Pharyngula

Where will you be after you’re dead?

Jesse Bering has an interesting article on why many people have so much difficulty holding a realistic view of death — why they imagine immortal souls wafting off to heaven, and why they can’t imagine their consciousness ceasing to exist. He’s trying to argue that these kinds of beliefs are more than just the result of secondary indoctrination into a body of myth, but are actually a normal consequence of the nature of consciousness. We never personally experience the extinction of our consciousness, of course, except for the limited loss of sleep — and we always wake up from that (at least, until the last time), so we at least have personal evidence that would inductively imply immortality.

It’s also a set of beliefs that are remarkably pervasive. Our language and culture and habits of thought make the idea of survival after death continually crop up.

Even when we want to believe that our minds end at death, it is a real struggle to think in this way. A study I published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture in 2002 reveals the illusion of immortality operating in full swing in the minds of undergraduate students who were asked a series of questions about the psychological faculties of a dead man.

Richard, I told the students, had been killed instantaneously when his vehicle plunged into a utility pole. After the participants read a narrative about Richard’s state of mind just prior to the accident, I queried them as to whether the man, now that he was dead, retained the capacity to experience mental states. “Is Richard still thinking about his wife?” I asked them. “Can he still taste the flavor of the breath mint he ate just before he died? Does he want to be alive?”

You can imagine the looks I got, because apparently not many people pause to consider whether souls have taste buds, become randy or get headaches. Yet most gave answers indicative of “psychological continuity reasoning,” in which they envisioned Richard’s mind to continue functioning despite his death. This finding came as no surprise given that, on a separate scale, most respondents classified themselves as having a belief in some form of an afterlife.

What was surprising, however, was that many participants who had identified themselves as having “extinctivist” beliefs (they had ticked off the box that read: “What we think of as the ‘soul,’ or conscious personality of a person, ceases permanently when the body dies”) occasionally gave psychological-continuity responses, too. Thirty-two percent of the extinctivists’ answers betrayed their hidden reasoning that emotions and desires survive death; another 36 percent of their responses suggested the extinctivists reasoned this way for mental states related to knowledge (such as remembering, believing or knowing). One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well–he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now.

I guess I’m an extinctivist too, but I wouldn’t ever argue that the dead are aware of oblivion.

So people can hold contradictory views. The interesting stuff lies in examining child development, and seeing where these views arise. This rings true: I’ve had a few kids myself, and I know how sweetly naive the young ones can be.

In a 2004 study reported in Developmental Psychology, Florida Atlantic University psychologist David F. Bjorklund and I presented 200 three- to 12-year-olds with a puppet show. Every child saw the story of Baby Mouse, who was out strolling innocently in the woods. “Just then,” we told them, “he notices something very strange. The bushes are moving! An alligator jumps out of the bushes and gobbles him all up. Baby Mouse is not alive anymore.”

Just like the adults from the previously mentioned study, the children were asked about dead Baby Mouse’s psychological functioning. “Does Baby Mouse still want to go home?” we asked them. “Does he still feel sick?” “Can he still smell the flowers?” The youngest children in the study, the three- to five-year-olds, were significantly more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than children from the two older age groups were.

But here’s the really curious part. Even the preschoolers had a solid grasp on biological cessation; they knew, for example, that dead Baby Mouse didn’t need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn’t grow up to be an adult mouse. Heck, 85 percent of the youngest kids even told us that his brain no longer worked. Yet most of these very young children then told us that dead Baby Mouse was hungry or thirsty, that he felt better or that he was still angry at his brother.

One couldn’t say that the preschoolers lacked a concept of death, therefore, because nearly all of the kids realized that biological imperatives no longer applied after death. Rather they seemed to have trouble using this knowledge to theorize about related mental functions.

Belief in the persistence of the mind after death might even be a side-effect of a useful cognitive trait, one that we try to inculcate in our kids. If you’ve ever played peek-a-boo with a toddler, you know what’s going on: the little ones can be actively surprised by the fact that people don’t disappear when they’re out of sight. We try to teach children that people still persist even when you don’t see them!

Back when you were still in diapers, you learned that people didn’t cease to exist simply because you couldn’t see them. Developmental psychologists even have a fancy term for this basic concept: “person permanence.” Such an off-line social awareness leads us to tacitly assume that the people we know are somewhere doing something. As I’m writing this article in Belfast, for example, my mind’s eye conjures up my friend Ginger in New Orleans walking her poodle or playfully bickering with her husband, things that I know she does routinely.

As I’ve argued in my 2006 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, “The Folk Psychology of Souls,” human cognition is not equipped to update the list of players in our complex social rosters by accommodating a particular person’s sudden inexistence. We can’t simply switch off our person-permanence thinking just because someone has died. This inability is especially the case, of course, for those whom we were closest to and whom we frequently imagined to be actively engaging in various activities when out of sight.

I agree with Bering: belief in the persistence of the mind is almost certainly a property of normal consciousness, and is hard to escape. I’d agree too that these beliefs are not an invention of religion. As he puts it, the details of specific religious beliefs about an afterlife are produced by “an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief”.

However, I’m not going to let religion off the hook. What this means is that it parasitizes intrinsic and ultimately infantile tendencies, and builds on irrational tendencies rather than trying to overcome them. This is not a virtue; it’s an exploitation of a psychological weakness.

Bering also does not discuss (in this piece, at least) another important factor: we rapidly learn that death is not a game of peek-a-boo, it has significant differences from ordinary departures. We learn from our experience that death is permanent. As we get older, we experience this more and more often, and we learn fairly rapidly that there is something about the nature of death that makes it more tragic, since we feel grief and loss. We build psychological coping mechanisms there, as well, and once again, fraudulent religion is ready to leap in and take advantage of another normal human reaction: denial. Promoting denial is a short-term tool for deepening a dependency on superstition, but it is again no virtue to foster irrationality by using personal fears and heartbreak.

(Oh, and to answer the question in the title: I will have ceased to exist. I will be nowhere. There will be no “I” anymore. That’s the way it works: all I’ve got to live for is my life itself, with no deferred rewards or punishments afterwards.)

Comments

  1. #1 Kel
    October 19, 2008

    Interesting side note to all this:

    It’s interesting that people who believe in some sort of afterlife fear death the most. While those content with effectively ceasing to exist, aren’t as scared of it.

  2. #2 Chappy
    October 19, 2008

    Intersting post. I’d be really interested to find out if anyone has tried to tease out a “cause” for the way humans struggle to hold a realistic view of death (i.e. what does it do for survivability). Or perhaps it is just a side-effect of conciousness?

  3. #3 Jess
    October 19, 2008

    PZ, I have to say, though that your characterization of religion as preying on a “weakness” betrays a few biases itself. If the concept of continuity is a natural result of a pretty useful cognitive trait to begin with, then I’d hardly describe it as a weakness, anymore than a desire (and need) for sugar or animal fat is.

    I mean, people generally like sugar, because it is an important piece of diet, right? And we are all hard-wired to respond well to it because for most of our evolutionary history the only source was certain fruits, which were necessary for survival. Now, we eat far too much of it, but that’s because food that is sweeter often sells better, for the above reason. It’s taking advantage of a hard-wired response that actually serves an important function.

    It isn’t a weakness, it’s just a hard-wired feature. By your reasoning it’s a weakness to like food and be moved by the sight of golden arches. :-)

    (I’m not saying religions of any stripe are right about anything in particular, by the way).

  4. #4 BMS
    October 19, 2008

    Where will you be after you’re dead?

    Mouldering at the University of Tennessee’s body farm.

  5. #5 Jbelcher
    October 19, 2008

    Ramen brother. Ramen…

    I’ve had conversations with friend that I think of as very intelligent on this subject and many of them look at me like I’m crazy for thinking there is nothing after death. Many of them even describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. Their main point is that we just don’t know what happens after death. I argue that the lack of knowledge is the best proof that there is nothing. Its the simplest explanation for the lack of communication across the divide. After all, doesn’t absolute silence from the dead confirm that there are no spirts to talk to in the first place?

  6. #6 Geral
    October 19, 2008

    Interesting article PZ and I agree. We’ve been learning about the ‘death denial’ and ‘death anxiety’ in my Death and Dying class. Depressing huh?

    The belief in an afterlife is just an extension of our denial of death, we can’t fathom the thought of not existing.

    If you’re interested in stuff like this, I would highly recommend “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker. It can be tough reading at some points but it takes a fascinating look at human character, religion, and biology. There’s no paranormal crap or anything in it.

  7. #7 Klaus
    October 19, 2008

    I had a revelation once laying in bed, that after my death, I am no more. That there would be no spirit of mine hovering above my family grieving over my death; no floating around, and so on. Just nothing (which is in itself impossible to think of. It’s not even blackness!). It was a horrifiying experience. Since then, I try to avoid letting this matter slip to deep into my conscious thinking; that I am able to write about it now so freely is a strong display of denial. I love my mind!

  8. #8 Ompompanoosuc
    October 19, 2008

    This is GREAT! Now, In my upcoming arguments with the in-laws I can correlate peek-a-boo with belief in a sky fairy.

    How does religion exploit psychological weaknesses? Let me count the ways….

    I have two new ones.

  9. #9 Geral
    October 19, 2008

    @Kel #1,

    I don’t know how true that is. If you ask Linton, he would say you are repressing your death anxiety, that we are all scared of death and it’s true. As to show who is more scared, I don’t know. We don’t believe in an afterlife but I can’t honestly say I’m more acceptable with my death than someone who does.

  10. #10 watercat
    October 19, 2008

    Fascinating article. One nitpick bothers me; isn’t it kind of a leading question, “Does he know he’s dead?” It sort of presupposes that there is a “he” there; so it seems like the subject just answers the question as posed, rather than being contrary and challenging the questioner’s presupposition.

  11. #11 Archaneus
    October 19, 2008

    @3
    So you are saying if someone mixed a hard narcotic with sugar without your knowledge and then got you to eat it in an attempt to cause your addiction to the narcotic in order to sell that product to you later, that would not be exploiting our weakness for sugar? I think it would and I think the analogy is exactly the same as what religion does with the concept of people living on after death.

  12. #12 thwaite
    October 19, 2008

    Of equal interest (but less commonly discussed) is the symmetrical mystery:
    Where were you those many millennia before your birth?

  13. #13 dreikin
    October 19, 2008

    PZ’s last sentence brings to mind a question I like to ask (which I got from my uncle):

    Would you die to save your mother/father? why or why not? Who would and wouldn’t you sacrifice yourself for?

  14. #14 Sili
    October 19, 2008

    Interestingly enough the “There will be no ‘I'” seems to be one of the few truths, I’ve ferretted out for myself (or at least think I have).

    But of course, knowing it and understanding it are two different things. I can nomore imagine myself dead, than I can imagine being a woman or a bat.

  15. #15 ch^arlie wagn^er
    October 19, 2008

    Rebirth

    Autumn is coming. I can feel it.
    The cool nights when I pull my bedsheet up to my chin and dream about spring.
    Rebirth. The great cycle of life.
    Life is renewed, but living things are not.
    Living things, like all other machines
    Wear out and die…
    Like me.

    What am I to make of this? The finite within the infinite.
    From which pool do I drink?
    Should I celebrate my immortality or grieve my mortality?

    I despise not knowing.

    Soon, it will be winter.
    We will retreat inobtrusively into our cloistered sanctuaries
    carrying with us the divine spark, nurturing the finespun flame
    Until it is called forth again by the pleasant and friendly power of rebirth.

    Spring!

    For some, the vital principle will be lost forever
    and they will lie still in the warm earth, their mortal remains
    dissolving and their sempiternal essence dissipated back to the
    Everlasting Universe.

    In others, the divine spark will emerge anew,
    to burn as brightly and defiantly as before.

  16. #16 BobApril
    October 19, 2008

    @ Kel – I agree with both Klaus and Geral. I am convinced that I will cease to exist upon my death…and the notion terrifies me. (Yes, I’m aware that, by definition, I won’t experience it, so my terror is somewhat irrational, but there it is nonetheless.) I think that terror is what leads to belief in an afterlife – along with the person permanence concept PZ mentioned.

    I also think that belief in the afterlife is not so powerful as believers like to claim. If it were, if people were TRULY certain that they were going to eternal reward or punishment, then they would live their lives MUCH more strictly in accordance with their claimed beliefs. If I believed in the Christian Heaven, I suspect I’d be a staunch theocrat – though that might be taking the idea too far.

  17. #17 whomever1
    October 19, 2008

    As an “extinctivist”, but also a Buddhist meditator I’d like to suggest that continuity of consciousness is an illusion anyway. Except perhaps in the case of being incinerated by a nuclear explosion, death would not be instantaneous, and in some sense the taste of the breath-mint would continue till the last involved neuron turned to sludge.
    Or–tangentially related–I’m reminded of Timoty Leary’s statement that we’d all experience eternity as we died–but it would only take up 2 minutes real time as our brain shut down.

  18. #18 Ted Dahlberg
    October 19, 2008

    Very interesting. And uncomfortably topical for me, as my grandmother died this week. And as I’ve learned the last few years, being an atheist certainly doesn’t make coping with death any more difficult, and I’d say that at least for me personally it’s been a bit of a comfort. I’m as sure as I can be about what happens after death (nothing), so rather than worry about what is happening to the dead, I can remember them fondly as they were when they were alive.
    Now I’m just dreading the funeral, in large part because I will have to sit through yet another Jesus this and Jesus that talk by some priest who never even met my grandmother (not a very religious person in any way that I know of), and so fills in the blanks with religious platitudes.
    Oblivion is not such a scary thing. It is sad for those left behind, but considering most of the alternatives it seems to me to be among the least bad. Heaven or nirvana or what have you always scared me a hell (hah) of a lot more. An eternity of supposed happiness? Now that’s creepy.

  19. #19 Sam B
    October 19, 2008

    Very interesting read – I rarely read through the entirety of your ‘long posts’, but I did for this one.

    I guess I’m an extinctivist too. But my beliefs are a little more complicated. But it feels appropriate to discuss them right now, so here goes:

    Once you die, you are gone. Nothing of your consciousness remains – el finito. However, a new conscious awakens. And it lives out its life. The two are not related. Both experience life first hand. Both die. But one happens after the other. And another will happen after the second. And so forth. Think of it like this – when you die, your consciousness goes into a new life, except without any of the experience, memories or development of your previous life. Now remove the fact that it’s your consciousness, and that it moves, and that a consciousness can stick around after it’s dead. And hey presto, you’ve got what I believe.

    It’s really hard to wrap your head around, I think. Most people seem to get it to a degree. And it is kinda logical, I guess. You just have to approach it backwards at an angle to understand it, methinks.

  20. #20 Chappy
    October 19, 2008

    @ #3 and #11
    I agree with Archaneu (#11) here – just because it’s “hardwired” doesn’t mean it ain’t a weakness. Sugar addiction has evolved to help us survive but doesn’t fit well with the modern human environment; probably ditto our propensity for mystical beliefs.

    But – the sugar addiction has a pretty obvious cause. What the hell use is an addiction to life-after-death fantasies? Gotta be a reason (unless it’s a side effect) – stuffed if I know what it is though. Anyone?

  21. #21 SEF
    October 19, 2008

    less commonly discussed) is the symmetrical mystery:
    Where were you those many millennia before your birth?

    The reincarnationists don’t merely discuss it, they convince each other that they were particular other people during that time – almost certainly including multiple instances of historically memorable people such as Cleopatra!

  22. #22 BobC
    October 19, 2008

    Where will you be after you’re dead?

    Cowardly morons, also known as Christians, believe their soul, whatever that is, goes to heaven, whatever that is.

    I am certain I will be nothing more than food for maggots. I don’t have a problem with that. The idea of spending eternity with Christian assholes in heaven is too horrible to imagine.

  23. #23 QrazyQat
    October 19, 2008

    If the concept of continuity is a natural result of a pretty useful cognitive trait to begin with, then I’d hardly describe it as a weakness, anymore than a desire (and need) for sugar or animal fat is.

    Because in all those cases it can be a useful trait to a certain degree (or in the dietary examples, when the substance is hard to get — salt is also a major contender there) but very harmful when taken further.

    This is connected to something I’ve often thought about people; that their best features are often also their worst features. For instance, stubborness is a great and very useful feature, but it can also be a very destructive feature. I’m sure you can think of many other examples.

  24. #24 jeff
    October 19, 2008

    I argue that the lack of knowledge is the best proof that there is nothing.

    I dunno, I was dead before I was born, but that didn’t stop me from coming into existence. Could it happen again? This is ultimately a deep philosophical question involving the nature of consciousness, why subjectivity should exist, and time. I agree with PZ though, that religion exploits this question in a despicable way. Nature gave us (and most other animals) a survival instinct, and religious leaders shamelessly twist it to serve their own ends.

  25. #25 TX CHL Instructor
    October 19, 2008

    Intellectually, I know there is zero evidence for anything like a continuation of consciousness after dead.

    But I sure would prefer to believe otherwise. It’s just that I can’t.

    I can, however, cut people some slack for falling for the promise of an afterlife given by most religions. It’s a rather powerful emotional promise, and it is not particularly surprising that so many people buy it. Even people who are otherwise quite intelligent.

    I’m convinced that a lot of proselytizing is motivated by fear. The True Believer is actually afraid that s/he is wrong, and the only solace available is to get others to buy into the same impossible belief system. (See “social proof”)

    http://www.chl-tx.com Nothing deters violent crime as effectively as the possibility that the intended victim might be able to shoot back. Nothing.

  26. #26 Sastra
    October 19, 2008

    However, I’m not going to let religion off the hook. What this means is that it parasitizes intrinsic and ultimately infantile tendencies, and builds on irrational tendencies rather than trying to overcome them. This is not a virtue; it’s an exploitation of a psychological weakness.

    Exactly. One of the underlying themes constantly encountered in both supernatural and paranormal belief systems is the persistent idea that we ought to trust our intuitions and feelings, because these are more reliable than what we can learn from science and reason. Theists of all varieties tend to harp on how small children can be “wiser” in such matters than adults. Our purpose in life is to get back to our deep, fundamental understanding that we are children, and God/Spirit is our parent.

    Of course, through experience, we discover that our hunches and emotions aren’t always correct — except in one area. The area of preference and taste. Science will not tell you that you are wrong to prefer Mozart to Bach — or Mozart to rap.

    Jess #3 wrote:

    If the concept of continuity is a natural result of a pretty useful cognitive trait to begin with, then I’d hardly describe it as a weakness, anymore than a desire (and need) for sugar or animal fat is.

    I think this analogy is revealing of how religion tends to operate, because, in a sense, apples are being compared to oranges. That is, facts are being compared with desires, and the distinction blurred.

    There is:
    1.) There is a natural evolved desire for sugar (preference)
    2.) Therefore eating sugar is a good thing. (inference)

    and
    1.) There is a natural evolved tendency to believe in an afterlife (preference)
    2.) Therefore:

    a.) belief in an afterlife is a good thing (inference)
    b.) there really IS an afterlife (inference)

    I think that, like me, Jess would disagree with all the conclusions. Where he — and I — would both agree is that sometimes there is no real harm in eating sugar, or believing in an afterlife.

    But the existence of sugar is not an issue. And you can empirically examine the benefits and harms of eating sugar. Our judgment on either issue is not limited to our impulses. Our impulses are acknowledged, but then we work from there. The folk psychology which leads us to think that, if something tastes good, it’s good for you, is not seen as a sacred tenet.

    Religion, however, wants our judgment on the issue of whether there is an afterlife or not to rely on our impulses and intuitive folk psychology. It enshrines the basic tendency, ennobles it, and then scoffs at attempts to discredit or amend it through science and reason.

    The weakness is not in the difficultly visualizing the self as nonexistent. The weakness is in taking this as evidence that “deep down, we know that we won’t die, so we must be right.”

  27. #27 Ian H Spedding FCD
    October 19, 2008

    It seems to be a question that troubles a lot of people. Non-existence is unimagineable by definition.

    The other question is whether or not the universe exists after we cease to be aware of it. We assume it does because we see it continue after the deaths of other people. We assume it existed before our beginning and will continue to exist after our ending. But, if we are each islands of existence in a limitless ocean of non-existence, to what extent can we say we know anything of the past let alone the future? And isn’t it all ultimately futile anyway?

  28. #28 Daniel R
    October 19, 2008

    I’d like to be food for maggots but alas, they generally put bodies in coffins, or burn them, both solutions being not ecologic, all these good nucleobases and aminoacids being lost for still living cells of the planet.

  29. #29 PeteC
    October 19, 2008

    Sam B, I’m confused: if there’s no connection between previous and subsequent “consciousnesses”, then what’s the difference between that and plain extinctionism? Isn’t your belief an unneeded flourish? If you do think there’s some connection, then what is your evidence for it?

  30. #30 Lee Picton
    October 19, 2008

    It’s pretty hard to avoid the occasional discussion of death when a spouse is suffering from not one, but two incurable diseases. The husbeast has had one heart attack (the one called “the widowmaker”), and, a couple weeks later, two cardiac arrests of some duration. Both times he was jump started in the usual manner (and appears to have has no residual brain damange). He has assured me that he most certainly did not “go into the light” and if death was like that, it was no big deal, and certainly he actively hopes for another heart attack before the other disease, ALS, finishes destroying him in the way that ALS does. I have no doubt though that his (and my) serene acceptance of the eventual non-existence stems not just from the fact that we are atheists, but that we are officially “senior citizens” and have lived relatively satisfying lives. Younger people can be forgiven their more fearful viewpoints, as the prospect of leaving a life not yet lived is so much more distasteful. But we do not sit around waiting to die; we are checking off a (highly modified as his disability increases) bucket list of activities. This week we went to a horse racing track (neither of us had ever been to one). It was a good time and we might even do it again. Life is good.

  31. #31 BobC
    October 19, 2008

    The life after death belief made possible the 9/11 attacks and the daily suicide bombings that continue today. Thanks to the 9/11 attacks (and a moron president) we are spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives on two wars right now. For these wasted lives and wasted taxpayer money we can thank every idiot in the world who believes in heaven. Even the most moderate Christian is part of the problem. A soul goes to heaven? What incredible bullshit. All religious people who believe this childish nonsense are cowards and they’re all insane.

  32. #32 costanza
    October 19, 2008

    Re #1

    That’s only true in Western cultures. In most Eastern and Middle Eastern religions believers are generally known for NOT being afraid to die. Mark Twain may have touched on this. In “Letters From the Earth”, during one of his visits to the Earth, Lucifer noticed (among other things) that Heaven, supposedly such a desirable place, does not have sex. ‘nuf said.

  33. #33 JM Inc.
    October 19, 2008

    Bering makes an interesting, but confusing statement towards the end of the quotation there, “human cognition is not equipped to update the list of players in our complex social rosters by accommodating a particular person’s sudden inexistence. We can’t simply switch off our person-permanence thinking just because someone has died.

    Is he saying here that humans simply can’t accept that person permanence ceases to apply on death? I think this is false.

    I had two relatives of mine die recently and at no point did I feel as though they still existed in any sense other than as non-autonomous physical objects. I never imagine them doing things they once did except as a memory of the fact that they once did those things, and I never imagine them wanting or thinking things they once would have wanted our thought. I think the human brain is somewhat more malleable than Bering seems to be saying here.

  34. #34 Eli
    October 19, 2008

    I’ll be in heaven after I’m dead… I’m there right now. It’s called the Upper Peninsula.

  35. #35 The Swiss
    October 19, 2008

    I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that so many people find it difficult, or even impossible, to imagine their own death. I’ve even read some claiming that it is humanly impossible to do so. Now this is ridiculous, as it certainly doesn’t apply to me and to many others.

    Were were you before you were born? It’s really just the same modest effort of the imagination, only backwards in time (do they find this impossible?). I’m curious as to the precise psychological mechanism at work here, and I’m afraid it may simply be a fear-induced paralysis of the inner eye, reinforced by our hard-wired tendency to see minds and intentionality all over the place (as well as the continuity of persons, as discussed in the article).

    Klaus #7: if you want vertigo, ask yourself instead: why is there a universe, rather than nothing at all? Try to imagine the utterly elegant eternal void while lying in bed at night…

  36. #36 aaron
    October 19, 2008

    I don’t think it’s the fact that we can’t imagine our consciousness halting.

    It’s that we don’t want to imagine our consciousness halting, I’ve heard Dawkins state that he doesn’t mind the idea, I personally think that he’s lying. The idea of oblivion terrifies me, I suspect people believe in the afterlife not because they haven’t died yet, but because the alternative is unconscionable.

    In actuality this isn’t such a bad thing, in order to defeat religion we only need to defeat death! Alright, not super easy, but we don’t need to really defeat it, just give people plausible hope they can defeat it (that’s all religion does, without the plausible part). If we want to defeat religion cryogenics and the possibility of the singularity are two essential weapons. Oh yeah, and if you do go for cryogenics you might just beat death as well.

  37. #37 Marek14
    October 19, 2008

    My opinion is roughly this:

    In theory, I am nothing but a bunch of quantum particles, and as such I have my own Schrödinger equation that describes me. There is an equation for each instant of my existence.

    Assuming there is an infinite amount of places where this exact equation could appear (i.e. if the universe is infinite either spatially or temporally – one is enough), then it stands to reason that my equation will eventually reappear – or equation so close to mine that I will never notice a difference.

    (Of course, it would be vastly more probable that an equation of “pseudo-me” will appear – someone with wrong memories or personality, or thousand of possible afflictions.)

    I cannot claim that this quantum fluke won’t be really me, since there’s nothing but quantum state, and that is the same – so there’s nothing to differ him from me.

    So I’m forced into accepting result that in infinite universe I have to live forever as a series of vastly improbable quantum flukes.

    Can you tell me if this line of thinking is right, and if it’s not, where’s the error?

  38. #38 Ick of the East
    October 19, 2008

    Bah.
    There is nothing to fear from non-existence.
    I didn’t exist before, and I came out of that situation just fine.

  39. #39 strangebeasty
    October 19, 2008

    Marek14, I think what you are describing is actually the continuation of consciousness while you are alive. For one thing, there is no single quantum state that characterizes you. There is an extremely large number of quantum states that characterize you from your conception to your death, and they are appearing in their most likely configuration: one right after the other, telling the story of your life. I think it’s a bit much to assume that the universe we live in is infinite, or that it is of sufficient duration or extent that any of the quantum states that have participated in your consciousness will pop up again.

    But you can dream.

  40. #40 Moopheus
    October 19, 2008

    I’d have to agree that most people, regardless of belief, have some degree of fear of death. It may be easier to say otherwise when you’re healthy and the sun is shining, but most people have a fairly strong desire to keep living, regardless of their beliefs.

    I’d have to agree also that we’re strongly disinclined to imagine our own cessation–much of Buddhist philosophy and practice is aimed at seeing directly the nonpermanence of the self, but it’s not easy to do, even if you accept the notion intellectually. (Of course, the Buddhists say that what is left after you strip away all of the transient conscious effects and attachments is not exactly nothing, but the “Buddha nature.” And what is the Buddha nature? Kind of hard to say, precisely. But it ain’t “you,” babe.)

  41. #41 Nightcap
    October 19, 2008

    Heaven is a far more frightening concept than oblivion. Think of it: compelled to be joyful with one’s nearest and dearest for an eternal Thanksgiving.

  42. #42 American Godless
    October 19, 2008

    It is an interesting thought that “peek-a-boo” might be early training for belief in life after death. I have long believed that this game, along with “hide the toy,” are early training for a sense of mathematical and physical realism. The universe happens to be very good at “remembering” that physical things exist (a lesson which some mathematicians seem to have forgotten, as they may express astonishment that mathematics turns out to be useful in modeling physical reality). People, on the other hand, are good at imagining their remembered idea to be more real than the person or thing it represents, winking out or persisting according to whim. For myself, I vividly recall my father explaining to me, at about age 5 or 6, the religious notion of life after death (which he seemed to think was likely just a comforting fiction). I don’t believe I had previously entertained the idea. Maybe I was just a weird kid.

  43. #43 Paper Hand
    October 19, 2008

    What was surprising, however, was that many participants who had identified themselves as having “extinctivist” beliefs (they had ticked off the box that read: “What we think of as the ‘soul,’ or conscious personality of a person, ceases permanently when the body dies”) occasionally gave psychological-continuity responses, too.

    I wonder how many of those responses really did reflect the respondents’ beliefs? I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I might answer “as if” I did, as a kind of “for the sake of argument” answer. I.e., I might say “Well, assuming that some kind of soul does exist, I suppose he’d still be thinking of his wife”, but perhaps leave out that initial qualifier, assuming that it was obvious, given that I had already said I didn’t believe in the existence of a soul!

    I agree with Kel @#1. When I believed in God and the afterlife, the idea of death was somewhat frightening. And it was even more so when I went through the transitional phase of doubt (“What if they’re right after all, and I’m condemning myself to Hell with these doubts?”). Once I got rid of those beliefs, the fear disappeared. Certainly, I find it uncomfortable to think about my death, and I hope I live a nice long happy life, and die peacefully and without pain, but I now find the idea of *fear* of death inexplicable. Indeed, I never feared death itself, even when I was religious, I feared the afterlife. What if I were in the wrong religion? And for that matter, even if I did go to heaven, how horrifying eternal existence would be!

    I just can’t see how *death* (as opposed to the process of dying or the afterlife) can be frightening.

  44. #44 Jason Streitfeld
    October 19, 2008

    PZ wrote: “We never personally experience the extinction of our consciousness, of course, except for the limited loss of sleep — and we always wake up from that (at least, until the last time), so we at least have personal evidence that would inductively imply immortality.”

    The lack of personal experience with our own extinction does not inductively imply, or even suggest, immortality. There is no basis for any inductive argument here, so far as I can tell. Perhaps PZ would like to clarify his position on this one, because it doesn’t seem to make sense as stated.

    I think the reason some people have a hard time imaginging their own extinction is simple: They have trouble thinking abstractly about their own existence.

    All of our emotions and experiences are grounded in and focused on our own existence. It takes mental effort to abstract from that and construct models of reality that do not directly involve our own existence.

    Of course we can do this. We all do it with varying degrees of success. It’s just that some of us are more comfortable doing it than others.

    If you want to imagine what it is like to stop existing, first picture the world exactly as it is now. Now take yourself out of the picture.

    It’s not so hard. You just have to think about it a little.

  45. #45 Marek14
    October 19, 2008

    strangebeasty: You say, correctly, that our life is not just one quantum state, but a series. But an instant of a life is a single quantum state. Should it be reproduced, it would have exactly the same memories, except that they would have been false. I don’t think there is a way to differ between false and true memory if you don’t have access to anything that would corroborate either of those memories.

    You also say that what I describe is the normal process of consciousness while being alive. That’s actually the whole point – I ponder about what is the difference.

    Finally, you think that the assumption of an infinite universe is too much. I am sorry, but isn’t the current accepted cosmological theory the one where universe is open, and therefore infinite? I’ve seen a serious computation that claimed that quantum state of the whole observable universe will repeat after you move about 10^(10^150) m in any direction (state of your person after 10^(10^28) m) and that conventional inflation theory can easily accomodate this kind of numbers.

  46. #46 Jason Streitfeld
    October 19, 2008

    Response to Jeff, comment #24, who wrote:

    “I dunno, I was dead before I was born, but that didn’t stop me from coming into existence. Could it happen again? This is ultimately a deep philosophical question involving the nature of consciousness, why subjectivity should exist, and time.”

    I am aware of no notion of death or existence which could make sense of your assertion that you were dead before you were born. For something to be dead, it must first die; and for something to die, it must first live.

    Yet, I have the impression that you do not want to say that you actually lived before you were born. (Of course, some people believe in reincarnation, but my intuition tells me you do not.)

    What I think you want to get at is that consciousness is so mysterious that our very notion of death is problematic.

    And yet, you know, I’ve studied the literature, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I don’t see the big mystery here. The only mystery about consciousness is that we don’t know all of the mechanisms which make it possible. There is no mystery about the nature of life or death here, and there is nothing about consciousness which suggests that we should so abandon reason as to try to sell sentences like, “I was dead before I was born.”

    The only problem, I see it, is when people try to turn the notion of subjectivity (which makes sense as a way of distinguishing personal experience from third-person perspectives) into an ontological category which is embraced at the same time it is defined out of observable existence. All that does is undermine our ability to rationally discuss the issues.

    Sorry for being so hard on you, but I’m tired and don’t have enough time to compose a more diplomatic argument at the moment.

  47. #47 patrickhenry
    October 19, 2008

    All I know is that I’m still here. So far, so good.

  48. #48 JHS
    October 19, 2008

    Speaking of myth and denial, that macabre puppet show reminds me of an episode of Spongebob:

    Patrick: Maybe a story will cheer you up. It’s called “The Ugly Barnacle.” Once there was an ugly barnacle. He was so ugly that everyone died. The end.

    Spongebob: (beat) That didn’t help at all.

    :p

  49. #49 Marek14
    October 19, 2008

    BTW, regardless of that weird line of thought I’ve been spewing here, I’d just like to note that I’d also definitely prefer the singularity :)

  50. #50 strangebeasty
    October 19, 2008

    Marek14: Fair enough. I’m definitely not one to go to for cosmology or quantum mechanics. I just know that I wouldn’t personally count on my identity being maintained through quantum flukes. I will achieve immortality through badass organic chemistry and a Ligeia-esque contempt for death.

  51. #51 Seamyst
    October 19, 2008

    This is a very interesting topic. I believe in life after death – I’m a reincarnationist, I guess you could say. When we are born, however, I don’t think our souls remember anything from “past lives”. I hesitate to say that it’s impossible to have past-life memories, because I don’t like to say anything is definitively impossible… but I think that it’s very extremely rare for someone to have a true past-life memory; most such “memories” are delusions or ideas dreamed up from our subconscious.

    I also like to imagine heaven (or its equivalent) as being, for me, an infinite library, with every book ever published (by every species!). Can you imagine all the learning you could do in such a library? And the debates (non-acrimonious) you could have with others? And next door (well, you know what I mean) would be a computer shop, where I could fully learn every operating system ever written. Because, y’know, I’m a big geek.

  52. #52 Dahan
    October 19, 2008

    I don’t fear death, but I do fear the manner in which I may die and what my non-existence may do to others who still live. Still, I think death is something best avoided if possible.

  53. #53 Piltdown Man
    October 19, 2008

    Jesse Bering wrote:

    Even when we want to believe that our minds end at death, it is a real struggle to think in this way.

    Why would anyone want to believe that?

  54. #54 aratina
    October 19, 2008

    Thomas Clark’s statement about experiencing unconsciousness is misleading or perhaps incorrect.

    We may occasionally have the impression of having experienced or ‘undergone’ a period of unconsciousness, but, of course, this is impossible. The ‘nothingness’ of unconsciousness cannot be an experienced actuality.

    What he meant is that we pretend to have memories of being in an unconscious state (like the floating above the room sensation). Clark cannot say that we do not experience unconsciousness because we do.

    We certainly experience things in our sleep, but those things do not manifest themselves in our memories. We can measure the experience of unconsciousness on our own bodies in many ways, both objectively (markings, growth) and subjectively (feelings, mental clarity). An even better way to experience unconsciousness is to undergo surgery; you will remember the exact moment before the anesthetic kicks in and your consciousness will suddenly be jolted awake hours later with all sorts of new pains in a completely unfamiliar place. The memory gap at that instant of reawakening is enormous and obvious. To you, a split second ago you were still counting down from 10 on the surgical table.

    This state of ‘nothingness’ is very real and very tangible to anyone who dares try and grasp it. You can literally think back and realize there are frequent times in your life when you do not consciously exist.

  55. #55 strangebeasty
    October 19, 2008

    Seamyst: I actually had a dream that I went to heaven and it included a big library where people left me alone. Still, why do you cling to that belief? Is it just because it sounds nice to you?

  56. #56 Bill
    October 19, 2008

    “I think, therefore I am.” “I think not, I am not.” Lights on, lights off.

  57. #57 Jason Streitfeld
    October 19, 2008

    I’m annoyed with the poorly developed arguments and ideas in this article. This is from the article:

    “Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it will feel like to be dead. In fact, it won’t feel like anything–and therein lies the problem.”

    Are we supposed to think that people naturally believe in an afterlife because it is impossible to imagine how it feels to be unable to feel anything?

    Am I the only one who thinks this argument sounds stupid?

    There is no evidence here that belief in an afterlife (for a fully developed human being) is innate. And there is even less evidence that such a belief has its roots in the nature of consciousness.

    I was hoping we could expect better from Scientific American.

  58. #58 Uzza
    October 19, 2008

    I am convinced that I will cease to exist upon my death…and the notion terrifies me.

    #7&16, why is that scary?

  59. #59 Marek14
    October 19, 2008

    strangebeasty: Maybe you misunderstood me a little. I said that I feel I have to accept my weird line of thought. I feel that because I can’t find a logical disproof. However, I certainly don’t claim that I would consider this form of quantum immortality desirable. For one thing, if you come back to life via quantum fluke, there will be most likely no other living being anywhere near. For other thing, you’d have much vaster probability of coming back insane or crippled.

    There’s a second form of quantum immortality that depends on quantum parallel universes (roughly saying, if everything happens somewhere, then there’s always someplace where you don’t die – and that’s the only place you ever experience). Maybe this could work in “endless duplicates” scenario resulting from inflation theory as well. In that case, our intuition about death (that it only happens to other people) would be true – but again, this idea only stops death and not disease or pain. It would actually mean that we’d die endlessly and every attempt to commit suicide would just make it worse.

    In summary, I guess I am not really a fan of quantum immortality, I am just currently led to reason that it might exist in some form. Which is, incidentally, one of the best reasons to stop being the slaves of nature and just do something about our mortality – this or that way – on our own. The universe doesn’t look out for us. We should.

  60. #60 DominEditrix
    October 19, 2008

    Oh noes! My childlike illusions that I would be reincarnated as a Loligo pealei, frolicking amidst the icy waters of my beloved New England have been shattered. I am crushed, crushed, I say! I shall have to go drown my epiphany in gin & tonic and watch Damn Yankees one more time.

  61. #61 Bee
    October 19, 2008

    Lee Picton in #30.

    My brother had one of those ‘widowmaker’ heart attacks (no warning symptoms, no previous unhealthy choices) at 43 and did not survive. Glad your husband did.

    But I’m posting to chime in that being older tends to make one more accepting of death. There is always something very wrong about the deaths of young people or children; it seems terribly unjust to me. I can right now say that I’ve had a great life, and I’ll enjoy every other year I get, hope I get thirty more at least, but I’ve reached a point where I feel I’ve had a ‘fair share’ of being alive.

  62. #62 thor
    October 19, 2008

    PZ,
    In philosophy, particularly german, this reasoning has been around for a while. It started with Kant, that said that the ideas of World, God and Soul were a result of our tendency to substantialize the elements of our nature in a perfect unity, forgeting the limits to were our reasoning apply. Kant kept the moral purpose and justification for this ideas though.

    Nietzsche went further and claimed that these processes (substantialization of phenomenons) were incrusted in the own functioning (and not elements) of our language. Thus, is not from hearing the words god, soul, paradise, etc (and geting their meanings) that a person would acquire metaphisical prejudices; it is in the reasoning inherent to language (conceptualization and abstraction of objects, gramatical categories such as substantives, etc) that the notion of objects in general, persistence through time, substance, all arise.

    Which leads me to a depressing quote by Nietzsche: “I´m afraid we won´t get rid of god until we get rid of gramatics”.

  63. #63 Patricia
    October 19, 2008

    Aww shit. There goes the thread. Piltdown Moron is back.

    We want to believe our minds die when we die, you incredible idiot, because no one here wants to have a living mind in a dead body. Dungfish.

  64. #64 ad
    October 19, 2008

    Posted by: BobC | October 19, 2008 3:16 PM
    The life after death belief made possible the 9/11 attacks and the daily suicide bombings that continue today … [snip] … All religious people who believe this childish nonsense are cowards and they’re all insane.

    Seriously, BobC (#31), you need to read up on the secular origins of suicide bombings.

  65. #65 Paul Burnett
    October 19, 2008

    Oblivion is not such a scary thing.” – Ted Dahlberg, #18

    As I have said in several funerary eulogies, “The pain is over, the confusion is over – this is a good thing.”

    And we’ll all be resurrected on the greatest public-works project of all time: Philip José Farmer’s Riverworldhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riverworld.

  66. #66 Monado
    October 19, 2008

    We experience waking up. We note gaps (falling asleep, anaesthesia) but we can’t be conscious of being unconscious. It’s paradoxical and we should not expect it. Logically, death is like falling asleep — and we will not be around to experience it. It does sound odd to say, as Mark Twain did, “I was dead before I was born.” It might be better to say, “I wasn’t around before this life, and I won’t be around in the future.”

    Having died or almost died and come back should reassure people that death is nothing to be afraid of. We still have an instinctive fear of ceasing to be.

  67. #67 Stever
    October 19, 2008

    Hindu tradition (and some outlier M theorists) suggests that the universe – all existence – is ultimately only one thing, and that which we experience is only the illusion of many things. Once we escape the wheel of life (Samsara), having completed a sufficient number of reincarnations to remove our Karmic plaque, we become at one with the one. Since there is only one thing, there is obviously no way you could be aware of anything. There is nothing else to experience.

  68. #68 Orson Zedd
    October 19, 2008

    Where will I be after I’m dead? City morgue, I assume.

  69. #69 Patricia
    October 19, 2008

    #30 – Lee Picton – My father had an awful heart attack about 20 years ago and died. They were able to revive him at the hospital. He said that being dead is black nothingness, just like being sound asleep. He has no fear of death whatsoever. Having his description of the experience took my fear away too.
    But I am middle aged and have lived a good fun life, except for the religious bullshit. My only fear in death is of suffering horribly or bankrupting my family. We have a family plot in our grave yard, so I have always known where I’ll go when I’m dead. Our cremated Bulldogs will be buried with us.

  70. #70 Tulse
    October 19, 2008

    I believe in life after death – I’m a reincarnationist, I guess you could say. When we are born, however, I don’t think our souls remember anything from “past lives”.

    If my re-incarnated soul doesn’t “remember” anything, in what possible sense is it actually my soul? How does it relate to my personal identity at all? This notion never made any sense to me — why should I care about the continuation of something that doesn’t actually remember me? All I care about it continuation of my mental states, including memory — once I lose those, I don’t give a damn if some sort of abstract “soul” continues, any more than I would care if, say, some cells of my body were immortalized in some lab (like the HeLa cell line). Neither the cells nor a “soul” is me. Why should I therefore care if a “soul” continues on?

    If you’ll bear an analogy, it is like a shot of whiskey believing in reincarnation because the shot glass will continue after its gone, even though it will later be refilled with vodka, and gin, and absinthe, etc. etc. etc.

    I also like to imagine heaven (or its equivalent) as being, for me, an infinite library, with every book ever published (by every species!).

    Have you read Borge’s story The Library of Babel? His library doesn’t just have every book every published, but every possible book that could be published.

  71. #71 Alex
    October 19, 2008

    “Oh, and to answer the question in the title: I will have ceased to exist. I will be nowhere. There will be no “I” anymore. That’s the way it works: all I’ve got to live for is my life itself, with no deferred rewards or punishments afterwards.”
    Well aren’t you fucking proud of that?

  72. #72 normalityrelief
    October 19, 2008

    This is a fascinating post; thank you much for linking to the article!

  73. #73 Rey Fox
    October 19, 2008

    “I actually had a dream that I went to heaven and it included a big library where people left me alone. ”

    Did your glasses break in that dream?

    (joke)

  74. #74 Keenacat
    October 19, 2008

    I’m with Dahan at #52.
    I actually am puzzled by people making such a fuss about being death, while the state of dying and how we experience it is much more worthy of consideration. There is a pretty good chance that ones dying will be really unpleasant, associated with pain and fear both for the dying person and for the people close to him. The reason so few people like to think about dying is the inherent fear of death… Which somehow strikes me as illogical. I personally have an inherent fear of dying in some unpleasant way. If that situation should occur, death itself is likely to be the desired endpoint.

  75. #75 Rey Fox
    October 19, 2008

    “Well aren’t you fucking proud of that?”

    Where does pride enter into it?

  76. #76 anthropicOne
    October 19, 2008

    Stever @ 67

    Man, I hate it when folks bring up ancient teachings as if they are some ultimate wisdom. These primitives, and religious idiots, concocted all sorts of bizzaro “explanations” to attempt to make sense of this existence and console their fears.

    There is no such thing as reincarnation. That’s just as much bullshit as belief in heaven or hell. We have consciousness because we have a highly brains. Once the brain is gone, consciousness is gone. Period. There is nothing more. Others will have their own consciousness. They won’t inherit yours like some used car.

  77. #77 strangebeasty
    October 19, 2008

    Rey Fox: That episode scared the shit out of me.

  78. #78 dingo
    October 19, 2008

    #40 “(Of course, the Buddhists say that what is left after you strip away all of the transient conscious effects and attachments is not exactly nothing, but the “Buddha nature.” And what is the Buddha nature? Kind of hard to say, precisely. But it ain’t “you,” babe.)”

    In Buddhism (at least as I know it) there is no “you.” Our self, ego, personality or whatever are emergent properties of the bio-chemical factory contained within the vault of our cranium. When the juices cease to flow so does everything else. Easy come, easy go.

  79. #79 Kel
    October 19, 2008

    It’s an interesting thought experiment. I imagine it would be like the before time, before I was born. It’s nothing, I wasn’t there, I didn’t exist. Likewise when I die, I shall cease to be. I can’t be aware of that so I won’t be able to lament my own demise.

    Though personally I like Bill Hick’s take on it:
    “Today, a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration — that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”

  80. #80 extatyzoma
    October 19, 2008

    the nearest thing to zero conciousness must be when under general anaesthesia, you are not aware of any time lapse when awoken, unlike sleep when you seem to have some notion of the time that has passed from last being awake.

    its interesting that the horror of knowing someone has died seems to imply that thay have honestly gone, the most devout will be as devastated as those who accept no afterlife, if the religious truly believed that there was an afterlife i cannot understand why they would grieve.

  81. #81 Steve
    October 19, 2008

    anthropicOne

    @76

    Of course reincarnation didn’t necessarily quell their fears as one might come back as a cockroach without highly brains if one led a not-so-just life.

  82. #82 Piltdown Man
    October 19, 2008

    Patricia (#63):

    We want to believe our minds die when we die, you incredible idiot, because no one here wants to have a living mind in a dead body.

    No one would want that, true.

    But it’s hardly likely that a mind capable of surviving bodily death would be trapped in its dead body, is it?

  83. #83 John Landon
    October 19, 2008

    Soul beliefs are very confused, so are soul disbeliefs.
    The simple question is whether the human totality is solely a part of space and time. Apparently it is not that simple.
    Check out
    http://darwiniana.com/2008/10/19/where-will-you-be-after-youre-dead/

  84. #84 Phiwilli
    October 19, 2008

    From a couple of old-timers: 1) Epicurus:Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable . . . when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.[Letter to Menoeceus]. 2) Socrates: If it [death] is a complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep, then death would be a great advantage . . . for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night. [Apology of Socrates].

  85. #85 jeff
    October 19, 2008

    Jason #46

    The only mystery about consciousness is that we don’t know all of the mechanisms which make it possible.

    A very naive statement, IMO.

    The only problem, I see it, is when people try to turn the notion of subjectivity (which makes sense as a way of distinguishing personal experience from third-person perspectives) into an ontological category

    And those third-person perspectives originate from where? (There’s a reason why they call it the “first” person). Nothing can be known that is not filtered through its perspective. Is there such a thing as an objective experience?

    The reason why subjectivity is a such a problem can summed up in the question, “why is reality being experienced from the perspective of my body instead of someone or something elses?”. If physicalism is all there is, then what is the physical explanation for that fact? No mechanism can answer that question. If physicalism is all there is, we should be zombies. The universe should be one big machine (if the presentist view of time is correct), or one big static structure, if block time is correct. There should not be this obviously preferred perspective in space and time. That bias or asymmetry has no physical explanation.

    And to those who say no “I” survives death, I agree with them. However, there is a difference between the semantics of “I” (as a data structure, memories, etc) and “experience” (especially immediate sensory experience), and it is not clear why some form of the latter should not survive, the question being which other “I” it might be associated with. The reason why, is that I have no idea how this subjective experience got to be associated with this “I” in my body to begin with, instead of some other collection of atoms ;)

  86. #86 Tommykey
    October 19, 2008

    I just did a post on this topic last night, specifically with regard to a conference that will be held not too far from where I live that purports to offer evidence of life after death.

    If it is okay with our esteemed host, here is a link to it.

    My question about humans supposedly having a nonphysical self is where does it come from? Biologically, we are the result of a union between a female egg and a male sperm cell. Is nonphysicality part of our genetic makeup? If we are really nonphysical beings, then why bother to inhabit physical bodies at all?

  87. #87 Patricia
    October 19, 2008

    I don’t believe the mind survives the body’s end Piltdown Man, nor the ‘soul’, nor any kind of other nonsense. I’m not a christian. When you are dead, you are just like the chicken you eat for Sunday supper. Dead.

    My father who was dead, as I wrote about above, said there is no god, no angels, saints, pearly gates or any other bullshit when you are dead. And don’t try to pull that out of body crap with me, it’s been proven to be frontal lobe seizures. Which somebody here can probably explain. Or check out the work of Dr. V. S. Ramachondran on YouTube.

  88. #88 Sastra
    October 19, 2008

    Jason Streitfeld #57 wrote:

    Are we supposed to think that people naturally believe in an afterlife because it is impossible to imagine how it feels to be unable to feel anything?

    No, not quite. The article is part of a growing body of study on “folk psychology” — the heuristics of how people tend to think about their own mind, and the minds of others. It is possible to imagine ‘feeling nothing’ — but it is not possible to imagine feeling feeling nothing. That’s a logical contradiction. You can’t experience a total lack of experience (although, per the mystics, you can feel as if you are experiencing a total lack of experience.)

    The human brain evolved to follow sloppy rules of thumb and take useful short cuts in our thinking — to the detriment of accuracy. Thus, folk physics, for example, will see energy as a thing which moves stuff around with invisible power. And we have a natural tendency towards dualistic thinking. It’s easier and simpler than the truth. Enter vitalism and supernaturalism.

    Some people are naturally less sloppy than others, and you can be educated out of error, learning to think in more accurate ways.

    Piltdown Man #53 wrote:

    Why would anyone want to believe that (our minds end at death)?

    What I wrote above. It doesn’t appear to be accurate or likely. We would want to discard belief in life after death for the same reason we would want to discard a belief that life is a kind of ‘energy’ that gets into matter and animates it.

    Instead of taking “leaps of faith” towards what we find appealing, some people are more cautious, and care about truth and likelihood. The universe is not all about us, you know.

  89. #89 John C. Randolph
    October 19, 2008

    After I’m dead, my body will be decomposing inside of a bronze or steel casket, and that’s about all there is to it. Unless some bits of it get sewn into someone else, but since I’m not very big on risky activities, I’ll probably die too old for anyone to benefit from my organs.

    -jcr

  90. #90 Phiwilli
    October 19, 2008

    From a couple of old-timers: 1) Epicurus:Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable . . . when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.[Letter to Menoeceus]. 2) Socrates: If it [death] is a complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep, then death would be a great advantage . . . for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night. [Apology of Socrates].

  91. #91 SEF
    October 19, 2008

    a narrative about Richard’s state of mind just prior to the accident

    The bit which first bothered me about that account of the research setup and questions was how come (other) people weren’t objecting to the impossibility of knowing what someone was thinking just prior to being instantly killed – what with no such thing as telepathy existing and no sign that there was even a black-box tape-recording of him keeping up a commentary, they already had to be imagining he had somehow survived after death to be recalling (via a medium?) what he had been thinking at the time. The subsequent imaginary post-death stuff is somewhat superfluous since that first bit already has to have been accepted for the scenario to work.

    But perhaps the original version wasn’t really as stupid as it comes over as being.

  92. #92 Pikemann Urge
    October 19, 2008

    #5 wrote: “I argue that the lack of knowledge is the best proof that there is nothing.”

    Not necessarily. And I guess it depends whom you ask. Some folks have interesting things to say. Me? I don’t know. Reincarnation makes sense, but so does cessation of existence. They’re both good!

    Ecclesiastes 9:10 is a clue to the way Jews and probably early Christians saw death. When you die you cease to exist – until, of course, the great resurrection!

  93. #93 anthropicOne
    October 19, 2008

    Steve @81,

    Hey, whose carbon atom is it anyway :)

    That’s about as much reincarnation as there is. Maggot eats rotting flesh. Nutrients from the cadaver are utilized by the maggot. Adult flies die (or are themselves eaten). Their nutrients are passed on to another creature, or just become part of the general compost.

    That’s it. Just dumb molecules and atoms, which we all share – along with inanimate things. No consciousness though.

  94. #94 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    October 19, 2008

    Well aren’t you fucking proud of that?

    I dunno where you seeing that. And I don’t know if PZ feels pride simply for acknowledging reality.

    a mind capable of surviving bodily death would be trapped in its dead body, is it?

    Well, it was stuck pretty firmly in the body before it died…. *chuckles*

  95. #95 Roger Scott
    October 19, 2008

    Where will I be after I’m dead? The same place I was before I was conceived.

  96. #96 Nerd of Redhead
    October 19, 2008

    Since the Redhead is likely to out live me, I told her to cremate my remains and then have them add the urn to the coffin when she dies. That way I will be under her thumb for a long time.

    Pilty, still trying promote your illogical theology with proving your god? Don’t you get tired of lying? If you god exists, prove it with physical evidence. Otherwise, if you are an honorable man, STFU.

  97. #97 Quiet Desperation
    October 19, 2008

    I argue that the lack of knowledge is the best proof that there is nothing. Its the simplest explanation for the lack of communication across the divide. After all, doesn’t absolute silence from the dead confirm that there are no spirts to talk to in the first place?

    Hmm. I don’t personally have any beliefs in something beyond death, but I’m not sure I buy this as any sort of absolute proof. Occam’s is not a physical law, after all. Seems to me it could just as easily be *impossible* to communicate back. Or disallowed, even. I suppose in any thought experiment it would help to postulate the nature of an afterlife first. Parallel D-brane a couple Planck distances away anyone? Perhaps it’s where gravity comes from. :-)

  98. #98 Sastra
    October 19, 2008

    jeff #85 wrote:

    The reason why subjectivity is a such a problem can summed up in the question, “why is reality being experienced from the perspective of my body instead of someone or something elses?”. If physicalism is all there is, then what is the physical explanation for that fact? No mechanism can answer that question. If physicalism is all there is, we should be zombies. The universe should be one big machine (if the presentist view of time is correct), or one big static structure, if block time is correct. There should not be this obviously preferred perspective in space and time. That bias or asymmetry has no physical explanation.

    I’m having trouble following your reasoning here. Wouldn’t it be the other way around? If some form of physicalism/materialism is correct, and mind is what the brain does, then the answer to the question “why is reality being experienced from the perspective of my body instead of somewhere or something else?” is: because that is where the brain is. That is the physical explanation for that fact. The body that has the brain will have the subjective experiences of that particular brain, and no other.

    It seems to me that me being able to experience reality from someone else’s body would falsify materialism. It would not be able to account for it. So we look for good evidence of that: none so far.

    Consciousness is the result of a certain types of brain activities for the same reason ‘digestion’ is the result of certain types of stomach activities. We do not wonder what happens to the ‘digestion’ when the stomach is gone. Or say that, in a physical universe without ‘digestion,’ stomach activity would do no good.

    Mind/brain physicalism would have no explanation for cosmic consciousness — a substrate of subjectivity which underlies all material objects — a ‘preferred perspective’ of the space and time that is the universe. But as far as I know, it doesn’t posit such a thing. And mind/brain dualism has no explanation for why the particular consciousness always follows the particular brains. Coincidence?

    And why say that, if physicalism is all there is, “we should be zombies?” Should? Why?

  99. #99 Quiet Desperation
    October 19, 2008

    Where will I be after I’m dead? The same place I was before I was conceived.

    Ah. Reincarnation, then. ;-)

  100. #100 Quiet Desperation
    October 19, 2008

    Of course reincarnation didn’t necessarily quell their fears as one might come back as a cockroach without highly brains if one led a not-so-just life.

    Well… depends on who you talk to. Eastern concepts of reincarnation sometimes include the whole animal thing, but the Western ones generally not, or not that I’ve ever read.

  101. #101 Quiet Desperation
    October 19, 2008

    If my re-incarnated soul doesn’t “remember” anything, in what possible sense is it actually my soul? How does it relate to my personal identity at all?

    Mmm. Maybe something is still there at a subconscious level? For example, you wouldn’t have a clear memory of some major past mistake, but an inclination to avoid the situation leading to it might present itself. I have to admit, if I were to devise a system of reincarnation, blocking out the *conscious* memories of past lives makes a bit of sense. It would be mostly noise to the current life’s signal.

  102. #102 Patricia
    October 19, 2008

    #89 – John C. Randolph – Good for you John! I’m an organ donor too. If I can help any other poor sap to carry on when my guts no longer support me, I say have at me!
    The only thing I regret is that I know of no place to donate human eggs for research near where I live. I would have given them all away when I was 21 (legal age in my state) as I have never had the urge to have offspring.

  103. #103 Azkyroth
    October 19, 2008

    The other question is whether or not the universe exists after we cease to be aware of it. We assume it does because we see it continue after the deaths of other people. We assume it existed before our beginning and will continue to exist after our ending. But, if we are each islands of existence in a limitless ocean of non-existence, to what extent can we say we know anything of the past let alone the future? And isn’t it all ultimately futile anyway?

    Mu.

  104. #104 MRL
    October 19, 2008

    Kel:

    I can intellectually perceive that there is likely no afterlife. I can agree with you that when I die, my consciousness will simply cease to exist in any meaningful form.

    That scares the hell out of me – no afterlife-oriented pun intended – enough so that I cannot comprehend it on anything other than a purely intellectual level.

  105. #105 Azkyroth
    October 19, 2008

    Is he saying here that humans simply can’t accept that person permanence ceases to apply on death? I think this is false.

    I interpreted the statement as characterizing a cognitive bias rather than an absolute limit of cognitive capacity.

  106. #106 Pierce R. Butler
    October 19, 2008

    My girlfriend tells me that all of her more-respected cat books say that if one cat of a group dies, it’s advisable to leave the body for a day or so where the surviving cats can check it out, so that they will understand the situation and not exhibit the “when-is-Fluffy-coming-back?” behavior to be expected if that one cat were simply suddenly removed.

    We’ve only had one opportunity to test this approach. Field report: the survivors were extremely agitated before the carcass was removed, and apparently relieved (though still disturbed) afterward. Since none of them had gotten along with the deceased anyhow, the lack of any behavior that might be interpreted as missing the absentee is ambiguous at best.

  107. #107 Amy
    October 19, 2008

    “It’s interesting that people who believe in some sort of afterlife fear death the most. While those content with effectively ceasing to exist, aren’t as scared of it.”

    I guess I must not be content with it because despite being an atheist, thinking of my non-existence gives me the screaming heebee-jeebies.

    Screaming.

  108. #108 Fernando Magyar
    October 19, 2008

    There will be no “I” anymore.

    Will Daniel Dennett please pick up the white courtesy phone, Mr Dennett please pick up the courtesy phone.

  109. #109 Patricia
    October 19, 2008

    Pierce – Your cats reaction to the death of one of their own is very interesting. My Bulldogs have had quite the opposite reaction. They grieve horribly for their friend. We also lay out the body of the dead, so that they can see and sniff their friend. When we didn’t they would hunt for the missing and pester to go out and find them.
    We quit burying them at home after our last female refused to leave the grave of her partner except at night and in the rain and snow. She grieved for him until she died.
    I had a mare once that refused to let us near a stillborn foal for four days. By then burying it was a real joy.

  110. #110 aarrgghh
    October 19, 2008

    everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

    — albert king and “little” milton campbell, everybody wants to go to heaven, 1970

    most people aren’t actually afraid of death. theists believe in a pleasant afterlife while atheists believe in complete insensate nonexistence.

    what people are afraid of is dying. premature dying. protracted and debilitating dying. excruciating dying. cruel and sadistic dying. inane and senseless dying.

    these things happen every day, in hospitals and battlefields, at work and at home, and everywhere in between. if we must, we want to go peacefully, when we think we’re ready, and on our own terms. but just from reading the news, we know that how we go is basically a crap shoot. and that terrifies us.

    nite-owl: i can’t believe he’s dead. i remember adrian once telling me that the egyptians regarded death as a voyage …

    rorschach: hurn. nice idea if you can afford to go first class, with pharaohs … but judging by our departures, most of us travel steerage.

    — alan moore, watchmen #10, d.c. comics, 1987

  111. #111 Muzz
    October 19, 2008

    I’ve always thought that was fairly straightforward; No consciousness can concieve of its own non existence in any meaningful way. A non-state of mind is an unimaginable state of mind by its very nature. It’s a paradox. It’s attempting to divide by zero. It’s a snake swallowing its tail and wondering why it can’t finish the meal.
    Perhaps its not so straightforward though (and, well, what ever is). I tend to assume it’s a part of sympathy. That might be the wrong way to look at it, wrong word perhaps, but trying to concieve of states of mind separated in space and time from our own, both attributed to ourself and others, is very important I’d say. The ‘persistence in absence’ of others is only part of that. Our internal relexivity attempts to concieve of and observe us as well.
    Perhaps I’m missing something. I’m not up with the psych on this lately.

    The other thing is some of the questions. No doubt the researchers considered this and 12yr olds are more independant minded than younger kids. But asking a question, like ‘how does the dead mouse feel now?’ or whatever, often implies there is an answer that comports with the premises therein. It implies the dead mouse feels something just by asking it, in other words. A fallacy perhaps but that’s generally the way we read things. They’ve proably covered it with a variety of question styles etc. But a tricky area to work in for sure.

  112. #112 Steve
    October 19, 2008

    anthropicOne

    @93

    That’s it. Just dumb molecules and atoms, which we all share – along with inanimate things. No consciousness though.

    Quiet Desperation,

    He’s correct, of course.

  113. #113 craig
    October 19, 2008

    The whole continuity issue is why I would NEVER go in a Star-Trek style transporter.

    When you are disassembled, you die. It’s the end. It’s over. You don’t experience appearing on the planet surface below.

    An entirely new being identical to you down to the individual molecule is created on the surface thinking that it’s you… and lives a relatively short life until it’s destroyed and another new being is created when it “beams back up.”

    And you, dead, never experience any of it. You died instantly the first time you transported.

  114. #114 Steve
    October 19, 2008

    anthropicOne
    @93
    though.

    That’s it. Just dumb molecules and atoms, which we all share – along with inanimate things. No consciousness

    I should add that some folks posit that there is consciousness in everything, even inanimate objects, as part of some whole, I suppose.

    Even Dan Dennet has little brain robots coalescing to a free-willed identity.

  115. #115 craig
    October 19, 2008

    “Reincarnation makes sense, but so does cessation of existence. They’re both good!”

    Reincarnation actually makes less sense than Santa Claus. Possibly even makes less sense than the Easter Bunny.
    (Yes, I am making the argument that Santa Claus is marginally more plausible than the Easter Bunny.)

  116. #116 Wowbagger
    October 19, 2008

    Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?

    Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is not. Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not be on a boat.

    Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.

    Guildenstern: No, no… What you’ve been is not on boats.

    Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

  117. #117 aarrgghh
    October 19, 2008

    craig @ 113: The whole continuity issue is why I would NEVER go in a Star-Trek style transporter.

    When you are disassembled, you die. It’s the end. It’s over. You don’t experience appearing on the planet surface below.

    i don’t think the trek transporter is supposed to disassemble you. it partially “decouples” your atoms on the quantum level, ie, temporarily weakens their subatomic bonds without breaking them.

    if it actually broke those bonds, the result would be a really big explosion. like hee-yooooooj!

    besides, if people in the trek universe understood that the transporter killed and copied them, no one would actually use the thing. nobody. so presumably, it doesn’t “actually” work that way.

  118. #118 Tulse
    October 19, 2008

    if physicalism is all there is, “we should be zombies?” Should? Why?

    Because there doesn’t seem to be a causal role for subjective experience? Because if physicalism is all there is, a physical description of brain activity would perfectly predict behaviour without having to invoke any notion of subjectivity? Because if physicalism is correct, then there should be no need for a notion of “mind” (in the subjective sense) any more than the notion of “motive force” for a car, or “vitalism” for organisms?

    I’m pretty damn positive that the physical is all there is. At the same time, I’m pretty damn positive that explaining how just physical stuff produces subjectivity is perhaps one of the hardest scientific/philosophical problems there is.

  119. #119 Aaron Baker
    October 19, 2008

    Too much cabernet, I guess. The cheery subject matter chimes in remarkably with a poem I wrote not long ago; and my inhibitions have relaxed sufficiently for me to post it here. (I’ve had no luck so far in publishing it in more conventional venues–so why the hell not?)

    For the Latinless: the title comes from a poem by Propertius: “The dead are something,” or “A ghost is something.” Well, as my poem suggests, Yes and No.

    All comments (even negative) are appreciated; but so is a minimum of courtesy.

    ……………………………….

    SUNT ALIQUID MANES

    The dead are something, I’ve been told; but I
    Could never make them speak. One day, I walked
    Out to the park near my apartment. There,
    A damp path through the battered naked trees
    Somehow compelled a thought of her, and I
    Almost believed that she and not her absence
    Walked with me. I have returned to say
    It was not so–though I looked everywhere.

  120. #120 SteveC
    October 19, 2008

    To me, as a person who has read a few things in the popular literature about neuroscience — by which I mean things along the lines of V.S. Ramachandran et al’s “Phantoms in the Brain”, and Thomas B. Czerner’s “What Makes you Tick? The brain in plain English,” which describe in some detail the workings of the brain, and how it breaks down in various circumstances when it isn’t working propperly due to injury, etc., it is completely obvious that what happens when you die is — literally nothing — you cease to have thoughts, you — that which makes the matter you are made of “you” — ceases to exist. Completely obvious.

    The counterarguments are non-existent. The do not exist as arguments. They exist only as hand-waving wishful thinking of the most childish sort.

    Grow the fuck up and concede or produce an actual argument.

  121. #121 dubiquiabs
    October 19, 2008

    The older I get the less it concerns me that I’ll be dead, going (not quite) nowhere.

    There is still the idea that the atoms & molecules I’m made of will eventually find their way into the structural and functional components of an unimaginably large number of living beings. Just as I’m now composed of atoms & molecules that went through an unimaginably large number of living beings (do the math), including extinct species, and for crying out loud, Cleopatra. I find comfort in this kind of recycling.

    As for consciousness, imagine how much of Democritos'; Thomas Huxley’s; Mark Twain’s or so many others’ consciousnesses still rattle around in our own. The longer we live, the more likely will we have left traces of ours in the minds and behaviors of others. And that’s not even counting the nucleotide sequences we may have passed on. These three kinds of living on after death are quite enough immortality for me.

    The idea of heaven is a nasty distraction. To hell with it! It distracts us from the reality that in the end, all we have is each other.

  122. #122 Mr Gronk
    October 19, 2008

    I’ve hit upon a mind exercise I call “it’s a Wonderful Life” (after the somewhat cheesy Capra movie). You basically try to visualise how your family history would have turned out if you’d never existed. What would your parents, siblings and friends be doing right now? In what ways would their lives be worse, better or just different? Unlike the movie, there’s no moral to the exercise, it’s just that after a few minutes of doing this I found I was looking objectively at my own non-existence without the usual existential sinking feeling. Quite a weird feeling. Give it a go some time, folks.

  123. #123 Sastra
    October 19, 2008

    Tulse #118 wrote:

    Because there doesn’t seem to be a causal role for subjective experience? Because if physicalism is all there is, a physical description of brain activity would perfectly predict behaviour without having to invoke any notion of subjectivity? Because if physicalism is correct, then there should be no need for a notion of “mind” (in the subjective sense) any more than the notion of “motive force” for a car, or “vitalism” for organisms?

    My understanding is that many neurologists posit that subjectivity — the ‘sense of being a being’ — allows judgments to take place on higher levels of abstraction, and make better predictions in the environment — especially the social environment. An organism which can form a model of itself in the brain appears to have a useful skill which other goal-oriented organisms lack, in that it allows them constant feedback. The clearer and more responsive (and the more complicated) the model, the stronger the sense of “self.”

    I don’t think that, on physicalism, “mind” = “vitalism.” I think that “mind” = “life.” Just because we can take a living thing apart molecule by molecule and not find a magic little piece of “life,” does not mean that living things aren’t really alive, and there is no such thing as “life.” We talk meaningfully about life on a higher level and pattern of organization than quantum physics.

  124. #124 Patricia
    October 19, 2008

    SteveC – Exactly.

  125. #125 Sphere Coupler
    October 19, 2008

    @113;
    And you, dead, never experience any of it. You died instantly the first time you transported.

    not if the original particles were reanimated, it would just be a period of unconsciousness.

  126. #126 craig
    October 19, 2008

    not if the original particles were reanimated, it would just be a period of unconsciousness.”

    You really think that if you are sliced up into individual particles, then you won’t have died if we manage to put you back together just as you were?

    It’s not a period of unconsciousness. When you’re unconscious, your brain is still working. There is continuity.

    It’s just a period of death. Of not frickin existing.

  127. #127 Sman
    October 20, 2008

    To answer your question:

    If my family follows my wishes, my ashes will be deposited on the upstream side, of a natural arch, in Eastern Ky(where I married my bride).

    Hoping that some of my ashes will fall to the creek, and others will make their way into the water, and then to gulf; while others will ingrain into the matrix of the lovely bridge from which “I” was thrown…

  128. #128 Sphere Coupler
    October 20, 2008

    @126
    OK if the machine broke…you are dead.
    If your particles were moved by plane train or transporter, you have indeed moved.
    To the one being reanimated,his last memory would be in the transporter.
    Now if an exact copy was made from an exact copy of particles of you, then I would also say you died.

  129. #129 george.wiman
    October 20, 2008

    My father, an extraordinary man, also suffered bouts of dark depression. Happiness was never more than a sometimes thing for him, and never much of it. I would be distraught if I believed that he were going to have to continue that indefinitely.

  130. #130 Sastra
    October 20, 2008

    Aaron Baker #119:

    I liked your poem, very much.

  131. #131 Patricia
    October 20, 2008

    It must be that as we get older we don’t give a shit about being dead. I certainly don’t give a fuck about it.
    So what, I’m dead.
    Nobody in the world that isn’t related to me knows of it. The Yaks in Tibet don’t grieve if I fall over. So what the fuck? Who cares.
    As I look back on my life I am happy that I never did anything to bring a human into the world.

  132. #132 thalarctos
    October 20, 2008

    Aaron–

    Thank you for posting your poem. It is very right and meaningful to me just now, and I appreciate finding it here.

  133. #133 Orson Zedd
    October 20, 2008

    The Question about the Transporter:

    Are you the molecules that were destroyed, or is what is essentially you the pattern they are in? If it’s just the pattern, you aren’t really dying, because you just got reassembled, even if you are a duplicate and the original was destroyed. That pattern has every thing about you. It is you. This isn’t identical twin shit, we’re talking about exact duplication. Every neuron that belonged to you belongs to it now.

  134. #134 bgbaysjr
    October 20, 2008

    Being dead: nothing. Nothing to experience, and so, nothing to fear. As the article points out, “utterly nothing” is impossible to imagine, though. People have known that since at Epicurus, and likely before…

    Dying: something. Might be something wonderful (rare, and much hoped for), or might be something horrible (frequent, and much dreaded). As we all know, “someone dying” is hard to forget. People have known that since, well…

    So. I am not afraid of “being dead” because there is no such thing. I will be alive, and then I will have stopped being alive. No thing awaits. What I am afraid of is that transitional bit: don’t want weeks or months in a bed hooked up to machines, or a few minutes of much screaming and lots of (my) blood…

    As there is no active state “dead” I am starting to wonder if saying “he is dead” is not subtly part of the problem. Example: when I say, “my partner died” I mean that he was living, and then he stopped living. When I say, “my grandmother is dead” am I implying that she is doing something called “being dead”? In the back of my mind, do I think that her consciousness still exists in the state of “dead” even if, as an extinctionist, in the “front of my mind” I think nothing of the sort? So I try to be careful with the word “dead.” “She died” reminds me that it was a one-time event, with nothing (for her) after.

    They who have died are gone, except in our imperfect memories, and as our memories fade and shift with remembering, they slip ever further away. It is terrible and heartbreaking, but just because I don’t like it does not cause me to think it is not true. I would love to think that everyone I have loved is happily waiting for me Across the River, and that I will one day join them, and there will be laughter and kittens and pie forever.

    But I don’t.

  135. #135 Sui Generis
    October 20, 2008

    Once you’ve dealt with severe chronic depression, the fear of nothing coming after the body’s demise is easy to accept. There are times in the throes of melancholic darkness where there was any way to sublimate oneself out of existence and erase all traces ever of ever having lived, this would be the sweetest thing imaginable.

    Once the primary drive for self survival has eroded over years of coping with a disorder, which in its worst phases renders the concept of hope meaningless*, oblivion is not to be feared – it is the lingering suffering before death that is terrifying.
    Some people with the disorder do not respond to drug treatments (or the cognitive side effects that are worse than the disorder for some). Trying all treatments available and finding they all lose efficacy brings another reality: to endure its hellish torment when it strikes and to live with the knowledge that it is not a matter of if death comes from ones own hand, but when. (Barring accidental death)

    The suicides of David Foster Wallace and Spalding Gray have angered and bewildered many who wondered how could they have done that to their families. I’ll tell you truly, that had there been a way they could have hidden their deaths, they would have, but at the point where they finally acted, the psychic pain was too great and release, any release from life, no matter how overt and nakedly suicidal, was greater than the need to obscure their mode of death from loved ones. (Both sought treatment actively, but were drug resistant) I’m sure they held on as long as possible hoping it would pass. If you’ve never dealt with chronic untreatable depression, you’ll probably never understand this.

    Reflexively, depressives still tend to dodge cars and falling objects so part of the instinct for survival remains intact, however the odd notion of anyone, especially child molesters/murderers/rapists wanting to survive at all costs is unimaginable. What would it be like to go the rest of ones life without constant suicidal ideation – or more to the point, to fear one’s own death but disregard the lives and deaths of others? I think self survival is too strong in some people. (I could use a little of theirs)

    Oh, I’m fine right now. really. I just never know how long the respite will last.
    So DEATH=NOTHING? not a problem.

    *(despite the childhood indoctrination of religion and the concept of heaven/hell I have long since rejected)

  136. #136 scooter
    October 20, 2008

    I share the nebulous Jewish-Chinese concept of living on through your progeny. I’m a late father, so I won’t be around for much of their adulthood or grandkids.

    When you’re older you’re not as concerned with shaping behavior, as trying to instill ethics and humanity through osmosis and conversation, as opposed to lecturing and discipline.

    I never got along with my dad, it was an all out war, and my family was fractured by that, but when we spent time later in life, we shared a lot more common ground than I thought.

    He was too worried about being strict, and discipline, and I was too bothered with rebelling, we never really got to know each other.

    But every now and then he shows up in my dreams, and it’s always pleasant, in contrast to the reality of living with him until I was 14.

    As a non believer, the best I can hope for is being remembered by those few that are the closest, and having made lasting impressions on their world view.

    I liked the poem @ 119, too.

  137. #137 Sphere Coupler
    October 20, 2008

    I greatly appreciated Carl Sagan when he said we were all made out of star stuff and to carry the theme a little further,…perhaps consciousness is pervasive in the universe and it is the ability of the brains gray matter that acts as a trap according to the specific ability of the individual brain and is expelled thru the persona of the individual ultimately garenteed to be released as the wave form upon death to be reabsorbed by the universe until a portion is trapped again. Exteme Spinoza.Of course you would still be dead and no substative(memory would exist?)
    Out on a limb/no proof,just speculation.

  138. #138 scooter
    October 20, 2008

    Patricia @ 131: It must be that as we get older we don’t give a shit about being dead. I certainly don’t give a fuck about it

    As the time draws nearer I am getting somewhat concerned about the dying part of death.

    I’ve always been a total wimp when it comes to extreme pain, so I’m thinkin’ the time to score a secret Fentanyl stash might be soon. As referenced in earlier threads.
    __________________________________________
    Jeff Tamblyn ‘Kansas vs Darwin’ on Texas radio

  139. #139 Aaron Baker
    October 20, 2008

    Thank you, Sastra and Thalarctos, for liking the poem.

    I believe Thalarctos and I have spoken unkindly to each other in the past; so I’m especially appreciative of the kind remark now.

  140. #140 pablo
    October 20, 2008

    I have an atheist friend who has some complicated beliefs regarding the nature of time. This serves as a sort of after-life for him, though it doesn’t involve souls, or reincarnation, or ethereal realms. It’s one of those things where it sounds rather compelling when he explains it, though 10 minutes later you can’t really put it all together.

    I tend to be more of an extinctionalist.

  141. #141 InTheImageOfDNA
    October 20, 2008

    I haven’t read all the comments here so forgive me if I’m being redundant but Bering initially broached this topic over at Edge: http://www.edge.org/q2005/q05_7.html#bering

  142. #142 scooter
    October 20, 2008

    Sphere Coupler @ 137

    Arthur C Clarke wrote a treatment about a child who had grown up on the moon, was too crippled from low grav to return to earth, but the brainwaves from Earth from the renaissance were just reaching the moon, so he was able to hang out with the consciousness of Da Vinci, and trade secrets on painting technique.

    Great story.

    Don’t remember the title I read it 40 years ago.

  143. #143 Quiet_Desperation
    October 20, 2008

    Quiet Desperation, He’s correct, of course.

    Huh? About what? I was just indulging in some wacky Sunday afternoon speculation on hypothetical afterlives.

  144. #144 Sphere Coupler
    October 20, 2008

    Religion tries to put a face on the recycling of the stuff that we are made from, their attempt is driven by the need to control others, to profit from the unaware.And the meek are happy to give away their fears and their money in return.
    For those who understand the biology and physics of life their is no fear, for we shall return to what we were before period.
    I believe the original portions of the bible were an attempt to relate a higher wisdom to those unaware, and was corrupted even before it was finished.

    @Scooter 142;
    Sounds like a good read,I’ll check it out.

  145. #145 Piltdown Man
    October 20, 2008

    Sastra (#88):

    The human brain evolved to follow sloppy rules of thumb and take useful short cuts in our thinking — to the detriment of accuracy. Thus, folk physics, for example, will see energy as a thing which moves stuff around with invisible power. And we have a natural tendency towards dualistic thinking. It’s easier and simpler than the truth. Enter vitalism and supernaturalism.

    “Andrew Huxley’s elder brother Julian made a similar point when, long ago, he lampooned Henri Bergson’s élan vital as tantamount to explaining that a railway engine was propelled by élan locomotif.” – Richard Dawkins

    Mind you, railway engines do have drivers …

  146. #146 Sphere Coupler
    October 20, 2008

    “I believe the original portions of the bible were an attempt to relate a higher wisdom to those unaware”.I should have said it failed because it was based upon intuition and not hard science, but it was the best those particular people could come up with.

  147. #147 Jams
    October 20, 2008

    Am I the me I’m perceiving, or am I the perception? If it’s the former I’ve died a billion times. If it’s the later, I’ve never known myself at all.

  148. #148 baryogenesis
    October 20, 2008

    I’ve known more than one railway engine driver and crew and they were all stoners…

  149. #149 bgbaysjr
    October 20, 2008

    Aaron Baker: I liked the poem, too. A meditation on the difference between “the absence of her presence” and “the presence of her absence” perhaps? Yes, that is how it feels sometimes… Glad the wine inspired you to share!

    Sui Generis @ 135: Yes, when you are in that valley, the idea of No Thing is what is so tempting… Friends and family have made staying on this side worth it for me…

    pablo @ 140: It is interesting how lots of complicated cosmologies seem compelling until you think them through. I used to believe all sorts of complicated “not-god” things before I let myself let them go. For me, it was a phase, kind of like how I used to call myself “bisexual.” (There really are bisexual people, but I am not one of them. And your friend probably really does believe his complicated thing about time, too.)

  150. #150 Laurie
    October 20, 2008

    This post reminds me of a song we used to sing in Girl Scouts which included the lines:

    The worms crawl in,
    The worms crawl out,
    The worms play pinochle on your snout
    Where will we be in 100 years from now – DEAD!

  151. #151 scooter
    October 20, 2008

    Sui @ 135: The suicides of David Foster Wallace and Spalding Gray have angered and bewildered many who wondered how could they have done that to their families.

    The sudden concern for ‘families’, where no concern for said families previously existed is rationalization and misplaced bullshit.

    Spaulding Gray’s suicide effected me personally, because he was a guy who was able to look into the abyss, and explore the depths of angst, yet make you laugh and cry about being human.

    So when he snuffed it, it was a terrifying moment, that a guy like Spaulding would choose to check out, rather than hang in there and enrich our lives further.

    It was a dark day and a revelation of my own selfishness in mourning him.

    My loss was that I wanted a world with more Spaulding Gray.

    He was a melancholy character to some degree, but he was also in real physical and psychic pain after his auto accident, so it wasn’t just about having the blues, the guy got seriously physically mangled.

    Hunter Thompson chose not to malinger in pain and hospitalization, as well as Hemingway who was suffering dementia, and a great many others who chose their time.

    Spaulding Gray was particularly upsetting to me because I met and spoke with him on a fire escape during his Monster in a Box tour, and he was just a really nice guy, not affected by celebrity at all, and was just bubbling over with compliments on my Norton Motorcycle just below us, he made me feel like a celebrity over an old gas stinking oil dripping British Bike. How cool is that?

    That’s why yall should start smoking cigarettes. You die young, but you meet the coolest people on fire escapes.

    I did this tribute the week of his death:
    http://acksisofevil.org/audio/spaulding.mp3

    enjoy

  152. #152 Sphere Coupler
    October 20, 2008

    @135-Sui Generis
    The way I’ve looked at this is even after a respite and the clouds are looming,it will not always be so and the sun will shine all the more brighter until there is darkness no more.
    I wrote a poem years ago.If I can remember…One of the lines said “To find life again, find something new”

  153. #153 Sphere Coupler
    October 20, 2008

    @133 Orson Zedd:
    Perhaps the test would be If the subject could remember the immediate thought process at time of transport, until then I’ve got to stick to the classical dogma that MY particles are me and the exact duplicate is a clone.

  154. #154 jeff
    October 20, 2008

    Sastra #96
    And why say that, if physicalism is all there is, “we should be zombies?” Should? Why?

    Tulse #118
    I’m pretty damn positive that the physical is all there is.

    I guess I would paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s argument, which is the probably most concise version of this argument against physical completeness that I’ve seen: In our physical system, we have everything we need to make any number of conscious brains – except for one item of information that’s missing: which of those brains is “you”? Where is that index information encoded in the physical system? It’s missing, and it’s not a trivial piece of information. Reality would be completely different if you were an alien in another galaxy, or a dog, or some advanced computer, or some being in another universe. There is no physical reason why reality should be experienced from your perspective instead of another’s perspective, or why this subjectivity problem should exist. Saying that you have complex brain only defers the problem to the physical brain – i.e. why this brain and not another? Other beings also have complex brains with similar mechanisms.

  155. #155 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    Jeff #85

    I don’t think my perspective here is naive.

    If you want to read some of my more elaborate arguments about consciousness, check out my blog, Specter Of Reason. (You can click on my name for the link. Also, here are links to some relevant posts: The Explanatory Gap, The Nature Of Evidence, and my three posts dealing directly with Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument: 1, 2, and 3.)

    I see you are taking some cues from Chalmers, whose perspective is overly caught up in wishful thinking. The notions of subjectivity and zombies you conjure are confused and do more to harm, rather than further, a rational discussion of consciousness.

    You confuse subjectivity and objectivity with types of experiences, as opposed to two different ways of thinking about experiences. Subjectivity and Objectivity are not ontological categories which define types of entities or kinds of experiences. By trying to define them as such, and thereby trying to define subjectivity out of the scientific picture, you are taking an antagonistic attitude towards science.

    Many people want consciousness to be something so special that it can never be explained in physical terms. And yet, there is no conceivable way that we could have evidence for something that could never be explained in physical terms.

    There is no Hard Problem of consciousness, contrary to Chalmers’ suggestion. Consciousness can be broken down into sub-processes, and so far scientists have had great success in finding physical explanations for them. (Take vision and memory, for example.) There is no sense in claiming that it is forever beyond a mechanistic or physicalistic explanation.

    You want consciousness to include some special, extra ingredient on top of all the physical stuff. That’s very similar to why a lot of people say they believe in God.

  156. #156 k9_kaos
    October 20, 2008

    I’ve always wondered… if, according to Christian doctrine, a baby dies and it goes to heaven, would it eternally have the consciousness of a baby? Or would it grow up to a certain age and then stop? What about a person 99 years old with dementia?

  157. #157 Zarquon
    October 20, 2008

    In our physical system, we have everything we need to make any number of conscious brains – except for one item of information that’s missing: which of those brains is “you”? Where is that index information encoded in the physical system?

    Only your brain has your history, your memories, that’s how you’re “you”. Nagel seems to ignore that brains grow memories and those memories are unique to each brain. I don’t know how he can overlook this obvious point, but it just makes his argument seem ridiculous.

  158. #158 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    I just tried to post a response to your earlier post, Jeff (#85), but it’s being held for approval (probably because I included several links to direct you towards further reading.)

    So, look out for that post if and when PZ decides to accept it.

    For now, lemme just comment on what you said about Nagel: It’s nonsense.

    The physical reason why I experience reality as I do has everything to do with the physical properties of my brain. You can deny that, but then you are abandoning sense.

    You can click on my name here. It will take you to one of the relevant postings on my blog about this subject.

    PS – I was more expecting you to bring up Chalmers, as opposed to Nagel. But they’re both together on this absurd attitude towards subjectivity. More about that in the post that I already wrote. (I can post a version of that other post without all the links, if you don’t want to wait for it.)

  159. #159 Bogans
    October 20, 2008

    Why are so many atheists here afraid of death? If death is nothingness then there is literally nothing to be afraid of. Personally I have no fear of death itself at all, though I do fear the actual process of dying.

  160. #160 MartinB
    October 20, 2008

    @jeff#154
    “which of those brains is “you”?”

    I think that question is a fallacy – allof them are “you”. There is no “You” independent of the brains so that it is added somehow to the brain to make it “you”. We all ask ourselves questions like “Why am I me?” (Hope this makes sense.) It is all completely symmetric.

    It’s like the person sitting on the beach watching the sunset and seeing the sun’s reflection on the water and thinking “How lucky I am that this golden bridge of sunlight on the water points directly at me.”

    Reality is experienced from all brains in existence simultaneously and each of them asks itself “Why am I me” – but there is really no meaning to this question, once you accept that there is nothing “external” added to the brain.

  161. #161 bgbaysjr
    October 20, 2008

    Jeff @ 154:

    I guess I would paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s argument, which is the probably most concise version of this argument against physical completeness that I’ve seen: In our physical system, we have everything we need to make any number of conscious brains – except for one item of information that’s missing: which of those brains is “you”?

    If I understand the argument, it sounds like you (and Nagel, whom I have not read) are saying that “I” am something that rides around in this body, but that “I” could be in any one of a number of other bodies? But it seems to me that “I” am something that has emerged from the interaction of this particular brain that has had this particular set of experiences. The “index information” is in this brain, now.

    It is almost, but not quite, a tautology: I am in this brain, because this brain contains what we call “me.” I am a phenotype — the result of these particular genes and these particular environment, which has produced this particular brain. Changes the genes, change the environment, and “I” will never have existed.

    When I was very young, I used to imagine, “what if I were Chinese?” or “what if I had been born in Ancient Egypt?” I eventually understood that I would not be “me” if I had been born a different sex or gender, I would not be “me” if I had been born in a different time or different country.

    Nor, for that matter, am I the same “me” that I was 10 or 40 years ago. There is no eternal “me” independent of biology or history. And, no, I don’t think there is an eternal “you” either.

  162. #162 aarrgghh
    October 20, 2008

    jeff @ 154: In our physical system, we have everything we need to make any number of conscious brains – except for one item of information that’s missing: which of those brains is “you”?

    the simple answer is that “you” is a byproduct of the ongoing processes of the physical mind as it experiences time. sorta like software.

    in a sense we all start with a bit of physical firmware, which boots up its software at birth, and that software accumulates data through experience and upgrades itself. depending on the particular circumstances of the time and place of birth and the particular experiences of each individual leading up to the present, successive upgrades will produce increasingly divergent and unique programs, that is, “you”.

  163. #163 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    Sastra #88

    You’ve said nothing to alleviate my concern that this article is based on poor reasoning and a severe lack of evidence. And you haven’t shown anything to counter any of my points about that. Your comments about folk psychology were not instructive.

  164. #164 bgbaysjr
    October 20, 2008

    k9_kaos @ 155:

    I think that according to some flavors of Christianity, everyone gets to be about 30ish? And healthy…

  165. #165 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    Lemme just clarify my main point, Sastra (re #88):

    The article claims that, because consciousness never involves an experience of our own extinction, and because we cannot imagine feeling non-existence, we cannot conceive of our own mortality.

    Of course this is bunk, because first of all, we can very well conceive of our own mortality. And second of all, because conceiving of our own mortality has nothing at all to do withing imagining the feeling of non-existence.

    What the author does is make one trivial point–that experience is contingent upon our own existence–and then engages in poor reasoning to implicate the nature of consciousness.

    I think my explanation for why it is hard to imagine our own non-existence is much more elegant and less hostile to reason. (See comment # 44.)

  166. #166 Enrique
    October 20, 2008

    In a way, I tend to agree with Bering.
    Since my wife and I live abroad, during the first years of my daughter’s life she was not exposed to any indoctrination on the after life by our relatives (mostly believers themselves) or the school. Moreover, when she realised about death (quite precouciously, at about 2 and half), we never hid that we thought that it was the end. I must stress the fact that even if we do not hide our atheism/agnosticism from her, we let her take and drop wherever came to her in terms of religion, as in any other field of life. We think that she’ll grow out of it anyway as we both did, especially since the climate in Belgium is not particularly propitious for the blooming of believers.
    However, before she turned four she started to fear death, because she would not see us anymore ever (in fact, her thoughts were quite heartbreakingly expressed) but, and here comes my agreement with Bering, she sometimes expressed her desolation at being there alone, in her grave, with nobody else around. We told her that she shouldn’t worry about that, ’cause once you’re dead you don’t feel anything but (understandably?) it didn’t seem to work.
    Now that she’s 6 and more acquainted with religion (how couldn’t she) she sometimes says that she believes God existed, but He’s dead by now anyway: how could He be alive if He was killed (in the Cross, she means)? In her, interestingly for me who was brought up as a Catholic, ideas about death and about religion are still clearly separated.
    So, I think that something in our minds has probably a problem with the idea of our conscience ending for good. I tend to think it’s somewhat related to the need for self-preservation.
    Anyway, I personally prefer my second child understanding of death: when he was three and came across a cat overrun by a car, he looked philosophically at it and told me (I had not said a thing yet): don’t worry, dad, he’s dead now, but his friends will come and fix him later.
    You’ll excuse my not disappointing him at the time.

  167. #167 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    Jeff #85

    I’ve taken out the links, so you can read my response without having to wait for PZ’s approval.

    The notions of subjectivity and zombies you conjure are confused and do more to harm, rather than further, a rational discussion of consciousness.

    You confuse subjectivity and objectivity with types of experiences, as opposed to ways of thinking about experiences. By trying to define subjectivity as a category of experience or existence, you are trying to define subjectivity out of the scientific picture. No amount of evidence or reason can support that, as it only serves to provoke an antagonistic attitude towards science.

    Many people want consciousness to be something so special that it can never be explained in physical terms. And yet, there is no conceivable way that we could have evidence for something that could never be explained in physical terms.

    There is no Hard Problem of consciousness, contrary to Chalmers’ suggestion. Consciousness can be broken down into sub-processes, and so far scientists have had great success in finding physical explanations for them. (Take vision and memory, for example.) There is no sense in claiming that it is forever beyond a mechanistic or physicalistic explanation.

    You want consciousness to include some special, extra ingredient on top of all the physical stuff. That’s very similar to why a lot of people say they believe in God.

    PS – If you click on my name this time, you’ll be taken to another one of my relevant blog entries on this subject.

  168. #168 craig
    October 20, 2008

    Asking where the “me” goes when the brain comes apart is like asking where the picture goes when a mosaic comes apart.

  169. #169 Sphere Coupler
    October 20, 2008

    @161
    Its easy to use analogy to formulate a computer program that fits our human system after all we are the designers of computers,the trick is designing computers that do not mimic and therefore have no analogy.

    If humanity survives to a point where he no longer remembers what it took to create a computer, do you think the age old question “did god create man or did man create god” be replaced with did computer create man or did man create computer? Or how about which was created first man or computer? Man, future generations could be quite fucked up.
    Goodnight, or more accurately good morning.

  170. #170 Didac
    October 20, 2008

    Danton answered to the judge when asked about residence: “Now, the prison. Soon, the Nothing. And after that, the Glory”. Of course, the Glory of Danton was supposed to be in the minds of posterity. I exist in my mind, and so as longer as I can think, I can exist. But I also exist in the mind of others, and so longer as they can think of me, I can exist. But this kind of existence is a reflectance… in the same way a living being can persist in the form of a fossil.

    Some people, like Klaus, have talked about the anguish at the thinking of post-death non-existence. Well, Epicurus or Aurelius would ask, are we supposed to be anguished by our pre-birth non-existence? Are we supposed to be anguished while we sleep?

    As a conscious subunits of the universe we have a tiny space-time dimension. Tiny in regard to the universe, but giant in regard to the truly non-existence of non-sentient objects.

  171. #171 craig
    October 20, 2008

    I’m not afraid of being dead. If anything I’m just afraid of having to know that I am seconds away from death. And pain.

    I don’t know if my experience is typical, but I think the reason I am not afraid of death is because I had to face it early on. Near death experiences, severe physical injuries and pain, head injuries, amnesia and “missing time” where I didn’t exist from my own point of view anyway… all during my teens.
    Traumatic, I have PTSD… but when you are forced to face the reality of your own mortality so early, you learn to accept it and before too long it’s mundane and barely worth thinking about. It’s the crap that happens while you’re alive that intimidates you. Living well. What’s scary is wasting the time you have.

    Meanwhile I see religious types and other death deniers skating through life not seeming to spend much time thinking about whether their actions are destructive or hurtful of others or a waste of their own time or precious resources… terrified of the thought of their own deaths and living their lives as if they are immortal.

  172. #172 k9_kaos
    October 20, 2008

    whomever1 posted:
    “Or–tangentially related–I’m reminded of Timoty Leary’s statement that we’d all experience eternity as we died–but it would only take up 2 minutes real time as our brain shut down.”

    Are you talking about weird relativistic-like effects, like a space traveller experiencing himself plunge into a black hole within minutes, but observers on Earth seeing him take forever?

    That is seriously creepy.

    But if that were true, would it mean that the start of our consciousness would have a similar effect? That would mean that we have always lived, and will always live. For example, when a foetus — who has, at the time, an under-developed brain — is in the womb and the mother feels it kicking its foot for one second, the foetus experiences this for, say, 10 minutes!

    Excuse me while I pick my brain up from the floor.

  173. #173 aarrgghh
    October 20, 2008

    The article claims that, because consciousness never involves an experience of our own extinction, and because we cannot imagine feeling non-existence, we cannot conceive of our own mortality.

    my take on the article doesn’t go quite that far. i think that the argument was that the impossibility of experiencing nonexistence makes it difficult for your average person to fully appreciate the concept.

    we can entertain it intellectually, but it sits in a conceptual “blind spot” and is generally unpleasant to think about, which makes most people susceptible to the illusion of immortality and prey to hucksters with an “afterlife” to sell.

  174. #174 aarrgghh
    October 20, 2008

    me @ 172: we can entertain it intellectually, but it sits in a conceptual “blind spot” and is generally unpleasant to think about, which makes most people susceptible to the illusion of immortality and prey to hucksters with an “afterlife” to sell.

    that should be more precisely written: we can conceive of it intellectually, but it sits in an experiential “blind spot” and is generally unpleasant to think about, which makes most people susceptible to the more pleasant illusion of immortality and prey to hucksters with an “afterlife” to sell.

  175. #175 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    aarrgghh #172

    “i think that the argument was that the impossibility of experiencing nonexistence makes it difficult for your average person to fully appreciate the concept.”

    I don’t think so.

    Before making the comment I already quoted, the author says that belief in an afterlife is “an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness.”

    Then, in the section entitled “Curiously Immortal,” he talks about how people inevitably fail when they try to regard non-existence as a positive quality, as something one should theoretically be able to feel. He says how much of a struggle it is to try to imagine what it feels like to not exist.

    Then he goes on to argue that even people who profess an extinctivist attitude make the mistake of assuming continuity.

    In sum, I don’t think the argument in the article is as you would like it to be.

  176. #176 Arnosium Upinarum
    October 20, 2008

    On the common notion of having been dead before one is born? The threat of oblivion can’t be appreciated unless one is alive. Even then, nothingness isn’t something that can be sensed and therefore “it” cannot be known; it can only be referred to. We simply don’t exist where or when we are not, before or after we live.

    The most tragic aspect of sentience is the realization of the inevitability of death. It’s probably a universal affliction. Here on Earth it scares the shit out of kids and they carry the fear throughout adulthood to their graves. Everybody is terrified of the thought of dying in their own arms. Adopting an after-life myth is one way they cope with their debilitating fear. Religion has had a monopoly on the sale of their particular product, which is strongly fortified with superstition, mystical and supernatural ingredients. These sell them the idea that some divine uber-parent has made special arrangements just for them that will permit them to continue to live on indefinitely, somehow, as themselves.

    But there’s another way, another story: we can push the Copernican perspective to the hilt and note that the universe doesn’t revolve around each of us, that our personal identities are not so special after all, and that the pesky selfish “I” or “we” concept dissolves into a flurry of particles, stars and galaxies.

    If I – defined as a vanishingly tiny but distinguishable part of the universe – will at some future time no longer exist, then I am perfectly prepared to identify with that which preceded and survives me.

    It’s NOT “me” anymore, but so what? Vanishingly small loss. Why should “me” matter in comparison to an entire universe minus me? But it’s the only thing that persists after we die that isn’t just another arbitrary part of it. Our personal relationship with the “whole shebang” is reconsummated, one tiny raindrop out of zillions plops back down to lose it’s identity to mingle in a vast ocean of potential.

    It’s NOT me anymore, and it doesn’t matter. Being a whole universe of potential ain’t bad. Of course, the former me won’t have any part to play in it: I’m gone. But I’ll take that over the silly fairy stories anytime.

    “I don’t mind dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

    – Woddy Allen

  177. #177 Anonymous
    October 20, 2008

    Uh, that’s “WOODY Allen”. Shhesh.

  178. #178 scooter
    October 20, 2008

    When you die, you’re dead, that’s all.

    No preposterously over sized, self reflecting ape brain freak of nature is going to alter the obvious age old observation.

    When you die, you’re dead.

    It’s a very recent concept that when you die, you’re not dead and you’re not food for scavengers.

    Which has been bad news for scavengers, especially since humans number in the billions, an excellent source of proteins.

    I’d like for my corpse to be eaten by wolves, coyotes, maggots, possums and various fauna relatives when I die, instead of being buried or burned.

    I spent a lifetime creating all these easily digestible amino acids and munchy tasty flesh for our bacterial and mammalian brothers and sisters, and all the creatures in between.

    Unfortunately my idiot primate species is horrified by the flies in my eyes and the circle of life, despite the Disney Lion King Movies.
    ________________________________
    Jeff Tamblyn ‘Kansas vs Darwin’ on Texas radio

  179. #179 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I will have ceased to exist.

    In both your question and answer, you have assumed that “I” is something distinct from your body. Our use of “self” language is actually highly ambiguous in this regard — “I went to the store” or “I’m in California” are not statements about a mental process, but rather about a physical body — consider “he’s in California, but he’s comatose”. Thus, when I die, I’ll be wherever my body is (but my brain won’t be functioning and so I will have no mental states). If my body is destroyed, then I will have ceased to exist.

  180. #180 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    The article claims that, because consciousness never involves an experience of our own extinction, and because we cannot imagine feeling non-existence, we cannot conceive of our own mortality.

    No it doesn’t.

    Then he goes on to argue that even people who profess an extinctivist attitude make the mistake of assuming continuity.

    Some do. (Specifically, “many … occasionally” do.)

  181. #181 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Asking where the “me” goes when the brain comes apart is like asking where the picture goes when a mosaic comes apart.

    That’s like where does your face go after the worms eat it, which isn’t what the mystics have trouble with. The analogy I use is the whirring of a fan when you turn off the power — like the mind, it’s a process.

  182. #182 John Morales
    October 20, 2008

    tm @#198: “In both your question and answer, you have assumed that “I” is something distinct from your body.”

    I can’t say I’d considered the matter before, but my first thought is that “I” refers to my consciousness more so than the substrate that supports my consciousness. I suppose, technically, I am both my body and my mind; whether the two can be separated is, as far as I know, so far speculative.

    Still, it’s something I might ponder tonight as I fall asleep …

  183. #183 aarrgghh
    October 20, 2008

    to jason streitfeld @ 174

    perhaps it’s past time i slept, but i fail to grasp how your formulation:

    Then, in the section entitled “Curiously Immortal,” he talks about how people inevitably fail when they try to regard non-existence as a positive quality, as something one should theoretically be able to feel. He says how much of a struggle it is to try to imagine what it feels like to not exist.

    differs from mine @ 172:

    i think that the argument was that the impossibility of experiencing nonexistence makes it difficult for your average person to fully appreciate the concept.

    it’s the nub of the argument.

  184. #184 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I guess I would paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s argument, which is the probably most concise version of this argument against physical completeness that I’ve seen: In our physical system, we have everything we need to make any number of conscious brains – except for one item of information that’s missing: which of those brains is “you”? Where is that index information encoded in the physical system? It’s missing, and it’s not a trivial piece of information. Reality would be completely different if you were an alien in another galaxy, or a dog, or some advanced computer, or some being in another universe. There is no physical reason why reality should be experienced from your perspective instead of another’s perspective, or why this subjectivity problem should exist. Saying that you have complex brain only defers the problem to the physical brain – i.e. why this brain and not another? Other beings also have complex brains with similar mechanisms.

    It’s odd how some people, like Nagel and apparently like you, just can’t get anything right about this subject. The mind is what the brain does. Since there are many brains, there are many minds. Your mind is what your brain does and my mind is what my brain does. There’s no “indexing” problem, any more than there is with “Why is this Earth and not Venus”.

    As for Nagel’s “What’s it like to be a bat?”, you might as well ask what it’s like to be dead, or to be a windmill. It’s a ridiculous question because neither dead things, windmills, nor bats have the requisite cognitive structure to have the sorts of mental states that correspond to our notion of “what it’s like”.

  185. #185 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    Truth Machine #180

    If all you wish is to state your disagreement, that’s fine. You don’t have to support your “no it doesn’t” with reason or evidence. However, since I haven’t misquoted the article, your statement of disagreement is not persuasive. If you think the article makes a different argument from the one I think it does, please provide us with some evidence (a quote, perhaps) that demonstrates the fact.

  186. #186 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I can’t say I’d considered the matter before, but my first thought is that “I” refers to my consciousness more so than the substrate that supports my consciousness.

    Um, as I just noted, it’s ambiguous. We use self terms both to refer to minds and to refer to bodies.

    I suppose, technically, I am both my body and my mind; whether the two can be separated is, as far as I know, so far speculative.

    Uh, no, it’s not speculative — minds without bodies aren’t possible, because minds are processes implemented in bodies.

  187. #187 Kitty
    October 20, 2008

    My husband and I discussed this very point at the weekend. Why have humans needed an afterlife?
    We came to two main conclusions.
    1. The thought of losing a loved one is so painful it becomes necessary to invent a place where we all meet up again. So this is the solace theory.
    2. Human ego necessitates the continuation of a part of us because it is inconceivable that such an important being ceases to exist. This is the centre of the universe theory.
    I have to take issue with Scooter about this being a recent invention, however. -

    It’s a very recent concept that when you die, you’re not dead and you’re not food for scavengers.

    Humans have protected their dead from scavengers for millennia. Also, think of the grave goods in Upper Palaeolithic burials (24,000 CE). While they may indicate no more than the status of the deceased – their relatives can afford the loss of tools, beads, weapons etc – there is also the possibility that they are provided for the comfort of the dead in another life. This idea of providing for the dead is seen throughout the archaeological record. It seems we have been wishing for more than one life for an extremely long time.

  188. #188 CosmicTeapot
    October 20, 2008

    I’ve often wondered why religious people who believe in the afterlife cry at funerals!

  189. #189 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    since I haven’t misquoted the article,

    Non sequitur. You made a statement as to what the article claims — that was not a direct quote. The burden is on you to demonstrate that it claims that.

    It would be useful to note how idiotic the title is, as it purports to explain a falsehood: that “We Can’t Imagine Death”, and then immediately makes a quite different offer, to explain “Why so many of us think our minds continue on after we die”.

  190. #190 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I’ve often wondered why religious people who believe in the afterlife cry at funerals!

    I wonder why you wonder that, since they aren’t crying in pity for the dead person, who they often say is in a better place. Both religious and non-religious people cry at funerals for the same reason — their own loss.

  191. #191 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    aarrgghh #182

    The difference is that the author doesn’t formulate it as a simple difficulty many people encounter, but rather as something inevitably produced by consciousness itself.

    Just look at the “key concepts” that head the article:

    ” * Almost everyone has a tendency to imagine the mind continuing to exist after the death of the body.
    * Even people who believe the mind ceases to exist at death show this type of psychological-continuity reasoning in studies.
    * Rather than being a by-product of religion or an emotional security blanket, such beliefs stem from the very nature of our consciousness.”

    Later, in the article, the author specifically claims that the problem here is the result of how consciousness has evolved.

    And, frankly, the “simulation-constraint” hypothesis seems a little stupid to me. Because, as I noted already, the ability to conceive of mortality is in no way dependent on our ability to simulate nothingness.

    In a nutshell, I think the author is confusing a very simple situation.

  192. #192 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    truth machine #188

    My point was that my interpretation of the article has been supported by quotes and direct references to the text. Since I have not misquoted or misrepresented the text, your statement of disagreement is rather weak.

    See my most recent post to aarrgghh (#190) for more about this.

  193. #193 John Morales
    October 20, 2008

    tm:

    … minds without bodies aren’t possible, because minds are processes implemented in bodies.

    Quite so – I was imprecise.

    I was referring to the concept of the mind being “software” (suggesting the possibility of instancing it on different “hardware” – e.g. the SF trope of uploading or the horror trope of bodysnatching).

  194. #194 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    PZ wrote: “We never personally experience the extinction of our consciousness, of course, except for the limited loss of sleep — and we always wake up from that (at least, until the last time), so we at least have personal evidence that would inductively imply immortality.”

    The lack of personal experience with our own extinction does not inductively imply, or even suggest, immortality. There is no basis for any inductive argument here, so far as I can tell. Perhaps PZ would like to clarify his position on this one, because it doesn’t seem to make sense as stated.

    You’re not trying hard enough. If, every time we lose consciousness, we regain it, then by induction we always regain it — this is the same sort of argument that Russell’s turkey made: every day, the farmer fed it well, so it concluded that the farmer would always feed it well. Of course, it’s proven wrong on Thanksgiving Day. As Hume noted, such empirical induction isn’t deductively valid. But humans do all sorts of reasoning that isn’t deductively valid, with various degrees of reliability.

  195. #195 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    If you want to imagine what it is like to stop existing, first picture the world exactly as it is now. Now take yourself out of the picture.

    Fail if you can still see the picture.

  196. #196 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    My point was that my interpretation of the article has been supported by quotes and direct references to the text. Since I have not misquoted or misrepresented the text, your statement of disagreement is rather weak.

    Sigh. Whether your interpretation is a misrepresentation is precisely the issue, so it won’t do to beg the question by simply claiming that you’re right.

  197. #197 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    Truth Machine #193

    What about all the evidence that suggests we are mortal?

    Sure, if you ignore all the evidence that we are mortal, then our experience inductively implies that we are immortal. But I do not see the value of making this observation.

  198. #198 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I was referring to the concept of the mind being “software” (suggesting the possibility of instancing it on different “hardware” – e.g. the SF trope of uploading or the horror trope of bodysnatching).

    If the mind is a process with a finite description, then it is necessarily instantiable in any sufficiently powerful “substrate” — that’s not speculation, it’s a theorem. The only way to dodge this is by refusing to be precise about what is meant by a mind, but that’s rather pathetic.

    As for “bodysnatching”, if that means replacing your mind with another — since the mind is what the brain does, that is tantamount to modifying the brain. We already do that with drugs, surgery, propaganda …

  199. #199 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    What about all the evidence that suggests we are mortal?

    Um, didn’t I just say that “humans do all sorts of reasoning that isn’t deductively valid, with various degrees of reliability”? Obviously, ignoring such evidence is unreliable reasoning, but it doesn’t stop people from doing it.

    Sure, if you ignore all the evidence that we are mortal, then our experience inductively implies that we are immortal. But I do not see the value of making this observation.

    There’s a lot that you don’t see (except a picture of the world even though you’re dead, ascribing mental states to dead people as the article suggests). PZ said there’s an inductive argument; you said that doesn’t make sense. Now you say pointing it out isn’t valuable — not the same thing — moving goalposts.

  200. #200 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    truth machine #194

    You said, “Fail if you can still see the picture.”

    You mean that, if I can actually imagine (“see”) the world without myself existing in it, then I have failed to conceive of my own mortality?

    What planet of unreason are you from?

    As for your post #195 . . .

    Do you actually wish to criticize me for referencing the many times I’ve supported my interpretation with direct references and quotations? You are capable of better than that, I think.

    Now, if you’d like to offer a different interpretation of this article–one supported by references to the text–then be my guest. If not, then please choose somebody else to be the victim of your abuse.

  201. #201 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    except a picture of the world even though you’re dead, ascribing mental states to dead people as the article suggests

    BTW, this is the heart of what PZ called an inductive argument — no matter how we go about imagining a world without us, there’s always a point of view. What we need to imagine is not a world with us missing, but the absence of our cognition — the world is irrelevant (some people imagine themselves floating disembodied in nothingness — no world, but they are still there). It really isn’t possible to do that as long as we cognizing. We can conceive of not existing — it’s a possible state of affairs — but we can’t actually imagine it.

  202. #202 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    “PZ said there’s an inductive argument; you said that doesn’t make sense. Now you say pointing it out isn’t valuable — not the same thing — moving goalposts.”

    I’m not moving goalposts. I’m saying that what you are calling “evidence for an inductive argument” is a load of bull fertilizer.

    If I want to ignore evidence, I can make similar “inductive arguments” for all sorts of crap. Look, the fact that I’ve never experienced the death of my cat Malina is evidence for an inductive argument that Malina is immortal, despite the fact that I’ve seen lots of other cats die.

    It’s a load of crap. Why dignify it by calling it “evidence” for anything? Why pretend it is anything more than the absurdity that it is?

    Sure, in general, inductive reasoning is problematic. Generally, inductive arguments are a valuable way of formulating hypotheses which can later be tested deductively. But if you actually ignore evidence, you are not providing evidence for an inductive argument. You are simply being stupid.

  203. #203 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    What planet of unreason are you from? …
    victim of your abuse

    Fuck off, hypocrite. I’m sorry I wasted my time on you.

  204. #204 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    truth machine #200

    Imaginging the absence of cognition does not require us to stop cognizing. We can imagine things without manifesting their reality. (It’s what makes fantasy possible, after all.)

  205. #205 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I had a revelation once laying in bed, that after my death, I am no more. That there would be no spirit of mine hovering above my family grieving over my death; no floating around, and so on. Just nothing (which is in itself impossible to think of. It’s not even blackness!). It was a horrifiying experience. Since then, I try to avoid letting this matter slip to deep into my conscious thinking; that I am able to write about it now so freely is a strong display of denial. I love my mind!

    It is indeed impossible to think of, because you’re trying to think of what it would like to be dead, when it wouldn’t be like anything. But the horror is misplaced — as long as you have a mind, you can’t lack it, and when you lack it, you aren’t capable of horror — or anything else.

  206. #206 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Imaginging the absence of cognition does not require us to stop cognizing

    It’s impossible to accurately imagine the absence of your own mind.

    But I don’t expect you to grasp this. Goodbye.

  207. #207 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    Very eloquent, truth machine. I’m sure you’ve had better days.

  208. #208 John Morales
    October 20, 2008

    tm@197:

    If the mind is a process with a finite description, then it is necessarily instantiable in any sufficiently powerful “substrate” — that’s not speculation, it’s a theorem.

    The big “if”! I’m not an extropian, but given that “if” it does seem to show a possible method of trascending the death of the original body (ie. continuing the existence of the self/consciousness). So, there’s perhaps hope for an “afterlife” even if one is not a dualist.

    re: bodysnatching trope – examples: Dog-Face Joe in The Anubis Gates (Tim Powers) or The Thing on the Doorstep (HP Lovecraft). Not at all credible, but creepy fiction and conceptually interesting (to me, anyway).
    There’s many more of course.

  209. #209 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Very eloquent, truth machine. I’m sure you’ve had better days.

    I wasn’t aiming at elegance, asshole, and lack of eloquence is no flaw when that’s not the aim, idiot.

  210. #210 CosmicTeapot
    October 20, 2008

    TM @189

    Exactly. I, as an atheist, grieve for the loss of someone because I know they are dead.

    But a religious person believes they have gone to a better place. So why the grief? Why not joy? You never hear comments like “Lucky sod’s in heaven now”, at least not with true conviction.

    I can only presume that their instinctive knowledge of the finality of death is stronger than their belief in a better place. But a funeral is hardly the proper place to pursue this line of enquiry.

  211. #211 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    The big “if”!

    Um, did you read the part you snipped? “The only way to dodge this is by refusing to be precise about what is meant by a mind, but that’s rather pathetic.” Either the mind is a process with a finite description, or the word is being thrown around without actually meaning anything.

    but given that “if” it does seem to show a possible method of trascending the death of the original body (ie. continuing the existence of the self/consciousness). So, there’s perhaps hope for an “afterlife” even if one is not a dualist.

    Even preserving the body and, when the technology exists, repairing and restarting it gives you that. Transcending the death of the original body is no big deal metaphysically, and really isn’t what the discussion is about.

  212. #212 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    truth machine #205

    So you think it is only a matter of accuracy?

    How do you measure the difference in accuracy between my ability to imagine the Empire State Building with me in the picture, and my ability to imagine the Empire State Building after my death?

    I see no reason to think that, in order to imagine something, I must include myself as an object in the picture. And I don’t see why the accuracy of my imagination would change here.

    I can just as accurately imagine the Empire State Building with myself in the picture, and imagine it without myself in the picture.

    What I cannot imagine is what it would like to be somebody who wasn’t in the picture. But that is not require to imagine a world without me.

  213. #213 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Exactly. I, as an atheist, grieve for the loss of someone because I know they are dead.

    No, you grieve for the loss because they are unavailable to you. That’s what “loss” means.

    But a religious person believes they have gone to a better place. So why the grief? Why not joy? You never hear comments like “Lucky sod’s in heaven now”, at least not with true conviction.

    Apparently you didn’t read a word that I wrote. Go back and try again, since I already answered this.

  214. #214 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    truthmachine #202 and #208

    Dude, you’re gonna hurt your brain if you don’t chill out soon.

    You are clearly hurting because of the fact that you cannot support your “no it doesn’t” response to my interpretation of this article. Instead of simply supporting your disagreement with evidence, you’ve resorted to name calling and insults. It’s as sad as it is transparent. I know you have a brain, but you’re not using it as well as you can at the moment.

  215. #215 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    What I cannot imagine is what it would like to be somebody who wasn’t in the picture. But that is not require to imagine a world without me.

    As I said, you won’t be able to grasp this. The task wasn’t to imagine a world without you — that was your offered solution to the task, as you put it, to “imagine what it is like to stop existing”, which is a quite different matter. But your way of going about it, of getting a picture in your mind of a world without you, fails. Every picture has a point of view, an implicit observer. To succeed, you must not be an observer, at all.

  216. #216 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    you’ve resorted to name calling and insults

    You’re obviously new here.

    Moron.

  217. #217 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Would you die to save your mother/father? why or why not? Who would and wouldn’t you sacrifice yourself for?

    You’ll never know until called upon to do it.

  218. #218 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    But of course, knowing it and understanding it are two different things. I can nomore imagine myself dead, than I can imagine being a woman or a bat.

    Another person who gets right what Jason is unable to.

  219. #219 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    As an “extinctivist”, but also a Buddhist meditator I’d like to suggest that continuity of consciousness is an illusion anyway. Except perhaps in the case of being incinerated by a nuclear explosion, death would not be instantaneous, and in some sense the taste of the breath-mint would continue till the last involved neuron turned to sludge.

    Not so, any more than the whirring of a fan continues “in some sense” (what pathetic weaseling) until the last part has rusted away. And what’s so final about sludge?

  220. #220 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Once you die, you are gone. Nothing of your consciousness remains – el finito. However, a new conscious awakens. And it lives out its life. The two are not related. Both experience life first hand. Both die. But one happens after the other. And another will happen after the second. And so forth. Think of it like this – when you die, your consciousness goes into a new life, except without any of the experience, memories or development of your previous life. Now remove the fact that it’s your consciousness, and that it moves, and that a consciousness can stick around after it’s dead. And hey presto, you’ve got what I believe.

    Which is incoherent, because you said the two consciousnesses are unrelated, yet you described their relationship. Really, there’s even less reason to believe this drivel than the standard religious myths.

  221. #221 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    truthmachine #215

    I’ve seen plenty of people who , like you, are so used to being right that they cannot admit it when they’re wrong. (I mean, what? You think I’m gonna forget that you can’t support your “no it doesn’t” comment just because you keep insulting me? You think it makes you look smarter, or stronger? Get a clue, man.)

    Again, my point is that the task, as proposed, does not seem relevant to the question of why people believe in an afterlife.

    The fact that every “picture” has a point of view is irrelevant here. For one thing, thoughts are not necessarily like photographs. Imaginings can incorporate more than one perspective, and can even produce third-person perspectives.

    Despite what the author of this article says, there is no reason to think that we must simulate an experience of nothingness in order to comprehend or come to terms with the fact of our own mortality.

  222. #222 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I’d have to agree that most people, regardless of belief, have some degree of fear of death. It may be easier to say otherwise when you’re healthy and the sun is shining, but most people have a fairly strong desire to keep living, regardless of their beliefs.

    Odd that, on an evolutionary biology blog, there’s no mention of why that is.

  223. #223 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Sorry, Jason, but I’ve tired of abusing you no matter how badly you want it, and have better things to do.

  224. #224 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    I can nomore imagine myself dead, than I can imagine being a woman or a bat.

    I just don’t see the problem here. Sure, you cannot imagine being a dead person imagining you are dead, but you can imagine your own death. Just like you can imagine being a woman or a bat. Or are you siding with Nagel, too?

  225. #225 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    truthmachine #222

    No need to apologize. I will learn to live without your profound insights into the nature of my idiocy.

  226. #226 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    Sam B (#19):

    Think of it like this – when you die, your consciousness goes into a new life, except without any of the experience, memories or development of your previous life.

    In which case there is nothing that makes it your consciousness. Also, you’re committing the category mistake of treating the term “consciousness” as if it referred to a thing.

    Now remove the fact that it’s your consciousness, and that it moves, and that a consciousness can stick around after it’s dead. And hey presto, you’ve got what I believe.

    Uh, OK. So you believe in the scenario that you just described, except for the actual description.

    It’s really hard to wrap your head around, I think. Most people seem to get it to a degree. And it is kinda logical, I guess.

    Sorry, but it’s not even coherent. Could you try explaining it again, only without the self-contradiction?

  227. #227 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    Marek14 (#37):

    or equation so close to mine that I will never notice a difference

    And who or what exactly is the “I” doing the noticing here?

    Can you tell me if this line of thinking is right, and if it’s not, where’s the error?

    Your error is to confuse qualitative identity (sameness of type or description) with quantitative or numerical identity (sameness of token or individual). You and your quantum duplicate are two distinct entities – you are not he/she, he/she is not you.

    This is probably one of the most common mistakes people make vis a vis the problem of personal identity over time – the failure to appreciate that duplication does not preserve personal identity. It may be comforting to think that a duplicate of yourself may exist after you are gone, someone who shares your goals and values and interests, and it is not unreasonable to be comforted by the thought, if the alternative is the loss from the universe of said goals, values and interests. But (by definition) your duplicate is not the same individual as you.

  228. #228 Ginger Yellow
    October 20, 2008

    Wowbagger: Funnily enough, I was reminded of another passage from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

    Ros: Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occured to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering. Stamped into one’s memory. And yet, I can’t remember it. It never occured to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squawling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, theres only one direction. And time is its only measure.

  229. #229 Ginger Yellow
    October 20, 2008

    Also:

    Ros: Did you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?
    Guil: No.
    Ros: Nor do I, really. It’s silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead, which should make all the difference, shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like you were asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you. Not without any air. You’d wake up dead, for a start, and then where would you be? In a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it. Because you’d be helpless, wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that. I mean, you’d be in there forever, even taking into account the fact that you’re dead. It isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead, really. Ask yourself, if I asked you straight off, “I’m going to stuff you in this box. Now, would you rather be alive or dead?” Naturally, you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You’d have a chance, at least. You could lie there thinking, “Well. At least I’m not dead. In a minute somebody is going to bang on the lid, and tell me to come out.” [bangs on lid] “Hey, you! What’s your name? Come out of there!”
    [Long pause]
    Guil: I think I’m going to kill you.

  230. #230 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    Marek14 (#59):

    However, I certainly don’t claim that I would consider this form of quantum immortality desirable. For one thing, if you come back to life via quantum fluke, there will be most likely no other living being anywhere near.

    And in what way is this thing “you”? All you’re describing is a quantum version of a Boltzmann Brain which just happens to have the same psychological configuration as you did at one point in your life. There’s no actual continuity between you and it, just a random convergence of states.

  231. #231 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    craig (#113):

    The whole continuity issue is why I would NEVER go in a Star-Trek style transporter.

    Thank you. There have been times when I though I was the only person who actually understood this.

  232. #232 Tony
    October 20, 2008

    Hi PZ – great article. One person raised the subject of cryonics and I wonder if you had any informed thoughts on that practice? If there’s nothing on “the other side”, I’d just as well prefer to stick around here a little longer if they ever make that science (?) work. ha!

    What do you think?

  233. #233 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    aarrgghh (#117):

    besides, if people in the trek universe understood that the transporter killed and copied them, no one would actually use the thing. nobody.

    The Star Trek transporter is primarily a plot device designed to move narratives along – one wouldn’t expect the characters of the universe to react to it in a way that defeated its purpose (unless they’re Reg Barclay, who was actually right about transporters but portrayed as a gibbering neurotic so that the characters and the audience didn’t have to take him seriously).

    In any case, it was known within the universe that transporters could duplicate people – there were two Rikers running around for several years. It’s just that no-one put two and two together and realised that the only reason that the transporter wasn’t creating obvious duplicates every time it was used, was because it was destroying the originals.

    And now I’m appalled that so much of this is still fresh in my mind …

  234. #234 John C. Randolph
    October 20, 2008

    Jason,

    “Truth Machine” is a narcissist who habitually gets snotty with anyone who disagrees with him.

    so used to being right that they cannot admit it when they’re wrong

    I wouldn’t describe it as “used to being right”. More like, he has a massive ego investment in believing that he’s always right, so he lashes out at anyone who dares to gainsay that assumption.

    -jcr

  235. #235 John C. Randolph
    October 20, 2008

    Good for you John! I’m an organ donor too.

    Thanks, but I don’t think it’s particularly praiseworthy. I figure that once I’m dead, I don’t care much what happens to any of my property, starting with my carcass. I would like to see to it that any financial assets I have end up in the hands of people who will use them for worthwhile purposes.

    -jcr

  236. #236 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    Tulse (#118):

    Because if physicalism is correct, then there should be no need for a notion of “mind” (in the subjective sense) any more than the notion of “motive force” for a car, or “vitalism” for organisms?

    Hmm. That’s bit like saying that if cell theory is correct, then there should be no need for the notion of “organisms”. Being able to account for a system at one level of description does not necessarily invalidate other levels of description of the same system, even levels which are not readily reduced to more basic levels.

    The intentional stance is always going to be invaluable in predicting and explaining the behaviour of agents. Recognising that agents are physical things operating by physical mechanisms doesn’t change this.

  237. #237 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    Orson Zedd (#133):

    Are you the molecules that were destroyed, or is what is essentially you the pattern they are in?

    Neither. You’re the physical entity (specifically the metazoan of the species Homo sapiens) whose molecules are arranged in that particular pattern. You are, if you like, a token of the type defined by that pattern.

    If it’s just the pattern, you aren’t really dying, because you just got reassembled, even if you are a duplicate and the original was destroyed.

    Strictly speaking, if “you” are the pattern then “you” were never disassembled or reassembled in the first place – it was the body that previously instantiated that pattern that was destroyed, and a new body instantiating that pattern assembled. The actual pattern remains unchanged by the process. Basically, if the pronoun “you” refers to the pattern, then all “you” are is a template for bodies – a type, not a token, a generic abstract entity rather than a specific concrete one.

    Which strikes me as being a good reason for rejecting this characterisation of a person-as-pattern as constituting a form of category mistake.

  238. #238 John C. Randolph
    October 20, 2008

    Regarding transporters as a science fiction premise, I find it far more interesting to read stories exploring the effects of them on society than pondering whether you get killed and resurrected if you use one.

    Many years ago, I had a book that was a collection of stories in that vein, dealing with things like the problem of thousands of people showing up to gawk anytime something interesting hits the news, or how to investigate a murder when anyone at all has the opportunity to pop in from the other side of the world, commit the crime, and then pop back in the time it would take for them to go to the restroom.

    The really fascinating question of transporters for me though, is what happens if transportation is not only instantaneous, but is available for negligible cost. Would we keep living in cities? Would we even stay on Earth?

    -jcr

  239. #239 Steve
    October 20, 2008

    truth machine

    “death would not be instantaneous, and in some sense the taste of the breath-mint would continue till the last involved neuron turned to sludge”.

    Back in 1905, a physician named Beaurieux experimented with the head of a recently guillotined prisoner named Henri Languille. Here’s his account of the experiment.

    “I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. [...] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: ‘Languille!’ I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

    Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again[...].

    It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead”.

    Certainly enough time for a quick mint.

  240. #240 Iain Walker
    October 20, 2008

    John C. Randolph (#238):

    The really fascinating question of transporters for me though, is what happens if transportation is not only instantaneous, but is available for negligible cost. Would we keep living in cities?

    I would, and as close to the centre as possible, so that all the necessary amenities were within walking distance.

  241. #241 Jams
    October 20, 2008

    “I figure that once I’m dead, I don’t care much what happens to any of my property, starting with my carcass.” – John C.

    Yeah, I got totally bitten by POE’s law. When asked if I wanted to donate my corpse to science, I said yes, then, in what I thought was a joking way, said: “I’ll be dead first though, right?” The very nice lady behind the counter began, in hushed gravely serious tones, explaining to me how much caution is exercised when determining the moment of death. I had to stop her and tell her I was just joking. She noticeably relaxed and assured she gets that question posed seriously several times a day. Most who ask, apparently, end up not going for it.

    I try imagining myself in a world where people will stop themselves from murdering you for organs because you haven’t checked off the organ doner box, but I just can’t manage to get there from here.

  242. #242 Laser Potato
    October 20, 2008

    ["Truth Machine" is a narcissist who habitually gets snotty with anyone who disagrees with him.]
    POP goes projection!

  243. #243 AAB
    October 20, 2008

    After I die I will be exactly where I was before I was born: nowhere.

  244. #244 Notkieran
    October 20, 2008

    Marek14@#27:

    >So I’m forced into accepting result that in infinite universe I have to live forever as a series of vastly improbable quantum flukes.

    >Can you tell me if this line of thinking is right, and if it’s not, where’s the error?

    But the universe is not infinite; it has a finite size.

    Consider that the quantum state of you at any instant is a time-independent Schrodinger wave function.

    But that wave function is comprised of the superposition of every single particle in your body.

    Consider even 1 mole of matter– let us try Carbon-12, and so that would be 12g of carbon, a small portion of your body.

    That is 6 x 10^23 atoms, or 18 particles (treating each nucleon as a single particle).

    If each particle’s wavefunction has only two possible settings, we’re already talking about more possibilities than there are particles in the entire universe.

    And all that in just 12g of matter.

    The big numbers in cosmology shrink to insignificance when compared to the number of possible quantum states in a normal, everyday object. Why else do you think quantum computing is getting to be such a big deal?

  245. #245 Notkieran
    October 20, 2008

    JCR:

    You’re talking about Harry Harrison’s “One Step from Earth”? Or Larry Niven’s “The Flight of the Horse”?

    Just curious.

  246. #246 Northern Virginia
    October 20, 2008

    I like what an author I heard interviewed on NPR (god bless it!) said: “I’ll live as long as my grandchildren remember me – and, I’m doing my damnedest to make sure they don’t forget me!”

  247. #247 Tulse
    October 20, 2008
    Tulse (#118):
    Because if physicalism is correct, then there should be no need for a notion of “mind” (in the subjective sense) any more than the notion of “motive force” for a car, or “vitalism” for organisms?

    Hmm. That’s bit like saying that if cell theory is correct, then there should be no need for the notion of “organisms”.

    No, since “organisms” can be perfectly described without resort to some non-physical notion, unlike “vitalism” or “motive force” or “subjective states”.

    Being able to account for a system at one level of description does not necessarily invalidate other levels of description of the same system, even levels which are not readily reduced to more basic levels.

    Sure.

    The intentional stance is always going to be invaluable in predicting and explaining the behaviour of agents. Recognising that agents are physical things operating by physical mechanisms doesn’t change this.

    Intentionality is not the same as subjectivity — there is no reason that intentional states have to be accompanied by any sort of conscious subjective experience, and indeed, we can successfully take the “intentional stance” with objects that we are damn sure don’t have subjective states (e.g., plants “desire” sunlight, a thermostat “wants” to keep the temperature at a certain value). Even if one can provide some sort of physical bridge to intentionality, that still does not explain why some (and indeed, only some) of those intentional states are associated with subjective experience (or why some subjective experiences have no intentional content, such as raw qualia — what is the intentional content of the experience of blue?).

  248. #248 Tulse
    October 20, 2008
    Tulse (#118):
    Because if physicalism is correct, then there should be no need for a notion of “mind” (in the subjective sense) any more than the notion of “motive force” for a car, or “vitalism” for organisms?

    Hmm. That’s bit like saying that if cell theory is correct, then there should be no need for the notion of “organisms”.

    No, since “organisms” can be perfectly described as collections of cells without resort to some non-physical notion, unlike “vitalism” or “motive force” or “subjective states”.

    Being able to account for a system at one level of description does not necessarily invalidate other levels of description of the same system, even levels which are not readily reduced to more basic levels.

    Sure.

    The intentional stance is always going to be invaluable in predicting and explaining the behaviour of agents. Recognising that agents are physical things operating by physical mechanisms doesn’t change this.

    Intentionality is not the same as subjectivity — there is no reason that intentional states have to be accompanied by any sort of first-person conscious subjective experience, and indeed, we can, from the objective third person, successfully take the “intentional stance” with objects that we are damn sure don’t have subjective states (e.g., plants “desire” sunlight, a thermostat “wants” to keep the temperature at a certain value). Indeed, the whole notion of the “intentional stance”, as I understand it, is that it is something we can assign from a third-person point of view (in other words, a “stance”) and that we do so purely because of its utility, and not because of its truth.

    So, even if one can provide some sort of physical bridge to intentionality, that still does not explain why some (and indeed, only some) of those intentional states are associated with subjective experience (or why some subjective experiences have no intentional content, such as raw qualia — what is the intentional content of the experience of blue?).

  249. #249 Catherine
    October 20, 2008

    Re: #1, I’m an atheist, and I’m terrified of dying. I’m not scared about *being* dead, because I know I won’t feel anything, or be aware that I’m dead, etc. I’m not really looking forward to dying itself, mainly because I’m a wuss and I don’t like pain. I just don’t want to stop living. The idea of not living anymore scares the piss out of me. I really *like* being alive.

    It’s actually the only area where I can understand religious people, because I wish I *could* believe that I’d be going to some wonderful place after I died.

    I’m fairly well convinced that fear of death is the real root of most religions.

  250. #250 Nick Gotts
    October 20, 2008

    watercat@10 is right: the question asked presumes continuing existence. Those who gave “contradictory” answers may well simply have been playing along with what they thought the experimenter wanted, unless a full account of the study gives reason to think otherwise.

    Dreams of the dead are surely an important source of belief in survival of death – both my parents, and two close friends, still appear occasionally in my dreams, years after their deaths.

  251. #251 windy
    October 20, 2008

    Jason Streitfeld wrote:

    The article claims that, because consciousness never involves an experience of our own extinction, and because we cannot imagine feeling non-existence, we cannot conceive of our own mortality.
    Of course this is bunk, because first of all, we can very well conceive of our own mortality. And second of all, because conceiving of our own mortality has nothing at all to do withing imagining the feeling of non-existence.

    I disagree that we can conceive of our own mortality “very well”, but I agree that the article made the question sound more mysterious than needed by not discussing the fact that we can imagine things going on in our absence, and how it differs from imagining the extinction of your consciousness.

    truth machine #215:

    As I said, you won’t be able to grasp this. The task wasn’t to imagine a world without you — that was your offered solution to the task, as you put it, to “imagine what it is like to stop existing”, which is a quite different matter.

    The original task at the start of the article was ambiguous, it could also be taken as “imagine your own death”. As Jason said it is unhelpful to equate this with imagining a feeling of non-existence, which is impossible as you pointed out.

    (I agree that “imagine what it is like to stop existing” is a bad phrase since can be taken to commit the same error of imagining “what it feels like” to stop existing, but it could also mean to imagine ‘what the world will be like’ when you don’t exist.)

    But your way of going about it, of getting a picture in your mind of a world without you, fails. Every picture has a point of view, an implicit observer. To succeed, you must not be an observer, at all.

    But I don’t need to conceive of myself as some sort of omnipresent consciousness just because there’s an “implicit observer” whenever I imagine a place where I’m not.

  252. #252 windy
    October 20, 2008
    …if physicalism is all there is, “we should be zombies?” Should? Why?

    Because there doesn’t seem to be a causal role for subjective experience? Because if physicalism is all there is, a physical description of brain activity would perfectly predict behaviour without having to invoke any notion of subjectivity?

    Tulse, here’s a question I once asked you when this subject came up, and I don’t think you answered it: do you think that the experience of tasting chocolate can play a causal role in a person’s subsequent chocolate-eating behavior?

  253. #253 Nick Gotts
    October 20, 2008

    or why some subjective experiences have no intentional content, such as raw qualia — what is the intentional content of the experience of blue? – Tulse@247

    There are no such things as “raw qualia”. “Blue” has a great deal of semantic content (I’m not quite sure what you mean by “intentional content”); it’s intermediate between turquoise and violet, it’s the colour things tend to have in the distance, it tends to disappear when seen through red glass, it goes well with yellow, it has various symbolic meanings in different cultures… Moreover, we know that not everyone perceives colours identically, because some people can distinguish colours others cannot.

  254. #254 Nick Gotts
    October 20, 2008

    or why some subjective experiences have no intentional content, such as raw qualia — what is the intentional content of the experience of blue? – Tulse@247

    There are no such things as “raw qualia”. “Blue” has a great deal of semantic content (I’m not quite sure what you mean by “intentional content”); it’s intermediate between turquoise and violet, it’s the colour things tend to have in the distance, it tends to disappear when seen through red glass, it goes well with yellow, it has various symbolic meanings in different cultures… Moreover, we know that not everyone perceives colours identically, because some people can distinguish colours others cannot.

  255. #255 Nick Gotts
    October 20, 2008

    Apologies for the double post. Incidentally, on Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat”, Nagel is wrong in thinking this an unanswerable question, and truth machine is, I think, wrong in suggesting that a bat does not have the kind of cognitive structures necessary for it to be something it is like to be one: I consider that most vertebrates and cephalopods at a minimum, probably many other animals, undertake sufficiently complex integration of different types of sensory information and self-monitoring for the question to be a sensible one, which we can get a long way toward answering by studying the sensory disciminations they are able to make, the problems they can solve, and the preferences they can indicate by their behaviour.

  256. #256 jack*
    October 20, 2008

    It can be argued that belief in life after death has survival value. Many ghost stories involve retribution on the living for an undeserved death, so in cultures where this type of belief is strong it may inhibit murderous impulses. The effect is probably insignificant, however, compared to the disincentives of kin retribution. If your victim’s very alive relatives are going to hunt you down, you’re probably not too worried about his ghost.

  257. #257 CJO
    October 20, 2008

    If your victim’s very alive relatives are going to hunt you down, you’re probably not too worried about his ghost.

    Indeed, they are more likely to be worried, and pursue the risky revenge strategy partly to appease or ward off appearances of their relative’s unquiet spirit (think Hamlet). Either way, widespread belief in the dead having self-interested interactions with the living is likely to affect individuals’ choices surrounding things like use of deadly violence and the treatment of corpses.

  258. #258 windy
    October 20, 2008

    I consider that most vertebrates and cephalopods at a minimum, probably many other animals, undertake sufficiently complex integration of different types of sensory information and self-monitoring for the question to be a sensible one

    Not necessarily most vertebrates.

  259. #259 karen
    October 20, 2008

    I am not afraid of death, and I can and have imagined myself dead. I would not want to live forever, or to cheat death. In the past two weeks I’ve even had dreams in which I’ve had conversations, explaining to someone that death should not be feared; that when one is dead, one just ceases to be, period. So even my subconscious seems to be in line with my conscious thinking.

    Interesting article though.

  260. #260 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    windy:

    do you think that the experience of tasting chocolate can play a causal role in a person’s subsequent chocolate-eating behavior?

    Let me answer the question this way: I think that my behaviour regarding chocolate is fully predictable from the purely objective biological processes that occur in my body, without reference to my subjective experience. For example, I don’t think that an alien biologist who cannot taste chocolate would somehow not be able to fully understand the physical processes involved and predict my behaviour.

    I’d argue that if one doesn’t believe that physical description would be fully predictive, one isn’t a materialist. So, in short, while I’m damn sure that I have subjective experiences, there seems to be no causal role for them to play.

    Nick:

    There are no such things as “raw qualia”. “Blue” has a great deal of semantic content (I’m not quite sure what you mean by “intentional content”); it’s intermediate between turquoise and violet, it’s the colour things tend to have in the distance, it tends to disappear when seen through red glass, it goes well with yellow, it has various symbolic meanings in different cultures… Moreover, we know that not everyone perceives colours identically, because some people can distinguish colours others cannot.

    All the things you list are not about the qualia — one could know many of those things while being blind from birth. Heck, I know similar things about UV light, even though I can’t directly experience it (e.g., it’s higher frequency than violet, it causes fair-skinned people to tan, it can cause certain substances to fluoresce). The “raw qualia” is what the experience is, not what it represents. Why does seeing light at a certain wavelength give me the experience of blue, and not (for example) the taste of cheddar or the sound of a trumpet or an itch? Why is there anything that it is like to experience blue, but not to experiencing UV (despite the fact that our body does indeed react to both)?

  261. #261 Robert Berger
    October 20, 2008

    I am in no way conventionally religious,let alone a creationist. However, the notion that nothing but exctintion follows death has simply not been proven.
    The fact that vast numbers of people have silly notions about the afterlife is not ipso facto proof of the extinctivist viewpoint, just as the fact that so many people have ludicrous religious ideas is not ipso facto proof that there is no god.
    Dawkins and other dogmatic atheists use the unfortunate fact that so much evil and oppression and killing has been caused by religion as an excuse to deny the existence of a deity and an afterlife. As right as they are about the dangers of religious belief can be, they have still not proven or disproven anything. We’ll have to wait and see what happens after death.

  262. #262 John Huey
    October 20, 2008

    I didn’t and don’t care about the first time I didn’t exist, so I don’t and won’t care about the next time I don’t exist.

  263. #263 windy
    October 20, 2008
    do you think that the experience of tasting chocolate can play a causal role in a person’s subsequent chocolate-eating behavior?

    Let me answer the question this way: I think that my behaviour regarding chocolate is fully predictable from the purely objective biological processes that occur in my body, without reference to my subjective experience. For example, I don’t think that an alien biologist who cannot taste chocolate would somehow not be able to fully understand the physical processes involved and predict my behaviour.

    Now you are switching from “subjective experience doesn’t play a causal role” to “subjective experience can be stated in non-subjective terms”. Can we deal with the first issue first? Are you seriously going to tell me that the experience of eating chocolate is not causally connected to anything the subject does later?

    I’d argue that if one doesn’t believe that physical description would be fully predictive, one isn’t a materialist. So, in short, while I’m damn sure that I have subjective experiences, there seems to be no causal role for them to play.

    That’s because you are ignoring the possibility that experiences are material. Maybe it doesn’t sound satisfactory to you, but at least I don’t need to keep sweeping these uncomfortable facts about the causal role of experience under the carpet. Consider this:

    -Sex is generally experienced as pleasurable by humans.
    -It would seem reasonable to interpret this as an adaptation to ensure fertilization and/or strengthen social relationships.
    -Oh wait, the subjective experience of sex can’t play a causal role, so now I have no explanation as to why sex feels more pleasurable than tasting earwax.

    Or repeat with the taste of sugar and fat and the obvious adaptive explanation.

  264. #264 CJO
    October 20, 2008

    All the things you list are not about the qualia — one could know many of those things while being blind from birth. Heck, I know similar things about UV light, even though I can’t directly experience it (e.g., it’s higher frequency than violet, it causes fair-skinned people to tan, it can cause certain substances to fluoresce). The “raw qualia” is what the experience is, not what it represents. Why does seeing light at a certain wavelength give me the experience of blue, and not (for example) the taste of cheddar or the sound of a trumpet or an itch? Why is there anything that it is like to experience blue, but not to experiencing UV (despite the fact that our body does indeed react to both)?

    Ah, but the properties of UV you give aren’t like the perceptual properties Nick gave for blue: “it’s the colour things tend to have in the distance, it tends to disappear when seen through red glass, it goes well with yellow.” These properties associated with the experience of blue are inseperable from the “itness” of it. The problem as I see it with the qualia argument is that qualophiles assert that qualia have no properties, but when properties are suggested, none of them are “raw” enough, so we’re left with these property-less phenomena. In other domains, if we assert that something exists but has no properties, it seems to me, we rightly question the first claim: that it exists in the first place. What does it mean for something to exist but to have no properties?

  265. #265 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    Now you are switching from “subjective experience doesn’t play a causal role” to “subjective experience can be stated in non-subjective terms”. Can we deal with the first issue first? Are you seriously going to tell me that the experience of eating chocolate is not causally connected to anything the subject does later?

    If you are describing things in purely biological terms, no it doesn’t. Of course it feels like that it does to us, but an external observer doesn’t need to notion of subjective experience to fully describe my behaviour. And that’s pretty much the criterion we use for talking about everything else in the universe: stars, rocks, Wankel rotary engines, etc. — we always use the third-person objective perspective, and think that if successfully describe and predict the behaviour, we have a complete causal account. So why should human behaviour be “special” in some way? If you didn’t know that subjectivity existed, would you need to invoke it to fully describe human behaviour? I don’t think so, and I think claims to the contrary are non-materialist claims.

    That’s because you are ignoring the possibility that experiences are material.

    They definitely aren’t material — they may at best be caused by the physical, but they themselves are not material (experiences don’t have mass or extension in space, for example).

    Maybe it doesn’t sound satisfactory to you, but at least I don’t need to keep sweeping these uncomfortable facts about the causal role of experience under the carpet.
    Consider this:
    -Sex is generally experienced as pleasurable by humans.
    -It would seem reasonable to interpret this as an adaptation to ensure fertilization and/or strengthen social relationships.
    -Oh wait, the subjective experience of sex can’t play a causal role, so now I have no explanation as to why sex feels more pleasurable than tasting earwax.

    Of course sex is pleasurable, but I don’t need that fact to account for human sexual behaviour — I could just as easily account for it in purely physical terms, without resort to notions of pleasure (heck, do you think that nematodes experience sexual pleasure?).

    More to the point, if subjective experience does play a causal role in behaviour, then you have the standard problem that all forms of dualism have wrestled with, namely, how on earth does the subjective mental interact with the objective physical?

  266. #266 CJO
    October 20, 2008

    Why does seeing light at a certain wavelength give me the experience of blue, and not (for example) the taste of cheddar or the sound of a trumpet or an itch?

    Echoing windy re: the taste of sugar and fat, why is it that the “raw” experience of color is always the qualia-supporter’s case in point? It seems to me that if we apply the same analysis to “the taste of cheddar” it’s much easier to see the flaws in the idea of an indivisible, arbitrary, “raw” sensation unaffested by associations and other material properties of the neural substrate of my experience eating a piece of cheese.

    I suspect it’s that these associational properties of color perception have less obvious historical/evolutionary antecedants, and thus the “redness of red” can plausibly be presented as arbitrary. Of course, though, the content of color perception is anything but arbitrary to a monkey spotting fruit in a tree or a snake in the grass.

  267. #267 windy
    October 20, 2008

    If you are describing things in purely biological terms, no it doesn’t. Of course it feels like that it does to us, but an external observer doesn’t need to notion of subjective experience to fully describe my behaviour.

    So, a zombie who does not experience anything when tasting chocolate will nevertheless be as eager to eat chocolate as a normal human? Or, more pertinently, an otherwise normal human with the “qualia” of earwax and chocolate switched will be just as eager to eat chocolate?

    Of course sex is pleasurable, but I don’t need that fact to account for human sexual behaviour

    I’m asking you to account for the subjective experience of sex in evolutionary terms. Do you deny that it can be done?

    heck, do you think that nematodes experience sexual pleasure?

    I doubt it, but then again nematode sex is not much like human sex. Do you think bonobos experience sexual pleasure?

    More to the point, if subjective experience does play a causal role in behaviour, then you have the standard problem that all forms of dualism have wrestled with, namely, how on earth does the subjective mental interact with the objective physical?

    (Again, I’m not a dualist, but that’s all right, I know that you epiphenomenalists are a bit confused :)

    How does the subjective memory interact with the objective physical?

  268. #268 Nick Gotts
    October 20, 2008

    Why does seeing light at a certain wavelength give me the experience of blue, and not (for example) the taste of cheddar or the sound of a trumpet or an itch? Why is there anything that it is like to experience blue, but not to experiencing UV (despite the fact that our body does indeed react to both)? – Tulse

    To answer the second first – because the three kinds of cone cells in your your eyes react differentially to light of different wavelengths, not including those of UV light, and pass signals to your cerebral cortex, where they are integrated in complex ways with other sensory signals and memory traces, causing you to have a tendency to say sincerely “I see something blue”. While UV light does affect the body, it is not processed in these complex, memory-dependent ways. In fact, light of a particular wavelength will give different colour-perceptions under different circumstances (ambient lighting, nearby colour patches, presence of absence of jaundice and certain drugs…); and under the influence of certain other drugs, or in people whose brains are wired in unusual ways, light of “blue” wavelengths can give rise to the perception of sound, taste, smell… It’s a matter of how your body, or anyone else’s, reacts to light of particular wavelengths under particular circumstances. Now I know very well that you’ll just say “But why…” again – but CJO is quite right, if you remove all the associations, contextual cues, contrasts, etc., and dismiss all the causal mechanisms, and the comparisons between people (and between humans and other organisms), there really is nothing left.

  269. #269 Jason Streitfeld
    October 20, 2008

    John C. Randolph (#234)

    Thanks for the observation.

    windy (#251)

    I would say that some of us–maybe even many of us–can conceive of our own mortality very well. But that wasn’t my point earlier. I only said that we can very well do it. Not that we can do it very well. (Though I think I can do it very well . . . enough so that it seems a lot like a burden sometimes.)

    Tulse (#260 and #265)

    Your line of reasoning here is strongly reminiscent of Chalmers’ conceivability argument. I wonder what basis you have for making these sorts of comments about subjective experience. On what grounds do you define any aspect of humanity as being outside of scientific observability?

    You can find a blog posting in which I heavily criticize Chalmers, if you click on my name.

    My position is pretty simple. I call it the default position, because it does not rest on any special conditions or assumptions for dealing with consciousness. If you want to make exceptional statements about anything, consciousness included, then you should have a reason. And defining subjectivity out of scientific observability is about as exceptional as you can get, I think. So what’s your basis for doing this?

    Is it just wishful thinking? Or do you, like Chalmers, actually believe that you can conceive of a fully functioning human being which lacks subjective experiences?

  270. #270 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    the taste of sugar and fat, why is it that the “raw” experience of color is always the qualia-supporter’s case in point?

    Yes, sugar is tasty, but sugar also has a taste that is separate from the pleasurable aspects. In that regard it is no different than colour. We could presumably have evolved to find the taste of sugar revolting (just as some people dislike blue cheese, and others love it).

    So even there are associations to the subjective experience, the qualia, that doesn’t mean that qualia themselves don’t exist.

  271. #271 CJO
    October 20, 2008

    sugar also has a taste that is separate from the pleasurable aspects.

    So you say. But can you assign any properties to this sensation?

  272. #272 windy
    October 20, 2008

    We could presumably have evolved to find the taste of sugar revolting

    How does anything ‘evolve to’ find some taste revolting if there’s no causal feedback from the experience of revulsion to behavior? Or are you arguing that the experience of pleasure at sex, tasting sugar, etc., is purely neutral, and they could just as well been connected with revulsion?

  273. #273 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    windy:

    So, a zombie who does not experience anything when tasting chocolate will nevertheless be as eager to eat chocolate as a normal human?

    Could you construct a robot that detected chocolate and tried to consume more when it did? Would such a robot necessarily have subjective experience? If not, would it matter if I built the robot out of organic material rather than metal?

    I’m asking you to account for the subjective experience of sex in evolutionary terms. Do you deny that it can be done?

    Sure, and I can explain the evolution of bee behaviour in terms of bees “wanting” to help their sisters, “desiring” to find flowers, and “angrily” defending their hive. But do you think that bees actually have such states?

    Again, I’m not a dualist

    If you think subjective experience has causal efficacy apart from whatever might generate it physically, then that looks like dualism to me. To be honest, though, I’m a bit confused as to what your position actually is — perhaps unpacking it a bit more would be helpful.

    Nick:

    because the three kinds of cone cells in your your eyes react differentially to light of different wavelengths, not including those of UV light, and pass signals to your cerebral cortex, where they are integrated in complex ways with other sensory signals and memory traces, causing you to have a tendency to say sincerely “I see something blue”.

    And that answer would be exactly the same if I were a Chalmersian zombie, except for a single word, “sincerely”. And that “sincerely” simply begs the question of subjective experience.

    Jason:

    defining subjectivity out of scientific observability is about as exceptional as you can get

    It’s pretty much the definition of subjectivity that only the subject can observe it directly. Note that I am not saying that we can’t do neuroimaging studies of subjective states (I actually have, in my prior career), or ask people about their experiences, or see what experiences they report when given different pharmacological agents. But all of those are things are not the subjective experience, they are simply objective behaviour.

    do you, like Chalmers, actually believe that you can conceive of a fully functioning human being which lacks subjective experiences?

    If you were an alien who didn’t know that humans had subjective experiences, you’d answer “yes”. And that’s kind of my point — we are so biased because we know that there is something it is to be us. We know we are different from washing machines and rocks and planaria, that what causes our behaviour is different from those things. But to an observer who doesn’t know that, subjectivity is completely unnecessary to explain our behaviour, just as it is for washing machines and rocks and planaria.

    I don’t see this as all that different in principle from the way we used to think about vitalism. A few centuries ago people were convinced that being alive was something special, something different from being a mere blob of physical matter, because we knew that we weren’t mere blobs, that we had some sort of divine spark inside. But it turns out that’s not the case, that organisms really are just sophisticated machines, and that there is no separate “life force” that animates us, that needs to be invoked to explain biology.

    Likewise, as convincing as it is that we have subjective experiences (and this is perhaps the only thing we can know for certain), nonetheless that notion seems to play no role in the physical universe. There is simply no place in the causal chain for “pain” independent of neuronal firings, for “blue” independent of neuronal firings, for “sweet” independent of neuronal firings. These things, in physical terms, seem to be nothing more than epiphenomena. I agree that it certainly doesn’t look like that from the inside, but from the outside, objectively, that’s all they appear to be.

  274. #274 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    are you arguing that the experience of pleasure at sex, tasting sugar, etc., is purely neutral, and they could just as well been connected with revulsion?

    Precisely, just as some people love blue cheese and others despise it. There is nothing inherently “pleasurable” about the substance sucrose, and many organisms that are extremely simple seek out sugars and other foods, yet presumably don’t have a subjective experience of pleasure.

  275. #275 CJO
    October 20, 2008

    Nick:

    because the three kinds of cone cells in your your eyes react differentially to light of different wavelengths, not including those of UV light, and pass signals to your cerebral cortex, where they are integrated in complex ways with other sensory signals and memory traces, causing you to have a tendency to say sincerely “I see something blue”.

    And that answer would be exactly the same if I were a Chalmersian zombie, except for a single word, “sincerely”. And that “sincerely” simply begs the question of subjective experience.

    But if it’s not “sincere,” i.e. the entity in question doesn’t in fact “see something blue,” what is that sentence about? What is the subject of the sentence?

    What if a zombie uttered:
    “This entity is of a disposition to relate that wavelengths of ~470nm are reflected from nearby object to optical systems.”

    How do these utterances differ? (It’s not a gotcha, I’m honestly interested in your answer?)

  276. #276 Nick Gotts
    October 20, 2008

    Could you construct a robot that detected chocolate and tried to consume more when it did? Would such a robot necessarily have subjective experience? – Tulse

    No, that on its own would not be enough. But if the robot also showed the full complexity of human behaviour, then yes. Having the kind of complex, highly-structured sensori-motor, cognitive and motivational relationship with the external world that normal, healthy, awake human beings do is a sufficient (though not necessary) condition for consciousness.

    My use of “sincerely” was not intended to imply consciousness. If the kind of “zimbo” you are positing could exist (it can’t), then it would be just as meaningful to distinguish between its “sincere” and “insincere” statments about its “perceptions”, as it would be for a conscious being.

    Surely the fact that your questions, as you pose them, require you to posit an entire realm of epiphenomena, with no identifiable properties, and no useful questions that can be asked about them, should hint that you are, in fact, confused? Subjective experience does indeed play a causal role – but not as something separate from physical processes such as (but not limited to) neural firings. In a similar though much simpler way, the pressure of gas inside a balloon plays a causal role in stretching its skin into a certain shape – but this is not distinct from the role played by the individual gas molecules, rather it is a molar (as opposed to molecular) way of describing the same mechanism.

  277. #277 jeff
    October 20, 2008

    (sorry if I’m too brief, I definitely don’t have time to respond to all of these, so I’ll do the best I can for now)

    Zarquon 160: Only your brain has your history, your memories, that’s how you’re “you”. Nagel seems to ignore that brains grow memories and those memories are unique to each brain. I don’t know how he can overlook this obvious point, but it just makes his argument seem ridiculous.

    I’m quite sure he’s not overlooking that, but it’s irrelevant to his argument anyway.

    MartinB 160: I think that question is a fallacy – allof them are “you”. There is no “You”

    No, only one of them is me ;) That is the nature of subjectivity. You are looking at it “objectively” from a third person perspective, not from the first-person.

    bgbaystr 161: Actually this is where I think Nagel’s argument is not clear enough. I’m making a distinction between “I” and “experience” (and this where I sense many will disagreee with me). No, your physical body cannot be someone else – that’s an incoherent idea. Asking, “why am I in this body and not in another?” is a different question than asking, “why is reality being experienced from the perspective of my body, instead of another?”.

    What many will say is that you “are” the atoms that make up your body. Sure that’s a physical identity and can’t be disputed, but matter is not “experience”, unless you believe in panpyschism, which is where you are ultimately headed if pursue this claim. In my view, experience IS something more than matter. If you could replace individual neurons in your brain, one by one, with equivalent synthetic components, at which point would you cease to be “you”? And neurons are dying all the time, but reality is still being experienced from your perspective. Therefore conscious identity and experience are not the same thing as physical identity and physical dynamics. See papers and articles on “multiple realizability”.

    aarrgghh 162: the simple answer is that “you” is a byproduct of the ongoing processes of the physical mind as it experiences time. sorta like software.

    So you are you. So why is reality being experienced from my perspective instead of yours? ;) Subjectivity….

    Jason 157: You confuse subjectivity and objectivity with types of experiences, as opposed to ways of thinking about experiences. By trying to define subjectivity as a category of experience or existence, you are trying to define subjectivity out of the scientific picture. No amount of evidence or reason can support that, as it only serves to provoke an antagonistic attitude towards science.

    I’m sorry, you’ve lost me ;) Subjectivity is not a category of experience, it IS experience! There is no “objective” experience. “Objectivity” is a third person model in the first person’s mind (that usually happens to correspond well with what is observed ;)

    There is no Hard Problem of consciousness, contrary to Chalmers’ suggestion.

    Says you ;)

    here is no sense in claiming that it is forever beyond a mechanistic or physicalistic explanation.

    I think most consciousness problems are not beyond explanation (things like memory and vision, as you stated). But I can’t see how subjective experience can be be completely explained with a physicalist model, as my previous arguments support. Even if you could come up with some explanation, there is no way to verify that that something you created (software, hardware, or any collection of matter) is “experiencing” something, since the only “experience” you will every know is your own. Your consciousness is box from which is no escape, except death or unconsciousness. That is subjectivity. Subjective experience is closed. There is no way to scientifically verify that some collection of matter is “experiencing” something, because subjective experience is, well, subjective ;)

  278. #278 CJO
    October 20, 2008

    there is no way to verify that that something you created (software, hardware, or any collection of matter) is “experiencing” something, since the only “experience” you will every know is your own.

    I can never understand why those who make this argument don’t consider that simply asking the entity in question whether it has experiences is a verification. How do you verify that other human beings are having the experiences they report? It seems like the road to solipsism to say that, in principle, it is impossible to know whether other persons than yourself have subjective inner lives.

    And given an entity capable of the full (human) range of perceptions, integrations of same across modalities, and complex dispositions to act and make reports based on available information, why should we treat their experiences any differently than those of persons we know and interact with?

  279. #279 Nick Gotts
    October 20, 2008

    jeff,
    “why is reality being experienced from the perspective of my body, instead of another?”

    Reality, as we both know (in the everyday sense of that word, the snes in which I know I am awake, sitting in a hotel lobby in Cordoba) but you don’t realise you know, is being experienced from multiple bodies’ perspectives – at least 6 billion, counting only human bodies. You cannot coherently be sceptical about other minds without being sceptical about your own: if the world is so different from how it appears that other people are not conscious, it could equally well be so different that the very notion of “experience” misrepresents it.

  280. #280 John Huey
    October 20, 2008

    For billions of years, I did not hear a bird sing.
    For eons, I did not feel the sun on my check.
    For millennium, I did not consider the price of milk.
    Not then.
    But, now?
    Now, I feel.
    Now, I think.
    Yeah, better.
    The next billions of years?
    Tsk, not so good!

  281. #281 bunnycatch3r
    October 20, 2008

    My fear is that 500 years from now. I will no longer love my son and he will no longer love me.

  282. #282 rainmound
    October 20, 2008
    Consciousness, the biodegradable thing
    is particular. I am each word in a sonnet.
    Rip me up and put me in a hat: reform
    can be a bitch. When I am ripped
    to atoms, my shreds torn by time, these words
    will litter a poem in the forest...
    "This is my body. This is my blood." This time
    it's personal, the old origami trick, 
    paper to penguin, penguin to panda 
    to pelican, cells folding landscapes 
    over millenia, ridges, mountains, humans, 
    life dying and passing through life to death
    decks of cards, shuffled by high winds... 
    
  283. #283 Pikemann Urge
    October 20, 2008

    Arnosium, #176: “Everybody is terrified of the thought of dying in their own arms. Adopting an after-life myth is one way they cope with their debilitating fear.”

    You’re making it sound like you have humanity completely figured out. “Nothing else to see here, people, move along.”

  284. #284 windy
    October 20, 2008

    Could you construct a robot that detected chocolate and tried to consume more when it did? Would such a robot necessarily have subjective experience? If not, would it matter if I built the robot out of organic material rather than metal?

    Would it matter if millions of years of evolution built the robot out of organic material? If such a robot accidentally developed the capacity of subjective experience, wouldn’t that be a pretty useful hack to control its behavior? If I say that something is an adaptation, I don’t need to claim that every organism that accomplishes the same task has the same adaptation. An animal on the savannah doesn’t necessarily walk on two legs.

    I’m asking you to account for the subjective experience of sex in evolutionary terms. Do you deny that it can be done?

    Sure, and I can explain the evolution of bee behaviour in terms of bees “wanting” to help their sisters, “desiring” to find flowers, and “angrily” defending their hive. But do you think that bees actually have such states?

    I don’t know. Can we stick to primates for a while and deal with the invertebrates later? What I asked was, do you agree that I can formulate an evolutionary explanation like this: “human ancestors that experienced sexual pleasure tended to leave more offspring than those who found sex revolting?”

    If you think subjective experience has causal efficacy apart from whatever might generate it physically, then that looks like dualism to me. To be honest, though, I’m a bit confused as to what your position actually is — perhaps unpacking it a bit more would be helpful.

    You yourself explained it on vitalism: But it turns out that’s not the case, that organisms really are just sophisticated machines, and that there is no separate “life force” that animates us, that needs to be invoked to explain biology.

    However, contrary to your next paragraph, I don’t think that life or consciousness are causally inert “epiphenomena”, I think they are higher level descriptions of the exact same physical process that goes on at the lower level! Nothing outside the “causal chain” needs to be introduced. I can say “the hurricane caused devastation” although there is no causal role for hurricane-ness apart from the movement of air molecules.

    And I don’t know why you keep ragging on dualism, since epiphenomenalism is a form of dualism AFAIK.

    are you arguing that the experience of pleasure at sex, tasting sugar, etc., is purely neutral, and they could just as well been connected with revulsion?

    Precisely, just as some people love blue cheese and others despise it. There is nothing inherently “pleasurable” about the substance sucrose, and many organisms that are extremely simple seek out sugars and other foods, yet presumably don’t have a subjective experience of pleasure.

    But blue cheese was presumably never a selective agent during our evolutionary history! You’re almost there but you keep avoiding the main issue. It doesn’t matter if we separate the taste of sugar from the experience of pleasure. Somehow our nervous system has evolved to associate sugar and sex with pleasure. How has this happened if there is no causal feedback from the experience of pleasure to the physical world?

  285. #285 thuvia
    October 20, 2008

    I’d be scared to be die too if I thought there was a chance that I’d be tortured for eternity.

  286. #286 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    Apologies in advance for the multiple posts to come — I appreciate the discussion, and don’t want to skip over anyone’s request for a response.

    CJO:

    But if it’s not “sincere,” i.e. the entity in question doesn’t in fact “see something blue,” what is that sentence about? What is the subject of the sentence?

    What is the subject of the sentence when a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll says “I love you”? What is the subject of the sentence when the automated phone voice says “I’m sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed?” Does every object that uses a personal pronoun have to have subjective experience?

    And let me be clear, before we get sidetracked: I am not arguing that we don’t have subjective experience. All I am arguing is that there is no place for such in a purely physical causal account of behaviour.

    Nick:

    Could you construct a robot that detected chocolate and tried to consume more when it did? Would such a robot necessarily have subjective experience? – Tulse

    No, that on its own would not be enough. But if the robot also showed the full complexity of human behaviour, then yes.

    Are you just declaring this by fiat, or do you have some sort of evidence for this position? This kind of claim (that if something is as complex behaviourally as humans, it must have subjective experience) has been made for many decades, but more as a statement of faith than as any principled argument.

    Having the kind of complex, highly-structured sensori-motor, cognitive and motivational relationship with the external world that normal, healthy, awake human beings do is a sufficient (though not necessary) condition for consciousness.

    This just restates your faith in the proposition, but does nothing to provide evidence for that position. I can just as easily imagine that a purely inorganic robot that is a perfect replica of me could nonetheless have no internal life. And, this is the important part, there is no way you could tell I was wrong. That is, there is literally no way to determine if such a robot does have subjective states, because, well, they’re subjective.

  287. #287 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    Nick:

    Surely the fact that your questions, as you pose them, require you to posit an entire realm of epiphenomena, with no identifiable properties, and no useful questions that can be asked about them, should hint that you are, in fact, confused?

    There are plenty of properties that qualia have — I can certainly distinguish between tastes and sounds and smells and pains and sights, can’t you? And I can certainly ask useful questions about them, as phenomenologists and others have done. What I can’t do, however, is assert that there is any role for them in a physical description of the world. That to me seems the confused position.

    Subjective experience does indeed play a causal role – but not as something separate from physical processes such as (but not limited to) neural firings.

    So how does this work?

    In a similar though much simpler way, the pressure of gas inside a balloon plays a causal role in stretching its skin into a certain shape – but this is not distinct from the role played by the individual gas molecules, rather it is a molar (as opposed to molecular) way of describing the same mechanism.

    Huh? This confuses me, Nick. The pressure of the gas simply is the motion of the molecules — there is nothing separate, no further thing that can be described that is needed for a complete explanation. But, if I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that somehow individual neuron firings are sufficient to explain behaviour, but they also somehow produce subjective experience which is the mass of neurons firing? How does that make subjective experience a causal agent? Isn’t that just epiphenomenalism?

  288. #288 Ichthyic
    October 20, 2008

    Where will you be after you’re dead?

    probably stomach contents of some sea critter I pissed off one too many times.

  289. #289 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    truth machine is, I think, wrong in suggesting that a bat does not have the kind of cognitive structures necessary for it to be something it is like to be one: I consider that most vertebrates and cephalopods at a minimum, probably many other animals, undertake sufficiently complex integration of different types of sensory information and self-monitoring for the question to be a sensible one, which we can get a long way toward answering by studying the sensory disciminations they are able to make, the problems they can solve, and the preferences they can indicate by their behaviour.

    Irrelevant. If bats don’t introspect, then they lack the kind cognitive structures necessary for it to be like something to be one. You may be confusing what bats are like with what it’s like to be one — the former is an external observation made by us while the latter is an internal one made by the bat itself — but bats don’t make observations at that level. What Nagel wants to do is be the bat while having his own human cognitive faculties — but then he wouldn’t be a bat, he would be some sort of hybrid. And in the case of bats, as opposed to most other animals, even such a hybrid might not be able to conceive of what it’s like to be it, because a bat’s sensorium is so foreign to that of a human’s.

  290. #290 Ichthyic
    October 20, 2008

    What Nagel wants to do is be the bat while having his own human cognitive faculties

    Dracula?

  291. #291 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    Of course sex is pleasurable, but I don’t need that fact to account for human sexual behaviour — I could just as easily account for it in purely physical terms, without resort to notions of pleasure (heck, do you think that nematodes experience sexual pleasure?).

    Do you think that human sexual behavior is identical to nematode sexual behavior?

    And of course you can account for human sexual behavior in purely physical terms — physicalists certainly agree, silly!

    Tulse’s multiple confusions have been addressed many times in the large literature of philosophy of mind, but that certainly won’t prevent the persistence of these confusions.

  292. #292 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    CJO:

    I can never understand why those who make this argument don’t consider that simply asking the entity in question whether it has experiences is a verification.

    So you rule out by definition the possibility of zombies. That hardly seems scientific. And there are plenty of talking toys out there that will claim to love you — do you take their verbal reports at face value?

    How do you verify that other human beings are having the experiences they report? It seems like the road to solipsism to say that, in principle, it is impossible to know whether other persons than yourself have subjective inner lives.

    One person’s solipsism is another person’s epistemic boundedness. Just because the implications are undesirable does not mean a position is in principle wrong.

    But, just to be clear, I don’t doubt that other people have inner lives, because I do, and other people are built like me. But if I woke up one morning to find that the “people” were actually Westworld-like robots, then I would revise the likelihood of them having inner lives like mine. And if it turned out those robots were not autonomous, but were all remotely controlled by a single giant computer, I would have serious doubts that they individually had subjective states. Wouldn’t you?

  293. #293 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    I don’t think that life or consciousness are causally inert “epiphenomena”, I think they are higher level descriptions of the exact same physical process that goes on at the lower level! Nothing outside the “causal chain” needs to be introduced. I can say “the hurricane caused devastation” although there is no causal role for hurricane-ness apart from the movement of air molecules.

    According to Tulse, the hurricane “simply is” the movement of air molecules, that “there is nothing separate, no further thing that can be described that is needed for a complete explanation”. This false dichotomy, this naive reductionism, reflects a rather deep misunderstanding of the nature of causal explanation. Daniel Dennett has written an entertaining story that illustrates this failure well:

    http://cogprints.org/247/0/twoblack.htm

  294. #294 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    But, just to be clear, I don’t doubt that other people have inner lives, because I do, and other people are built like me.

    Unless how things built is completely determinative of the facts of their inner lives, there’s no basis for your inference.

    But if I woke up one morning to find that the “people” were actually Westworld-like robots, then I would revise the likelihood of them having inner lives like mine

    What was important about the robots of Westworld wasn’t what they were made of but how they acted.

    We are in fact robots — there’s no non-question-begging way to make a distinction.

  295. #295 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    windy:

    If such a robot accidentally developed the capacity of subjective experience, wouldn’t that be a pretty useful hack to control its behavior?

    And how would that work, exactly? Would the subjective experience be somehow separate from its hardware and programming, but interact with them? If not, if it were just realized in the hardware and programming, to what extent would the “subjective” part be necessary at all? Wouldn’t the hardware and programming completely describe everything causally relevant to its behaviour? What is the “subjective” bit doing?

    I can explain the evolution of bee behaviour in terms of bees “wanting” to help their sisters, “desiring” to find flowers, and “angrily” defending their hive. But do you think that bees actually have such states?

    I don’t know. Can we stick to primates for a while and deal with the invertebrates later?

    Actually, I think it is far less confusing to deal with non-humans, precisely because we are so close to the issue we have a hard time thinking about consciousness in ourselves. And I think the question is perfectly reasonable — if the claim is that because the evolution of human behaviour makes sense by talking about subjective states, therefore there must be subjective states, the example of the bees seems to be a reasonable counter-argument.

    What I asked was, do you agree that I can formulate an evolutionary explanation like this: “human ancestors that experienced sexual pleasure tended to leave more offspring than those who found sex revolting?”

    Sure we can formulate an explanation like that, just as I can formulate an argument that giraffes “wanted” to be taller to reach higher leaves, or ants “desired” a steady food source so they cultivated fungus. But I doubt you’d find those other explanations just as convincing.

    I don’t think that life or consciousness are causally inert “epiphenomena”, I think they are higher level descriptions of the exact same physical process that goes on at the lower level!

    Your experiences are just a “description” of processes? I’ve seen people say this kind of thing before, but I’ve never seen anyone unpack it in a way that explains anything. Description in all other cases are third-person ascriptions.

    Somehow our nervous system has evolved to associate sugar and sex with pleasure. How has this happened if there is no causal feedback from the experience of pleasure to the physical world?

    This doesn’t get you anywhere, since the behaviours associated with both sweetness and pleasure can be fully explained as the result of purely physical processes, and thus their association can be as well. Your nervous system has also evolved to associate excess blood glucose with the need to release insulin, but surely you don’t claim that these specific events involve subjective experience.

    Trying to get subjective experience by naturalizing it through evolution is simply a dead end. There may be other ways to argue for the efficacy of subjective states, but their selective advantage isn’t it, since the exact same advantage can be had without the necessity of subjectivity hitching a ride.

  296. #296 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    And if it turned out those robots were not autonomous, but were all remotely controlled by a single giant computer, I would have serious doubts that they individually had subjective states. Wouldn’t you?

    What’s it matter? The questions here are about humans, who are not remotely controlled by a single giant computer, are not nematodes or other invertebrates — every time you try to support your views about the nature of human subjective experience by pointing to any of these things that don’t have the properties of humans you’re committing a form of intellectual fraud.

  297. #297 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    If not, if it were just realized in the hardware and programming, to what extent would the “subjective” part be necessary at all? Wouldn’t the hardware and programming completely describe everything causally relevant to its behaviour? What is the “subjective” bit doing?

    This is like asking why the root-finding part of a root finding program is “necessary”, when the hardware and programming completely describe everything causally relevant to its behavior.

    The answer is, as Windy already said, “they are higher level descriptions of the exact same physical process that goes on at the lower level”. You seem unable to grasp that descriptions are our tools for grasping the world, they are not elements of that world. The same physical phenomenon can be described at numerous different levels.

  298. #298 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    According to Tulse, the hurricane “simply is” the movement of air molecules, that “there is nothing separate, no further thing that can be described that is needed for a complete explanation”.

    That’s right, there is no separate “hurricaneness” that the storms have, no need to, for example, postulate intention when one veers toward a US city.

    But, just to be clear, I don’t doubt that other people have inner lives, because I do, and other people are built like me.

    Unless how things built is completely determinative of the facts of their inner lives, there’s no basis for your inference.

    How would one know if how something is built is important? You seem to be implicitly claiming something like functionalism, but without any real argument.

    What was important about the robots of Westworld wasn’t what they were made of but how they acted.

    So by fiat anything that acts human must have an interior life? Is there an argument for that?

    We are in fact robots — there’s no non-question-begging way to make a distinction.

    Well, I know I’m not a robot, or at least, if I am, I am one of the fancy ones with qualia.

    The questions here are about humans, who are not remotely controlled by a single giant computer, are not nematodes or other invertebrates — every time you try to support your views about the nature of human subjective experience by pointing to any of these things that don’t have the properties of humans you’re committing a form of intellectual fraud.

    First off, this issue I’m interested in is not human subjective experience per se, but subjective experience in general. And using non-human examples to try to determine the features of human experience is a perfectly sensible way to identify the relevant qualities involved and the theories people have as to how it arises. As I noted earlier, we tend to be too close to the issue to see it very well directly, much like other chestnuts such as free will — by looking at nonhuman examples, we can get some perspective.

  299. #299 Seamyst
    October 20, 2008

    #61 strangebeasty

    Seamyst: I actually had a dream that I went to heaven and it included a big library where people left me alone. Still, why do you cling to that belief? Is it just because it sounds nice to you?

    Oh, I don’t cling to that belief – it’s just a nice fantasy for me, because I truly love reading and working on computers. It’s what heaven-on-earth would be like for me. Like I said, I believe in reincarnation, but I think that that “stops” at some point. What happens to the soul after it’s done incarnating? I don’t know, I haven’t figured out yet what sounds best to me. And that’s all it is (for me, at least), really, is just seeing what sounds/feels best to you and then going with it.

    #70 Tulse

    If my re-incarnated soul doesn’t “remember” anything, in what possible sense is it actually my soul? How does it relate to my personal identity at all? This notion never made any sense to me — why should I care about the continuation of something that doesn’t actually remember me?

    My apologies, I didn’t make myself clear. The soul doesn’t remember anything about previous lives while it is in its current incarnation. Between incarnations, however (and after incarnations are done, possibly), it remembers everything – or the most important things, anyway, not literally every single thing. If that makes more sense? Past-life memories are irrelevant in my current life; besides being a point of curiosity, what good would come to me of knowing what happened in a previous lifetime? (The historian side of me says, “Oh, but to learn first-hand what life was like X years ago…!” I’m ignoring it.)

  300. #300 Seamyst
    October 20, 2008

    And that’s what I get for not using the preview button… take two.

    #61 strangebeasty

    Seamyst: I actually had a dream that I went to heaven and it included a big library where people left me alone. Still, why do you cling to that belief? Is it just because it sounds nice to you?

    Oh, I don’t cling to that belief – it’s just a nice fantasy for me, because I truly love reading and working on computers. It’s what heaven-on-earth would be like for me. Like I said, I believe in reincarnation, but I think that that “stops” at some point. What happens to the soul after it’s done incarnating? I don’t know, I haven’t figured out yet what sounds best to me. And that’s all it is (for me, at least), really, is just seeing what sounds/feels best to you and then going with it.

    #70 Tulse

    If my re-incarnated soul doesn’t “remember” anything, in what possible sense is it actually my soul? How does it relate to my personal identity at all? This notion never made any sense to me — why should I care about the continuation of something that doesn’t actually remember me?

    My apologies, I didn’t make myself clear. The soul doesn’t remember anything about previous lives while it is in its current incarnation. Between incarnations, however (and after incarnations are done, possibly), it remembers everything – or the most important things, anyway, not literally every single thing. If that makes more sense? Past-life memories are irrelevant in my current life; besides being a point of curiosity, what good would come to me of knowing what happened in a previous lifetime? (The historian side of me says, “Oh, but to learn first-hand what life was like X years ago…!” I’m ignoring it.)

  301. #301 Tulse
    October 20, 2008

    You seem unable to grasp that descriptions are our tools for grasping the world, they are not elements of that world. The same physical phenomenon can be described at numerous different levels.

    And as I said to windy, descriptions are third person ascriptions created by people, whereas my subjective states are not.

    (I am going to wrap it up there for the evening — thanks all for the vigorous debate. If I get any time tomorrow I may try to follow up on any further posts.)

  302. #302 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    A few questions: How do you know that you have subjective experience? And who or what is it that knows? Are the “you”s in that question the same thing? What thing is it?

    I’ve never met a dualist who is willing to take these questions seriously; they have an intellectually incurious ontology of “self”.

  303. #303 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    And as I said to windy, descriptions are third person ascriptions created by people, whereas my subjective states are not.

    Transparently idiotic intellectually dishonest bullshit. “subjective states” is a description. All of our characterizations of physical phenomena are descriptions. Subjective states are no more immune to this than hurricanes.

  304. #304 truth machine, OM
    October 20, 2008

    P.S. If Tulse were a hurricane, he might say “descriptions are third person ascriptions created by people, whereas my eye is not”, and blather on about how physicalism reduces his eye to a mere epiphenomenon.

  305. #305 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    The soul doesn’t remember anything about previous lives while it is in its current incarnation. Between incarnations, however (and after incarnations are done, possibly), it remembers everything – or the most important things, anyway, not literally every single thing. If that makes more sense?

    It doesn’t matter whether it makes sense — it’s made-up bullshit unsupported by fact or logic.

  306. #306 Patricia
    October 21, 2008

    Sling blade.

  307. #307 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    According to Tulse, the hurricane “simply is” the movement of air molecules, that “there is nothing separate, no further thing that can be described that is needed for a complete explanation”.

    That’s right, there is no separate “hurricaneness” that the storms have, no need to, for example, postulate intention when one veers toward a US city.

    Tulse, you are so fucking dense. No one claims that there is a separate “hurricaneness” — “hurricaneness” refers to the same phenomenon. Sheesh. It’s dualistic morons like you who claim that “subjective states” are separate from the physical phenomenon that can also be described in terms of chemical activity in the brain.

  308. #308 CJO
    October 21, 2008

    So you rule out by definition the possibility of zombies. That hardly seems scientific.

    I rule it out in the same spirit that I would rule out the idea that a powerful chess algorithm ‘isn’t really playing chess': as icoherent or worse, ofuscatory. It’s not scientific, no; since Chalmers’s zombies are philosophical constructs, I evaluate them as such, and find them wanting as illuminating thought experiments.

    And there are plenty of talking toys out there that will claim to love you — do you take their verbal reports at face value?

    I’ll roll this in with ‘the subject of the sentence’ above in #286
    (What is the subject of the sentence when a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll says “I love you”? What is the subject of the sentence when the automated phone voice says “I’m sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed?” Does every object that uses a personal pronoun have to have subjective experience?)
    since you’re making the same argument. In these cases, there is no sentence to have a subject, and there is no “verbal report.” Those would be symbolic-manipulation objects, and I would only consider seriously those that might plausibly have originated with an agent capable of the sort of open ended combinatorial symbol manipulation that human beings employ. Just because a chat-bot or a thermostat is demonstrably not conscious doesn’t mean that no machine or string of code ever could be.

    It’s the same tendency in this discussion you’ve shown in preferring to talk about bees and nematodes as regards animal cognition. We can all agree that at the lower extremes of mind ‘there’s nobody home,’ and here with us hairless apes, at the (known) upper end, there obviously is (and not just because “other people are built like me,” as you say; we know this also because of the constant interplay of social life, where the congruities and incongruities of our individual experiences are revealed in all their un-fakeable complexity –we’re all natural heterophenomenologists).

  309. #309 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    If I get any time tomorrow I may try to follow up on any further posts.

    You might want to read that paper by Dennett and try to comprehend its implications.

  310. #310 Kel
    October 21, 2008

    The soul doesn’t remember anything about previous lives while it is in its current incarnation. Between incarnations, however (and after incarnations are done, possibly), it remembers everything – or the most important things, anyway, not literally every single thing.

    That’s a pretty definitive statement. How can you know that it’s true?

  311. #311 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    we’re all natural heterophenomenologists

    Ah, someone who truly gets it. I would note that each of us is a natural heterophenomenologist even in regard to ourself which, not being unified, is largely opaque to us (see my questions above and, of course, Minsky’s “Society of Mind”).

  312. #312 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    First off, this issue I’m interested in is not human subjective experience per se, but subjective experience in general.

    You’re totally lost. According to you, “I don’t doubt that other people have inner lives, because I do, and other people are built like me”. But given that and your dualistic view of subjective experience, you have no basis for ascribing any sort of subjective experience to non-humans.

  313. #313 CJO
    October 21, 2008

    Your nervous system has also evolved to associate excess blood glucose with the need to release insulin, but surely you don’t claim that these specific events involve subjective experience.

    Not relevant. You do claim that one of the associated phenomena in the analagous case has no material existence, which no one would claim of any input or output of pancreatic function.

  314. #314 windy
    October 21, 2008

    And how would that work, exactly? Would the subjective experience be somehow separate from its hardware and programming, but interact with them? If not, if it were just realized in the hardware and programming, to what extent would the “subjective” part be necessary at all?

    Again, we don’t have to show that something is ‘necessary’ for all species trying to accomplish task X to say that something seems to be an adaptation to accomplish X. Why is it ‘necessary’ to have a pleasure center in the brain rather than just a bunch of IF…THEN instructions?

    Somehow our nervous system has evolved to associate sugar and sex with pleasure. How has this happened if there is no causal feedback from the experience of pleasure to the physical world?

    This doesn’t get you anywhere, since the behaviours associated with both sweetness and pleasure can be fully explained as the result of purely physical processes, and thus their association can be as well.

    Exactly, so conceiving of it as a physical feedback loop is no problem for me. But I’m asking how you account for it with your non-causal subjective states. How did sweetness and sex become associated with the subjective experience of pleasure, and damage to the body with the subjective experience of pain? Where’s the connection?

    Actually, I think it is far less confusing to deal with non-humans, precisely because we are so close to the issue we have a hard time thinking about consciousness in ourselves. And I think the question is perfectly reasonable — if the claim is that because the evolution of human behaviour makes sense by talking about subjective states, therefore there must be subjective states, the example of the bees seems to be a reasonable
    counter-argument.

    If I say that bipedality has probably been selected for during human evolution, is it a reasonable counterargument to ask why bees don’t walk on two legs? Isn’t this a form of the “why are there still monkeys” argument?

    Well, I know I’m not a robot, or at least, if I am, I am one of the fancy ones with qualia.

    If there is no causal role for qualia, what causes you to write blog comments about having qualia?

  315. #315 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    Your experiences are just a “description” of processes? I’ve seen people say this kind of thing before, but I’ve never seen anyone unpack it in a way that explains anything. Description in all other cases are third-person ascriptions.

    “Windy has subjective experience” is a “third-person ascription”; sheesh. Ascriptions are ascriptions, they don’t have “person”; that is just another of your many confusions. “I have subjective experiences” is a way of characterizing a process, just as a computer printing “I’m finding the roots of an equation” is a way of characterizing a process. The sorts of distinctions you would like to make between these are question begging.

  316. #316 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    Again, we don’t have to show that something is ‘necessary’ for all species trying to accomplish task X to say that something seems to be an adaptation to accomplish X. Why is it ‘necessary’ to have a pleasure center in the brain rather than just a bunch of IF…THEN instructions?

    I think you’re misunderstanding Tulse’s use of “necessary” here. He’s asking why, given the physical description of the robot, it must be accompanied by subjective experience — it’s the zombie concept, that two physically identical entities could differ in one having subjective experience and the other not.

    If there is no causal role for qualia, what causes you to write blog comments about having qualia?

    Is is one of the things that is so absurd about Chalmers’ zombie concept — in his zombie world, there’s a Chalmers-zombie who is physically identical to and acts identically to Chalmers — but why? Why in zombie world are there numerous entities who are lying about having subjective experience, and creating intricate arguments about something that is completely non-existent in their world? Or they would be lying if they were conscious (zombies can’t lie because they can’t have intentions — yet more absurdity about the zombie concept).

  317. #317 Lemastre
    October 21, 2008

    I rather regret my belief that consciousness ends at physical death. I often converse with very old people and those in the last weeks of life, and those who believe in life after death seem to approach their demise more serenely.

  318. #318 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    There are plenty of properties that qualia have — I can certainly distinguish between tastes and sounds and smells and pains and sights, can’t you?

    These are properties that individual tastes and sounds and smells and pains and sights have, not that qualia have; redness is not red.

    Of course, such confusions have been addressed at length in the philosophy of mind literature; see, e.g., http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/quinqual.htm

  319. #319 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    “why is reality being experienced from the perspective of my body, instead of another?”.

    This is a profoundly stupid question. Your experience is determined by the sensory perceptions received by your brain, and those are a consequence of the location of your sensory organs. Other experiencers have the “perspective” of the locus of their sensory organs. That “perspective” can be changed by moving the locus — putting on a virtual reality mask, or even just watching a movie can do it.

  320. #320 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    There is nothing inherently “pleasurable” about the substance sucrose

    Duh. Something is “pleasurable” if we have a behavioral disposition to seek it out — that’s what our pleasure is. And it’s a consequence of evolution that we have behavioral dispositions maximize our fitness — thus we seek out (find pleasurable) sex and fruit, and avoid snakes and falling off of cliffs. Other creatures do so also, but their behavioral dispositions are implemented differently than ours is (which is why talk of nematodes is irrelevant and intellectually dishonest) — the behavior of many creatures is largely “hardwired”, whereas our behavior is largely a matter of a deliberative cognitive process, and so we have conceptual “tokens” like “pleasure” and “pain” that play an important role in our behavioral algorithm. And since we are introspective — we sense and analyze some part of our own cognitive process — these behavioral disposition tokens are available to our analysis, and so we can judge various stimuli or situations as being “pleasurable” (to be sought) or “painful” (to be avoided).

  321. #321 windy
    October 21, 2008
    Somehow our nervous system has evolved to associate sugar and sex with pleasure. How has this happened if there is no causal feedback from the experience of pleasure to the physical world?

    Your nervous system has also evolved to associate excess blood glucose with the need to release insulin, but surely you don’t claim that these specific events involve subjective experience.

    Not relevant.

    Also, excess blood glucose and the release of insulin are presumably both physical. Release of insulin at appropriate times was selected for and that’s why the two processes became associated. So how is that the same as the association of sex with the ‘release’ of non-physical (according to Tulse) qualia?

    (btw, doesn’t the pancreas ‘decide’ when to release insulin, not the nervous system? although it doesn’t matter for the example.)

  322. #322 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    I rather regret my belief that consciousness ends at physical death. I often converse with very old people and those in the last weeks of life, and those who believe in life after death seem to approach their demise more serenely.

    I can see regretting the fact that consciousness ends at physical death, but do you really regret believing what is true just because the truth is unpleasant?

  323. #323 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    Somehow our nervous system has evolved to associate sugar and sex with pleasure. How has this happened if there is no causal feedback from the experience of pleasure to the physical world?

    Your nervous system has also evolved to associate excess blood glucose with the need to release insulin, but surely you don’t claim that these specific events involve subjective experience.

    Not relevant.

    So did Tulse ever actually answer the question, rather than employing one of his intellectually dishonest dodges that simply demonstrates how dense and logic-disabled he is?

  324. #324 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    “do you, like Chalmers, actually believe that you can conceive of a fully functioning human being which lacks subjective experiences?”

    If you were an alien who didn’t know that humans had subjective experiences, you’d answer “yes”.

    It would have to be a pretty stupid alien — about as stupid as you — who ignored all the humans going on and on about their subjective experiences.

    CJO mentioned heterophenomenology. You really ought to look into that — it might lessen your immense denseness.

  325. #325 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    However, the notion that nothing but exctintion follows death has simply not been proven.

    Fail. No general empirical statement has ever been proven. Proof is the wrong standard. The correct standard is inference to the best explanation, and Ockham’s Razor is vital.

    We’ll have to wait and see what happens after death.

    Unless that question begging was meant as a joke, it is deeply idiotic.

  326. #326 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    I’d argue that if one doesn’t believe that physical description would be fully predictive, one isn’t a materialist. So, in short, while I’m damn sure that I have subjective experiences, there seems to be no causal role for them to play.

    If one doesn’t think that the physical description isn’t fully predictive of the presence of subjective experiences — if one can conceive of zombies– then one isn’t a physicalist.

    Beyond that, the notion that subjective experiences have no causal role to play is prima facie absurd when, as Windy noted, you are writing on a blog about subjective experience.

  327. #327 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    Tulse (#118): Because if physicalism is correct, then there should be no need for a notion of “mind” (in the subjective sense) any more than the notion of “motive force” for a car, or “vitalism” for organisms?

    Hmm. That’s bit like saying that if cell theory is correct, then there should be no need for the notion of “organisms”.

    No, since “organisms” can be perfectly described as collections of cells without resort to some non-physical notion, unlike “vitalism” or “motive force” or “subjective states”.

    Sigh. There’s no need for a notion of “mind” or of a notion of “organism”, unless one actually wants to talk sensibly about these things in a reasonable amount of time and space — again, see Dennett’s paper on two black boxes. We talk about minds and about organisms because they make such discussions manageable. There’s no “need” for cells either, or even molecules — everything could be explained in terms of strings, theoretically.

  328. #328 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    There is simply no place in the causal chain for “pain” independent of neuronal firings

    This is so stupid and ignorant. Pain causes us to say “Fuck! That hurts!” which affects the behavior of other people in various ways. It also affects our future behavior. Why not just store a record of the dangerous thing and scan for it on future encounters? That may be a possible implementation, but isn’t the one that the contingencies of evolution produced.

    And if you can imagine people evolving to shout “Fuck! That hurts!” without any “subjective experience” causing the outburst, you’re playing the same sort of intellectually dishonest game that the religious do with their sophistic rationalizations of their absurdities.

  329. #329 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    We could presumably have evolved to find the taste of sugar revolting

    Uh, no. Finding sugar revolting would lead one to avoid fruit and perish. But you seem to have some sort of truly loony idea that one could find sugar revolting as a “subjective experience” and yet seek out fruit as a result of neurons firing.

  330. #330 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    John C. Randolph (#234)

    Thanks for the observation.

    What an intellectually dishonest ass you are, Jason. Note Laser Potato’s #242. The reliability of jcr’s observations is well known in these parts, and his observations about me or anyone else who has challenged him are particularly unreliable.

  331. #331 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    More to the point, if subjective experience does play a causal role in behaviour, then you have the standard problem that all forms of dualism have wrestled with, namely, how on earth does the subjective mental interact with the objective physical?

    That is so fucking dumb. It’s only a problem if your conception of subjective experience is — as yours is — dualistic. For a physicalist who sees that subjective experience is fully determined by the physical, all the interactions are physical.

  332. #332 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    Back in 1905, a physician named Beaurieux experimented …

    There’s a sucker born every minute. Care to point to the efforts to reproduce this supposed experiment?

  333. #333 Janine ID AKA The Lone Drinker
    October 21, 2008

    This is what happens to you when you are dead.

    Kiss my ass! You fans will know what I mean.

  334. #334 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    This is probably one of the most common mistakes people make vis a vis the problem of personal identity over time – the failure to appreciate that duplication does not preserve personal identity. It may be comforting to think that a duplicate of yourself may exist after you are gone, someone who shares your goals and values and interests, and it is not unreasonable to be comforted by the thought, if the alternative is the loss from the universe of said goals, values and interests. But (by definition) your duplicate is not the same individual as you.

    The very notion of “personal identity over time” is flawed. “by definition”, the entity bearing your name one second from now isn’t the same individual as you. It may be comforting to think that another entity that shares your goals and values and interests may exist one second from now, but if there’s a nuke heading toward you and you perish before one second has passed, you will be completely unaware of it and will never have any cause for concern.

  335. #335 Janine ID AKA The Lone Drinker
    October 21, 2008

    Posted by: truth machine, OM | October 20, 2008 11:30 PM

    We are in fact robots — there’s no non-question-begging way to make a distinction.

    I prefer the term, meat puppet.

  336. #336 Anton Mates
    October 21, 2008

    Tulse,

    are you arguing that the experience of pleasure at sex, tasting sugar, etc., is purely neutral, and they could just as well been connected with revulsion?

    Precisely, just as some people love blue cheese and others despise it.

    But people who despise blue cheese usually don’t eat it. And those who for some reason do eat it–perhaps because they think it has medicinal properties, or a dairy industry lobbyist is holding a gun to their head–express their distaste in plenty of empirically detectable ways. Even if they’re superb actors and sit there rhapsodizing over its deliciousness, their brain activity’s still different than it would be if they were actually enjoying themselves.

    To my knowledge, there’s no evidence for the existence of someone who despises blue cheese and devours it with every detectable sign of pleasure. I see no reason to think it’s even possible.

    There is nothing inherently “pleasurable” about the substance sucrose, and many organisms that are extremely simple seek out sugars and other foods, yet presumably don’t have a subjective experience of pleasure.

    But, again, those organisms don’t actually behave identically to a food-craving human. If you remove or invert a human’s love of sugar, she’s going to be much less effective at locating and consuming it. Granting her a microbe-like tendency to reflexively shuffle up the local fructose gradient won’t make up the difference.

    Enjoying sugar does seem to be an important factor in the behavior suite humans have evolved for feeding, even if lower organisms don’t need it.

  337. #337 Andreas Johansson
    October 21, 2008

    I guess I’m an exception, because even back when I was a Christian, and “officially” believed in an afterlife, I often found myself thinking in implicitly extinctivist ways. Nowadays, of course, I don’t try and think differently.

  338. #338 Walton
    October 21, 2008

    I know it’s a little off the main topic of the thread, but I find this discussion about enjoying/being repelled by certain foods quite interesting, because I myself have some bizarre food aversions. I can’t eat apples, and haven’t been able to since I was very young; and I can’t stand the smell or taste of banana. (I can’t even eat banoffee pie.) To my knowledge there’s no medical reason why I wouldn’t be able to eat these foods, but I find them absolutely disgusting.

    So why do we have strange foibles like this? There doesn’t seem to be any evolutionary point whatsoever; indeed, surely it’s a counter-survival trait? I know next to nothing about this field, so hopefully someone can enlighten me.

  339. #339 Mister Griswold
    October 21, 2008

    Exactly, Kel #79!

  340. #340 Pikemann Urge
    October 21, 2008

    truth machine #325: “Fail. No general empirical statement has ever been proven.”

    Well, exactly. The only valid statements that an empiricist can make in this case are

    1. We don’t know or
    2. We can’t know

    It should be pointed out that Ockham’s razor isn’t, as someone pointed out previously, a physical law. Useful tool? Hell yes. A law? No.

  341. #341 Iain Walker
    October 21, 2008

    Truth Machine (#334):

    The very notion of “personal identity over time” is flawed. “by definition”, the entity bearing your name one second from now isn’t the same individual as you.

    This is the same “you can’t step in the same river twice” fallacy that Silver Fox was pushing in an earlier thread. It’s a form of the fallacy of composition – the unwarranted inference that because the parts are no longer the same, the whole is no longer the same.

    Well, we do re-identify wholes or systems over time, even if the parts or states of the system change. To put it another way, our concepts of things like streams and persons include the understanding that they are dynamic things extended in time, and that when we use the terms “stream” or “person” we are not referring to some snapshot at some instant in time, but to the temporally extended individual. That persons are things that can be reidentified over time is embedded in our concept of a person.

    The real problem is not that we can’t reidentify particulars that undergo changes, but how much change (and to which parts and properties) an individual can undergo and still be the same individual. Our criteria for reidentifying dynamic systems over time are never going to be hard-and-fast, but are going to admit of grey areas where continued identity is uncertain or ambiguous. But that’s not a reason for denying that we can reidentify such systems at all – after all, we can admit grey areas in other questions of identity and classification (e.g., we may not be able to tell whether populations A and B are the same or different species, but that does not invalidate our classifying of organisms into species).

  342. #342 Aksunai
    October 21, 2008

    #221: You might say that it’s a side effect of the development of consciousness. An animal can look around and see things die and understand death, but until it realizes that this concept is self-relevant I don’t think it’s going to fear death.

    As a side note, I did a project for my honours thesis on afterdeath beliefs and we found a few interesting things I’d like to share:
    1. The obvious–Christians believe strongly in an afterlife and atheists strongly believe in annihilation.
    2. Christians feared death less IF they believed that what you believe about the afterlife matters.
    3. Atheists feared death less IF they believed that what you believe about the afterlife DOESN’T matter.

    I pitied those poor Christians who believe that what they believe about the afterlife doesn’t matter. :P I think this study goes to show Christians that you don’t have to believe in God to alleviate your fear of death. All you need is a consistent framework.

  343. #343 CJO
    October 21, 2008

    I can’t eat apples, and haven’t been able to since I was very young; and I can’t stand the smell or taste of banana. (I can’t even eat banoffee pie.) To my knowledge there’s no medical reason why I wouldn’t be able to eat these foods, but I find them absolutely disgusting.
    So why do we have strange foibles like this? There doesn’t seem to be any evolutionary point whatsoever; indeed, surely it’s a counter-survival trait? I know next to nothing about this field, so hopefully someone can enlighten me.

    Well, we globalized moderns have exponentially more choices about the foods we eat than our prehistoric ancestors. Chances are you would not develop an aversion to bananas were that a staple food in your native diet with very few alternative sources of fructose and potassium available.

    So I doubt it’s evolutionary, or counter-adaptive, to be repulsed by certain foods. The adaptive character of revulsions in general, though, is pretty easy to understand: it’s to avoid toxins and spoiled food. Chances are, some negative experience in your early childhood with these fruits caused you to form an association with them and the poison-avoiding revulsion behavior. When I was a small child, I was once violently ill soon after eating a plate of scrambled eggs (it was a bug, not bad eggs). For many years I gagged at the sight or smell of scrambled eggs, but, oddly, I still liked fried and boiled eggs.

  344. #344 Lemastre
    October 21, 2008

    Truth machine’s questioning the integrity of wanting to believe what one believes is untrue is well taken (message 322). The people I encounter have done most of whatever medical science can do to prolong their lives and are now facing death. In this context, it seems to me that believing you’re bound for heaven can have mostly positive effects in providing some comfort. If you believed correctly, death is a great reward. If you believed incorrectly, ceasing to exist eliminates your having to rue your error and imposes no additional burden on your survivors.

  345. #345 Seamyst
    October 21, 2008

    Kel:

    The soul doesn’t remember anything about previous lives while it is in its current incarnation. Between incarnations, however (and after incarnations are done, possibly), it remembers everything – or the most important things, anyway, not literally every single thing.

    That’s a pretty definitive statement. How can you know that it’s true?

    I can’t know that it’s true, I freely admit this. It just makes the most sense to me, based on my belief in reincarnation (which itself has no basis in provable fact).

  346. #346 Jason Streitfeld
    October 21, 2008

    Jeff and Tulse

    Let me explain my perspective here a little more clearly.

    My question, which has not been answered in a legitimate way yet, is this: what is your basis for regarding anything as being outside the realm of scientific observability?

    Tulse, you said because that is the way “subjectivity” is basically defined. That is not a legitimate answer for two reasons: first, because that is not how everybody defines the term; second, because it does not explain to us why you would want to adopt a definition that is so antagonistic to scientific rationality.

    Subjectivity can be defined simply as “experience,” as Jeff has said. Experiences have properties, called qualia, and these seem to be a matter of neurological processes and functions. There is no evidence that there is some other stuff involved, let alone any “non-physical” stuff, whatever that might mean. So why claim that experiences can only be observed by the person who is having them?

    Are neurological processes only observable by the brain which is having them? Of course not.

    Why can’t some technology be developed which will allow us to observe the properties of mental experiences as they occur in a person’s brain?

    And, even if such technology could never be developed, why claim that the reason for this limitation is because subjectivity is not physical?

    It could be that there are physical limitations on what can be observed within the physical universe. That is not grounds for claiming there is any “non-physical” stuff involved.

    Let’s take a very broad look at the language here. The terms “subjectivity,” “experience” and “physical” are often bandied about with little concern for philosophical sophistication or clarity. Quite often, these terms seem to be used to give a false impression of sophistication, producing more confusion than anything else.

    The meaning of the term “physical” is not limited by any particular scientific theory or set of observations. Today, for example, scientists speculate about string theory. Perhaps strings are part of the physical world. Perhaps they are not. No matter how the questions posed by string theory are decided, the term “physical” will not change its basic meaning. The reason is that “physical” refers to whatever we can scientifically observe to be part of the universe.

    Since we cannot meaningfully discuss things that we define out of scientific observability, the term “physical” refers to everything that is, was, and ever will be a part of the universe.

    Now, if you want to talk about human experience in a rational way, I don’t think you can claim it is not physical, or that it cannot be scientifically observed.

    That is, again, the default, scientific point of view. If you want to argue against it, you need some reason or evidence. And since you can’t use evidence (as that would require you to abide by science’s rules), you must use reason. So, what’s your reason?

    Claiming that aliens wouldn’t attribute subjectivity to human beings is quite wrong. Because if said aliens actually understood subjectivity and experience, they wouldn’t fall for the traps you are setting in this discussion. They would know that any being which could interact complexly with the world must have some kind of internal experiences, and they would not stipulate that there was some mysterious other stuff on top of it which they possessed, but which other beings didn’t.

    So please answer the question. Since you can’t have any evidence in support of your view, where is your reason?

  347. #347 windy
    October 21, 2008

    But people who despise blue cheese usually don’t eat it.

    Exactly, so there we have an empirical prediction of behavior derived from differences in subjective experience. I would still like to know how the proponents of non-physical qualia explain this. (Presumably it involves robots and bees somehow.)

    It is not an answer to say that you could make the prediction “without resort to subjective experience”. A complete physical description of an organism or a hurricane would allow you to predict things without referencing the concept of ‘organism’ or ‘hurricane’ at all. That doesn’t change the fact that there is something physical corresponding to those concepts.

  348. #348 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    This is the same “you can’t step in the same river twice” fallacy that Silver Fox was pushing in an earlier thread. It’s a form of the fallacy of composition – the unwarranted inference that because the parts are no longer the same, the whole is no longer the same.

    Sigh. A little knowledge, and all that. Uh, no, that’s not a fallacy of composition — that would involve assigning properties of the parts to the whole or v.v., but “same” is not a property of something, it’s a relationship between descriptions. Rather than being a fallacy, it’s a theorem, from Liebniz, that two things are different if any of their properties are different. You can loosen the meaning of “same” to allow for a convention of identity of a changing object over time, but it’s just a convention, and any such loosening will allow in other cases such as duplication, contrary to the distinction you tried to make. Logically, there’s nothing special about destroying something and replacing it with a duplicate; in each case there are two world descriptions, at t1 and t2, and the two world descriptions in the continuity case are the same as the two world descriptions in the destroy-and-replace case.

  349. #349 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    This is the same “you can’t step in the same river twice” fallacy that Silver Fox was pushing in an earlier thread. It’s a form of the fallacy of composition – the unwarranted inference that because the parts are no longer the same, the whole is no longer the same.

    Sigh. A little knowledge, and all that. Uh, no, that’s not a fallacy of composition — that would involve assigning properties of the parts to the whole or v.v., but “same” is not a property of something, it’s a relationship between descriptions. Rather than being a fallacy, it’s a theorem, from Liebniz, that two things are different if any of their properties are different. You can loosen the meaning of “same” to allow for a convention of identity of a changing object over time, but it’s just a convention, and any such loosening will allow in other cases such as duplication, contrary to the distinction you tried to make. Logically, there’s nothing special about destroying something and replacing it with a duplicate; in each case there are two world descriptions, at t1 and t2, and the two world descriptions in the continuity case are the same as the two world descriptions in the destroy-and-replace case.

  350. #350 truth machine, OM
    October 21, 2008

    Well, exactly. The only valid statements that an empiricist can make in this case are

    1. We don’t know or
    2. We can’t know

    That’s absurdly stupid; science is full of all sort of “valid statements” that aren’t of that form.

    It should be pointed out that Ockham’s razor isn’t, as someone pointed out previously, a physical law. Useful tool? Hell yes. A law? No.

    It’s a theorem in information theory that basically says how to maximize the chances that your explanations won’t be falsified.

  351. #351 Nathanael Nerode
    October 24, 2008

    I think I ‘got’ death when I went under general anesthesia.

    I lost time. It just wasn’t there. There wasn’t even the perception of time having passed, as there is with sleep; one moment they were putting the anesthesia in: first my vision faded, then the next moment [in fact several hours had passed] I was throwing up. After quite a long time my vision came back.

    Apparently the world continued even though I, my consciousness, was *not there*. Completely absent. Hours had passed and I had been moved to a different room. However, the parts of my consciousness which tracked where I was still thought I was in the previous location, causing immense disorientation, especially since my vision and hearing were nonfunctional.

    So, you know, if my consciousness just stopped and wasn’t there any more, I guess the world would continue. I can certainly envision that, even though I can’t really imagine the ‘never waking up’ part.

    I guess before I really couldn’t imagine a world existing without me to observe it. Which makes death incomprehensible from a personal point of view. And we do model other people with minds as “like us”, in many many ways.

    I guess the interesting question for me in death is in what order the senses shut off, and how long it takes. Which presumably depends on how you die. When, eventually, this happens it will be interesting to experience it, until consciousness cuts out. Sadly there is no chance of being able to report this to the outside world.

  352. #352 Nathanael Nerode
    October 24, 2008

    So in sum: if you want to get people to realize that their personal consciousness can end, put them under the same sort of general anesthesia I went under!

    The generalization from consciousness being suspended to consciousness ending is not so hard. The concept that your consciousness could be anything but permanent and eternal is the hard part. Heck, it’s hard to believe that your consciousness didn’t *predate your memory*, or *predate your birth*.

  353. #353 lostn
    October 27, 2008

    “I guess I must not be content with it because despite being an atheist, thinking of my non-existence gives me the screaming heebee-jeebies.

    Screaming.”

    A quote from the great philosopher Epicurus:

    If I am, then death is not.
    If death is, then *I* am not.
    Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?

    The two can’t both exist at the same time, so there’s no need to fear anything.

  354. #354 magobsession
    November 1, 2008

    I spent a good part of this morning reading the comments to this blog post. I then went out to lunch and, in an amazing coincidence, the Jehovah’s Witnesses left a leaflet at my front door while I was out. One of the items in the leaflet was this gem from Ecclesiastes 9:5 –

    “For the living know that they will die,
    but the dead know nothing;
    they have no further reward,
    and even the memory of them is forgotten.”

    So there you have it. According to the Bible, there is no consciousness after death. No reward to hope for, no punishment to fear. PZ has taken a literalist Biblical stance on the question of consciousness after death!

  355. #355 Leo MacDonald
    January 17, 2009

    I can’t believe a lot of the comments on here. The evidence for past lives is overwhelming. Ian Stevenson has done the best work in this field of research. I get so tired of hearing that the idea of an afterlife is mostly a religious view. That is not true psychical research has looked into this subject with massive amounts of evidence to support survival. A lot of the evidence for survival is posted on my blog.

  356. #356 Janine, Leftist Bozo
    January 17, 2009

    Memories of one life that appears in an other life form. Nothing religious there.

  357. #357 Nerd of Redhead
    January 17, 2009

    Well, we now have a woo blog to avoid.

  358. #358 Michael H
    January 18, 2009

    Well, we now have a woo blog to avoid.

    Absolutely. It’s much better to cling to certitude rather than to consider anything that conflicts with what we already believe. As Schopenhauer noted, ” . . .every one is at liberty to be a fool.”

  359. #359 Nerd of Redhead
    January 18, 2009

    Mike, I read Skeptical Inquirer. They debunked that years ago. So I know the “evidence”. No need to see the present woo. Some idiocies never change.

  360. #360 Anon
    January 18, 2009

    Actually, a quick look at several pages of that website tell me three things:

    1) I know more about the topic than the author of that site.
    2) The author of that site appears honestly and sincerely convinced.
    3) The author of that site is badly mistaken, and utterly wrong in his views.

    The history of the American and European societies for psychical research is a fascinating one; I have taught classes on the psychology of paranormal belief where we have spent weeks hip-deep in that old literature, and its modern equivalent. The cognitive research, the sensation, perception, learning, memory, etc., research that is required to really know this topic area, is formidable. The “evidence” is quite convincing, to anyone who does not know how shoddy some of it is, and how much better mundane explanations fit than paranormal ones.

    The author of that site is young; I wonder whether the site might be, eventually, a nice tale of someone learning more and more, and eventually concluding that his initial position was wrong. A bit like Blackmore’s journey, but the blog would be an ongoing real-time perspective.

    And Michael, there is nothing at that blog that conflicts with evidence, other than the author’s conclusions.

  361. #361 Walton
    January 18, 2009

    A quote from the great philosopher Epicurus:

    If I am, then death is not.
    If death is, then *I* am not.
    Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?

    The two can’t both exist at the same time, so there’s no need to fear anything.

    One’s own death, perhaps – but I think it’s the fear of the death of loved ones, not of one’s own death, which principally causes people to want to believe in life after death. If a small child’s just been run over in a car accident, any decent person wants to believe that s/he has gone to a better place.

    Admittedly, this is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether a belief in life after death is an intellectually tenable position. But I would question your assertion that there is no reason to fear death. There’s no reason for me to fear my own death, but there is every reason for me to fear the deaths of people I care about – giving me a powerful incentive, therefore, to want to believe in the immortal soul. Other than complete sociopaths, I imagine most people feel the same way.

  362. #362 Michael H
    January 18, 2009

    Mike, I read Skeptical Inquirer.

    Good for you. I’d suggest that if anyone wants to arrive at the truth, it’s probably wise to be skeptical of their skepticism. But it’s not my place to convince anyone of that, or of anything else for that matter. Everyone here seems to be perfectly at peace with their particular worldview.

    The only problem appears to be that almost everyone has a different worldview. Whether it’s a Jehovah’s Witness or a devout atheist, the common denominator seems to be, “If only everyone else saw things as I do.”

    To either, I can only say, “Good luck with that!”

  363. #363 Nerd of Redhead
    January 18, 2009

    I am skeptical of my skepticism. But I also have a good BS meter, and your claims set it off big time. Plus, your claims have been debunked by people I trust more than you. And your “be skeptical of your skepticism” is a classic woo statement. That set off further alarm bells. You can’t win this argument, as I can’t hear you over the alarm bells.

  364. #364 Damian
    January 18, 2009

    I’d suggest that if anyone wants to arrive at the truth, it’s probably wise to be skeptical of their skepticism.

    Not to the degree that you accept anecdotal evidence as fact — which is essentially the sum total of life-after-death “research”. It is certainly not derived from modern cognitive science, that’s for sure. But then, I suppose that it has a materialist bias, doesn’t it? It’s amazing how we keep moving forward, though, don’t you think, given that we are so obviously misinformed.

    Does it not concern you that most of the literature concerning life-after-death comes from what most intellectually honest scientists would consider as fringe publications, such as the Journal of Scientific Exploration? If it doesn’t, you have exactly the opposite problem that you accuse us of having — too little skepticism.

    Creationists have their own “peer-reviewed” publications too. And I think that we all know why that is, don’t we?

    Remember: the truth is consistent with itself.

    Everyone here seems to be perfectly at peace with their particular worldview.

    Indeed, although you wouldn’t have a clue what my “worldview” is, or if I would even agree that I have one. Infact, I’m instantly suspicious whenever someone even brings that up, to be honest. It usually indicates that the person believes things that don’t exactly map well to reality.

    Whether it’s a Jehovah’s Witness or a devout atheist, the common denominator seems to be, “If only everyone else saw things as I do.”

    Not at all! I honestly couldn’t care less that you are willing to accept things on insufficient evidence. I can’t say that hypocrites don’t bother me — taking advantage of the wonders of modern science, while rejecting the aspects that don’t comport with their beliefs — but I’ll survive.

    Here’s your chance: list some peer-reviewed publications from reputable journals and I’ll take a look. Otherwise, you are simply blowing hot-air and hoping that no-one will call you out on it.

  365. #365 Patricia, OM
    January 18, 2009

    Hey Nerd, Look at that, Walton sounds like he’s drunk!
    Good for you Walton.

  366. #366 Michael H
    January 18, 2009

    . . . your claims have been debunked by people I trust more than you . . . You can’t win this argument, as I can’t hear you over the alarm bells.

    I’m not engaging in an argument, Nerd. You may be, but I’m not.

    I am curious, however, as to what claims I’ve made that you find so troubling. Is it the observation that everyone appears to perceive the world differently? I’m not aware to have made any claim besides that one, which seems to be a rather obvious observation. Check the divorce rate if you need confirmation.

    If I differ with most, it’s in that I don’t think we’ll ever arrive at a world where everyone entertains the exact same thoughts about the nature of reality. What we may eventually arrive at though, is the understanding that we are all experiencing reality through our thoughts.

    It’s entirely up to others to decide whether that bit of speculation is “woo” – or whether it has any bearing on the question of the survival of consciousness – or not.

    For whatever it’s worth, anyone who claims that the question of consciousness is decided, or that scientific materialism has been “proven”, should take a moment to read David Brooks’ column in the New York Times from earlier this year:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/13/opinion/13brooks.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

    I suppose anyone can claim that a nationally respected columnist known for conservative political commentary is just disseminating “woo”, but he does point out that the trend in consciousness studies is decidedly shifting away from scientism.

  367. #367 Steve_C
    January 18, 2009

    Fuck David Brooks. He’s an ass.

  368. #368 Nerd of Redhead
    January 18, 2009

    Patricia, Walton drunk? I can’t say. But I have gone back to reading his posts now that the L-word crap is no longer there. He’s questioning things and trying to find answers. He does seem more mellow since the first of the year. A possible significant other in his life?

  369. #369 Walton
    January 18, 2009

    But I have gone back to reading his posts now that the L-word crap is no longer there. He’s questioning things and trying to find answers. He does seem more mellow since the first of the year. A possible significant other in his life?

    Regrettably not. (I wish). I’ve just come to the realisation that there’s nothing more to be gained from arguing libertarianism vs. liberalism on this particular site. Everyone here knows my political standpoint, and there’s a point beyond which any discussion just turns into fruitless partisan sniping.

    In contrast, on religious and philosophical matters I do think there’s still a worthwhile discussion to be had – hence why I’m still here.

    And no, I’m not drunk. Was my post that incoherent?

  370. #370 Patricia, OM
    January 18, 2009

    Probably wishful thinking on my part. He does seem to be trying for 09.

  371. #371 Patricia, OM
    January 18, 2009

    Walton – I think you keep coming back because this is one of the few sites where people tell the truth.

    Your post wasn’t incoherent, it was just more upbeat than usual. Whenever I see your name on a post I picture the character Eeyore with a “Kick Me” sign pinned on his rump.

  372. #372 Damian
    January 18, 2009

    Michael H, I’m not sure why you feel that the article supports your views. I agree with much of what David Brooks said, apart from the materialist strawman that he set up, that is. I mean, really, if you don’t even understand what modern materialism is, how can you claim to be arguing against it, but that is exactly what Brooks did.

    Nothing in modern neuroscience suggests that “science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other.” That is utter garbage, I’m afraid. And to be honest, it’s not unexpected coming from someone who has a degree in history.

    So, let’s see what the scientists that Brooks mentioned think, shall we?

    Antonio Damasio suggests that materialism “informs virtually all research on mind and brain, explicitly and implicitly”

    As for dualism:

    “Not so, says Damasio, and neuroscientists overwhelmingly agree: we are, and have to be, materialists.”

    As I can’t provide more than 2 links it would be unfair of me to simply quote people without them, so I suggest that you read this rebuttal of Brooks piece:

    Let?s get clear about materialism

    This is from the scienceblog, Frontal Cortex:

    Neural Buddhism?

    “Well, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist who wasn’t a hard-core materialist. That, after all, is why they’re studying the brain.”

    Nobody has suggested that everything can simply be reduced to the material — in the reductionist sense — and that is a terribly outdated view of materialism, anyway. But that doesn’t mean that we can simply go beyond material causes, either, and pretend that there is something “beyond”. Very few serious neuroscientists believe that, I’m afraid.

    I suggest that you read some of the books by the scientists that Brooks mentioned. I would be very surprised if you came to the same conclusions about their work as he seems to have. I have my doubts as to whether the scientists that he mentioned would agree with him, either.

    Oh, and do some research on what modern materialism is, as well. You might find that you agree with much of it! It is informed by modern science, unsurprisingly, and most of those who adhere to it are too intellectually honest to go beyond what science is telling us.

    I just wish that I could say the same for those who wish that things were different. Alas, I’m not sure that I can.

  373. #373 Michael H
    January 18, 2009

    Thanks for the links, Damian.

    Interestingly enough, the second link closed with an observation that I can only agree with: “It is ironic, but true: The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know.”

    As far as all neuroscientists being hard-core materialists, I could mention Jill Bolte Taylor, but I think Newberg’s comments that follow are more germane. This is taken from the Pew Forum’s Event How our Brains are Wired for Belief, which I think was the inspiration for the Brooks column. (He participated in the forum as well).

    NEWBERG: Certainly relative to the general public, there are a lot more scientists who look at the world from a pretty materialistic perspective. That being said, I think there are still a lot of scientists who aren?t ? who are struggling with this. In fact, you mentioned genetics, and we just had Francis Collins talk at Penn.

    I?m sure most of you know who he is, but he is the head of the Human Genome Project. He has pretty much gone completely to the religious perspective, understanding the genome as a way of proving God?s existence. Now, he has probably gone a little bit more extreme than most others, but there are a lot of people, I think, who the more we investigate ? and whether it is through biology, or physics, especially as you get up across some of these boundary questions about consciousness and the origins of the universe and all that, it becomes a much more philosophical issue. While they may not necessarily go over to a religious understanding, I think they tend to feel they can?t exclude the possibility that there is this other dimension. The point is well taken that there are a lot of scientists and a lot of non-scientists who believe, almost, in what we talk about, like scientism, that it is just the material world, and science is going to answer everything that we need to know about it.

    But there also are, I think, a growing number of people who are acutely aware of the problems with that. While they may not necessarily be willing to go over to the religious side, they are at least somewhat open to the possible perspective ?

    BROOKS: Mystery.

    NEWBERG: To the mystery and to exploring it. I think that it is growing. If you go back 15 or 20 years, then I think a huge number ? I don?t know if we could have even done this research 10 or 15 years ago ? but there has been growth.

    I agree with Newberg that this is indeed a philosophical issue. Another link that may be worth reading, when and if you find the time, is the paper On Math, Matter and Mind, (PDF) where physicists Hut, Alford and Tegmark explore the Penrose triangle:

    We discuss the nature of reality in the ontological context of Penrose?s math-matter-mind triangle. The triangle suggests the circularity of the widespread view that math arises from the mind, the mind arises out of matter, and that matter can be explained in terms of math. Non-physicists should be wary of any claim that modern physics leads us to any particular resolution of this circularity, since even the sample of three theoretical physicists writing this paper hold three divergent views.

    What most concerns me about both the original PZ Myers piece here, as well as the bulk of the comments, is the implication that the question of consciousness has been settled. It?s not even close to being settled, and until it is, any claims regarding the survival of consciousness are in the realm of speculation. The proper answer to the question is, ?we don?t know”, and further, that?s what we should be teaching people.

    I personally don?t think we?ll ever arrive at the answer to the puzzle of consciousness through reductionism. At the same time, I think that anyone who sufficiently investigates their own consciousness may be surprised by what they discover.

    The last is, of course, just speculation on my part.

  374. #374 Jason Streitfeld
    February 14, 2009

    Re Penrose’s “triangle” . . .

    There’s no circularity there. It would be circular if we were to say that matter arises out of math. There’s nothing circular about saying that math arises from the mind, and that we use math (and other things that arise from the mind) to explain matter, including the fact that the mind itself arises from matter.

    There’s no philosophical conundrum here. No puzzle. Just a lot of room open for scientific discovery.

  375. #375 David Staume
    March 14, 2009

    I’m an atheist, whose rational brain seems to work reasonably fine, except in regards to the possibility of an afterlife. There has never been a time in my life when I haven’t thought an afterlife was possible. So what is this? Wishful thinking? A delusion? An intuition – and what exactly is that anyway? I really don’t know. A few years ago I put my mind to the task of answering the question ‘As an atheist, is it reasonable to believe in an afterlife?’ The best argument I could come up with is the Argument from Geometry, which says:

    ‘There is reason to believe that we dream in a different geometry to waking experience. It is possible to form a conception of how an additional dimension of space and an additional dimension of time would affect our experience, and this conception correlates with dream experience. To put it another way, the weird things that happen in our dreams are exactly the weird things we would expect to happen if there was an additional dimension of space and an additional dimension of time.

    If this is correct, it leads us to the question, ‘How could our brain dream in a different geometry to the geometry in which it exists?’ The answer is: it couldn’t. If the correlation between dream experience and the experience of additional dimensions is correct, it cannot be our brain that is dreaming. This leads to the conclusion that it must be our mind that is dreaming, and therefore that our brain and our mind are different.’

    This is – I think – the best argument for the possibility of an afterlife. I can refer people to more info if they’re interested. Is there an afterlife? I don’t know, but if I have to give my reasons for believing in the posssibility, the Argument from Geometry is the best I can come up with. My dream experience – of a few lucid dreams – leads me to believe that we do dream in an expanded geometry to waking experience. Then again, I could be deluded about that too.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.