The science of the afterlife

If you have a spare 20 minutes during the Christmas break (you are having a Christmas break, aren’t you?) I thoroughly recommend reading the full version of this Times Online article by Bryan Appleyard.  I just found it a) was quite insightful about the ways that scientific positions require faith and b) made me feel strangely hopeful. 

The world, on the face of it, is made of two ingredients: thoughts and things. A brick, for example, is, on the one hand, a fact in the world and, on the other, a combination of all my feelings about bricks in general and this brick in particular. This is generally regarded as a very odd state of affairs. My thoughts and feelings are as real to me as the brick, but they don’t seem to be made of the same stuff. Indeed, they don’t seem to be made of any stuff. The belief that they aren’t, that the world is made of two different substances — bricks and thoughts of bricks — is called dualism. Dualism is the default human conviction, embraced by religions, philosophies and, in fact, by everybody in their lives — if we didn’t embrace some degree of it, we’d be constantly worried about crashing our cars into other people’s thoughts. Dualism means that the mind and the brain are not made of the same things and therefore in theory, they can be separated, as in NDEs.

Much of modern science can be seen as an attempt to disprove dualism. In the strictly scientific world view there is only one stuff out of which bricks and brains are constructed. My thoughts and feelings are just what the brain does. The brain gives us thoughts to provide the illusion of control. It’s largely an illusion that the mind has any effect on the world. We’re all imprisoned in the chains of cause and effect that started with the big bang. But in spite of numerous claims, this remains a statement of faith. Neuroscientists may be able to show what happens in the brain when we think or when we exercise “free will”, but this cannot be shown to be proof that dualism is wrong. “Look,” they say, “we’ve proved it. It’s just neurons firing sparks at each other.” Well, no. Those electrical patterns are not thought itself; they may be no more than symptoms of thought. For all our technology, nobody has yet seen a thought, nobody has shown how matter becomes mind. How it does remains one of the most profound questions any human ever asks himself.

Enter quantum mechanics. This started as the study of very small things — subatomic particles. It is the most effective scientific idea ever — it powers your computer, TV, anything dependent on electronics. So we know it’s true enough to work, but it’s also weird enough to defy belief. Everything about the discoveries in this area turned out to be in defiance of reason. Crucially, two things were discovered. First, particles can continue to be connected to each other even though separated by long distances — billions of light years, even: a phenomenon known as non-locality. This is, in our big world, impossible. Second, quantum theory showed that the mind can affect the world. If, for example, you say that light is made of particles, then, obligingly, light will be particles. If you say it is waves, then it will be waves. The questions we ask of nature determine the answers it gives. Anybody who claims to understand why these things should be is lying.

Thursday, December 18th, 2008 Uncategorised

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