Ghost Stories
Indridi Indridason

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 Infidels.org, 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

References

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).

Comments

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Keith says in the myth of an afterlife:


Since the brain is not like a receiver but a transceiver on the independence thesis anyway, a better analogy would be a remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicle or drone. But this natural analogy with two independently existing things in two-way interaction makes no sense of actual mind-brain correlations. For if a remotely controlled vehicle were captured, no amount of fiddling with the vehicle’s circuitry by its captors could debilitate the capacities of its remote operator, miles away. At worst, the vehicle’s captors could cut off “sensory data” coming from the vehicle by disconnecting or destroying its camera, microphone, or transmitter, or disable the operator’s control by disconnecting or destroying its motor functions or receiver. But the captors would be completely powerless to remotely affect the operator’s ability to do math, recognize undistorted faces, or understand language. Yet permanent or transient changes to brain structure or chemistry can produce exactly such results.

Keith is spot on with his critique of a remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, being in anyway comparable to the self and its relationship to the brain. Brain damage impairs our mental capacities. So it's simply a very bad analogy. So why does he use it?

The TV set (or radios or prisms), on the other hand serve to facilitate the understanding that we can have some phenomenon, which is not wholly caused by the device in question (TV set, prism, or what have you), but is the result of two or more independent causes.

So in the case of the TV set we have the programme displayed. However, damage to the internal components of the set can compromise the ability of the set to show the programme as clearly as it might. But the damage to the set never alters the programme.

Likewise, it might be the case that damage to the brain affects our mental capacities, but such damage needn't affect the self in any shape or form

It makes absolutely no sense for Keith to claim that a drone is a better analogy than a TV set to try to convey this understanding. Utterly ludicrous beyond all measure!

Jaun why do you repeatedly make a claim and then back it up with 0 references? You have been doing this for the last six years on various paranormal blogs and forums only to be laughed at even by other proponents and called a troll. Why should anyone take your opinions seriously if you cannot list any valid references?

"You're wrong. Works have already been written refuting all normal causes."

What works? Scientific peer reviewed papers listed please, or at a minimum scientific books published by respected or academic researchers. And no, don't spam in discredited paranormal books like you have done in the past on your account Haruhi on the skeptiko forum.

"According to cases of mediumship, what survives biological death is the self".

You seem to blindly believe anything you read in a credulous paranormal book. Are you incapable of critical thinking? But again - making claims without any references whatsoever. Why do you do this over and over?

What cases of mediumship? Which mediums?

"That is what I wrote when I said that the brain is a cause of consciousness"

Yes, brain is the cause of consciousness all evidence. Once you are dead you are dead.

Wrote my comment before seeing Juan's comment where he says:

"That is what I wrote when I said that the brain is a cause of consciousness but not the only cause"

"Jaun why do you repeatedly make a claim and then back it up with 0 references?"

That's not my name.

"What works?"

"Immortal Remains" by Braude, "The Enigma of Survival" by Hart, etc.

"And no, don't spam in discredited paranormal books like you have done in the past on your account Haruhi on the skeptiko forum."

They are not discredited. You believe they are discredited.

"You seem to blindly believe anything you read in a credulous paranormal book. "

No idiot, no. I only consider some cases of mediums as genuine, not anything.

"Yes, brain is the cause of consciousness all evidence. Once you are dead you are dead. "

But not the only one, according to the psychic evidence, that you leave the other part.


"Wendy Grossman in New Scientist wrote that Braude's book The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science (1986) relied on anecdotal evidence and eyewitness testimony of séances with physical mediums, in particular, Eusapia Palladino and Daniel Dunglas Home, to prove that psi exists. According to Grossman "[Braude] accuses sceptics of ignoring the evidence he believes is solid, but himself ignores evidence that does not suit him. If a medium was caught cheating on some occasions, he says, the rest of that medium's phenomena were still genuine." Grossman came to the conclusion that Braude did not do proper research on the subject and should study "the art of conjuring."

Braude has claimed the medium Daniel Dunglas Home was never caught in fraud, however the psychologist Andrew Neher has written he was detected in fraud by at least