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Religion, science

Why Life After Death is Absurd.

One of my greatest joys as a blogger is when I encounter an argument that is so good — so refined and elegant — that I have nothing to add.  I’ve found one at Scientific American.  Sean Carroll, of the California Institute of Technology, has explained why it is philosophically inconsistent to remain agnostic about the existence of life after death.

Adam claims that there “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

This is the crux of the matter.  We don’t “know” the moon is not made of green cheese because we’ve physically sampled every atom of the moon.  We know it because the green cheese proposition would require nothing less than the entirety of Standard Physics to be utterly and completely wrong.  Similarly, we don’t “know” there’s no life after death because we’ve been there and verified it first hand.  We know it because for it to exist, the entirety of both the Standard Model and Quantum Mechanics would have to be wrong.

Horribly, hideously wrong.

Here is the equation that tells us how electrons behave in the everyday world:

Don’t worry about the details; it’s the fact that the equation exists that matters, not its particular form. It’s the  Dirac equation — the two terms on the left are roughly the velocity of the electron and its inertia — coupled to electromagnetism and gravity, the two terms on the right.

If you believe in an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies, you need to believe that this equation is not right, even at everyday energies. There needs to be a new term (at minimum) on the right, representing how the soul interacts with electrons.

These two paragraphs are the death knell for the soul.  The fact is, our description of matter/energy works, and it works precisely.  There is no hole to be filled with another term.  Another term would throw off the equation, such that it would not work precisely as it does in its current form.  This is basic mathematical necessity.

We are allowed — indeed, required — to ask how claims about how the world works fit in with other things we know about how the world works. I’ve been talking here like a particle physicist, but there’s an analogous line of reasoning that would come from evolutionary biology. Presumably amino acids and proteins don’t have souls that persist after death. What about viruses or bacteria? Where upon the chain of evolution from our monocellular ancestors to today did organisms stop being described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism, and develop an immaterial immortal soul?

And so it goes for all of the sciences.  There is simply no gap for which anything approaching a soul would be a suitable answer, and soul advocates don’t even have a defined term with which to begin postulating the mathematics of how a soul interacts with the universe.  In this, they are not unlike Intelligent Design proponents who have yet to propose (much less test) a single predictive hypothesis.

Life after death is as absurd as a green cheese moon.  That’s not a statement of opinion.  It’s a Bayesian reality.  The evidence for both is zero, but more importantly, the degree to which we would have to be wrong about the entirety of physics is virtually incalculable.

It’s OK to say it with certainty:  There is no such thing as a soul.

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Discussion

14 thoughts on “Why Life After Death is Absurd.

  1. *thumbs up*

    Posted by Sabbysu | June 2, 2011, 8:11 pm
  2. First, Carroll has misconstrued Adam Frank’s argument. Frank is not arguing for agnosticism on the subject of the afterlife due to nondisprovability, he’s arguing that consciousness is an unexplained mystery and that as we have no mechanism to explain it, we cannot make scientific predictions about it (as per our handling of common descent prior to the theory of natural selection, and continental drift prior to plate tectonics).

    Second, Carroll’s argument that a “soul” doesn’t fit into the standard model begs the question. He isn’t claiming that we’ve performed any experiments which would disconfirm the existence of consciousness as a fundamental entity; he’s simply stating that he finds the idea preposterous. We can’t change the model, therefore anything which doesn’t fit the model can’t exist.

    the entirety of both the Standard Model and Quantum Mechanics would have to be wrong.

    Not wrong; incomplete.

    I find the notion that our model of nature is anywhere close to complete to be preposterous.

    Posted by Ian | June 2, 2011, 8:42 pm
  3. I believe that we are on the cusp of discoveries of such magnitude! String Theory, with its 10-11 dimensions, possibly explaining the origin of the universe. I am not able to wrap my mind around this concept, but fortunately there are a very few people who can begin to grasp it. Whatever we understand or believe today will be proved the most rudimentary of belief systems.

    In my area of interest, I am amazed how research continues to show the importance of genetics. Free will may be nothing but wishful thinking, and men and women are genetically, chemically and hormonally very different. The research is coming so fast that I’ve had to set up a Google alert on epigenetics!

    Posted by Susan Walsh | June 2, 2011, 11:44 pm
  4. Quantum physics has so many unknowns…plenty of room for souls…in the space between the particles.

    Posted by Aldonza | June 3, 2011, 1:34 am
  5. I always wonder about how souls process information. People who have NDE always seem to be able to “see” and “hear”. But how can they possibly “hear” anything if they are in a state of immateriality? Sound is a 100% physical phenomenon. You need a physical medium (like air or water) for the sound waves to travel on, and a physical medium (like eardrums or even skin) to interact with the physical sound waves.

    If souls existed, we should be able to hear things in an environment that does not produce sound waves. Like space.

    Furthermore, where is this physical information about physical media being interpreted and stored? Souls have no brain. Thus they have no different parts of a brain to process different types of stimuli. I mean, lots of people have mild synesthesia, I would expect a soul to completely fudge and mix all of our senses to the point where processing various stimuli would be impossible.

    And then, where is the energy for a soul at? What is its source? It seems as though the very concept of a soul destroys the second law of thermodynamics. They basically have infinite energy; we have no mechanism for where these souls get their energy source from, and they don’t emit any energy when they do “work” in the form of thermodynamic “waste” like heat.

    The concept of a soul completely destroys all known physics. If souls exist, then the only possible physics-breaking hypothesis that could account for souls would be some sort of supernatural god.

    Posted by J. Quinton | June 3, 2011, 2:37 am
  6. I’m going to make a general response, since pretty much all the dissent is approximately the same.

    When we say that a certain scientific theory is “complete,” we mean something very specific. We also don’t mean certain things. We do NOT mean that there is definitely not something else in the universe that is not described by the theory. We DO mean that our theory is mathematically complete and accurate, and that’s what Carroll is talking about.

    The Dirac Equation, in this case, is complete. As it is written, it solves all problems involving electrons at normal states. What this represents for the “natural world” is not a moratorium on new matter/energy/space/time discoveries. Dark matter, when it is discovered, will probably revolutionize certain aspects of astrophysics. However, we already know — with extremely high probability — that the mechanics of dark matter will NOT change the Dirac Equation. The completeness of the Dirac Equation represents a complete understanding of one aspect of the universe, in the same way that the Pythagorean theorem represents a complete understanding of one aspect of geometry.

    And this is the problem for souls. Souls are described as things which interact with us on a “Standard Model” level. They must be, since the information and processes in our brains are products of atoms, and — like the Dirac Equation — are completely accounted for with the Standard Model. (That is not to say we completely understand everything the brain does, but rather that the existence of the brain and all its components are explained completely with the standard model.)

    The normal red herring used to remain agnostic about souls is the “you can’t prove there’s nothing else” route. And neither Carroll nor I deny that there is probably “something else” in the universe we don’t know about yet. But it’s not a soul. A soul is — at a minimum — an organization of information, which requires some kind of vehicle: matter or energy. And the Dirac equation accounts for matter and energy. Completely. Quantum mechanics don’t save the soul. Quantum events are not organized in the way that atomic events are, and there are no formulae which would work if only we had some sort of revolutionary “thing” which behaved like atomic organizations of information on a quantum level. Dark matter doesn’t save the soul. It works on a galactic level.

    That’s the point: We don’t understand everything about physics. We understand everything we need to accurately predict ONE PART of the universe, and THAT is the part in which a soul would NECESSARILY have to interact, if not reside.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | June 3, 2011, 12:02 pm
  7. Hamby is like an alter boy for all the high priests of atheism such as Sean Caroll. He ingests without question or reservation, whatever fantasies the ilk like sean wants to ejaculate into hamby’s mind.

    Now Hamby wants us to participate too. He doesent seem to understand why we dissenters politely say “No thank you, Ill Pass!”

    Posted by PG | June 3, 2011, 1:11 pm
  8. “Altar boy,” PG. Altar. Not alter.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | June 3, 2011, 1:12 pm
  9. The normal red herring used to remain agnostic about souls is the “you can’t prove there’s nothing else” route. And neither Carroll nor I deny that there is probably “something else” in the universe we don’t know about yet.

    Consciousness is the elephant in the room, though. This isn’t a “can’t prove there’s nothing else” issue. This is an “observation contradicts the model” issue. If we insist that the model must be correct without giving a good account of the observation we need to explain, then we’re falling into the trap of dogmatism.

    The completeness of the Dirac Equation represents a complete understanding of one aspect of the universe, in the same way that the Pythagorean theorem represents a complete understanding of one aspect of geometry.

    Right. And it’s not the aspect of the universe we’re interested in. If we claim that physicalism is sufficient to explain consciousness, and deny that we even need to test our claim, then we’re making a dogmatic statement.

    There’s something that Stephen Pinker wrote–I think it was in Words and Rules–which really struck me. He said that it takes about fifty years for philosophical ideas to percolate down to the level of popular awareness. Water cooler conversations at the time–about Chomsky and deep structure and the like–were about philosophical issues that were fifty years old.

    The problem with Carroll and what I hear from the other physicalists who blog about consciousness is that they’re not interacting with issues in contemporary philosophy of mind. They seem to be stuck in a time when the validity of the Turing test to determine consciousness was undisputed, and nobody had ever heard of a “hard problem” of consciousness. I honestly don’t know if he’s even aware of what the controversy is.

    If Carroll’s going to claim that physicalism can explain consciousness, he needs to provide a plausible mechanism by which a physical process could account for conscious experience. A non-question-begging critique of substance dualism would also help.

    Posted by Ian | June 3, 2011, 3:40 pm
  10. When I was a Deist I was taking a third year quantum mechanics course,

    I of course once thought god hid in the complications of QM, however as choatic as it is, we can still make remarkiably accurate predictions even the uncertianty principle makes some interesting predictions and tells us more that we think.

    Hamby will recall my concious universe view of theology, but then I realized that proposed more questions than it answered and it made much more sense if there wasn’t a purpose or puppeteer behind it.

    Posted by cptpineapple | June 3, 2011, 3:52 pm
  11. Ian, I knew you would reference consciousness, and I’m sorry if I’m a bit dismissive. You think consciousness is a much bigger deal than I do.

    Pinker’s statement — while true to an extent — doesn’t account for the fact that philosophies often become obsolete (in the face of new science) before their acceptance becomes an issue. That’s not especially pertinent to this discussion, but I think it’s worth mentioning as a general caution against over-reliance on new philosophy. In the end, a philosophy is always subject to its correspondence with science. It’s not the other way around.

    With regard to consciousness/materialism, you’re doing the same category error thing we discussed a few weeks ago. Consciousness isn’t “made of” m/e/s/t, but it is an emergent property of them. It’s a process of m/e/s/t. An algorithm. These things are fully and completely compatible with materialism.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | June 4, 2011, 1:47 pm
  12. Hamby will recall my concious universe view of theology, but then I realized that proposed more questions than it answered and it made much more sense if there wasn’t a purpose or puppeteer behind it.

    Ahhh… the memories!

    I remember literally banging my head on my desk during those discussions. You have no idea how happy it made me to watch it finally dawn on you that your god was the ultimate Rube Goldman Contraption — causing thousands of problems with astrophysics to explain something that didn’t even need explaining. I’m so glad you made the leap, and so glad you stuck around to tell us when you did.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | June 4, 2011, 1:52 pm
  13. With regard to consciousness/materialism, you’re doing the same category error thing we discussed a few weeks ago.

    I think the reason this issue is so challenging is that understanding the problem requires one to correctly perform a fairly subtle metacogntive operation. Mind is a complex system of entities, and it’s not necessarily easy to separate the concept “consciousness” from information processing, and all of the other processes occurring.

    Once you do this, you see that the notion of producing consciousness using physical phenomena alone is like trying to build an MRI machine out of cotton and driftwood. I’m sure you could build some complicated machines out of cotton and driftwood if you wanted, but you’ll never get them to produce an electromagnetic field, just as physical phenomena by themselves cannot produce qualia.

    You think consciousness is a much bigger deal than I do.

    It’s a big deal.

    Consciousness isn’t “made of” m/e/s/t, but it is an emergent property of them. It’s a process of m/e/s/t. An algorithm.

    You haven’t got any science to back up that assertion, though. Until the evidence comes in, the rational position on consciousness must be to recognize that it’s a controversial, poorly understood issue, and a fairly significant one.

    Posted by Ian | June 4, 2011, 6:15 pm
  14. What about parellel universes? Sean Carroll in that article mentioned how you would need another reality and radically different laws of physics for something like an afterlife to work. Well in parellel universes you do have totally different laws of physics in many of them. Plus Andrei Linde, the astrophysicist from Stanford, who said, “Is it possible that consciousness, like space-time, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete?”. Why did he say that? that is because everytime you have an observer a living observer looked into a telescope to look at the moon it exist this experiment was performed. So other scientists suggested why not separate the observer from looking and interacting with the moon with the telescope. Well it didn’t work you do need an observer and that observer is your consciousness.

    Posted by leo | November 2, 2011, 6:30 pm

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