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. pepitoGrillo says:

    Woah, I got so many downvotes in my previous comment haha. Luckily we do not live in the middle age, otherwise I would have been burned alive because I said we do not know enough!

    I know the story…. we have a very good model with the standard model and there is no particle that could transport the information of your brain to somewhere else after you die.

    But I guess you guys can guaranty with a 100% of confidence that in the future nobody will find evidence that contradicts or add new facts to the current knowledge that may enable life after death. Or that the evidence is in there but it is too complex for us to understand. I am afraid, that this is not science, it is just arrogance.

    BTW, my personal prediction is that in the future, scientists will conclude that the question “is there life after death?” has no sense. First the question has to be defined better:

    “Will I keep existing after I have died?”
    Future, Exist, I, Death… we do not have yet good definitions for this terms (complex systems, information theory, thermodynamics, entropy, arrow of time, blablabla), and therefore hardly could we answer the question.

    Peace a love my friends. Downvotes, come to me.

  2. Ben Goren says:

    But I guess you guys can guaranty with a 100% of confidence that in the future nobody will find evidence that contradicts or add new facts to the current knowledge that may enable life after death. Or that the evidence is in there but it is too complex for us to understand.

    pepitoGrillo, that’s just not how science works.

    Originally, it was thought that planetary orbits were circular. And, indeed, to a first approximation, that’s exactly the case. But, once measurements were refined, we figured out that they aren’t actually circles, though they’re pretty close. Newton was able to figure out that they’re ellipses with the mutual center of gravity at one locus. But even Newton didn’t quite have it right; Mercury’s orbit had a precession to it that didn’t fit Newton’s predictions. Einstein, however, was able to figure out that it’s space itself that curves. But we already know that Einstein didn’t have the whole picture, because his mechanics can’t be resolved with Quantum Mechanics — and Sean’s day job is trying to reconcile the two.

    But you’ll note that each step is only a refinement on the earlier one, and that all the earlier steps remain perfectly valid at the resolutions for which they were originally formulated. That is, Einstein didn’t discover that planetary orbits are really triangles; he just added a bit more precision to the predictions from before. And purely circular orbits plus real-time course tweaks are probably all that NASA needs for many of its missions.

    Similarly, though we fully expect to discover all sorts of new and exciting physics, we can be overwhelmingly confident that it will be “merely” a refinement on what we already know. What you’re proposing instead is that maybe, just maybe, the planetary orbits really are triangles after all.

    Sean has written quite eloquently on the subject. Be sure to read this article if nothing else:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/

    Cheers,

    b&

  3. Jean-François Brouillet says:

    The soul is composed of dark matter!!! 😛 😛

  4. Pingback: WATCH LIVE NOW: 4 Scientists Debate Whether Death Is Final. (With Sean Carroll and Steve Novella on the Skeptical Side)

  5. Gary Gillett says:

    LOVE it when you start out by saying ‘No, there’s not.’ Nothing like one who relies on the simplistic ideals of “science”, rather than allowing that the SUBATOMIC world does not go by basic physics, but rather rules all their own. Einstein made this same assumption, which kept him from discovering the Grand Unifying Principle he was so desperately seeking. Keep doubting and wear your blinders, proudly. If you ever HAVE an NDE you’ll see how myopic this notion, is. Good luck on your journey! ~Gary G. http://www.metaliving.org author of various metaphysical books, including the upcoming “This Boy is About to Die: The Life, Death, and Life of Gary”.

  6. Pingback: Big debate on the afterlife going on NOW « Why Evolution Is True

  7. pepitoGrillo says:

    Dear Ben,

    Before that part of history that you mention, people used to believe, due to the observations, that the sun orbited the earth. And today the scenario is quite different.

    Also, many scientist thought that the fate of the universe would be “the big crunch”. I bet many of those guys would have told the same thing you just told me, if a couple of decades ago I would have mentioned that maybe it existed a crazy dark matter that we cannot see and that keeps accelerating the expansion of the universe.

    And I bet there are many examples of things that scientists used to believe as if they were tautologies and then I turned to be wrong.

    I would even accept that someone argues that he is 99% sure that there is no life after death. But IMHO no scientist can accept a 100% confidence in ANY affirmation outside of pure mathematics, and especially in a topic like this one, that involves so many things that we do not understand.

  8. James Gallagher says:

    Sean, that (7min talk) was fantastic, already won the debate for me

  9. Gary says:

    I’m disappointed that the decades of work on NDEs by British researcher Susan Blackmore wasn’t referenced.

  10. Mark W. says:

    Eben Alexander claimed that Carl Sagan, in “The Demon-Haunted World”, indicated belief (i.e. acceptance of the claim as fact) in children with past-life knowledge, but his claim is false.

    “There are three claims in the [parapsychology] field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study,” the third of which was “that young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”

    Saying it “deserve[s] serious study” does NOT indicate acceptance of that belief.

  11. Lowonprozac says:

    Great debate. The right side won, and wonderful closing statement Mr. Carroll.

  12. James Gallagher says:

    Gary

    maybe because she’s barely qualified to publish in that area.

  13. Tony Fiorini says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the debate. It was even fun to watch. Thanks, Sean and the rest of the panel.

  14. Vaal says:

    Well as expected, Sean and company crushed ’em.

    It was the scientific mindset vs those who seem to have forgotten everything science has taught us, both in terms of knowledge and method.

    Sean’s opening statement was perfection.

    (And I don’t reflexively say that; I’ve seen plenty of atheists/naturalists flub their debates. Sean is batting 1000 IMO).

    Vaal

  15. Dan says:

    Raymond Moody isn’t very convincing for a man who’s studied this issue for more than 40 years. I was vaguely familiar with Eben Alexander’s story and was looking forward to hearing his explanation, but I found it even more wanting than Moody’s. I wasn’t likely to be convinced anyway, but I’m always open to learning something new. That didn’t happen, but it was still an entertaining debate and well worth watching.

  16. Vaal says:

    Yes, I was fairly flabbergasted at just how weak Moody’s presentation was, given his purported years of expertise on the subject. It was like “I had a friend who had this experience…”

    And then vague “Maybe there IS another realm…”

    Vaal

  17. Robert Dee says:

    energy cannt be created or destroyed…in one form or another it continues on. it is the height of human ignorance to assume we understand life, or the essence of life, if we can’t even model it in a simulation using the physical laws we presume to understand. our understanding of the complexity of life and origin of consciousness is very limited, especially considering that grey matter neurons are poorly understood, and our lack of knowledge on where memories are actually stored and recalled. we’ve only scratched the surface…far from any conclusions.

    there is also the theory of infinite universe (multiverse) with infinite worlds with very high probability of parallel identical, or close to identical, worlds…if the theory is somehow scientifically supported and true.
    
    heard the flame explanation for energy argument, and it was a horrible explanation…the flame going out is not energy ceasing to exist. the flame is part of the process of energy transformation from wood to heat. the flames energy still continues to exists, just like em waves continue to travel through space to the ends of universe, passing some of that energy through interference. events have a start and end. energy forms have a start and end, but the energy still continues to exist.

    honestly I would have been a better debater using the unknowns of science alone not to prove afterlife but to prove that absolute subjective conclusions are not scientific while knowing what remains unknown.

  18. Nick says:

    The full Sagan quote that Eben Whatever bastardized (aka quote-mined) can be found toward the end of the chapter, “The marriage of scepticism and wonder” (p 285 in the copy I am referencing, NOT p302 as he stated so unequivocally).
    It is followed by the disclaimer, “I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t) but as examples of contentions that might be true.”

  19. James Gallagher says:

    It was too easy for the scientific side of the debate.

    That’s cool, but in some, uncool way, it’s not so cool

  20. paul kramarchyk says:

    Stop. Would you debate some crank that claims a donkey whispered all of William Shakespeare’s plays to him in Stratford barn? Yes/No? If yes, good luck. I’ve got to move on to other fora for interesting commentary on SCIENCE. If no, than why are you lending the dignity of your presence to such nonsense? You owe me, and people like me, an explanation as to why you believe these kind of events are somehow useful?

    Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate group committed mass suicide in the belief that an UFO (hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp) would take their “souls” to another level of existence. Would you debate someone who claims, “You can’t prove their souls are not happily cavorting somewhere beyond our feeble means of perception. —- See how ridiculous this gets? Some people will believe anything. That does not mean rational adults owe them an argument to the contrary. Frankly, I wish that more wack-ohs had the grace of the Heaven’s Gate group and get out of the way. Darwin at work.

  21. Dr Who says:

    reading these comments makes me painfully aware of the level of scientific immaturity that exists…on both sides

  22. JoeMo says:

    Here is the video if anyone missed it. http://youtu.be/lzCYva2aYCo

  23. Alan says:

    The veridical aspects of the NDE cases were not addressed by Dr. Novella and Dr. Carroll and nobody here has mentioned the “shared death experiences” reported by Dr. Moody. I was surprised that just by saying “physics says it can’t be so” addresses this – it doesn’t. And I have physics degrees. Gentleman…study the literature by Drs. Moody, Parnia, Sartori, Van Lommel, Fenwick…

  24. Ajay Saini says:

    Dear Friends

    Life & death has relevance with respect to existence of Consciousness.
    As the Consciousness is an eternal reality, which never changes its form and always happen to be in its pure state.
    Till it stays inside physical body, the event is called life and when it departs from the physical body, the event is called death.
    Till the science does not experience or detect this eternal reality, how this debate can be justified?

    Thanks.

  25. John D says:

    Meh. I really am not interested in people talking about sad pathetic notions like life after death.

    Sean: I’m not sure this is the sort of exposure you should be looking for.