CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


When Diana was 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 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 don’t talk, know. 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, which says:

“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 Jerry’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 that about a lot of the subjects that I write about and speak about, I am of two minds. I will try to be of a single mind about this issue.

To talk about the afterlife and about the thought that one’s consciousness can succeed and survive after the death of one’s physical body, is really to ask a very serious question about what life itself is? What consciousness is? This is perhaps the reason I am so skeptical about the statement of physics about the afterlife because physics has been really, almost incapable of telling us about the present life. That is to say, what the event of consciousness, that we all experience personally, actually is.

Now this is not for lack of trying. One of the characteristics of the 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 made, 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, that if the soul is real and exists, even if it is pure energy, it must have some equivalent mass. So, as it 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 other disestablishmentarian view of saying “Well, one of the ways to prove that there is no afterlife, is to prove the all the spiritualists and the psychics and channelers and so on, that Diana has referred to, are themselves, as Bob Grant would say, ‘fakes, frauds and phonies.’ ” And there has been extensive literature on the subject. Houdini, in particular, was extremely interested in this. The great illusionist was extremely interested in proving the insubstantiality of the psychics and channelers and so on. 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 and to provide a message. As of now, either he has been busy that day 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, by the simple expedient that when you cut out a man’s heart, he died. Woman too, although they did it mostly on male slaves.

Now we are somewhat more sophisticated, we believe that the seat of consciousness resides in the brain. But, never the less, we still locate it within the body. Now if you think of the universe historically, it is fairly easy, each of us individually, to divide it into three eras. Most of us believe, and I share that Jerry, 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 never the less, we will accept that there is probably 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 was 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 were born. And except for the very exceptional individual, none of us are going to leave more than a very faint, transient mark.

You can think of it 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 represent all of our collective consciousnesses. 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 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, Mahatma 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 to roughly 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 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, that has been happening over those 300,000 generations.

Thus, I am very skeptical of any of these knowledges 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, is what we know and believe about consciousness itself. I think that is a much more constructive matter to focus on. I think the simplest thing to say about it is that, not only has science told us very little about it, but science will probably never tell us anything about it.

I remind you, in closing, of Smila’s remarks about the funeral. She starts out as a scientist observing that the coffin is hexagonal. That is the shape that snowflakes take at some time in there 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 Isiah’s coffin and think of it as a comforter, that will keep him warm forever.