Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A skeptical view of the "afterlife"

As a skeptic, I'm sometimes asked what I think about the afterlife or what happens to us after we die.'s my opinion. I created this post as talking points for a recent local interfaith meeting on the topic.

My view is that the afterlife is...

Not True

Belief in an afterlife (our consciousness survives death) is almost certainly a myth (a widely held false belief), because it simply isn't possible.

Not Possible

Based on everything we know today, it just isn't possible for the mind (psychÄ“, life, spirit, consciousness or soul) to survive without the brain. Mind is simply what the brain does. We know this because we can change the mind by changing the brain.

Not Desirable

There's No Exit. It's like a celestial North Korea: "But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea" (Christopher Hitchens).

There also appears to be a correlation between belief in an afterlife and violence (9/11) and apathy (climate change).

Not Fun

Forever in paradise with everything you want? Sounds very boring. Burning in hell? No thanks.

Not Comforting

Lacking a belief in the afterlife, atheists are sometimes hounded by loved ones who are afraid we're going to hell. But belief in an afterlife can cause discomfort for both atheists and believers.

Sorry, but you can't always get what you want: "Our lives here are not dress rehearsals. This is the act. This is the one performance that we get" (Sean Carroll).

Not Learned

Belief in an afterlife may help us cope with our fear of death, and it's certainly encouraged by religion. But it looks like it is actually an instinct (intuition). And like with geocentrism, we can recognize that our intuition is mistaken.

Related Topics: Transhumanism, Life Extension, and Mind Uploading

We live longer than our ancestors, and our descendants will probably live longer than us (possibly centuries instead of decades). But there's probably a limit to biological lifespans, and I'm not holding my breath that we will become immortal as physical beings or upload our consciousness into a machine (or something in between). And I don't think immortality would be desirable any more than an afterlife would.

So what do I think happens to my consciousness after I die?

Consciousness is probably an emergent property of brain similar to how fire is an emergent property of the combination of combustible material, heat, and oxygen. At death, our brain dies and consciousness (the flame) simply goes out. Our body then goes through various stages of decomposition (and eventually and ultimately return to whence it came - star dust), but our mind no longer exists - in the same way that it didn't exist before we were born.

But cheer up! Against all odds, we won the lottery of life. "Because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing" (Sasha Sagan). So enjoy your life. "We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself" (Carl Sagan).

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