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Myth of an Afterlife?

A couple of people have spoken to me about a review I wrote last year for the SPR Journal, on a book purporting to debunk afterlife claims. I thought I’d give it a more general airing.

The book is titled The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case Against Life After Death, and is a collection of essays aiming to demolish arguments for survival of consciousness after death. It’s edited by Michael Martin and Keith Augustine and published by Rowman and Littlefield, who also published Irreducible Mind (which in terms of heft and production values it rather resembles). It proclaims its departure from nearly all of the contemporary literature on an afterlife in taking the ‘eminently reasonable’ position that, in all probability, biological death permanently ends a person’s experiences. It argues that the questions that one should ask about an afterlife have been mainly dictated by those who believe in one, and encourages the consideration of other questions that have been overlooked but that are essential to ask.

The writers are mainly philosophers and psychologists, with some neuroscientists and others. Many are, or have been, involved in paranormal sceptic activities. The volume is jointly edited by Michael Martin, an atheist philosopher, and Keith Augustine, a philosopher and executive director of the sceptics website, which is dedicated to combating pseudoscience and paranormal belief on the Internet (and which one supposes is behind much of the aggressive editing of psi-related material on Wikipedia.)

The essays are grouped in four parts. The first, headed ‘empirical arguments for annihilation’, describes in detail the dependence of life and mental functions on a working brain and nervous system - the effects of strokes, accidents and dementia; brain scans that connect behavioural changes to lesions in specific areas, and so on – along with insights from evolutionary theory and the relationship between personality and genetics. Given the powerful scientific evidence - from cognitive neuroscience, psychopharmacology, comparative psychology, behavioural genetics, evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, and neurophysiology - it seems obvious that minds cannot exist in the absence of a functioning brain, however much we might wish it.

The second section describes conceptual and empirical difficulties for the principal models of survival: interactionist substance dualism, an ‘astral’ body, and the Christian idea of bodily resurrection. Essays explore such topics as the metaphysical impossibility of survival or of nonphysical souls violating physical laws, and the implausibility of astral bodies and astral worlds, the latter by Susan Blackmore. The philosopher of mind Jaegwon Kim also makes an appearance, arguing for the incoherence of the dualist idea of an immaterial mind or soul interacting with a physical brain.

A short section of three essays focuses on concerns about the nature of afterlife. They expose logical absurdities such as the idea of God condemning a person to an afterlife in hell, and the incoherence of notions of heaven: How would a soul move from place to pace? How would it recognize other souls? What would disembodied souls do all day, since presumably there would be no need to sleep? A third essay addresses the intrinsic unfairness of karma, as a moral law that inflicts horrible punishments on individuals in the form of disease, disabilities and poverty for alleged previous wrongdoing they have no recollection of ever committing.

It’s not uncommon for atheist writers to tackle survival without at all referencing the evidence from psychical research (for instance, Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death (2010) and Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife (2013) ). The editors here are fully aware of the importance of such research for many people, and accordingly take pains to demolish it as thoroughly as possible. Essays in section four address alleged shortcomings in claims for ghosts and apparitions, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and reincarnation and mediumship research.

The book is impressively clear, thorough and detailed. It is also forcefully argued. The driving force is Keith Augustine, who set the cat among the pigeons some years ago with a series of arguments in support of near-death experiences being hallucinations, which are reprised here; he also provides two of the longest essays, an introduction and a chapter titled ‘The Dualist’s Dilemma: The High Cost of Reconciling Neuroscience with a Soul’ (co-written with Yonatan I. Fishman). These two pieces cover most of the main arguments, with the other contributions reinforcing it with sidelights and detailed explorations of individual facets.

As one would expect, this is a highly partisan construction, of the kind that a team of expensive lawyers would present in court to sway a jury. Any refuge or loophole used by survival proponents is ruthlessly sought out and exposed. Might one suppose that terminal lucidity – the phenomenon of elderly patients with advanced dementia being restored to a brief moment of coherence in the hours or minutes before death – reinforce a dualist view? Alas, says Augustine, the evidence is anecdotal; hardly any cases have been satisfactorily documented. In any case, we should not place too much trust in exceptional cases:

Proponents who appeal to uncharacteristic cases as evidence for the independence thesis … suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, latching on to any data potentially favorable to their own point of view, heedless of the fact that the exceptions prove the rule. And in focusing on the rare neurological outliers while disregarding the immense body of neuroscientific evidence unfavorable to their perspective, independence thesis proponents frequently overlook the comparatively poor quality of the data thought to support their point of view (p. 251).

Arguments that are often employed by survival proponents – perhaps somewhat casually – are forcefully confronted. Thus for instance, ‘correlation is not causation’ is countered by the observation that the effects of other organs – the kidney’s role in filtering toxins, for instance – is not disputed, and that it’s highly selective to apply different reasoning to the brain (p. 102). (Who now continues to resist the implications of the correlation between smoking and lung cancer?) To insist otherwise, is a ‘fallacy called moving the goalposts: an utterly unreasonable person pretends to be reasonable, if only more evidence, impossible to obtain, were available’ (p. 103).

Most readers here will find a major weakness in the book’s one-sided consideration of psychical research, as is usually the case with sceptic productions (although this will not be obvious to its natural audience). The arguments are as detailed and skilfully expounded as I have seen anywhere, but they stray little from the long-established script. Important caveats and objections regarding experiments and investigations– some new, others made originally made by psi researchers themselves – are mixed in with the familiar generalisations about cold reading, conjuring tricks, witness unreliability, and so on. Inevitably, studies that support the sceptic view – and that knowledgeable readers will recognise as laughably biased and misinformed - are said to have been carried out by ‘sophisticated’ researchers.

It also appears that, for all the focus on established science, the arguments here are not always less subjective than those they oppose. For instance, Augustine concedes that survivalists do not generally contest the neuroscientific evidence for mind-brain dependence: the problem is the way they interpret it (p. 4). But he nevertheless seems to believe that the great preponderance of evidence of correlation – which the book establishes by piling it up in quantity - obliges us to make the qualitative leap to accept causation.

Out of sheer intellectual honesty, a few brave souls within parapsychology have conceded the daunting challenge that this evidence poses for survival. But their only apparent recourse is to argue – quite implausibly – that the ambiguous parapsychological evidence for survival actually outweighs the virtually incontestable neuroscientific and other evidence for extinction (p. 5).

The claim of ambiguity surely cuts both ways. Even leaving aside evidence of psi, the source of consciousness in brain functions is never more than an appearance – however incontestable to some - and the considerable difficulties for physicalists of establishing how consciousness arises are hardly at all addressed. The writers have little to say about the problems raised by indications, thoroughly catalogued in Irreducible Mind, that mere suggestion can bring about appropriate, and highly complex, biological effects – sudden unexpected cures, stigmata, and the like – implying that, far from being an epiphenomenon, consciousness can exert direct effects on matter in ways utterly mysterious from a physicalist perspective. One imagines that such evidence would be treated on the same basis as paranormal claims (that it is weakly supported and probably spurious), but that can hardly be said about the placebo effect, which is not listed in the index.

Also, the book shows that tendency, marked with atheist and sceptic writers, to make unwarranted assumptions about what should be the case if such-and-such were true, and to hold that, since it is quite clearly not the case, it cannot therefore true. Sentences that begin, ‘One would expect that…’ should be treated with caution. We can accept, to take just one example, that viewed as a biological event, death should happen in a more-or-less uniform biological manner for every individual of the human species. But we cannot go on to infer that afterlife and rebirth must equally be uniform experiences, and that the manifold cultural variations in near-death and reincarnation reports therefore indicate that these are products of the imagination. If consciousness and memory survive the death of the body, one might at least acknowledge the possibility that communities continue to exist that are shaped by culture, and whose actions – for instance in the manner in which they are reborn, in terms of gender, the length of time following death, and so on – conform to the cultural norms that their members are accustomed to.

In this context there’s also a point to be made about differing temperaments. Much that is unflattering is said about those who believe in an afterlife: that they indulge in wishful thinking, that they’re swayed by religious faith in the teeth of the evidence, that they blithely overlook difficult scientific and metaphysical obstacles. But it hardly needs to be pointed out that sceptics have their own mental and emotional quirks: notably, the conservative tendency to seek security in what has been objectively established, and to be repelled by unappealing problems, mysteries and unresolved issues whose investigation, nevertheless, history tells us may lead eventually to new insights, and even to changed worldviews. It’s true that human testimony such as that provided by family members in rebirth cases can be infuriatingly complex and difficult to disentangle, but it doesn’t mean that conclusions cannot, or should not eventually be drawn from it that are potentially every bit as significant as those based on brains scans. And while questions about what survival could possibly mean boggle the literal mind, an imaginative exploration of these mysteries – such as many people follow by immersing themselves in psychical, religious and spirituality literature – can help to provide illumination.

That said, this is an important book, and can be read with profit by believers, if only to remind themselves how formidable the arguments against survival of consciousness can seem to be. It will reinforce the atheistic convictions of its natural audience, and will doubtless encourage young Americans, especially, to disregard the God-talk they hear spouted all around them. To be fair, for many people, it is far more reasonable to trust the conservative, well-established claims of brain science than the apparently uncertain – and often chaotic and incredible – testimony about anomalous experiences. One can only hope that at least some of those who are impressed by the book will have the curiosity to seek out the other side of the story.

THE MYTH OF AN AFTERLIFE: THE CASE AGAINST LIFE AFTER DEATH edited by Michael Martin and Keith Augustine. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2015. 675pp. £51.95. 978-0-8108-8677-3


Kelly, Edward F., et al. (2007). Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield).

Johnston, Mark (2010). Surviving Death. (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Scheffler, Samuel (2013) Death and the Afterlife. (New York: Oxford University Press).