Life After Death
One of the two questions which fascinates us is "whither and whence?;" where we came from and where we go from here. The latter part is of more practical importance than the former, since we've already been there and done that. In 1995, a very dear friend, at TPUUF proposed to do a program on life hereafter and asked me to present "the physicist's point-of-view." These are my edited comments (from a transcription); I wrote no original text. I also contributed a reading to the program: Peter H"eg's account of the funeral of the child Isaiah, in winter, from his 1992 novel Smila's Sense of Snow.
When D. began planning this program, she approached me. She said she was thinking of doing a program on the afterlife, on life after death. She asked me whether I would contribute the physicist's point of view. I think by that she meant the point of view that modern physics takes on the issue of the afterlife or life after death. I very cunningly said "Yes, I'd be happy to do that," not telling her that, of course, the talk would be extremely short.
What has been said about the afterlife is that those who talk about it, don't know anything about it. And those who do know, don't talk. So the entire text of my talk on what physicists know about the afterlife is on my little button here, which I sometimes wear to meetings:
(This is read as: "No data is identically equal to no data.")
But that would make too short a talk and I don't think it would stimulate a great deal of discussion. So I have elected to give another talk, that is a somewhat more personal observation on what a physicist thinks about the afterlife. I will, in fact, try to tell you what I do think about it, to answer a friend's challenge after he read CommonPlaces. He said "You know, you say one thing and you say another thing, but never really tell me what you believe." Now that reflects on a lot of the subjects that I write about and speak about; I am frequently of two minds. I will try to be of a single mind about this topic.
To talk about the afterlife, and about the thought that one's consciousness can persist and survive after the death of one's physical body, is really to ask some very serious questions: What is life itself? What is consciousness? This is perhaps the reason I am so skeptical about any statement of physicists about the afterlife because physics has been really almost incapable of telling us about the present life. That is to say, to explain, on a physical basis, what consciousness, that we all experience personally, actually is.
Now this is not for lack of trying. One of the common characteristics of late middle aged and early senile physicists is that, over the centuries, their interests have turned to issues of the afterlife and to detection of the human soul. There have been various experiments done, for instance, trying to weigh people as they are dying, to see if there is a change of weight at the moment that last breath is expired. The thought being, physicists being very fundamental about this, is that if the soul is real and exists, even if it is pure energy, it must have some equivalent mass or, we would say, weight. So, as the soul leaves the body, there must be some weight change. Of course there has not been any data. No data still equals no data.
Similarly, physicists have taken the disestablishmentarian view of saying, "Well, one way to prove that there is no afterlife, is to prove that all the spiritualists and the psychics and channelers and so on, are themselves, as Bob Grant might say, ·fakes, frauds and phonies.' "
There is an extensive literature on this subject. Houdini, the great illusionist, was extremely interested in proving the insubstantiality of psychics and spiritualists. In fact, he left instructions. He said "If it is possible for me to communicate from the other side, I'll do it on my birthday." Every year on his birthday (I forget the exact date) the true believers gather at the Houdini Museum (which I think is in Cincinnati) and there is a seance, waiting for Houdini to come back from the other side or to provide a message. As of now, either he has been busy that day*each year or he has found nothing interesting to say.
I want you to share an experiment with me for a moment. Close your eyes, mentally feel the surface of your body, which marks the division, the boundary, with the rest of the universe. What we think of as our consciousness resides within that boundary, although we can't really locate it. The ancients used to believe that the consciousness, the seat of the soul, was the heart, proven by the simple observation that when you cut out a man's heart, he died. Women died too, although the experiment was done mostly on male slaves.
Now that we are somewhat more sophisticated, we believe that the seat of consciousness resides in the brain. But, nevertheless, we still locate it within the body. Now if you think of the universe historically, it is fairly easy, for each of us individually, to divide its history into three eras. Most of us believe that the universe existed before our birth, that there was a physical reality and there were other people and that history and the fossils are not totally made up. So, that is the first era. Then there is the era of our consciousness that we are all sharing now, that has varying, different lengths for each of us since we are each born at different times and will surely die at different times. And then finally, although it is a somewhat more problematic issue, most of us believe that the universe will continue after our death. Although, there are some, like Madonna, who believes that when she dies, everything goes. But nevertheless, most of us accept that there probably will be a third era.
Now, if one were to believe in the afterlife, that is to say, in the idea that consciousness could exist independent of the corporeal body, you would have to accept that your consciousness is present in all three eras, because the brief time that you are going to be here on earth, in your corporeal body, is unlikely to have any lasting effect on the universe. The universe had a particular form and shape before you were born. It will have a particular form and shape after you are gone. And, except for the very extraordinary individual, none of us are going to leave more than a very faint, transient mark.
You can think of this a bit like the sea, at the shore. You can go down to the sea and see the waves coming up on the beach and think of the sea itself as that great body that represents all of our collective consciousness. Then you see the waves roll in and each wave separates, it rolls and it rises to a peak and it crests and it breaks and it perhaps leaves a brief mark on the sand. Then the water flows back into the sea.
The Japanese have a belief that the seventh wave in each set is higher. And that the seventh seventh, the 49th wave, is the highest of all, before the cycle starts again. Thus we can see, in human existence, there are occasional individuals (Einstein, Jesus, Gandhi, Hitler) who leave longer and more indelible marks. But even they will fade away in history.
We know now that human history is very long. It is much longer than has been written. We, each of us, have an individual knowledge typically, sometimes acquaintanceship, of the last three generations that preceded us. We know historically, with fairly good accuracy, about individuals who lived thirty generations before us. That takes us back perhaps to some 600-800 years ago. We can go back 100 generations, that is roughly to the time of Christ, and there is still knowledge of individuals. If we go back 300 generations, we are only left with a few of the largest artifacts, such as the Pyramids and mythological evidence of individuals.
Yet 300 generations is nothing in the history of the human race. Certainly 3,000, most probably 30,000, perhaps as many as 300,000 generations have passed during which we have, as a species, been virtually unchanged. We have been born. We have grown up. We have looked up at the moon and the stars and wondered why and wither and whence. And we have died. If we believe today that our consciousness came out of somewhere and will return to somewhere, then this has been happening over those 300,000 generations.
Thus, I am very skeptical of any claims of knowledge of past lives. They tend, to me, to be very fictionalized and to be characteristic of current literary and historical and cultural images. They very rarely conform to any even early historic, let alone prehistoric, evidence that we have about humankind.
The real issue, as I said earlier, is what we know and believe about consciousness itself. I think that this is a much more constructive matter to focus on. I think the simplest thing to say about it is that, not only has science so far told us very little about it, but science will probably never tell us anything important about it.
I remind you, in closing, of Smila's thoughts about the funeral. She starts out as a scientist observing that the coffin is hexagonal. That is the same shape that snowflakes take at some time in their existence. Now, science will tell us a great deal about snowflakes. It will tell us about the shape of the water molecule, and how the molecules associate, and they form hexagons. And how it is impossible to have two snowflakes that look the same. But science, I would argue, will never tell us why Smila can see the snow falling on Isaiah's coffin and think of it as a comforter, that will keep him warm forever.
There was a subsequent panel discussion, of which I recall very little. However, the question was raised, supposing that consciousness does persist, what would the experience of the afterlife be?
D. spoke movingly of various accounts of near death and out of body experiences, emphasizing the common features of many of these accounts.
I suggested that it was a good idea to recall that much of our present life experience depends upon receiving input from our various bodily senses: hearing sounds, tasting food, seeing the beautiful and the ugly, even feeling pain. Whatever else one could say about the afterlife, these sensations would be absent, since the physical body would be lost to death and decay. And, furthermore, much of what we occupy ourselves with, in this life, concerns maintenance and satisfaction of the needs (and desires!) of the body. How would we occupy ourselves when these demands were absent?
In closing, I suggested that perhaps, being bodiless and, presumably essentially weightless, we would have a need and desire to move to and fro in the universe at very high speed. Perhaps what we call neutrinos are spirits, souls in motion. Or perhaps angels?