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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shermer's Faulty Case Against an Afterlife

Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer has a new column entitled “Why the 'You' in an Afterlife Wouldn't Really Be You.” Arguing against both spiritual concepts of an afterlife and technological concepts of a “digital afterlife,” Shermer attempts to give three arguments against the possibility of an afterlife.

His first argument is without merit, as it depends on an unproven assumption. Shermer argues:

First, there is the assumption that our identity is located in our memories, which are presumed to be permanently recorded in the brain: if they could be copied and pasted into a computer or duplicated and implanted into a resurrected body or soul, we would be restored. But that is not how memory works. Memory is not like a DVR that can play back the past on a screen in your mind. Memory is a continually edited and fluid process that utterly depends on the neurons in your brain being functional.

This argument is not valid against any of these three ideas of an afterlife: (1) the idea that you have some immaterial soul that will survive death in a kind of natural way, without any divine intervention required; (2) the Christian idea that the dead will be physically resurrected by some divine agent; (3) the idea that minds may be uploaded into computers in the future, providing people with a digital afterlife. The first of these ideas does not depend on the idea that memories are permanently recorded in the brain. A person believing in a soul may believe that memories are stored largely in some soul, and may deny the claim that memory depends on neurons (a claim scientists haven't proven). The argument also does not debunk the idea of a physical resurrection of the dead. In such a case the neurons of individuals would presumably be recreated. The argument also does not debunk the idea of uploading minds into a computer. If our memories now depend on neurons (and there are reasons for doubting that), that is merely a current dependence, that could in theory be overcome if some new type of computer could be created that could store the equivalent of human neural states.

In his second argument, Shermer attempts to stretch out one of the arguments made against mind uploading, and turn that into an argument against believing in any type of afterlife. Mind uploading is the idea that in the future it will be possible for people to transfer their consciousness into a computer. The idea is that we will be able to scan the human brain, and somehow figure out some neural pattern or synaptic pattern that uniquely identifies an individual. Then, it is argued, it will be possible to recreate this pattern in some super-computer. It is claimed that this could be a method of getting a digital afterlife. Some futurists claim that if someone were to have his brain scanned and then have his neural patterns transferred to a computer, that person could discard his body, and continue to live on indefinitely within a computer.

Here is how Shermer presents his second argument:

Second, there is the supposition that copying your brain's connectome—the diagram of its neural connections—uploading it into a computer (as some scientists suggest) or resurrecting your physical self in an afterlife (as many religions envision) will result in you waking up as if from a long sleep either in a lab or in heaven. But a copy of your memories, your mind or even your soul is not you. It is a copy of you, no different than a twin, and no twin looks at his or her sibling and thinks, “There I am.” Neither duplication nor resurrection can instantiate you in another plane of existence.

Minus the clumsy twin reference, this argument has considerable force against the idea of a digital afterlife through mind uploading. If I were to scan your brain and recreate your neural pattern inside a computer, that seems to be making a copy of your consciousness rather than a transfer of your consciousness, for two different reasons. The first reason is that a transfer has been made to a totally different medium (from a biological platform to an electronic platform). The second is that the mind upload seems to leave open the possibility of your biological body continuing after your mind upload has completed, and that would seem to be the creation of a copy of your consciousness rather than a transfer.

But the copying argument has much less force (and perhaps no force) when used against the idea of a physical resurrection of the dead. In that hypothetical possibility, there is no transfer to a different medium. A physically resurrected body would be the same (or mostly the same) as the body that existed before someone died. Also, a physical resurrection would presumably only occur for people who had already died. So there would be no issue that both a source and a target (or copy) could exist at the same time.

The copying argument has no force at all against the idea of a soul that continues to exist after a person's body dies. In such a case, presumably there would be no copy at all made of anything. A person who believes that the soul survives death does not tend to believe that the soul suddenly appears at the moment of death, suddenly having a copy of consciousness and memory that was stored in the brain. Such a person will instead tend to believe that the soul was a crucial component of the human mind all along (or perhaps was equivalent to the mind), and that such a soul simply continues to exist when a person dies.

Imagine a person who has worn a heavy lead coat all his life, and has worn a dark glass fishbowl over his head all his life. Under the soul concept, we may regard death as being rather like a person shedding that heavy lead coat and dark-glass fishbowl, with the heavy lead coat and dark-glass fishbowl being the restrictions of movement and perception associated with a human bodily existence. Under such a concept, there is no copying at all, but more like a kind of jettisoning, rather like a soaring rocket jettisoning a no-longer-needed fuel tank, with the body being what is jettisoned. Such a concept of the survival of the soul is completely free from difficulties involving copying, because no copying at all is assumed.

Shermer's third argument has no force against any concept of an afterlife other than a digital afterlife. Using the odd term “POVself,” he argues as follows:

If you died, there is no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer (or a resurrected body). A POV depends entirely on the continuity of self from one moment to the next, even if that continuity is broken by sleep or anesthesia. Death is a permanent break in continuity, and your personal POV cannot be moved from your brain into some other medium, here or in the hereafter.

Such reasoning based on continuity might have some force against the concept of a digital afterlife by means of mind uploading, but probably not very much force as Shermer has stated it. For he's used the phrase “there is no known mechanism,” which is hardly going to discourage futurists who will claim that such a mechanism will be invented in the future. The reasoning here also has no force against either the possibility of a physical resurrection of the dead or the idea of a soul surviving death. A Christian believing that the dead will be physically resurrected will believe that this is done through divine agency, so it is futile to argue that such a thing cannot occur because there is “no known mechanism” by which it would occur. The person believing in a soul that survives death need not believe that any transfer, copying or moving occurs to allow a person to survive death. Such a person will tend to believe that the essence of a person – what makes you you – has already resided in your soul all along, not in your brain; and such a person is not required to believe that anything is transferred from the brain to the soul when a person is died. Under the idea of a soul, there is no break in continuity when a person survives death.

Neuroscientists have always followed the principle: explain every conceivable mental activity as being something caused by the brain. But what we must remember is that Nature never told us that all our memories are stored in brains, or that our thoughts are generated by brains. It was neuroscientists who told us that, not Nature. For example, we have no understanding of how 50-year-old memories can be stored in brains, given all the rapid molecular turnover that occurs in brains. Below is a quote from a recent scientific press release, citing a comment by a neuroscientist.

Neuroscience has also been struggling to find where the brain stores its memories. “They may be ‘hiding’ in high-dimensional cavities,” Markram speculates.

Such a quote (which has a “grasping at straws” sound to it) gives a very strong impression that neuroscientists have no real basis for being confident claiming that long-term memories are stored in the brain. The type of evidence neuroscientists cite for their claims is often weak evidence that doesn't hold up to critical scrutiny, such as dubious brain scanning studies which typically take minor 1% differences in brain activity, and try to make them look like compelling signs of what the brain is doing, when they are no such thing.

The idea behind a soul or spirit can be summarized as follows. You have a soul or spirit that is not at all a brain thing. You also have a brain, which serves largely for the purpose of localizing or constricting your mental activity, making sure that it stays chained to your body. The main purposes of the brain are things like control of autonomic functions, response to tactile stimuli, coordination of muscle movement, the coordination of speech, and the handling of sensory and auditory stimuli. There may also be some brain function relating to storing kind of what we may call “muscle memories,” which we use for performing particular physical tasks. These are all things related to living and surviving as a corporeal being. But things such as abstract thinking, conceptual memory and long term memory may be functions of a human soul. So when you die you may lose those things that you needed to continue walking about as a fleshly being, but may still have (as part of your soul) those things that were never necessary for such an existence (no cave-man needed to form abstract ideas, think philosophical thoughts, or remember his experiences as an 8-year-old).

This idea may seem old-fashioned to some, but a strong argument can be made that it is compelled by fairly recent evidence, and that in such a sense it is not at all old-fashioned. It is only in recent years that we have discovered what a very high degree of molecular turnover occurs in the brain, which makes it so hard to maintain that 50-year old memories are stored in the brain, as discussed here. It is only in the past 50 years that we had research such as John Lorber's, showing astonishingly high mental functioning in patients who had large fractions of their brains (or most of their brains) destroyed by disease. It is only in the past 130 years that experimental laboratory evidence has been repeatedly produced for phenomena such as ESP, which cannot be accounted for as a brain effect. It is only in recent decades that we have had reports of near-death experiences, in which many observers have reported floating out of their bodies, often verifying details of their medical resuscitation attempts that they should have been unable to observe  while they were unconscious. Such observations are quite compatible with the idea of a soul that survives death, and may force such a conclusion on us.

Shermer seems rather to be thinking of the idea of the soul as something kind of like a USB flash drive to back up the brain. But those who have postulated a soul have more often supposed it as a crucial component of human mental functioning, not some optional accessory. Under the concept of a soul that accounts for a large fraction or most of human mental functioning, there is no requirement for any sudden copying from the brain to occur for someone to survive death; and there is also continuity, as death merely means discarding what you don't need to survive beyond death. As none of Shermer's three arguments damages such a concept, Shermer has not succeeded in closing the door to an afterlife.

We know not what lies at the end of the misty bridge