The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer
Heavens on Earth

Heavens on Earth: Reviews

THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR

An Even Greater Beyond: Will technology bring us eternal life?

One-third of American atheists and agnostics believe in heaven. That’s a baffling statistic, but as Michael Shermer explains in his latest book, Heavens on Earth, we shouldn’t be surprised. “The evidence overwhelmingly points to the thesis that belief in a psychological or spiritual afterlife is natural and intuitive,” he writes—a belief hardwired into our psyches, appearing in cultures and religions worldwide, throughout history. Even Neanderthals buried their dead with artifacts, presumably to provide for them in the Great Beyond. As long as hominids exist, we’ll probably always believe in heaven.

But belief is one thing. Is there any evidence heaven exists? After all, “of those 100.5 billion people who have come and gone,” Shermer notes, “not one of them has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife.” So Shermer, a journalist and professional skeptic, wrote Heavens to examine how well claims for an afterlife hold up in light of modern science. (No points for guessing his answer.) More intriguingly, Shermer turns his skeptical gaze to science itself, especially claims that new technologies might radically extend human lifespans and inaugurate a sort of heaven down here on earth.

One reason to distrust the existence of an afterlife, Shermer writes, is how “obviously culturally bound and geographically determined” visions of Paradise are. The Bible, for instance, speaks of lush gardens and lands flowing with milk and honey, exactly the sorts of things its authors—nomadic desert people—would crave. Inuits, meanwhile, scoffed when Christian missionaries preached about a heaven that lacked seals to hunt.

Shermer is even harder on “eyewitness accounts” of heaven, from people who nearly died and supposedly visited the hereafter. Some of these accounts are easy to explain away: as Shermer says, “sometimes people just make things up.” The 2010 nonfiction book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, for instance, became a national bestseller before the author—the ironically named Alex Malarkey—admitted that he’d fabricated everything. But Shermer acknowledges that most eyewitness reports are sincere, if still probably mistaken. These people really did experience heaven, he argues, but that experience took place entirely within their own heads. He likens their visions to a drug trip or hallucination, brought about by the stress and trauma of almost dying.

That’s not to say that Shermer simply dismisses these supernatural experiences: “The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events,” he writes, “grants them significance regardless of their causal account.” Even if the experience is fictitious, in other words, it can have real meaning for the people involved and change their lives for the better. His is a generous take, and it highlights one of the benefits of the book. Shermer can be hardheaded when necessary: he nearly wears out the thesaurus on some pages brandishing different words for baloney: gobbledygook, woo-woo, nonsense, bafflegab, bullshit. But unlike some militant atheists—Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, for instance, who seethe with contempt for believers—Shermer is willing to engage with religious folk and try to understand their viewpoint. He’s friends with bafflegab-monger Deepak Chopra, of all people, and at one point in the book, he visits a New Age-y spa that Chopra runs, then debates him about the nature of consciousness. This engagement is a refreshing change. Most takedowns of religion simply preach to the unconverted, so to speak, and they hardly ever convince true believers to recant. Heavens might not convince them, either, but Shermer listens to people with spiritual leanings and engages them in legitimate debate.

The book also does a valuable service in scrutinizing modern, scientific visions of the afterlife, some of which are wildly immodest. Shermer quotes one enthusiast saying, “We have achieved two of the three alchemists’ dreams. We have transmuted the elements and learned to fly. Immortality is next.” Easy peasy.

Some approaches to scientific immortality involve eliminating diseases and slowing down the aging process in cells. Others are more outré, like uploading our minds to computers or cryogenically freezing our heads in the hopes that future generations can reboot our brains. As with religious beliefs, Shermer is always game to talk such ideas through, but he pricks the bubble of enthusiasm time and again. Science fiction fans might quibble about the relative degree of impossibility he assigns to different approaches (I find mind-uploading more plausible than Shermer does, for instance), but it seems unlikely that anyone alive today will reach, say, 150 years of age.

So if heaven doesn’t exist, and immortality seems all but impossible, does that reduce human lives to an empty state? Not at all, Shermer argues. Rather than debunking more ideas, he swerves during the last section of the book and lays out how we can still build meaningful lives, both politically and personally.

On the political front, he examines the records of various utopian governments, the terrestrial equivalents of heaven—at least in theory. In practice, utopias often deteriorate into chaos and terror. So instead of utopias, Shermer promotes a related idea he calls “protopias”—governments that aim to improve people’s lives not in one fell swoop but incrementally. Under protopian government, each generation should see a little less poverty, a little less crime, a little less disease. If that sounds familiar, it should: that’s exactly the sort of government the United States, Canada, and much of Europe have enjoyed over the past few centuries.

Given that rate of progress, we might not have to give up on our all-too-human dreams of immortality, simply modify them. There’s a decent chance that human beings will spread to Mars and other planets over the next few centuries, ensuring that our ancestors will live on—perhaps indefinitely—if something catastrophic makes Earth uninhabitable. “It would be too much to say that this form of species immortality satisfies our personal desire to live forever,” Shermer admits, “but it is something well worth working toward.”

There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin asks Hobbes, “If you could have anything in the world right now, what would it be?” Hobbes answers, “A sandwich.” Calvin rails against the stupidity of this, contrasting it with his own grandiose desires for “a trillion billion dollars, my own space shuttle, and a private continent!” But the last frame shows a miserable Calvin and a contended Hobbes, as the latter munches on his sandwich. “I got my wish,” Hobbes grins. In some ways, that’s the real lesson of Heavens on Earth. Our minds and memories almost certainly won’t survive death, and Paradise probably doesn’t exist. But even if these celestial hopes fail us, there are real if modest things to work for down here on Earth. Shermer calls himself a skeptic, but he’s a believer, too, a believer in human potential, and the book rebuts those religious-minded skeptics who think that life without the promise of heaven can’t possibly be worth living. “Heaven and hell are within us,” Shermer insists, “not above and below us.”

Sam Kean is the author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. This review was originally published on theamericanscholar.org on February 22, 2018.


BBC FOCUS

The Immortalists—Can Science Defeat Death?

In his new book Heavens on Earth, founding editor of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer explores humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and the quest for immortality–find out about the extraordinary people he met trying to cheat death.

Demographers estimate that before our generation roughly 100 billion people lived and died, and not one of them has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife, at least not to the high evidentiary standards of science. This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori, as medieval Christians reflected—Remember that you have to die.

Why do we have to die? Theologians and religious believers have long had a ready-made answer: death is simply a transition from this stage to the next in a cosmic proscenium. In the religious worldview death needs no explanation other than “God wills it” as part of a deific design that will be disclosed once we get to the other side, usually involving a cosmic comeuppance for one’s actions and a settling of all moral scores.

Most scientists, however, are more hardline realists about death. It is simply the result of two facts about nature: (1) the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the fact that there’s an arrow of time in our universe that leads to entropy and the wearing down and eventual death of all systems, from stars and people to the universe itself; (2) the logic of evolution, or the fact that natural selection created immortal genes through our offspring but mortal bodies because resources were better allocated toward future generations than keeping alive great great grandparents—we die so others may live.

In the past quarter century some of these scientists—particularly those who do not believe in an immortal soul or ethereal heaven (and, pace Woody Allen’s acerbic witticism about immortality, don’t want to just live on through their children or their work but want to live on in their apartments)—have undertaken the grand goal of extending the human lifespan into centuries, millennia, or possibly even forever. Who are these techno-dreamers?

The Cryonicists

The goal of cryonics, in a phrase, is “freeze—wait—reanimate.” The soul in this scenario is the self as stored in memory, so the cryopreservation of memory preserves the self indefinitely until the day when medical technologies come online to reanimate it. Currently this is done through the vitrification of the brain, which involves turning the cryopreserved brain into a glass-like substance. Could it work? The renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, whom I queried on this matter, voiced his skepticism about the vitrification of brains: “As of today, we have no evidence that a vitrified brain can be turned on again later with all memories coming back.” Cryonics proponents point to frozen embryos being brought back to life, but a brain is many orders of magnitude larger and the freezing process shatters the neurons that hold memories, thereby erasing the self/soul. No one frozen to date will ever be brought back alive.

The Extropians

As the name suggests, extropians are against entropy. Given the formidable power of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which holds that the universe is in a state of entropy, these are bold thinkers indeed, with such colorful noms de plume as T.O. Tomorrow (Tom Bell), Max More (Max T. O’Connor), and Natasha Vita-More (Nancie Clark). The goals of extropy are uplifting if not utopian: longer lives, more intelligence, greater wisdom, improved physical and mental health, and the elimination of political, economic, and cultural limits to personal development and social progress. Once these are achieved “immortality is next” they proclaim.

The problem is that our mortality appears to be programmed into every cell, organ, and system in our bodies such that immortality will require the solving of numerous problems at many levels of complexity, all at the same time. Even if we manage to break through the upper ceiling of ~125 years by solving these many problems, who knows what additional medical issues may arise that we cannot as yet conceive if we lived, say, 200 or 500 years. Instead of reaching for the utopian goal of immortality, a more modest objective of living to 150 years at a relatively high quality of living would be something well worth aiming at.[…]

Continue reading this review at sciencefocus.com—the online home of BBC Focus magazine. This review was published online on February 6, 2018.


The Wall Street Journal (logo)
Imagining the Celestial Realm as ‘Heavens on Earth.’ Where exactly is God, or the Creator, or the highest plane of enlightenment? And how do we get there?

If you ever have a spare minute, watch the YouTube video “30 Stars Thank God for Their Grammys in 60 Seconds.” There you will see the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood tearfully thanking the Almighty, exactly as they might their long-suffering agent or their inspirational first-grade teacher, for the help that propelled them to recorded music’s highest honor.

What you will also be witnessing, though, is the playing out of a theological conundrum. To not have thanked God for one’s Grammy would be arrogant. It would suggest that you and your creative team, mere handfuls of dust, did it on your own. It would be to deny that God’s hand is in everything we do in this world. Yet to thank God also comes across as arrogant. It seems to suggest that God himself wanted you to win the Grammy instead of Beyoncé. It denies that God is anything other than utterly transcendent, untainted by anything remotely this-worldly.

As Michael Shermer shows in Heavens on Earth, his inviting and informative tour of humankind’s various conceptions of where God locates himself, heaven is built to resolve such paradoxes. The major Western religions treat it as a place, but it is a place outside the ordinary workings of time. Generations of family members can die at wide intervals and yet be reunited in heaven in an eternal present, and we can sing God’s praises there endlessly without getting bored. More important, a heavenly God who sits outside of time itself, looking down compassionately on the temporal world, is at once transcendent and intimately concerned with us.

While in Western religions heaven is a place but somehow timeless, in eastern religions—especially their new-age versions—heaven is to be found by living in the “now,” yet it is somehow also “nonlocal.” That’s the word Mr. Shermer’s friend Deepak Chopra uses to describe the cosmic consciousness that pervades all of space. We can access it at any time through meditation and practice. But its nonlocality—it pulsates throughout the entire universe—ensures its claim to transcendence, to being above and beyond this sublunary world.

Mr. Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, isn’t buying any of this. He equates the Western concept—living eternally in the presence of an omniscient and omnipotent God—with residence in a “celestial North Korea” (here he gives a nod to Christopher Hitchens ). He deems the Eastern version “woo-woo nonsense.” And he adroitly dismisses various “earthly” versions of these theological heavens, such as the Marxian promise of a communist paradise that abides outside of history or the trans-humanist prospect of digitally uploading our minds into a collective consciousness.

Mr. Shermer instead finds heaven in the laws of science—of relativity, say, or planetary motion—because they are both transcendent and immanent, embedded in the world we know firsthand. Beautiful mathematical ideas that lie wholly outside space and time, they nevertheless explain the observable reality of space and time perfectly. He also finds heaven in the natural world. Matthew Arnold put it best. When we sense the “glimmering verge of Heaven” in a forest, what we experience is something temporally ephemeral and spatially liminal, seemingly neither inside nor outside this world.

Of course, Mr. Shermer’s heavens contain no promise of life after death. But that’s no loss, he believes, since we can find a kind of immortality in this world, in the unique mark we make and the new generations we create. He notes that most Americans don’t want to live beyond 120 anyway, even assuming relatively good health. And yet a significant majority feel the need for some kind of heaven, as does he. So perhaps it fills some other role for us.

Although Mr. Shermer dwells on their differences, all of his major heavens share certain traits. As countless great pieces of art and literature testify, we are capable of richly imagining and describing the Western heavens that Mr. Shermer discusses. And yet they can never be experienced with our senses, which is why near-death episodes so fascinate us. Nor—think of all those tangled arguments about how resurrection works—can they be fully understood by our mortal intellects. It’s precisely because monotheistic heavens activate some of our cognitive abilities while lying beyond others that they feel both accessible and mysterious. The very idea of them is endlessly tantalizing.

Buddhist sages, meanwhile, say that humans can indeed directly experience cosmic consciousness; we can even comprehend its contradictions in the form of riddles and koans. But if you simply want the highest plane of enlightenment described in words, or think you can imagine what it’s really like, forget it. It lies beyond those faculties and so gains the allure that draws multitudes to ashrams around the world.

Even scientists yearn for the ability to directly experience or picture the heavenly beauty they can know only, as Mr. Shermer says, through “linguistic descriptions” and “mathematical” comprehension. Meanwhile poets grapple exquisitely with how to understand or describe what they so vividly sense and imagine whenever, in William Blake’s words, they encounter “Heaven in a Wild Flower.”

In bringing so many heavens together, Mr. Shermer does us a service. Among other things, he shows us why we are lucky that not everything can be fully grasped by our limited capacities. In our minds can be found the mixtures of immanence and transcendence that we call “heavens.” Like Grammy winners, we might think that we should thank heaven for being created that way. But, of course, it’s thanks to the fact that we were created that way that we have heavens.

This review was published at wsj.com on January 26, 2018. Mr. Stark is the author of The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death.


The Washington Post (logo)
It’s inexplicable: A broken radio plays soothing music at just the right time

Midway into this ambitious, erudite volume, science historian and professional skeptic Michael Shermer relates this intriguing personal story: In 2014, his fiancee (now wife) Jennifer Graf had moved to California from Germany, bringing with her a Philips transistor radio, a gift from her late and beloved grandfather, Walter. Walter had been a surrogate father to Graf, and she had fond memories of listening to music with him, but the radio wasn’t working. She and Shermer switched out the batteries, tried various stations and otherwise fiddled with the machine, but in frustration ended up tossing it into a desk drawer in the bedroom.

Months later, following a small wedding ceremony at their home, Graf was feeling melancholy and disconnected from her family. The newlyweds took a quiet moment together, away from the group, and at that precise moment music started wafting from the bedroom. They followed the sound, which was a love song, and traced it to the desk drawer, indeed to the “broken” radio. It was, Shermer recalls in his book Heavens on Earth, a “spine-tingling experience.”

And it gets better. The radio could have been tuned to any station, or to no station at all, but it was playing just the kind of emotionally comforting music the couple needed at that moment. The radio continued to broadcast similar music all evening, then went silent. It has remained silent since, despite Shermer’s efforts to revive it.

What are we to make of Shermer’s “spine-tingling experience?” What does Shermer make of it, long after the fact? He is a trained scientist and, more important, a devoted skeptic who has built a career debunking any and all claims of the paranormal. Yet by his own account he has difficulty dismissing this extraordinary experience as a psychic anomaly. The physics of the radio suddenly playing might be easily explained—a change in humidity, a speck of dust, whatever—but the timing and emotional significance of the experience are uncanny, and indeed impossible to explain with the scientific insights available to us now.

Shermer devotes considerable space to this personal story, as I have here, because it encapsulates the human condition. Ever since the earliest humans became aware of their mortality, they—we—have been striving to make sense of the big chill and what comes after. Death is undeniable, yet unknowable, a mystery that eludes our intellect, so we must come up with ways to make it all meaningful, something more than nothingness. This dilemma leads inevitably to explanations—beliefs—that include immortality, the soul, resurrection and, most important here, heaven. […]

Continue reading this review at washingtonpost.com, where it was published on January 26, 2018. The author of this review, Wray Herbert, wrote On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits.


Nature (logo)

An astonishing 75% of US citizens—including some avowed atheists—believe in an afterlife. So potent is the idea of immortality, reminds Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer in this intriguing study, that it pervades human culture. After exploring the notion’s place in religious belief, Shermer examines its scientific manifestations, from transhumanism and longevity research to cryonics. He looks, too, at utopianism as the desire to create an earthly paradise. He concludes that balanced rationality—along with an honest, positive acceptance of mortality—constitutes the real “soul” of life.

This review ran in the prestigious science journal, Nature, in the week’s best science picks by Barbara Kiser on January 10, 2018.


The New York Times (logo)
The Quest for Immortality, Rebooted

In 2014, Michael Shermer had a bizarre experience: An old radio from Germany that he had previously tried to fix and then abandoned while in the “on” position in a desk drawer suddenly started playing a love song. But it wasn’t just any radio or any moment. The radio had belonged to the long-dead grandfather of Shermer’s fiancée, Jennifer; and the day it chose to start playing was that of their wedding. Jennifer had been feeling homesick for her family back in the German town of Köln, and at just the right moment a beloved possession of a beloved relative offered what seemed like a blessing. Songs continued to emanate from the radio for the rest of the evening. The following day, the set went quiet, never again to regain its voice.

Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, recounts this incident in his latest book, “Heavens on Earth.” The discussion could have easily devolved into pseudoscientific speculation (was the radio a communication from beyond?) or, at the opposite end, an opportunity to deride anyone who might see it as such (how could anyone be silly enough to see this as anything other than timely coincidence?). Instead, the moment becomes a personal window into the book’s underlying theme: It is natural to want to read into the unexplainable and search for forces greater than ourselves—and yet, the more we want to believe, the more we need to enlist scientific inquiry on our side. Don’t dismiss outright stories that defy regular explanations, Shermer urges. Rather, “Embrace the mystery. What we do not need to do is fill in the explanatory gaps with gods or any such preternatural forces. We can’t explain everything, and it’s always O.K. to say ‘I don’t know’ and leave it at that until a natural explanation presents itself,” he writes.

Such is the central message in a wide-ranging examination of humanity’s quest for something beyond our temporary residence on Earth. Shermer begins with a simple notion: Humans are mortal, and yet it is near impossible to imagine our mortality. You cannot picture your death because you would no longer exist to experience it. This “inability to imagine our own nonexistence means that an ultimate understanding of our own mortality will forever elude us,” Shermer argues, and so we strive to subvert that mortality however we can.

At its most basic, the urge manifests in the failure to acknowledge that death is final. Even animals, Shermer notes, often refuse to give up their loved ones. Dolphins, for instance, have been known to push their dead to the surface in an apparent attempt to help them regain the ability to breathe. Aware that such efforts are bound to fail, humans resort to more spiritual means of resuscitation, often choosing to believe that while the body is dead the soul remains. And here is where religion, mankind’s primary search for immortality and the afterlife, enters the picture. This is the shortest and, to my mind, weakest section of an otherwise fascinating book. I admit I was a bit taken aback by Shermer’s cavalier dismissal of one of the most long-lasting quests for immortality of them all. Rather than explore the nuance of religious experience, he resorts to glib comments: in the case of Christianity, “Hell is not other people (as Jean-Paul Sartre famously opined in ‘No Exit’), but separation from God”; in the case of Islam, “Muslim scripture describes paradise as a garden that includes flowing water, along with milk, wine, honey, dates, pomegranates, and other earthly delights one might crave with no supermarkets in sight … Naturally there’s sex in paradise.” One wishes he would forgo the religious angle altogether and get straight to the more modern quests, where his exploration comes to life—and to scientific rigor.

Shermer’s journey into the present-day search for human domination over death and society’s ills introduces readers to all forms of what he calls “techno-optimism,” meaning the belief that technological progress means an end to death—or, at the very least, to aging and social decay. There are the cryonicists who want to freeze us, and those who want simply to freeze our brains, with all their neural connections and associated memories (the connectome). The transhumanists want to enhance us so thoroughly—through means both natural and artificial—that we become godlike, “taking control of evolution and transforming the species into something stronger, faster, sexier, healthier and with vastly superior cognitive abilities the likes of which we mere mortals cannot conceive”; the Omega Point theorists think we will all one day be brought back to life in a virtual reality. Believers in “the singularity” contend that it is possible to upload the human brain to a server without losing the essence of what makes you you. And, of course, there are those who try to cure us of aging, so that our bodies and minds will cease to deteriorate and our life spans will increase ad infinitum. Shermer visits each of these and other utopian theories with detail and considered analysis, drawing readers along increasingly unrealistic (or are they?) possibilities for our future evolution. It’s a journey as boggling as it is engrossing.

It is also one that, for now, ends up being purely speculative. As Shermer concludes after reviewing the current state of science, it seems that our present best hope for immortality lies in “eating well, exercising regularly and sleeping soundly”—a prosaic answer if there ever was one in the face of so much spiritual and technological brouhaha. However, while we are unlikely to achieve any of these lofty goals in the foreseeable future, Shermer brings us back to the lesson of that solitary radio: What we can do is “consider how mortal beings can find meaning in an apparently meaningless universe.” We ought to embrace awe, “the wonderment that comes from being humbled before something grander than oneself.” Awe, even in the face of the knowledge that immortality is currently—and perhaps forever—impossible: That seems to me a quest worth pursuing.

MARIA KONNIKOVA is the author of The Confidence Game. This review ran in The New York Times Book Review on December 22, 2017. A version of it also appeared in print on December 24, 2017, on page BR15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Immortality Beloved.”


SCIENCE

Faulty religious reasoning and sloppy secular arguments about the afterlife earn a skeptic’s side-eye

Awareness of one’s mortality is universal for human beings. Its conceptualization often starts at a very young age, as preschoolers observe and note the differences between alive and dead organisms. Between the ages of 7 and 10, children come to understand that death is permanent and irreversible, which often leads to anxiety or a fear of death. Despite a growing ability to rationalize, this fear persists in adults.

Various cultural inventions aim to remedy this disturbing emotional reaction. Each transcendental explanation of what happens when we die is inevitably followed by an additional mythology that provides a cognitive reinforcement, resulting in a strong, coherent set of beliefs.

In his new book, Heavens on Earth, Michael Shermer aims to deconstruct systems of irrational beliefs. In particular, he provides analysis of three concepts: The first is a belief in immortality or in an afterlife. Sometimes this belief relates not to an individual but to the preservation of a species. The second is a belief in a utopia where a better version of one’s self lives peacefully among peers. The third is a belief that one belongs to a group that has special insight into the nature of life after death. As Shermer shows, prognosticators of both religious and secular utopias can fall victim to this way of thinking.

It is not difficult to imagine the evolutionary reasons behind these beliefs: A fear of death is a rationale for a belief in immortality; a desire for a well-functioning society provides foundations for utopias; a craving for meaning pushes people to perceive themselves as particularly important. Cognitive shortcuts that simplify complexity, such as confirmation bias (a tendency to search for information that is consistent with preexisting beliefs) or patternicity (a tendency to search for patterns in both meaningful information and meaningless noise), help to establish and reinforce this mode of thinking.[…]

Continue reading this review on ScienceMag.com where it was published on January 22, 2018.


HOW DO WE FIX IT? (PODCAST)

The Dangers of Utopia

By overwhelming majorities, human beings have faith in the afterlife. While fewer Americans believe in God, as many as 80% still believe in life after death. Surprisingly, this includes one-in-three agnostics and atheists. According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion the numbers have stayed stable in recent decades.

Does this human refusal to accept that all we have is the here-and-now lead to a dangerous belief in religious fantasies and utopia? Do we chase after myths while ignoring practical steps we could take now to improve life for ourselves and others?

Our guest, Michael Shermer, is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine and the author of the new book “Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls him “a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationality.”

Michael walks us through efforts by “techno-optimists” to extend life hundreds of years into the future, from cryonic suspension—efforts to freeze our brains with all of their neural connects and memories in tact—to transhumanists, who want to transform us into super-humans.

He is profoundly skeptical of these well-funded efforts, saying that all we have is the present. “Make today count,” Michael tells us. “Make every relationship you have count. Make your interactions with community, strangers and society count in just a tiny little bit.”

Listen to the podcast

NPR AirTalk

The big sleep and beyond: What’s behind our fascination with the afterlife

Heaven. Hell. Reincarnation. What happens after we die has been a core aspect of many religions, and a subject of imagination for many practitioners of the arts.

According to a 2007 Pew poll, 74 percent of those surveyed said they believed in an afterlife, with 50 percent saying they believed with “absolute certainty.”

In his new book, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine explores what drive this unyielding fascination in our culture–and how science and technology are being used towards its exploration and towards ways to extend one’s life.

Michael Shermer discussed his new book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia on January 22, 2018 at the New Roads School in Santa Monica.

Listen to the podcast

Kirkus Review

An exploration of “one of the most profound questions of the human condition, one that has driven theologians, philosophers, scientists, and all thinking people to try to understand the meaning and purpose of our life as mortal beings and discover how we can transcend our mortality.”

Despite never having experienced them, everyone holds strong opinions about death and the afterlife, writes Skeptic magazine publisher and Scientific American columnist Shermer (Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye, 2016, etc.) in this intriguing analysis of an area no one takes for granted. Young children don’t understand death, and adult circumlocution usually adds to their confusion (“He’s gone to a better place…”). By the teenage years, writes the author, “we understand that death is inevitable, universal, and irreversible. At the same time, most people also tend to believe that some part of life may continue into the next life, a tendency reinforced by most religions.” More than 100 billion people have died over the past 80,000 years; none have returned to life, and near-death experiences don’t qualify. In one of many no-brainers that fill the book, Shermer points out that anyone near death is, by definition, not dead. Another crowd pleaser, reincarnation, becomes a stretch if 10s of billions of wandering souls try to cram themselves into the 7.5 billion bodies currently alive. Since deeply held beliefs are often immune to evidence, the author’s blend of common sense, neuroscience, experimental findings, and history will attract few readers expecting a strong argument for the existence of an afterlife. This is a pity because Shermer proceeds to less controversial subjects. Vast life extension violates no natural law, so it may eventually happen. Legitimate scientists, as well as the usual eccentrics, are working on it. From hippie communes to the Soviet Union, attempts to create a perfect society invariably flop, and readers will find Shermer’s reasons why entirely reasonable. Finally, the author delivers a moving essay on the meaning of life.

Not a polemic but an ingenious popular-science account of how we deal with mortality.

This review appeared in the Kirkus Reviews Issue on October 15, 2017, and online at kirkusreviews.com on September 25, 2017.


SUNDAY MAIL

The Meaning of Afterlife

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying Woody Allen once joked. Our efforts to give mortality the slip—whether through brightly imagined hereafters or extended lifespans—are probed by writer Michael Shermer in this beady-eyed investigation.

Given that a recent poll revealed a quarter of non-believers pray when faced with a crisis, it should come as no surprise that even in our secular age, most people continue to believe in some form of afterlife. Yet this clearly irks Shermer, whose credentials include founding the Skeptics Society. As he observes, of the 100.5 billion people who’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, not one has returned to confirm the existence of the world to come.

Armed with logic, science and a smidgin of philosophy, Shermer tours the afterlife as conjured up by centuries of theologians and artists, thinkers and dreamers. He also visits ‘heavens’ on Earth engineered by cult leaders, political zealots and techno-optimists.

He makes short work of ‘evidence’ to support the existence fo an afterlife. Take near-death experiences. It would be far more convincing if folk the world over saw tunnels with lights at the end. Instead, during such episodes people see what they expect to see: Christians see Jesus while Hindus see Yamraj, the god of death, and his entourage. As for reincarnation, the dead outnumber the living by a ratio of 14.1 to 1, so it’s mathematically challenging to say the least.

These days, science labs and tech incubators offer their own paths to immortality. Let loose among the cryonicists and techno-utopians, Shermer has the most mischievous fun with transhumanists, who believe that it’ll soon be possible to recreate individuals, mind and body. What would happen, he muses, if he were injured in a cycling accident and his wife ordered up a replacement copy, only for him to suddenly pull through. Michael I and Michael II clearly couldn’t be the same person, since they’d both exist simultaneously.

It’s intriguing and, for the most part, niftily narrated stuff. His conclusion is surprisingly optimistic, not so much uplifting as grounding. Embrace life’s mysteries rather than filling the voids with quantum woo, he says, and while we wait for science to explain that biggest of mysteries, make the here and now your utopia.

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ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

The pull of ‘heaven’: Even some atheists believe in afterlife

Michael Shermer has written a number of books about science, rationalism, pseudoscience, superstitions, Darwin and evolution. The publisher lists “Heavens on Earth” under the category of science, and indeed, Shermer takes a skeptical view of human life after death.

As he notes in his introduction, 108 billion people have lived and died on this earth between 50,000 B.C. and last year, and not one has come back to tell us about the afterlife. (He doesn’t get into the New Testament story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.)

A reader who believes fervently in the existence of God and the reward of an afterlife for a life well lived probably will not be moved by Shermer’s research and extended argument, which is, basically, that one’s happiness in one’s lifetime is all the reward one gets.

There is no afterlife, no heaven, no payoff for good behavior, no punishment for bad behavior. Not pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. No flaming pit of hell.

Shermer calculates that 7 percent of all human beings who have lived are alive today.

“Of those 100.5 billion people who have come and gone, not one of them has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife, at least not to the high evidentiary standards of science,” he writes. “This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori—‘Remember that you have to die.’”

Many of us can be quite uncomfortable with this fact. Yet this book is filled with interesting surveys and anecdotes that delve much more deeply into the matter of life after death.[…]

Continue reading this review on stltoday.com where it was published on January 20, 2018.


INTERVIEW

Jordan B Peterson Interviews Michael

BookPage

Never Say Die

How do you convincingly dismiss most of civilization’s beliefs in the hereafter and still arrive at fresh optimism about the meaning of our all-too-human existence? Bestselling author and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer does a fine job of it—and much more—in his absorbing 15th book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

As the subtitle promises, statistics and studies abound in this thoroughly researched book. Believers, philosophers, scholars and physicians all have their theories and “proofs” for life after death, methodically examined and just as respectfully refuted by Shermer.

But wait—don’t we already know there is little credible evidence of life after death? Who, after all, has died and returned to tell us about it? And if there is no life after death, how does one find purpose in life? Allow Shermer to introduce you to the singularitarians, Omega Point Theorists, transhumanists, extropians, cryonicists and mind-uploaders. The quest for utopia here on earth has inspired communities as diverse as Jim Jones’ deadly cult and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

If the pursuit of immortality in an afterlife or utopia proves elusive, Shermer concludes by offering a cogent argument for seeking answers in a purposeful life. “Heaven and hell are within us, not above and below us,” he insists. “We create our own purpose.” Find meaning in love, family, work and involvement both socially and politically. Ultimately, Shermer is a believer in the power of our unique souls. He suggests, compellingly, that we seek heaven here on earth.

This review was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage also appeared on bookpage.com in the same month.

New York Post

Scientists could one day make humans immortal

On Jan. 12, 1967, James Bedford, a psychology professor at Glendale College in California who had just died of cancer, took his first step toward coming back to life. On that day, the professor became the first person ever frozen in cryonic suspension, embedded in liquid nitrogen at minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bedford was neither the first, nor the last, to attempt the impossible—beating death at its own game, according to Michael Shermer’s book “Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia” (Henry Holt), out Jan. 9.

With scientific advancements exploding at an exponential pace, some believe the Grim Reaper could soon be out of business.

Here are three ways scientists are striving for immortality that are getting so close to success that they would amaze even Bedford—if he ever wakes up.

Cryonics

Cryonics is the process of suspending a just-deceased person in a frozen state until the remedy for what killed them has been discovered. Then, theoretically, the person can be thawed out and cured.

Science will only consider a person properly preserved if they can be revived with all of their memories intact. Many question whether those currently frozen can be successfully revived.

Currently, the cryonic process “vitrifies” the brain, turning it “into a glass-like substance.” Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch—echoing the opinion of many experts—said it would be “utterly amazing” if this change to the brain’s chemistry didn’t destroy the synapses that hold memories, writes Shermer.

One major champion of freezing is Ralph Merkle, a board member at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation cryonics facility in Arizona. Having performed their first human cryopreservation in 1976, Alcor now has 153 deceased patients frozen in its facility—including Bedford—and almost another 1,000 people have made arrangements to be preserved there when they die. Between Alcor and the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Mich., there are at least 290 people cryonically frozen in the US.

Merkle, 65, said critics of cryonics are like those in the early 1900s who believed mankind could never reach the moon.

“If you can say that technology 100 or 200 years from now will be incapable of reviving someone who is cryopreserved, then you’re making [unknowable] statements about what future technology cannot do,” Merkle told The Post.

Merkle denies that current freezing technologies can’t preserve memory, claiming that “vitrification … is providing excellent preservation of synaptic structure” and that experiments with roundworms have shown memory retention after revival from freezing. He also notes that memory preservation occurs not just in the synapses, but also in the biological structures surrounding them. Furthermore, Merkle believes that in the next few decades or perhaps century, technology will allow repairs to be made to bodies while they’re frozen, so they can be thawed with all the flaws and ailments corrected.

“At some point in the future, we will have technology that can take the damaged structure [of the brain], analyze it and recover the information,” Merkle says. “Once you can recover the information, you can restore the damaged structure with the memory and the information content intact.”

Singularitarians

Some believe that we will one day extend our lives by merging with technology. Singularitarians predict there will be a theoretical future moment when artificial intelligence will overtake and either merge with or replace human intelligence.

Medical technologies will add one additional year every year to your life expectancy —Ray Kurzweil

The premier evangelist for the singularity is scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, who created the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the CCD flatbed scanner.

As technology continues to accelerate, Kurzweil believes we’ll reach a point where “the world will change more in a decade than in a thousand centuries, and as the acceleration continues and we reach the singularity, the world will change more in a year than in all pre-singularity history,” writes Shermer. “When that happens, humans will achieve immortality.” […]

Continue reading this review at nypost.com, where it was published on January 6, 2018.


BOOklist

More than three-quarters of all Americans, including a third of atheists and agnostics, believe in an afterlife. Prolific author and publisher of Skeptic magazine Shermer (The Moral Arc, 2014) explores this belief by reviewing religious approaches to immortality and reincarnation as well as reports of near-death experiences. He firmly believes in creating heaven here and now and actively works to debunk faith in life after death, looking to neuroscience, which shows that our ‘soul, as defined by consciousness, memories, and sense of self, is connected to our physical brain and cannot exist when the body dies. Shermer visits various scientific and pseudo-scientific organizations working to extend human life span through cryonics, in which bodies are frozen with the hope that advancing science will allow them to reawaken in the future, or via digitally encoding brain functions with the prospect of downloading one’s consciousness in a computer. Far from being enamored by these techniques, Shermer argues compellingly that awareness of our mortality leads us to live purpose-driven lives, since our legacy may be the only thing that survives our
deaths.

This review, by Dan Kaplan, appeared on Booklistonline.com on December 15, 2017.


Library Journal

Shermer, author of The Moral Arc and founder of the Skeptics Society, dives into humanity’s deepest questions about life and what happens after death. He explores religious versions of the afterlife and science’s attempts to explain it, yet approaches both with Caution. Incongruences among different religions are examined, and Shermer suggests that their explanations of life after death do not measure up to scientific scrutiny. Even the secular medical community’s mechanical attempts to prolong lifespans and touch immortality are dissected and found imperfect. This book also requires strict adherence to scientific methods and measurable observations when dealing with supernatural or paranormal occurrences. Shermer succeeds in not only analyzing hunnan beings’ efforts to live forever in a utopian existence, but he ends the journey by encouraging readers to seek the forms of heaven which exist around us, in our own lives. VERDICT: The comprehensive scope of this book’s topic lends itself to readers who are looking for multiple religious points of view, whether for scholastic or personal research.

This review, by Bonnie Parker, appeared in Library Journal on November 15, 2017.

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