Friday, July 12, 2019

Looking At A "Systems Approach" Argument For Why There Is No Afterlife

Christina Anne Knight, in her recent (July, p. 32)  Mensa Bulletin piece 'Why There Is No Afterlife - A Systems Perspective' - pulls no punches.  In this post I examine her idea more closely, and why it might have some ballast.  Basically,  Ms. Knight's approach is based on materialist (Darwinian) evolution, which is an argument I have also used in the past.

For example, as I wrote in my post ('Meeting Our Extended Hominid Family'   ) of February 23, 2010:

"As we all know, and can be grown-up enough to say, neither the descendants of apes, or apes themselves possess "souls". There is only a brain, but it is ample to generate consciousness as I already showed in my 'Materialist Model of Consciousness'. Thus, when a human (or ape) dies, that's it. He is gone and there is nothing left - nothing to "punish" and nothing to go on. This hard fact may be why so many evangelicals refuse to accept evolution: they don't want to accept: a) they have no souls, and b) when they're dead, that's it, finito."

The post was accompanied by the following graphic:

So the most primitive hominid ancestor (Ardipithecus Kadabba) depicted at the lower left, from 6 million years ago - possessed no soul - nor did the evolutionary continuum following onward, i.e. to Homo Habilis and Homo Sapiens (upper right). Hence, when either died there would be nothing to go on, to survive in any afterlife.  Nor would there be some unexpected, magical "break out" point in between,  at which a soul suddenly manifests. 

This is analogous to Ms. Knight's argument, i.e.:

"It is a safe assumption that most people do not believe trilobites or velociraptors are at present hanging out with 72 virgin members of their species in some species -specific version of paradise.....Therefore, if we accept that none of our extinct, nonhuman forbears or members of other contemporary species have attained an afterlife, why should anyone believe that Homo sapiens are destined for a different fate?"

Then asking the $64 question:

"What evolutionary adaptation occurred that permitted the existence of something within humans to survive death?"

She then answers the question by naming what most of us already understand  as that manifestation of sentience known as consciousness,  but pointing out "it is not exclusive to our species."


"The emergence of consciousness occurred within a hierarchic evolutionary context. So does it even make sense to conceive of the conscious mind outside of systemic structures that supply it contextual meaning?   In other words if I am a product of nature and nurture, what good is an afterlife in which the physical context that shaped my personality is no longer relevant?"

To fix ideas, in a post in which I skewered the concept of a "natural afterlife" (Feb. 9, 2014) I noted the fundamental unit of neural dynamics:

In this 'cartoon' graphic we are looking at an electro-chemical signal (action potentials in (B) ) which are conveyed to the receptor neurons in the region of the temporal lobes. The waveform really represents changes in permeability, we note that when an axon is in its resting state it maintains a constant potential difference, or ‘resting membrane potential’ of –70 mV. When it is excited, it rises to a peak voltage of around 40 mV. This is sketched as the wave pulse peak in (B) with the ‘baseline’ value of (-70 mV) included for reference. One could say that (A) portrays the axon segment shown in a kind of equilibrium condition, or one conducive to a dream state. Only levels of partial consciousness are available in these states.  Generally, a full peak voltage of 40mV is associated with some level of consciousness.

Now, we go to the driver of consciousness localized at the site of the synaptic cleft or terminal.

In the diagram, we focus on Axon 1 and note that when the action potential arrives at the terminal it’s depolarized. This depolarization enables Calcium ions (Ca+2) already within the terminal to diffuse out into the mediating space. These ions follow a concentration gradient, unlike the case of the Na+ ions in the sodium pump. As the ions migrate, then diffuse to the post-synaptic cell (at Axon 2), they leave a channel in their wake that allows quantal releases of neurotransmitter (shown as a solid dot). These, like the Ca+2 ions diffuse across to the post-synaptic cell(s).

One neurotransmitter is acetylcholine. If the transmission of this or any similar chemical is rapid firing will occur, if not it won’t. Note also that Axon 2 must have a way of eliminating neurotransmitters almost as soon as they arrive. For acetylcholine, the enzyme cholinesterase acts to break it down into choline and acetate. In these inactive forms the neuron is spared being in a state of maximal and continuous excitation that would otherwise destroy it.

Generalizing the electrical cable analogy, the synapses act as switches in the system, the ‘on’ or ‘off’ positions denoted by information, in the form of chemical messages, to cross the synaptic cleft and trigger firing of the post-synaptic neuron(s) or not. Most probably there are bundles of similar neurons linked together by their respective connections, to perform critical functions. One might refer to the neuronal super-assembly or 'super-circuit’ within which considerations such as networks, and optimization of paths as well as 'adjacency and order' take precedence. Again, this is almost absurdly oversimplified since there really are no neurons that have only one connection to another. Indeed, we expect the typical neuron to have something like 10,000 connections to others.

What happens if this entire neural dynamic is terminated? We can begin to grasp the effects by first noting from the above diagrams that all waves of polarization and de-polarization cease. Hence, all synaptic activity ceases. There is no more firing of neurons, nor is there any movement of neurotransmitters across axons. 

Consider the same  electric cable analogy described above in terms of what happens at death. Well, the putative electrical signal cable is cut. What happens if an electrical cable to your home is cut? Well the service is terminated...there is no energy "leakage' or  residue that continues after cutting because this would violate the physical laws we know. The electrical energy cannot continue to propagate into your home devoid of the cable within which it's carried. In the same way, all the brain's potential energy terminates at death, there are no 'residuals' left to continue anywhere. Hence, there can be no afterlife.

Ms. Knight in line with this basis,  writes (ibid.):

"The dying system decomposes into subsystem structures lower in the holarchic order that are sustainable within the systemic environment of the deceased system. A dead body becomes a nutrient source for other living systems and not a ghoulish distribution of functioning organs."

What is this "holarchic order" to which she refers?

She notes that the term  "holarchy" (first used by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine) embodies  the "interdependence, interrelations and interaction of subsystems which results in a form of self-organization from which a larger system is an emergent product".  In other words, consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of the brain but this very emerged product.  But the extinction of such a system (and emergent product) occurs when the system fails to retain stability.  That is triggered when the key components die, e.g. neurons, neuronal sub-assemblies etc.

This is what Ms. Knight is getting at when she avers a conscious mind cannot exist outside of the function of the key systemic structures.  If then it is the impermanent character of all systems that "makes evolution a universal process"  then:

"If the conscious mind is located at the apex of this holarchic system , then the collapse of the substructure beneath it has terminal consequences."


"The conscious mind becomes just another impermanent system subject to physical laws.  It does not survive death because it cannot exist outside the holarchic structure from which it emerged"

In other words, there is no conscious personal entity that survives the dissolution of the neural system with its synaptic connections, neurons etc. As I pointed out earlier.  

Is this plausible?  As I've repeatedly observed in my several  atheist books, it does represent - by the Ockham's Razor principle (simplest hypothesis is the most likely under several options) - the simplest answer for what happens when one dies. Thus, there is no "white light" waiting, no judgment of anything, just a big nothingness - analogous to what occurs with general anesthesia.

However, one specialist anesthesiologist by profession - Stuart Hameroff -   has offered a partial way out for those who think nothingness is too bleak an end.   

After 35 years of anaesthetizing patients and seeing the same results over and over Hameroff  was led to postulate that small structures in the brain called "microtubules" are at the root of apparent "escaped" consciousness and that they hold the key to what happens. He also surmises that at putative death (or even "near death") essential energy associated with the microtubules disperses out from the brain and becomes "entangled" in a larger, undifferentiated whole.

Hameroff cites certain aspects of quantum mechanics to explain his reasoning though, he leaves some ends open. In the brain, information persists through a phenomenon called quantum coherence

This means that a multitude of quantum wave states are stored in a multitude of microtubules. Precisely how this is done remains a speculative  area but the point is that if one is aware and conscious there is a high degree of locality. When one dies, those wave states presumably evacuate and one's consciousness enters the domain of non-locality.

Hameroff's basic argument then, is that death doesn't mean the final termination of consciousness, so much as the end of its localization. If that is so, you cease to be a "person" or an individual identity and instead merge with other dispersed quantum wave forms (I have called them "B-waves" or de Broglie waves) to enter an "oceanic" state. 

The difference between the individual and oceanic states is often depicted using an illustration similar to that below:



This gives a nice analogy between the "ocean" and individual waves, i.e. localized beings, entities. Here the individual manifestations occur within the "explicate order" - in the language used by physicist David Bohm. This is contrasted to the oceanic or holographic view.
which he calls the "implicate order".  See e.g.

I have to reiterate again that Hameroff's conception isn't really any kind of recognizable "afterlife". Indeed, it is impossible to even remotely describe a putative nonlocal state (of being)  as experiencing an afterlife, if it perceives at all. 

It also leaves a decided negative slant on the question of preserving any sense of self. How can one if the self is no longer separable but one with an oceanic "sea"? It appears at first blush, however, to be: 1) consistent with Christina Knight's holarchic system approach (since B-waves are not apart from her holarchic system) and 2) only one step removed from the atheist's state of total obliteration and nothingness.

Indeed, for all intents, Hameroff's afterlife and the atheist's nothingness post -death may essentially be indistinguishable.   In the meantime, I understand (via an email from the Mensa Bulletin editor) there will be a response to Christina Knight's systems conception excluding an afterlife. When it arrives, I will examine it as well.


Anonymous said...

Is the idea of an "afterlife" here described, the one from Bohm and Hameroff, the one you still believe(besides the simple idea of nothingness after death)?
Including what you wrote here "Indeed, for all intents, Hameroff's afterlife and the atheist's nothingness post -death may essentially be indistinguishable." and here "I have to reiterate again that Hameroff's conception isn't really any kind of recognizable "afterlife". Indeed, it is impossible to even remotely describe a putative nonlocal state (of being) as experiencing an afterlife, if it perceives at all.
It also leaves a decided negative slant on the question of preserving any sense of self. How can one if the self is no longer separable but one with an oceanic "sea"?"?

Or has something made you change your mind?

Copernicus said...

Essentially, I have more and more come to the conclusion there is no "self" in any afterlife. In the one case nothingness would preclude it, and in the (Hameroff) case, a self would not be distinguishable from an oceanic wave form. So what's the point? To me obsessiin over a self is a peculiar Western obsession and here we might learn a few things from the Buddhists, for example. (I.e. their 'Nirvana' is basically a state of transcendent nothingness)

Anonymous said...

So when you say "Indeed, for all intents, Hameroff's afterlife and the atheist's nothingness post -death may essentially be indistinguishable." its because in Hameroff s case there would be no self so we wouldnt be able to distinguish from nothingness, right?

Would this waves of "consciousness" be eternal?

And is there any proof to this "quantum conscious afterlife"?

Anonymous said...

And so do you think this "quantum afterlife" would be the same as the Nirvana described by the Buddhists?

Copernicus said...

For all intents it would be, i.e. in that no explicate being would be able to tell the difference.

Anonymous said...

Is there any proof that Broglie waves can encompass consciousness and survive death or is it just speculation?

Anonymous said...

Here "For all intents it would be, i.e. in that no explicate being would be able to tell the difference." you are answering to this question "its because in Hameroff s case there would be no self so we wouldnt be able to distinguish from nothingness, right?" ,correct?

Copernicus said...

There is no "proof" as such that de Broglie waves can encompass consciousness, other than what Bohm has proposed in his assorted papers, book (Wholeness and the Implicate Order) But these are more in the way of reasoned conclusions than hard evidence. As for surviving death, if de Broglie waves are real - as experiments show - then yes by inference they'd survive death as a form of quantized wave energy. (I.e. "Energy cannot be created or destroyed only changed from one form to another")

Copernicus said...

"you are answering to this question "its because in Hameroff s case there would be no self so we wouldnt be able to distinguish from nothingness, right?" ,correct? "


Anonymous said...

Do you think that there is any afterlife idea that we should fear, or that you fear?

Copernicus said...

Maybe - but fortunately no such "ideas" are real! They are concoctions of religious powers trying to gain control of one's mind and will.

Anonymous said...

1_But do you think we should fear or do fear any afterlife ideas that are non religious, like quantum consciousness or any other.
2_Do you know of any other "scientific" theory of afterlife (besides the one you present in your blog of Hameroff's quantum consciousness)?

Copernicus said...

1) No.

2) The book I mentioned in another post comment:

'What Really Happens When You Die?: Cosmology, Time and You' - by Andrew McLauchlin

Anonymous said...

Can you explain the afterlife McLauchlin talks about? Or point me to a place that explains it?

Copernicus said...

"an you explain the afterlife McLauchlin talks about? Or point me to a place that explains it?"

Ok, but I m afraid this is it for comments. They are now starting to extend longer than the blog posts themselves also I do not believe I can provide any more information than I have to you. I think the rest is just going to other sources, also attending to your own fears - which no amount of information or replies can relieve. At the end of the day death and afterlives will remain an unknown and we just have to come to accept that.

Anyway, McLaughlin's basic point is that on dying we continue lives in future cycles, on and on and on. He argues we basically relive our same lives again, but in a kind of 'alternate' or parallel universe. It's kind of like reincarnation - but you remain the same person reliving your life but with no memory of the previous one/

I wish you the best if luck on your continued search for afterlife answers but I don't believe I can supply any more than I have. As I noted, the rest involves getting control of your own fears and doubts. I wish you the best!

Anonymous said...

I recently became very scared and anxious with the topic of afterlife because I started thinking of the possibility of some type of scientific idea of an afterlife that would be scary. So I started reading articles that different people wrote about scientific afterlifes whether or not those people had the credentials to talk about physics and such. And even tho I don't fear any afterlife in particular at the moment, I became obsessed with the idea that maybe someone somewhere wrote about some type of afterlife that would be terryfing with or without any type of proof(because in my mind I would think that that idea could very well be the truth and there would be nothing I could to stop that from happening or stop myself from thinking that 'what if thats the truth?' and obsessing over that idea). But I've been telling myself just like you said that there is no need to frightened by any ideas about afterlife.

Copernicus said...

So I don't believe there's anything more to be said. Ultimately it is an issue of having the fortitude to be able to accept uncertainty - which includes accepting death even if one doesn't knows what follows - if anything. More knowledge can't help solve the problem, only control of the emotions and courage.

Copernicus said...

On that note no further comments will be posted on this thread.

Copernicus said...

NO further questions will be answered whether or not I post them. I have addressed and answered all that I can.

Copernicus said...

Any further questions can be asked at:

christina knight said...

Hi, I am the Christina Knight, who wrote the article, which was published in the Mensa Bulletin. Thank you for your fair treatment, in your blog. I was disappointed by the response by Mensa readers, who responded. I am hoping to write a future article on how the difference in how holarchic structure develops, and how it decomposes, explains the unilateral direction of time. If you reread my article, you may follow my line of reasoning. I am currently writing an article on a General Definition of Religion.

Copernicus said...

Hello, Christina, and thanks for your comment. I was hoping I'd receive a comment like yours and it was much appreciated. I look forward to see your article on a General Definition of Religion!

christina knight said...

Hi, this is Christina Knight again. I have put aside, for the time, my work on a General Definition of Religion, but I have developed what I regard as a scientific definition od religion. Unlike Stephen J Gould, I recognize that there is no possible way to recognize science with religion, because religion, and its socio-cultural evolution and development, is itself a legitimate subject of scientific study. I may pursue this topic in the future, but I am currently working on something, that I think is more important. If you have any feedback on the following definition, you may email me at If you want to email me your blog that would be cool, as well. Feel free to use my definition, if you think it is worthy. Thanks.

Copernicus said...

Thanks, Christina, for your expanded definition of religion. What I would love to do is to publish on my blog a complete article (from you) predicated on this definition. This would be after you feel have more of the key details worked out. I am sure many blog readers would also find it of immense interest!