Sunday, December 9, 2007


I believe in mortality, by which I mean much more than the common if reluctant admission that humans, like other animals, eventually die. To wit, I mean the bolder assertion that death is really fatal and personal human consciousness does not survive it. My reason for asserting mortality is the dependence of consciousness and personality on bodily functions and organs, notably the brain, that have a limited lifespan.

Evidence for such dependence permeates human experience. Every time anyone sleeps we have another clear instance. If consciousness can be interrupted by the brain effects of a single day’s weariness, how could it continue long after bloodflow has permanently halted and every cell has begun irreversible decay?

Whenever thirst, hunger or pain clouds the mind, whenever pleasure or a satisfied appetite improves the mood, that strengthens the case for mortality. Whenever caffeine ramps up alertness or alcohol impairs judgment, that adds more weight to the argument. If ever a concussion addles a memory or a cortical electroprobe elicits one, the implication gets more obvious. If ever a dream, drug, drumbeat, fast or fever puts you in a vision at odds with the world you know when you’re healthy, sated, calm, sober and awake, it shows you how emphatically consciousness depends on the state of your brain.

Such instances are so copious that few people can possibly reach midlife without accumulating enough examples to make the case for brain dependence practically unassailable.

Of course, many people treat scriptural and anecdotal reports of resurrections, hauntings, apparitions, mental or mediumistic spirit communications and past-life memories as evidence for immortality. Indeed, quite a few people have had phenomenal encounters of their own. But these reports and encounters tend to be unverified, unreliable or susceptible to alternative explanations. The occurrences they recount are far less common and more uncertain than the copious instances of sleep, satisfaction and the like. Honest preponderance of the evidence vastly favors brain dependence. If that evidence were illusory, what could explain the scope of our shared human vulnerability to the changing conditions that our bodies inhabit and the changing perceptions that our brains process?

To be sure, some believers in immortality are willing to concede brain dependence; they do not postulate a soul that is already independent of body and brain before death. Rather, they say the journey of life is a spiritual dialogue with God that God would never cut short. They say God will keep this conversation going after death, either by granting some new independent viability to the soul, or else by resurrecting the body and brain on which the soul depends. These claims are largely intuitions inspired by religious doctrines. I find them unpersuasive.

Having studied many religious histories, institutions and scriptures, I can assure you that religions often contradict themselves, each other, common decency and verifiable facts on an amazing diversity of topics ranging from the value of genocide to the value of pi. Accordingly the chances of any religious doctrine having come from God must be lower than the likelihood that God created the empirical world we observe. This has to mean that the empirical world itself is a more trustworthy guide to God’s intentions and attributes than any scripture or institution can be.

We have strong evidence on this planet of whole human cultures, nations, towns and languages in their thousands, and of other living species in far greater numbers, that God did not prevent from going extinct. The fossil record tells us that several mass extinctions have occurred, each killing off a large fraction of the whole biosphere. Enough time, astronomers have shown, can extinguish even a star. Surely the empirical trendline is clear. If God is even real, God lets mortals die. What is your spiritual conversation or mine to such a God? Is our companionship really so exceptionally excellent that God would intervene to exempt us from the general oblivion?

(Here sensitive nostrils may catch a whiff, or sensitive ears an echo, of the Sufi teaching that seeking a moment’s union with the attributes and viewpoint of reality’s God is more excellent than having eternity in the afterlife proclaimed by the pious.)

Now some people do offer arguments for immortality that reason and evidence don’t fully exclude. For example, they may postulate that, besides its brain level, consciousness includes a higher or deeper level, native not to the brain but instead to a more durable platform, like the dimensional manifold embracing space and time, or an undiscovered physical field within it, or some deathless race of submicroscopic endosymbionts inhabiting all our cells or molecules. Although intriguing, these arguments are not very popular because the sorts of immortality they promise are not very personal. Anyway, the evidence in their favor thus far seems feeble and slight compared to the case for brain dependence, but stay tuned.

A few people predict that a far-future artificial intelligence will resurrect all personalities throughout all earlier time in a vast computational simulation by inferring each person’s conscious characteristics from the traces we will have left in matter and history. But why would that intelligence bother to simulate everyone in its past? What would it make of blogs like this? And can consciousness really be reconstructed from such traces? I judge the prospect of revival by future computer virtuality to be extremely unlikely at best.

If, like me, you can reach the conclusion that human life ends in death, you’ll notice next how resistant so many people are to acknowledging the likelihood of mortality, how prone to wishful thinking when our dearest delusions are at stake. Such stubborn gullibility can mislead even good people to do great harm, ranging from acts of suicidal religious terrorism to complacent inaction while our fossil-fuel economy befouls and consumes our environment. Stubgullim, or stubbornly gullible immortalism, has become bad juju on today’s globe. I submit that more people should be aggressively made more aware of the case for mortality, for their own sake and the sake of ourselves and our descendents. If we never see that this life is all we have, we might never make the most of it. We might not even manage to pass the smoky torch of civilization on to the natives of the next long calendar cycle.

That’s ironic, for civilization must enhance human empathy to achieve the truest kind of immortality that gets personal, namely poetic immortality. Empathic imagination spans galaxies, crosses the ages and leaps between bodies, carrying reflections of personality forward as long as data and lore, ink and paper, canvas and paint, sculpture, screen, score and story, and the culture of their appreciation, can endure.

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