In a recent article in The Atlantic, A Neuroscientist Prepares for Death, a poor man who has learned he will soon die from cancer of the heart provides his philosophical reflection concerning the possibility of an afterlife. Using his expertise as a scientist, he makes a series of three unwarranted jumps to deny an afterlife.
Lut us begin with the scientific proposition, “Now we know that rather than merely reacting to the external world, the brain spends much of its time and energy actively making predictions about the future.” This statement is metaphysically loaded, because it attributes all thought to a physical process, “the brain.”
His conclusion about the “brain” as opposed to a mind goes well beyond anything in observational science. The fact that certain brain functions are associated with a particular mental state does not mean the brain processes are that mental state. The mental state is itself unobservable, it can only be subjectively experienced. The relationship between a brain state and a mental state is a matter of tremendous dispute, but it is simply lazy to collapse thought into synaptic firing.
The second error in his argument comes when concludes that since we anticipate the near future, we cannot anticipate not anticipating the future. “And because our brains are organized to predict the near future, it presupposes that there will, in fact, be a near future. ” But this conclusion actually goes beyond the observation that the brain works to predict the future. There is no reason that the brain could not predict its demise. Our inability to imagine the future cannot be explained simply on the basis that the “brain” makes predictions about the near future.
From the observation that we do not imagine our non-existence, a state he refers to as a “widespread glitch”, he makes a theological/philosophical observation. The widespread religious belief in an afterlife is simply the result of a cognitive glitch which itself results from the mental action of anticipating the future.
But this last step is as lacking in necessary inference as the previous steps. A. The argument also entails a number of other unstated propositions. For instance, the argument assumes that there is no such a thing as an afterlife, and thus the belief must be explained by some material process.
B. The fact there are physical processes consistent with a particular belief does not make the belief untrue. Why would a religious belief have to be inconsistent with physical function to be true? There is no necessity that a religious belief be inconsistent to physical function.
C. Our inability to imagine our nonexistence does not make belief in an afterlife false. The argument that “belief in an afterlife cannot be true because it is comforting” is simply false. When I am ill, I believe that I will recover. On all prior occasions in which I have been ill, I have believed that I will recover–which is a comforting thought. And it was a true comforting belief: I have always recovered.
He ends with the observation that he is not adverse to the existence of an afterlife with those whom he loves.
What then is the purpose of an essay like this? We must remember it cannot be for career advancement, he will die soon. I can’t imagine that the prestige of writing for The Atlantic is sufficient as an explanation.
I think it is to deal with the fear of death. But in what way? His argument is that because I’m a scientist I know there is no afterlife. Why would he need to convince himself (an essay like this is an argument to convince you so that I feel more comfort in my belief) there is no afterlife?
As a Christian, I take it as a given that human beings fear the judgment which lies beyond death. If there is no continuation of life, there is judgment day coming after death. And so he strings out this rather insufficient argument to prove to himself there will be no future.
Hebrews 2:14–15 (ESV)
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.