D'Souza, Dinesh. Life After Death: The Evidence. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2009 ISBN 978-1-59698-099-0.
Ever since the Enlightenment, and to an increasing extent today, there is a curious disconnect between the intellectual élite and the population at large. The overwhelming majority of human beings who have ever lived believed in their survival, in one form or another, after death, while materialists, reductionists, and atheists argue that this is nothing but wishful thinking; that there is no physical mechanism by which consciousness could survive the dissolution of the neural substrate in which it is instantiated, and point to the lack of any evidence for survival after death. And yet a large majority of people alive today beg to differ. As atheist H. G. Wells put it in a very different context, they sense that “Worlds may freeze and suns may perish, but there stirs something within us now that can never die again.” Who is right?

In this slim (256 page) volume, the author examines the scientific, philosophical, historical, and moral evidence for and implications of survival after death. He explicitly excludes religious revelation (except in the final chapter, where some evidence he cites as historical may be deemed by others to be argument from scriptural authority). Having largely excluded religion from the argument, he explores the near-universality of belief in life after death across religious traditions and notes the common threads uniting them.

But traditions and beliefs do not in any way address the actual question: does our individual consciousness, in some manner, survive the death of our bodies? While materialists discard such a notion as absurd, the author argues that there is nothing in our present-day understanding of physics, evolutionary biology, or neuroscience which excludes this possibility. In fact, the complete failure so far to understand the physical basis of consciousness can be taken as evidence that it may be a phenomenon independent of its physical instantiation: structured information which could conceivably transcend the hardware on which it currently operates.

Computer users think nothing these days of backing up their old computer, loading the backups onto a new machine (which may use a different processor and operating system), and with a little upward compatibility magic, having everything work pretty much as before. Do your applications and documents from the old computer die when you turn it off for the last time? Are they reincarnated when you load them into the replacement machine? Will they live forever as long as you continue to transfer them to successive machines, or on backup tapes? This may seem a silly analogy, but consider that materialists consider your consciousness and self to be nothing other than a pattern of information evolving in a certain way according to the rules of neural computation. Do the thought experiment: suppose nanotechnological robots replaced your meat neurons one by one with mechanical analogues with the same external electrochemical interface. Eventually your brain would be entirely different physically, but would your consciousness change at all? Why? If it's just a bunch of components, then replacing protein components with silicon (or whatever) components which work in the same way should make no difference at all, shouldn't it?

A large part of what living organisms do is sense their external environment and interact with it. Unicellular organisms swim along the gradient of increasing nutrient concentration. Other than autonomic internal functions of which we are aware only when they misbehave, humans largely experience the world through our sensory organs, and through the internal sense of self which is our consciousness. Is it not possible that the latter is much like the former—something external to the meatware of our body which is picked up by a sensory organ, in this case the neural networks of the brain?

If this be the case, in the same sense that the external world does not cease to exist when our eyes, ears, olfactory, and tactile sensations fail at the time of death or due to injury, is it not plausible that dissolution of the brain, which receives and interacts with our external consciousness, need not mean the end of that incorporeal being?

Now, this is pretty out-there stuff, which might cause the author to run from the room in horror should he hear me expound it. Fine: this humble book reviewer spent a substantial amount of time contributing to a project seeking evidence for existence of global, distributed consciousness, and has concluded that such has been demonstrated to exist by the standards accepted by most of the “hard” sciences. But let's get back to the book itself.

One thing you won't find here is evidence based upon hauntings, spiritualism, or other supposed contact with the dead (although I must admit, Chicago election returns are awfully persuasive as to the ability of the dead to intervene in affairs of the living). The author does explore near death experiences, noting their universality across very different cultures and religious traditions, and evidence for reincarnation, which he concludes is unpersuasive (but see the research of Ian Stevenson and decide for yourself). The exploration of a physical basis for the existence of other worlds (for example, Heaven and Hell) cites the “multiverse” paradigm, and invites sceptics of that “theory of anything” to denounce it as “just as plausible as life after death”—works for me.

Excuse me for taking off on a tangent here, but it is, in a formal sense. If you believe in an infinite chaotically inflating universe with random initial conditions, or in Many Worlds in One (October 2006), then Heaven and Hell explicitly exist, not only once in the multiverse, but an infinity of times. For every moment in your life that you may have to ceased to exist, there is a universe somewhere out there, either elsewhere in the multiverse or in some distant region far from our cosmic horizon in this universe, where there's an observable universe identical to our own up to that instant which diverges thence into one which grants you eternal reward or torment for your actions. In an infinite universe with random initial conditions, every possibility occurs an infinite number of times. Think about it, or better yet, don't.

The chapter on morality is particularly challenging and enlightening. Every human society has had a code of morality (different in the details, but very much the same at the core), and most of these societies have based their moral code upon a belief in cosmic justice in an afterlife. It's self-evident that bad guys sometimes win at the expense of good guys in this life, but belief that the score will be settled in the long run has provided a powerful incentive for mortals to conform to the norms which their societies prescribe as good. (I've deliberately written the last sentence in the post-modern idiom; I consider many moral norms absolutely good or bad based on gigayears of evolutionary history, but I needn't introduce that into evidence to prove my case, so I won't.) From an evolutionary standpoint, morality is a survival trait of the family or band: the hunter who shares the kill with his family and tribe will have more descendants than the gluttonous loner. A tribe which produces males who sacrifice themselves to defend their women and children will produce more offspring than the tribe whose males value only their own individual survival.

Morality, then, is, at the group level, a selective trait, and consequently it's no surprise that it's universal among human societies. But if, as serious atheists such as Bertrand Russell (as opposed to the lower-grade atheists we get today) worried, morality has been linked to religion and belief in an afterlife in every single human society to date, then how is morality (a survival characteristic) to be maintained in the absence of these beliefs? And if evolution has selected us to believe in the afterlife for the behavioural advantages that belief confers in the here and now, then how successful will the atheists be in extinguishing a belief which has conferred a behavioural selective advantage upon thousands of generations of our ancestors? And how will societies which jettison such belief fare in competition with those which keep it alive?

I could write much more about this book, but then you'd have to read a review even longer than the book, so I'll spare you. If you're interested in this topic (as you'll probably eventually be as you get closer to the checkered flag), this is an excellent introduction, and the end notes provide a wealth of suggestions for additional reading. I doubt this book will shake the convictions of either the confirmed believers or the stalwart sceptics, but it will provide much for both to think about, and perhaps motivate some folks whose approach is “I'll deal with that when the time comes” (which has been pretty much my own) to consider the consequences of what may come next.

February 2010 Permalink