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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Friday, November 17, 2017

Quantum Mechanics and Life After Death

In a previous post I discussed a faulty case against life after death that appeared in the pages of Scientific American. Having rebutted that argument, presented in an opinion column by columnist Michael Shermer, I should also rebut an earlier argument against an afterlife that appeared in the pages of Scientific American, particularly since it has been recently repackaged in an online article. The earlier argument appeared in an opinion piece written by physicist Sean Carroll. Carroll's argument is a weak piece of armchair reasoning, with a little irrelevant physics flavoring.

Carroll is a physicist who likes to play philosopher occasionally, although his sojourns into metaphysics are sometimes disastrous, as when he has written approvingly of the altogether metaphysical (and extremely absurd and groundless) "many worlds" notion of a vast number of parallel universes in which every improbable possibility is actualized. Early on in his column, Carrroll misinforms us, by stating this about evidence for life after death: “Admittedly, 'direct' evidence one way or the other is hard to come by -- all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking.”

This is not at all correct because the evidence for life after death includes all of the following things:
  1. The accounts of thousands of reliable witnesses who had near-death experiences.
  2. The many cases in which medical personnel who did not have such experiences verified the medical resuscitation details recalled by people who had near-death experiences, who recalled medical details that occurred when such people should have been completely unconscious because their hearts had stopped.
  3. Abundant cases of people who reported seeing dead relatives on their deathbeds.
  4. The very careful research of people like Ian Stevenson who documented countless cases of children who recalled past lives, and found that their accounts often checked out well, with the details of the “past lives” being corroborated, with the children often having birthmarks corresponding to the deaths they recalled, and with the children often recognizing people or places they should not have been able to recognize unless they had the reported past life.
  5. Sightings of apparitions of the dead, made by normal people in good health.
  6. Spectacular cases in the history of mediums, with paranormal phenomena often being carefully documented by observing scientists, as in the cases of Daniel Dunglas Home, Eusapia Palladino, Leonora Piper, and Indridi Indridason.
  7. Extremely numerous cases in which living people report hard-to-explain events and synchronicity suggesting interaction with survivors of death.
  8. The inability of modern science to account for normal activity of the human mind, such as the very fact of consciousness and 50-year-old memories, the latter not being explainable through any plausible physical theory, because of reasons discussed here (such as the short-lifetimes of brain protein molecules).

We may note the casual mudslinging that Carroll engages in, calling those who have near-death experiences “unreliable.” There is no basis for this “smear the witnesses” defamation, which Carroll does nothing to substantiate. 

Carroll then reasons as follows:

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die.

Carroll again misinforms us. It is very false indeed to state that the “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.” This is just an example of the overconfident hubris that the modern theoretical scientist is so often guilty of, hubris that often leads him to claim to have a knowledge far beyond that which he actually has. The modern physicist maintains that all around us is both dark matter and dark energy. But we have zero understanding of any of the physics involving these mysterious things. The modern physicist also tells us that there is a huge contradiction between the two biggest theories of physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity. The same modern physicist is extremely baffled by why the Big Bang did not leave a universe consisting of nothing but photons, and why all of space is not filled with a density of virtual particles vastly denser than solid steel because all of the contributions from various fields and quantum effects (something known as the vacuum catastrophe problem). So evidently physics is very much an uncompleted affair, and no physicist has any business stating “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.”

As for the claim that a belief in life after death requires we believe that “information stored in our brains” somehow persists, it certainly requires no such thing. A person believing in a soul can believe that human memories are stored mainly in such a soul, or in some mysterious non-local information infrastructure, not in a human brain. A strong case can be made that such a belief is not only possible, but actually necessary, for several reasons. The first reason (discussed here) is that neuroscientists have not presented any plausible detailed theory explaining how memories lasting as long as a lifetime could be stored in brains. The most popular theory is that memories are stored in synapses, but such a theory in not believable, because of the very short lifetimes of the protein molecules that make up synapses (which last less than a month), and the short lifetimes of synapses and their structural components (lasting less than two years). Then there is the fact that humans can have very good memory recall despite enormous brain damage, such as shown in the cases documented by John Lorber, and similar cases discussed here. No one who has read the case of an employed French civil servant who was found to have almost no brain should have very much confidence in the dogma that all memories are stored in brains (a dogma that is simply a speech custom of scientists, not something they have actually proven). Still other reasons are the reason (discussed here) that scientists have failed to give any plausible theory of how instantaneous memory recall could occur if a specific memory is stored in a specific part of the brain (an organ with no addressing system or indexing system supporting such a thing), and the reason (discussed here) that there is no understanding of how the many types of things humans remember could ever be encoded in brain molecules (something that would require a wealth of encoding schemes more elaborate than humans have ever constructed).

Carroll then asks:

If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter? Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren't any sensible answers to these questions.

But I know of no one who believes in a soul who believes that such a soul is made of particles. Particles are only parts of material things, not souls or spirits. As for the rhetorical questions Carroll asks, I can simply note that you can ask a dozen far more embarrassing questions about the theory that brains generate human mental phenomena. For example, you could ask:

  • How could mere neurons– things that are totally material – give rise to something that is totally immaterial (the human mind)?
  • How can memories that last 50 years be stored in synapses when the proteins that make up synapses have lifetimes of much less than a year?
  • If you had a memory stored in some particular “address” of the brain, how could your brain ever instantly find that address, fast enough for you to recall something in less than a second, when the brain has no address system?
  • How could visual information, auditory information, semantic information, and emotional information ever be encoded in the proteins that make up synapses, particularly considering that proteins (unlike DNA) don't have free storage space to write information?

These questions are certainly more troubling than the questions Carroll raises. As for his statement that. “Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren't any sensible answers to these questions” about a human soul, this is just pure hogwash. Quantum field theory suggests nothing negative about the possibility of a human soul. Like some plumber telling us that plumbing tells us very important things about geopolitics, Carroll here is giving us the same kind of misuse of physics that he gave in his book The Big Picture. On page 212 of that book he claimed. “The Core Theory of contemporary physics...leaves no wiggle room for intervention by nonmaterial influences.” The appendix of the book explained that what he meant by the Core Theory was a particular physics equation. The equation in question consists of a bunch of components, none of which has anything to do with life, spirit, mind, or immaterial influences.

Always beware of anyone claiming that “everything we know about” some obscure topic “says that” some particular opinion is true. In 99% of the cases, including this one, the obscure topic will do nothing to support such an opinion. Examples include statements such as, “Everything we know about microeconomics tells us that we need to cut corporate taxes,” and “Everything we know about Freudian psychology tells us that you should break up with your boyfriend.” Usually the person is claiming that “everything we know about” some topic “tells us that” some particular opinion is true because the person doesn't have a single specific example to provide; and when you don't have a single good example, it's always easier to just make vague claims such as “everything we know about” some topic supports some opinion. And so Carroll provides no specific part of quantum field theory (or any specific scientific finding) incompatible with the idea of life after death.

And it hardly makes sense to be using quantum field theory (QFT) as some cudgel against the idea of a soul, seeing this scientific paper tells us that, “By contrast, theoretical estimates of various contributions to the vacuum energy density in QFT exceed the observational bound by at least 40 orders of magnitude.” That means QFT is wrong by a factor of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, predicting the space around you should be super-dense with energy (denser than steel, actually). Apparently it isn't the soul that is prohibited by quantum field theory (QFT) – it is biology itself. 

Quoted in a tabloid, Carroll says this: “Within QFT, there can't be a new collection of ‘spirit particles’ and ‘spirit forces’ that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments.” This reasoning is fallacious, as people believing in a soul or life after death do not maintain that there is such a thing as “spirit particles.” And no one who believes in a spirit force or spirit has ever predicted that it would show up in physics experiments such as the high-speed collisions occurring at the Large Hadron Collider. We may note that physicists continue to believe steadfastly in both dark energy and dark matter, even though no physics experiments have produced any sign of such things. In light of such a fact, it makes no sense for a physicist to be applying “it hasn't turned up in our experiments so it can't exist” logic. We can actually imagine no experimental result that would ever cause any high-energy physicist to conclude that a “spirit force” or “spirit particles” exist, since anything observed at places like the Large Hadron Collider would always be declared to be non-spiritual. As for claims that no signs of a spirit force has ever been detected, this is not even clearly true, as all kinds of anomalous inexplicable events resembling a manifestation of spirit forces seem to have been repeatedly displayed when scientists examined figures such as Daniel Dunglas Hume, Eusapia Palladino, and Indridi Indridason.

If you do a Google search of “quantum mechanics+life after death,” you will very likely find no one other than Carroll claiming that quantum mechanics or quantum field theory is inconsistent with life after death, and numerous people (including some scientists) speculating that quantum mechanics supports the idea of life after death. The reasoning is often used that the most famous experiment of quantum mechanics -- the double-slit experiment -- suggests that there is no real independence between observers and physical reality,  and that all reality is wrapped up in observation, something with potential life-after-death implications. 

Talking about the idea of a soul that might have some interaction with the body, Carroll writes the following in the Scientific American post:

So any respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking -- what form does that interaction take? Is it local in spacetime? Does the soul respect gauge invariance and Lorentz invariance? Does the soul have a Hamiltonian? Do the interactions preserve unitarity and conservation of information? Nobody ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound. Once you start asking them, the choice you are faced with becomes clear: either overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics, or distrust the stew of religious accounts/unreliable testimony/wishful thinking that makes people believe in the possibility of life after death.

Again, he makes a claim about “unreliable testimony” which he has done nothing to substantiate. What we have here is a fallacious type of argument that might be called the argument from inconvenience. Stated in a modest form the argument goes like this: we shouldn't believe that our ideas about this topic need modification, because if that were true, we would have to revise our textbooks, and that would be very inconvenient. Of course, this kind of reasoning is entirely fallacious. We should not judge whether some new idea needs to be adopted based on how inconvenient the adoption of such an idea might be to textbook writers.

This very fallacious argument from inconvenience is typically stated using an absurd exaggeration involving a claim that we would have to throw out everything we've learned about x if we were to concede that y is true. So, for example, someone might claim that we would have to throw out all of our biology textbooks if we admitted that biological innovations cannot be explained merely by natural selection, or that we'd have to throw out all our psychology textbooks if we admitted that ESP might occur. Carroll makes an equally absurd exaggeration by claiming that if we learned there was a human soul, it would “overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics.No, instead 99.5% of modern physics would survive just fine if such a thing were to be discovered. And even if 100% of modern physics were to be in need of revision because of some particular idea, that is not a sound reason for arguing against that idea. We should not be judging a question of truth on the basis of whether it is inconvenient for it be true or false.

Carroll's physics-based argument against life after death is completely unsubstantial, consisting of bad armchair reasoning, rhetorical tricks, rhetorical questions and misstatements, mixed with some superfluous physics jargon that might impress only those who fail to see that the jargon terms used have no relevance to the topic under discussion. He then switches near the end of his essay to what he calls “an analogous line of reasoning that would come from evolutionary biology .” This isn't an argument at all, but merely some rhetorical questions, which he asks as follows:

Presumably amino acids and proteins don't have souls that persist after death. What about viruses or bacteria? Where upon the chain of evolution from our monocellular ancestors to today did organisms stop being described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism, and develop an immaterial immortal soul?

Rhetorical questions like these like have little force, because they can simply be answered by saying, “We don't know,” or by pointing out that such questions are no more troubling than dozens of similar questions we could ask of the materialist, such as these:

  • When nonexistence suddenly burst into the explosive existence of the Big Bang, how could that have happened naturally?
  • Since the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter, and that should have combined to be nothing but photons, how come we don't live in a universe of nothing but photons?
  • Where upon the chain of random chemical reactions did there first appear a life form, and how did all that information explosion -- that vast surge of order -- happen all of a sudden?
  • When did neurons first generate a thought, and how could that have possibly happened?
  • How could natural selection have produced biological innovations, when it cannot select a biological innovation until it has already appeared?
  • What was the first sentence ever spoken, and how could it have been spoken, when there were no grammar rules or vocabulary conventions?

Carroll's question presupposes there was actually a time when organisms could be “described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism,” which is a very doubtful idea. As for his question, a good possible answer might be: when humans started talking. As the introduction of language represents a radical break from all previous organisms, it is not very implausible to imagine that at the same time other similar big changes occurred.

If souls exist, they cannot be explained as products of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. But that's not much of a problem, since so many of our mental faculties cannot be explained through Darwinian evolution. For reasons explained here, natural selection is not a plausible explanation for the appearance of language, spirituality, 50-year-old memories, intellectual curiosity, artistic creativity, aesthetic appreciation, wonder, altruism, mathematical ability or philosophical reasoning. None of these things add to the reproductive likelihood of an organism in the wild, so none can be explained by natural selection.

Near the end of his essay, Carroll reaches a shrill crescendo of rhetorical excess, insinuating that the idea of life after death is “dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science.”  Carroll again uses the word “everything” when he should have used the word “nothing.” The pure absurdity of Carroll's claim can be seen when we ask questions like this:

  • Is there anything discovered by chemists incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by meteorologists or oceanographers incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by astronomers incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by geologists or sociologists incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by botanists or ecologists incompatible with the idea of life after death?

Of course, the answers to these questions are: no. And there is also nothing discovered by physicists or cosmologists incompatible with life after death. To the contrary, such scientists discovered that the universe suddenly began without any known cause, and the physical constants and laws of the universe are extraordinarily fine-tuned to allow for the existence of living things, with some fundamental constants most improbably having just the right values allowing life to exist. This suggests nothing directly about life after death, but may indirectly lend credence to such an idea, by making it seem more likely that there exists some creative or benevolent power behind the universe, the type of power that might drive a reality of life after death. If you were an entity with no special requirements for your existence, living in a universe with random, run-of-the-mill characteristics, a universe that had existed forever, you perhaps should be very surprised to find yourself surviving after death. But if you lived in a universe like ours that suddenly began without any known cause, a kind of “1 in a gazillion” long-shot type of universe, with all kinds of fantastically improbable characteristics needed for your existence, you should not be very surprised to find yourself existing after death, such a thing being perhaps kind of the second or third “miracle” to be thankful for, rather than the first. 

Postscript: In one of the passages I quoted above, Carroll claims that any respectable scientist who took the idea of the soul seriously would ask whether the soul has a Hamiltonian.  That's not actually true, because Wikipedia tells us the Hamiltonian has something to do with the sum of the kinetic energy of all the particles, and it is almost never maintained that a soul is made of any particles.  Carroll also claimed in that quote that it sounds silly to ask whether the soul is local in spacetime.  But far from sounding silly, this is a serious philosophical question. According to some philosophical ideas, a soul might be local to the human body, and according to other philosophical ideas such as idealism, what we call a soul (lacking a better term) might be something essentially non-local. 

My point about the vacuum catastrophe is supported by a recent  post on realclearscience.com, where we read, "Our best theories from quantum mechanics still overestimate the influence of dark energy by sixty orders of magnitude," which is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times.