At year end, I have a tradition of writing a column more speculative and personal than usual. In this post, I consider critically the standard physicalist belief that our consciousness depends on a physical brain, and hence death is the end of all awareness.
I was 46 years old when I first considered the question, what is aging and where does it come from? Before that, I had been a physicist with diverse scientific interests pretty much all my life. What was I thinking? Why had I never considered this topic before? I think the answer is: fear.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in preserving my health and extending my life. But it was several years into a committed study of aging science that I thought to ask, why? Do I love life especially well, or am I afraid of death?
I’ve gradually come to realize that fear of death has cast a shadow over my thinking about aging, and possibly about many other other things as well. I was a young child when I taught myself to avoid thinking about death because I couldn’t handle the abyss of terror into which my thoughts spun. As I developed the habit of tiptoeing around thoughts and discussions of death, what was I missing? I’ve come to think that whole areas of my humanity became occluded, and have only begun to re-emerge in recent years.
In 1972, Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death, which I knew even then that I ought to read. I bought it, but years went by and it never made it remained unopened on my bookshelf. Becker proposed that all of human civilization—art and literature, architecture, music, settlements and empires, stories of heroism, religious teachings, projects great and small—all of it stems from a drive to compensate for our mortality by creating something more permanent than our physical selves. Even if this is only a little true, we have to wonder: Who would we be if we weren’t trying so hard to avoid death?
The Bhutanese people are reputed to be the happiest in the world. Their mountains are majestic, their lifestyle modest and close to the land; but in this they are no different from many nations whose people seem to be pitiable. So what is their secret? Eric Weiner tells us that their culture is steeped in death rituals, and that death is out in the open in Bhutan. Bhutanese Buddhists contemplate their own death five times a day. Weiner goes on to cite studies that suggest thinking about death makes us more joyous. These studies wouldn’t convince anyone, unless they wanted to be convinced. Maybe I want to be convinced
Of course, Buddhism is pervasive in Bhutan, with its belief that our souls cycle through birth and rebirth in karmic cycles. Death is not a final end. The abyss that terrified me is not part of their belief system. I used to try consoling myself with such possibilities, but I got nowhere. This is not science, it’s wishful thinking. Religions have manipulated people with promises about life after death since the dawn of human civilization. I’m too smart to be deceived with such fairy tales. Even if it makes me afraid, even if it paralyzes me with terror, I prefer the realism of science.
But there came a point when it occurred to me maybe that the immortal soul was the reality and the fear was the delusion. Did I believe in the Great Void just so I could feel smarter than people who believed in heaven? I peeked out from my fear just enough to question whether the abyss was a scientific deduction, or merely an artifact of scientific culture. Science or scientism?
But there came a point when I wondered whether the self-delusion was in the belief that it was all wishful thinking. I peeked out from my fear just enough to question whether the abyss was a scientific deduction, or merely an artifact of scientific culture. Science or scientism?
Let’s backtrack to a different scientific myth. We have been effective in reversing the scientific prejudice that says human lifespan is a fixed, unalterable fact of our biology. Given the intellectual bankruptcy of this thesis, why would so many people, scientists especially, have embraced it for so long? One reason is the experience with being disappointed by charlatans, fooled by mountebanks, alchemists and snake-oil salesmen who have profited from their customers’ willingness to believe. Perhaps a larger reason is the fear of death that they have walled off with a kind of despair masquerading as science. Hope is often more frightening than despair. As Milton wrote, “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear.”
They leave their hope behind so they don’t have to face the discomfort of their fears. We have exposed their unreason.
Now, I wonder if we have been drawn into the same dynamic: that we have relinquished a hope that is too uncomfortable to carry. The hope we have relinquished is that the “self” persists in some form and awareness continues after physical death. For most of my life, I believed that physical reality is the only reality there is, that anything I feel as a “self” depends on 100 billion neurons and a blood supply.
And yet, my primary experience, the only thing of which I am truly certain, is that I exist as a point of consciousness, a primal self-awareness that all our science (as Chalmers has pounded home to us all) is powerless to explain. Many of us believe (with Dennett) that, since physical reality is the only reality, this primal self-awareness must be an epiphenomenon of neural activity in the physical brain—some would say an illusion created by computation. Maybe this is true, but there is no scientific support for this statement, nor does scientific evidence weigh against it. The statement that our feeling of self derives from computation is an article of faith, or of Scientism, rather than anything for which we can adduce evidence.
And for me, this idea is counter-intuitive. I have a meditation practice. I have studied astrophysics and quantum mechanics. I go for long walks in the woods and I allow my mind to run all over such topics, and the result until now has been for me to trust this feeling of selfhood more than I trust any reasoning about an alleged physical basis. The light of my awareness is a truth unto itself.
“Yeah, yeah,” says my scientific training, “where’s the evidence?” Evidence there is aplenty, but it is ignored by the scientific mainstream. Some of it is recognized as anomaly that we will understand someday, even though it seems strange now. The more direct kinds of evidence are actively suppressed, banned from mainstream scientific journals and exiled to the Journal of Scientific Exploration and other publications of mixed quality, where it takes some patience to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In the former category are some of the anomalies cited at the beginning of the Michael Levin video that I reported on last week. Caterpillars whose brains are literally dissolved in morphing into a butterfly, and yet memories survive. Monarch butterflies that pass memories about the route to return home over half a dozen generations. Ciliated protozoa that are capable of learning and memory, though they have no nerve cells. People who develop a musical ability or an interest in motorcycles or a vegetarian conviction when they receive a heart transplant.
In the latter category are a number of experiments for which the best source might be Dean Radin’s books, for example Entangled Minds and The Conscious Universe. There are near-death experiences, in which people have memories, often blissful and love-filled, from the time when there was no neural activity in their brains. Reflexively, the scientific rationalists dismiss these reports as fantasy creations of the oxygen-starved brain. But in many cases, the person recovering from an NDE reports things she would have no way of knowing if she had not been conscious during the time she was clinically dead. My introduction to NDE science was by Pim van Lommel. His latest book is Infinite Awareness. Similar stories have been collected by John Hagan, Chris Carter, Eben Alexander, and others. Finally, there is the scientific study of reincarnation, pioneered in the West by the late Ian Stevenson, professor of psychiatry at University of Virginia. His work has been continued by Jim Tucker at UVa and Raymond Moody (his book), Roy Stemman, and others elsewhere. Carol Bowman researched and documented one spectacular case of a Louisiana couple, non-religious skeptics, whose 2-year-old son had persistent nightmares, then displayed uncanny knowledge about the crash of a World War II fighter plane in Iwo Jima.
Why does the mainstream scientific community persist in dismissing all this research without evaluating it? Because it conflicts with a strictly-materialist, “scientific” world-view formed in the 19th Century, when the world of science was suffering under the delusion that every natural phenomenon might soon be explained by deterministic laws. A few decades later, quantum physics put that aspiration to rest, and offered a mechanics at the foundation of science that has room for mind, for intention, for Cartesian dualism, for those who see fit to interpret quantum mechanics in that light. Quantum mechanics may be 90 years old, but the scientific world has yet to absorb its message. In particular, it has been shown in independent experiments by Radin, Jahn, and others that the events that are treated as “random” in QM can be influenced by conscious intent, without any recognized physical connection between the brain and the quantum system. Furthermore, this connection is stronger when there is an emotional stake in the outcome, and its force increases non-linearly with the number of people whose attention is focused on a quantum target.
My tentative conclusion from this is that there is room within what quantum mechanics treats as “random” for (non-material) mind to influence material reality. And there is evidence from experiment and anecdotes that this actually occurs. Hence, the door remains open for a non-material locus of selfhood, or some aspect thereof.
|“Despite the unrivaled empirical success of quantum theory, the very suggestion that it may be literally true as a description of nature is still greeted with cynicism, incomprehension, and even anger.” — David Deutsch