Pharyngula

McEwan on the afterlife

Seed sent me a copy of this book, What We Believe but Cannot Prove : Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I’ve been browsing. It’s a collection of short essays (sometimes very short) on assumptions held by individual thinkers without solid evidence. It’s thought-provoking, even where I think the writer is a dingbat (Ray Kurzweil) or blithering banalities (Kevin Kelly). I rather liked Brian Goodwin’s essay on the fallacy of the nature-nurture problem, but so far, my favorite is one by the author Ian McEwan:

What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death. I exclude the fact that I will linger, fadingly, in the thoughts of others, or that aspects of my consciousness will survive in writing, or in the positioning of a planted tree or a dent in my old car. I suspect that many contributors to Edge will take this premise as a given—true but not significant. However, it divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons, by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound.

It’s short and obvious, and at first I was critical—hey, it’s not that belief that should bear the burden of providing evidence—but he’s quite right on that matter of a crucial division. There’s also more to it than just a belief in life after death. Are we going to be ruled by reason and the weight of evidence, or are we going to choose to believe in that which makes us most comfortable and reinforces our prejudices?

Comments

  1. #1 Lee Brimmicombe-Wood
    March 6, 2006

    It’s an important statement for an atheist such as myself. There are no second chances, no karma, no pie-in-the-sky, nothing afterwards. We get one shot to have a good life. We can’t afford to fuck it up.

  2. #2 C.J.Colucci
    March 6, 2006

    If my dog isn’t allowed into the afterlife, I want no part of it anyway.

  3. #3 justawriter
    March 6, 2006

    For cats, this may be the blessed afterlife, where they exert their dominance over lesser species such as primates that dwell here only to serve their masters…

  4. #4 lt.kizhe
    March 6, 2006

    As usual, Wiley has something to say (also applies to another recent thread):
    http://news.yahoo.com/comics/uclickcomics/20060305/cx_nq_uc/nq20060305

  5. #5 NatureSelectedMe
    March 6, 2006

    There are no second chances, no karma, no pie-in-the-sky, nothing afterwards.
    Uh, you forgot to say I believe

  6. #6 idlemind
    March 6, 2006

    Wiley nails it; I was never able to imagine a form of “eternal life” that wouldn’t ultimately be a literal hell. Infinite life makes as much sense as being infinitely long, wide, or high.

  7. #7 Bleach
    March 6, 2006

    Can’t afford to fuck it up? No, it’s worse than that. It doesn’t matter even if you do. If people thought like that, there’d be no wars, no planes, no drugs, nothing that in any way might threaten the precious gift of “life” or consciousness we’ve received. But people are willing to take some risk.

    When you give up God you have find a balance between all-out rebellion and crippling safety. Most of the time, people are lazy and nothing comes of it. But when people start talking about “one life to live”, I get a little worried.

    Most of us will never amount to much, in the grand scheme of things. [cue the Kum-bay-yah] Maybe we are all just transitory excitations in the wave function of the universe, nameless harmonics plucked from the strings of space, destined to radiate a chord and then fade into the background of a cosmic symphony played for no one at all.

  8. #8 NatureSelectedMe
    March 6, 2006

    This is one of the problems for atheists, IMO. You can say “Let’s get the most out of life” but it doesn’t really matter does it? There’s nothing special about life or death.

  9. #9 Pete
    March 6, 2006

    It’s strange that Sam Harris, the otherwise impeccable atheist, dodges this question in his The End of Faith. He says that “we just don’t know” what happens after death – but this is a cop-out that skirts around many obvious questions.

    Is this divide equivalent to the divide between materialists and substance dualists? Perhaps not – it would seem that Kurzweil, for instance, is a materialist who has created a “materialist afterlife”.

  10. #10 Fred Levitan
    March 6, 2006

    Cue Jimmy Cliff (or Jerry Garcia covering him):

    Well they tell me of a pie up in the sky
    Waiting for me when I die
    But between the day you’re born and when you die
    They never seem to hear even your cry

    So as sure as the sun will shine
    I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine
    And then the harder they come the harder they’ll fall, one and all

  11. #11 idlemind
    March 6, 2006

    When you give up God you have find a balance between all-out rebellion and crippling safety. Most of the time, people are lazy and nothing comes of it. But when people start talking about “one life to live”, I get a little worried.

    This makes no sense whatever. Rebellion against what? A God that isn’t there? Safety from what? If you’re going to die anyway, a state of absolute safety is impossible; risks are as inevitable as death. I just don’t see any motivations inherit in this, other than to live well and in reasonable concert with my fellow beings (and if you question the latter, you’ve somehow excluded some faculties that I’ve found innate to much of our species).

  12. #12 cm
    March 6, 2006

    This is one of the problems for atheists, IMO. You can say “Let’s get the most out of life” but it doesn’t really matter does it? There’s nothing special about life or death.

    That’s incoherent to the point where it can’t be salvaged. Let’s replace it with coherence:

    1) We have preferences for what we’d like to experience.
    2) We will have somewhere between 1 min and ~125 years which to enjoy such experiences; we will not get extra time in an afterworld.
    3) Some of those experiences are under your control.
    4) Do what you can to make your experiences good ones.

    I see no problem for atheists.

  13. #13 arc_legion
    March 6, 2006

    This is one of the problems for atheists, IMO. You can say “Let’s get the most out of life” but it doesn’t really matter does it? There’s nothing special about life or death.

    Not quite – I think my life is special. Special enough that I’d go to great lengths to protect it. Simply because I don’t have anything else (say, an afterlife) to compare it against doesn’t mean that when comparing life with death, that life doesn’t emerge the clear victor almost every time.

  14. #14 Mark Larios
    March 6, 2006

    This book came out of the answers to Edge’s World Question Center 2005. Definitely worth a read.

  15. #15 jbark
    March 6, 2006

    “This is one of the problems for atheists, IMO. You can say “Let’s get the most out of life” but it doesn’t really matter does it?”

    This is so backwards I don’t even know where to begin.

    It’s the people who believe in a wonderful, eternal, afterlife who have to justify why they bother hanging around in our quaint little world so long. Get on with it.

    And speaking of that, I’ve always wondered why anyone who actually believes in heaven would ever cry or become upset when someone dies? What’s a few years when you’re going to have eternity together?

  16. #16 Bleach
    March 6, 2006

    To be fair, they have a very willing justification for their time on earth–just make something up that God said. Unfortunately, for it to work you have to believe that’s good enough.

    I made a simple claim about there needing to be a medium between two extremes wrt the life without an afterlife. You can go all out to protect yourself because life is “different”, or you can go all out to try and make it “meaningful” because it’s the only thing you’ve got. What’s to stop you from murdering for the thrill when you’ve only got one chance to experience everything life has to offer, blah blah blah. I think the “can’t afford to” attitude is clearly one of these extremes. This is what I’m saying.

    Epicureanism was an interesting attempt to confront the next step: not fearing death. From what I can tell, it eventually requires living every moment having felt satisfied with your life, and there are small conundrums concerning the effort you will expend to save it.

  17. #17 PeteK
    March 6, 2006

    It’s certainly true that those of us with no afterlife-beliefs are more likely to cherish and value THIS life, but I suspect this philosophy is more to do with the generic belief in the percieved directionlessness and purposelessness of biological evolution. Notice Mcwan mentions that “consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes”.

    We DON’T yet know whether or not consciousness is an inevitable product of evolution (“written into the laws of nature” etc). We DON’T even know what consciouness IS yet. I suspect it’s just that some atheists feel their atheism is more fulfilled if evolution is entirely unplanned and our conscious intelligence is “an accident”. But, as others have pointed out before, science is not synonymous with atheism.

    And OF COURSE neither McEwan nor anyone else can prove or disprove souls/an afterlife, since science deals only with nature, not the SUPERnatural!

  18. #18 NelC
    March 6, 2006

    I was talking with a friend tonight about her sister who died a couple of months ago. She was telling me that now her sister was in Heaven, watching over her. She wasn’t being pious about it, but holding on to a fragile hope, something to ease the pain of her sister’s long illness and passing.

    I couldn’t gainsay her in that. But when she said that she wasn’t afraid of death, it sounded to me like despair rather than faith. I told her that I wasn’t ready for her to die yet. I think she appreciated that.

    No point to this anecdote really. It’s just that it happened tonight, and seemed to have some bearing on this blog entry.

  19. #19 chuko
    March 6, 2006

    My two cents -

    I’ve never really understood what meaning Christianity is supposed to provide anyway, even as a child and teenager, when I considered myself nominally Christian. The Bible never says why God created the universe, just that he did and thought it was good. We’re just supposed to obey. In the old testament, we’re supposed to obey because otherwise God’ll make our life even shorter than it already was. In the new testament, we have this naked appeal to fear – believe in me and live forever, or don’t and burn in hell for all eternity. (God is Love!)

    On the other hand, I do agree with the statement by PeteK that consciousness isn’t well understood. Being a physics/math type, I tend to look at this first from that point of view, ie Penrose’s ideas on Godel’s theorem and such. I’d like to hear some of PZ’s opinions and insight on consciousness sometime. I don’t think that’s a very good argument for an afterlife – “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – but Martin Gardner manages to use the thought in an interesting way in his book (“Why I’m Not A…” is the title, I think, playing off of Russel). Even there, I don’t think it’s necessarily a good argument, but it’s still an interesting one.

  20. #20 NatureSelectedMe
    March 6, 2006

    It’s the people who believe in a wonderful, eternal, afterlife who have to justify why they bother hanging around in our quaint little world so long.
    That’s true. I guess that’s why religions frown on suicide. Unless they can make it a cause.

    It’s NOT fatalistic to say consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes?

  21. #21 PZ Myers
    March 6, 2006

    No, of course not. Why would it be?

  22. #22 Matt McIrvin
    March 6, 2006

    I believe, but cannot prove, that there are no such things as philosopher’s zombies–creatures that act exactly like conscious beings, to the point of insisting in lucid conversation that they are conscious and telling you all about their subjective experiences, but have no actual subjective experiences. I believe but cannot prove that our universe doesn’t allow such things.

    if there are and can be no such things as zombies, then something must make subjective conscious experience a necessary property of certain kinds of physical processes. What’s actually necessary for it, I have no idea. But it obviously isn’t anything bound up in my particular memories or personality.

    I believe that consciousness will survive my death, but it won’t be mine. But maybe that’s not so bad, because it might not really be mine now, either.

  23. #23 skblllzzzz
    March 6, 2006

    As the guy said: it is a belief which he can’t prove. And I’m not very much interested in beliefs. I like science because it is the only way (afaict) that we stand a chance of getting at truths, verifiable ones.
    When someone in the future proves in a scientifically sound manner that no consciousness continues after death, I’ll be bored, but OK with it. If someone proves that something does continue, it’ll be time to start telecommunications companies.

    Anyways, I’ve always wondered why people see a connection between religion and life after death. If LAD exists, why would that automatically imply the truth of all the fables of old? I don’t think it does, I bet they will turn out to be fables indeed.

  24. #24 SEF
    March 6, 2006

    you forgot to say I believe

    Is it a game of “Simon Says” to you?

    When you give up God

    That makes the unwarranted assumption that someone has ever really bought into the god-myth in the first place (ie even if you don’t take it as assuming such a god exists to be given up).

  25. #25 Ian B Gibson
    March 6, 2006

    RANDOLPH NESSE, M.D.
    Psychiatrist, University of Michigan; Coauthor, Why We Get Sick

    I can’t prove it, but I am pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can’t prove. I am dead serious about this. People who are sometimes consumed by false beliefs do better than those who insist on evidence before they believe and act. People who are sometimes swept away by emotions do better in life than those who calculate every move. These advantages have, I believe, shaped mental capacities for intense emotion and passionate beliefs because they give a selective advantage in certain situations.

    Couldn’t this be because out of a given population of people who believe things they cannot prove, some of them will be correct. These are the people who will be successful and we will hear about – the ones who believed something they could not prove but that something happened to be wrong would probably not be successful.

    The ones who demanded evidence would tend to lag behind the ones whose hunches were correct..I think Nesse says as much himself:

    consider the outcomes for those who wait for proof before acting, compared to the those who act on confident conviction. The great things in life are done by people who go ahead when it seems senseless to others. Usually they fail, but sometimes they succeed.

    Very interesting – Edge is one of my favourite websites.

  26. #26 mcubed
    March 6, 2006

    McEwan is a god! Well, okay, there’s a little irony there, but I really do think he’s just about the best novelist around today, and a thoughtful essayist as well. (But I am more familiar with his fiction.)

    The only thing I’d take exception to is his contention that the premise that he (and by extension, all of us, to varying degrees) will linger in the thoughts of others is “true but not significant.” I think it’s true and significant. I think that he’s meaning to contrast the significance of being remembered with the significance of a “genuine” afterlife in the religious sense, but that doesn’t seem relevant to me. If you accept the notion, to paraphrase Peggy Lee, that this is all there is, then whatever impact we make on our fellows simply by being here and being the people we are is quite significant. It’s what matters.

  27. #27 Joe Bolte
    March 6, 2006

    I find the this subject a little confusing. Where in all of science, or intellectual discourse outside of mathematics do we talk about proving beliefs? I have never heard of it, and I can’t “prove” anything I believe in the sense that something like “If A, then B,” constitutes a proof.

    Wouldn’t the questions be better phrased, “What do you believe without being able to cite any positive evidence?”

  28. #28 NatureSelectedMe
    March 6, 2006

    There’s a little spark of metaphysics here. The atheists say consciousness is created and controlled by random processes. It follows: if it’s just a process than consciousness can be created in machines. When machines reach consciousness, we’ll have Ray Kurzweil’s singularity. That clears it up for me.

  29. #29 arc_legion
    March 6, 2006

    Well, Nature, I’d say we are chemical machines that have achieved sentience (leave it to a computer science student of all people :P). Allow me to go into some ungrounded philosophy here.

    I think our ability to understand just how great our impacts and powers are over our environment is the keystone that holds us up over our other animal counterparts. I’d even wager that that’s the first major developmental crux in a sentient machine. Once it’s aware of it’s own existence, it has to factor itself into it’s operations. Then it recognizes it’s limitations, and works to maximize it’s capabilities. I think human beings haven’t reached that part yet – we’re still testing our limitations and trying to further ourselves as a race.

  30. #30 Carlie
    March 7, 2006

    “You can say “Let’s get the most out of life” but it doesn’t really matter does it? There’s nothing special about life or death.”

    Already been addressed by several, but I’ll put my bit in. Believing there isn’t anything after death makes life even more special. Just because there’s no one in the sky keeping score of your actions to give you a big fat reward or punishment at the end doesn’t mean that nothing matters.

  31. #31 Joseph O'Donnell
    March 7, 2006

    This is one of the problems for atheists, IMO. You can say “Let’s get the most out of life” but it doesn’t really matter does it? There’s nothing special about life or death.

    If you think it’s a problem for atheists, have you actually bothered to ask them to find out if they think so? Seems to me from the responses this quote recieved they don’t really seem to have much of a problem here at all.

  32. #32 Keith Douglas
    March 7, 2006

    chuko, I assume you’ve read the responses to Penrose?

  33. #33 Dennis Lynch
    March 7, 2006

    I haven’t believed in an afterlife for a long time. However I once took a class in sociology where the origins of spirituality (belief in spirits, souls) were discussed. It was a facinating lecture. Just about every human outpost – Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas, Polynesia -had religious philosophies that include it. Some had been isolated from the others for a long time. So I often wonder, did some Australopithecine come up with it and it migrate or did they all come up with it independently?

  34. #34 Bryson Brown
    March 7, 2006

    What puzzles me about belief in the afterlife (well, one thing that puzzles me about it) is that even for believers the ‘important’ stuff still seems to be what happens here: After all, it’s your life here that decides the nature of your afterlife. For the hard-line Christians, of course, it’s just whether you’re down with Jesus when you die– but there’s no question of ‘making up for it’ or fixing the problem if you end up on the wrong side on judgement day (let alone getting off with ‘time served’). Not even in all of eternity. But they also seem to think this life is a triviality compared to the eternity of enjoyment they’re waiting to spend with God.

    Worse, it’s hard to imagine that eternity without fear and loathing creeping in: Twain remarked that very few people learn to play music, and many go out of their way to avoid church– yet they claim to look forward eagerly to an eternity of both. Even the suffering of the damned has got to wear thin as a source of pleasure & delight in time.

    The last Christian extremist I talked to told me that witnessing the suffering in hell will be delightful because it will be a constant reminder of the mercy of God towards the saved: in fact, we all really deserve to be in hell… (To borrow a good line from Adams, put your analyst on danger money, baby!)

  35. #35 NatureSelectedMe
    March 7, 2006

    Seems to me from the responses this quote recieved they don’t really seem to have much of a problem here at all.
    That’s what great about some of the comments here; I can form a different opinion without having to actually ask anyone. ;)

  36. #36 Matt B
    March 7, 2006

    Are we going to be ruled by reason and the weight of evidence, or are we going to choose to believe in that which makes us most comfortable and reinforces our prejudices?

    The former is definitely better, but it’s almost impossible to avoid the latter in all cases. Just because we’re atheists and/or scientists doesn’t mean we can consider ourselves immune to irrationality. We’re humans, not vulcans. Our brains our not perfect machines of logic, but a messy mashup of rational thought, raw emotion, and amazing powers of self-delusion – obviously NOT the work of an intelligent designer.

    Religion is not the only symptom of our irrationality. Political ideologies have their own comfortable prejudices and irrational dogmas, and I’m not just talking about conservatives. On a personal level, I’m sure many of us believe that our spouses and children are far more intelligent, good-looking, and wonderful than most others would give them credit for.

  37. #37 Suzanne E M Porter
    November 14, 2006

    Hi,
    I am a retired former Deputy Director of Nursing, I have a Dip of P.D/Rad and practice my own created Porter ‘String’ Therapy modality with hundreds of clients and occasionally I conduct Afterlife-Conexions for clients. I also have psychic connections with those in the Afterlife from time to time. My recent visitation was from the late Steve Irwin (Crocadile Hunter) who visited me late in September whilst his grief-stricken wife was being interviewed on television. During his amazing visit, his concern for his shattered wife was incredibly tender and compassionate, during which he wanted me to do healings on several members of of his family to ease their pain and suffering from his sudden departure into the Afterlife. I have all the information of that remarkable conversation I had with him and aimed at following his requests to the letter. I have a Ghost Finding ebook on my website to teach interested people how to talk with loved-ones who have left the earth plain for the Afterlife. Steve’s vistation to me was most incredibly insightful and a most amazing experience for me. He was most satisfied with my assurances to carry out his wishes for his family – of which I would very much like to share with his family and others who might be interested.
    With great respect and great love,
    Sincerely,
    Suzanne Porter.

  38. #38 Steve_C
    November 14, 2006

    You can’t be serious.

  39. #39 Nix
    November 14, 2006

    It’s terribly convenient the way these people are always visited by the *famous*, isn’t it? I’m glad I’m not famous or I’d never get a wink of sleep after I was dead what with all this running around after people banging on my nonexistent door. It’s also notable how `Irwin’ here wanted Porter to… annoy his family, which would… get her more publicity. Odd that. (She might not even charge them as much money as normal.)

    How come we don’t have a lot of people on psychiatrists’ couches trying to find a way to get that dead plumber who won’t go away to *shut up*? In fact, given the way the dead outnumber the living, how come each of us doesn’t have half a dozen entirely boring devoted pests, babbling at us in a language we probably don’t speak? You’d think there’d be a major push for big pharma to find drugs to make the dead go *away* dammit. (It sounds quite hellish for the poor departed souls, too: nothing to do but hang around and moan at mediums.)

    obSF: Connie Willis, _Inside Job_.

  40. #40 Steve_C
    November 14, 2006

    Let’s bring back seances! At least it’s fun watching your friends scare the shit out of each other.

    The above crank is just boring.

    Hey lady! Did Steve Irwin say anything about seeing god even though he was a non-believer?

  41. #41 Umilik
    November 14, 2006

    You, Ms. Porter, are in some urgent need of psychiatric care. You are the kind of people who drown their children because “god” told them to.

  42. #42 Anton Mates
    November 14, 2006

    Of course Steve Irwin’s spirit has survived. Who else is competent to wrestle the Dragon into the pit of hellfire when Revelation rolls round?

  43. #43 Kansas Anarchist
    November 14, 2006

    In fact, given the way the dead outnumber the living, how come each of us doesn’t have half a dozen entirely boring devoted pests, babbling at us in a language we probably don’t speak?

    Well, if you really want this, there’s always a Pentacostal church where they’re “speaking in tongues”.

  44. #44 Cowardly Disembodied Voice
    November 15, 2006

    See, life after death MUST be true.This blog post was dead since March , but it miraculously came back to life when Suzanne Porter’s spirit touched it.

    What more proof do you people need ?

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