30 March 2018

STILL SEARCHING

Michael Shermer. Heavens on Earth, the Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia. Robinson, 2018.

This book is in many ways fascinating, at one point ghoulish, and finishes with a chapter, which fails to persuade me in favour of the author’s views. The range of subject matter is widely divergent, with Shermer inter alia, exploring the pre-execution thoughts of those waiting on America’s death-row (the ghoulish bit), delving into the subject of brain consciousness, discussing briefly and to my mind inadequately the past life phenomena, and considering utopian and dystopian world views, with the latter topic allowing the author to stray into a discussion of modern politics.

Shermer’s underlying assumption, which he more or less makes clear in his concluding chapter is that this is it folks, what you see is what you get, and you should be happy with that, there is no afterlife. At no point in the book does he consider the possibility that science itself may be an inadequate tool to examine what may or may not lie beyond the grave. For him all religion is simply an invention to fill a longing in mankind for a sense of purpose, since the universe and its laws are all that exist, there is no 'beyond'. Life, we are told, is governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the hope for any individual beyond death is futile; we should be satisfied that we had the fleeting privilege of our mundane existence, and if there is any eternity on offer, it is for the species and not for the individual. Whilst the author appears to find comfort in this thought, it pretty obvious that most of humanity has not, to date, done so.

The possible problem in approaching such a subject with this mind-set is that there may be a tendency for the 'scientific' mind by default to try to debunk the myth, because this mind knows in advance that only one thing – matter - exists. In his discussion of consciousness in chapter 4, Shermer adopts the following view: “We know for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies, so until proven otherwise, the default hypothesis should be that brains cause consciousness”.

But the argument can be put that consciousness is not to be equated with brain consciousness and is beyond both time and space, and per se cannot be measured, so that in fact one should not adopt such a default position.

An example of Shermer’s approach is in his all too brief mention of Ian Stephenson’s “massive 2,268 page two-volume work” on past lives, which is dismissed in one line: “one need not read deep into the literature to see this process as a classic case of patternicity - the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and random noise”. I am sorry but this will not do, and a far fuller examination of these past life phenomena is required here.

The book includes a chapter on progress and pessimism and another on utopias and dystopias. These, to my mind are entirely different topics to those of the afterlife and immortality, so that the reader may wonder why he is forced to digress into a discussion about Nietzsche and the growth of far-right politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and beyond (surely the domain of the professional historian rather than the scientist).

On the other hand the author’s chapter on progress and pessimism I felt to be the best in the book, even though (or perhaps because) it was not on the subject of the afterlife. Some really interesting detail is given about mankind’s overly pessimistic attitudes, which appears to have evolved from the necessity for early mankind to assume the worst (since one mistaken moment of optimism could have fatal consequences) and here science is able to measure data in order to evidence this; plenty of examples are given, such as the fact that “memory recall is better for bad behaviours, events and information than it is for good”.

If the author quite rightly points out that civilised man needs to take a less pessimistic approach to life, then I find him too pessimistic about immortality and the afterlife, and his concluding chapter in which he attempts to persuade me I should be satisfied with nothing after death leaves me cold. The oldest and unanswerable rebuttal of this argument is that science is unqualified to answer the question, it is simply a great unknown. The chapter raises more questions than it answers, for example various citations from poets and playwrights are included in which the word self or soul is used, but this begs for a debate about what we mean by theses terms. – Robin Carlile

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