On May 7, 2014, the Intelligence Squared US website hosted a debate that covered the thesis “death is not final”. Arguing for the thesis were Eben Alexander, the author of the popular book, Proof of Heaven and Raymond Moody, who for the past four decades, has been studying and reporting on people’s near-death experiences. Opposed to the thesis were CalTech physicist Sean Carroll and Steven Novella, the Yale neurologist who made a name for himself as as a contributor to both the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and the Science Based Medicine blog.
It’s an important question, and undoubtedly one that we, as a species have been asking for as long as we’ve been capable of asking questions: what happens when you die? It is not a very satisfying answer to be agnostic about this question: saying “I don’t know” — for however much it’s a sign of humility to admit to lack of knowledge — doesn’t really answer the question at hand. It’s natural to be afraid of, in the words of musician Harry Chapin, “that black implacable wall of death.” (from the interview clip entitled “My Grandfather” from the Gold Medal Collection album.)
Indeed, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that attempts to answer this question by saying that something — be it the afterlife, resurrection, or some other concept or even a combination of them — happens after death, is one of the foundational concepts of virtually every religious tradition, past or present. While the world of the 2009 movie The Invention of Lying is not exactly realistic, the way the concept of heaven first got formed very well might have been as it was presented in that movie.
(If you haven’t seen the movie, Ricky Gervais’s character is literally the only character capable of speaking something he knows to be false. As his mother lay dying, he invents a paradise to ease her anguish and fear over the finality of death. This kind of catches on and becomes a problem he has to deal with as no one else has any reason to doubt him…)
About three years ago, Sean Carroll wrote an article in Scientific American, in which he pointed out that the after-death persistence of a life energy violates the laws of physics, most specifically, the Dirac Equation. In the debate, Carroll reiterated the greater thesis of that old article. Novella, to buttress Carroll’s argument, pointed out that all of the evidence of modern neuroscience, holds that the mind and the brain are one, and there is no evidence that the mind can exist outside of a functioning brain.
In contrast, Alexander relied upon his own experience in which he nearly died to support his certainty that the afterlife of some sort might exist. While I don’t doubt Alexander’s sincerity, the most disingenuous of the arguments of the debate came from Moody. Moody tried to move the goalpost by arguing that the question of whether death is final, is not one that can be answered by science.
There are assertions that can be addressed by science (the age of the universe comes to mind) and others that can’t (such as the attempts by creationists to explain that dinosaurs were placed where they are in sediment by a god that’s trying to trick us). But Moody’s attempts to argue that science can’t answer the question at hand, were not only directly refuted by Carroll’s arguments, but also the most intellectually lazy part of the whole argument.
I don’t fault anyone whose fear of death, might lead someone to think that something might exist after death. There’s a little bit of a conceit to it all, but it’s no different, really, from anything else we might do in our lives to ensure that something about our all-too-brief lives might have an impact beyond our natural years. That desire is all in our minds, though.
And, as Dr. Novella pointed out in the debate, the mind and the brain are the same thing. No matter how much we might want something to be true, that doesn’t make it true. So it gives a good perspective on the Emo Philips joke: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
If you want to watch the whole debate, you can watch it below: