Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eternity for Atheists?

The New York Times Magazine for this coming Sunday has an interesting article about various theories of life persisting after death that do not depend on the existence of a God. Here are some highlights:

If God is dead, does that mean we cannot survive our own deaths? Recent best-selling books against religion agree that immortality is a myth we ought to outgrow. But there are a few thinkers with unimpeachable scientific credentials who have been waving their arms and shouting: not so fast. Even without God, they say, we have reason to hope for — or possibly fear — an afterlife.

. . .

Where does this leave those who, while secular in outlook, still pine after immortality? A little more than a century ago, the American philosopher William James proposed an interesting way of keeping open the door to an afterlife. We know that the mind depends on the physical brain, James said. But that doesn’t mean that our brain processes actually produce our mental life, as opposed to merely transmitting it. Perhaps, he conjectured, our brains allow our minds to filter through to this world from some transcendent “mother sea” of consciousness. Had James given his lecture a few decades later, he might have used the radio as a metaphor. When a radio is damaged, the music becomes distorted. When it is smashed, the music stops altogether. All the while, however, the signal is still out there, uncorrupted.

James’s idea of immortality may sound far-fetched, but for him and other scientifically minded thinkers of his time it had one great virtue. It explained the existence of what were thought to be psychic phenomena: ghostly apparitions, communications from the dead at séances and seeming cases of reincarnation. Alas, little of this supposed evidence for an afterlife has held up under the scrutiny of rigorous investigation.

. . .

The most interesting possibilities for an afterlife proposed in recent years are based on hard science with a dash of speculation. In his 1994 book, “The Physics of Immortality,” Frank J. Tipler, a specialist in relativity theory at Tulane University, showed how future beings might, in their drive for total knowledge, “resurrect” us in the form of computer simulations. (If this seems implausible to you, think how close we are right now to “resurrecting” extinct species through knowledge of their genomes.) John Leslie, a Canadian who ranks as one of the world’s leading philosophers of cosmology, draws on quantum physics in his painstakingly argued new book, “Immortality Defended.” Each of us, Leslie submits, is immortal because our life patterns are but an aspect of an “existentially unified” cosmos that will persist after our death. Both Tipler and Leslie are, in different ways, heirs to the view of William James. The mind or “soul,” as they see it, consists of information, not matter. And one of the deepest principles of quantum theory, called “unitarity,” forbids the disappearance of information. (Stephen Hawking used to think you could destroy your information by heaving yourself into a black hole, but a few years ago he changed his mind.)

If death is not extinction, what might it be like? That’s a question the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, who died five years ago, enjoyed pondering. One of the more rococo possibilities he considered was that the dying person’s organized energy might bubble into a new universe created in that person’s image. Although his reflections were inconclusive, Nozick hit on a seductive maxim: first, imagine what form of immortality would be best; then live your life right now as though it were true. And, who knows, it may be true. “Life is a great surprise,” Vladimir Nabokov once observed. “I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.”

Read it all here (subscription required).

If I were an atheist, I would find each of these theories quite unsatisfying. While each gives a theory why life can persist after death without a god or gods, each still requires a leap of faith. The speculations are interesting--but ultimately rely on unverifiable propositions. In my experience, atheists have a consistent materialistic and empirical view of reality. Put simply, they live completely and comfortably in modernity. They would be just as unpersuaded by these theories as they are in the existence of God.

1 comment:

new.atheist said...

I'm finding reading your other posts quite interesting :-)

I actually like the "mother sea of consciousness" idea. I think this follows closely Buddhists thinking; when the cup is broken, the water still exists. I kinda think of life as a droplet of water between the spout & the drain; only for this brief time are we an individual, and perhaps our energy can yet be recycled through the fountain again, but never quite the same as before. I do not deny the possibility of our energy in the universe continuing on in some fashion like this.

I definitely don't believe in ghosts, spirits, fortune-tellers, or ouija boards though.

Computer re-generation of our identities does kinda freak me out; are we just in the Matrix? Or is it like the movie A.I.? Would it matter to me if I wasn't real; just a computer simulation?