A scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality from the bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer
In his most ambitious work yet, Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth.
For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, and though no one has ever returned from such a place to report what it is really like—or that it even exists—today science and technology are being used to try to make it happen in our lifetime. From radical life extension to cryonic suspension to mind uploading, Shermer considers how realistic these attempts are from a proper skeptical perspective.
Heavens on Earth concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and how we can live well in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.
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About the Author
Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and several other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He lives in Southern California.
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A LOFTY THOUGHT
Never to have been born at all:
— Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 406 B.C.E.
Where were you before you were born?
Come again? This question strikes most of us as nonsensical, because we didn't exist before we were born. The same problem arises in imagining your death. Try it. What comes to mind? Do you see your body as part of a scene, perchance presented in a casket surrounded by family and friends at your funeral? Or maybe you see yourself in a hospital bed after expiring from an illness, or on the floor of your home following a fatal heart attack? None of these scenarios — or any others your imagination might conjure — are possible, because in all cases, in order to observe or imagine a scene you must be alive and conscious. If you are dead you are neither. You can no more visualize yourself after you die than you can picture yourself before you were born.
Existence doesn't just precede essence, as JeanPaul Sartre conjectured in one of the founding documents of the existentialist movement. Existence is essence. No existence, no essence. As the German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe framed the problem, "It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life. In this sense everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself." Sigmund Freud reflected on death in a similar vein: "We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators."
To experience something, you must be alive, so we cannot personally experience death. Yet we know it is real because every one of the hundred billion people who lived before us is gone. That presents us with something of a paradox.
THE MORTALITY PARADOX
In his now classic Pulitzer Prize–winning 1973 book The Denial of Death, the anthropologist Ernest Becker oriented our dualistic place in nature,
up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.
Is it terrifying? I don't think it is, but many people do. In his book Immortality, for example, the British philosopher Stephen Cave contends that the attempt to resolve the paradox of being aware of our own mortality and yet not being able to imagine nonexistence has led to four immortality narratives: (1) Staying Alive: "like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever — physically, in this world — is the most basic of immortality narratives." (2) Resurrection: "the belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life." (3) Soul: The "dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity." (4) Legacy: "More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future" such as glory, reputation, historical impact, or children. Cave's four-part schema is instructive, so a brief overview is in order to resolve the paradox provisionally.
First, staying alive is not presently possible. There are scientists working to extend our upper age ceiling through various medical technologies, but for now the bookmakers' odds-on bet is that no one alive today will live beyond 125 years. Even if medical science raises the age roof by a few years or decades, the dream of living centuries or millennia is a vaporous one.
Second, resurrection harbors two logical problems with both religious and scientific forms of reconstituting your body: (1) The Transformation Problem: How could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death? To avoid these problems you would need to be resurrected in a much different state than you are now, so this new identity would not really be you. One work-around is to preserve your connectome — the brain's equivalent to the genome — where your thoughts, memories, and "self" are stored, and then perhaps upload all that information into a computer. I am involved in one aspect of this research and will discuss it at length in chapter 7, but for here I will note that in addition to the technological hurdles, this option leads to a second difficulty. (2) The Duplication Problem: How would duplicates be different from twins? That is, even if a godlike supercomputer in the far future had virtually limitless digital power to make a perfect copy of you, it would be just that — a copy with the same thoughts and memories as you until it began its own independent existence. At that point your copy will have separate life experiences and memories, and you and your copy would thus be logically indistinguishable from identical twins, whom we legally treat as autonomous persons and not as duplicates of the same individual.
Third, the soul has been traditionally conceived as a separate entity ("soul stuff") from the body, but neuroscience has demonstrated that the mind — consciousness, memory, and the sense of self representing "you" — cannot exist without a brain. When portions of the brain die as a result of injury, stroke, or Alzheimer's, the corresponding functions we call "mind" die with them. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul. Scientists working to preserve the connectome are also considering techniques to either reawaken a frozen brain with its connectome intact (cryonics), or scan every last synapse in a brain and digitize it so that it can be "read" like a book or reawakened in a computer. This scientific soul would be the first form of soul stuff ever measured, but as we shall see, the obstacles to achieving this form of immortality are beyond extraordinary. I don't think this will happen in my lifetime, or perhaps anyone's lifetime, leaving us with ...
Fourth, legacy isn't strictly a form of immortality at all, but more of a type of memory — the remembrance of a life — and as Woody Allen quipped: "I don't want to be immortal through my work; I want to be immortal by not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment." At the moment this is the best we can do, but it's something, given how important our lives can be in the lives of those we know and love (and even those we don't), but it is understandably less emotionally satisfying than our desire to live literally forever.
Cave resolves the paradox by contending that the legacy narrative we tell ourselves is the driving force behind art, music, literature, science, culture, architecture, and other artifacts of civilization — and even civilization itself. The legacy driver is terror, which has now a full-blown research paradigm called Terror Management Theory (TMT), proposed by the psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski in numerous scientific papers and more extensively in their book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Inspired by Ernest Becker, the curious title comes from William James's classic 1902 work The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which the psychologist conjectured "a little cooling down of animal excitability and instinct, a little loss of animal toughness, a little irritable weakness and descent of the pain-threshold, will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians." According to TMT, awareness of one's mortality focuses the mind to produce positive emotions (and creations) to avoid the terror that comes from confronting one's death. Solomon explains the theory:
Humans "manage" this terror by embracing cultural worldviews — beliefs about reality — shared with other group members to convey to each of us a sense that we are valuable individuals in a meaningful universe, and hence eligible for literal and/or symbolic immortality. Accordingly, people are highly motivated (albeit quite unconsciously) to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and a confidence in their self-worth (i.e., self-esteem); and threats to cherished beliefs and/or self-esteem instigate defensive efforts to bolster their worldviews and self-esteem.
Thus, we create and invent, build and construct, write and sing, perform and compete, to attenuate the terror of contemplating our own mortality. Civilization is the product not of ambition but of trepidation.
I have my doubts. First, it is not obvious why contemplating death should lead people to experience terror, get defensive about cultural worldviews, or feel the need to bolster self-esteem. It could just as well lead people to feel more sympathy for others who, after all, are in the same existential boat. Second, why wouldn't such despair lead people to just give up on building or creating anything, since it is fruitless in the long run, if not the short? Third, TMT scientists admit that much of their theory depends on unconscious states of mind that are notoriously difficult to discern and require subtle priming of the brain to elicit.
TMT proponents even go so far as to conjecture that our Paleolithic ancestors died prematurely from death terror. How? Those hominid groups that developed religious rituals to quell their death terror were more likely to survive. "A creature with the dawning realization of its own mortality and no system of spiritual beliefs to quell the consequent fear would seem unlikely to venture forth and take the risks necessary for their own or their group's survival," Solomon and his colleagues conjecture:
Hominids with faith in some spiritual protection would be more bold and confident in engaging in the risky tasks necessary for survival in harsh dangerous environments. This suggests that with the dawn of awareness of mortality, hominid groups with particularly compelling spiritual beliefs and individuals particularly capable of sustaining faith in such beliefs would have had adaptive advantages.
It's a colorful story, but one lacking in empirical evidence and not as probable as competing hypotheses of the evolutionary origins of culture and religion and the psychological processes underlying it. Human behavior is multivariate in causality, and fear of death is only one of many drivers of creativity and productivity, if it is one at all. The capacity to reason is a feature of our brain that evolved to form patterns and make connections in the service of survival and reproduction in the environment of our evolutionary ancestry. Reason is part of our cognitive makeup, and once it is in place it can be put to use in analyzing problems it did not originally evolve to consider. The psychologist Steven Pinker calls this an open-ended combinatorial reasoning system, and he notes that "even if it evolved for mundane problems like preparing food and securing alliances, you can't keep it from entertaining propositions that are consequences of other propositions." The capacity to reason and communicate symbolically is employed in hunting, surely a more basic survival skill than the management of death terror. TMT theorists propose that "before venturing out on a hunt or exploring new territory, early Homo sapiens may have performed rituals and told stories about how the spirits would help them slay mammoths, leopards, and bears and protect them from potential dangers in the physical world." Maybe, and some interpreters of the prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet that feature bison, horses, aurochs, and deer attribute these images to hunting magic, but skeptics point out that many of these animals were not hunted in those regions (no bones of these beasts have been found there), and other animals that were commonly hunted (for which there are ample bones in the caves and nearby showing marks of being hunted) are not featured in the cave paintings. In any case, what does symbolic hunting magic have to do with death terror?
A more pragmatic cognitive skill may be at work here, such as that proposed by a professional animal tracker (and historian of science) named Louis Liebenberg, who argues that our ability to reason and communicate symbolically is a by-product of fundamental skills developed by our ancestors for tracking game animals, starting with hypothesis testing. "As new factual information is gathered in the process of tracking, hypotheses may have to be revised or substituted by better ones. A hypothetical reconstruction of the animal's behaviors may enable trackers to anticipate and predict the animal's movements. These predictions provide ongoing testing of hypotheses." The development of tracking also involves the cognitive process called theory of mind, or mind reading, in which trackers put themselves into the mind of the animal they are pursuing and imagine what it might be thinking in order to predict its actions.
This, it seems to me, is a far likelier explanation for the evolution of symbolic reason than death terror. Once the neural architecture is in place to deduce, say, that "a lion slept here last night," a person can substitute any other animal or object for "lion" and can swap "here" with "there" and "last night" with "tomorrow night." The objects and time elements of the reasoning process are fungible. As Pinker explains in How the Mind Works, this interchangeability is a by-product of neural systems that evolved for basic reasoning abilities such as tracking animals for food. It's a bottom-up combinatorial reasoning process that includes induction (reasoning from specific facts to general conclusions) and deduction (reasoning from general principles to specific predictions) that allowed humans to scale up from basic survival skills such as hunting and gathering to more abstract concepts such as death, the afterlife, souls, and God. In this sense, then, religion is not a direct adaptation to living conditions but a by-product of these abstract reasoning abilities.
An even more elementary evolutionary driver of creativity and culture is sex and mating — sexual selection, in the parlance of evolutionary theory — in which organisms from bowerbirds to brainy bohemians engage in the production of magnificent works in order to attract mates. Big blue bowerbird nests constructed by males appeal to females, and the bigger and the bluer they are, the more offspring are in the offing. Likewise big-brained bohemians, whose orchestral music, epic poems, stirring novels, monumental architecture, and scientific discoveries may be motivated by the desire to attract mates and gain status. As the evolutionary psychologist David Buss noted in his critique of Terror Management Theory: "TMT is anchored in an outmoded evolutionary biology that stresses survival, but ignores reproduction," it "fails to delineate precisely how the hypothesized psychological mechanisms help humans solve actual adaptive problems of survival and reproduction, and instead focuses nearly exclusively inwardly on psychological protection," it "fails to consider why anxiety itself would have evolved," and it "fails to account for known sex differences in social motivation, death rates, and the causes of death rates." The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller reinforced the point in his aptly titled book The Mating Mind. Those who create and invent, build and construct, write and sing, perform and compete most effectively leave behind more offspring and thus pass their creative genes into future generations. As the belletrist extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens once told me, mastering the pen and the podium means never having to dine or sleep alone.
To this end, I am not at all sure that TMT proponents are even measuring what they think they are measuring in their experiments. In my opinion, the claim that people feel "terror" when contemplating mortality is an assertion, not an observation, and its dependence on unconscious states of mind makes it even more problematic when determining what, exactly, is being tested. "The really tricky thing with theories like this is not what to do with statistical refutations, but rather what to do with supposed statistical confirmations," the psychologist Frank Sulloway told me when I queried him about TMT. "This problem previously arose in connection with psychoanalysis, and Hans Eysenck and others later wrote books showing that those zealous psychoanalytic devotees testing their psychoanalytic claims systematically failed to consider what other theories, besides the one researchers thought they were testing, would also be confirmed by the same evidence." Context is key. "Change the context slightly and one often gets very different results in research on human behavior," Sulloway continued. "So one needs to consider exactly how the context of any statistical test might be altering what you think you are actually testing. This problem is akin to the one about considering what alternative theories are also confirmed by the same evidence."
Excerpted from "Heavens on Earth"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Shermer.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Memento Mori 1
Part I: Varieties of Mortal Experiences and Immortal Quests
Chapter 1. A Lofty Thought: Imagining Mortality 11
Chapter 2. What Dreams May Come: Imagining Immortality 33
Chapter 3. Heavens Above: The Afterlives of the Monotheisms 48
Part II: The Scientific Search for Immortality
Chapter 4. Heavens Within: The Afterlives of the Spiritual Seekers 69
Chapter 5. Evidence for the Afterlife: Near Death Experiences and Reincarnation 84
Chapter 6. Evidence for the Afterlife: Anomalous Psychological Experiences and Talking to the Dead 107
Chapter 7. Soul Stuff: Identity, Replication, and Resurrection 120
Chapter 8. Afterlife for Atheists: Can Science Defeat Death? 131
Part III: All Our Yesterdays and Tomorrows
Chapter 9. All Our Yesterdays: Progress, Decline, and the Pull of Pessimism 161
Chapter 10. All Our Tomorrows: Utopias and Dystopias in Fiction and in Fact 178
Part IV: Mortality and Meaning
Chapter 11. Why We Die: The Mortal Individual and the Immortal Species 221
Chapter 12. Imagine There’s No Heaven: Finding Meaning in aMeaningless Universe 238