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A Skeptic Considers Immortality

April 3, 2012

A foreword to Stephen Cave’s Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization (Crown, 2012, ISBN 978-0307884916), now available in paperback.

On Friday, April 13, 2012 in the chapel of the New Orleans Baptist Seminary I debated a Liberty University philosopher and theologian named Gary Habermas on the question: “Is There Life After Death?” I went first. I began with this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself dead. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case you are still conscious and observing the scene.

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization (book cover)

I then outlined the problem we all have in thinking about life after death: we cannot envision what it is like to be dead any more than we can visualize ourselves before we were born, and yet everyone who ever lived has died so death is inevitable. This leads to either depression or humor. I prefer the latter. For example, Steven Wright: “I intend to live forever—so far, so good.” Or Woody Allen: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Of course, you won’t be there when it happens because to experience anything you must be conscious, and you are not conscious when you are dead.

I was well prepared for this debate as I had just read a book by the British philosopher Stephen Cave, titled Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization. It is a work of monumental importance, and his outline of the four narratives about immortality that have been generated by people over the ages is a useful heuristic that I put to good use in my debate. It is a book that you can put to good use in your life if you have ever thought about death and how that thought changes your life. The four narratives are:

  1. Staying Alive. One way to achieve immortality is to not die. In my debate I reviewed the various problems involved, such as the 100 billion people who lived before us who have died, and the various problems associated with radical life extension efforts, such as caloric restriction, genetic engineering to change the telomeres involved in aging, and cryonically freezing yourself to come back later.
  2. Resurrection. I began here with the problem of identity and Theseus’s Ship: Poseidon’s son Theseus sailed to Crete to slay monster Minotaur, and so his ship was preserved for posterity but rotted over time and every board was replaced with new wood—is that still Theseus’s ship? I then segued into discussing the transformation problem—how could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death? And then there’s the problem of what age you would be resurrected? 15, 30, 85? And how would duplicates be any different from twins?
  3. Soul. I explained to these young seminarians that there isn’t a shred of evidence for anything like a “soul” that survives death, no new physical system that scientists have discovered to allow soul stuff to survive. I noted that although we do not yet fully understand how thoughts are transduced into physical movements, adding a soul only doubles the mystery, as believers would then have to explain how the soul effects the mind or the brain. In reality, I continued, there is no soul or mind. Just brain. I then asked, rhetorically, Under anaesthesia, where’s your soul? Why is it knocked out? And: If the soul can see, why can’t the souls of blind people see when they are alive?
  4. Legacy: glory, reputation, historical impact, or children. But as Woody Allen said: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts and minds of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.” Clearly this is not what most people desire for life after death.

Then there is the matter of which religion’s afterlife story is the right one? I reminded my debate opponent and the audience of the fact that Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, and Hindu religions all have different ideas about the afterlife and heaven. Which one is right? I noted the fact that afterlife myths all follow the same pattern as all religious myths: where you happened to have been born and at what time in history determines which myth you believe.

I then challenged these seminarians to tell us where heaven is. Ever since Copernicus and the rise of modern astronomy there is no place for heaven “above”. This has led some to speculate that perhaps it is in another dimension. But those dimensions are physical systems subject to the laws of entropy, so that doesn’t help. I then mentioned a few other “theories” of the afterlife:

Egyptians: a physical place far above the Earth in a “dark area” of space where there were no stars, basically beyond the Universe.
Vikings: Valhalla—a big hall to drink beer and get ready to fight again
Muslims: a “Garden” with rivers, fountains, shady valleys, trees, milk, honey and wine—all the things Arabian desert people crave, plus 72 virgins for the men. (No one seems to have asked what the women want.)
Christians: eternity with angels at the throne of God.

I added the observations of the ethnologist Elie Reclus, who described Christian missionaries attempting to convert Inuits with the promise of a God-centered heaven.

Inuit: “And the seals? You say nothing about the seals. Have you no seals in your heaven?”
Missionaries: “Seals? Certainly not. We have angels and archangels…the 12 apostles and 24 elders, we have…”
Inuit: “That’s enough. Your heaven has no seals, and a heaven without seals is not for us!”

I ended my opening statement on immortality with these beautiful and poignant lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem Empedocles on Etna:

Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the Spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes—
That we must feign a bliss Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this, Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds…yet distant our repose?

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