Buzz Blog

Debating Life After Death

Friday, May 09, 2014

In a recent debate over the question of life after death that was part of the Intelligence^2 series, a neurosurgeon and a medical doctor argued in support of the proposition "death is not final", while a neurologist and physicist argued against the proposition.

As physicist Sean Carroll points out in arguing that death is final, life is a process and not a thing, in the same way that fire is a process. When you blow out a candle, the flame doesn't go anywhere, the burning process simply stops. Your conscience is a process going on in your brain. When it stops, it too doesn't go anywhere, it just stops.

The two people arguing for the proposition, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander and doctor/philosopher Raymond Moody chiefly support their view by citing cases of near death experiences, including Alexander's own experience with effective (though temporary) brain death. They claim that the stories of mystical events that people who have had near death experiences (bright and beautiful lights, incarnations of dead relatives, out of body travel, etc.) are evidence that part of you can exist separate from your physical body, and presumably continue on after you die.

The other person on Carroll's side, neurologist Steven Novella, notes that there are no near death experiences yet recorded that cannot be explained without going beyond neuroscience. Given a choice between established science and mystical explanations, both he and Carroll feel there is no reason to choose mysticism.

I've lost a number of my dearest friends and relatives in the past few years, and there is nothing I want more that to believe that they somehow continue to exist in some form. Sadly, wanting it to be so doesn't make it so, as Carroll and Novella proficiently argue. All the pretty near death experience stories that Alexander and Moody collect can't change that.

Novella says in various ways that the mind is what the brain does. I take some comfort in that. While, Dad, Grandmother, Aunt Liz, Bobby and so many other people I and others have lost do not continue on in some way beyond this material world, they live on in the mind my brain makes. And really, that's what's important.


By the way, Alexander claims, at the 1:26:30 mark in the video that Carl Sagan believed that some children could remember past lives. Alexander says this is documented on page 302 of Sagan's book Demon Haunted World. It's easy enough to check by going to the Google Books copy available here and scrolling to page 302. Sagan believed no such thing.

Posted by Buzz Skyline

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I saw the Time or Newsweek cover with this charlatan's story on it, and then read Sam Harris' rebuttal to the article, which was appropriately derisive. It seems obvious this guy is leveraging his professional credentials (as many do) to sell books to a gullible public.

Friday, September 12, 2014 at 3:13 PM