Religion is failing us, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

(Read Part One, if you haven’t.)

For a couple of decades now, I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I’m not obsessive about it, but my interest in it picks up from time to time. Yesterday, it was snagged again watching this video on YouTube:

The speaker at this TED Talk, Thomas Fleischmann, knows a thing or two about NDEs. As an emergency doctor he has witnessed about two thousand deaths. Since it’s his job to try to resuscitate them, he sometimes succeeds. These people are clinically dead: no heartbeat and no brain waves. The uniformity of their NDEs is amazingly consistent across ages, religions, races and geographical regions.

What makes Fleischmann’s case unique is that he also had a NDE, and he gave the same report his patients did. People brought back tend to be happy, caring, highly relational and lose all fear of death. They report moving toward a light after death, often seeing relatives, and feelings of absolute peace and unconditional love.

This is not quite the Pearly Gates, a greeting from Saint Peter and sitting near the Right Hand of God, but it sounds pretty good. I’m reminded of that snippet from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. If you read the books by JRR Tolkien, he says largely the same thing:

PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Given that none of us can escape death, assuming all these experiences continue to progress the way it seems like they should, death should not be something to fear at all. Perhaps it should be welcomed because arguably for many, if not most of us, it’s a great improvement over our reality.

Tethered as we are to this reality, or perhaps to what we think is this reality, only the suicidal will want to hasten their demise. It’s a bit crazy not to fear death, as it seems to be instinctual. So many of those many early Christian martyrs fed to the lions in Roman coliseums must have been crazy. They thought they were earning a place in a heaven. At least it appears that some of them were able to surmount the fear of death to spread the message of Christianity to the heathen.

But overall, religion isn’t helping us confront our mortality in a healthy way. Arguably, most religions make it worse.

These NDEs strongly suggest there is an afterlife, the soul is real and our death moves us into a different, happier and more loving realm. It doesn’t seem to matter how evil you were in life; you are still loved and accepted in the afterlife. It’s kind of hard to get my mind around that given that someone like Jeffrey Epstein recently joined the ranks of the dead. You would figure some of them would deserve eternal torment. Yet if Jesus bought us salvation, then it appears that the Universalists were right: he did so for everyone, for all time. It’s not something you have to earn like a Boy Scout merit badge. It’s something that just is. It’s innate. It’s built in.

You have to look hard to find a religion that tells us not to worry about death, or more specifically eternal damnation as a result of death if you don’t get their religion. Most religions preach just the opposite: you have to work really really hard to get into heaven, or at least be a sincerely good person in this life to get your eternal reward. Yet even Jesus seem to be providing a hint that we are all due salvation. (See Matthew 20).

The atheists aren’t helping either. They don’t believe in an afterlife, hence they don’t believe in NDEs either. Yet it sure looks like they are going to get one whether they like it or not. Or maybe by believing you aren’t going to get one, you actually don’t. There’s no evidence of this though from the many atheists who’ve had NDEs.

Many Buddhists believe we are stuck in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, unless you achieve Nirvana, which is apparently very hard to do. It’s probably easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle, as Jesus also taught. The Buddhists appear to have picked up a lot of this from the Hindus, since Hinduism preceded Buddhism and Hinduism permeated Buddha’s life.

The monotheistic religions all believe in one God and one chance at salvation. Naturally they are very concerned about straightening you out now so you can make it to heaven. Some are arguably more than a bit crazy about it. As I noted in an earlier post, some fundamentalists are actively trying to bring about the end of the world, convinced that they are chosen ones like Donald Trump, and will be raptured.

I would think it should give even a fundamentalist pause to consider that Trump will be raptured too, along all the other sinners out there who they are desperately trying to help see the light, but seem to secretly despise. Frankly, from all the Left Behind books, the Rapture seems like a lot of fun to these elect. It’s like God will be burning these souls like marshmallows over the campfire of Hell, and they get to watch gleefully. After all, they are the chosen, not the rejected.

It’s hard to think of a point to religion if we all make it to a great afterlife for free, and if no one checks our punch cards to make sure we’ve earned our Golden Ticket. The obvious consequence of religion though is to hype our fear of death, so we get so scared that we change our behavior to act and worship a lot like them. And that appears to add a lot of misery to people’s life by pushing them to act in way contrary to their nature. It seems sadistic.

At the very least though, it is not helpful. In fact, it’s very hurtful. We all need to get along in this life as best we can because we are trapped inside this matrix. If religion has a purpose, these NDEs suggest that’s it: to model in some small way the peace and brotherhood and unconditional love we will all find after death, at no charge and unconditionally. Yes, even Donald Trump.

How about some of that religion? And a lot less of the apparently hurtful and counterproductive crap we are getting instead? Sounds good to me. You best not hold your breath.

Consciousness as a two-way mirror

The Thinker by Rodin

I haven’t written about metaphysics for quite a while, mainly because I did not have much to say. Principally, I was losing interest in the subject but also I have been busy engaging in life, which I suspect is its natural purpose. Yet, occasionally something comes up in the press on metaphysics that piques my curiosity. Yesterday this article on The Human Consciousness Project was published on Time Magazine’s website. The project, led by Dr. Sam Parnia of the Weill-Cornell Medical Center involves an in-depth worldwide coordinated study into out of body experiences that some claim to have while they are technically dead, but who are later successfully revived.

I have occasional disagreements with my brother on the afterlife or lack thereof. My brother is a scientist and is trained to be skeptical, which is to his credit. Unsurprisingly, he categorizes himself as an atheist. Studies underway like this one though raise reasonable doubt. Says Dr. Parnia:

There was a cardiologist that I spoke with who said he hasn’t told anyone else about it because he has no explanation for how this patient could have been able to describe in detail what he had said and done. He was so freaked out by it that he just decided not to think about it anymore.

I think it is great that what many would consider loony science is getting some clinical study again. It may be simply my natural fear of mortality, but I have come to believe that I have a soul or spirit that is external and transcends death. For the most part, it is just a feeling, but I am glad to know there have been and are continuing scientifically rigorous studies into out of body experiences.

One obvious question is whether a person who had such an experience was truly dead. Dr. Parnia points out that death is not instantaneous and that it takes a long time for our cells to actually die after being deprived of oxygen. Most of us assume though that if there are no brain waves, no reflexes and no heart is beating that you must be dead. If our brain is not working it should not be possible for those ten percent who experience out of body experiences while being clinically dead to later report in such detail actual experiences they observed while dead. Yet, unless there is a huge conspiracy taking place (something that flunks the Occam’s Razor test) that appears to be the case. Something, let us call it consciousness, can survive the clinical definition of death and is aware.

More to the point though is Dr. Parnia’s speculation on how this could be happening:

Now, if you look at the mind, consciousness, and the brain, the assumption that the mind and brain are the same thing is fine for most circumstances, because in 99% of circumstances we can’t separate the mind and brain, they work at the exactly the same time. But then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that we see that that this assumption may no longer seem to hold true. So a new science is needed in the same way that we had to have a new quantum physics.

My suspicion, as is also true with Dr. Parnia, is that as we get a better understanding of quantum physics we may begin to understand that consciousness and brain activity are actually two aspects of the same thing. Indeed, I speculated as much in this post. The better our understanding of quantum physics becomes, the more our fundamental assumptions of what is reality seem undermined.

We are all subject to our own biases, and I am no exception. The renowned physicist Dr. Albert Einstein came up with the groundbreaking theories of General and Special Relativity, which opened our eyes to a reality that we could not see. It is hard for us to believe in the reality he described: that we are bound in a finite warped matrix called space-time and that it is the relationship of objects inside this continuum that warps time and space. It’s all so abstract, like algebra, to seem real. Yet, Einstein utterly rejected the then emerging science of quantum physics because he was philosophically opposed to its nondeterministic pinnings. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he once famously said. Like relativity, quantum physics seems impossible for us to grasp. It is hard to grasp that at some small level that time does not have any meaning; that everything is probable but nothing is certain; that a wave consists of both particles and energy simultaneously and that Schrodinger’s Cat could be both dead and alive at the same instant. These are all paradoxical truths of our universe at a certain level and perspective. Our instinct is to reject notions at variance with our common experience.

We do know, as Einstein articulated, that energy and mass are interchangeable. What I am beginning to understand is that everything we perceive as real is energy in some form or another, and what we perceive as mass or matter is merely a transitory property of energy made possible by the unique arrangement of certain physical conditions in the space-time continuum.

So what we experience as our life and perception appears to be a combination of both mass and energy. Yet, since mass and energy are essentially interchangeable, it is not wholly beyond possibility that at brain death consciousness survives. The difference is that since the energy that makes up our consciousness cannot be accessed through the matter that is our brain, that those of us trapped in the mass-energy concoction we call consciousness cannot perceive it.

Death may be and I think likely is nothing more than a door from one variant of experience to another. Einstein also taught us that energy could never be destroyed. It could only change in form. Perhaps death then is like a two-way mirror. When a person stands behind a two-way mirror and he is in a lighted room, another person outside the room looking at the mirror can see him because the mirror becomes semi-transparent. Turn off the light and you just see your reflection. In both cases, two people are present. In only one case can you perceive the other.

Our soul may be like that. Our soul though may be what we really are, and our body may simply be like its shadow, a part of us and inseparable from us. Well documented after death out of body experiences suggest that something like this is occurring, as crazy as it may seem in our current reality frame. Perhaps the skeptics among us simply need to widen their lens, much like Einstein did to more perfectly describe the Newtonian universe. Perhaps we need to acknowledge a universe that is far more real than our limited intellects can grasp.

Speculations on the Soul

The Thinker by Rodin

Regular readers will know metaphysics has been on my brain the last few years. Between reading books on quantum mechanics, pondering mystics and gurus and even watching a funky metaphysical movie I can’t seem to escape it. But I haven’t gone off the deep end. Seeing What the Bleep Do We Know? for example hasn’t had me rushing off to learn more about the Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. I prefer to make sense of fantastic things in my own murky, mysterious way rather than grab one of those prepackaged solutions off the shelf.

Today you get to go on my little roller coaster ride on the nature of soul, and why I think souls exists. Buckle up.

Ironically these thoughts come from being a programmer. To me trying to understand what software really is is very hard. There is no tangible difference between a CD ROM that is formatted or unformatted. Certainly a formatted CD-ROM with software on it can do some amazing stuff when executed by certain classes of computers and certain operating systems. But a formatted CD-ROM weighs no more nor less than an unformatted CD-ROM. The only thing that can be said about it is that its state was subtly changed. Using laser light a small portion of a track on a CD-ROM changes its properties from translucent to opaque. If an opaque value is read then a value is inferred differently than when it is translucent. A floppy disk works in a similar way, except the magnetic voltage of a spot on the disk determines the associated binary value. Neither the floppy disk nor the CD-ROM is really materially changed after encoding. Only its properties are changed so that when a spot is observed (by a recording head) a value is inferred. It remains the same “stuff”. The amount of matter before and after encoding should be identical, except for a tiny loss of matter resulting from friction imposed by the drive.

Now let’s think about our own brains. Neurologists can tell by looking at the brain of a child compared to an adult that there are fewer neural networks in the brain of a child. No surprise there. A child does not have as much experience written to his brain. A child is like a partially written disk. One might even say that upon birth a child is like a formatted disk with just the operating system on it. Over time and through experience a child’s neural network grows. Experience gets encoded. Paths are created in the brain to facilitate more and better memory recall. It’s like a computer in that it gets more software placed on it.

But software by itself is not meaningful. It is only when it interacts with external data and renders results for humans that it becomes valuable. Similarly a brain that knows the complete works of Shakespeare is not useful in itself. But when this knowledge impacts other people, perhaps through the performance of an actor, it takes on meaning.

Brain size reaches its peak around age four. Brain weight peaks out around age 5 and stays stable until you reach age 20. After age 20 the brain’s mass decreases by about a gram or so a year. Like a floppy disk the brain is clearly not indestructible. Over time neurons die, brain cells are replaced and new pathways are created. We constantly program and reprogram ourselves so that we can work more effectively in our environment. The state of our brain constantly changes, just as your computer’s hard disk constantly changes as you process work with it. Eventually though we get a permanent hard sector error that renders the media unusable and we die.

Is there a difference between your brain and your mind? I would say yes. Your brain is an organ that appears to be the center of control for your body and is the repository of your knowledge base. A computer’s brain consists of its hard disk and memory chips. What is your mind exactly? The mind is essentially the direction of will informed through the senses and through the experience encoded in our brains. The computer’s brain is its central processing unit. This is the thing that takes those binary 1s and 0s and manipulates the external environment. It allows the human to experience the work of the computer. Without the CPU the computer is nothing. The hard disk (brain) has no value by itself. But what is our mind really? There is no real answer. My answer begs the question. The mind is a gestalt: “A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.”

Which brings me at last back to metaphysics and my ponderings from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know? The mind, like software, is really virtual. And yet it seems to exists in some sort of medium. Our brain seems to be more than just a large hard disk because it seems the CPU is in there too. The brain’s CPU though is cranking away and providing a show … but where is it exactly? There is no spot in our brain that we can truly identify as our mind. We know if certain parts of the brain are removed or if it is injured enough that we will die. But there is no specific mind organ or gland unless it is the whole thing: the brain as a complete organ. And that doesn’t answer the question of where the mind is. But the evidence seems to be that the mind is not one spot in the brain. Which means it is either some larger thing, or it is not there at all.

We eat. Matter is broken down and energy is released. The energy from food is used to construct new things, like new blood and brain cells. But what is energy? It is not matter. At its root energy is the capacity to do work. And work is “physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Energy is the means to do that which matter itself cannot do. An apple sitting on a shelf cannot do anything. Something must be alive in order to do work. Matter must be transformed into energy for the accomplishment of something, for some act of work to occur and by inference for something to be alive.

We know from Einstein that E=mc2. Consequently matter is converted to energy all the time. The reverse is true too: energy is converted back to matter. I would argue that from the human perspective energy is virtual but matter is real. (It’s not that energy is really unreal, it’s just that we can’t perceive it as real because it is intangible to us. And it is intangible because it doesn’t carry a steady state.) You can measure energy but you can’t really contain it separated from matter. Energy in a battery is contained because of the properties of the battery’s matter. It’s a yin and a yang thing. To possess energy we have to see it in the context of its relationship with matter. Perhaps this is because to us only matter feels real and enduring.

Odd, this is the same as my analogy of the mind to the brain. The mind seems virtual because we can’t touch it but the brain seems real because we know it is there. So to me the mind – our minds – our consciousnesses — are in reality just energy. I think it must be a complex form of energy because we are complex compared to most life.

The laws of thermodynamics tell us that neither matter nor energy can be destroyed, they can only be changed from one form to the other. A log burned in our fireplace is not destroyed; its matter is transformed into heat. E=mc2 happens right in our fireplace. So if our mind is virtual and is nothing but pure energy, does it make sense to suggest that when we die our consciousness also dies? I don’t think so. It seems unreasonable and flunks my Occam’s Razor test. Yet that seems to be what a lot of us trained in the Western school of thought truly believe in our gut. If we didn’t then the anticipation of death would not be so universally traumatic. When our bodies die the energy wrapped up in keeping the body growing and maintained is released in the form of heat. And since the body can no longer sustain itself entropy asserts itself fully and our bodies decompose.

It may be that upon death that the energy that makes up our consciousness also changes form too. Or, since superstring theory suggests eleven dimensions, perhaps it just slips into one of these other higher vibrational dimensions that we can infer but not detect. It does this I suspect because it can no longer sustain the relationship with our host body that tethers it to our reality. If I am right we will all find out in time. If I am wrong no one will be able to argue with me about it after the experience of death. But there are enough psychics and mediums out there with decent track records not to be able to dismiss all of them as flakes.

That is why after so many years of pondering while I am still scientifically an agnostic I have a faith. While I do not necessarily believe in God in the classical sense I do believe in soul. I believe I have a soul. I believe that my consciousness is an aspect of my soul – my energy. It is intrinsically bound at present to the matter that contains my body. But upon my death it will be free to move elsewhere and perhaps inhabit some future body.

Time seems to be infinite. Space for all practical purposes is also infinite. I think this life is a breath in a much longer series of lives. And though it sounds corny to this agnostic I think we are all on a much larger spiritual journey. Its nature would take our breath away if we could but comprehend it.