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Is this life all there is? Is it true that when we die, that's it - no more us? Or do we live on after death, continuing to experience things in new realms? Do we have some sort of immaterial "soul" which is actually the origin of our minds and consciousness now? Does this "soul" continue on after our deaths, migrating to some sort of heaven or higher dimension?All difficult questions, to be sure. And although it is not true that all atheists and all theists will answer the same way, it is a fact that most atheists and most theists will come down on opposite sides of the matter. Most atheists - at least in the West - don't believe in any sort of souls or afterlife. Most theists, including those involved in more modern "New Age" beliefs, believe in some sort of soul and afterlife.
If you wanted to learn more about the subject, just about everything you'd find would come entirely from theistic sources. Look in any bookstore or library and pretty much every book or magazine addressing the question of souls and an afterlife will be telling you that you do have a soul, that there is an afterlife, and that you should conduct your life with those two things in mind.But what about skeptical sources? Isn't there anything out there for people interested in a more critical review of the claims and evidence? Unfortunately, there isn't much - the market for skeptical treatments of religious and paranormal claims just isn't that big, probably because people generally don't like to have their favorite ideas criticized. And, without a doubt, the claim you don't really die will rank as one of people's all-time favorites.
There are, however, a very few books that are worth looking at for general skeptical looks at claims about souls, an afterlife, and Near Death Experiences. I'll take a look at information from two of them, each approaching the topic from different angles.The first book is Dying to Live, by Susan Blackmore. This book doesn't specifically address the existence of souls or an afterlife, but instead focuses on one very important thing: Near Death Experiences. These are important because they are cited as perhaps the best, most solid evidence for the existence of an afterlife by all types of believers. If this evidence is not as good as assumed, then the case for an afterlife is seriously weakened.
The second book is Are Souls Real? by Jerome W. Elbert, Ph.D. Elbert, a physicist and former researcher at the University of Utah, tackles the larger issues regarding the existence of souls and an afterlife. He explores recent scientific work on the nature of thinking, memories and consciousness in order to see if there is indeed any place for an immaterial "soul" at all. After all, if we don't need a soul to explain anything, then the case for one is once again weakened.Susan Blackmore should serve as picture-perfect example of what it means to be skeptical of supernatural and paranormal claims. As a student, she started out believing in the validity of all sorts of paranormal concepts - ESP, telepathy, astral planes, life after death... the works. But once she started to seriously investigate them, she found that the evidence wasn't what she assumed.
She devised her own experiments, and failed to find anything. She studied other groups, and failed to find anything. She visited haunted houses and even had herself "regressed" to search for past lives. She failed to find anything. She visited other experimenters, and only found experimental errors. In the end, she was accused of being a "psi-inhibitory experimenter," which means having the power of abolishing paranormal effects.All of this was documented in her book In Search of the Light: Science & The Paranormal, which covers a large amount of ground dealing with paranormal claims and what she discovered in her journey from believer to skeptic. According to her, "True skepticism has nothing to do with disbelief. It is about taking people's claims seriously and trying to understand them."
In her book Dying to Live, this is exactly what she does, focusing specifically on the claims that there exist experiences of an afterlife. Blackmore argues that Near Death Experiences (NDEs) cannot be explained in terms of either a real afterlife or through hallucinations. What this means is that in her exploration, she avoids being dismissive of either approach. Instead, she compares their predictions to NDE reports and experimental evidence.Blackmore does, however, have her own preferred description of what is going on and she shares it over the course of her book. She believes that the experiences can be explained in terms of unusual brain activity and (mis)interpretation of experiences.
Despite what some NDE supporters will claim, we must keep in mind that these experiences vary with the individual, the culture, and even the specific circumstances that the person was in. Another important fact to keep in mind is that experiences like those reported can be set off in a number of ways - a person doesn't even need to be near death to have them.
With these facts firmly in mind, Blackmore investigates the reports of NDEs and examines whether or not both those and similar experiences in other situations are better explained by the common supernaturalistic claims or by more prosaic, naturalistic events.There are four main arguments used to justify the hypothesis that NDEs are the result of an experience of an afterlife. They are:
The "consistency argument" is that the reported experiences are consistent around the world and through time. Although there are similarities in experiences reported in other cultures and in the past, we do not find invariance. Instead, we do find real differences in other cultures and in varying people.
The "paranormal argument" is that these experiences involve strange paranormal events which cannot be explained by any materialistic method. Thus, NDEs must involve some other dimension. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find independent corroboration for such claims.The "transformation argument" is that people's lives have been transformed in significant ways. This is presumed not to be possible if the experiences were not real - therefore, the experiences must be of a genuine afterlife. This, too, is fallacious - all that is required is for the individual to sincerely believe in what happened to them in order for them to change.
There are many alternatives to the supernatural/afterlife hypothesis offered by NDE advocates. On the point of consistency, we must remember that all of the people in question are humans with human brains - and so it is not unreasonable to realize that similar brains will produce similar experiences.Blackmore describes a variety of events which can produce the experiences reported: lack of oxygen to the brain, the release of endorphins, seizures in the limbic system and temporal lobe, the breakdown in the model of the "self" giving a "timeless" quality to the experiences, etc. With each claim about what a person experiences, there are simpler biological explanations which are superior to claims of an afterlife.
Jerome W. Elbert comes at the question of an afterlife from a different perspective. Instead of examining people's claims of having experienced such a thing, he examines the claim that there exists a soul which experiences such a thing.Elbert begins by examining the ancient origins of the soul concept, both in Christian and pagan belief systems. Actually, he spends quite a lot of time reviewing and criticizing religious doctrines in general and doctrines relating to souls in particular.
The discussion about the different types of "souls" that people have believed in is quite interesting - it helps remind us that the sorts of beliefs common today are not at all what people have always believed. The critiques of Christianity and the Bible may seem out of place but, as he points out, belief in the Bible is a source for many people's belief in a soul. If that trust is misplaced, then belief in a soul may also be in error.A more interesting part of his book is when he explains how the advance of science has changed our fundamental understanding of the brain and consciousness. These new understandings, he argues, have to impact traditional ideas about souls.
Everything in modern neuroscience points to the idea that consciousness arises from the operations of our physical brain. Although we cannot claim to fully understand it yet, this is not the same as actually having evidence that something outside our brains, much less something supernatural, causes our consciousness. No such evidence exists.As a matter of fact, people arguing the opposite have a tremendous job before them. Their position requires arguing that the nervous system does not operate in the same way it looks and, further, that it does not operate according to the laws of physics. Because of such difficulties, the models offered by such advocates fail to accomplish the task they were designed for.
Another interesting facet to Elbert's argument is that quite a few contemporary dilemmas actually have a lot to do with whether or not we posit the existence of a soul. Thus, his arguments are relevant for the questions of free will and even the debate over abortion. Elbert rejects the idea that we have free will in the traditional sense, but his arguments are too complex to reproduce here. They are, at any rate, interesting and should be taken seriously in light of his arguments regarding souls.So, is there an afterlife of any sort? Do we have a soul that transcends this earthly existence? Absolute answers may never be available - but all sound evidence suggests that those questions should be an answered with a "No."
Elbert's book makes a very sound case against traditional beliefs in the idea that we humans having something called a "soul" that produces our consciousness and lives on after our bodies have died. Blackmore's books does an excellent job fairly reviewing the arguments and evidence offered in favor of the idea that people who have died and were later revived experienced an "afterlife," concluding that the case of believers is not well supported.In the end, we do not have a rational and reasonable basis for the belief either in souls or in the afterlife. People will nevertheless attempt to convince you otherwise, and these two books may help you better understand and address their arguments.
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