Thursday, May 26, 2011

You Wasted Life, Why Wouldn't You Waste the Afterlife?

Sean Carroll:

Adam claims that there "simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information" regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that's only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn't true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon's interior, you don't really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon's interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it's absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it.

You don't even need to understand anything about physics to grasp this; many Buddhists have been reasoning their way to an understanding of the incoherence of the idea of a personal soul for thousands of years. The tragic thing about the belief, to me, is that it does nothing to alleviate a much more pressing issue -- that of people drifting through the life they're actually living with no curiosity, no deep appreciation of what they have; their thoughts mired in the future or the past, oblivious to the present. I don't even mean that a life well-lived has to be devoted to manic thrill-seeking, just that a sense of "magic" is perfectly attainable through mindful awareness. Some would have you believe that the concept of souls and afterlives are necessary to give life meaning; I would counter that metaphysical beliefs can just as easily act as narcotics, or as incentive to procrastinate. Why make the most of this life if you think you'll have endless chances for more? Why face up squarely to the fleeting impermanence of the most important relationships in your life and the imperative to not take them for granted when you can just assure yourself you'll meet up again at some point down the road? People talk big about all the things they'd like to do before they die, but look at the reality of how most people live day to day, and tell me why they think they need an indefinite extension at the end. What did you do with the several decades you already had?

I think the science in cases like this needs to be paired with something like therapeutic reasoning, though. Not that it's not vital to point out the nuts and bolts of why something like a soul couldn't exist, but it's probably more useful to try to show people why believing in one doesn't actually enhance their life anyway.