Friday, May 09, 2014

Debating Life After Death

In a recent debate over the question of life after death that was part of the Intelligence^2 series, a neurosurgeon and a medical doctor argued in support of the proposition "death is not final", while a neurologist and physicist argued against the proposition.

As physicist Sean Carroll points out in arguing that death is final, life is a process and not a thing, in the same way that fire is a process. When you blow out a candle, the flame doesn't go anywhere, the burning process simply stops. Your conscience is a process going on in your brain. When it stops, it too doesn't go anywhere, it just stops.

The two people arguing for the proposition, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander and doctor/philosopher Raymond Moody chiefly support their view by citing cases of near death experiences, including Alexander's own experience with effective (though temporary) brain death. They claim that the stories of mystical events that people who have had near death experiences (bright and beautiful lights, incarnations of dead relatives, out of body travel, etc.) are evidence that part of you can exist separate from your physical body, and presumably continue on after you die.

The other person on Carroll's side, neurologist Steven Novella, notes that there are no near death experiences yet recorded that cannot be explained without going beyond neuroscience. Given a choice between established science and mystical explanations, both he and Carroll feel there is no reason to choose mysticism.

I've lost a number of my dearest friends and relatives in the past few years, and there is nothing I want more that to believe that they somehow continue to exist in some form. Sadly, wanting it to be so doesn't make it so, as Carroll and Novella proficiently argue. All the pretty near death experience stories that Alexander and Moody collect can't change that.

Novella says in various ways that the mind is what the brain does. I take some comfort in that. While, Dad, Grandmother, Aunt Liz, Bobby and so many other people I and others have lost do not continue on in some way beyond this material world, they live on in the mind my brain makes. And really, that's what's important.


By the way, Alexander claims, at the 1:26:30 mark in the video that Carl Sagan believed that some children could remember past lives. Alexander says this is documented on page 302 of Sagan's book Demon Haunted World. It's easy enough to check by going to the Google Books copy available here and scrolling to page 302. Sagan believed no such thing.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I saw the Time or Newsweek cover with this charlatan's story on it, and then read Sam Harris' rebuttal to the article, which was appropriately derisive. It seems obvious this guy is leveraging his professional credentials (as many do) to sell books to a gullible public.

  2. Dean Radin is an interesting character for sure. He believes strongly in open inquiry and does experiments on things like prayer with an extremely open mind. That doesn't mean that he is a theist. I think he is more just wondering if intention or will can have some marginal effect on the 'material' world. If he gets results nonetheless it is at least interesting. Rupert Sheldrake has also had his 'sense of being stared at' replicated at various universities yet many skeptics love to interject that Richard Wiseman failed to replicate his findings. Richard Wiseman had the attitude that the experiment was 'a bore' and that he couldn't wait to get the experiment over with which suggests to me an experiment bias. Although I am playing 'devil's advocate' here by suggesting other point of views I am not endorsing psychic powers here merely trying to make the subject more balanced. It seems to me that by reacting in a similar way to the way Galileo was reacted to because science somehow finds 'magic' a taboo subject it merely encourages more research into it. A better way is to encourage free inquiry and not hold onto dogmatic scientific systems. It is an argument from ignorance to say that an afterlife doesn't exist. Isn't it better to say "I don't know?"

  3. There is no afterlife, bit that's beside the point in this discussion. These post death memories have nothing to do with immortal souls. It's just weird stuff that happens in brains in connection with near total, temporary shut down. They don't prove there's an afterlife any more than dreams or hallucinations do.