[cancer|religion] Faith, science and the afterlife

I put my stick in the faith-and-reason hive yesterday again, in comments on this post, and then on my Facebook presence here.

What I said in the blog comments was:

Actually, we have perfectly good physics that refutes the existence of the afterlife. It’s called entropy. You or anyone else has an extremely high burden of proof to surmount in order to counter that with objective evidence.

As for metaphysics, that is of course another word for faith, which rarely if ever has validity outside the individual faithholder’s frame of reference.


I am curious, as you challenge my statement of basic truth as if it were ragtag belief system. What objective, repeatable evidence does exist for the survival of self beyond the death of the brain?

I’m talking testable, empirical evidence, not scripture and faith statements. Faith can be a bedrock truth in the private universe of the individual that holds it, but articles of faith very rarely translate into characteristics of the physical universe we all inhabit

I then vented on Facebook with this comment:

Claiming we don’t have enough science to disprove the afterlife is like denying evolution. It’s a defect in your education, not in science.

Pretty much every time I get into this topic, people seem to think I’m denying the power or value of faith. As I said downthread in that Facebook post:

I have an immense respect for faith and its power. I have a profound disrespect for confusion between the truths of faith and the truths of testable, empirical reality

As one might imagine, my interest in the experience of death and dying is much sharpened of late. However, I’ve had this basic issue on my mind for years. Science is a process, a mode of thinking. It’s not some institution with the power to bury some ideas and elevate others. If there were some testable, provable hypothesis about survival of the self beyond the clinical death of the body, the medical journals would be full of it. That is, after all, one of the central questions of human culture for as far back as we have any history of human culture to evaluate.

But the whole burden of proof of afterlife is on those who would assert that as empirical reality. Science can no more disprove the afterlife than it can disprove the existence of pink unicorns. Less so, in fact. The question is a logical null.

However, to state the simple truth that there is no evidence of life after death is profoundly offensive to many people, and profoundly discomforting to many others. Speaking as someone who’s wrestling with precisely those fears, I say tough shit to them. It’s not a disrespect to your faith to state that your faith claims have no empirical basis. The universe doesn’t care if you’re Catholic or Hindu or Voudoun or Seventh Day Adventist or an atheist or what. It functions perfectly well without the lens of faith. In fact, the universe functions precisely as well without faith as it does with faith.

But human hearts and minds do not. What to me is an obvious conflation of wishful thinking and faith narrative is to others a truth so profound as to be indistinguishable from the sunrise or the tides or the fingers of their own hand.

Which is precisely my point. Privileging one’s faith narrative so strongly that one views science as unable to answer faith questions is a failure of one’s own education and worldview, not a failure of science. The process of science can test the assertions of a faith narrative as easily as it can test assertions of chemistry and physics.

The whole purpose of a faith narrative is not empirical testability. One does both science and faith a disservice when one tries to hold faith up to the standards of science.

Think of it this way. Science works in a completely testable, repeatable manner for anyone, anywhere, with the right education, data and equipment. Faith is so profoundly individual that there are about 41,000 Christian denominations in the world, and thousands, possibly tens of thousands of other religions. Many if not most of them proclaim a monopoly on the truth, but they cannot each and all in their tens of thousands of revelations be in sole possession of the truth. To hear most religionists tell it, only one faith can be right. Theirs. In other words, faith is not testable and repeatable for anyone, anywhere; rather, it is profoundly individual.

Very nearly the opposite of what science seeks to do.

Meanwhile, I’m still dying. When I’m dead, I’ll still be dead. If 40,000 years of human history and culture haven’t managed to come up with any repeatable, empirical evidence to the contrary thus far, I don’t think the next six or nine months are going to make much difference now. Regardless of anyone’s sincerely held beliefs. Or their irritation at my pointing out the obvious.

16 thoughts on “[cancer|religion] Faith, science and the afterlife

  1. Trey says:

    As a Catholic (and one who gets the difference between faith and testability) well said Jay.

  2. homa_bird says:

    You write; “Science works in a completely testable, repeatable manner for anyone, anywhere, with the right education, data and equipment.”

    isn’t it also true that quantum science at micro levels, (a science available to those with only the most sensitive equipment, but available none the less) reveals refutations of repeatable tests, indeterminate mystery, wild flux, and paradoxical both-truths eg: light behaves as both particle AND wave, also spooky action at a distance, and most interesting of all: the subjective role of the observer in determining physical reality.

    Science at the atomic level is anything but testable, repeatable or predictable.

    1. Danny Adams says:

      There’s a big difference between the quantum and the atomic levels. At the atomic level things are indeed testable, repeatable, and predictable.

      “Spooky action at a distance” may not yet be wholly understood, but is likewise testable, repeatable, and predictable. That’s what makes it spooky.

      Light, also, behaves as particle and wave both in testable and repeatable ways. The reasons for it acting as both really aren’t a mystery.

      As for quantum science itself, we have equipment to test it, but much of it is still relatively primitive compared to how long we’ve had tests for larger phenomenon. It may ultimately prove just as prone to the scientific method as everything else.

    2. Worlebird says:

      “Science at the atomic level is anything but testable, repeatable or predictable.”
      This is not at all true. Quantum effects are known and acknowledged by science for the very reason that they ARE testable and repeatable. We don’t understand a lot of them, we don’t yet know why many of these effects occur, when they seem contradictory to our experience in other areas of physics, but we can very specifically describe them, because they happen very reliably.

  3. Tim Keating says:

    “Science can no more disprove the afterlife than it can disprove the existence of INVISIBLE pink unicorns.”

    There. Fixed that one for you.

  4. Ron says:

    The definition of the word “refute” is “prove to be wrong or false.” In your first statement you said that physics refutes the afterlife. Further down in your blog post you acknowledge that science cannot disprove the afterlife. You have every right to poke holes in people’s beliefs but are you sure that this is what you want to be doing in your last months? Just lashing out at people? I mean, you’re neither the first nor the last person to reference unicorns when talking about religion. You’re saying the same stuff that most vocal atheists say. What does the afterlife have to do with entropy? If you were to approach the concept from an ignostic point of view, you would not attach any rules to it and thus you wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. It’s like when people ask Chomsky if he believes in god. What does he say? He says he doesn’t understand the question. It’s not specific enough. Yet you don’t believe in the afterlife that you assume most believers believe in. Keyword: assume. You assume the god they believe in is a white, bearded man who lives up in the clouds inside this universe and is thus subject to the laws of the universe and will bend to the force of entropy, right? If you lambaste people for the characterization of the god that they believe in, do they not have the right to lambaste you for the characterization of the god you don’t believe in?

    1. Worlebird says:

      (First off, I’m going to be a bit pedantic by pointing out that the word is spelled “agnostic”, not “ignostic”.)
      The argument being made has nothing to do with the nature of the afterlife. Come up with whatever kind of afterlife you like, and the problem of entropy still applies. The only way to get around it is to wave your hands and say “physics is different in my afterlife.” Well, that’s easy enough to say, but such a claim needs to be demonstrated.

  5. Joe Rodgers says:

    This has got me to thinking about continental drift and the study of meteorites: both fields had correct theorists being ridiculed by the scientific establishment for their entire lifespans before being proven correct. Rocks do, in fact fall from the sky (a ridiculous proposition at the time) and continents do in fact change location relative to each other.

    I’m not at all sure about life after death, I don’t *need* to believe in such a thing, but as Carl Sagan famously said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. SETI is often ridiculed for being a complete waste of time and money, but I think it’s still an open question as to where the burden of proof lies. Looking at so much sky, full of so many planets, is it really such a stretch to imagine we might not be alone? 100 years ago, the burden of proof was clearly on those who claimed there are other minds out there. Now that we have so much better instruments, I think the burden of proof is on the other side. There’s just too much complexity out there for life to begin and end *here*.

    (the numbers shift a bit if you specify intelligent life, but I don’t think we’re smart enough to generalize about intelligence yet.)

    As to life after death: medicine keeps changing the definition of death. Used to be death was when breathing stopped. Then it was heartbeat. Then brainwaves. Now it seems even a flat EEG isn’t conclusive, people have still bounced back.

    The “evidence” that humans are made of dead Newtonian matter, mere clockwork, that’s point is far from settled as far as I’m concerned. I don’t need to be able to point to a place in the body in order to assert I have a soul. I think the burden of proof lies on those who claim I am just some kind of evolutionary robot.

    Garret Hardin once argued that even if we could accurately predict earthquakes, the political pressure would be so great that the ability would do us no good whatsoever. I think something similar might be at work with life after death: even if I thought I could change your mind into thinking there’s something after all this, I have no faith that it would make your life any more comfortable or your passing any less painful.

    It’s the sort of thing where being wrong might well be wonderful! But being right would have no consequence whatsoever.

    Now I’m imagining a story where someone dies, sees the pearly gates (or whatever) and has the option to describe what they see back to the living. But the next phase it so enticing, (and the newly dead are so ADD) that it seems a waste of time to even bother trying to telegraph back the new findings.

    Anyway, I think the state of the art today where life after death is concerned, is about where SETI research stood before the invention of the radio. For that matter, I don’t expect it to get any better until long after anyone living today is worm food.

  6. Cora says:

    I’m amazed that you didn’t jump on the guy who commented that cancer is caused by eating the wrong food. Cause I probably would have in your situation.

  7. Ed says:

    Thanks, Jay.
    Religion has a lot invested in death. The appeal of religion is largely due to it’s solution to the problem of mortality, so the practitioners don’t take kindly to anyone calling their claims into question.

  8. Ron says:

    Worlebird, ignostic is a different position from agnostic. I didn’t make it up. It’s part of a thought process called theological noncognitivism. Anyway, entropy is a big deal if you believe that anything that can exist must exist within this universe and must be subject to the laws of this universe. So, yeah, anyone who told you they believed heaven existed in a snowflake in Colorado would have to contend with entropy. But since there is no real limit to what the afterlife can be, there are no concrete arguments to be made in proving that it cannot exist. Again, I’m not saying it exists because you can’t prove that it doesn’t. I’m saying that it is illogical to humor people by getting caught up in these types of arguments. For example, if someone told you that in heaven no one ever has to sleep, would you argue against their vision of heaven by saying that it’s physically impossible for humans not to sleep? Of course not. It’s ridiculous to try and impose limits on someone’s fantasy. Which is why it’s ridiculous to say that physics or entropy disproves the existence of an eternal afterlife.

  9. Carmelo says:

    I think Joe Rodgers hit it on the head for me. That was so well said, Joe, I might have to steal it when I get into my next conversation about this topic.

  10. Stevie says:

    I have to say that I do get bored with the fact that so many people are incapable of dealing with the fact that the religiouyyn that they grew up with is an insufficient guide to all other religions. The Southern Baptists have around 16 million adherents; a tiny fraction of the worlds’ population adheres to their strange beliefs.
    As far as I know no competent scientist has ever written a paper in a peer reviewed journal demonstrating that entropy does what you say it does in the context of survival after death.
    If I’m wrong I would love to read the paper; perhaps you could put the link(s) up.

    Years ago I was blown away by the fact that we are stardust; I had a great deal of difficulty in wrapping my head around it. It seems profoundly counter-intuitive to believe that my very humdrum body is made up of things which first existed in a star.
    Frankly, everything after that seems a lot easier…

  11. homa_bird says:

    “The obstacle to discovery is the illusion of knowledge”. —inscribed on a building at OHSU medical research center…

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