Thursday, 5 March 2009

Is a "life after death" conceivable?

1. Proof that the brain produces consciousness?

It is presumed amongst many highly educated people in the West, and in particular scientists, that it has essentially been proven that the brain produces consciousness. They hold that there is overwhelming evidence to support this thesis and that it is no longer a live issue. This evidence comes in the form of the apparent complete dependency of our states of our minds on our brains. 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 can 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.

On the face of it these facts of modern neuroscience strongly indicate that there can be little realistic prospect of our consciousness surviving the deaths of our bodies [1]. However, my intention in this paper is to argue that the issue is not as clear-cut as the above would seem to suggest. Indeed I will argue that not only are we not compelled to conclude that consciousness is wholly a product of the brain, but that in many ways, assuming otherwise, has the benefit of being compatible with a great deal of alternative evidence. In addition I will argue that it also has the not inconsiderable bonus of being consistent with our commonsensical notion of ourselves.

2. A useful Simile?

Consider the following scenario. Imagine if you will 2 very intelligent people from the early 18th century – let’s call them Daniel and Ian – who, by some means or other, are miraculously transported to our present day. Imagine further they encounter a television set showing a film. After being suitably astounded, and after tinkering around with its internal components and finding that tinkering with particular components affects the picture quality in particular characteristic ways, Daniel declares that not just the picture but the storyline of the film must be wholly generated by these internal components. He argues that this must be the inevitable conclusion since tinkering with them affects the picture. Ian, however, will rightly point out that although he grants that the picture itself is generated by these internal components, there is difficulty in supposing that the contents of the film being shown is also wholly a product of these internal components. Ian argues that should the film be wholly a product of the internal components, then tinkering with them in a certain appropriate way should alter the sequence of pictures being shown so that a different film were being shown; or perhaps more plausibly a completely random sequence of pictures were shown.

On hearing this argument Daniel becomes quite angry. He starts to go into greater detail regarding the specific ways the quality of the picture displayed is effected, including ghosting, the picture changing from a colour to a black and white one, and a whole host of various other effects. Finally he mentions his killer argument. Namely that taking a hammer to the television set will permanently destroy its ability to display a picture. All this, he will assert, makes it pretty much of a forgone conclusion that both the picture and the storyline is entirely a product of the television set itself.

Whilst acknowledging the compelling nature of this last argument made by Daniel, Ian nevertheless doesn’t feel happy because he has not addressed the issue of why the storyline being shown remains resistant to tinkering with the internal components. Nevertheless, because neither Daniel or Ian know anything about electromagnetic waves, and indeed would find the concept of invisible waves travelling through the air to be completely alien and inimical to how they viewed reality and what is possible, then Ian has no ready reply to Daniel. Yet he remains uneasy and puzzled.

Later on in this paper I will suggest that the above might serve as a useful simile to the relationship of the self to ones brain. But before directly addressing this question it will be necessary to say a few words about the self and what we should consider is meant by it. I will then suggest that should consciousness continue after death, it will be this self that survives.

3. What is the self?

How do we define the self? An obvious answer would be to simply equate it with ones various personality characteristics such as ones interests, intelligence, memories, general demeanour and so on. However there is an obvious problem here. Compared to ourselves now, as children we had very different personality characteristics. If we are to embrace the position that we are merely the sum of our entire psychological state, and that there is very little in common between our entire psychological state as a child and now, then the inescapable conclusion is that the child has now quite literally ceased to exist. But it’s much worse than this. Simply having a few alcoholic drinks can change our personality characteristics quite radically. Indeed, even in the normal course of events, we can be in radically different moods from one day to the next, or even from one moment to the next. Are we to suppose we can be literally differing selves from one moment to the next?

It seems to me that we have this concept of the self which in one sense changes, but yet without changing what we essentially are. To elucidate; although our apparent personality and intelligence and interests may change radically throughout our lives, nevertheless we feel very strongly that there is a real sense in which we are still one and the very same person. Thus despite, for example, our 5 year old self, our sober adult self, or our drunk adult self exhibiting quite radically different personality traits, and having differing intelligence and differing interests, we are still generally very firmly convinced that we are literally the same self throughout our lives and therefore throughout these various differing mind states. Thus *I* (that is the self) might, for example, be in a good mood or a bad mood. But my self is not to be equated by such given mind states. Rather *I* experience being in a good mood, or a bad mood, or indeed any other mental state. The I, or the self, is that which endures, but which can experience various mental states such as differing moods.

So what we’re doing here is drawing a distinction between particular psychological or mind states on the one hand, and the self on the other. On this understanding the self is not the sum of our various psychological states. Rather the self is that which has particular conscious experiences, or undergoes particular psychological states. Another way of putting this is to say that our various psychological states, or mind states, are properties of the self rather than constituting the self. That is to say that neither ones typically longer term enduring psychological states such as ones interests, intelligence, memories, general demeanour, nor ones more transient psychological states such as the mood one happens to be in, is actually constitutive of the self. Therefore they can vary without changing the self. This is not to say though that ones self might not heavily influence some of our psychological states. However it does not rigidly determine them.

I would again stress that this seems to be consistent with our intuitive and commonsense notion of the self. Most of us are entirely happy to suppose we are literally the very same self as when we were children, despite having different intelligence, preoccupations and so on as compared to then. In other words we feel there is an enduring essence to us which remains unchanged and which I feel is appropriate to label the self.

However we encounter irreconcilable difficulties with this notion of the self if we assume that the brain produces both the self and its conscious experiences. To put the problem briefly; the physical is in a constant state of change, therefore brains and all the parts composing a brain, are also in a constant state of change. Hence if the brain, or a part of it, produces such a self, then it seems that this self must also be in a constant state of change. Such is the case under philosophical materialism which holds that only the material or physical exists, and thus consciousness and any "self" must be physical too. Thus under materialism, since the physical is in a constant state of change, then so too must the self.

But this commonsense notion of a self we have articulated does not change. What we might call the properties of the self change – namely ones moods, interests and so on. But the self itself does not change. Otherwise we would in effect be saying that from one second to the next the self is ceasing to exist only to be replaced by a different albeit virtually identical self. We would be constantly effectively dying, only to be constantly created anew, so to speak. The feeling that we are a continuing self would be merely an illusion. If the reader is perplexed by this I highly recommend they read my essay “Teleportation and the implications for an enduring self” where I spell out in some detail why this is entailed.

The physical is in a constant state of change. But this commonsensical of the self that I have articulated does not change. Thus in order to rescue our commonsensical notion of the self, it seems as if we will have to propose the self is non-physical. Such a supposition is arguably not unreasonable. After all, it seems that neither the self nor its conscious experiences are visible. It seems that we infer the presence of someone’s consciousness through their voluntary bodily movements. But consciousness is not identical to our voluntary bodily movements -- rather it causes such movements. In a similar way it seems that consciousness is also not identical to any particular physical processes within the brain – rather it causes those physical processes [2]. Thus it appears there are two radically different types of things in the world. On the one hand there are non-physical selves and their various conscious experiences. On the other hand there are physical objects and physical processes. It certainly appears to me that these are not one and the same thing. Such a position is known as dualism [3]. This is in contrast to the aforementioned materialism which is obliged to hold that this commonsensical notion of the self is illusionary.

4. Is the simile appropriate?

I started off this essay listing examples of the way the mind is clearly affected by the brain. To most people this essentially shows that our minds, and hence everything that we are, is simply a product of the brain. I then mentioned the example of a television set where although the internal components of the set clearly affect the picture quality, nevertheless what those pictures actually depict through each consecutive frame constituting the storyline of the programme, is not likewise affected by tinkering with the set’s internal components.

I want to suggest a simile here between the television set and television signals on the one hand, and the brain and the self on the other. Briefly, the picture quality on the television set that can alter without affecting the storyline being shown, can be compared to our various psychological states. Contrariwise the storyline of the programme being shown can be compared to ones essential self. So, in a comparable manner to the way that the quality of the picture displayed on a television set can change, but without changing the storyline of the programme being shown, our psychological states are free to change without in any way altering or changing the self.

But what about Daniel's "killer argument"? To remind ourselves, this was Daniel's observation that taking a hammer to the television set permanently destroys its ability to display a picture. Of course, unlike Ian and Daniel, we know that we are continually bathed in electromagnetic radiation which carries the information constituting the film. The destruction of the television set emphatically did not demonstrate that the film had its origin in the television set. Unlike Daniel, and indeed even Ian, we have no problem understanding that. Destroying the television set only affects our ability to view the film. A similar response can be given to those who assert that the fact there is no sign of consciousness once a person's brain stops functioning, proves that consciousness has been extinguished. If we are to subscribe to the notion of the self that I have articulated, then, as pointed out, both the self and its conscious states are in themselves invisible. We only are able to infer the existence of other selves through peoples' bodily behaviour. Hence when our brains are no longer functioning, we no longer have the ability to make our presence known in the physical world. Thus it is scarcely surprising that there is no sign of any consciousness with the death of the brain. It certainly need not entail that a person's consciousness has ceased to exist anymore than it is entailed the film has ceased to exist once the television set is destroyed.

The comparison to a television set is a variant of what is known as the transmission theory or filter theory of the mind-body relationship. So we are here thinking of the brain as an organ which alters our conscious states, but yet does not create them. One might say the brain acts as a kind of “filter” which somehow limits or restricts and regulates consciousness in certain characteristic ways. In a similar manner to which tinkering with the internal components of a television set can alter the picture quality, but not the programmes being broadcast, so the brain can influence our psychological states or mind states, but without altering the self. In this manner, the concept of a persisting non-physical self that I have articulated, can be made consistent with much, if not all, the neurophysiological evidence.

5. Is such a self consistent with the evidence?

Let’s consider the appropriateness of this notion of an enduring unchanging self. I suggest that after consuming alcohol, despite our mood and behaviour being changed quite radically compared to our sober self, we are completely certain that we are still one and the very same self. This does not of course mean our feeling here is not a illusion. But it certainly seems that the comparison to a Television set and TV signals is appropriate in this instance.

So far so good. But what about permanent radical personality change such as suffered by the aforementioned Phineas Gage?

Once a polite and caring person, Gage became prone to selfish behavior and bursts of profanity. Dr. Harlow said it was if Gage lost the balance between "his intellectual faculty and animal propensities." He had no respect for social graces and often lied about his accomplishments. Previously energetic and focused, he was now erratic and unreliable. He had trouble forming and executing plans. There was no evidence of forethought in his actions, and he often made choices against his best interests.

Indeed Gage changed to such an extent that his friends declared that Gage was no longer Gage. Now I believe the crucial question here is whether Gage himself agreed with his friends. In other words did he concede that his former self prior to the accident had literally ceased to exist, and that his present self had sprung into being after the accident? Although I don’t know the answer to this question, I very strongly suspect that he had not agreed with them and that he definitely felt like the same person despite the fact that his moods and ability to concentrate were now radically different. Indeed it is not clear to me why his case is qualitatively different from a person getting drunk, remaining drunk for the rest of his or her life, and thereby experiencing a permanent personality change. If such a thing were to happen to myself, then other people might declare that “Ian is no longer Ian”. However I myself would be completely convinced that I am still me 100%. It would just be that I might feel more gregarious, might find it more difficult to concentrate on various mental tasks, might be more prone to getting bad-tempered and so on and so forth.

6. Looking at all the evidence in the round

I have argued that even if there is a systematic correlation between brain events and mental events, this does not in itself actually prove that mental events are brought into being by their correlated brain events. One could of course still argue that the evidence makes it overwhelming probable. Indeed, considering this evidence in isolation, I find it extremely compelling myself. However there are considerations which weigh in against this conclusion.

First of all, and as I have already pointed out, it is profoundly counter-intuitive. If we are to embrace the brain produces consciousness thesis, then, as I have argued both in this essay and the “teleportation and the implications for an enduring self” essay, the commonsense notion of the self that we all tend to implicitly hold must be dispensed with. Instead we are obliged to hold that the notion of a continuing enduring self through time is an illusion. To repeat what I said earlier; in this scenario, from one second to the next, the self is effectively ceasing to exist only to be replaced by a different albeit virtually identical self. We are constantly dying, only to be constantly created anew, so to speak. I would suggest that this is extraordinarily difficult to actually psychologically believe.

However, against this point, it could be argued that the fact we find it extraordinarily difficult to psychologically believe something does not provide any evidence that it is false. Some people might argue that the fact of the matter is that conscious states are altered by physical processes within the brain. The most simple and parsimonious explanation for this is that brain processes produce consciousness [4]. If this entails that there is no substantial enduring self, then we should just bite the bullet and accept that our feeling otherwise in this regard is just simply that – namely a feeling. However, I’m not so convinced that our deepest, most intuitive feelings, regarding what we feel we essentially are should be dismissed in so cavalier a manner. But I don’t wish to pursue this here as there is a more important point which should be raised, and this leads us to my second point.

Secondly the brain produces consciousness thesis is directly incompatible with all the evidence [5] suggesting that our consciousness survives death. Such evidence includes near-death experiences (NDEs) and the closely related phenomenon deathbed visions, evidence for reincarnation in the form of children’s recollections of previous lives (although not alleged memories retrieved through hypnosis which is much poorer quality evidence), apparitions of a certain type [6], and mediumship. Interested readers might like to visit this page for a list of appropriate references, many of which are available to read online (update July 2014.  The link I had is now dead).

There is also much indirect evidence which tends to suggest the continuation of consciousness after death. The most notable indirect evidence is psi phenomena. Without wishing to argue for it here, it seems to me that the totality of all the evidence suggests that it exists even if the more remarkable demonstrations of such phenomena turn out to have involved trickery. Contradicting our current western understanding of the mind-brain relationship, the existence of such phenomena suggests there is far more to the mind than is implied by regarding consciousness as merely being either a function of the brain or a causally inefficacious by-product of the brain.

Then there is physical phenomena such as, for example, clocks stopping and photographs falling off walls occurring near the time of death. More interestingly these phenomena do not normally occur in the vicinity of the dying person, but rather in the vicinity of someone, located at some distant place, who is emotionally close to the dying person [7].

Much more interestingly there have been reports of a restoration of mental functioning in people immediately prior to death. Indeed there have been scattered reports of people apparently recovering from dementia shortly before death [8].

The point here is that if we consider the totality of the evidence as a whole, rather than merely noting that mind states change as a result of physical changes in the brain, then it is far from obvious that the brain produces consciousness. However this begs an important question. If in fact the brain doesn't produce consciousness, but merely alters consciousness, then why are selves associated with brains at all?

I would suggest that it could be the case, as hinted at by mystical experiences, that disembodied consciousness is vastly greater in scope than our everyday consciousness. But in the embodied state the brain acts as a reducing valve or “filter” which severely curtails the range of consciousness. Arguably this would serve the useful purpose of filtering out the perception of other realities and other conscious states which are not necessary, or which hinder our ability to function in this physical reality. This hypothesis would broadly be consistent with phenomena such as the occasional reports of people recovering their mental faculties near death, near-death experiences and other mystical experiences, and also accounts such as those found in the "Tibetan Book of the Dead.

For those readers who wish to read more about transmission or filter theory I recommend Chris Carter’s article:

Does Consciousness depend on the Brain?

There is a critique of the above article by Keith Augustine.

There is a response by Chris Carter to this critique.

The transmission theory is also mentioned in the following paper by William Braud:

Brains, Science, and Nonordinary and Transcendent Experiences: Can Conventional Concepts and Theories Adequately Address Mystical and Paranormal Experiences?

Update:  This blog entry by myself is also relevant:

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia

Ian Wardell

[1] Perhaps I should point out that even if brains produce consciousness this need not rule out the prospect of the continuation of our consciousness at some future date after our deaths. I'm primarily thinking here of resurrection, or uploading our consciousness into a robot or some other artificial body. However, if brains produce consciousness, this rules out any prospect of a "life after death" as most of us tend to envisage it.

[2] Of course philosophical materialists will deny this, but I’m interested here in articulating a commonsensical notion of the self and to assess whether such a notion is consistent with reason and evidence.

[3] From the Latin word duo meaning two. The other main position, materialism, holds that there is no such distinction – there is only one type of thing in the world. Hence materialism is sometimes referred to as a monist position (from the Latin word mono meaning one).

[4] This is a particular instance of employing Ockham’s razor. According to the Britannica online encyclopaedia this principle gives precedence to simplicity; of two competing theories, the simplest explanation of an entity is to be preferred.

[5] When I use the word “evidence” I most emphatically do not mean proof, or anything like it. Nor am I necessarily referring to scientific evidence. I simply mean that we have phenomena that on the whole adds support for the “life after death” hypothesis. It is nevertheless arguably possible that all the evidence can be given orthodox explanations.

[6] I am thinking of something like “crisis apparitions” here which seem to me to give some suggestion of continued consciousness after death. In contrast the ghosts associated with hauntings do not seem to me to provide much -- if indeed any -- evidential value. They seem more akin to some type of “recording” of a past event, somehow imprinted onto the local surroundings, which is “played back” at certain times.

[7] Such phenomena has been recorded for example by Rhine, L.E. Hidden Channels of the Mind. New York: Sloane, 1961.

[8] See for example Osis, K., (1961). Deathbed observations by Physicians and Nurses. New York: Parapsychology Foundation (p24); Osis, K., & Haraldsson, E. (1997). At the Hour of Death (3rd ed.). Norwalk, CT: Hastings House (p133). (Original work published 1977); Grosso, M. (2004). Experiencing the Next World Now. New York: Paraview (p42-43).

Often it's extremely hard to decide what is the rational thing to believe.

It's extraordinarily difficult for most of us to decide what the truth is on many contentious issues. Will we witness catastrophic clima...

Popular Posts