Afterlife Aftermath

Video from Wednesday’s debate over “Death Is Not Final” is now up.

You’ll be happy to hear that the good guys “won.” In scare quotes because helping the world’s population understand that naturalism is the right way to view the universe is a long-term project that won’t be settled with a single debate. But Intelligence Squared does a fun thing where they ask people to vote before the debate starts, and then again afterward. We started out the night slightly behind in the polls, and by the time we were done we were slightly ahead. Mostly by peeling away the undecideds, as any savvy politician strives to do. [Update: oops, not right. See below.] So that counts as a victory — especially when the topic is one where many people (not all!) have fairly fixed opinions.



It was a pleasure to have Steve Novella as a partner. The man knows his neuroscience, as well as his debating. He did a great job making the single most important point for an issue like this: the mind is the brain, full stop. It’s hard to hear the case he makes and hold on to any contrary view.

I was slightly disappointed in the folks on the other side. Eben Alexander basically relied on two things. One was his personal story of having a Near-Death Experience while in a coma. Anyone who accepts that people can experience dreams or hallucinations will not be overly persuaded by that alone. The other was to throw up ideas like “quantum mechanics” and “the hard problem of consciousness” in an obfuscatory way, to give people license to believe that science doesn’t understand everything. Which is true! Science doesn’t understand everything. Which doesn’t change the fact that no serious researcher in quantum mechanics or the hard problem thinks that those ideas provide an excuse for believing in life after death.

Ray Moody was a very pleasant gentleman, someone you’d be happy to have a beer with and talk philosophy. But he did almost nothing to defend the proposition. I was expecting him to broaden the evidence from Alexander’s own case to many others, but instead he spoke in generalities about science and philosophy and logic, concluding essentially that it’s “conceivable” that a realm exists where souls can persist after death. Indeed it is. Many things are conceivable.

At the end of my opening talk I said that the choice here basically comes down to two options we can believe:

  1. Everything we think we understand about the behavior of matter and energy is wrong, in a way that has somehow escaped notice in every experiment ever done in the history of science. Instead, there are unknown mechanisms allow information in the brain to survive in the form of a blob of spirit energy, which can then go start talking to other blobs of spirit energy, but only after death, except sometimes even before death.
  2. Physics is right. And people under stress sometimes have experiences that seem real but aren’t.

In the light of the evidence, the choice is pretty clear. We’ll get there, a couple of percentage points at a time.

Update: I was too hasty in presuming that most of our increase came from swaying undecided voters. Here are the actual data:


As you can see, the undecideds actually broke almost equally for the two sides. Our glorious victory actually came from a combination of factors, including persuading some of the “For” voters to switch.

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179 Responses to Afterlife Aftermath

  1. Manny Rayner says:

    I do not believe in life after death, but surely it’s an oversimplification to say that the only two options are the ones you name? Rather than postulate some weird kind of spirit energy (evidently unconvincing), one can argue that our consciousness isn’t a phenomenon in ordinary space-time at all, but exists elsewhere and is somehow linked to our bodies by means we do not yet understand. I recently read Fred Hoyle’s autobiography: a version of this idea, one of his many wacky theories, appears in the final pages.

  2. Sili says:

    Sad to see that at least 5% were actually drawn in by the bad argument.

  3. You and Dr Novella were killing it at the IQ2 debate! While watching the debate, I constantly felt embarrassed for the “for” side. They had no coherent argument, and wow, what an appeal to emotion they had going for themselves.

    I noticed in one part you referred to yourself as a “Naturalist”. I was wondering if that’s preferable to referring as an “Atheist”? In any case, I love the courteous and smart manner that you communicate deep scientific and philosophical issues to the public. Thanks for that! And I hope you become the main face of atheism! (Not that you are not now, but I mean, you should definitely be a member of the four horsemen!)

  4. Sheena says:

    Obfuscatory describes most arguments against naturalism. I have a good friend who believes in ghosts, but she has the good grace to just say it – ‘I believe in ghosts’. She knows I don’t, and that’s that. But there was a guy I used to know, and it was impossible to say what he believed. Maybe ghosts, maybe the afterlife, maybe dualism – everything had to wrapped up in impenetrable language. He absolutely refused to state anything clearly, because he was terrified that if he did, he wouldn’t be able to believe it any more. It irritates me because if you are genuinely trying to explore theories, you don’t do this. You try and clarify what the theory is, so it can be judged fairly. There’s a dishonesty in deliberately vague and obfuscatory language, that makes it very hard to respect the person using it.

  5. Dan says:

    Debates like this one are important to participate in so the scientific rebuttal can be presented to people who probably don’t hear it very often or hear it explained in a way that’s easily understood, something you’re particularly good at. It might be a bit tedious at times and feel like you’re repeating yourself, but each audience is a new one and a new opportunity to educate. That’s always worth doing. You and Dr. Novella did a good job against what turned out to be rather lukewarm opposition.

  6. Robert says:

    I do not believe in the existence of God or of an after-life. Nevertheless, I find militant atheists irritating, particularly as they generally seem to think that science is on the verge of answering everything. It isn´t and probably never will be. Little problems, like how did a Universe apparently pop into existence from the absolute nothing are not remotely resolved. I got chucked off the Richard Dawkins website because of the comments I made when I discovered that most of the militants there know practically nothing about science, but pretend that they do. (I mentioned the peculiarities of the relationship between time and speed and they said: “Man! What planet are you on?”) It is not possible to be so dogmatic, in either direction. So far as I know, science has no explanation for the creepy results of the two-slit experiment, say, nor have I read a plausible sounding explanation of the action at a distance. I´m not sure if the reason for the existence of gravity is yet understood. (I, at least, am confused. Is it gravitons or the bending of space-time? Or both.)

    Proposing the existence of a Creator to explain all the things which are inexplicable about life and the Universe does not, of course, explain anything.

  7. Ben Goren says:

    Manny, that still leaves open the already-closed question of how consciousness is supposed to interact with brains. How is it observing our environment, and how does it trigger the physical actions necessary to cause you to carry out a decision to, say, raise a glass? Everything we know of physics says that requires an exchange of energy at the least, if not an interaction of material particles — and that anything which doesn’t do so is, in effect, a perpetual motion machine.

    There are other less-implausible alternatives, but all are of the conspiracy theory type. We could be in a Matrix-style simulation, and after death the last-saved digital snapshot of our program files gets copied to yet another simulation. We could be players in Alice’s Red King’s Dream, and after we die he has other dreams planned with our characters. Or maybe our tinfoil hats have slipped and the alien mind rays are leaking in and we don’t actually die after all; it’s just that the aliens are making us think that we die.

    Unless you wish to embrace paranoia, the only sane conclusion is that physics really is right, and there is neither evidence nor a plausible mechanism for consciousness to survive death.

    If you have some particular mechanism you think physics doesn’t rule out that you’d like to suggest, I’m sure we can set you straight as to where you’ve gone off the rails. (Or, to be fair, if you really do have a novel idea that really is plausible, it’ll get a fair hearing — but don’t expect acceptance unless it really is new and you’ve got sound theory and ideally solid evidence to back it up.)



  8. Manny Rayner says:

    Ben, please don’t get the idea that I believe Fred Hoyle’s wacky theory. As you quite rightly say, it runs into problems with Occam’s Razor: we don’t seem to need to postulate a consciousness existing in another universe, since physical explanations are probably enough. I’m just saying that it’s not as obviously wrong as “weird spirit energy”, and it’s essentially different from it.

  9. Chris says:

    Well done Sean and Steve. The Uncertainy blog post describing your debate style as polite, funny, and refreshingly clear hit it right on the head.

  10. Julian Abernethy says:

    I agree with you entirely. I tried to have an open mind before the debate but the opposing side relied mostly on their own experience and it was hard to even take their points seriously. (Kind of weird to be expected to trust someone about a personal experience who claims of himself that his brain was basically not working during the time!).

    The debate was so one-sided that problems with concepts of afterlifes didn’t even occur (e.g. which primates/clumps of cells have a soul?/Why does the soul sometimes fail to realize it isn’t dead yet?), because they struggled arguing whether it is not yet disproven by science.

    I really wonder how they were able to convince 5% or more of the audience with their personal experience.

  11. Joan Hendricks says:

    The only reason I can see to believe in a life after this one is fear of (final) death. And it seems to me the more religious people are, the more they are afraid to die. Shouldn’t they be looking forward to going to heaven? As for me, I tell everyone that when I die, it will be exactly as it was before I was born – just nothing.

  12. Ramesam says:

    Excellent job, very well done, Sean. We are proud to have you on our side!

    While “consciousness” a creature of the mind could be an activity of the brain, some “thing” is aware of all these and always there. Whatever “that” is, it is not ‘personal’ to anyone, it is Universal and eternal and all over spacetime. What could ‘That’ be?
    The ancient Indian Sages have a name as a pointer for It . They called It ‘brahman’.

  13. John Isaacs says:

    Even if you were able to move the “numbers” to 100%, you will have proved nothing. This isn’t an election. Both you and the theists (of which I am one) have an unprovable point. I am not a physicist but as a lay person everything I see in modern physics and cosmology points me toward some sort of intelligence behind it all, and a layer of mystery (dark matter, dark energy, twinned particles, even string theory itself) that transcends your ability to “debate” it away. But the argument is worth the effort, no matter which side you are on. So God bless you for having it .

  14. the el vez says:

    I was overcome with this great sense of sadness after watching the debate. I am not exactly sure what the root cause was, but I think it was because I had expected the “for” side to be prepared for battle (which they clearly weren’t) and present some really well founded data to back their position. I recognize that I am an odd bird as I am a devout Carroll-ite, but also want to believe that there is some creator of our Universe. These may seem like incompatible positions – but they really aren’t – mainly because Mr. Carroll is such an open minded and objective person, and has stated many times that he is not opposed to a Creator, that he just needs to see the evidence for him/her/it. At any rate, because I want to believe, but also refuse to believe based on hope and emotion alone, I am always excited when a “Christian Scientist” (not the L Ron Hubbard kind) join one of these debates. I was very disappointed in these two. I am not trying to disparage them, as I believe that they were sincere, but they should have at least watched the debate Sean had earlier this year ( to see what they were in for. I don’t know, maybe I am alone in this view of wanting to marry science and spirit (notice I didn’t say religion). I think that it is really sad that such a divide has been put up from both sides of the God vs. Atheism debate as I think that there is a lot of shared knowledge and insight that could benefit all sides. Maybethat is why I am such a big Sean Carroll fan: he can basically argue that everything I want to believe is completely unfounded by current scientific understanding, yet I don’t feel offended. Maybe it is because I am naïve, or maybe it is because he is one of the few people on either side of the debate that is truly objective. I tend to think that it is the later, but if it is the former I wouldn’t know it – by definition. :)

  15. Hi there,

    A great debate in some respects, a head-in-hands set of moments in other respects. Eben Alexander seems nothing but either a fraud or someone who has made a shed load of money off the flimsiest case…

    I was wondering whether you, Sean, had considered questioning his actual personal account as others have:

    It seems like, in his own words, he has used some artistic licence…

    The thing that really got my goat was his demand (“not one sentence…”) for you two to supply a mechanistic or explanatory account of how the brain creates consciousness. I think you guys missed a trick here, because his demands are hypocritical: can HE provide an explanation as to exactly how the supernatural soul exists/creates consciousness/ interacts with he physical? Since his argument is a soul of the gaps argument, the answer is a resounding NO, and his demands undercut themselves.

    Silly man.

    Sean you are fast becoming an erudite and superb spokesman for naturalism. Keep it up. It’s good not to neglect philosophy like some other scientists.

  16. Meh says:

    The only thing more annoying that having to deal with the “life after death” delusion is having to deal with people who aren’t religious but are “spiritual”; people who are basically aware of the facts but still too afraid to face the truth.

    It was, yet again, a good debate which only required skimming over basic facts in order to win the debate.

  17. gaehazzi says:

    I watched the debate in real time and I was very impressed by the participants’ good manners, chivalry and sticking to the debate rules. In particular, I appreciated the Against Team granting Mr. Alexander that his heavenly experiences had been at least subjectively true, though hallucinatory in nature. What sportsmanship!

    Then, the other day, I was sitting bored in a train with nothing new and worthwhile to read. So I revisited, on my phone, Sean’s blog mail notification that had alerted me to the debate in the first place. There I tapped on the “this Esquire profile” link: woe is me! If only half of what’s there is true, why should this guy’s stories be granted any credibility? And if these are the rules of the game, why play this game at all?

  18. Doc C says:

    It’s easy to shoot standing targets, or as Sean likes to put it, ask a bad question and you get a bad answer. I would like to see a debate on how naturalism saves us from the nihilism inherent in imaging a purposeless, evolutionary universe. In that universe we are nothing but talking rocks, with no more value than any inanimate object. Once we assign value to ourselves, we have attempted to transcend our context as evolving organisms subject to purely natural laws. Either way, we are relying on our imagination. Science has no purchase there. Naturalists have no truer answer than any other value system that puts human beings at its center.

  19. John Hobby says:

    I think the telling position of Eban Alexander came when he brought up Carl Sagan’s ‘ apparent admission to the evidence for past life experiences in children as ‘overwhelming.’ Eban so kindly resourced this claim, so I looked it up and found the claim to be quite the exaggeration. This might have some importance in his other viewpoints and explanations of his personal experiences. Carl Sagan, “I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might(italicized) be true. The last three, have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.” (Demon Haunted World, p.302)

  20. John Barrett says:

    The “good guys” where Godless, soulless men… Wow, I guess you learn something new everyday. I really don’t think the Catholic Church could cause as much problems as they have in the past today. If the pope wanted a holy crusade today, he would probably be fired. Then people wouldn’t have to worry about being decapitated by not following his orders and the queens. Then terrorist still attack the atheistic countries like Russia, like when they hit the Olympic games.

    The real problem isn’t religion. It is rather the people are in a civilized or an uncivilized society. Taking religion out of a civilized society could only make it more uncivil. You have to remember that not everyone considers themselves a philosopher like you or I.

  21. kashyap Vasavada says:

    I agree entirely with the last two paragraphs of your comment. I wrote a recent guest blog on a physics website about this issue. Unfortunately, since it is a rival blog, I cannot give a link. But I would like the western readership to at least try to understand such issues with an open mind. Whether they agree or not is a separate issue.In fact I am fighting war on two fronts. I do not agree with young earth creationism and opposition to big bang theory and theory of evolution. At the same time I do not like tirades against religions either.

  22. Fernando says:

    The pro side had an extremely weak argument. Alexander’s point boiled down to “it happened to me and I really really believe it’s true.” Ray arguing that it’s a problem of logic, not science, was extremely unclear and contradictory to me. If only logic and reasoning are needed to solve it, according to what he said, then why bother with accounts of near-death experience? That’s relying on empiricism and evidence, not logic and reason.

    Overall a boring debate as Sean and Steve’s argument was just much stronger than the opposition’s.

    Also, what the hell was that comment about Carl Sagan believing in past lives? Pretty sure that wasn’t true.

  23. John Barrett says:

    @Ben Goren

    In the many worlds interpretation alternate universes can have different laws of physics. If they have different laws of physics, then they can be very different than our own. Then there could be an infinite number of realms beyond our own, that may not even resemble universes. String Theory could allow for an infinite number of different versions of Heavens and Hells. Then there is no need to set me straight where I have gone off the rails here, because I don’t really believe in those scientific models anyways, but there are a lot of scientist that do.

    I think that the initial conditions of the universe would have to make it more likely that the universe was just like ours, cause hell, there probably would have been an infinite number of different Boltzmann brains running around thinking they where God. Then all we would be doing right now, instead, is all praying that we won’t receive some kind of divine intervention.

  24. gaehazzi says:

    @John Barrett.
    The problem is not religion per se but religion having the power of state. A pope that can have people burned for heresy (by relegating them to the “secular authorities,” to be sure, ) is not as benign as a contemporaneous one that must tend to his church’s rating.

    That’s why the founding fathers of democracy insisted on state-church separation, though they were to some extent religious.

  25. Ben Goren says:


    In the many worlds interpretation alternate universes can have different laws of physics.

    That’s not what Many Worlds Theory says.

    Many-Worlds says that there’s a single wave function that “branches” in such a way that different branches are “disentangled” such that they no longer can interact and that the one branch “sees” one possible outcome from a quantum phenomenon and the other “sees” the other. For example, when you run the two-slit experiment, the Worlds diverge and one “you” sees the slit on the left and the other “you” sees the slit on the right.

    However, all of the many Worlds still have the same laws of physics.

    I’ve heard somewhere that “Many Worlds Theory” might better be described as “Many Histories Theory,” if that helps.

    (I’m personally not yet convinced of M-W, but Sean is and he knows way more about this than me, so I’m willing to conceive that my intransigence on the subject results from my ignorance and / or idiocy.)

    What you might be thinking of is not Many Worlds Theory, but Multiverse Theory. The Multiverse Theory speculates that there are other Big Bangs, completely disconnected from our own, and that physics may be quite different in those other universes. However, this wouldn’t include the possibility of fanciful Never-Never Lands, let alone Heavens and Hells; rather, it would mean different values for what are in our universe fundamental constants: the charge of the electron, the speed of light, the force of gravity, and so on. Changing those can result in conditions in which matter as we know it behaves radically different; for example, stellar nuclear fusion might not be possible in one universe and it’s nothing more than clumps of primordial hydrogen and helium. Another one might have fusion, but chemistry might be much different…say, the element with atomic number 18 might be highly reactive rather than highly inert, and similar changes all across the Periodic Table.

    One thing that Multiverse Theory does not predict is “mirror universes,” such as one where Spock has a beard. The chaos inherent in the initial conditions of the Big Bang and subsequent events means that even some hypothetical other universe with initial conditions identical to ours down to the umpteenth decimal point will still have a radically different evolution over the course of a baker’s dozen billion years. The laws of physics will be the same and there’ll still be galaxies and solar systems and the like, but there wouldn’t be any Milky Way Galaxy — let alone any humans, and especially not a Ben Goren and a John Barrett discussing cosmology on a Sean Carroll’s blog.