Sunday, June 05, 2011

Adam Frank, Alva Noe, and Marcelo Gleiser on Agnosticism, Consciousness, and Life After Death

We begin with a post from Adam Frank at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog on issues around consciousness after death. He argues that we cannot know without direct experiments what happens after death, which makes agnosticism the only reasonable option.

Alva Noe, on the other hand, is not so willing to concede to agnosticism on such issues - he believes it is the responsibility of those holding the beliefs to offer a reasonable foundation for such beliefs.

Frank's original article is up first, followed by a response from Noe, and then another post from Frank. And finally, Marcelo Gleiser offers a research based perspective.

We have had a wonderful discussion today on the limits of consciousness and what does, or does not, continue at the end of biological functioning. Here are a few worthy quotes from the comments:

"Assuming there's no alternate plane of existence and near death experiences are hallucinations produced by the brain, wouldn't our afterlife be the mark we leave on this earth?"

"I do ponder, though, that as we incorporate new matter over our lives, we DO become different beings—our "I-ness" changes over time."

"There are millions of anecdotal NDEs (Near Death Experiences) with folks who were dead and have a similar story of a tunnel of light etc. Hawking and likeminded people will say this is the brain shutting down based on lack of oxygen etc. Maybe but maybe not."

"From a naturalistic perspective, there's no evidence for an immaterial self or soul with one's memories and personality that persists after death. But there's also no reason to suppose that death is the onset of darkness, emptiness or nothingness"

For myself I remain fully and firmly agnostic on the question. If ever there was a place where firm convictions seem misplaced this is it. There simply is no controlled, experimental verifiable information to support either the "you rot" vs. "you go on" positions.

In the absence of said information we are all free to believe as we like but, I would argue, it behooves us to remember that truly "public" knowledge on the subject - the kind science exemplifies - remains in short supply.

Perhaps after Iris Dement's song we should let Shakespeare's Prospero take us out...

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

And so here is Alva Noe's response to this post.

And finally, here is Frank's response to Noe.

What is the relationship between matter and mind? On the one hand we have matter. Good old solid matter: dirt, stuff, Goop. It appears to be the foundation of everything we experience. On the other hand we have mind. I really don't know anything first hand about your mind but I have a pretty intimate experience of my own. Since you seem to behave in ways that I recognize I infer that you have a mind pretty much like my own. So there is matter and there is mind and for the last 2,500 years or so we have been trying to figure out the relationship between them.

Last week we had a series of posts on "life after death" prompted by physicist Stephen Hawking's comments on the topic. My first take on the subject was to put up Monty Python's brilliant routine where an erstwhile talk-show host interviews three dead people on the topic (getting no response from the corpses he concludes the answer is "No"). Later I admitted to being agnostic on the subjects believing that there was really no data to support conclusions one way or the other.

My co-blogger Alva Noe, no slouch in philosophical discussions of mind and matter, took the opposite position claiming that the very concept of testing such a proposition makes no sense. In Alva's view we don't have a handle on the appropriate background against which to frame the question. As he put it:

People can say whatever they like about what they believe. But until a background is in place that gives sense to the proposal, I doubt that it is even possible to believe such a thesis.

Alva wasn't the only person to disagree with my position. Over at Cosmic Variance, the always-lucid Sean Carroll argued that my stance was tantamount to making claims of new physics. He says everything about the basic laws of physics is known. Thus being agnostic on the issue is a claim that there is something more occurring in the world than our current understanding of quantum field theory.

As I am writing this over a terrible hotel continental breakfast in the midst of traveling (Washington, D.C.), I am not in much of a position to respond to these objections with the clarity they deserve. I will, however, take a first stab at it.

First let me be clear about my position. I am not agnostic about the existence of a human soul. The idea of an eternal, non-material essence to our personal identities that, as Sean puts it, "drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV" makes as little sense to me as it does to him. What I am agnostic about is the relationship between mind and matter. The real question here is about the nature of consciousness, and in that regard I am willing to consider that both Alva and Sean are right.

(1). We do not have to have a grasp of the background lying behind our current formulations of the problem to assume answers to that problem.

(2.) The problem of consciousness does not reduce to the standard model of particle physics.

It is at this point that we should begin what I consider to be the most fascinating question in all of philosophy and modern science: what is the nature of consciousness?

That means opening up issues like reductionism and emergence, bringing up writers like David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel and others and, of course, raising the every vexing issue of qualia (we also point to Alva's wonderful writing on the subject). In this blog we have had discussion on the subject before including proposals by Stu and Ursula.

For today I am going to leave the door to that discussion closed until another time. I am, however, going to end this post with the belief that stands at the base of my agnosticism concerning what happens after the end of biological functioning.

I don't think we are close to understanding consciousness.

More importantly, I don't think we are close to understanding phenomena of subjectivity. The act being is what we really don't have a hold on. The vividness with which I, and only I, experience my subjectivity remains a profound and delicious mystery for science, philosophy and all aspects of culture to explore. While there has been wonderful and extraordinary progress in neurosciences, the so-called hard problem of consciousness (a la David Chalmers) remains just as hard as ever.

Thus we are just at the beginning of developing a true "working" theory of consciousness. Like the progress of mechanics, I suspect it is going to take us a while to even figure out how to ask questions correctly — particularly given our inability to conceive of explorations of subjectivity from the inside.

So, to be clear, I am not agnostic because I hope that my soul will ascend to Science Heaven, where I could spend eternity learning more about thermodynamics and quantum information theory (and where Firefly ran for 100 seasons). I am not agnostic because I hope souls exist. I doubt they do. I am agnostic about what happens after biological functioning because neither I, nor anyone else, understands consciousness and its fundamental relation to biology, chemistry and physics.

There are lots of great ideas for sure. But a theory of consciousness? A theory of subjectivity?

Not yet. Not by a long shot.

And just to add one other perspective to the mix, here is theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser offers his views on this.
We may wish for our souls to paddle on after the sun sets on our physical lives, but the evidence says we should focus on living in the here-and-now.

We may wish for our souls to paddle on after the sun sets on our physical lives, but the evidence says we should focus on living in the here-and-now.

Since my co-blogger Adam Frank posted yesterday that hilarious Monty Python video examining whether there is life after death, and Mark Memmott of The Two-Way blog wrote Monday on Hawking's pronouncements on the same topic quoting me, I couldn't resist contributing to this valuable debate with a few remarks on life-after-death experiments.

I quote from my book A Tear at the Edge of Creation, where I described both my teenage fantasy of measuring the weight of the soul and a "serious" attempt from early in the twentieth century that got a lot of press at the time:

Reading Frankenstein as a teenager incited even more my fantasy of becoming a Victorian natural philosopher lost in the late twentieth century. When I joined the physics department at the Catholic University at Rio in 1979, I was the perfect incarnation of the Romantic scientist, beard, pipe and all. I remember, to my embarrassment, my experiment to "investigate the existence of the soul." If there was a soul, I reasoned, it had to have some sort of electromagnetic nature so as to be able to animate the brain. Well, what if I convinced a medical facility to let me surround a dying patient with instruments capable of measuring electromagnetic activity, voltmeters, magnetometers, etc.? Would I be able to detect the cessation of life's imbalance, the arrival of death's final equilibrium? Of course, the instruments had to be extremely sensitive so as to capture any minute change right at the moment of death. Also, for good measure, the dying patient should be on a very accurate scale, in case the soul had some weight. I remember explaining my idea to a professor [...] I can't remember exactly what he said, but I do remember his expression of muted incredulity.

Of course, I was only half serious in my excursion into "experimental theology." But my crackpot Victorian half, I am happy to say, had at least one predecessor. In 1907, Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts, conducted a series of experiments to weigh the soul. Although his methodology was highly suspicious, his results were quoted in The New York Times: "Soul has weight, physician thinks," read the headline. The weight came out at three quarters of an ounce (21.3 grams), albeit there were variations among the good doctor's handful of dying patients. For his control group, MacDougall weighed fifteen dying dogs and showed that there was no weight loss at the moment of death. The result did not surprise him. After all, only humans had souls.

Those interested in more details of this and other stories, should read Mary Roach's hilarious and informative Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and consult this site. Dr. MacDougall's measurements inspired the 2003 Hollywood hit movie 21 Grams, which featured Sean Penn playing the role of an ailing mathematician.

Back to Hawking, I must agree with him. Although from a strictly scientific viewpoint we haven't proven that there is no life after death, everything that we know about how nature works indicates that life is an emergent biochemical phenomenon that has a beginning and an end. From a scientific perspective, life after death doesn't make sense: there is life, a state when an organism is actively interacting with its environment, and there is death, when this interaction becomes passive. (Even viruses can only truly be considered alive when inside a host cell. But that's really not what we are taking about here, which is human life after death.) We may hope for more, and it's quite understandably that many of us would, but our focus should be on the here and now, not on the beyond. It's what we do while we are alive that matters. Beyond life there is only memories for those who remain.

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