On Mind-Body Duality and the Afterlife

[read the disclaimer before proceeding]

Consider a clock that is ticking. We can think of the ticking as the “soul” or “consciousness” of the clock. As long as the clock’s spring or battery has sufficient power, the clock will continue to tick. When the battery runs out, the clock stops ticking. The consciousness of the clock ends at that point. The clock does not continue to tick in some kind of spiritual dimension — it simply halts. It seems only natural to apply this analogy to human consciousness: when electrical impulses stop propagating through the brain, human consciousness ceases to exist.

It seems to me that the idea of mind-body duality (that the body and the mind are somehow separate entities), and hence the idea of an afterlife, can be challenged with a short series of trivial observations.

The Brain

The very existence of a brain already casts doubt on the existence of a soul. If a separate, intelligent soul really exists and inhabits the body, why would the body need a brain? If all cognitive functions are indeed performed by the soul, then the brain becomes useless.

Brain damage can have profound effects on the body, ranging from paralysis, retardation, and of course death, to very subtle changes in the individual’s behavior or personality. Clearly, this alone is devastating evidence against the existence of a soul. If a slight modification to the brain causes a change in the personality of the individual, doesn’t this imply that the brain alone is responsible for the individual’s personality? What role, then, is left for the soul to perform?

One can make the argument that the brain is actually a “receiver” acting as an antenna of sorts, simply picking up signals from a soul that exists elsewhere. But this adds an unnecessary layer of complexity. If we make the argument that the complex structure of the brain is necessary to receive “signals” from an extra-corporeal soul, then why not simplify a bit, and admit that the complex structure of the brain is the source of the soul? It’s the same as suggesting that the Sun that we see in our sky every day is really a reflection from a giant space-mirror located where we think the Sun is, while the “real” sun is someplace else entirely, shining light onto the mirror.

Unfortunate Cases

When a mentally handicapped person dies, does his soul remain mentally handicapped for all eternity? Or does the soul somehow get “repaired” to a healthy state? If so, can the new soul really be considered “the same” as it was before the repair? The new soul would now possess cognitive abilities that the real-life person could never use in the real world. What good would these abilities be for the soul if it can no longer wield them in our reality?

When an infant dies, will the infant’s soul continue to exist in a perpetual infantile state? Similar to the previous example, let’s entertain that the infant’s soul will be “upgraded” to a healthy adult state. Frankly, this makes even less sense than the first example. In order for a soul to reach adulthood, the physical person needs to lead an actual life into adulthood, gathering knowledge, experience, and memories. What kind of memories (never mind knowledge and experience) can this hypothetical adult-baby possess if it never had any conscious experiences in the real world?

When an elderly person passes away because of a disease like Alzheimer’s, will the soul continue to exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s, existing in a weak, confused, and compromised state? Or will the soul be reverted to a time when the disease was not yet present? If this is the case, who decides the age to which the soul will be reverted? What about all the experiences and memories that the person collected as the disease progressed (fuzzy as they may be)?

Emotional Incentive

There also seems to be a suspiciously large amount of emotional incentive associated with the belief in souls and an afterlife, which would lead one to believe that the two are simply a product of wishful thinking. We don’t want to die, so we’d rather believe that we can survive death. Since it’s blatantly obvious that people don’t actually survive death, we invent the idea of a noncorporeal essence that represents our living “state.” This essence, conveniently enough, is only temporarily bound to the body, and thus survives death — problem solved.

Afterlife and Religion

One final problem is the utter naïveté with which the major world religions (and therefore the majority of people) interpret the idea of an afterlife, inventing pseudo-physical “places” like heaven, hell, and numerous others where life continues indefinitely after death, with benefits and/or punishments based on the person’s behavior during life. The religious interpretation of the afterlife is primitive at best, and potentially quite dangerous. Indeed, any belief that cheapens real human life and attempts to misplace our hopes and dreams onto some intangible, imponderable promise of “eternal life beyond death” casts a truly negative light on the whole afterlife concept.

A Glimmer of Hope

Apparently, the trial in Dover, PA has sobered up members of a school board here in Ohio. Hopefully (and god willing (!)) this will ignite similar litigation that will finally put an end to teaching pseudoscience to impressionable young minds.

[Plain Dealer article]

Something I’ve never understood is, if creationists want biology classes to devote time to teaching intelligent design, then why don’t churches agree to devote some of their time to preaching evolutionary theory?

Evolving Straight Into the 15th Century!

The Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, a leading proponent of the “intelligent design” movement, and the star witness in the developing case against the school board of Dover, PA, would have us believe that the currently accepted definition of “science” is flawed and needs revision. No doubt, this is because the inconvenient definition of “science” categorically rules out so-called Intelligent Design as a viable scientific theory.

The United States National Academy of Sciences defines a scientific theory as:

…a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.

Since Intelligent Design does not deal in facts, laws, and provides no hypotheses to test, even Behe agrees that it’s not a scientific theory under this definition.

Behe instead proposes to think outside the box of 21st century science, and relax the definition a bit, to the effect of:

Under my definition, scientific theory is a proposed explanation which points to physical data and logical inferences.

The “logical inference” of Intelligent Design is essentially, “It looks complex, therefore it must be designed.” Unfortunately, neither Behe nor any of his ID colleagues have defined what is meant by “looks complex,” and all instances of “irreducible complexity” presented by ID proponents can be explained by modern evolutionary theory.

Under Behe’s definition, astrology would also be considered a science. Behe actually agreed with this when asked by the plaintiff’s attorney Eric Rothschild.

Proponents of Intelligent Design swear and cross their heart (pun intended) that their hypothesis bears no religious implications. With that in mind, I wonder what a high-school class on Intelligent Design would consist of:

TEACHER: Darwinian evolution does not explain the complexity and diversity of today’s species. An alternative is that an “Intelligent Designer” created everything we see today. Conveniently enough, the book of Genesis provides just such an explanation. Let’s begin our reading.

The day we accept miracles as scientific explanations is the day we revert to 15th century science. Hopefully the trial in Dover, PA will make a strong stand against such foolishness. The only miracle here is that Mr. Behe was ever allowed to teach a college Biology class.

Even the Christian Science Monitor makes the following refreshing and enlightened statement:

If this case encourages a deeper pondering of God, that’s welcome. One could even argue that intelligent design, as a widely accepted concept, should go much further, seeking to scientifically explore mankind’s spiritual nature rather than the origins of matter. But such exploration is a personal one, not appropriate for a public classroom. [emphasis added]

Appeal to Imagination

[read the disclaimer before proceeding]

One religious argument that’s been getting on my nerves lately is the old Appeal to Imagination. It goes something like this: “Your mind is too scientific to understand this,” or “You have to extend you imagination,” or the ever-popular “Open your heart to Jesus.”

Many religious people attack atheists by saying that they have a “weak imagination,” and therefore cannot possibly comprehend all the wonders of God and the joy of blind faith. I’ll set aside the fact that this kind of statement is a crude ad hominem attack and can be considered quite offensive, and instead simply address the falsehood of the claim itself.

I have imagined heaven, and hell, and God, and worlds with angels, devils, witches, and all kinds of other things — when I was six years old. This was the same period in my life when I imagined Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Children in general have an extraordinarily active imagination.

But then I grew up, and my imagination collided with something known as reality. And my imagination did not become “limited” by reality, but instead was enhanced and matured by it.

This is why religious leaders insist that it is children, with their undeveloped imaginations, that must be quickly indoctrinated with religious beliefs, so that they will forever be afraid to question them in their own mind.

So, while religious fundamentalists are still in the childish stage of imagining fantasy worlds of angels, devils, and gods, atheists have the capacity to imagine a future when people are no longer bound by the mental shackles of religion, and are free to expand their minds (their imagination) farther than ever before.

It takes a tremendous amount of imagination to find ways to prove difficult theorems in mathematics, or to design experiments to test a scientific conjecture. It does not, however, take imagination to blindly believe what someone else has told you or forced upon you since childhood. In fact, it takes a profound lack of imagination (nevermind a lack of reason) to be utterly fooled by 3000-year-old mythology.

On the Bible Being Divinely Inspired

[read the disclaimer before proceeding]

The following are several points I’ve thought about recently that seem to contradict the idea of a divinely-inspired Bible.

If God chose to reveal his “word” to mankind, why did he do it at a point in history when human spirituality was in its infancy, when people were still struggling with their own primitive mythology and completely unprepared for such a revelation? For that matter, why did God make his “word” so similar to other competing mythologies, almost as if it had been derived from earlier forms of the same beliefs?

Why did God reveal his “word” to such a local group of people, instead of revealing it to every person in the world simultaneously, thus preventing the possibility of competing religious beliefs? Why did he leave it up to the people to “spread” the message to others, who may or may not believe, thereby causing bitter worldwide conflicts that threaten the very survival of our civilization?

Wouldn’t it be better if God made his revelation right now, in our time? Think about all the problems this would solve:

  • All events would be well-documented by eyewitnesses and the media.
  • We wouldn’t have to rely on a translation of 2000-year-old fragments of text written by second-hand sources. This would be a brand-new and complete message directly from God.
  • Since the revelation would now be in plain modern English, all debates over translation inaccuracies would end. As far as contradictions and inconsistencies, I’m certain we can persuade God to clarify certain points if needed, now that God is taking a more active participation in his creation.
  • Once and for all, we would be certain which religion and which denomination is the correct one!

Why is the “scientific” content of the Bible so suspiciously similar to the sum of human scientific knowledge at the time? (the firmament, flat earth, etc.)

Why did all direct communication with God cease since pretty much the beginning of the modern age? Why are there no modern-day prophets or Saints that perform actual miracles? Why did all the “magical” events in the Bible only occur in a time when people were gullible enough to believe they can happen?

Perhaps the strongest point against the divinity of the Bible is the fact that it can be interpreted in a million different ways, most of which are completely incompatible. This caused the fragmentation of the original Church into hundreds of denominations, with many displaying fierce hostility toward others.

Why a divine being could not write a better book is beyond me.