Monday, July 03, 2017

The Afterlife: Open response to Michael Shermer's article

Michael Shermer writes for Scientific American in their regular one-page anti-religious column (often anti-Christian column) titled "Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye". Setting aside the arrogance and argument-baiting in using that as the column title for an anti-religious feature, I thought his July 2017 article deserved a response mostly because it's on the topic of his next book to be released in 2018, and because the article contained some badly reasoned attacks on the idea of an afterlife.

His launching point is a response to the Netflix film The Discovery (2017) as an opportunity to respond to the theory of quantum consciousness, a scientific theory that the mind and consciousness are independent of the physical brain. In the page allotted to his column, he makes three quick arguments:

1. Memories As Function, Brain Death As Irrecoverable Failure
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.
There's a side note that bears mentioning: there is a risk of oversimplifying if we reduce our identity to our memories. While our identity would include our memories, it does not end there. Another part of our identity would be what I think of as "attached appetites". These are desires, goals, drives, motivations, and that kind of thing. For example, we may have an appetite for understanding which is currently attached to the goal of understanding the contents of a particular book, or an appetite for mastery which is currently attached to the goal of mastering a certain language. Our memories might tell us how much progress we have made on our quests, or even whether we have consciously recognized certain quests. But these are framework items that unify our memories and contribute to our more fluid understanding; they are not fully accounted for by reducing our scope to simple isolated memories. On this point, Shermer and I might have common ground.

Back to Shermer's comments; let's unpack that a little. I think most of us have seen how a new experience will update our understanding of a previous experience, or how reflecting on something will allow us to see things that we didn't understand at first. Memories may change in some aspects with our understanding of them. Still, I don't see that as a viable argument against preserving memories at a certain point of time -- say, at the moment of death -- and having those be the starting point for a reboot (if you'll pardon the term). We may be able to update our understanding of memories, but if our minds are physical then those updates are also available to us. Picking up at the point where Shermer mentions what he sees as the critical problem with the idea of memory-transference as a way to restore identities, post-resurrection:
But [the phenomenon of returning memories] cannot happen if your brain dies. That is why CPR has to be done so soon after a heart attack or drowning -- because if the brain is starved of oxygen-rich blood, the neurons die, along with the memories stored therein.
Shermer starts with something on which there's a consensus: that brain death eventually causes a state in which the memories do not return to the same neurons (which at that point have died) through the same natural process that is at work when we wake from sleep. He writes as though he believes this argument makes the final case that the memories or identity could not be restored at all, once the original neurons have died. However, he doesn't make any case for that, rather assumes it from the fact that it wouldn't happen by itself. Then again, neither would resurrection happen by itself, and people who believe in resurrection generally consider that the same Agent who causes someone's life to be restored would also cause the identity to be restored. And though he gives the appearance of interacting with religious views, Shermer makes no effort to address Jesus' resurrection on the third day after his burial with his memories, personality, and identity intact. For Christians at least, Jesus' resurrection addresses the question of whether the agent of the resurrection has this kind of thing covered.

Let's look at Shermer's second line of argument.

2. Resurrection as Copy or Twin: Non-Identity with Original

Per Shermer:
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. 
Shermer may misunderstand what religious people would mean by our soul. When he says "even your soul is not you", much of religious thought would consider him to be wrong about that. A Christian would not say that a resurrected body has a copy of our soul, but the original one. Which makes the rest of his argument on this point moot, when it comes to Christian faith in the resurrection.

If Shermer's argument was addressed more to the "quantum consciousness" view than to Christians, I can imagine myself in a situation where I was restored after death through a phenomenon of copying. In that case, the fact that I was the only one of me in existence would be enough for me to think "Here I am." The identity crisis caused by a second instance doesn't hold (though more on that under his next point). So contrary to Shermer's argument, a copy after death would be different than a twin: the original is gone, and nobody is looking at the original and thinking "There I am," but "There I was (rest in peace); glad I'm back."

3. Identity and Point-Of-View

In Shermer's last argument, he references some interesting work done by neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, president of the Brain Preservation Foundation. Shermer summarizes Hayworth by saying Hayworth separates the aspects of identity based on our memories ("MEMself") from the aspects based on our point-of-view ("POVself"):
He believes that if a complete MEMself is transferred into a computer (or, presumably, resurrected in heaven), the POVself will awaken. I disagree.
Let's assume for the moment that Shermer represents Hayworth's views accurately (though I look forward to the August issue, and hope that Hayworth gets response space). Let's envision "MEMself" as composed of millions of interconnected memory points -- like pixel art in our mental map of the world around us -- and "POVself" as the understanding we try to make of those -- like vector art trying to map the same items, and even complete the picture. If Shermer is saying that all the data points, like pixels, don't necessarily tell us what the next planned move would have been or the artist's perspective: that's true enough. But if Hayworth is saying that a complete MEMself would also include a memory of the big picture that we were trying to draw and the current progress, then that particular objection is overcome.

Shermer then makes two types of follow-up argument, which are recognizably his two previous points applied to the MEMself / POVself constructs. First for the reprise of the "identical twins" argument, applied to the hypothetical neural copy reboot:
If this were done without the death of the person, there would be two memory selves, each with its own POVself looking out at the world through its unique eyes. At that moment, each would take a different path in life, thereby recording different memories based on different experiences. "You" would not suddenly have two POVs. 
But having two of you doesn't actually mean the copy didn't work. In this case there is no longer simply one of "you", but Shermer seems to consider this an argument against the theory being able to work, rather than having side-effects as complicated as a time-travel story.

Next is Shermer's reprise of the "continuity" argument where a large-enough interruption is deemed to be an irrecoverable failure of the concept itself, rather than a logistics issue:
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 ... Death is a permanent break in continuity, and our personal POV cannot be moved from your brain into some other medium, here or in the hereafter.
He rests his whole argument on the discontinuity of death, but in this context it's a red herring. Right now, even if you didn't die, there's still no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer. It's (at the very least) a technology problem. Death is not a necessary part of that theoretical discussion of whether our consciousness could be transferred to a computer; we could do it while still of sound mind and body, if possible and the technology existed. Though that does lead to the point where it matters that death is a red herring in the argument for "computerized synthetic resurrection", may my regular readers bear with me for the sci-fi leanings of this paragraph: Once someone's POV could be transferred to a computer at some point in time, death no longer need be an interruption for having that POV continue; it's just a matter of timing the transfer (say) somewhere in that window of time between heart death and brain death. Chalk one up for hypothetical hospice services of the future. So even if we grant his assumption that continuity is necessary, it's not an insurmountable obstacle for synthetic resurrection.

In his third point, Shermer has no new arguments that bear on the idea of Christian resurrection. To briefly recap to save the reader the cross-reference, if Shermer is positing that there is an Agent who can resurrect by some means that we do not know, then the Christian would also affirm that the Agent is fully able to restore our identities, and that this Agent has given us a good-faith demonstration in Jesus' own resurrection.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. I'm keeping this for future reference.

"To attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world." - Aristotle. (

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for the kind words.

Take care & God bless