Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Heaven" Is A State of Mind

Every now and then it's good and gratifying that a nation enveloped in its worship of materialist consumption - including the latest ipads, ipods, tablets, Kindles, HDTVs and all the rest, turns its attention on more metaphysical pursuits and issues. One of these is whether an afterlife exists, or if its merely a fiction of too many people's imaginations.

IN the most recent TIME (April 16, p. 30) the subject is revisited by Jon Meacham in the article: 'Heaven Can't Wait- Why Rethinking the Hereafter Could Make the World a Better Place'. In the piece, Meacham basically gives a brief survey of all the variants of the "hereafter" and to which religions they belong.

As one might expect for a U.S. publication, much prominence is given to the Protestant Evangelical chorus, since they are often the most sanctimonious, politically active and.. ...noisy. Thus, we learn of books such as 'Heaven is for Real' by Lynn Vincent that recounts Colin Burpo's story of how he "visited heaven" while undergoing an appendectomy. Well and good, but no one should take a kid's anecdotal account literally, since we know chemicals administered in anesthesia can wreak havoc on the brain and elicit all sort of wild cortical threholds and trigger ideations that resemble hallucinations.

Thus, if you want an atheist to invest in the "Heaven" or afterlife claim, don't parade anecdotes or cite "sacred books", but give us citations from scientific papers that have basically eliminated all natural causes. Once you do that we will sit up and take notice.

As I noted in an earlier blog some years ago, the problem with most "heaven" proposals (especially by orthodox Christians) is they essentially create division and separation (what I call "mental apartheid") on another plane of existence. Thus, it's not enough we have enclaves of division here on Earth, we're expected to embrace them in an "after life" as well - despite the fact no good evidence exists to support that.

The error of the Heaven confabulators, then, is basically the same as for the Hell inventors, since the two represent opposing poles of the same afterlife fantasy or two sides of the same sanity-raping coin. In any reward-punishment setting, one must offset the other. If you invent Hell to punish the unfaithful or the hardcore sinner who refuses to repent, you must have a Heaven for those who comply.

In most cases also, heaven claimants (who are also almost always Hell claimants) excuse their ideations by offering limited apologias such as:

"How can you have murderers, rapists, etc, as well as thieves being rewarded in the next life, especially if they got away with their crimes in this one? And look at Hitler!”

The problem with this is they all believe they can explicitly read justice at the supposed divine level. The fact is that "justice" is a limited human concept and invention, not a divine decree. It is also hard to make a cogent argument that the world wouldn’t be any more "chaotic" today if we did away with a lot of the so-called "justice". Truth be told, we probably would see a saner, more temperate world filled with fewer psychos (who had been degraded in prisons) out for blood when they leave. The hard fact is most human “justice’ retains an abominable “eye for an eye” atavistic undertow.

At another level, there’s no evidence that any afterlife exists, whether Heaven or Hell. No one has returned from the truly dead, by which I mean no heart or brain activity for at least twenty four hours, and given us proof that anything exists. All we have are ersatz reports of “near death” or people briefly technically “dead” for a few minutes, or maybe a bit longer. But no one has returned from a stone cold morgue and related in detail his or her experiences. See also the late Sir A.J. Ayer's account of his own "near death experience", i.e.


Ayer's main takeaway point was not to disabuse the possibility of an afterlife, but only to warn that it may not be at all in the image of what its fantasists in the here and now believe. Thus, "just as there can be a godless life there can be a godless afterlife."

From this we have a tiny crack of hope (if you wish to call it that) which might enable humans to escape from total obliteration in nothingness, and I have blogged on this before too. This hope is contingent on the extent to which the brain operates in the quantum mechanical realm as opposed to the Newtonian-reductionist -classical mechanical. If the latter, then all bets are off and consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain. When you die, so does your consciousness. If the former, then there is a possibility that consciousness - in the form of primordial quantum waves (de Broglie waves) can survive death.

What this suggests is that if the quantum basis is legit, then "heaven" could well be regarded literally as a "state of mind" or more accurately, a state of consciousness. The problem is that since all quantum waves exhibit nonlocality (or inseparability) then that consciousness is fundamentally spread all over and within a collective wave form with others - not individual. What does that mean? Who can say since no one has come back from the truly dead to inform us.

Thus, in the absence of unambiguous empirical proof, the simpler hypothesis applies, according to the Ockham’s Razor Principle. That hypothesis is that when we die, our bodies (including brain) die and decay, and there is no residual, individual life of any type that remains, including an individual consciousness.

No afterlife of any kind we’d recognize. Essentially no “self” would remain that could be associated with the prior physical being and its peculiar neural matrix, preferences or disposition. For all practical purposes, once we die, the condition is little different from that experienced when we undergo total, general anesthesia. You are simply not “there” and when you awaken you have no recall of anything. The difference is that with death there is no wake up, no revival, no coming to. Bottom line, nothingness is the end point of life.

There is no Heaven or Hell, these are fairy stories (as Stephen Hawking has noted) invented by Church Fathers (and latter day 'Elmer Gantrys') determined to employ a not so subtle means of psychological coercion to get their flock or the general populace to heave to and follow their marching orders. (Which they have the hubris to call "God's orders".)

What perhaps is more worthwhile, and which Meacham intimated in his TIME piece (p. 32), is that we pay more attention to the here and now and drop all the artificial divisions between peoples - that we may at least (for a time) approximate a "proxy" heaven on this Earth!

No comments: