Nobody really knows what happens after we die. I don't care what people believe, though I get pretty annoyed when atheists assert as a fact that there's nothing after we die. They're supposed to only believe stuff that's empirically verifiable, yet here they are asserting something that they clearly haven't verified because they aren't dead. And there's actually very strong empirical evidence that they're wrong. I should have made the connection months ago, but I didn't until I saw it spelled out in these videos from the excellent YouTube channel Closer to Truth. I'm mostly just going to repeat what Sam Parnia, MD says in the videos.
To recap what I've learned and mentioned before, so-called near-death experiences follow a common pattern across cultures, but they also have differences - most significantly, the identity of the heavenly being that one encounters depends on one's religious background. So they don't necessarily prove anything about the objective reality of the afterlife. Maybe they're a delusion hardwired into our brains and shaped by cultural influences, or maybe a higher power shows itself differently depending on what we're expecting and comfortable with. Also, they can be triggered by drugs or surgeries where one's life isn't actually in danger. But they're very elaborate and have powerful, positive long-term life-changing effects that delusions are not generally known to have. Someone in the comments section on another video suggested that they're an adaptation by the brain to give us a peaceful death if all attemps to keep us alive fail. But a peaceful death does zilch to improve our odds of passing our genes along, so such an adaptation could only have evolved by pure coincidence.
Anyway, Sam Parnia, MD spells out a fact that I should have grasped on my own. The term "near-death experience" is misleading because many of the people who have them are quite literally completely dead. Their hearts and brains have shut down. And for most of history, that would have always been the end of it. But technology has advanced to the point that they can sometimes be brought back to life minutes or even hours after their hearts and brains have shut down, before all their cells have also died. And then they report these near-death experiences. Which means that, regardless of what those experiences can or can't tell us about an afterlife, those people were still conscious while they were dead. I don't know why this isn't being shouted from every rooftop in the world. Before, I just thought maybe they still had some brain activity that we couldn't detect, but now I realize how implausible that is, especially since it would seem to render a lot of detectable brain activity superfluous. Now this doesn't prove that consciousness lasts forever after death, but if it can last at all without a functioning brain to contain it, I don't see why it would just fizzle out some time later. This is a very strong empirical basis for believing that we're eternal beings.
I don't believe in the traditional view of "spirits" (and a lot of modern Christians don't either) because there's no evidence that a body needs a spirit inside it to be alive. Individual cells are alive, clumps of cells are alive, really big clumps of cells (like us) are alive, and there's no indication at any level that the organelles or organs are insufficient to maintain that state on their own. But I agree with the philosophical argument that brain cells and electricity can't produce consciousness on their own because there's a qualitative difference between those physical things and that ethereal, subjective thing. I'm very attracted to the view that consciousness permeates the universe and brains are like radio sets that pick it up. To me, this makes scientific and theological sense. I think our innermost core is consciousness, not spirit. And that actually reminds me of Joseph Smith's idea that we started out as intelligences that are co-eternal with God. I always liked that idea because it solved the problem of God being responsible for our imperfections and our sins. I don't believe he was a prophet by any stretch, but was very intelligent and he may have stumbled onto some correct ideas just by logic. I believe that we are eternal beings and that when we die, we'll be surprised to remember the things we knew before we were born.
Now I can stop being afraid of death and look forward to it again. I think. I just want to reunite with loved ones and explore the universe, but I am still a little concerned about the possibility of reincarnation. I'd actually prefer the total annihilation of my consciousness to having another life on this hellhole planet without retaining anything I learned in this one. But reincarnation is supposed to suck, and the whole point of Hinduism is to get out of it. I'd better live a really good life just in case karma is an actual thing that exists.
In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, David Bentley Hart argues that there's an insuperable quantitative gap between the the physical material of the human brain and the subjective personal experience of consciousness; in other words, one cannot produce the other on its own. This isn't a "God of the gaps" argument. It's not about what materialism can't explain yet but about an intrinsic limitation of materialism. He insists that no matter how much we learn about someone's brain structure and activity, we will never be able to replicate for ourselves what it's like to be them. He goes into a lot more depth with this argument than I can. He also rejects, for good reason, the scientifically unsupported belief that bodies require spirits inside of them in order to be alive at all. If I understand and remember correctly, he asserts that consciousness flows from God in the same way that existence itself flows from God.
Writing in Psychology Today this week, in an article that was recommended to me by the almighty algorithms because I read some articles on that website about near-death experiences, Steve Taylor makes a similar argument and includes an analogy that blew my mind: "It may be that the human brain does not actually produce consciousness but transmits it. Like a radio, the brain may 'pick up' fundamental consciousness from the space around us and transmit it to us, so that we become individually conscious." To me this makes perfect sense in principle. It explains why the brain's machinery is necessary in the first place, and even why its makeup strongly influences our thoughts and feelings, despite not being the ultimate source of consciousness. And it's so simple. You don't need a book of philosophy to understand it.
It does raise further questions, though. As Taylor points out, the materialist view "also means that there cannot be an afterlife, since human consciousness cannot outlive the brain that produces it" (although I heard a Christian pastor who doesn't believe in the body/spirit dualism explain that God could recreate our personalities and identities in the resurrection exactly as they were, and argue with a skeptic about whether these new people would really still be us). But if the brain just receives and interprets a piece of a big mass of consciousness, do we just get absorbed back into that when we die? I guess becoming part of God, or one with the Force or whatever, would be nice, but I also like being me and don't want to give that up altogether. And if we all become unified into one consciousness at the end, then any love we have for each other ultimately becomes love for ourself, and that just seems a lot less special.
Taylor raises another interesting point: "Until the 19th century, almost every culture in human history took for granted that the essence of human identity was non-physical and would survive the death of the body." It's interesting because it may or may mean anything. It's entirely possible for almost every culture in human history to be wrong about something, and maybe this kind of belief is just coping mechanism for the horrors of mortality. But maybe it's an instinctive understanding that most of us have because it's true and our consciousnesses have advanced far enough to grasp it. David Bentley Hart talks about how we know or at least have reasonable grounds to assume many things that we can't prove scientifically - mathematics, for example. This could be one of those things. It's a real shame that the only way to confirm it for sure is to die.
Tomorrow is Juneteenth. Last year when it became a federal holiday I witnessed a lot of complaining from Utah Republicans who are determined to be horrible people and wrong about everything, but I haven't seen any yet this year. I guess they grew the hell up and got over it. Now if only they could do the same for everything else. We also just had Summerfest, the local arts festival here in Logan, over the last three days. I always go and don't buy any art because it's expensive but then I rationalize buying the expensive food because it's part of the experience. I went alone the first two days and then I went with a friend the last day, and she didn't buy much, but she talked to several of the booth owners and took their business cards, which I guess is the equivalent of clicking "like" on a Facebook fundraiser instead of donating to it. Then last night, because I'm still on the email list for the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, I attended a screening of "Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty" over Zoom. He was a phenomenal guy and the world needs more like him right now to tackle its environmental and social problems. It's funny, though, how Mormonism still claims him and takes credit for his accomplishments even though he stopped practicing it in his twenties, in large part because it was so socially backwards even by 1947 standards.
Because I read about near-death experiences recently, of course the omniscient internet brought to my attention the most recent development in that field. Four people hooked up to life support were having their brains monitored for whatever reason, and after they were taken off life support, two of their brains registered a surge of activity in the part responsible for dreams. Scientists speculate that these people were having NDEs, although they had a history of epilepsy, and nobody's ever shown a correlation between epilepsy and NDEs. The headline I looked at claimed that scientists had observed the brain activity behind NDEs for the first time, as if that were an established fact, but of course it isn't. They don't know what they actually observed. In order to know that, or at least be fairly confident, they'd have to observe something similar in the brain of someone who subsequently came back to life and reported on it. Science may sooner or later explain NDEs away as a purely neurological phenomenon, but it hasn't yet and we mustn't be premature about it. Journalists often take the nuance out of science, either out of sincere ignorance or the need to produce clickbait.
My roommate has finally moved out. He moved upstairs, meaning that he wanted to stay in this complex but not with me. The feeling is mutual. I didn't like that he left lights on he wasn't using (though I trained him by example to not do it constantly), I didn't like that he walked around without a shirt on when the weather was warm, I didn't like that he spent two hours a day in the bathroom, and I especially didn't like that he spent at least an hour a day practicing what can only be called "singing" under the most generous interpretation at the top of his lungs. It sounds more like an air raid siren. I had a friend over once and he laughed in disbelief at how bad it was. I sent a recording to another friend whom my complaints had made curious, and she wrote back, "PUT IT OUT OF ITS MISERY. WTF." Early on, at a public gathering, my roommate put me on the spot and asked if his singing annoyed me. Trying to balance tact with honesty, I said, "Only when it's really loud" (which was always). So he continued to consistently do it at the top of his lungs. Now I feel bad that I've been festering in resentment instead of asking him to stop, though, because I warned my upstairs neighbor about it, and I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that he hasn't been enjoying it either.
Recently the Temple City Sheriff's office invaded the wrong home without a warrant and illegally questioned and arrested two children who now, presumably, are traumatized for life but at least won't grow up to be bootlickers. I wrote some strong language in an online form somewhere and fully expected, based on previous interactions with law enforcement, that they would ignore me, but that the publicity would make them think twice (or at least once) about pulling such stunts in the future. I was quite surprised when someone got back to me earlier this week. Credit where it's due.
I've started wasting time on Twitter instead of reddit lately. I used to do essentially nothing on Twitter except share my blog posts, and I stayed at 38 followers for over six years. Now after a few weeks of interacting with people, I'm up to 53, so yay.
Twitter brings out the worst in people, including me, because it has almost no rules. Before Elon Musk took over, my account was suspended for wishing death on (checks notes) Vladimir Putin. And I still do and I'm not sorry. But now, I can say whatever the hell I want without fear of consequences. I've had some arguments. Even though I only follow ex-Mormons and liberal Mormons as far as Mormon stuff is concerned, I keep getting conservative Mormons in my feed, and they're pretty much the worst people in the world. Half their identity right now revolves around hating transgender people, and the other half is divided between hating apostates, hating liberals, hating scholars, hating gay people, and hating feminists. They're straight-up bullies more often than not, and because they think they're boldly standing up for truth and righteousness, they're quite incapable of attaining any self-awareness about how awful they are. Case in point:
I mean, wow. I used to have a hell of a persecution complex myself, but I don't think there was ever a point when I would have told someone "You are a demonic force and will be treated accordingly." It frightens me that people who think that way exist. Of course, guys like this think I'm a demonic force too. I try to be good. I don't set out to tear down Mormon beliefs every time I see them in my feed. I only get involved if they say something egregiously stupid and/or bigoted. And I try not to mock or insult them until they do it to me first, but that usually doesn't take very long. Personal attacks are usually their first and only response to critique of any kind. They really thought they were clever for pointing out that I had my pronouns in my bio and a Ukrainian flag next to my name. I had to block an account with the word "Christ" in its name that insisted Ukraine "isn't innocent" and basically deserves what it's getting, a claim that could be made with a little more accuracy (though it would still be victim-blaming) about the Mormons who moved into Missouri and boasted that the Lord would give them their neighbors' land. I added a Pride flag and a transgender flag to my Ukrainian flag just to bother these troglodytes, and then I added "If my flags and pronouns bother you, mission accomplished" to my bio to make sure they know that I'm bothering them on purpose, and now they don't bring that stuff up as much.
The leaders of the church don't appear to care that in a few years, people like this will be the only members they have left. Decent, intelligent, empathetic people are being alienated in droves. Of course, some of these jackasses also get alienated every time the church takes a position against bigotry or in favor of modern medicine - the other day one even confessed that he struggles with his faith and desire to attend church because a Primary teacher elsewhere on Twitter wore a rainbow pin - but overall, I think they're winning. Perhaps in fifty years, this church will make the Westboro Baptist Church look like a happy memory. Perhaps it will truly be The Church of Brigham Young, Ezra Taft Benson, and Donald J. Trump. (One of the guys I argued with had modeled his profile after Spencer W. Kimball, though. Kimball's a more nuanced figure in my book. If I meet him in the next life, I'll thank him for what he did to advance racial equality within the church, then kick him between the legs for the vile things he said about women and gay men.)
My sister Melanie asked me for advice on starting a blog like a year ago. It's a good thing she didn't ask for advice on making a popular blog, because I couldn't have helped her with that. But it looks like she now has a blog with two posts. It's called "Almost Canadian," an obvious reference to us growing up half an hour from the border of Quebec and watching CBC instead of PBS. If you enjoy my sarcasm, snark, anger, and scathing religious and political criticism, I don't think you'll get any of that from her. But she has a strong writing voice and a charming sense of humor. I think she's a better writer than I was at her age (23), even though she only just recently realized it's what she wants to do, but I'm not jealous or anything. Okay, maybe a little. I'm just going to focus on building up my relationship with her in case she gets rich before I do.
I read a few Psychology Today articles about near-death experiences yesterday. NDEs have increased dramatically since the mid-twentieth century as medical technology has advanced to be able to save people who are farther and farther gone. They confirm of one of two things: that our consciousnesses will survive death, or that spiritual experiences are a byproduct of our brains having evolved to screw with us in countless ways. Obviously one of these possibilities is comforting and the other is terrifying. I'm guessing NDEs were all but nonexistent for most of human history when people simply did not wake up after their hearts stopped, so I doubt they influenced religious beliefs. But are they evidence for religious beliefs or merely influenced by them? Many of their motifs are strikingly similar across cultures, but Hindus don't encounter Jesus and Christians don't encounter Hindu gods. So maybe a biological commonality of human brains is being filtered through cultural influences, or maybe the higher power that receives dead souls is manifesting itself in different ways depending on what people expect and recognize.
Many, maybe most neurologists and other scientists are skeptical. One hypothesis holds that NDEs are hallucinations caused by dying brains flooding themselves with the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine, but there is as yet little evidence that dying brains actually flood themselves with the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine. I should think that would be an easy thing to check for, but I'm no expert. Another, in my opinion more convincing, argument against the reality of NDEs is that similar experiences can be triggered by non-life-threatening conditions like fever or anesthesia. I'm not sure how a believer would respond to that, but any honest believer in any spiritual phenomena must be compelled to acknowledge that they have a significant neurological component and consequently can be set off by things happening in the brain. Hippies have recognized this for a long time. Why God would make spiritual phenomena so unstable and unreliable if they're meant to be a guide to divine truth, I can't imagine.
One of the biggest counterarguments in favor of the reality of NDEs is the profound effect they tend to have on people. Most people find NDEs very peaceful and pleasant, sometimes so much so that coming back to life is a disappointment. They lose any fear of death they previously had, feel more purpose in life, see more beauty in everyday things, and become less materialistic and more altruistic. Standard hallucinations don't do that to people. I find this point very compelling, though there's still a chance it could just be a twisted cosmic joke, like how the Book of Mormon has a real and powerful spiritual impact on many people despite being a nineteenth-century fraud. A small percentage of people have unpleasant, lonely, or frightening NDEs, and while this would be difficult to test scientifically and I don't want to make insensitive assumptions, I'm dying to know if they're bad people who have reason to fear God's judgment. It would make sense for them to be a small percentage because God is supposed to be merciful and I believe few people are truly evil in their hearts.
Anyway, this is cool stuff, and though none of it is conclusive, it somewhat assuages my anxiety about death, at least until science marches on and ruins it for everyone.
This week I read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. It's a book about the need for scientific literacy and skepticism, but it's not an anti-God or anti-religion book like the ones that became popular a few years later, so it's interesting how he tiptoes around the elephant in the room that much of what he says could be used against God and religion. He does get into a few religious topics like the efficacy of prayer and claimed sightings of the Virgin Mary and the torture and murder of innocent women accused of witchcraft, but mostly he debunks alien abductions and psychic powers and stuff. He spends a lot of time on aliens. I came to the same conclusions as him when I wrote a folklore paper about aliens for graduate school. I was trying to avoid the question of their veracity altogether, since it's irrelevant to their role in folklore, but I still couldn't avoid determining that they aren't visiting Earth, they aren't making crop circles, and they aren't kidnapping and raping people. Which is good. But these experiences are still very real to the people who imagine them, which is almost as scary and just as worthy of study.
It's very frightening to me - and I'm not just going off this one book, which reiterated and expanded on a lot of things I had already learned - how deceptive and unreliable our brains are, how prone they are to cognitive biases, logical fallacies, false memories, and straight-up hallucinations. It takes great effort and more education than most people ever get to disentangle oneself from all of this and strive for what one can only hope is something approaching an accurate understanding of the world. Humankind's inherent irrationality has, in my judgment, caused more persistent and widespread problems than evil itself. Frankly, it threatens my belief in God because I don't see what purpose he could have for making us this way. I don't think it was to make us trust in him instead of ourselves, because spiritual feelings and experiences seem to be the least reliable of all. That is, when they're being used as a guide to truth. Simply having spiritual reactions to things is harmless. Sagan's opinion of spirituality:
"'Spirit' comes from the Latin word 'to breathe'. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
On life after death, he writes, "My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are - really and truly - still in existence somewhere. I wouldn't ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There's a part of me - no matter how childish it sounds - that wonders how they are. 'Is everything all right?' I want to ask. The last words I found myself saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were 'Take care'.
"Sometimes I dream that I'm talking to my parents, and suddenly - still immersed in the dreamwork - I'm seized by the overpowering realization that they didn't really die, that it's all been some kind of horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and well, my father making wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising me to wear a muffler because the weather is chilly. When I wake up I go through an abbreviated process of mourning all over again. Plainly, there's something within me that's ready to believe in life after death. And it's not the least bit interested in whether there's any sober evidence for it."
He then segues into debunking mediums who claim they can talk to the dead. He doesn't try to debunk the existence of an afterlife itself. Of course he couldn't, because at the time of writing he'd never been dead. But if one does exist, how could we know? Maybe he's been trying to tell us about it for years but he can't find a good medium to talk to because they're all frauds. I used to be so confident that I knew exactly what would happen to me after I died. I would be compensated for every injustice I ever suffered and enter into eternal happiness. Now I wonder if instead I'll just enter an eternal dreamless sleep. I wouldn't mind that, except that I'd never get to listen to music again or see anyone I love again. Sagan missed his parents. His wife, Ann Druyan, misses him. She has said, "When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me - it still sometimes happens - and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl."
I thought about this when I recently watched a video clip of Russian soldiers committing one of their many war crimes, in this case executing a Ukrainian prisoner of war. It was a short clip. He calmly smoked a cigarette and then they shot him and he fell to the ground so fast it almost looked fake. Were all his memories, his personality, and the very core of his identity permanently erased from existence in that moment, faster than the blink of an eye? In another instance I read about, a Ukrainian soldier sacrificed himself to protect his son, also a soldier, from an artillery shell, but it exploded near their heads and his son died with him anyway. I think of all the premature and undeserved deaths, the heroic sacrifices and the cannon fodder and the murders and the diseases and so on, and I think what a sick cosmic joke it would be for all these people to be erased, and for any species to have evolved to the point of having these existential questions and fears in the first place. But then, people of one kind or another have been dying for hundreds of thousands of years longer than any religion that teaches an afterlife has existed. So we're in good company. I shouldn't spend too much effort fearing or resenting the most universal experience in the world.
The only thing I would really need to worry about is the possibility that God exists but is not loving or good. Maybe I will be tormented for eternity for failing to discern the correct religion that God hid among a thousand other religions and/or for giving in to the sinful nature that God gave me. I don't care what anyone says, I don't deserve to be tormented for eternity. Maybe a decade at most. And I think a lot of my experience on this planet should count as time served.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.