I realized that at some point over the years, I accidentally deleted a folder of my dad’s e-mails from 2002 that I had carefully saved. It made me feel really low. I miss my dad. I’d like to read those e-mails again. I have a lot of others though. That’s good, at least.
In a fit of stupidity, I again decided to Google what various people who might be in a position to know think happens after death. There were a lot of convincing arguments that nothing happens.
Neuroscientist Sam Harris makes an argument that I have often mulled over myself, although I am not a neuroscientist:
Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain…if it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it…but there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost… You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools…
What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but when] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing Grandma and speaking English!
That’s the thing. When my dad’s brain tumor started to displace and destroy his brain tissue, he as I knew him was destroyed. His personality changed, he lost the ability to speak, recognize people, remember words, know where he was. What is a “soul”? What makes a person an individual? If it’s his or her personality, intelligence, choices in life, etc.–well, all of those things are affected when someone’s brain is injured. And so I wonder the same thing as Sam Harris…once all of these things are destroyed, what part of consciousness could possibly be left to continue into an afterlife? A “soul” must be something independent of physical body, including the brain. But then what part of an individual is left when those two things are gone?
Stephen Hawking has expressed his lack of belief in an afterlife. He has elsewhere said that the brain is like a computer, and that when a computer ceases to function, it doesn’t go to heaven and neither do we. Except that the computer analogy doesn’t make total sense to me…a computer is a simple machine, not an organism; there is never a state it can get to where it can’t be repaired by swapping out some parts and restoring from backup. Many scientists argue that organisms are machines too, just more complex, and that ultimately artificial intelligence will be able to synthesize consciousness. But if you want to make the computer analogy, then someone built even simple computers. Given that we are much more complex than computers, who designed and assembled us? Anyway, Stephen Hawking has been wrong before. There’s no reason to accept his opinions as gospel any more than there’s a reason to accept anyone else’s.
Finally, some random person online was saying that science gives no information on whether an afterlife exists, but that in the absence of any evidence for or against, we should opt for the simplest explanation available. Is it really reasonable that every centipede, elephant, and human being who had ever existed was somewhere in the sky looking down on us?
But Occam’s Razor doesn’t always work. It was simple once to believe that the world was flat, that we were at the center of the universe–just it wasn’t actually true. It’s simple to believe that the oscillation of a pendulum is linear, but that is wrong too. What about general relativity, or quantum mechanics? The actual explanation for physical phenomena can be much more complicated than the simplest possible theory that would explain all the things we observe in daily life. We just don’t know everything about the universe. As we acquire more facts, the “simplest” explanation that will accommodate them evolves, and we see that it is part of a very complicated whole.
I am a scientist. I don’t see how physics is incompatible with the existence of a creator, because all of these random, complicated physical laws that govern the universe were at some point laid out somehow. Leonard Susskind says that the first question he would ask about a God is whether that God was made of atoms, and that question alone is enough for him to not bother with religion. It isn’t enough for me. A higher power either is or isn’t made of matter as we know it; why would either be unreasonable? More fundamentally–why are atoms the way they are? Why do the electrons interact in the particular ways they do, and obey complicated many-body equations? Why is matter made up of atoms, instead of Jello pudding? Science can only answer the “how.” I don’t see any way in which science can possibly answer the “why.”
I want to see my dad again. I am not sure whether I will. One of the popular answers floating around the Internet is that being dead feels like before you were conceived–nonexistence. Well–I don’t remember my conception or the first two years of my life either but I’m pretty sure I experienced them. Who knows if something came before that I don’t remember? So I don’t buy that argument either.
I really want to see my dad again. I guess I have to live the rest of my life with a faint hope that I will, but never know. I had no idea that it would be so difficult. If there is a God, I really wonder why that God puts us through this. I miss my dad.
At the end of the day, I want to believe what Sam Harris doesn’t: That there is some kind of justice in the universe, that our time on Earth is the tip of an iceberg that we have no understanding of. That somewhere out there is a kind and loving and fair creator. That brain tumors and other senseless losses are all part of a larger whole–just like local gravity is a small part of general relativity, or classical mechanics is a limit of quantum. But anyway, believe it or not, there are questions that can’t be answered by Google. So here I’ll let it rest.