Why Skepticism Is the Right Approach to the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia | Michael Shermer



Bear with us for a second, but do you know the Belinda Carlisle song “Heaven is a Place on Earth”? It’s actually scientifically accurate. American public intellectual Michael Shermer says that any idea of the afterlife makes zero sense: your mind and therefore your memories are beholden to your body and that any version of you that made it into heaven, should there actually be one, would just be a copy of you and unable to register that they were actually in heaven. Likewise, should you be able to scan your brain and “live forever” by being uploaded to a body in the future, it still wouldn’t be you, just a copy. Confused? The explanation makes more sense from the mouth of Shermer himself… writing the theory behind multiple you’s living in various timelines gets a little too Back to the Future… another sweet ’80s reference if we do say so ourselves.

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Michael Shermer: Well, Heavens on Earth was something of an extension of my previous books, I have not covered the afterlife in any kind of detail from my previous books on the paranormal, the supernatural, religion, God, morality—and so this was sort of a natural extension of “well if you’re skeptical of all these other things what about the afterlife?” and my standard one liner is: “I’m for it.”

But the fact that I’m for it doesn’t make it true, in fact if anything the more passionately we want something to be true the more skeptical we should be of our own beliefs because we know how powerful these cognitive biases are to lead us to want to find evidence for what we already want to be true.

So I really kind of went in search of just all the standard religious theories of the afterlife and heaven. I go through the big three monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and right there all of them have a history in the sense of all the different versions that there are of the afterlife and heaven and they’re quite different histories than say if you read a history of cosmology, which sort of shows a progression from the ancients through the scientific revolution, through the early modern period all the way up to today of us getting closer and closer to an understanding of the real nature of the cosmos.

But there’s nothing like that in religious histories of the afterlife, they’re all scattershot: this theory, this theory; there’s no sense of progress.

So that alone tells us that these are culturally determined, geographically located. like reincarnation, the belief that we come back in this world, our souls somehow migrate into other bodies: Why do they seem to hover all those souls in this subcontinent of India? There’s very few other places around the world where the souls seem to go. That’s an indication that these things are not real out there in the real world sense but real inside people’s heads as determined by their cultures.

But the core of Heavens on Earth really is the scientific search for the afterlife. And so this is what I do science writing and research and scientific areas, believe it or not this is no longer a fringe idea, this idea that we could live forever.

There are scientists today who say that the first person to live 1000 years is alive today. Okay I’m skeptical, but still these aren’t fringe nuts, these are billionaires like Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, the Google guys Larry and Sergey have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in this company Calico, Ray Kurzweil is their chief engineer who believes in the singularity. So this whole idea of radical life extension, cryonics, trans humanism, the singularity, “we’re going to upload our minds into a computer,” these form the core center of my book and why I’m skeptical, why really all of us should be skeptical.

Because first, although it’s not impossible that these researchers and scientists are wrong, it’s just very unlikely, because the problems of say duplicating your soul whatever that would be, in science that would be your pattern of information—your genome—and then the equivalent of that, your “connect-ome,” that is the tracings of all your memories everything that’s you, this is their theory, you copy it and you upload it into a computer.

Let’s say you have it backed up every night when you die, you just put it into a clone or inside a computer or something like that. That’s the idea. And I think the underestimation of the complexity of the problem is orders of magnitude off. We are not even close to doing anything like this. I mean Ray Kurzweil projects 2040 is the singularity and after that we might be able to live forever.

How is that going to happen, and who is the we? So then I have a chapter on “Who are we? Who are you? What does it mean to be you?”

40 Comments

  1. we are all just neural networks that cant plug into each other.
    we are just singular neurons trapped inside a skull working together.
    you would be no more connected to you uploaded self than you are to me.
    if you could plug into me we would be one and not two.
    if i could cut you in two and could keep both halves alive you would be two people

  2. How can we even talk about Utopia, without evoking the notion of Protopia, nowadays?
    (Protopia is a more complex notion, and it includes Utopia)

  3. I am not my brain. I am my whole body. If you were to put my brain into my body, that’s the only way to get “me”. I’m the thing that is born and that will die, and everything in between. Easy philosophy

  4. Ever notice how many of the “brilliant”, “genius” or “ground breaking” ideas put forward by the wealthy are taken directly from science fiction of the late 20th century (1950 to 2000). I guess they are counting on nobody calling them on their plagiarism.

  5. I agree that creating a copy of you would not work for prolonging your life, as who you are is your current consciousness projected by your brain. No brain = no you. However, if we could systematically replace tiny parts in a persons brain with it being completely unnoticeable to the host, and we do this until the brain is entirely replaced, is it a new consciousness, or is it the same consciousness with new parts projecting it?

  6. I think if there’s a possibility of immortality it’s just make more anxious in life you know. I’m gonna be more afraid of death, because I know it’s possible to live forever.

  7. “cognitive biases”? Oh man, what an unnecessary coupling of words. It’s almost as if he regurgitates whatever he reads in some vain attempt to sound like a erudite. He comes off as an idiot.

  8. I’ve never desired to live forever. I It’s horrific to think about.
    Congratulations to you Big Think , 2 million subscribers is no small feat. Good on you

  9. What’s funny to me is how it’s so commonly assumed that an afterlife would be a pleasant place to be. What if everyone ends up in eternal torture anyways simply because that’s the nature of the afterlife? And there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s just the way it is. Suddenly an afterlife doesn’t sound so appealing anymore.

  10. Thinking about what, if anything, one experiences after death seems like a waste of time considering everyone eventually learns the answer. There does seem to be a lot of wishful thinking regarding life after death, specifically regarding cosmic justice. People like to believe the guy who killed all those people in Vegas will have a different experience after death than his victims.

  11. The thing is, “you” are not just memories and experiences, “you” are also brain chemistry and architecture. I don’t see how uploading one’s memories into a computer would transfer “you.”

  12. Believe what u want i been shown cifferent experienced white light of Christ aa a child ..there is an.afterlife you will experience what u believe to be true when your soul body leaves the physical for its journey back to heaven..and meets with loved ones again..a white person he will see jesus as white a black person as black and so on..until the soul learns it heavenly lessons in tune with higher consciousness..he will remain.a.pupil..till he evolves to a State of energy of pure love ..we are not meant to know everything on.earth but the god force gives us glimpses of the afterlife through mediums spiritual leaders empaths…how lucky we are to share in.this peace till we cross never to be afraid of this cold word death it is merely a transition..to.another level of consciousness..reincarnation.is an embodiment of the soul.the light within us many.lives many extensions..not everyone reincarnates..or has to.some are old souls ..when the pupil is ready the teacher will appear..ive had many.medium teachers.Over years..we through free will chose our journeys as do we.exit points to other side..skeptics fear lack faith have no trust in hereafter..they have closed the door to miracles.in their minds.. nothing wrong with with.being a skeptic on.any matter ..when.your ready youll will be led to truth no matter what faith u are

  13. Plain and simple if consciousness does not survive after death there is no afterlife .Scientists are not sure what happens but there is certainty that consciousness is very much related to brain function

  14. To start with, one of the most narrow-viewed, stupid things that our civilization does (or Government, research financing institutions etc) is NOT to widely, deeply and boldly fund research subjects of unmatchable importance such as: 1) what happens after we die ?…do we go into “somewhere”? do we reincarnate? can we observe/ influence / advise living being from a remote out-of-the-physical-body location? do we continue as a “living energy” (everything is energy and the laws of physics support this) and what happens with it; or we just become dust-in-the-wind without carrying any history, remembrance and influence on the living? ….

    …..And is there any actual God and how IT manifests itself? The planet Earth is a very small piece of watery-rocky globe in a “small” Solar system that is one of BILLIONS others only in our Galaxy and there are BILLIONS OF GALAXIES… Is this potential God responsible only for this tiny grain of sand (Earth) in our Galaxy? From the unspeakable/ non-graspable real perspective of the extent of our Universe and the “micro-virus-size” of our Earth, are there many Gods spying other solar systems or galaxies? Do they fight and dispute? These result of these studies will certainly completely change humanity perspective of being in this world (alive) and his/her attitude/actions towards its fellow beings and life itself!

    Regarding the video, the most fundamentally important part of Mike’s presentation is in the beginning where he says” the more we passional want something to be true, the more skeptical we shld (actually MUST) be about our own beliefs”. This phrase taken in broad sense, encompasses the basis of all the troubles/ wars/ disputes / disgraces etc the humanity and each individual have been going thru since the beginning of time. Each one sees from his/her point of view sculpturally molded by culture, age, nation (“God Bless America!” ,,,,how more biased could we turn into being when there a billions of other exactly same flash and bone human hungry and suffering from all sorts of unjust causes?), social status, religion, sports teams, professional position, gender, skin-color etc etc.

    After almost 40 years living in 7 culturally different countries, dealing/visiting commercially and academically over 50 others and eagerly studying multi-disciplinary subjects (>350 days/year for over 30 years)…. including all religions, mind/mental sciences, cultures, habits, likes-dislikes, tastes, etc, I can skeptically detachedly state that …Mike’s first saying is the main reason why, at least for an unforeseen lengthy of time, there is NO way that we reach any sort of “Heaven on Earth”, NO widespread brotherhood, peace, understanding, tolerance and compassion. This on top of and magnified by overpopulation. Period! I

    In fact with the instant globally-connected world and with the rigged business-as-usual manipulative control of the top 1%, our civilization is sliding down the hill at ever faster pace. But with my studies, rational unbiased analysis and projections based on current trends in various fields I indeed think that within 10-15 years, with the technological advancements of medicine/genetics and alike, it will become ever “more difficult” to die of natural causes (or even from many accidents). We are going to live veryyy looong lives (maybe like Mathusalem).

    I also believe that within 15 and 30 years we will be capable resuscitate at least a recently dead body. Take now of my thoughts and question or praise me in the future. This if humans do not destroy the planet first.

    Lao

  15. I am more confident about winning the jackpot in the lottery 10x in a row than I am about an afterlife. We are biological computers, all our actions and thoughts are entirely determined by biology in our heads. It’s total shit but it’s just the truth, so unfortunate.

  16. No. No. No. Oh, my. Okay:

    You are looking in the wrong direction, and your concept of physical and non physical is based upon experience with something that is a purely physical/material condition.

    It is that which prevents you from looking out side you’re old college science ? the answers are not their. And what I just said probably sounds like a bunch of stupidity to everyone.

    Look deeper into physics especially
    Some of the newer sciences.

    But do keep on looking, the answers are their for any one.
    But this is like finding the key to a series of locked doors.
    Before you can get to the next door you must start where you are at and keep asking the right questions (keys)

    You are on a very long journey. sincerely, I have been there and done what you are doing. I have spent literally many many decades doing this myself.

    I will tell you this, the universe is so eternal in size and layered the human mind is incapable of holding a complete understanding.

    And a funny thing about this is you must “experience” this for your self.
    It is quite unlike reading a book ?
    And difficult to express some of the concepts in just reading.

    Buy the way, Utopia cannot exist in an immoral unethical uncaring culture (one of the reasons we are having so much trouble here).

    I am not special by any means, but I have looked into an abyss (knowledge) that is very real. Just don’t fall to far over the edge, it’s a hard climb backwards, to the rim.

  17. Present moment, only moment. Oops, it gone.. wait.. it’s back… ah shit it’s gone again…
    Those who cling to the idea of religion, afterlife and heaven will one day die. I wish you all could know at that point that you wasted your entire life of a lie, but you will just be dead, like the rest of us…. The electrical and chemical activity in your brain will stop, and you will cease to be alive. Except in the memories of those you touched. And that too, will fade. Unless you make a big impact on the world, like Julius Caesar, or Hannibal, or Jesus, and then you will live on, in our collective memory of the history of the human race, but over millenniums, even that too will fade away. Religion is a drug to make people comply, and follow that society’s norm. Might be good for society, but it’s still a lie.

  18. I know that Big Think probably has no control over the ads, but I have no place else to post this. A one-minute-long commercial with no “skip” button? Seriously? And why am I being shown an ad to help me quit smoking? I don’t even smoke. You’d think in the information age, ads would be tailored to the viewer.

  19. Yeah absolutely the “me” we identify with can’t transcend. However, that computer copy probably thinks it’s you. How do we know we’re not continually dying in the way we classically think of it? I mean we have memories of yesterday, but so what? As he says our memories are continually re-written, our cells re-placed. Could be that death is no big deal for YOU, apart from the fuss other people make of it because they won’t see you again.

  20. I think a sophisticated enough AI could create an adaptable utopia. Even if we get bored with living in a perfect life, an AI programmed to anticipate the needs of humanity might find a solution to that problem as well, such as controlled challenges tailored to each individual.

    Also, a computer version of me, if it’s an advanced enough system, could still be me. It would just be “another” me. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m going to die when all the molecules in my body are replaced with new molecules over time, or when I forget some detail about my life. It’s still a continuation of me. So I think a computer version of me would just be me continuing in two directions at once. It’s kind of Ship-of-Theseus-ish. Or, if I die and they put my mind into a new body, I could just think of it like getting an organ transplant, just all the organs at once… or like when Doctor Who regenerates. Same guy, new form. Or speaking of time travel, what if I went back in time and saw myself yesterday. I would have no difficulty deciding which one of us is the “real me,” because the answer would be both. Even if I altered something and created an alternate timeline, we’re still both the same person. We could become different people over time by having different experiences from that point forward, but I would change over time even if there were only one of me, so it doesn’t matter anyway. The point is that I’m okay with my definition of self being a little vague, because the self is vague.

  21. I don’t care what you can say, I still believe in my God. You don’t know it yet, we’ll know when we die.

  22. Where are all the Christians at, are they afraid to stand up for their God?! The one who brought them into this world, and can take them out. God is real amd while you can have your “skepticism” I’ll be here going to church, having strong faith, and going to heaven when I die. You all don’t know what will happen when we die, don’t try and say God isn’t real, I know he is and you’re not changing my beliefs.

  23. anything with “Why Skepticism Is the Right…..” in the title is automatically both wrong and deceptive, as you are not a skeptic but a hater.

  24. biblically speaking, we are indeed going to build earth into heaven until heaven and earth become one as current heaven and current earth die off. however this is not quite the way we’ll get to that point. faith is a prereq and we’ll just have to learn that the hard way if we dont want to learn the easy way

  25. My feeling is that skepticism has become the new religion… I’d question how many people who call themselves skeptic, atheist or agnostic based on their own analysis or from societal influence. The majority of religious people probably wouldn’t claim their religion to be definitively true, they claim to have faith. Faith isn’t even a choice, it’s not based on rational analysis or thought but is instead an instinctive feeling some have. Skeptics claim this to be caused by indoctrination from churches and parents however, whether this is true or not that faith still exists. This is why it’s rare you have anyone who is genuinely faithful (someone who actually believes not simply someone raised in a religious environment) completely leaving their religious past because having faith isn’t a choice it’s a default setting and that simple idea is something I believe skeptics and rationalists find very difficult to empathise and understand.

  26. The problem with both sides of this debate is lack of information. Neither the side that says there definitely is an afterlife and the side that say there isn’t will even be close to being able to coherently support their arguments until someone solves the “hard problem of consciousness”. We simply do not understand what consciousness actually is, so how can we say -beyond uninformed speculation- whether or not it continues after death? We should stop wasting breath on whether or not our own viewpoint on the matter is the right one and solve the underlying question; until that point is is ALL dogma.

  27. Bigoted thumbnail. Abrahamic “religions” are nothing but ambitious monotheistic Monopolistic Atheistphobic homophobic exclusionist expansionist prescriptive restrictive history centric dogmatic politico-military cults who want to capture polytheistic pagan heathen idolater infidel kaafir lands and resources. Bunch of soul harvesting thieves and liars.

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