[ExI] Eternity for Atheists

Olga Bourlin fauxever at sprynet.com
Thu Jul 26 02:16:18 UTC 2007

Eternity for AtheistsEternity for Atheists 

If God is dead, does that mean we cannot survive our own deaths? Recent best-selling books against religion agree that immortality is a myth we ought to outgrow. But there are a few thinkers with unimpeachable scientific credentials who have been waving their arms and shouting: not so fast. Even without God, they say, we have reason to hope for - or possibly fear - an afterlife.


Curiously, the doctrine of immortality is more a pagan legacy than a religious one. The notion that each of us is essentially an immortal soul goes back to Plato. Whereas the body is a compound thing that eventually falls apart, Plato argued, the soul is simple and therefore imperishable. Contrast this view with that of the Bible. In the Old Testament there is little mention of an afterlife; the rewards and punishments invoked by Moses were to take place in this world, not the next one. Only near the beginning of the Christian era did one Jewish sect, the Pharisees, take the afterlife seriously, in the form of the resurrection of the body. The idea that "the dead shall be raised" was then brought into Christianity by St. Paul.


The Judeo-Christian version of immortality doesn't work very well without God: who but a divine agent could miraculously reconstitute each of us after our death as a "spiritual body"? Plato's version has no such need; since our platonic souls are simple and thus enduring, we are immortal by nature.


The Platonic picture may be pleasing, but it is hard to square with what we have learned from neuroscience. Everything that gives each of us our personal identities - consciousness, character, memories and so on - seems rooted in the electrochemical processes of our brains. As Bertrand Russell observed, "A virtuous person may be rendered vicious by encephalitis lethargica, and . . . a clever child can be turned into an idiot by a lack of iodine." The dependence is most cruelly apparent in cases of Alzheimer's disease, where the dissolution of the self proceeds in direct proportion to the physical deterioration of the brain.


Where does this leave those who, while secular in outlook, still pine after immortality? A little more than a century ago, the American philosopher William James proposed an interesting way of keeping open the door to an afterlife. We know that the mind depends on the physical brain, James said. But that doesn't mean that our brain processes actually produce our mental life, as opposed to merely transmitting it. Perhaps, he conjectured, our brains allow our minds to filter through to this world from some transcendent "mother sea" of consciousness. Had James given his lecture a few decades later, he might have used the radio as a metaphor. When a radio is damaged, the music becomes distorted. When it is smashed, the music stops altogether. All the while, however, the signal is still out there, uncorrupted.


James's idea of immortality may sound far-fetched, but for him and other scientifically minded thinkers of his time it had one great virtue. It explained the existence of what were thought to be psychic phenomena: ghostly apparitions, communications from the dead at séances and seeming cases of reincarnation. Alas, little of this supposed evidence for an afterlife has held up under the scrutiny of rigorous investigation.


In the 1970s, a new hope for survivalists emerged: the near-death experience. In the best-selling book "Life After Life," a doctor and parapsychologist named Raymond A. Moody Jr. presented a number of cases in which patients who had flat-lined and then been revived told of entering a long tunnel and emerging into a dazzling pool of light, where they communed with departed loved ones. In 1988, the atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer had such an adventure when he choked on a piece of smoked salmon and his heart stopped for a few minutes. Soon afterward, Ayer reported that his near-death experience, in which he saw a red light that seemed to govern the universe, "slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death . . . will be the end of me." But he later dismissed it as a hallucination caused by a temporary lack of oxygen in his brain.


The most interesting possibilities for an afterlife proposed in recent years are based on hard science with a dash of speculation. In his 1994 book, "The Physics of Immortality," Frank J. Tipler, a specialist in relativity theory at Tulane University, showed how future beings might, in their drive for total knowledge, "resurrect" us in the form of computer simulations. (If this seems implausible to you, think how close we are right now to "resurrecting" extinct species through knowledge of their genomes.) John Leslie, a Canadian who ranks as one of the world's leading philosophers of cosmology, draws on quantum physics in his painstakingly argued new book, "Immortality Defended." Each of us, Leslie submits, is immortal because our life patterns are but an aspect of an "existentially unified" cosmos that will persist after our death. Both Tipler and Leslie are, in different ways, heirs to the view of William James. The mind or "soul," as they see it, consists of information, not matter. And one of the deepest principles of quantum theory, called "unitarity," forbids the disappearance of information. (Stephen Hawking used to think you could destroy your information by heaving yourself into a black hole, but a few years ago he changed his mind.)


If death is not extinction, what might it be like? That's a question the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, who died five years ago, enjoyed pondering. One of the more rococo possibilities he considered was that the dying person's organized energy might bubble into a new universe created in that person's image. Although his reflections were inconclusive, Nozick hit on a seductive maxim: first, imagine what form of immortality would be best; then live your life right now as though it were true. And, who knows, it may be true. "Life is a great surprise," Vladimir Nabokov once observed. "I do not see why death should not be an even greater one."


Jim Holt is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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