, yearnings, should have no influence whatsoever on where we are born, how quickly we are reincarnated, what sex we are born, and so on.
But why would anyone conclude this? I would have thought otherwise, personally. If someone has both a belief that she will be reincarnated and a desire to be quickly reincarnated to the area she lived previously, then it is entirely unclear to me why such expectations and desires would have no causal influence whatsoever in “gravitating” that individual to a suitable host body to be reborn. Of course, we have no idea how the whole reincarnation process works, but the evidence would seem to back me up here.
On to what I regard to be the best chapter in this book, Near-Death Experiences are Hallucinations, authored by Keith Augustine. He correctly points out that it wouldn’t be surprising “if NDE’rs consciously or subconsciously exaggerated the accuracy of their descriptions in order to validate their experiences”, that NDE’s featuring hallucinatory elements might tend not to be published, and certain NDE’s might be under-reported if they conflict with what actually happened in the physical environment. I’m in agreement with all of this. It seems likely to me that we’ll hear a disproportionate number of NDEs that seem consonant with an afterlife, and we’ll hear less of those NDE’s with bizarre elements.
Keith Augustine also points out that, on occasions, NDE’res sometimes see people that are still alive during their experience. On the face of it this seems pretty damning. But, it depends. A crucial question here is whether these NDEs are phenomenologically identical to 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 apparitions of living people during their NDE seems less authentic, then this objection loses much of its force.
He also mentions the fact that only a small fraction of those who come close to death report NDE’s. The hypothesis that people simply forget the experience he rejects as being unfalsifiable and blatantly ad hoc and he maintains we need some independent reason to suppose they had an NDE.
I’m not sure why it should be the default assumption that everyone will be able to recollect any experiences on the threshold of death. Further, we need to bear in mind that we know that at least some people who have undergone NDEs do forget either their entire NDE, or at least elements of it. For example, the philosopher A.J. Ayer could not afterwards recollect the entirety of his NDE. And I recollect hearing other reports of people coming close to death who initially had no recollection of any NDE only to report remembering elements of an NDE afterwards. So it might be that NDEs are similar to dreams in this respect. Everyone dreams, but most people cannot recollect dreaming (although some people can). Why is it unlikely that this could not also apply to NDEs?
There is, in addition, another possibility. It might be that those who were unable to recollect any experiences never, in fact, left their bodies in the first place. If this is so, then they will still be subject to the constraints of their bodies and hence didn’t have any experiences to recollect any more than if they had been in deep sleep.
Much of the material in this book is essentially irrelevant to the survival question. Thus, for example, one chapter, by a certain Ingrid Hansen Smythe, attempts to cast doubt on reincarnation by linking it with a certain conception of karma that punishes people for their wrongdoing in previous lives. The problem here is twofold. First of all, reincarnation need not imply the existence of any type of karma, and indeed the scientific research in the form of investigating young children’s alleged memories doesn’t suggest anything like karmic influences. But, even if reincarnation did somehow entail the operation of karma, why would it imply such a preposterous notion of it that Smythe articulates? Of course, it might be retorted that many people do believe in such a notion of karma. But what all this amounts to is that certain peoples’ conception of the way that reincarnation works are implausible. It certainly doesn’t suggest in any way that reincarnation doesn’t happen.
Interestingly, the authors often seem to presuppose we would have no body of any type in any afterlife realm. Theodore M. Drange asks whether we would see from a particular location in the afterlife realm, and given that we have no body, what would be located there? And, indeed, how could we move anywhere if we don’t have a body since what would move? Raymond D. Bradley asks how fast our souls would go and by what means of propulsion and he also “wonders what could bring about changes in what you see, hear, feel, or smell, once you are deprived of the corresponding bodily organs and brain centers”? Michael Martin also asked how we would manage to travel in Heaven. Referring to OBE’s, Susan Blackmore claims that a soul, being non-physical, couldn’t possibly travel in the physical realm. There are countless other objections of a similar trivial nature which would be too arduous for me to comprehensively list.
I think the main problem here is that all the authors seem to presuppose that any afterlife realm will be similar to our physical reality and so will be subject to the same physical laws as our world, such as, for example, Newton’s three laws of motion. Hence souls will need a power source to move around and so on. But I see no reason to suppose that any afterlife realm would operate according to the same regularities as our physical realm does. Perhaps just thinking about a location in the afterlife realm will be sufficient to take us there. What moves to the new location? Well, why does anything, as such, have to move? Why can’t it simply be a case of having a view from one visual perspective and switching to a view from another visual perspective, much as one might do, say, in a computer game or virtual reality? Unlike our physical reality, perhaps nothing need traverse from x to y. Having said all that, it’s not entirely clear to me, in any case, that in any afterlife realm we would have no bodies. We might, for example, have bodies in an analogically akin sense to how we have bodies in virtual reality.
Several of the authors mention split-brain patients who appear to have two streams of consciousness. Their argument here is that this is incompatible with any soul since, presumably, a soul’s consciousness should not be able to be split into two streams.
I agree. If our original consciousness is split into two streams, then presumably neither will be identical to the original. Hence, after someone has had this operation, then they – both theys! --should feel very different. After all, each of the two streams of consciousness are only half the person they were originally! And if this were so I would be in agreement with the authors that this would create difficulty for the notion that we are souls.
But this is emphatically not the case. Split-brain patients claim to feel exactly the same as they did before the operation, and they behave perfectly normally. How do the authors explain this? They don’t, they completely ignore this awkward fact.
It seems to me that if we are to accept there are 2 streams of consciousness in split-brain people, then we will be compelled to accept that even in normal (non-split brain) people there are actually 2 streams of consciousness that reside in us all. So, my present stream of consciousness or “self” is not an amalgamation of the 2 different streams of consciousness. Rather I – the “self” typing these words – am exclusively the stream of consciousness corresponding to one of my hemispheres (the left?).
For various reasons, I find this philosophically problematic. My original intention was to discuss this and show why I think this is untenable. However, since the publication of this book, there has been additional research on split-brain patients that contradicts the former research. In brief, this new research suggests that despite being characterised by little to no communication between the right and left brain hemispheres, there still is only one conscious perceiver in split-brain patients. The relevant paper is here.
The authors’ first task was to articulate a sensible conception of a soul. They failed in this task – the concept of the “soul” or “self” they advance not only couldn’t survive the death of our bodies, but also couldn’t survive from childhood to adulthood, or, come to that, even survive after a few alcoholic drinks.
Nevertheless, since a sensible conception of the self or soul would seem to have to be non-material, the failure here could have been remedied by showing both that materialism is a viable metaphysic, and that it indeed is likely to be true. But quite incredibly the entire book was devoid of any such arguments. Indeed, it’s as if authors are completely unaware of the difficulties of materialism and many of them give the impression that they believe the mind-brain correlations all by themselves are enough to establish materialism.
I find the constant assertion by most of the authors that science very much favours the annihilation hypothesis, to be reprehensible. Similar to their conclusion that materialism must be correct, it is purely based on the mind-body correlations. Hence, the authors content 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 this great huge thick book, it scarcely gets beyond that. They live in this world where it’s all so obvious. A brain injury affects our ability to think, hence the brain creates consciousness. And this is scientific. That is the extent of their reasoning.
They give no indication of being aware that such mind-brain correlations can also be explicable given a more commonsensical conception of the self or soul coupled with the thesis that the brain merely alters consciousness. Science cannot decide between these two hypotheses, it requires a philosophical appraisal. Such philosophical appraisals are entirely absent from this book.
In many respects, this book very much resembles the mirror image of the countless popular books extolling the reality of an afterlife. Books that concentrate on the evidence for an afterlife -- NDEs, deathbed visions, mediumship, memories of previous lives and what have you – but accept it uncritically. No difficulties with the evidence are ever addressed. No alternative hypotheses are ever considered. They are devoid of any philosophical thought. These books are all about persuasion. Persuading people it is utterly foolish to reject an afterlife.
Likewise for this book, The Myth of an Afterlife. Similar to such mass-market books this is not a serious book. It concentrates on the evidence for the annihilation of consciousness at death – namely the mind-brain correlations -- but accepts this evidence uncritically without ever delving in further. No difficulties with the evidence are ever addressed. No alternative hypotheses are ever considered. It is essentially devoid of any philosophical content. This book is all about persuasion and nothing else. It is purely about persuading people that it is utterly foolish to believe in an afterlife.
But this book is worse than those mass-market books advocating an afterlife. For this book purports to be a collection of scholarly essays. It is pretending, hoodwinking, people into thinking it is something that it is not. That it has an intellectual respectability that the mass-market books lack. That it has the prestige of science behind it. That it will be balanced, come to a conclusion based on all relevant evidence and considerations. But none of this is true. Oh yes, and unlike the mass-market books, it is very repetitive.
Who is this book for? Not for those who are seeking the truth. Most likely it’s for those who are already convinced that there is no afterlife, and can use the research detailed in the book to bludgeon their opponents with. My recommendation is to save your money and not buy this book. If you see it in a library, then save your time (and arms) and leave it on the shelf.
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