Note: This response is approximately 13,000 words long. I have a shorter version of approximately 5,000 words that I have called A Review of the Myth of an Afterlife that some readers may prefer to read. It is essentially a short version that omits the 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 shall refer to that which survives as the self.
2) What is it that might survive?
In attempting to establish whether we survive in some form it is crucial to specify upfront what we are supposing might survive. Many of the authors do provide a definition. And all of these definitions are essentially the same. Thus, for example, Matt McCormick in his chapter says:
The common view is that something that makes me up will survive, that I will have eternal life, that I will be reincarnated, or that my soul will go to heaven. The things that are essential to me as an individual consciousness are my beliefs, my hopes, my dispositions, my emotional reactions, and my memories. So popular depictions of the soul seem to identify it with what we usually call a person’s mind. In what follows, then, we will treat “mind” and “soul” interchangeably.Unlike Matt McCormick, I do not think it is appropriate to use the words mind and soul interchangeably. I conceive a soul as being a self that survives the deaths of our bodies. But a self is not the same as a mind. Why not?
As a preliminary to answering this question, we need to distinguish between two distinct uses of the word "change". On the one hand there is what I shall refer to as alterational change, and on the other hand, there is existential change. These two types of change can probably best be understood by the use of an example. Hence, as a table ages it changes by acquiring scratches and so on, this is alterational change. It also has changed if we smash the table up and replace it with a similar one, this is existential change.
Now, 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. The crucial question that needs to be addressed is whether this is merely alterational change, or whether it is existential change? If it's existential change, then we are literally not the same person at the present time as we were as children. In other words, we have not survived since our childhoods. But, if this is so, then a fortiori we could not expect to survive the death of our bodies.
I submit then that those who subscribe to the survival hypothesis will almost certainly subscribe to the idea that we merely undergo alterational change as we grow older, drink alcohol, suffer brain damage and so on. But is this a reasonable supposition?
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. But does anyone really feel that their self has actually existentially changed after a few beers? That they are quite literally not the same person after a few beers than they were when sober? Speaking personally, this just doesn’t seem remotely plausible. 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 if existential change is not plausible here, then it will likely also feel implausible that we have existentially changed since we were children.
To reflect my feelings here I therefore propose that the 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, and memories all being different. None of these constitute the self/soul rather they are properties or attributes of the self/soul. Certainly the nature of one’s self might heavily influence emotions, interests, behaviour and so on, but it does not rigidly determine them. This is in contrast to the mind which seems to refer to one's present various psychological states and therefore is distinct from the self or soul.
The self also needs to be contrasted with consciousness. The self is the *I* or the author of my thoughts, feelings, sensations and so on. It is the experiencer -- that which has experiences. The relationship of the self to consciousness is similar to the relationship of the sea to waves. They are different, but in both cases the latter could not exist without the former. Selves also serve the purpose of grouping certain experiences together so that certain experiences can be properly be said to be had by a person. That is to say, there is not just one universal consciousness we all partake in. Rather they are different selves with their own unique streams of consciousness.
Now, of course, one’s feelings here about what the self or soul is, certainly does not entail the self or soul has to be conceived in such a manner. But, at the very least, the authors of this tome need to address this position, and more generally, the whole question of personal identity – that is they need to address the issue of what makes a person the very same person throughout his or her life. Only then can it be meaningfully assessed if that person can survive in some afterlife.
But they do not address either my own conception of the self/soul nor say anything whatsoever on what constitutes personal identity. None of the authors. Moreover, they appear to simply take it for granted that significant changes in emotions, temperament, interests, intelligence and so on constitutes existential change (in which case, not only should they reject an afterlife, they should also reject that we have survived since childhood). The glaring problem here, of course, is that simply taking it for granted that significant changes in emotions, temperament, interests, intelligence and so on constitutes existential change transparently begs the whole question of whether there is an afterlife, and therefore renders a good proportion of this book entirely irrelevant.
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?
In the previous section, I mentioned how much we change over our lives and how drugs like alcohol can affect our emotions and behaviour. Curiously the authors more or less ignore this evidence and, instead, concentrate on the profound changes brought about by various types of brain damage. Indeed, in varying ways, albeit with the authors frequently repeating each other, they quite unbelievably devote approximately half of this 700 page book on this brain damage issue.
As an aside, I think there’s a reason for this. I think it’s because this book is in the business of persuasion rather than an objective dispassionate search for the truth. Hence, focussing on examples of personality change brought about by brain damage rather than, say, drinking beer, more effectively achieves that end. After all, people feel that they are the very same self when drunk as they are when sober. And people feel that their adult self is still the very same self as they were as a child. But, generally, people haven’t likewise undergone any brain damage, and hence it seems more plausible to most people that such brain-damaged people quite literally are no longer the same self.
But, to get back to the main point. I do not believe that either the personality change brought about as one matures, or personality change brought about by ingesting alcohol, or personality change brought about brain damage and so on, refutes the concept of a soul that I have articulated. Why not? Let’s consider the following argument:
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.
It might be helpful though to address the specific cases of personality change that the authors find so problematic for the conception of a soul. Are they not also applicable to the type of soul I advance?
As Carlos J. Álvarez mentions in his chapter, The Neural Substrate of Emotions and Emotional Processing, damage to particular areas of the brain can result in the loss of emotions such as sadness. And, conversely, other emotions can be amplified as a result of brain damage. Since, in common with the other authors, he considers emotions to at least partially constitute the soul, the existence of the soul appears to be straightforwardly refuted.
The problem here, of course, is his conception of the soul. If we substitute the conception of the self or soul that I articulate, then it is no longer a decisive objection. Indeed, arguably, it is no more problematic for the notion that emotions are possessed by the soul, and we are the same self/soul that undergoes such emotional changes, than it is problematic to suppose that vision is possessed or intrinsic to the eyes and brain, even though spectacles can radically alter the acuity of our vision.
Of a potentially more problematic nature are the changing of one’s moral values that Rocco J. Gennaro and Yonatan I. Fishman refer to in their chapter, The Argument from Brain Damage Vindicated. One’s morals, or at least how nice or nasty a person is, should surely be intrinsic to the self and soul. However, I think this is quite distinct from one’s professed moral values. It is my belief that society moulds our behaviour into socially acceptable channels, and that our professed morality, to a large measure, simply reflects such socially acceptable behaviour. But, also, we tend to have a propensity to judge one’s own behaviour as moral, even if others do not. This is simply a reflection of the psychological desire for people to think of themselves as being good people.
Many of us act “morally” then because of the social opprobrium if we fail to do so. However, at various times, such as when we imbibe alcohol, we are less influenced by such social opprobrium. This, in conjunction with a change in our emotional states, will lead to differing behaviour. But if our professed morality, to a degree, reflects our behaviour, then one would expect our stated morality to change. However, this wouldn’t constitute a genuine change in a person’s essence. Rather our behaviour is less inhibited due to a change in one’s emotional states and less concern about society’s mores. So the alleged changing of our morality might not be any more relevant than the fact our emotions are amplified or inhibited.
More than one author mentions that appropriate brain damage renders us unable to understand or speak language. Hence, the argument is that one’s soul will lack the capacity for language. Again, though, this does not follow since an appropriately dysfunctional brain might serve to merely inhibit language ability. But, even if this were not so, I assume souls would communicate via telepathy rather than language, so it is not entirely clear to me why souls should have a language ability in the first place. This being so, it does not seem problematic for those who subscribe to survival to grant that the brain might well enable our language ability.
I could consider other correlations between brain states and mind states, but I do not believe any of such correlations decisively rules out the type of self or soul I articulate in section “2”. Of course, if we just consider these correlations in isolation, then it will seem by far the most parsimonious hypothesis that the brain simply creates consciousness. But there are other factors to consider, and I'm not here merely referring to the evidence for an afterlife. There are other philosophical reasons to suppose that the consciousness-brain relationship might be more akin to the aforementioned vision-spectacles or TV signals-TV set relationship. I will take a look at these philosophical reasons in the course of this review.
It might be appropriate first to mention that Keith Augustine, one of the editors of this book, specifically addresses the example of a TV set as a metaphor for the mind-brain correlations. Unfortunately, he completely fails to understand it. He says:
It doesn’t take much reflection to see that a television receiver is a terrible analogy for making sense of known mind-brain correlations. For the analogues would have to be:
Broadcast station → Electromagnetic signal → TV receiver → TV program images External soul ↔ Interactive forces ↔ Brain ↔ Behavior
On this analogy, mental activity itself occurs in the external soul, just as the images of a television program originate from the broadcast station. But no damage to the local circuitry of your TV set can have any effect on the television program recording playing at the remote broadcast station, or on the signal that the station puts out.
The fact that the TV set can have no effect on the TV signal is the very point (as is spectacles having no effect on one’s unaided eyesight, to use the simpler metaphor). For it is being pointed out that similarly it might be that the brain has no effect on one’s disembodied self. But the internal circuitry of the TV set can have very much an effect on the quality of the picture being displayed, even though it doesn’t alter the programme being shown. And likewise, alteration of one’s brain can affect one’s psychological states, even though it perhaps doesn’t alter or change the self. The misunderstanding here stems from the incorrect conception of the self that all the authors hold – namely that one’s self is constituted by one’s present psychological states.
There is another way of refuting the type of soul that I have articulated. If there is an extra ingredient 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 soul or extra ingredient 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 is likely to be false, will suffice to show that such an extra ingredient or soul is not required. So we now need to see if the authors can establish that materialism is true.
4) What is Materialism?
How our mental states -- that is to say our experiences, thoughts, beliefs and so on --- are related to our bodies, is known as the mind-body problem. There are two general positions, materialism and dualism, and many varieties of each (although my own position is neither materialism nor dualism, but rather idealism).
What does materialism mean? It means broadly that the totality of all that exists is exhausted by both everything that we directly perceive through our five senses, and also what we can sense or detect through the use of scientific instruments. Such scientific instruments include microscopes and so on that simply extend the range of things we are able to sense or infer.
Should some variety of materialism be true then this means we are purely material beings; that is, we are nothing but our material bodies. Hence, under this view, consciousness is typically considered to be a physical thing or process, or perhaps even purely illusory. This implies that ultimately we are merely sophisticated biological robots operating according to the laws of physics. If true this would seem to pretty much rule out the prospect of a soul residing in any type of afterlife realm.
The movement away from belief in a soul over the past 400 years or so can be laid squarely at the door of the ascendency of materialism. But what accounts for this ascendancy? Is it because materialism is obviously correct? I would argue most definitely not. Indeed, I and many others have made the argument that materialism cannot be correct. How so?
First of all, it needs to be pointed out that I am here referring to modern materialism; namely the materialism which, in its slightly varying guises, has held sway since the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. This scientific revolution, which heralded the birth of modern science, was directly precipitated by the concept of material reality that both Galileo and Descartes advanced. They proposed that the material realm is wholly quantitative. That is to say that the external world is wholly composed of things and processes that can in principle be detected by our measuring instruments and thus can be measured. The consequence of all this was that science could describe the whole of the external material world; no aspects of the external world lay beyond its scope. Once we have made all appropriate measurements of this material reality and then mathematically described the patterns found and codified them into the laws of nature, then nothing more need be investigated.
But, what of the qualitative aspects of reality such as colours, sounds, and smells? These aspects of reality are not detectable by our measuring instruments and hence are not measurable. The only option was to stipulate that they simply weren't part of the furniture of reality at all (note the word stipulated, this was in no shape or form a scientific discovery). Instead, colours, sounds, and smells were redefined to stand for those measurable aspects of reality which were deemed to cause these qualitative experiences. Thus, colours were redefined to refer to the respective specific wavelengths of light that objects reflect. Sounds were redefined to refer to rarefactions and compressions of the air. Smells redefined to refer to various molecules in motion. It was acknowledged that colours, sounds, and smells, as we experience them, still existed. But they only existed in the mind. Hence, an experience of greenness was a creation by the mind fashioned from the purely quantitative light entering the eyes. In short, from the birth of modern science onwards, the external material world, including our bodies and brains, was supposed to be wholly quantitative and devoid of anything qualitative. Thus a very much emaciated conception of the material external world was advanced. Compared to the commonsensical conception of the material world, this was a bare skeletal outline of reality denuded of the flesh of the qualitative.
I now need to stress that carving up reality in this manner seems to entail a form of dualism. The material external world was defined to be wholly quantitative and hence measurable. The qualitative aspects of reality -- colours, sounds, smells and so on -- were extracted from this external reality and were supposed to have subsistence only within the mind. But it then follows there are two different types of existent. On the one hand, there is the material world that is composed exclusively of the quantitative. On the other hand, there is the mind, which is responsible for both the qualitative aspects of reality as well as our mental states such as our experiences, thoughts, beliefs and so on. Note that even if the mind-brain correlations force the conclusion that consciousness is created by the brain, this still doesn't entail that consciousness is material -- remember, to be material means it has to be detectable, and we can only detect the neural correlates of consciousness, not consciousness itself.
Thus materialism seems to be ruled out. But, in that case, why did the birth of science lead to materialism rather than the obvious dualism it suggests? And why is it that today the vast majority of scientists and philosophers are materialists?
The answer is this. Science investigates the quantitative or measurable. Material reality had been defined as exclusively consisting of the quantitative. It then follows that science is the investigation of this material reality. Now, science has been astoundingly successful in furnishing us with knowledge of this material reality as well as being an extraordinarily fruitful one in terms of the manipulation of our environment and in the creation of our technology. So, a leap of “logic” was made. It was simply assumed that since science was so successful, it must describe the whole of reality, including the mind.
Since this is so important, let me put it another way. Material reality was stripped of all its qualitative aspects – colours, sounds, smells and so on. These qualitative aspects of reality were relegated to being creations of the mind rather than actually existing out there. This left material reality consisting exclusively of all the measurable elements that science could then successfully describe. Minds, on the other hand, could not be so described since they completely lack any quantitative elements. For minds consist of thoughts, pains, emotions and so on, in addition to what were hitherto considered to be the qualitative aspects of reality such as colours, sounds, and smells. Hence the mind, by definition, did not come under the purview of science. However, since science has been so incredibly successful, it was supposed that it simply must describe the entirety of reality, including minds. In order to square this circle, the solutions advanced were to stipulate that consciousness is either illusory, or that it is one and the very same thing as a material process, or that it is one and the very same thing as the functions carried out by such material processes.
Here is a splendid analogy used by the philosopher Edward Feser to illustrate this type of reasoning. It’s as if someone were to declare that since metal detectors are so successful at detecting metal, they must detect everything that exists. Hence, anything that appears to be made out of plastic, rubber, or wood and so on, must somehow either be illusory, or really be metal in disguise. This is of course silly. But, in a similar way in which metal detectors are only designed to detect metal objects and have nothing whatsoever to say about the existence, or otherwise, of objects made of other substances, so too are the methods of current science limited to the quantitative aspects of reality, and cannot have anything to say about aspects of reality not amenable to this approach. And these aspects of reality not amenable to this approach are consciousness and the qualitative aspects of reality such as colours, sounds, and smells. So, appealing to the success of science is simply a complete irrelevancy.
As an aside, this tactic of declaring consciousness is one and the very same thing as a material process or thing, does not seem to me to be meaningful in any case. On the one hand, we have physical processes whose reality is wholly cashed out in terms of physical properties – mass, electric charge, velocity and so on. On the other hand, we have a conscious experience, perhaps a sensation of greenness, or of pain. There is no commonality whatsoever between such physical properties on the one hand, and qualia on the other, so it seems straightforwardly false to declare they’re one and the very same. Arguing over this though is to miss the much deeper point that we simply have no reason to suppose consciousness is a physical thing or process in the first place.
One of the editors, Keith Augustine, who is by far the most prolific contributor to this volume, has communicated with me a fair bit regarding this book on various blogs, discussion boards, and Amazon. These discussions have not been amicable. He is aware of this birth of modern science argument and in his communication with me on a discussion board has remarked: “Ian repeats this [birth of modern science argument] without amendment so many times that he ought to simply train a parrot to give it for him”. He further said that this argument doesn’t entail there’s an afterlife, pointing out that it is compatible with both property dualism and philosophers’ Galen Strawson’s and Bertrand Russell’s view that physical objects have both extrinsic (physical) and intrinsic (phenomenal) aspects.
Of course, making the point that this birth of modern science argument doesn’t establish an afterlife is to attack a straw man since neither I nor anyone else has ever claimed it does. But there are a further 4 points to be made here.
First of all, as I argued in section 3, the soul or self has to be non-material. Thus establishing materialism would suffice to refute the soul. Any evidence for an afterlife, for example NDEs, mediumship and so on, would therefore necessarily be flawed in some manner (indeed, I suppose it's because most academics are so convinced that materialism is correct that they do not, and are not, interested in any evidence for an afterlife). Contrariwise, should materialism be false and consciousness and the self are non-material, then how could we know that consciousness ceases to exist when one's body permanently ceases functioning? Should materialism be false, then we cannot perceive anyone else's consciousness; we can only infer its presence in other people via the voluntary movement of their bodies and their speech. When their bodies cease to function at death nothing can be definitively concluded about the consciousness which hitherto was able to move that body. Nor do the mind-body correlations show that consciousness is produced by the brain, for how do we know that the relationship is not of the same type as the aforementioned spectacles, TV set, and prism examples?
Secondly, it was the birth of modern science and modern materialism that played a pivotal role in eroding belief in a soul. But, since, as I have argued, the birth of modern science in no shape or form justifies materialism, then we have little if any more reason to dismiss the existence of a soul than our forebears in the 16th Century and beforehand did.
Thirdly, it is persistently being claimed by those that dismiss an afterlife, including many authors of this tome and indeed including Keith Augustine himself, that their position has the backing of science. But this is only so should materialism be true. However, I shall defer discussion of this until section 7.
Fourthly, many of the authors of this tome clearly do think that materialism and rejection of an afterlife are inextricably linked, even if Keith Augustine does not.
And on that last note, let's now look at the various authors’ justification for materialism.
5) The authors defence of Materialism
The last section outlined what seems to me to be an intractable difficulty for supposing materialism can be correct. How do the various authors respond to this? Further, what positive arguments for materialism do they advance?
The answer to the first question is they don't. The answer to the second question is also they don’t. None of them address this intractable difficulty for materialism, nor any other difficulties for materialism. And it gets worse. Not only do they all ignore the difficulties for materialism, they virtually advance no arguments for materialism either. The arguably sole exception is a certain Raymond D. Bradley. He claims to have shown materialism to be true, but in fact, he does no such thing. In his chapter: Why Survival is Metaphysically Impossible, he talks about peoples’ propensity to reify consciousness.
Take the notion of consciousness, for instance. If we reify the abstract noun “consciousness,” it will seem appropriate for us to ask questions about the interdependence of bodily states and consciousness, about consciousness and its causal efficacy in a world governed by conservation laws, about the beginnings of consciousness in the embryological and evolutionary stories of individuals and species, and about which stage of our consciousness is supposed to survive one’s bodily death.He also says:
He [Gilbert Ryle] puts it this way: “To talk of a person’s mind . . . is to talk of the person’s abilities, liabilities [dispositions] and inclinations to do and undergo certain sorts of things”.
Bradley says that we are puzzled by consciousness because we think of it as being a thing and that instead of asking ourselves “what is consciousness?” we should substitute it for “what is it to be conscious?”. He is attempting, that is, to deflate the problem of consciousness. Indeed, he compares the relationship of consciousness to the brain as being of a similar nature of a cat’s grin to its face. Clearly we cannot have a disembodied grin, and likewise, it is equally ludicrous to imagine a disembodied consciousness.
But a grin is just a particular arrangement of a face. Contrariwise, one’s thoughts, emotions, experiences are not an arrangement of brain processes (even if they might be caused or elicited by such brain processes). That is to say, we cannot get consciousness from non-conscious particles interacting. As Bernardo Kastrup puts it, “there is nothing about the momentum, mass, charge or spin of physical particles, or their relative positions and interactions with one another, in terms of which we could deduce the greenness of grass, the sweetness of honey, the warmth of love, or the bitterness of disappointment”. Of course, Raymond Bradley will claim I and Bernardo Kastrup are reifying consciousness here. But this is just playing with words. The plain fact of the matter is that I have experiences. I experience pains, emotions, the colour green, and so on. Raymond Bradley is effectively denying the existence of such mental phenomena and conflating them, as Gilbert Ryle did, with a “person’s abilities, liabilities [dispositions] and inclinations to do and undergo certain sorts of things”. He is, in short, denying the very existence of consciousness. Since we can, quite literally, be more certain about the existence of our own consciousness than we can about anything else, I submit that Raymond D. Bradley cannot be taken seriously.
What about the other authors? Why do they neither address the difficulties of materialism nor advance any positive arguments for it? As with their neglect of considering any appropriate conception of a soul, it seems to me it could either be a deliberate omission so as to make their task of refuting an afterlife an easier one, or it could be that they are simply not aware of any problems with materialism. Neither possibility reflects very well on any of the relevant authors.
I should perhaps add that the authors do make many unsubstantiated assertions. Hence, Rocco J. Gennaro and Yonatan I. Fishman in their chapter, The Argument from Brain Damage Vindicated, claim that mental states, being identical with physical states (this is the identity theory, a type of materialism), is no more problematic than the fact that water is the very same thing as H2O. Of course, it is somewhat more problematic since, given the molecular composition of H20, the solidity, liquidity, and so on of water is deducible. This is not so with consciousness as I explained in some detail in the previous section. They disagree? Fine, but disagreeing by itself is insufficient. They need to explain how consciousness is deducible from the brain. They don't explain; further, I submit such an explanation is straightforwardly impossible.
Mainly though there is simply an appeal to the mind-brain correlations. The authors seem to have an implicit assumption that such correlations all by themselves both very strongly suggest that consciousness is produced by the brain and that materialism is true. Indeed, they do not seem to differentiate these two positions. But, what I was looking for in this section was 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 reject the notion that the mind-brain relationship is of the same nature as the aforementioned spectacles, prisms and TV set metaphors mentioned in section 3.
Dualism holds there are two types of existents in the world, the material world on the one hand, and a non-material consciousness (and perhaps the self or soul) on the other. Hence, should dualism be true, this at least leaves open the possibility that consciousness and the self or soul might survive the death of our bodies. It's important to stress though that dualism merely leaves open the possibility of an afterlife. Just because consciousness is not a material thing or process doesn't entail that it could not somehow be created by the brain, or is not somehow existentially dependent on brain processes.
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. To give you a flavour here are a few quotes.
Rocco J. Gennaro and Yonatan I. Fishman in their chapter, The Argument from Brain Damage Vindicated, say:
[I]f the soul can interact with a physical medium, then in principle it can be experimentally detected. For example, we might expect to find neurons firing in the absence of any physical cause at all. However, to date, no evidence of “soul-stuff” has been experimentally detected, despite our relatively advanced state of scientific knowledge.
And they also say:
How does anything nonphysical interact with something physical, such as the brain? No such explanation is forthcoming or is perhaps even possible.
Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman in The Dualist’s Dilemma say:
A number of physical laws appear to be violated by the hypothesized interaction between nonphysical souls and physical brains. Depending on how one attempts to make room for the influence of nonphysical souls on brains, there will be violations of either the law of conservation of energy, law of conservation of momentum, entropy (particularly Maxwell’s demons considerations), or the laws of quantum mechanics (especially the fundamental randomness of quantum events, which is incompatible with the quite nonrandom degree of control nonphysical minds would have to possess over brain events in order to direct bodily behavior).
And finally Gualtiero Piccinini and Sonya Bahar in their chapter No Mental Life after Brain Death, say:
[T]he dualist “explanation” of intentionality in terms of a nonphysical mind does not actually explain anything; it is just the postulation of a putative entity capable of intentionality, but says nothing about how such an entity achieves intentionality. Therefore, even if the physicalist were completely unable to explain intentionality, the dualist would have no advantage here.
Second, during the last three decades considerable progress has been made in developing physicalistic explanations of intentionality. While there is no room to review them here...
Some authors argue that phenomenal consciousness—the qualitative character of consciousness—cannot be explained naturalistically. Therefore, phenomenal consciousness must be due to a nonphysical mind at work.
As in the case of intentionality, the dualist “explanation” doesn’t actually explain anything. It just postulates a nonphysical mind without saying how it achieves phenomenal consciousness.
The first of Rocco J. Gennaro’s and Yonatan I. Fishman’s objections above, echoed by other authors of this tome, entails that they believe that even our voluntary behaviour originates from unbroken chains of physical causes and effects. However, this seems to me to be fatally problematic. Why? First of all, it appears to entail that mental processes, such as an unfolding understanding on our parts, are causally irrelevant. But we need to bear in mind here that one can surely be completely certain of one’s own consciousness. Indeed, it is quite literally the most certain thing we can be certain of. But, in order for our certainty here to be justified, then consciousness must do something. Otherwise, I could not be certain of the existence of my own consciousness, or indeed have any reason to believe in it whatsoever! At the very least consciousness affects the direction of my flow of thoughts when I think, “I am directly cognisant in the most direct manner of my own consciousness right now”. And if the presence of my consciousness affects the direction of my thoughts, then it also affects the physical processes in my brain.
It might be retorted that my objection is rendered irrelevant should materialism be true since conscious experiences, such as our reasoning processes, are literally identical to physical processes in the brain. If a train of thought is literally identical to some physical processes, and these physical processes have causal powers, then it necessarily follows that the train of thought itself has causal powers too. So we have no problem here. Now, of course, as I explained in part 4, materialism is simply not possible and neither does this identity thesis pass muster. But, let's leave that aside for the moment. I would still beg to differ that this solves the problem.
Let's suppose that in the brain we have a physical causal chain:
- i) A → B → C → D → E
And we have a mental chain representing a chain of reasoning:
- ii) a → b → c → d → e
The materialist claims that “A” is identical to “a”, “B” is identical to “b” etc. But nevertheless, we have 2 different accounts of how A/a progresses to E/e. In "i" we have the interactions of molecules as mathematically described by the laws of physics. In "ii" we have a train of reasoning which, when we attain an understanding of something, will have involved rational connections between thoughts.
If materialism is true, then everything has the ability to be explained in terms of the physical as exemplified in account "i". Account "ii" is simply not required since physical laws, which describe physical processes, make no reference to reasoning, nor indeed do they make any reference to intentions, desires, plans, or any other aspect of consciousness. Indeed, reasoning only comes into the picture for a vanishingly small part of the world; namely brain processes, and furthermore a minority of brain processes at that. And it is held by materialists that physical laws provide a sufficient explanation for these minority of brain processes just as much as they provide a sufficient explanation for the rest of the Universe.
If this is all correct it then follows that reasoning something through is causally irrelevant. Hence, identifying reasoning and the rest of our mental life with physical processes doesn't allow us to escape from the conclusion that our consciousness is causally redundant. But, as I’ve already explained, this is surely rendered false if we are not to undermine the complete certainty in our own consciousness (and note that this is an additional argument against materialism to the one I gave in the Materialism section, and yet another argument that all the authors completely ignore).
But what about Rocco J. Gennaro’s and Yonatan I. Fishman’s 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. In response, I would first of all point out that it really doesn’t matter what has, or has not, been experimentally detected in this regard since they are proposing something that, as I have explained, seems to me to be flat-out impossible. It is simply unintelligible to suppose our consciousness is causally inefficacious. They disagree? That’s fine, but they need to advance arguments as to why the reasoning I have outlined above is in error. Secondly, my suspicion is that since it is simply assumed by neuroscientists that some type of materialism is correct, any influence from consciousness is simply not being looked for at all. Any firing of neurons will simply be taken for granted to have been caused by prior physical events. Furthermore, even if they were looking, our functional MRI's lack the resolution to make any definitive assertions in this regard.
The second issue they raise, which again is a common objection, is how such radically different substances can causally interact. However, I’m unclear as to the precise objection here. They appear to have in mind here some metaphysical or logical impossibility (if mere physical impossibility, see next paragraph). But why can’t it simply be a brute fact of reality that consciousness can affect the physical? What precisely (or even vaguely) is the difficulty here? As usual, we are left guessing.
A few of the authors claim interactionism would entail energy conservation would be violated. I’m puzzled though as to why a non-material consciousness couldn’t use up energy. This is something that the authors (as usual) never explain. However, Keith Augustine’s and Yonatan I. Fishman’s quote above contradicts what the other authors say in this respect as they acknowledge souls may not violate energy conservation. However, they assert that physical laws must be violated somewhere. 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. At best current physical laws merely give us philosophical zombies (beings that are materially identical to human beings but are devoid of any consciousness). It follows then that if consciousness is causally efficacious, then our physical laws 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 (see the end of section 7 for more details).
As for Gualtiero Piccinini and Sonya Bahar point about intentionality and phenomenal consciousness, they simply fail to understand substance dualism. An immaterial substance or self by definition has intentionality and phenomenal consciousness. They are intrinsic to the self. You cannot have a self, or immaterial substance, which lacks consciousness or intentionality. Such a concept is simply nonsensical. Contrariwise, as I have already explained, modern materialism appears to rule out the very existence of both consciousness and intentionality. I would very much like to hear of these physicalistic explanations of intentionality. Why do they not give these arguments? Regardless, intentionality under materialism appears to be ruled out from the get-go since matter is deemed to be absent any immanent or intrinsic final causality or teleology. Even words and sentences only have derived intentionality; that is they only have meaning in as much as consciousness exists and is able to impart meaning to them. (for an expanded consideration of this issue addressed in this section, see my A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism).
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. To give you a flavour.
Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman in their chapter The Dualist’s Dilemma say:
The weight of the scientific evidence supporting the dependence thesis [i.e extinction hypothesis] thus puts in a bind those substance dualists who think both that the mind is independent of the brain and that it can survive the brains death.
[T]he dependence thesis [i.e extinction hypothesis] is consistent with our knowledge of the laws of physics and natural history, connects facts across comparative psychology, developmental psychology, and the neurosciences.
Of course, compared with a hypothesis that coheres well with our overall background knowledge, an “extraordinary” hypothesis at odds with our knowledge about how the world operates would generally be assigned a low prior probability. Accordingly, insofar as the independence thesis [i.e survival hypothesis] entails that a separable soul can perceive, think, feel, and deliberate apart from any biological basis at all (sometimes suggesting a stark break in our evolutionary connection to all other forms of life on earth), and apparently requires either that a nonphysical soul violates well-established physical laws by interacting with the brain, or else that the soul is itself a physical thing completely unknown to science, it is a highly extraordinary hypothesis that should be assigned a low prior probability.
As I pointed out in section 4, science deals exclusively with the quantifiable or measurable. Hence, in order for consciousness to come under the purview of science, we need to either identify consciousness with some physical thing or process or suppose consciousness is purely illusory. On this specific point in my communications with Keith Augustine, he has said that I have a far too rigid conception of science arguing that with my criteria parapsychology wouldn't constitute a science either. I think his point here is that although we have no idea what something like telepathy is, nor how it fits in with the rest of reality, that doesn't prevent us from obtaining evidence for it in the form of experiments designed to exclude conventional sensory channels. Since we're doing it in a systematic manner in a laboratory and eliminating other possible channels of information, this can justifiably be labelled scientific evidence. In a similar manner, the fact that various cognitive abilities, emotions and so on, are correlated with damage to specific areas of the brain, allows us to infer that these parts of the brain are likely to cause such cognitive abilities. In this looser sense this can therefore be regarded as scientific evidence.
As a preliminary I should point out that it is insinuated by most of the authors that the scientific evidence for extinction is of a comparable nature to the scientific evidence in the hard sciences; namely in physics, chemistry, and biology. And most emphatically they believe the scientific evidence for the brain producing consciousness is of a more compelling nature than the scientific evidence for ESP.
But there are far more important issues to be considered here. Let us remind ourselves of the spectacles-vision metaphor I employed in part 3. I said:
It surely must be obvious to everyone that spectacles (i.e. glasses) 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.
The crucial question here is whether the brain-consciousness relationship is of the production type as the authors believe, or whether 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. This is comparable to our vision being altered by spectacles, even though vision is not created by the spectacles.
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. Remember, science in the limited sense that the authors employ it merely reveals correlations.
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.
In the remainder of this section, it might be helpful to briefly outline my own thoughts on this subject. First of all, I should stress that although the mind-body problem, and particularly whether anything survives, is currently a philosophical problem, I do not imagine this will always be so. The science that has been kicking around since the birth of modern science deals exclusively with the quantitative. However, I envisage the birth of a new type of science that accepts that the self and its conscious states cannot be reduced to any material process and is a fundamental reality in itself. This does not mean that the self can exist without the brain – it may or may not do. Nor does it mean that consciousness cannot be affected by the material realm. But it does take the existence of the self and consciousness seriously. An approach that is conspicuously lacking in this book and in the broader scholarly community.
So what is required is a radically new theory that introduces consciousness and the self into the world as realities in themselves rather than being merely derived phenomena. Perhaps some interpretation of Quantum Mechanics might fulfil this role. But, if not, then some deeper physical theory will be required. Potentially such a theory will resolve all problems. It should, of course, explain how the self interacts with its brain and dispel any interaction problems such as causal closure. It will also be able to account for a causally efficacious self.
Any such theoretical interpretation would also tend to suggest that the self might well survive after the body dies. Since the self is not something which is material, and since the self is defined in terms of that which exists prior to the changes brought about by the brain (one's unaided vision, rather than one's bespectacled vision), then this undermines the usual reasons to suppose the self cannot survive. A definitive answer to this survival question will presumably become obvious when such a satisfactory theory relating consciousness to the rest of reality is accomplished.
Of course, this self is in a very intimate association with the brain. Hence, should there be an afterlife, we should not expect to be exactly like we were just prior to death (thankfully so should we have been suffering from dementia!). Rather it is the self that survives. It is that which I have in common with myself as a child, or when drunk, and so on, that would survive.
In this book, Keith Augustine spills a great deal of ink over his claim that the survival hypothesis is not falsifiable, hence the survival hypothesis is unlikely to be true. What exactly is his reasoning here?
The falsifiability criterion was advanced by Karl Popper to explain the progress of science and to demarcate scientific hypotheses from non-scientific ones. The idea is that if one has a hypothesis, but all conceivable observations of the world are compatible with the hypothesis being either true or false, then – at least from a scientific perspective -- your hypothesis is devoid of any content. You're not actually saying anything about the world since all possible physical states of affairs are compatible with the hypothesis.
Now, as pointed out in the previous section, both the survival hypothesis and extinction hypothesis, at least currently, are philosophical hypotheses, not scientific ones. So even if we agree that the falsifiability is the hallmark of scientific progress, it is simply not applicable here. Not least of all since it could scarcely be claimed that whether there is a “life after death” or not is devoid of content!
There’s a more important objection. The falsifiability criteria simply can't be applied in the scenarios where either something exists/obtains, or it does not. If it actually is the case that there's an afterlife, then clearly it cannot be falsified just like one cannot, for example, falsify the Sun will rise the next morning. One cannot show that which is true is actually false! This points to the fact that the falsifiability criterion was never meant to be applied to such factual questions, but rather to theoretical hypotheses describing some aspect of reality. If what we observe does not correspond to what the theory predicts, then that theory is falsified (in reality the theory can be inevitably rescued by auxiliary hypotheses, a fact that casts doubt on the whole falsifiability criteria for the progression of science). But with the survival question, we have no such theories. If consciousness survives the death of our bodies, we lack any possible theory describing this. Likewise, unless we’re reductive materialists, if the brain produces consciousness we lack any theories about how the brain achieves this. So the whole falsifiability issue is simply a red herring.
9) 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. David Lester says that proponents of reincarnation must (emphasis added) provide an answer here as to why this is so.
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 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 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.
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.
I’m not happy about definitive statements such as deceased spirits are not constrained by space. Does this mean that he thinks that if reincarnation occurs we should be able to be reincarnated, not just anywhere on Earth, but anywhere in the Universe where there are Earth-like planets? But, leaving that aside, he seems to think that reincarnation, if it occurred, would be a random blind mechanistic process. Hence we should find ourselves being reincarnated anywhere (at least on earth), and also randomly find ourselves being born as a boy or girl. This then entails that one’s psychological states would have no effect on the reincarnational process. Hence, our expectations, beliefs, yearnings, would 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 why would we rule out the possibility that such expectations and desires might have some type of causal influence in “gravitating” that individual to a suitable host body to be reborn? Why does David Lester think it would simply be a blind mechanistic process? In common with the rest of the authors of the book, David Lester provides no answers.
On to what I regard to be the best chapter in this book, Near-Death Experiences are Hallucinations, authored by Keith Augustine. An important point is when he says the following:
[I]t would not be surprising if NDE’rs consciously or subconsciously exaggerated the accuracy of their descriptions in order to validate their experiences.
The crucial question here is whether there is a propensity for near death researchers to avoid publishing NDE accounts with clearly hallucinatory features (Greyson, 2000, p. 344), or for NDE’rs themselves to underreport profoundly realistic experiences once they realize that their NDEs actually conflict with consensus reality.
I think this will indeed be the case. And I also feel it’s likely they’ll be a propensity for NDE’rs to mould and shape their account of their experience so that it parallels a standard typical NDE as well as leaving out any puzzling or strange parts.
Keith Augustine also says:
NDE’rs have reported seeing friends out of body with them who are, in reality, still alive and normally conscious.
On the face of it, the fact that people occasionally (maybe often?) see people who are still alive during their NDE is pretty damning. But, it depends. 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.
He also says:
[I]f NDEs were really glimpses of an afterlife, why would only a small fraction of those who come close to death report them? …
Of course, one could argue that perhaps even “non-NDErs” who came close to death did in fact have NDEs, but simply were unable to recall their experiences. But unless there is some independent reason to believe that ostensible non-NDErs who came close to death actually did have NDEs, postulating amnesic NDEs among such “non-NDErs” is unfalsifiable and blatantly ad hoc.
It might be pointed out that we do indeed have an independent reason to suppose everyone who comes close to death has an NDE, and that is because experiencing nothing at all is, on the face of it, inconsistent with supposing they might survive. Of course, I know that this response will not be satisfactory to Keith Augustine and other skeptics’ since it transparently begs the question. However, equally, taking it for granted they do not actually experience anything, rather than merely forgetting, also begs the question. For why should it 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.
Keith Augustine also says:
[T]hough most NDErs describe their out-of-body vision as comparable to normal 180° color vision, some report surprising idiosyncratic traits like 360° “spherical vision.
My supposition would be that in an afterlife realm we would have 360° spherical vision. So, I wouldn’t find it surprising at all. Of course, the difficulty here is that most people during their NDE’s seemingly just have normal vision. Why is this?
We need to bear in mind that even in this life our vision isn’t simply determined by the light entering our eyeballs. Perception is an active process of interpreting the information we receive through our senses and making sense of it. Hence, what we actually see is heavily shaped by our experiences, knowledge, and expectations. Indeed, people from different cultures will see different things even when looking at the same object. Consider the Necker cube (a simple wire-frame drawing of a cube). Would members of African tribes likewise see a cube, or would they simply just see a two-dimensional array of lines? Unless they have experience of seeing cubes, then surely the latter.
Presumably what we perceive in the afterlife realm will likewise be heavily shaped by our experiences, knowledge, and expectations. Indeed, perhaps somewhat more so. If these factors heavily influence the content of our vision, we might also expect them to influence the range of our vision.
I’ve only touched on a few of the difficulties that Keith Augustine raises against the interpretation of NDEs as being a gateway to an afterlife, and I’ve suggested some responses. In so doing I’m not at all saying that these difficulties are without merit. I’m merely sketching the obvious responses. And I think it makes for an interesting debate that is far removed from the countless books on NDE’s from proponents of an afterlife who blithely ignore all such apparent discordant evidence. It is also far removed from what skeptics’ typically write on this subject who, almost without exception, simply lack the necessary knowledge to give an informed opinion. Keith Augustine’s thoughts on the evidential value of NDE’s make a refreshing change and people really should take note of them.
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 is 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.
Of course, they might have some sort of comeback to my answers here, although I doubt it. For that would take us into deep metaphysics where we would need to consider why physical reality has the regularities it does and so on. We would need to obtain satisfactory answers to such questions before we could hope to claim that the afterlife realm must be subject to the same regularities. The fact is we have no idea why physical reality exhibits the regularities it does, so we are scarcely in a position to assert that any non-physical realm must exhibit the same regularities.
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, or a self, or that which might survive. 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.
For those authors who reject materialism, they needed to provide some conceivable mechanisms by which the momentum, mass, charge or spin of physical particles, and their relative positions and interactions with one another, might produce the richness of conscious experience. And they need to specify whether the resultant consciousness is causally efficacious or not, and if it isn’t how it addresses the difficulty of supposing consciousness can be wholly causally inefficacious. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, none of the authors made any attempt to provide any such arguments.
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 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.