Is There Life After Death? A Debate

No, there’s not. In order to believe otherwise, you would have to be willing to radically alter our fundamental understanding of physics on the basis of almost no evidence. Which I’m not willing to do. But others feel differently! So we’re going to have a debate about it tonight — to be live-streamed, see below.

death-debate

This is an Intelligence Squared debate, which is a series of Oxford-style formal debates that are held around the world, often with quite impressive participants. Four people, two on each side of a resolution. Seven-minute opening statements, round-table discussion, then two-minute closing statements. No slides or other visual aids; just bare-knuckle combat in the gladiatorial arena of ideas.

The resolution simply reads “Death Is Not Final,” and it will be affirmed by Eben Alexander and Raymond Moody, both of whom have written best-selling books along these lines. Alexander, in particular, is a neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience and now claims to have proof of the existence of Heaven. (For a skeptical take on Alexander, see this Esquire profile.) I’ll be negating the resolution, along with my partner Steven Novella. Steve is a practicing neuroscientist who is also active in the skeptic movement, blogging at Neurologica and leading the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast.

Festivities begin at 6:45pm Eastern Time. It will be broadcast on various NPR stations around the US, but you should also be able to see it live-streamed right here:

If you can’t catch the live-stream but still want to watch, I presume it will go on YouTube eventually, but I don’t know for sure.

To get a feeling for how an Intelligence Squared debate goes, you might check out Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens persuading a large group of people that the Catholic Church has harmed the world.

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92 Responses to Is There Life After Death? A Debate

  1. Ben Goren says:

    Well, to be fair…the idea of life after death won’t die. Does that count?

    Oh, how I wish people would realize that wanting something doesn’t magically make it happen….

    b&

  2. pepitoGrillo says:

    It has always surprised to me that being a scientist you make such a definitive statement about life after death.

    I would have expected something more like: “there is no current evidence to support the existence of life after death, and therefore I do not believe in it”.

    However you directly claim that there is not life after death. It seems to me that our understanding of the cosmos is yet very limited… who knows what will be the scenario in 1000 years if humans are still around.

    Also there are these simulation theories that claim that we could be living inside a computer… I guess that scenario could make somehow compatible the idea of life after death with our current understanding of physics (may be they stop the system and make back ups of us from time to time hehe). Of course, as far as I know, there is no scientific evidence that supports this kind of theories and therefore I share your opinion concerning life after death… but still I cannot claim that “there is not life after death”, because if new scientific evidence arrives in the future, I may have to change my opinion.

  3. Ben Goren says:

    pepitoGrillo, there is always at least some form of uncertainty in any scientific statement. Specifically, you can always construct some sort of conspiracy theory that’s consistent with any alternative explanation you may care to offer. You mention one: that we could be in a computer simulation. Or we could be brains in vats, or our tinfoil hats have slipped and the aliens are controlling our thoughts with their mind rays, or we’re just part of Alice’s Red King’s dream, or whatever.

    In practice, when all you’ve got left is paranoid conspiracy theories, the practical solution is to not bother with them. Yes, we may be somehow deluded and the Sun really doesn’t rise in the east, and apples don’t fall from trees at about 10 m/s/s, and so on. But there’s no point in wasting time on those sorts of possibilities outside of philosophical discussions such as these, so the sane and rational person will just cut to the chase and express absolute certainty.

    There are no faeries at the bottom of the garden; the gods are just characters in childish storybooks; and, when you die, that’s the end of your consciousness and your body rots. Period, full stop, end of story.

    Besides, that’s not what the other side is arguing in this debate. They’re arguing that the faery tales really are true, and the pumpkin will turn back into a prince and sweep the little girl back to Never-Never Land where everybody will live happily ever after. They’re not arguing for any type of computer simulation or the like; only for old-school fantasies.

    Cheers,

    b&

  4. Roman Maciejko says:

    If Jesus rose from the dead (according to trustworthy witnesses), if Jesus accomplished the miracles attributed to him (as reported by Flavius-Joseph), if genuine mystics had encounters with saints and experienced «supernatural» states, if people are healed in Lourdes as they have been repeatedly (which led to the conversion of Alexis Carrel, a physician who got the Nobel prize in medicine), it points to the fact that maybe our science is thin indeed and needs to open up to the spiritual dimension. (By the way, I am a physicist, with a respectable lifelong career. I am not naive to the point to believe that those few sentences will not be met with an incredulous frozen stare!)

    My answer to Hitchens and acolytes attacking the Catholic Church is to protest against their narrow-mindedness, their bigotry, their blatant misuse of the little history they know, their distortions of facts in order to push down our throats the secular, materialistic, nihilistic pseudo-culture that presently invades our world. The Catholic Church is composed of humans with their flaws and has been around for over two thousand years so that its records is not impeccable but find any institution that has done as much good as it has! It created the university, the hospital; it was a patron of the arts, etc… It is the largest charitable organisation worldwide! Find one impeccable institution and become a member quickly!

  5. Ida Spaulding says:

    NO! There is no life after death. Thank god for that.

  6. Dan says:

    You’re attacking critics of the Catholic church for “their narrow-mindedness, their bigotry, their blatant misuse of the little history they know, their distortions of facts?” Pot, meet kettle.

    As for claims of near-death experiences, why do none of these people ever claim that the afterlife is full of nothing but cheeky leprechauns and prancing unicorns? Or that the supreme leader of this utopia is none other than the Great Pumpkin of “Peanuts” fame? Or more telling, why do they never claim that we spend eternity in complete isolation and suffering unimaginable tortures? Why do they always claim the afterlife is pure bliss which (to the surprise of absolutely nobody) bears a striking resemblance to the description given by their chosen religion?

    Human beings believe in an afterlife because they can. Period.

  7. Ben Goren says:

    Roman, I’m afraid you’re sadly misinformed.

    This is hardly the place for such a discussion, but the short and sweet of it is that Judaea in the first half of the first century is remarkably well documented, especially by the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, the Roman satirists, and many others; and not a single one noticed even the slightest hint of a whiff of Jesus or any of the spectacular events of the Gospels. Josephus, whom you cite, wasn’t even born until years after the latest possible date of the Crucifixion, and the passage you cite is a well-known forgery by Eusebius. The earliest Christians, especially Justin Martyr, defended their faith by cataloguing all the Pagan demigods from which Jesus was constructed, and the earliest Pagan mentions of Christianity unanimously dismiss it as a lunatic fringe nutjob cult the same way we today dismiss the Raelians and the Branch Davidians. And the “miracle cures” at Lourdes and elsewhere have never involved anything such as limb regrowth that would be incontrovertible; rather, they’re the exact same types of “miracles” as snake oil salesmen have cited for as long as there’s been a profit to be had from the gullible.

    The Church’s flaws are legion and far more horrific than can be explained by mere mortals going astray, and are in profoundly violent opposition to its hubristic claims as the ultimate source of moral authority. It is the Church that led the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquistadors, and which continues, to this very day, to shelter serial child rapists. Sure, it’s got a charity operation — but so does Hamas and Sinn Fein. There are institutions more evil than the Church, but not many.

    Cheers,

    b&

  8. Platohagel says:

    Does believing in Life After Death, have a Judgement toward people knowing what you do? I do look forward to the debate.

    Science Deals with the Intangible- http://www.eskesthai.com/2012/10/science-deals-with-untangible.html

    I am curious if you(Sean) are debating Eben or if you should actually be debating Raymond. It just seems the pairing of Neuroscientists would be more appropriate? Anybody have an opinion there?

  9. TrustworthyWitness says:

    Life after death? Seriously?

    First of all, how do you define “life”?

  10. Platohagel says:

    Does believing in Life After Death, have a Judgement toward people knowing what you do? I do look forward to the debate.

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=EBoDsykLB2s

    I might question the relevance of the link regarding religion under the idea of the example of the debate to surmise similarity, so as to conclude, that a Judgement may be given from a a prior position about where such a debate belongs? In this aspect, The question that comes to mind on how civilization may be assigned that if judgement is assumed then civilization may be cast in this a prior view, before the elements of science are assigned as a basis. That the approach for the lay public outlays the procedure to how scientists deal with belief, as if it is Judgement?

    It is as if given then that by intuition alone I might have seen a A-prior example here of the call for reason to be used, while being undercut by making Judgements in advance? In this way, I might might have given two examples where belief is used and reference by illustrating, one called intuition and two, that a scientist can believe something and make judgement without having a reason?

  11. Roman Maciejko says:

    Sorry to have created a stir of dislike and come back on line. It was to be expected. Still the old replay of venom against the Church! Just a few comments if I may. My point is that the supernatural exists and hence there is life after death. Pierre De Ruder was cured at Lourdes on April 7, 1875. Three (3) cm of bone were spontaneously regenerated. There is just not enough free phosphorus in the human body for that. Explain! The bone is still on display at Lourdes. Sorry Ben Goren. As far as lunatics go, here is what Gaius Plinius wrote to the Emperor Trajan (53-117 A.D.) to get the go ahead for persecuting Christians: «the sum total of their error or misjudgment, had been coming to a meeting on a given day before dawn, and singing responsively a hymn to Christ as to God, swearing with a holy oath not to commit any crime, never to steal or commit robbery, commit adultery, fail a sworn agreement or refuse to return a sum left in trust.». Granted, not every Catholic followed that example. For historical distortions on Crusades, Inquisition, etc, I have 3 references to offer (alas in French): J. Dumont, «L’Eglise au risque de l’histoire», J. Sévillia «Historiquement correct» and «Historiquement incorrect». There must be some equivalent in English. As saint Augustine once said, beyond a certain point, it is not worth arguing. I leave the debate to the safe intellectual ground and shut up.

  12. Matthew Greene says:

    I just want to let everyone know that the audio version of the debate will be up within a day or two of the event as a podcast:

    http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_detail.php?siteId=7457039

    I can’t wait to hear this one!

  13. Void Walker says:

    http://infidels.org/library/modern/keith_augustine/HNDEs.html This is a very in depth exploration of the issue. For my money, NDE’s are easily defeated. I’ve actually had one, and while the visions I saw were grand and other worldly, I also noted a number of discrepancies. I thought that, during the outset of my “journey”, my uncle was laying by me and reassuring me that all would be fine. He was never there. I thought that I was laying on a couch, as our neighbor (a Doctor) examined me. He wasn’t. I was actually in a hospital, and there were 3 nurses, two doctors treating me.

    NDE’s quickly collapse under a lens of scrutiny.

  14. Tom Nowitzky says:

    “Actually, lots of things happen after you die — just none of them include you.” –Louis CK

  15. John says:

    Most likely no if we believe in physicalism. But until we can explain consciousness scientifically, we simply don’t know.

  16. Ben Goren says:

    John, we don’t need a thorough explanation of consciousness to be able to put bounds on possible explanations. For example, we don’t yet know what dark energy is, but we can be certain that it has nothing to do with Yoda squinting really hard with his hand upraised.

    In the case of consciousness, we know that it’s entirely a physical phenomenon of the brain; the laws of physics and countless studies preclude any other option. Indeed, we’ve had quite compelling evidence that such is the case ever since the invention of beer lo these countless millennia ago….

    Cheers,

    b&

  17. James Cross says:

    Ben,

    Is science (meaning the knowledge of science) entirely a physical phenomenon of the brain?

  18. Luiz Claudio Weiss says:

    The idea of life after death is without a doubt the most nonsensical idea ever to come out of the human mind in my opinion. Of course, its not all that difficult to find out the roots of such a quaint idea: the sheer fear of death our race has had since the dawn of mankind. I think it was about time this myth was put to rest once and for all , and we as a race shoud do our best efforts to make THIS life, which is the only one we have, very much worth living.

  19. Ben Goren says:

    James, I’m not sure that your question even makes sense. “Science” has many definitions, from a process to a body of knowledge to a set of observations and others. The parts that take place in human minds are phenomena of brains, but there’s a lot more to science — or any human endeavor, for that matter — than just people thinking about things.

    Cheers,

    b&

  20. James Cross says:

    Ben,

    I thought I was clear I meant the body of knowledge of science. But we could also include scientists thinking about science or doing science.

    Is it possible there might be more to consciousness than “entirely a physical phenomenon of the brain” just as there might be with science?

  21. Ben Goren says:

    James, I think you’re confusing some very different phenomena.

    The “body of knowledge of science” is overwhelmingly encoded in journal articles and the like. No single person knows more than a small fraction of the whole. Sean may know (almost) everything there’s currently worth knowing about cosmology and quantum field theory, but Jerry Coyne forgets more about evolutionary biology before breakfast every morning than Sean ever learned — and vice-versa, to be sure!

    If you want to draw a similar parallel, any collaborative intellectual endeavor will be similarly expansive to whatever scale is applicable.

    But if you’re trying to suggest that the “something more” involves cognition or other computation that’s not done in brains or computers or equivalent devices, then you’re stepping off the deep end.

    b&

  22. James Cross says:

    If I had an NDE and encoded it in a painting would that make the NDE more than physical.

    Science may be done by more than one brain. It may have representations outside of the brain. Scientists may use apparatus outside of the brain. Even those representations and apparatus are physical.

    It is still in the brain and entirely physical.

    If you want to claim it is not physical, then what is it? Supernatural?

  23. James Cross says:

    My point is that saying “consciousness is entirely a physical phenomenon of the brain” is meaningless drivel. It doesn’t explain anything significant about consciousness.

    Face it, if you are really a materialist, everything is a physical phenomenon. That would have to include everything related to science too.

    Yet you seem to bristle when “entirely a physical phenomenon” is thrown at science but you toss it around casually at consciousness and think it explains something.

  24. Ben Goren says:

    James, I’m not bristling at accusations of materialism. I’m pointing out that your conflation of science and consciousness is barely even grammatically correct, let alone semantically coherent.

    To be clear: consciousness is something that happens within a single brain. (This may change in the future with technological advances.) Science is many things, none of which is reasonably analogous to consciousness unless you want to stretch metaphors beyond the breaking point. And, at least as far as us humans are concerned, at the bottom of it all is just up and down quarks, electrons, and photons interacting via gravity and the electroweak force. (Expand it past human-scale phenomena and you get some more exotic physics, Sean’s specialty, but not relevant to the topic at hand.)

    Cheers,

    b&