An Atheist Perspective on the Illusion of Immortality II-
Syllabus (Text Below)
Introduction- Lecture will discuss near-death experiences, reincarnation, past life memories, staying alive, legacy and living without immortality narratives.
The temptations of secular illusions of immortality that appeal to atheists, such as cryonics, mind-uploading and so on.
Near-death experiences on the rise since resuscitation methods and devices have become more effective since the 1970’s.
Possible 15% of Americans have had near-death experiences. Most people brought back from near-death have not had such episodes.
Proponents of near-death use the experience to make theistic or spiritual claims of an afterlife, immortality, and a soul independent of a body.
Raymond Moody’s book Life after Life, 1976.
1981 The International Association of Near-Death Studies formed.
Jeffrey Long’s website with over 1600 NDE accounts, all anecdotal.
NDEs do not prove anything concerning the existence of an afterlife life. There is no evidence.
A listing of NDE Manifestations, such as a feeling of peace and calm.
Susan Blackmore’s Dying to Live. Her research- dying brain starved of oxygen hallucinates an NDE.
Kevin Nelson, The God Impulse, 2011. Neurosurgeon for 30 years. States NDEs are physical reactions of dying brain, including tunnel and light effect. REM sleep and other physical reactions.
Dr. Gerald M. Woerlee, an anesthesiologist, wrote Mortal Minds, 2005.
When people experience NDEs, often out of the body experiences are reported. OBEs glanced at and explained.
Veridical NDEs- those that can be corroborated. There are none.
There is no convincing evidence of NDEs being anything more than hallucinations caused by reaction of dying brain.
Keith Augustine’s important statements about NDEs.
Reincarnation- Reincarnation beliefs of Buddhism, spiritualism and New Age spiritualism.
History of reincarnation.
Definition of reincarnation.
Law of karma- Justice in Universe. If wicked, one is reborn in worse circumstances; if one has merit, one is reborn in good circumstances.
Reincarnation satisfies people’s sense of justice and craving for immortality.
Reincarnation preserves social status quo.
“Proofs” of reincarnation non-salient, including past life memories, birthmarks and defects.
Law of karma makes all defects, even physical ones, the fault of the afflicted for past life transgressions.
Reincarnation now popular in the West.
Reincarnation proponents do not necessarily believe in a god or gods, but some spiritual energy in the Universe is assumed.
Philosophical and scientific difficulties of reincarnation.
Extreme dualism- body/mind.
How “soul” invades mother’s womb; where do souls reside while waiting rebirth.
Overpopulation. Souls supposed to exist from beginning of time. Not enough souls for all the new bodies.
Evolution- Humans are descended from non-humans, not souls.
No life for millions of years after the Big Bang. Souls are said to have existed from the beginning of time.
Ian Stephenson, psychiatrist, foremost proponent of reincarnation. 2 volume work, 1997, Reincarnation in Biology. Claims evidence for reincarnation based on past life memories of children in India and other places. No hard evidence. Leonard Angel’s review of the volume rejects Stephenson’s claims.
Paul Edward’s Reincarnation: A Critical Examination, 2002. Best Western critique of reincarnation.
Secular illusions of immortality. Stephen Cave. Immortality, 2012. A very important work on immortality from the secular viewpoint.
Life span now 80 years for many humans.
Genetic engineering, stem cell research, nanotechnology, definitions and short explanations.
Difficulties with transhumanism, success far into future, if ever.
Supplements, cryonics, mind-uploading. Definitions.
The unlikely possibility of transhuman or secular computational resurrection leading to human immortality. Fantasies that are secular but similar to Christian paradise.
Legacy- living immortally by our works, by our biological children.
Problems with these commendable secular desires for immortality.
Stephen Cave’s Three Stratagems to avoid fear of death and live meaningfully- Identifying with others, Living in the present, and developing a sense of Gratitude.
Closing statements and quotations concerning the acceptance of death.
The references cited during this lecture may be found at end of the written lectures, The Illusion of Immortality, Parts One and Two, in the bibliography section of atheistscholar.org.
I would like to begin this lecture with a quote from Susan Ertz, a writer from the nineteenth century: “Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
In Part Two of the Illusion of Immortality, we shall be concentrating on near-death experiences and reincarnation, with a look at the putative “proof” of reincarnation, past life memories. Then we shall quickly glance at the secular hopes for staying alive as long as one can, attaining immortality through legacy and then finish with several strategies that might help us live happily and successfully without the illusion of an afterlife. The final three sections will be of the most interest to atheists as they discuss solutions that do away with a transcendent view of survival beyond bodily death. Full disclosure, however- I consider many of the staying alive methods, such as supplements, cryonics and so on, as illusions, too. I do not believe humans will be able to attain immortality, but that we shall surely extend our life spans substantially. I think that our best efforts for staying alive as long as we can should be concentrated in the areas of exercise, diet, moderate intake of supplements, and good medical attention. Beyond such sensible measures, living as long as possible is frequently a matter of chance, such as receiving good genes from ancestors, not getting into fatal car or other accidents, living in a country safe from frequent wars and so on.
I have seen atheists who are ordinarily very sensible people succumb to the illusion that supplements will lead to lives longer than one hundred years old, that alternative medical techniques will cure their cancer, and that cryonics, freezing the body at death, will provide them, if not immortality, at the very least, a very long life span. I am convinced that such notions are illusions. But seeing intelligent atheists, who embrace materialist, naturalist life stances, fall into such fantasies, spending time and money on them, demonstrates how seductive the dream of living on and on is to most of us humans.
Such notions of human immortality do not deserve the embrace of atheists and the secular community. Eternal life should be the lore of theists and spiritualists. Many people have embraced belief in god, heaven and hell, and the immortality of the soul from a longing for security. Well, just because we humans want something very badly does not mean that it’s true or that it’s going to happen. In this lecture, we shall try to use the scientific method, looking for evidence that the near-death experience has transcendent implications. We shall be exploring what scientists believe is the origin of the near-death experience- the responses of the dying body as vital functions shut down.
Reports of near-death experiences have been on the rise since the beginning of the 1970’s, with the improvement of resuscitation methods for patients with conditions such as cardiac arrest. Many studies place the number of Americans who have had a near-death experience at 15%, or around eight million people. Some researchers think the number might be higher, because many people are reluctant to talk about having a near-death episode.
Many people who have had an NDE, a near death experience, are afraid that others will think they are members of paranormal groups or that they are odd if they discuss their episodes.
That near-death experiences do occur is well-documented. They are real. Most researchers believe they are real. But there are disputes among them concerning the source of those episodes, whether it is a god or gods, some energy in the universe, or the natural workings of the body/mind configuration as the physical self closes down.
I believe that the near-death experience, which from now on, I shall call NDE, is real. If the manifestations have been correctly reported, one might at times wish for such an event at death, because it sounds like a beautiful interlude during one’s last moments. However, the majority of people who have been brought back from cardiac arrest and other life-threatening episodes do not seem to have experienced much of anything.
The quarrel that I have with NDE belief is that proponents use it for three purposes, all of which are anathema for atheists. Theists, parapsychologists and people who embrace low salience New Age spiritual beliefs use NDEs as proof that there is a soul that is independent of the body and that there is life after death. The mind/body dualistic claims concerning NDEs are particularly annoying. Theists are known for going one step further as well, claiming that NDEs are proof that god exists. Non-believers do not agree with any of the cited propositions. Non-believers who do accept NDEs as real believe that they originate, as we have said, from the physical state of the human body, especially its brain.
The woo claims of theists and like-minded types that NDEs are spiritual events are extremely unfortunate. Much of the literature and studies concerning NDEs have come from the spiritual camp, and they are legion. A quick check of the internet and book sites such as Amazon will offer titles of books and articles with a plethora of claims for NDEs being proof of life after death. Such nonsense has had the result of causing the genuine scientific community to ignore any properly conducted studies concerning the phenomenon and also to neglect to conduct any of its own because of the dubious association of the NDE with the area of the supernatural. There is so much we don’t know about the phenomenon of the NDE, which is an important accompaniment to death for a considerable number of people. Some researchers maintain that there are veritable black holes in our knowledge about these events. More research concerning NDEs might tell us things we need to know about human consciousness, the brain and the physical process of death.
The focus on NDEs, as I have mentioned, became more intense in the 1970’s as resuscitation technology had advanced to the point that many more people were being brought back from the edge of death than ever before in history. 20% of these Americans, and other people around the world, were reporting that they had obtained glimpses of heaven during life-threatening situations. The reports spurred the interest of physicians and nurses, and most unfortunately, people with spiritual agendas. Raymond Moody, a medical student, likely coined the phrase, near-death experience, in his 1976 book Life After Life. His volume claimed that we experience life after death and not surprisingly became an international bestseller. By 2001, it had sold thirteen million copies.
In 1981, the International Association of Near-Death Studies was formed by, among others, the researchers Bruce Greyson, Janet Miner Holden, and Debbie James. The Association has issued a peer-reviewed handbook which contains a fifty year review of the topic of NDE. Its researchers list earlier references to NDEs in medical and psychical research and also list many of the publications on the topic all the way back to 1975. Most of these studies are anecdotal, which the researchers prefer to designate as “retrospective,” and provide no evidence for the skeptic or scientific-minded person that would justify putting credence in NDEs as proof of life after death. To the Association’s credit, they have not tried to “cook” the evidence, and honestly report failure to find the proofs they are searching for.
Jeffery Long, with the journalist, Paul Perry, brought out a new book in 2010 concerning NDEs, and it rose quickly to the bestseller lists. It has been noted frequently how quickly the media pick up dubious “studies” and focus on them, ignoring excellent but boring research. Long is a radiation oncologist. He and his wife, Jody, set up a website that asked for personal narratives of NDEs; respondents filled out a 100 item questionnaire that claimed to isolate special elements of NDE and to flag counterfeit accounts. They now have more than 1600 accounts, probably the largest data base on NDEs in the world. There is a problem with it, despite Long’s claim, and I quote: “NDEs provide such powerful scientific evidence that it is reasonable to accept the existence of an afterlife.” The collection does little more than report anecdotal recollections from people, with almost no science attached to them. We are all too familiar with the kinds of dubious claims reported on the web and this group of NDE anecdotes is not much better.
Toward the end of my presentation of NDEs, I am going to quote some statements from Keith Augustine, the former executive director of Internet Infidels, cited by Victor Stenger in his 2012, God and the Folly of Faith. Secular experts such as Augustine maintain that NDEs do not provide evidence of an afterlife. (The bibliography at AtheistScholar.org at the end of my study refers readers and listeners to the web addresses where Augustine published his exhaustive articles on NDEs. His work in the area of NDEs and immortality illusions is incomparable and enlightening.)
Here is one account of most of the manifestations accompanying NDEs that Raymond Moody, and then later, Kenneth Ring, reported as a combination of NDE characteristics. (1) There is a feeling of peace and calm. (2) There is the sense that death in imminent or that it has occurred. (3) People hear a noise or music. (4) The experience of entering a tunnel or darkness is very common. (5) There is the feeling of leaving one’s body. (6) There is the experience of meeting figures, strangers, deities or deceased relatives. (7) There are reports of encountering a figure of light, or entering into a brightness or seeing a bright light. (8) There is a review of the major events of one’s life. (9) There is the experience of encountering some sort of border, or limit, the passing of which means certain death. (10) Finally there is the conscious decision to return to the body.
Kenneth Ring streamlined the above criteria. He found that people with NDEs usually experienced peace and a sense of well being, separation from the body, entering the darkness or a tunnel, seeing the light and entering the light.
Bruce Greyson, who is a psychiatrist, has put together a 16 point, NDE Scale which is highly reliable and is online. It is very cautious and conscientious with its NDE criteria.
Now I would like to go over some of the possible physical causes for the NDE which have been explained elegantly and exhaustively by Susan Blackmore, Dr. G.M.Woerlee and Dr. Kevin Nelson. I plan to discuss their ideas by citing the results of their research separately. Then I will try to combine the results of their research concerning the fact that taken either individually or collectively, NDEs do not provide any proof for any sort of life after death.
Susan Blackmore is a psychologist and was a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England. She is a former parapsychologist and is currently a Buddhist. She has also stated that she is an atheist. Blackmore has extensively catalogued NDEs; her 1993 book, Dying to Live, on NDEs is one of the most important volumes on the topic. Some of her thinking on the question of NDEs is very salient. It is important to remember that death from lack of oxygen, or oxygen asphyxiation, usually takes time, from 5 to 15 minutes maximum, although consciousness is lost in a few seconds or so. Blackmore thinks the feelings of peace and bliss of the NDE come from endorphins released by the body. She states that the tunnel experience and the perception of a bright light during the NDE come from the anoxia and the release of certain chemicals by the dying brain. She maintains that the life review some people have is due to temporal lobe seizures triggered by endorphins.
More dubious is her thinking that the out-of-body experience is caused by what Buddhists and postmodern intellectuals think of as the false sense of self breaking down.
The work of Dr. Kevin Nelson has been very important for understanding NDEs. His book, The God Impulse: Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain? 2011, is the result of more than 30 years of research into NDEs. He is not necessarily claiming there is no god; he even thinks that god might have arranged for the brain to have the wonderful sense of peace some people report near the end or what they believe to be death. Why this so-called god arranges peace for only 20% of dying people remains a mystery, however. But the atheist physicist, V.S. Ramachandran, has praised Nelson’s work. God Impulse adheres to strictly scientific explanations for dying brain states that theists, spiritualists, parapsychologists and New Age thinkers call proof of immortality. In fact Nelson maintains he can explain all the symptoms of NDE in physiological terms. His work is helping close the door on the notion of the soul departing for some imaginary afterlife at the moment of death.
REM sleep, rapid eye movement, is when we dream the most and when we are paralyzed, except for our eye muscles, heart, and our diaphragm, which controls breathing. Professor Nelson thinks some people are more susceptible than others to REM “intrusion;” the paralysis that accompanies REM also happens to people who are awake, on the edge of sleep. Hallucinations can accompany such a state. Nelson thinks some people with NDEs have been on the borderland between sleep and consciousness and the two states are blended.
Sometimes a few NDE sensations come from fainting, as well as from genuine cardiac arrest and other types of near-death. In such cases, blood flow to the brain is interrupted. “Vision fails in the periphery first, creating a tunnel, before failing completely into blindness and unconsciousness,” according to Nelson. He explains that just before consciousness is lost, the tissue most sensitive to the failure is not the brain but the eye, particularly the retina. When the retina fails, Nelson maintains that darkness ensues and it falls from the outside inwards, producing the characteristic tunnel vision. Nelson thinks there are two possible sources for the light at the end of the tunnel. One could be ambient light from the background light in the emergency room and the other might be REM generated light internally within the brain. His book contains interesting physiological explanations for many NDE sensations. I recommend The God Impulse for readers interested in the physical sources for the NDE.
Dr. Gerald M. Woerlee has a slightly different, but still physiological, approach. His book, Mortal Minds: The Biology of Near-Death Experiences, 2005, tries to puzzle out some of the physiological explanations for the NDE. He has also written subsequent articles on unanswered questions about such episodes. In Mortal Minds, Woerlee, a professional anesthesiologist, thoroughly confirms Susan Blackmore’s research.
In his 2009 article, “The Near-Death Experience: Unanswered Questions,” Dr. Woerlee raises important issues concerning the differing content of NDEs, depending on whether the people who experienced them had expected life-threatening events, had unexpected ones or even had the mere belief that they had died.
The differing content of their NDEs might cast doubt on the universality of the experiences and particularly the transcendent sources claimed by spiritual proponents.
Most, 92% of the dying, Woerlee states, experience terminal loss of consciousness from oxygen starvation, causing failure of thalamic and brainstem function. A few conditions among many that cause this process are heart disease, cardiac arrest, pneumonia and so on. Here are the consistent, around the world manifestations during an NDE, according to Dr. Woerlee’s research. The sensations are absence of pain, feelings of serene calm or unconcern, and lack of ability to move. These three symptoms appear to be universal. He goes on to explain that the commonly reported review of one’s life and out-of-body experiences may be generated by epileptic activity in the brain, while increased pupil diameter gives rise to an experience of light. Oxygen starvation may also induce retinal malfunction, says Woerlee, manifesting as an experience of a tunnel or darkness.
Woerlee concludes that true NDEs consist of a cognitive experience of time expansion, combined with the affective emotion of peace and tranquility. It depends if one dies of oxygen starvation, which includes about 92% of us, or the 8% of us who might lose consciousness from other causes, what sort of NDEs we shall have. This is also the opinion of other researchers, but remember, they are not positive as yet, nor do they have proof enough as yet.
Interestingly, much of the research is starting to show that apparently individuals do not have NDEs unless they believe, wrongly or rightly, that they are in a life-threatening situation, that they are dead or that death is right at hand for them.
“So the nature,” states Woerlee, “of one’s NDE is affected by one’s expectations.” Woerlee reports a body of research which confirms that people with NDEs from different cultures have considerable variation in their experiences. Hindus see Hindu gods; Christians see Christian religious figures, and so on. Not only do people from disparate spiritual traditions and countries report encountering different gods and figures, but geographic locales during NDEs also vary from culture to culture. Are there varied visions in heaven for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and adherents of other religions? Or is the most sensible conclusion that most of such perceptions, from different figures to different geography, appear to be subjective, generated from within the physical brain?
Out-of-the-body experiences, OBEs, are frequently part of the NDE, as we have noted. People who believe they have had an OBE describe being above the operating table, or in corners of the operating room, and/or being able to pass through doors, brick walls and roofs. “Their disembodied consciousness,” states Woerlee, “apparently does not interact with physical forces like electromagnetic radiation such as visible light or matter-sound waves in the air.” There is also the puzzling contradiction- how can they see or hear during an OBE? There have been some limited studies of OBEs. One of them found that a small sampling of people who experienced OBEs had neuroelectrical anomalies in the temporal lobe. Their brains also had difficulty processing information coming from the body as a whole.
Woerlee concludes that many studies of NDE’s are poorly researched. Many questions and obvious inconsistencies have been left unanswered.
He has reached the conclusion that the NDE is a profound hallucinatory experience that some people undergo when they believe they are dead or in an extreme life-threatening situation. Its effect on people after the experience can be very life changing, often for the better. The NDE needs study, scientific study, rather than anecdotal reportage, so we may understand how the dying brain gives rise to it and take it out of the hands of proponents with theistic or spiritual agendas.
Veridical NDEs are especially worthy of study. These are NDEs that people report which are unique and can be later independently corroborated. Some researchers have tried. A card with random numbers has been placed facing the ceiling of the operating room so that not only the patient is unable to see it, but the staff cannot see it either. If the patient has an OBE, frequently reported in conjunction with an NDE, the patient should be able to be the only one to see the numbers on the card. Only 5 studies have been reported with proper controls. The editor of the aforementioned Handbook of NDEs, Holden, concludes: The bottom line of findings from these five studies is quite disappointing. No research has succeeded in capturing one case of NDE.”
There are a couple of famous cases which have been deemed either hoaxes or errors. There is the well known case of Maria, a woman who had an OBE during a heart attack and reported floating out of her hospital room and the hospital building. On a third floor ledge of the hospital, she saw a tennis shoe. The shoe was later found to be on the ledge she described, and it was claimed that no one could see it from her room.
Later experimenters placed a shoe on the same ledge and found it could be seen easily from the room Maria had occupied previously! “Maria” could not be found to be questioned.
The physician, Larry Dossey, reported in his Recovering the Soul, 1998, that a woman with an NDE saw everything in the operating room, including the fact that the anesthesiologist was wearing unmatched socks. Besides being fully anesthetized and unconscious, she had been blind from birth! When sincere NDE researchers asked for more information and details, Dossey admitted the patient was a fabrication, a composite he put together from several cases.
Susan Blackmore has reviewed all the NDE evidence and she states: “There is no convincing evidence of visual perception in the blind during NDEs, much less documented support for veridical perception.” Blackmore has concluded that none of the NDE evidence holds up to scrutiny.
There is a recent account by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who had an NDE and whose volume, Proof of Heaven, 2012, was on the New York Times Bestseller List for weeks. Alexander claims that while his brain was dead, he saw a brilliant light. He also experienced other singular events, like being led to heaven by a beautiful young woman and seeing butterflies along the way. He insists his brain was clinically dead, flat-lined. However, other respectable neurosurgeons have said that it is quite difficult to determine the complete stoppage of brain function during an NDE. It is impossible to prove if an NDE occurred during a flat-lined EEG. A flat EEG does not truly report brain death, say doctors, because it only responds to outer activity of the brain and not the possible deep working inside it.
At this juncture, I would like to return to Keith Augustine’s compelling observations concerning NDEs. (To access any of this data, please consult the bibliography at the end of my written copy of this lecture at atheistscholar.org- The Illusion of Immortality, Parts One and Two.) The following statements are from Keith Augustine. It is important to remember that 80% of those who have been as close to death as possible and have returned from that state to normal do not report an NDE nor have any memory of one. It is not a common experience. There is no current research that refutes the scientific view that NDEs are hallucinations. The studies done so far imply strongly that NDEs are internalized fantasies and not the experiences of a disembodied consciousness. 10% of NDEs report encounters with living persons, once again suggesting internal hallucinations, likely brought on by the perception of the threat of death or threat to the person’s well-being. As we said earlier, encounters with other beings and other realms may be common to all cultures during NDEs. Researchers are not in complete agreement about such perceptions being universal. But there is no question that the contents of those encounters are culturally determined. They are cultural artifacts.
EEGs and Imaging show that people who have episodes of epileptic activity in the brain, and people who have had their temporal lobe electrically stimulated, also report experiences that match OBEs, which frequently accompany NDEs. Reports of consequent paranormal abilities, acquiring healing powers and/or seeing visions of the future after experiencing NDEs are frequent. But people with alleged newly acquired powers who have been tested under controlled conditions show no such abilities.
A famous case was Dannion Brinkley’s book, Saved by the Light, 1994, and adapted for TV by the Fox Network. It was one of the highest rated programs in the Network’s history. Brinkley spoke of his NDE and made predictions for the future. Victor Stenger reports not one of these predictions came true.
Concerning NDEs, that concise and elegant stylist, Victor Stenger concludes, “Once again we have the absence of evidence that should be there if a certain phenomenon exists, which can be taken as evidence that the phenomenon does not exist.” We can put not only NDE perceptions in that category, but notions of god, miracles, healing prayer and any other transcendental fantasy. They do not exist outside of our brains.
Unbiased research into NDEs and OBEs has demonstrated very conclusively that they are internal hallucinations, physically brought on by oxygen starvation, epileptic activity, or even by a current applied to the temporal lobe. They are a total failure as proof of god, of a soul that is independent of the body, and of life after death.
Now I would like to turn to the topic of belief in reincarnation, especially concerning its prevalence in Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. We shall also glance, very briefly, at the vague, low salience notion of rebirth among theosophists, spiritualists and adherents of New Age spiritualism. Reincarnation is the belief, counter to common sense, that people live not just once but many lives in many eras, perhaps an infinite number of lives. Most reincarnation proponents believe that each new life requires a new body at incarnation. Important for Eastern believers is the concept that the souls which repeatedly enter new bodies have always existed and that reincarnations go back infinitely into the past.
The belief in reincarnation is very old; the first mention we have of it is in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, which dates back to about 500 B.C.E., before the genesis of Buddhism. In this text, Krishna, the god of love, tells his companion, Arjuna, that we should not feel grief and sorrow when someone we love dies. He explains that we humans live forever and that “the eternal in man can never die.” However, this passage does not mean that a person’s incarnations will carry on until infinity. Rather, those who have lived a sufficiently good and moral life and who have attained wisdom will reach Nirvana. Nirvana is difficult to explain to Westerners but it is kind of a Cosmic Consciousness, an Absolute. Once this Absolute is attained, a person’s reincarnations cease.
There is a lot of disagreement about whether reincarnation of the soul into a new body from an old one at death is from one human body to another. Buddhist experts explain that it generally is, but that due to one’s immoral acts, one may be reborn as a lower form of life, an animal, a plant or even an inanimate object.
It is also not easy to explain the law of karma, which goes along with the notion of reincarnation. But it is easily recognized as what we have learned in earlier lectures is one of the two important requirements for the popularity of a religion. The two requirements are immortality and justice. Karma is the belief that justice will prevail- the good will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. So the reincarnation doctrine encompasses the notion of immortal life and the sentiment that the world is just and that retribution waits for the wicked. If one is virtuous, she can assume that her karma will merit a good reincarnation in a loving, comfortable family.
If she has been wicked, she will be born into a poor family that could be alcoholic, violent or has other undesirable traits. She might even be born an animal, such as a wolf, an insect, or even, say, a jar.
Buddhists are fond of pointing out that the notion of being reborn as an animal should give us more insight into our cruel treatment of animals, that reincarnation is not a speciest idea, as are Western religious concepts. Yet, except for animals deemed sacred, such as the Hindu cow, I cannot see that animals are treated very well in the East. That is not to say that they are treated humanely in the West, either. Many Buddhists are vegetarians, it is true, but not Tibetan Buddhists. I believe that in general animals are as cruelly treated in the East as they are in the West.
Apparently according to some Buddhist theologians, being born into a human body is not a frequent event. If one has been focused on satisfying purely material needs while possessing a human body, her next reincarnation will reflect that by assuring that she will be born into the body of an animal or insect. She will have to go through many cycles of reincarnation to achieve a human body again. Some experts claim that she will have to endure 8 million rebirths before receiving a human body. The theologians who expound on this theory go on to caution that humans, with their higher brain power and consciousness, should not waste their life by focusing on material things and risk being reborn as a lower form. If that happens, they will have to go through many reincarnations before being allowed a human body. Be that as it may, reincarnation appears to be as simplistic and inexplicable as the Christian, orthodox Judaic and Islamic belief in resurrection. I mentioned in the first part of this lecture on the Illusion of Immortality last month, how popular the doctrine of reincarnation has become in the West. Somewhere around 21% to 34% of Americans believe in some form of it, many of them Christians.
Even allowing for the low salience adoption of New Age beliefs in the West, being a Christian involves acceptance of Jesus Christ as the son of god, and belief in his death and resurrection as a promise of human resurrection, body and soul. This is official Christian doctrine and to be a Christian and embrace reincarnation seems a thorough contradiction in terms.
There are certain “proofs” of reincarnation cited by its proponents, such as past life memories recovered either through hypnosis, spontaneous memory or other occurrences, and the presence of birthmarks, wounds, scars, and physical defects on newborns, that are in the same places as people who have recently died had them. There are naive notions and anecdotal “proofs” that an older relative’s soul has been reborn in a young relative’s body. Apparently some people search, especially in India, for a recently deceased body with the same marks on it as a newborn child has as proof of rebirth. Why the old body should be in the same city or area as the new one makes no sense at all. There are many more difficulties with the concept of reincarnation which we shall be glancing at in a few minutes.
The notion of reincarnation seems to assume a just universe. There is also the assumption that people possess free will and freedom of action and choose to perform moral or immoral acts. Therefore their karma, their fate, will be well-deserved. Such a notion extends into a person’s circumstances. If he has been born with a birth defect, he has done something in his past life to merit the defect. If a child is born into a poor family, that child has merited the poverty because of his previous poor behavior. If the child shows musical ability, or is born into a musical family, she was a musician or entertainer in a former life.
Similarly if the past life of a person was one of drunken debauchery, his birth into a family with immoderate habits and wretched behavior is explained.
One can see the advantages to the wealthy and ruling classes if people embrace such beliefs, which give credence and reification to the status quo. Those who rule and those who are wealthy have merited their blessings, and those who are poor and wretched have brought it on themselves. This static vision of society reminds me of the great chain of being believed in by Western Christians from the Middle Ages until near the Enlightenment.
However, the Eastern lack of compassion for those born with birth defects, physical or mental, or born into wretched poverty in war-torn areas of the world, is stunning to the Western mentality. I should add that many Western people who have accepted reincarnation as an alternative to theism or deism do not necessarily adhere fully to this doctrine. Some of them have not gone far enough into the issues involved in karma to understand or learn its far-reaching and static implications. They are rather like the Christians who have abandoned the idea of hell and not thought out the difficult problem of what will happen to the wicked at the Last Judgment. But to the Western mind that understands the implacable implications of karmic law, the doctrine seems cruel and unjust.
Some Eastern religions, unlike the Hindu, do not necessarily have a belief in a god or gods, but most embrace karmic law and reincarnation. However, it is very unclear who or what administers the workings of this karmic universe. From where do the judgments issue? How are acts of merit or acts of wickedness recorded?
There appears to be a lacuna concerning how karmic destiny is brought into reality. Apparently it is not a physical force. Westerners asking such questions are told they are thinking in Western concepts and do not understand karma. To Western minds, or at least to the materialist, naturalistic minds of secular Westerners, there is a problem with understanding how a nonphysical force can have any effect on physical objects. I should add that the question is the same one that Western theologians do not successfully answer concerning god.
Annie Besant, the famous spiritualist, insisted that “in no case can a man suffer that which he has not deserved.” She then spoke of the “Lords of Karma” who are “great spiritual intelligences keeping the Karmic records and adjusting the complicated workings of Karmic law.” But she appears to have been singular in this notion. Most proponents of reincarnation never mention these Lords, not even theosophists or spiritualists.
Karmic laws seem to imply that people who perish in horrendous events, like the natural one of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, in some way deserved it. However, Buddhist theologians say that not everything that happens to a person in their present life is necessarily karma, like winning the lottery or breaking a leg. They maintain that we Westerners misunderstand karma. But what will happen to all such perished souls? Will the righteous among them be sorted out somehow and given excellent circumstances and bodies to be born into? Will all the people who perished under the Nazis in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Europe also have received new bodies and lives commensurate with their virtues or crimes?
One cannot see that the doctrine of karma is any more enlightened than the doctrine of resurrection. Both ideas appear to be childish fantasies.
Let us now examine reincarnation philosophically and scientifically. I would like to look at reincarnation from the point of view of dualism, the concept that the mind and body are separate entities and that the mind, or spirit, or soul, is independent of the embodied brain. Many philosophers believe that acceptance of the idea of reincarnation is the most extreme form of dualism. Most reincarnation proponents maintain that the spirit or consciousness goes on beyond death, leaving each individual body behind. The Bhagavad Gita states: “As a man leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the Spirit leaves his mortal body and puts on one that is new.” Most contemporary philosophers, even those who are moderate dualists, would agree that such an extreme form of dualism is philosophically untenable. Most atheists who have learned that consciousness is at least partly, if not wholly, dependent on the physical brain, find the extreme dualistic stance of reincarnation belief a failure. The position that a person’s mind has a causal independence from his/her physical body has been shown to be almost certainly untenable by the latest scientific research.
We shall now turn to some scientific difficulties with the belief in reincarnation. One of them is how does the spirit released from the dead body manage to undetected invade the new mother’s womb in order to be reborn? Here is an official Buddhist answer. Narada Mahathera, an important Buddhist philosopher, writes:
“According to Buddhism, there are three facts necessary for the rebirth of a human being, that is for the formation of an embryo in the mother’s womb.” He explains that the three elements are: the female ovum, the male sperm and yes, here it is- the karma-energy.
He explains, in all seriousness, that male and female only provide the physical material for the new child. Mahathera maintains that Buddha taught that the dying person, whose total energy clings to life, at the moment of death sends out karmic energy like a flash of lightening and hits the mother’s womb, “ready for conception.” He maintains that this is the way the primary cell is formed. One can see from such statements that Christian theologians are not the only ones who provide pages of nonsense on unbelievable subjects.
There is the problem of the interregnum, where the souls await rebirth. The Christian and other monotheistic religions have had similar difficulties with the interregnum over the years. Theologians have arrived at different opinions, although most Christian theologians believe souls go to heaven or hell immediately after death, to be joined with their bodies at the Last Judgment. The Catholic Church has not abandoned belief in Purgatory, which is an intermediate stage or place where souls go to be cleansed of their sins for long periods and then on to heaven, but not much is made of the doctrine any longer. Limbo, where the souls of unbaptized infants temporarily stayed until the Last Judgment, has also been nudged aside by the Church as never having been doctrine.
But among believers in reincarnation, the interregnum period brings out the very best in nonsense and it is here that the spiritualists, New Age believers and a few psychiatrists reign supreme.
Past life regressions, or memories, from people who seem to have remembered their former existence, either spontaneously or through hypnosis or therapy, have disclosed various locations where they have resided while waiting to be reborn. Various locales have been described as Gardens and the Planet Pluto. Sometimes the soul apparently hovers near the new birth place until she is born from the new mother’s body. To their credit, many serious people involved in past life research dismiss such tales as anecdotal. I think we must be content with Professor Mathathera’s explanation, which I just quoted.
But we need to move on to more serious philosophic difficulties with the belief in reincarnation. An important one was discussed by an early Church father, Tertullian (c. 160-220 A.C.E.) in his Treatise of the Soul. “If souls depart at different ages in human life, how is it they come back again at one uniform age?” Paul Edwards maintains that no reincarnation expert either from the religious or spiritual camp has ever responded to this argument. He says it as if Christian theologians refused to respond to the question of evil. Edwards, in his 2002 Reincarnation: A Critical Examination, gives some possible answers to this question. Of course he counters all the arguments logically, so we may assume proponents of reincarnation are aware of the Pandora’s Box they will open if they begin trying to answer the question of the age of souls.
We can now turn to reincarnation vis–a-vis serious scientific questions. The theory of evolution was not available to the first individuals who originated and thought out the doctrine of reincarnation, in 500 B.C.E. or earlier. But lack of accessible knowledge cannot be an excuse for clinging to the notion of rebirth by present day religious proponents, theosophists, spiritualists and New Age believers. The theory of evolution has been around since 1859, the date of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. (See atheistscholar.org, Evolution versus Creationism and the linked lecture.) The theory of evolution is completely inconsistent with the tenets of reincarnation. Remember, reincarnation is committed to an infinite series of past incarnations in human bodies. But we know that humans are descended from non-human species. There was a long period in the history of the earth when humans did not exist.
Reincarnation proponents, particularly theosophists, try to pretend that reincarnation is consistent with evolution. They maintain that the process of evolution has moved to a more evolved spiritual realm where people have, or will, become wiser, kinder and eventually gain perfection. Of course, such a notion has no connection with biological evolution or with science. Evolution is a scientific theory rooted in a materialistic, naturalistic world view and has nothing to do with spiritual transcendentalism.
Belief in the concept of reincarnation is also refuted by what science has discovered about how recent life is on our earth. For billions of years after the Big Bang, science tells us there was virtually no life at all. Let us look back at some of my opening statements about reincarnation.
I mentioned that the doctrine of reincarnation believes in a series of reincarnations that stretch back to the past and that a limit to the process has never existed. Such a fantasy is not in accord, even metaphorically, with scientific facts. Paul Edwards maintains that contemporary Western believers, however, are not in the least interested in the findings of science. I reluctantly must concur with his opinion.
Then there is the difficulty with the question of overpopulation. This discussion is somewhat amusing. It was Tertullian, the Church father we quoted earlier, who was the first to state the problem in writing. The population of the earth keeps growing, but reincarnation believes that there are only stationary souls. Every birth is supposed to be a rebirth and we know that most reincarnation proponents believe that human souls are usually transposed to other human souls. This problem is less difficult for those theologians who believe reincarnation in a human body is rare. We now have over 7 billion humans populating the earth. Paul Edwards states that the arguments against the difficulty of overpopulation and static souls generally come from less inhibited, less academic believers in reincarnation.
Morey Bernstein, author of the popular, but generally discredited, past life memory saga of a contemporary housewife, The Search for Bridey Murphy, 1956, has attempted an answer to the overpopulation problem. He simply takes care of the difficulties by bringing in the population of the astral world. Theosophists agree. Most of them state that the population of the astral world is vastly larger than that of earth. Buddhists also speak of “countless other world systems” to which Buddhist texts refer.
Trying to reconcile reincarnation with evolution brings up the interesting idea that humans were animals in previous incarnations. This idea comes from K.N. Jayatillehe, now deceased, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Ceylon. The professor also did not rule out the idea that souls transmigrated from other planets. Bruce Goldberg has weighed in with the clever theory that there is no reason to think that one soul could not occupy three bodies. Ian Stevenson, avatar of reincarnation theory in the West, lends credence to this notion. At any rate, do all these minds or souls come into being, split, fuse and so on, on their own account, and if not, what causes them to do so? The arguments go on and on, but there is no scientific answer. Given the mental fixation of the many believers in reincarnation, one must ask oneself why that should be. Paul Edwards is likely correct: none of those people who embrace contemporary spiritualism is interested in science in the least.
Of all the researchers on reincarnation and past lives, Dr. Ian Stevenson is the world’s leading figure. His credentials are impeccable. He was a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Virginia and later became the prestigious Carlton Professor of Psychiatry, during which time he founded the Division of Parapsychology and became its Director. He has, in a long career, brought a level of professionalism to a field that was considered crankish. It is a regrettable development for those secular people who embrace reality and science. Stevenson believes he has found “evidence” of past lives that proves the truth of reincarnation.
He has authored a massive, two volume work on the topic, titled Reincarnation in Biology, which was published in 1997. Deepak Chopra, in his 2006 volume about immortality, titled Life After Death, credited Stevenson with having found strong evidence for reincarnation. Reincarnation in Biology has collected thousands of cases of children in India and other countries who remembered and talked about their past lives. Many of the children’s accounts appeared to be accurate at first glance. Some children were able to go back to the city of their past life and sometimes locate their former home and family. Sometimes the child had birth marks or defects similar to the deceased person the child “remembered” he or she had been in a past life. One of my favorite stories is that of a young Indian boy who remembered he had lived with a more prosperous family in his former existence. He found the family and sued for some of his so-called past father’s land. When his putative earlier father suffered financial reverses and lost his land, the young man dropped his suit and seemed to forget his past life quite soon thereafter. One wonders if this incident was karma at work! Many of the children were probably prompted by relatives and had heard stories that they were able to repeat. Much of the reported evidence could not be verified.
Victor Stenger reports that Leonard Angel, Douglas College Professor of Philosophy and humanist, has written a review of the Stevenson tome. Angel’s review states: “Close inspection of Stevenson’s work shows time after time Stevenson presents tabular summaries that claim evidence was obtained when, in fact, it was not…” “Stevenson’s case,” Angel continues, “irreparably falls apart both in the presentation of evidence and in his analysis of evidence supposedly obtained.”
Interestingly, a professor emeritus and Indian philosopher, C.T.K. Chari, both a Hindu and a well known parapsychologist, has refuted Stevenson’s work. Chari does not deny reincarnation. But he believes the reports of the children are merely cultured artifacts. He compares them, very shrewdly, to the Western child’s imaginary playmate. He thinks both reincarnation fantasies and imaginary friends are two different cultural ways of reaching out to the world. The playmate device, he maintains, is having an idealized object, and the past life fantasy is being an idealized object.
The best Western study and refutation of the concept of reincarnation is Paul Edward’s 2002 volume, Reincarnation: A Critical Examination, cited in the bibliography at atheistscholar.org- The Illusion of Immortality, Parts One and Two. It is quite difficult to find authoritative, accessible and fact-filled volumes discussing the non salience of reincarnation beliefs. Edward’s book breaks down all the arguments and goes into many specific cases exhaustively. Time does not permit such a full examination in this lecture.
And now we turn to the secular illusions of immortality. In the last century particularly, science has exponentially progressed. Stephen Cave makes the point that in Enlightenment France as well as most of the rest of the developed world in the 18th Century, life expectancy for most people was about 30 years. Children born at the end of the 20th Century in France and most of the Western world could expect to live 80 years or more. Despite better sanitary conditions, antibiotics, improved surgical methods and so on, however, we still die.
Worldwide, 150,000 humans die each day and of that number, 100,000 die of age-related diseases.
But we humans continue to chase the illusion of immortality and there are people, intelligent and talented people, who should know better, who believe that providing human immunity to death and disease is not only possible, but might be possible in your and my lifetime. These believers can be classified under the heading of transhumanists. Transhuman thinkers believe we are evolving, or will, from mere humans to posthuman immortals.
The gerontologist, Aubrey de Grey, maintains that some problems must be solved, and then humans should be able to achieve indefinite youth. He thinks genetic engineering should enable us to rewrite our bodies’ “instruction books,” and prevent now fatal diseases from arising. Stem cell genetic engineering has shown enormous promise and some real results in the effort to defeat death. Stem cells can develop into any kind of tissue and this fact gives hope of replacing old or worn out tissue with healthy tissue, perhaps replacing whole organs.
Then there is nanotechnology, or nanomedicine, physical engineering in the tiny scale of atoms or molecules, “which gives transhumanists hope of repairing our bodies from within, or inside out, using billions of tiny, targeted machines,” according to Cave. Transhumanists hope we can save our elderly, fading eyesight with some sort of X-ray vision. The FDA has already approved a device that helps return some vision to some of the blind and more mechanisms are being developed. Transhumanists believe we shall be able to control our attention, emotions and appetites by remodeling our brains.
Some of them think we can, and I quote here: “… supplement the hundred trillion or so neuronal connections in our brains with vast armies of nanobots, exponentially increasing our powers to remember, reason and create.” Such implants could allow us to connect to the world and each other just by thinking, which would also control our future computers. Thus we would be virtually telepathic.
Some transhumanist visions of technology sound very like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written in 1932, which describes a dystopia that originally set out to be paradisal. Touted as being just around the corner, such transhumanist advances might, if ever, be realized far into the future. They are highly speculative. In the meantime, our expanded life cycle still makes us prey to illnesses often connected to the aging process. In the developed world, one third of people will come down with cancer and a third will face some debilitating form of dementia, Alzheimer’s or another type. Nothing is perfect. As the philosopher, Karl Popper, has reminded us, a sociological shift or change or program, carried out with the best of intentions, can have unintended and unforeseen negative consequences or side effects.
I do not know if he is still doing it, but the reputable transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, has described taking 250 supplements a day. I am all for anything that can comfortably prolong my life and everyone else’s. But the unintended consequence of prolonging life at the price of decrepitude and incapacity is not, for me, an acceptable outcome. The philosopher, Ivan Illich, maintains that we are practicing a “medicalization of daily life.” We exercise, take supplements, eat healthy diets and so on, which are sensible courses to follow. But some of us rely on highly dubious supplemental materials and treatments to prolong or bring back our youth and extend our life spans. We should not deceive ourselves. Death awaits us all. Zygmunt Bauman states that by doing these “good things”, we try to avoid facing up to “the great metaphysical futility of it all.”
Even if we should accomplish a longer life span, there are still many factors that make the wish for human immortality untenable. We know that our earth will eventually die or simply become unable to sustain human life. We have already overpopulated our planet. People’s longevity is contributing to the problem. We have 7 billion people now. Robert Park, the physicist, says that this is 6 billion more than we should have. We can avoid or postpone the knowledge of death for a while, but its presence is always at the edge of our consciousness. The odds are against immortality. Let us, instead, support processes and research that will make our final years comfortable and rewarding.
I am going to just glance at a couple of more staying alive narratives, which technically should probably be classified as secular resurrection. They are cryonics, freezing bodies, in other words, and mind-uploading. Mind-uploading is currently impossible. It is the putative process of scanning and recording all the psychological and factual information in a human brain. Our data-storage capacity vastly exceeds the most powerful computers so far, Stephen Cave informs us, and we do not have scanners to map it as yet.
So we need to freeze our brains until the time when Ian Pearson, a well-known futurist, states: “… realistically, by 2050, we would expect to download your mind into a machine, so when you die, it’s not a major career problem.”
If such copying became feasible, Stephen Cave explains that your mind could be uploaded to a virtual person in a virtual world, or your mind could be turned into software and installed into a robot; or it could be downloaded into a new brain and a new biological body. Theoretically, these different methods would produce you- the same quirks, memories, opinions and so on. The process has been called computational resurrection.
By simply doing daily backups on your home computer, which could be linked to a central “immortality” factory, you would become invulnerable to many accidents, illnesses and natural or manmade disasters. Philosophers have found the same problem with computational resurrection when it extends to a new brain in a new body that exists in the Christian notion of god resurrecting us from atoms if we have been blown apart. The philosophical question involves whether this is you, or a copy. Keith Augustine maintains that if the same atoms that made you were used to resurrect you, then it would be you, not a copy. Other thinkers differ. The arguments concerning computational resurrection are just as serious and just as unresolved.
Aside from the philosophical questions, there is the problem of the new technology becoming so intelligent and efficient it will take over and become a DigiGod, says Stephen Cave.
This DigiGod, at least in fantasy, could resurrect all of us and make us eternally happy. Stephen Cave explains that DigiGod, according to Frank Tipler, “will be able to take advantage of certain specific features of the final stages of the universe to create the perception of living for eternity for the universe’s inhabitants. Tipler calls this terminus “The Omega Point.” If you think Omega Point’s charming picture seems very like the Judeo-Christian notion of paradise, yes, of course it is. This time, though, it is we who will build god, and then he will resurrect us as promised. Frank Tipler is one of the principal proponents of the concept of the DigiGod. He is a physicist who speaks about some of his ideas in the 1999, Physics of Immortality. Needless to say, such a sweet dream coming to fruition is not promising. The 1984 cyberpunk Bible, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, is a tantalizing look at both the dystopian and hopeful aspects of powerful computers and their relation to humanity.
Our last transhuman, secular fantasy is cryonics. Its proponents believe that at temperatures below -276 degrees Fahrenheit, your dead body can avoid decay, be around when scientists have a cure for what killed you and be ready for the time when the fine points of resurrection have been worked out. Cryonics institutes charge around $150,000 to look after your cooled body in perpetuity. For $80,000, you can have your brain frozen, ready for uploading as mentioned, and let the body go. Many cryonics believers think technology will have advanced to the point that it can grow or build a new body at some point in future time. Seeing that your body’s cells will have sustained great damage from whatever killed you and that your cells would receive enormous damage from supercooling, building a new body would seem an appropriate course. As silly as cryonics sounds, it has captured the popular imagination.
I have seen otherwise intelligent atheists of the hard materialistic stance embrace this apparent canard. Just because we do not believe in god, does not mean we do not sometimes fall into other nonsense that adopts the parlance and imitation of real science. Caveat emptor- let the buyer beware.
Now I would like to dip quickly into Legacy, a more rational and hopeful way to live on through our children, our countries’ destinies, and/or through our intellectual, artistic, scientific or charitable works. I have already spoken a little about legacy, but let’s look a little more closely at the three secular ways to live on indefinitely. Stephen Cave has pointed out the flaws in seeking immortality through our works, through identification with such entities as our countries or through our biological descendants. I remain convinced that legacy is an incomplete, but not unacceptable, counter-measure to the fear of death.
We may not achieve immortality on the web, but we can expand our impact for many years into the future, by maintaining a website, or a blog on disparate web venues. The opportunities are endless, as well as the sites available for our choosing. Placing our work and our thoughts on the web is an excellent way to extend our life, our reach and our influence.
But even though virtual and reality writers, painters, and musicians struggle to leave something of themselves behind, immortality through works is an illusion. We can extend our life through our creations, but not forever.
Marcel Proust, the author of the massive early twentieth century work, Remembrance of Things Past, thought that an excellent author might hope to be read and remembered about a hundred years before ideas and styles changed. Proust himself is still going strong at over a hundred years. We continue to remember Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo and other greatly talented creators from the past, even from many centuries ago.
Stephen Cave points out the downside of trying to live on forever through works. Many celebrated people in the present day have no talent or ability to share. It appears that Andy Warhol’s ironic statement about such people having fifteen minutes of fame is quite true. In fact, fifteen minutes might be too long, given the fickle state of the media and the miniscule attention span of the fans that follow the famous. There are the terrifying mass or serial killers, some of whom seem to be motivated by becoming famous and being remembered, or vilified, forever. Cave also talks about those creators with true talent that fall prey to the illusion of everlasting fame. They waste their gifts in the effort to become so illustrious, so well known that their names will be remembered far beyond their life span. They cheapen their art by trying to extend their renown into perpetuity. They lose focus and their work suffers, sometimes tragically.
There is also the attempt at continuation by identifying with our city, or state, or country. Mingling our destiny with greater entities and working for their perpetuity gives us the illusion that we, too, will endure along with them. However, history is replete with the immutable fact that cities, states and countries do not live on forever, either, any more than people do.
Perpetuation through our children is probably the most common way most of us try to gain immortality. This is what Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, said about children in 1796: “The offspring is termed a new animal, but it is in truth, a branch or elongation of the parent.” We hold fast to the hope that our children will contribute to a continuing chain of descendants. But it is important to remember that families frequently die out, even very illustrious and ancient ones. The dream of biological longevity is fine, especially if we recognize that we humans are all, despite our individual traits and personalities, part of the chain of life, which is billions of years old. Lynn Margulis says: “Death is illusory in quite a real sense. As sheer persistence of biochemistry, “we” humans have never died during the passage of three thousand million years. Mountains and sea and even supercontinents have come and gone, but we have persisted.”
However, unless we can manage to exit the planet and find a new one that has the physical constants humans need to exist, we know that death awaits humanity. Eventually, as I said earlier, our planet will either die or become uninhabitable for human life. There are many experts who do not believe finding a habitable planet is possible unless we are able to extend our technology beyond what we can envision at present. The galaxies are moving farther and farther apart as well. In time, we shall not even be able to see most of them through our telescopes.
So we would seem to be back to the point at which I began these two lectures: human immortality is an illusion. Philosophers have noted that our various stratagems for preserving the illusion of immortality have intensified our difficulties. Staying alive, resurrection, reincarnation and legacy all serve to make us focus on ourselves, often in the most selfish and egotistical way.
Religion has been very harmful, because while seeming to ameliorate our fears of ending with the promise of an afterlife, most religions increase people’s fear of punishment after they die. This fear causes us to focus even more on the self.
It is time to put aside the fairy tales religion uses to control people. We have talked about the fact that we will not be when we are dead. Death and our individual consciousness are separate facts. “Where death is, we are not,” as the philosopher Epicurus stated so elegantly and succinctly. Even if death is an adamantine fact, it is one that has nothing to do with us while we are alive. We may not like the process of dying, but we have nothing to fear from death.
In his book, Immortality, Stephen Cave has put together, from the different wisdom and philosophical traditions he has studied, three approaches to living our life as fully, as happily and as creatively as we can, during our limited time on the earth. These three approaches are: identifying with others, focusing on the present and developing a sense of gratitude.
What is meant by identifying with others is simply the idea of involving oneself with people, or an idea, or any project that allows us to extend our personal egos into something greater. The well-regarded psychiatrist, Roy Baumeister, recommends that “the most effective solution to this threat of death is to place one’s life in some context that will outlive the self. If one’s efforts are devoted to goals or values that project many generations into the future, then death does not undermine them.”
The second strategy, focusing on the present, is very difficult to achieve. We humans like to look ahead and obsess about what will happen in the future. Looking ahead and being able to plan is a wonderful survival mechanism. But when the mechanism goes awry, humans can spend hours either focused on future death or obsessively trying to avoid thinking about it. We also waste precious time worrying about what will become of us after death. Psychologists have long been aware that “focusing full attention on a task in the present moment is associated with the experience of pleasure, happiness, satisfaction and enjoyment.” One of the latest studies, from Harvard University in 2010, found that those people are happiest that spend the time wholly in the moment.
The last of Cave’s three strategies, a sense of gratitude, is difficult to achieve because we humans have a penchant for focusing on “the dark side of life.” But we are naturalists and materialists, we atheists, and our life stances demonstrate an understanding of the beginning of things and how it all happened- the universe, the planet, and life on earth. We know how fortuitous the process was. Our understanding is a path to achieving gratitude for the whole unfolding of being.
Life did not have to begin and life forms evolve, and mammals did not have to survive. But it all happened. Humans managed to hang on to life and reproduce themselves repeatedly. These chains of births and deaths of each of our particular ancestors have culminated, for a brief time, in us. Somehow humans not only survived, but became endowed with the precious gift of consciousness at some point in our evolution.
We can remember experiences and what we learn. We can enjoy nature, appreciate scientific discoveries, thrill to art, books and music, and laugh with joy. We can also be aware of our life and our vitality every second. We aren’t grateful to a god or some other transcendent notion for giving us life. We are simply grateful for being here, on this planet, and that the natural process of evolution made it possible.
Our time here is short, but it is all the more precious for that. Religion’s superstitious fantasies are hindrances to the enjoyment and the fulfillment we can achieve while we live. Here is what an Epicurean philosopher said to his readers: “Receive each additional moment of time in a manner appropriate to its value; as if one were having an incredible stroke of luck.” We can be grateful that his words have reached us from so many centuries ago, because the Church tried to stamp out all the traces of Epicurean philosophy. Religion hates philosophies which scorn death, which say that death is nothing to us. Religion hates philosophers that extol the pleasure of living. That I am able to repeat this Epicurean’s words to you is an incredible stroke of good luck.
Stoic philosophers did not believe in a personal immortality. I would like to close this lecture with the words of a great Stoic, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius on death: “Go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in its season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it, and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life.”
Thank you for your attention. I am looking forward to our discussion.
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