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Heaven is Not for Real

The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death (rearranged detail of book cover elements)

If they were aiming for success and popularity, the editors of The Myth of an Afterlife have obviously not been paying attention to current trends in publishing that have given us such books as Heaven is for Real, Proof of Heaven, Evidence of the Afterlife, and Consciousness Beyond Life.1 On the other hand, there was clearly a niche waiting to be filled for books skeptical of the immortality of the soul and the existence of the afterlife. But it turns out there are not so many of those. Perhaps this asymmetry between books favorable to a survivalist account and those defending a “mortalist” one, already reveals a peculiarity of the human mind: somehow, the hypothesis that we do survive bodily death is more appealing, commonsensical and widespread than the alternative.

Not ones to surrender to popular pressure, philosophers Keith Augustine and the late Michael Martin took it upon themselves to assemble a team of 29 valiant contributors to attack the afterlife “myth.” The result is an impressive volume composed of 30 essays, spanning 675 pages and organized in 4 parts.

Part 1 addresses “empirical arguments for annihilation,” i.e. “the position that persons permanently cease to exist at biological death” (2). As it turns out, these arguments really amount to the daily bread and butter of cognitive neuroscientists, and thus this portion of the book read like a crash-course in brain science. The “argument from brain damage,” for instance, uses neuropsychological evidence to show that “the destruction of the mind by the destruction of the brain is highly probable given the hypothesis that the mind depends entirely upon the functioning of the brain, but is highly improbable given the hypothesis that the mind can exist and operate independently of the brain.” If all brain functions have been turned off, “what’s left for a soul to do?” (121).

Parts 2 and 3 deal with broad philosophical, conceptual and empirical issues that collectively aim at dismantling the plausibility of souls and the afterlife. Among the many problems surrounding the notion of a “disembodied afterlife” are vexing questions such as how could disembodied entities with no spatial locations interact with biological and physical systems, or recognize each other, or move, act, perceive, remember and think, all without a brain. The conclusion is that no coherent or desirable version of the soul could plausibly survive brain death.

Part 4 considers “dubious evidence for survival” and essentially debunks parapsychological data related to out-of-body, near-death, haunting, mediumnic and reincarnation phenomena, all, indeed, frequently adduced as evidence for the afterlife as they purportedly involve some type of dissociation between mind and body.

Combined with the robust neuroscientific evidence in favor of a complete dependency of the mind on the brain’s functioning presented in Part 1, and the conceptual issues highlighted in Parts 2 and 3, the very weak, scarce, unreliable and controversial evidence for paranormal experiences suggestive of some kind of survival of bodily death, instead of the major challenge to contemporary materialism it is often purported to be, actually looks like a devastating blow to the last hopes of believers in the afterlife.

Given the current success of neuroscience in establishing the neural basis of consciousness and thought, is it still honest to claim that we simply don’t know “what comes after”?

A considerable portion of The Myth of and Afterlife hinges on the brain sciences, mainly in supporting the “dependence thesis,” which states that “having a functioning brain…is a necessary condition (or prerequisite) for having any sort of conscious experiences. And if human consciousness most likely cannot exist in the absence of brain activity, then it must cease to exist when the brain dies” (3). The book reviews data from brain imaging, lesion studies, genetics, development, aging and dementia, diseases such as epilepsy, mind-altering drugs, brain stimulation, animal studies and evolution, all pointing to consistent, robust, coherent, specific and predictive mind-brain correlations for personality, memory, language, perception, reasoning and basically all the features traditionally ascribed to surviving souls. This leaves afterlife believers’ with the unsustainable alternatives of having either to reconcile this evidence with their belief, or to simply ignore it. However, the price of reconciliation might be just too high. In a chapter titled “The Dualist’s Dilemma,” Keith Augustine and Yonatan Fishman closely examine in a Bayesian fashion the likelihood of the afterlife given the current evidence, and conclude that the prospects for survival are not very promising. The Myth of and Afterlife thus provides what looks to me like a new argument, by asking not what is gained by a belief in the afterlife, but what is lost. What is lost is essentially the very value of scientific evidence, and especially of brain science evidence.

Do neuroscientists concur with this approach? To my knowledge, there is no data directly addressing this question. A survey from 1998 found that less than eight percent of leading scientists from the National Academy of Sciences believed in “human immortality,” with biological scientists—probably including a fair share of those who study the nervous system—displaying the lowest rates of belief (7.1 percent),2 obviously much less than the general population. However, a more general survey of medical and healthcare students and people attending scientific or public conferences on consciousness found widespread acceptance of the afterlife (between 40 and 70 percent).3

The tenacity of such beliefs might be explained by innate cognitive tendencies such as the automatic detection of agents and intentions, a bias for teleological and essentialist reasoning,4 or simply by our cognitive difficulty (or impossibility) to conceive of our own inexistence.5 Perhaps also denial of immortality has lacked scholarly voices and due consideration as a respectable scientific and philosophical position, whether or not due to the dominant position of the alternative view. Important books like this one might help tip the balance in a way more favorable to the actual scientific evidence.

While much of the arguments in The Myth of an Afterlife make use of findings from the cognitive neurosciences to support the dependence thesis, the book does not address the biological and psychological origins of afterlife beliefs. Yet the central idea that the current mind sciences actively disprove the survival hypothesis could be further supported by neurocognitive explanations of why such beliefs arose and spread in the first place. In this regard, the parapsychological section could be read as a display of successful cultural attractors for the afterlife belief, rather than deficient lines of evidence for the belief per se. Reports of hauntings might not be “real,” but they are certainly not unexpected if the human brain is in some way tuned to the idea of the afterlife. Indeed, neuropathological syndromes such as out-of-body or near-death experiences,6 could be seen as the very origins of soul and afterlife beliefs,7 beliefs which, ironically, later co-opted these very experiences as evidence for their own validity.

The Myth of an Afterlife, rather, stays focused on its main mission of dismantling the survival hypothesis, regardless of why humans tend to accept it. Its rigor, relentless argumentation, and careful attention to the evidence and possible objections make it a major and unique contribution to a topic long neglected by scientists. Its main virtue, in fact, is simply to take the idea of the afterlife and its consequences seriously, and see where this leads. Given the current success of neuroscience in establishing the neural basis of consciousness and thought, is it still honest to claim that we simply don’t know “what comes after”? If so, then, one might wonder what exactly the cognitive and brain sciences have been discovering and teaching us all along about the nature of the mind.

Much like biologists have stood up against creationism, medical doctors have fought misinformation about vaccines, and climate-scientists have been vocal about the reality of global climate change, it is time for neuroscientists and cognitive scientists to openly reject the myth of an afterlife, and help spread the word that this idea is simply wrong. END

About the Author

Sebastian Dieguez is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

References
  1. Gottlieb, R. 2014. “To Heaven and Back!The New York Review of Books, October 23
  2. Larson, E. J., and Witham, L. 1998. “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature 394, 313.
  3. Demertzi, A. et al. 2009. “Dualism Persists in the Science of Mind.” Ann. N, Y. Acad. Sci. 1157, 1–9.
  4. Bering, J. 2006. “The Folk Psychology of Souls.” Behav. Brain Sci. 29, 453–462; Nähri, J. 2008. “Beautiful Reflections: The Cognitive and Evolutionary Foundations of Paradise Representations.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 20, 339–365.
  5. Nichols, N. 2007. “Imagination and Immortality: Thinking of Me.” Synthese 159, 215–233.
  6. Blanke, O., Faivre, N., and Dieguez, S. 2015. “Leaving Body and Life Behind: Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experience.” In S. Laureys, O. Gosseries, and G. Tononi (eds) The Neurology of Consciousness (2nd edition). Elsevier, 323–347.
  7. Metzinger, T. 2005. “Out-of-Body Experiences as the Origin of the Concept of a ‘Soul’.” Mind & Matter 3, 57–84.
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