Why Skepticism Is the Right Approach to the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia
Heaven is a place on earth, says a major American thinker. And a certain awesome '80s pop song.
Michael Shermer: Well, Heavens on Earth was something of an extension of my previous books, I have not covered the afterlife in any kind of detail from my previous books on the paranormal, the supernatural, religion, God, morality—and so this was sort of a natural extension of “well if you’re skeptical of all these other things what about the afterlife?” and my standard one liner is: “I’m for it.”
But the fact that I’m for it doesn’t make it true, in fact if anything the more passionately we want something to be true the more skeptical we should be of our own beliefs because we know how powerful these cognitive biases are to lead us to want to find evidence for what we already want to be true.
So I really kind of went in search of just all the standard religious theories of the afterlife and heaven. I go through the big three monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and right there all of them have a history in the sense of all the different versions that there are of the afterlife and heaven and they’re quite different histories than say if you read a history of cosmology, which sort of shows a progression from the ancients through the scientific revolution, through the early modern period all the way up to today of us getting closer and closer to an understanding of the real nature of the cosmos.
But there’s nothing like that in religious histories of the afterlife, they’re all scattershot: this theory, this theory; there’s no sense of progress.
So that alone tells us that these are culturally determined, geographically located. like reincarnation, the belief that we come back in this world, our souls somehow migrate into other bodies: Why do they seem to hover all those souls in this subcontinent of India? There’s very few other places around the world where the souls seem to go. That’s an indication that these things are not real out there in the real world sense but real inside people’s heads as determined by their cultures.
But the core of Heavens on Earth really is the scientific search for the afterlife. And so this is what I do science writing and research and scientific areas, believe it or not this is no longer a fringe idea, this idea that we could live forever.
There are scientists today who say that the first person to live 1000 years is alive today. Okay I’m skeptical, but still these aren’t fringe nuts, these are billionaires like Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, the Google guys Larry and Sergey have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in this company Calico, Ray Kurzweil is their chief engineer who believes in the singularity. So this whole idea of radical life extension, cryonics, trans humanism, the singularity, “we’re going to upload our minds into a computer,” these form the core center of my book and why I’m skeptical, why really all of us should be skeptical.
Because first, although it’s not impossible that these researchers and scientists are wrong, it’s just very unlikely, because the problems of say duplicating your soul whatever that would be, in science that would be your pattern of information—your genome—and then the equivalent of that, your “connect-ome,” that is the tracings of all your memories everything that’s you, this is their theory, you copy it and you upload it into a computer.
Let’s say you have it backed up every night when you die, you just put it into a clone or inside a computer or something like that. That’s the idea. And I think the underestimation of the complexity of the problem is orders of magnitude off. We are not even close to doing anything like this. I mean Ray Kurzweil projects 2040 is the singularity and after that we might be able to live forever.
How is that going to happen, and who is the we? So then I have a chapter on “Who are we? Who are you? What does it mean to be you?”
And so their idea is that if we just copied your memories it would be you—Stop right there, which memories? At what age: 20, 30, 50, 60? The memories are not stored in there like videotapes, like you just play it back on the theater of your mind and there it is, what really happened when you were 15 or whatever—no, they’re constantly edited and changed. Those neural networks are reworked constantly so there’s no real you in any snapshot sense of that moment, “Right there is the time when you’re…” you know, no such thing.
And then finally there’s the “through your eyes perspective,” what’s called a point-of-view self.
So the memory self, mem-self, is what I just described, and it is the point-of-view self, which is me looking out of my eyes at you right now and you looking out at me.
Now when I go to sleep tonight there’s a disruption in my conscious point of view, but it comes back in the morning, and if I go under a general anesthesia it’s gone for a couple of hours, it comes back, a little groggy at first but poof then it comes clear.
If I died and then copied my brain and put it in a computer and turned the computer on, am I suddenly inside of the computer looking out the little camera hole? I don’t think so. And here’s why: because if we did this while you were alive, let’s say the current technology would be that after you die we take your brain out and slice it and scan every single synaptic connection and then take that big data back and put it into a computer.
In the future maybe in 500 years or something we could scan your brain while you’re living and scan through sophisticated MRI type technology every single neural connection. Let’s say we can do that now and get your connectome and to put it into a computer while you’re standing right there alive.
So we turn it on, who is that in there in the computer when you’re standing right there? You see the problem? You’re not going to be standing there going “yep there I am in the computer,” no, you’re going to be standing there going, “no, I’m me!”
No more than a twin would look at their other twin and go “yeah there I go,” no. I don’t think even if they could accomplish the technology of it it’s still not you being put into the future in terms of an afterlife.
And by the way, I think religions have the same problem. When Christians talk about “You’re going to wake up with Jesus up in heaven,” “Okay, but I’m actually still down in the ground there.”
“No, no, that’s your body, your soul.”
“Wait, what’s the soul?”
“It’s all your memories, you know, it’s you.”
No. Which part of me is going to heaven? What age and so on? Same problem, it’s just a copy going to heaven. I’m still in the ground; I’m still dead, it’s just some copy of me. I’m not waking up in heaven through my point of view. Ok, so that’s the core of the book, and then the sub-title of the book—The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia—So, I do approach the problem of creating heavens on earth. Like if we can’t live forever maybe we can create a perfect world here. No, a heaven? No, you can’t do it. This is why they’ve always failed. Utopias always fail because there is no such place, that’s the very definition of utopia—“nowhere”. No such place that’s perfect, because we’re so variable and people differ in their needs and wants and desires, that this, if anything has been a dystopia, the search for utopia as lead to dystopia because we all vary. So even that doesn’t work.
So I conclude then at the end sort of a discussion of what does it all mean? Where do we find meaning and purpose in life this is all there is? And if you think about it even if there is an afterlife, even if there is a heaven, this is the most important thing, now, not the here after but the here and now and the relationships you have an how you engage with the world and other people. That’s what counts, now, so make the most of it.
Bear with us for a second, but do you know the Belinda Carlisle song "Heaven is a Place on Earth"? It's actually scientifically accurate. American public intellectual Michael Shermer says that any idea of the afterlife makes zero sense: your mind and therefore your memories are beholden to your body and that any version of you that made it into heaven, should there actually be one, would just be a copy of you and unable to register that they were actually in heaven. Likewise, should you be able to scan your brain and "live forever" by being uploaded to a body in the future, it still wouldn't be you, just a copy. Confused? The explanation makes more sense from the mouth of Shermer himself... writing the theory behind multiple you's living in various timelines gets a little too Back to the Future... another sweet '80s reference if we do say so ourselves. Michael's latest book is Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye.
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
- Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
- The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
- Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.
The Three Gods Problem<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyOGZk7WbIk" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> One of the more popular wordings of the problem is:<br> <br> "Three gods A, B, and C are called, in no particular order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for <em>yes</em> and <em>no</em> are <em>da</em> and <em>ja</em>, in some order. You do not know which word means which."<br> <br> Boolos adds that you are allowed to ask a particular god more than one question and that Random switches between answering as if they are a truth-teller or a liar, not merely between answering "da" and "ja." <br> <br> Give yourself a minute to ponder this; we'll look at a few answers below. Ready? Okay. <strong><br> <br> </strong>George Boolos' <a href="https://www.pdcnet.org/8525737F00588A37/file/31B21D0580E8B125852577CA0060ABC9/$FILE/harvardreview_1996_0006_0001_0060_0063.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">solution</a> focuses on finding either True or False through complex questions. </p><p> In logic, there is a commonly used function often written as "iff," which means "if, and only if." It would be used to say something like "The sky is blue if and only if Des Moines is in Iowa." It is a powerful tool, as it gives a true statement only when both of its components are true or both are false. If one is true and the other is false, you have a false statement. </p><p> So, if you make a statement such as "the moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Rome is in Russia," then you have made a true statement, as both parts of it are false. The statement "The moon has no air if, and only if, Rome is in Italy," is also true, as both parts of it are true. However, "The moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Albany is the capitol of New York," is false, because one of the parts of that statement is true, and the other part is not (The fact that these items don't rely on each other is immaterial for now).</p><p> In this puzzle, iff can be used here to control for the unknown value of "da" and "ja." As the answers we get can be compared with what we know they would be if the parts of our question are all true, all false, or if they differ. </p><p> Boolos would have us begin by asking god A, "Does "da" mean yes if and only if you are True if and only if B is Random?" No matter what A says, the answer you get is extremely useful. As he explains: <br> </p><p> "If A is True or False and you get the answer da, then as we have seen, B is Random, and therefore C is either True or False; but if A is True or False and you get the answer ja, then B is not Random, therefore B is either True or False… if A is Random and you get the answer da, C is not Random (neither is B, but that's irrelevant), and therefore C is either True or False; and if A is Random...and you get the answer ja, B is not random (neither is C, irrelevantly), and therefore B is either True or False."<br> <br> No matter which god A is, an answer of "da" assures that C isn't Random, and a response of "ja" means the same for B. </p><p> From here, it is a simple matter of asking whichever one you know isn't Random questions to determine if they are telling the truth, and then one on who the last god is. Boolos suggests starting with "Does da mean yes if, and only if, Rome is in Italy?" Since one part of this is accurate, we know that True will say "da," and False will say "ja," if faced with this question. </p><p> After that, you can ask the same god something like, "Does da mean yes if, and only if, A is Random?" and know exactly who is who by how they answer and the process of elimination. </p><p> If you're confused about how this works, try going over it again slowly. Remember that the essential parts are knowing what the answer will be if two positives or two negatives always come out as a positive and that two of the gods can be relied on to act consistently. </p><p> Smullyan wrote several books with other logic puzzles in them. If you liked this one and would like to learn more about the philosophical issues they investigate, or perhaps if you'd like to try a few that are a little easier to solve, you should consider reading them. A few of his puzzles can be found with explanations in this <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/11/obituaries/smullyan-logic-puzzles.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interactive</a>. </p>
The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.
- Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
- Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
- The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.
If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.
The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Oort cloud
Image source: NASA
Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.
Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)
No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.
It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."
"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."
Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."
Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA
The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.
"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."
The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."
Missing in action
Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."
So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."
Another amazing tardigrade survival skill is discovered.
- Apparently, some water bears can even beat extreme UV light.
- It may be an adaptation to the summer heat in India.
- Special under-skin pigments neutralize harmful rays.
Stressor testing<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjc2MDc4Mn0.5R6DAfzsq29zvETCEH1sR9rprcnJv_L0KyUW2qedslE/img.jpg?width=980" id="c6b71" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e7afe644fc94631ed9ea6837ed3920d3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="water bear illustration" />
3D illustration of a tardigrade
Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock<p>It seems at times like scientists enjoy playing the "let's see if <em>this</em> kills them" game with tardigrades, a game that humans usually lose. After searching the campus of the Indian Institute of Science, researchers gathered some water bears and brought them back to the lab to see what they could handle.</p><p>The scientists found that after they exposed <a href="http://cshprotocols.cshlp.org/content/2018/11/pdb.emo102301.full" target="_blank"><em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em></a> tardigrades to very high doses — 1 kilojoule (kJ) per square meter — of UV light for about 15 minutes, they would in fact die over the next 24 hours. However, when they aimed the same blasts at the reddish-brown tardigrades…nothing. The humans even quadrupled the UV intensity and, nope, they tracked the water bears for 30 days, and a majority of them, 60 percent, were still fine.</p><p>As is often the case with tardigrades, the question is how?</p>
Turning deadly light blue<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIwMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTM1NTE2N30.n8FiCLgp5aTqmYby2bjpeu9QJRTV7KzaB9tmTHBzWtk/img.jpg?width=980" id="5d4cc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7aa8735a958123bcfb269920eb4d2aed" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Tardigrade's normal appearance (left), and under inverted fluorescence (right)
Credit: Suma et al., Biology Letters (2020)<p>When the researchers examined the tardigrades under an inverted fluorescence microscope they found that when they were exposed to UV light, they became blue. The researchers' hypothesis is that these tardigrades carry fluorescent pigments beneath their skin that they deploy as necessary to transform UV light into simple benign, blue light. It may be that this ability has emerged as an evolutionary response to southern tropical India's often-extreme heat. The study says that typical summer-day UV levels in this region are about 4kJ per square meter.</p><p>Of the 40 percent of the reddish-brown tardigrades that had died before 30 days — mostly after about 20 days — the scientists concluded they had less pigment with which to neutralize UV light.</p><p>When the scientists extracted the pigment from the UV champions and coated some <em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em> tardigrades with the stuff, their resistance to UV exposure was also enhanced, boosting their survival rate to almost twice that of their uncoated brethren.</p><p>Autofluorescence has been found in other animals — parrots, scorpions, chameleons, and frogs, among others — so it's not completely unheard of. In parrots, for example, autofluorescence is hypothesized to be involved in tweaking coloration during mating rituals. Still, surprise, tardigrades seem to be putting it to unusual use by employing it for UV protection. </p>