Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Audacity of Hopelessness

About 3-4 years ago I decided that near death experiences and other supposed evidences of life after death are about as likely to be valid as bigfoot or the lochness monster. The reasons I have for believing this are precisely the reasons reasonable people have to disbelieve bigfoot or lochness. After years of outspoken certainty of LAD, many people were baffled at my changing of sides on the issue. The standard claims of "he's crazy", "He's bitter" as reasons for not believing were sent my way.

Several people became fascinated and have become almost pseudo-stalkers such as Michael Gilmore and Lou Famoso who regularly tries to get me to add him to my facebook list (I can't believe the guy even remembers me). These people feel compelled to check up on me, possibly to see if their prayers of me getting struck by a lightening bolt or having a heart attack were answered, and that maybe I can bolster their desperate pleas for hope with a turn around story ("I died and yes Lou, Archangel Michael really does have gigantic gleaming biceps, wow you were right all along!").

As I've said before, my turnaround came not from bitterness, but a close reading of things I had previously avoided or ignored- human nature invented by natural selection, neuropsychology etc.. I came around only kicking and screaming. Although it is impossible to rule out life after death, all of my most powerful arguments for it have been drastically undermined in the past few years by new experimentation (they were already drastically undermined, I just didn't have the knowledge base to understand why).

NDE's, OBE's and alien abductions are almost synonymous by my lights. NDE's are more compelling because they occur near death, but the veridical claims have not been verified despite serious effort, and due to recent inducements of OBEs and feelings of a sensed presence (mainline attributes of NDE's) using brain stimulation and magnetic helmets etc... it is perfectly clear to all but the most insistent people that these feelings are created by manipulation of the brain. There is not an actual presence there, and you are not actually leaving your body.

There seems to me to be very little wiggle room left for the hypothesis that people actually do leave their bodies. After scouring OBE message boards I realized that scores of people were consistently unable to verify *anything* they supposedly saw out of body. They very commonly had overlapping attributes of NDEs (lights, tunnels, sensed presences, joy, bliss, realer than real experiences etc...). So I can infer logically that these experiences are overlapping and intertwined with the NDE. And I think I can infer logically that people almost certainly will never be able to prove that they can see out of body, because they almost certainly can't. A handful of interesting stories and anecdotes are expected. I have known at least two people who are sure they saw bigfoot, for instance.

I suppose also, the older one gets and the more experiences one has the more clear it is that people by and large are simply full of shit (my own natural propensity for gullibility and desire to exaggerate the significance of variance random experiences is also a case to be made for the shallowness of my prior belief). Particularly when they want to or need to believe something which gives them hope. They cry foul at the audacity of hopelessness. It bothers them so much they feel the need to stalk me. And the fact they need to know whether I believe or not is a tell that they really don't believe it strongly themselves.


Patrick said...

I love the title.

In certain ways, it's incredibly liberating to consider that there's no purpose to life, that there is no reward for beneficence or punishment for evil. Nobody cares. Since I can't prove, even to myself, that my NDE was "real", I'm content to live with this possibility.

For my part, I'm also content to consider my NDE real, since any belief or disbelief in LAD is, ultimately, a matter of belief. As I understand LAD, and if my understanding is correct, any attempt to verify it will lead to exactly the results we're stuck with -- results that are inconclusive and disputable at best.

LAD would have to be a purely conscious event. Since I can't possibly *prove* that I imagined a butterfly just five minutes ago, though the experience might have been "real" and powerful, how could I possibly prove that any other kind of "experience" was real?

I suppose the question becomes: What, if anything, about conscious experience is real? So far, science has absolutely nothing to say about the *experience* of consciousness. As far as I can tell, this is a realm that might be permanently impenetrable to science. Science relies on objective, reproducible evidence. The experience of consciousness is neither objective, nor is it, in any way, reproducible. No one will *ever* reproduce the experience of being Aaron James, Lincoln or Mozart.

So, even if LAD were as real as *your* experience of consciousness, it will remain forever impenetrable except through the act of experiencing it, which can't ever be reproduced or directly observed by anyone but the observer.

Further confounding the whole picture is that any sort of non-local consciousness would *have* to be utterly different than the consciousness produced by the brain (since the two would *have* to be different). This means that anything we confirm about the brain & consciousness might tell us positively nothing about any kind of consciousness that might exist independently of the brain.

In short, LAD appears to be utterly unprovable. We can either say that this is what we would expect to find if it were real, or that this is what we would expect to find if it weren't.

Until we have truly come to grips with consciousness, we are left with assertions of belief - for and against.

I remain the most hopeless of all, ready to accept either belief, but unable to adopt either. I am lost to uncertainty.

Top that.

Aaron said...

I can't disagree with anything that you've said really. The experience of consciousness is not reproducible, but we can turn it on and off with anesthesia. When I went to have my wisdom teeth pulled I reclined back and was aware one second, then I was aware of having blinked my eyes and the doctor said "okay that's it, all done". I was taken aback. Absolutely no time passed at all from when I blinked my eyes and the procedure had not even started to the point of him saying "I'm done". I assume it must take at least a few minutes to extract 2 teeth way in the back of your mouth. Where was my consciousness? If the presence of consciousness is not determined by the brain, where was it when the chemicals shut that part of my brain off? Where will it be when my brain turns to sand? Without some sort of substantial evidence for LAD, I have no reason to believe that I will spend eternity anywhere but in the same place I spent 10 minutes under anesthesia.

LAD is unprovable, but this apparent fact should strike you as very odd. I am surprised that it does not. With however many millions of OBEs and NDEs and apparent psychic experiences and yet a person like me who wants to believe cannot. We cannot prove that LAD doesn't exist, but I think it is fairly easy to dismantle every single popular argument for it based on evidence. Of course consciousness is the untouchable mystery, and hopefully it embues the universe. But I am at a loss to understand how any NDE, OBE, ESP database supports the survival hypothesis more than it diminishes it.

At the end of the day, the existence of consciousness itself is the only compelling argument for survival.

Anonymous said...


As you know, I had the same experience as you did when I was put under general anesthesia fifteen years ago. You're quite right that pro-survivalists must address the problem of the impairment of brain function leading to a corresponding impairment (deficit) in consciousness, which is a broad term that encompasses many different processes, including perception, planning, comprehension, speech production, and so on.

Correlation does not mean causation. As a pro-survivalist, I have no answer to this most central of all problems, the most deadly missile fired into the very heart of pro-survivalist hopes.

However, I have no answer as to how qualia (i.e. "the experience of consciousness") are possible. And more importantly, I have no answer whatsoever to account for George Anderson and his purported communications from those who have died, for psi phenomena (if they exist), and for anecdotal evidence from NDE's.

I agree with Pat that when and where science pursues these lines of questioning, the answers that return are both elusive and inconclusive. Some topics, in my view, are simply beyond our ability to probe and even if we had answers, we might not be able to comprehend them because they would be so radically removed from what counts as an explanation for a human being whose form was molded by natural selection operating within the Earth's biosphere.

You've thoroughly explored the empirical realm, looking for evidence of a creator or life after death. At the periphery of your explorations you've found a black border, a void of nothingness, and concluded that there is nothing there.

What you seem unwilling to do is honestly probe compelling evidence, such as surveyed in David Fontana's book, _Is There An Afterlife?_--a question he answers in the affirmative)--or coming from sessions with the medium George Anderson. Until you have a person session with George Anderson, I cannot believe your sincerity in pursuing the question of life after death.

Like all fundamentalists, you've decided (or discovered within your psyche the belief) that there is "almost certainly" no life after death. I needn't point out the absurdity of making such a bold declaration with an equally powerful subversive qualifier, "almost," that demolishes the assertion's force in full, like a boomerang thrown by a man that comes back to decapitate him. You've then proceeded, without any real scholarly effort, to make specious arguments in favor of you preexisting beliefs. This is the same tactic followed by the physicalist brat pack of Dan Dennett, Mike Shermer, Sam Harris, Dick Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Sue Blackmore, and numerous imitators.

Go and have a reading with George Anderson and then tell me that there isn't life after death. Go and talk with nondescript people from ordinary towns who have had (but not published or in any way promoted) a near-death experience.

You are guilty of dogmatism, circular logic, and a level of obstinacy rarely seen among psychologically well individuals.

Finally, in the impossibly unlikely case that we're annihilated at death, I argue that it makes no sense to abandon hope, because doing so would inevitably lead to a life of greater anxiety and suffering for most people, I suspect. Therefore, "faith" serves a palliative function which ameliorates anxiety.

In brief, nothing that I've said above should be construed to suggest that we survive or that we're annihilated, for I don't know, nor can I know, given my limitations as a human being.

However, what I believe is another matter. I believe that yes, we unequivocally and irrefutably survive "death," whether individuals like it or not.


Aaron said...

It needs to be added here that Steve has visited a handful (maybe 3-5) psychics and payed them money for a reading. Every one of them have been completely useless and wrong on every major account by Steve's own admission.

Also, Steve doesn't believe in LAD. Occasionally he does for awhile and pretends to be exhuberant and certain as he is here, but then reverts back to telling me in no uncertain times (and he has told me this probably over a hundred times in the past year)- "we both know that we almost certainly do not survive death". Then a week later he will go on to say or write something like he did here.

You have to know Steve to understand. He is a contrarian who will take the diametrically opposite position and switch back, sometimes within the space of a single conversation.

No Steve, you and I both know that you seriously doubt that we survive death. But it was a well written attempt at pretending to believe. You should have titled it- "This is what I would say were I to actually believe what I am saying: and Ohhhhh, I wish I really did believe this..."

Aaron said...

Within Steve's own writing you can see the inherent duplicity and struggle he has within himself over this issue. How can these words possibly make sense?

"Finally, in the impossibly unlikely case that we're annihilated at death" .....

"In brief, nothing that I've said above should be construed to suggest that we survive or that we're annihilated" .....

"I believe that yes, we unequivocally and irrefutably survive "death," whether individuals like it or not."

This is classic Steve. Just a continuous mess of internal contradictions.

Anonymous said...


I knew that you'd point out the tension and contradiction implicit in my writing. You've often done so before.

As you know, I'm terrified of death. I want life to feel meaningful, regardless of whether or not it "objectively" is. Given that I suffer from an anxiety disorder, my hope for survival and my fear of death are intensified to extreme levels.

I'm torn because I live with the knowledge that science produces results that improve human lives, and it's consequently temping to accept the materialistic hypothesis, but there are also near-death experiences, which we are at a complete loss to explain.

In my lifetime, incidentally, I've seen four psychics: one when I was twenty-two, and three in my mid-thirties. Your comments are essentially correct as to the veracity of their information. It's ambiguous and vague. It facilitates the psychological phenomenon of projection. One sees what one believes or wants and needs to see.
But I see...emptiness.

In any case, don't put words into my mouth. You and I both know that I do believe in the survival of human personality beyond death. My faith in this hypothesis varies, just as the strength of belief in any doctrine does. I'm a philosopher. How could it be otherwise? I'm open-minded.

You, however, are not. You are an aggressive nihilist. You hate other people and want to destroy us. You're only open to "evidence" which confirms your a priori assumptions, and you truncate any data that would contradict such assumptions.

Your doctrines are dangerous. Your dogmas are false. In short, you're. You've done no real investigation of the NDE whatsoever, not to mention psychic phenomena. Like biological research, psi research cannot be conducted from one's sofa reading popular press books written for a mass audience.

Go and have a reading with George Anderson and then tell me that there's no afterlife.

Aaron said...

How about I just skip George Anderson, save my 5000 dollars and tell you there's probably no afterlife?

YOU should have the reading, as you are the one who cares what Anderson has to say. Since you are honest about your dealings with other psychics, I trust you would be honest about your results with George.

It is all so common for people to construe one's complete disbelief in the spiritual/supernatural with an angry, bitter, aggressive temperament. It is the standard accusation on anyone who undermines another's hope. But you know me well enough by now to know that this is not true. You create such accusations in the hope that simply saying them somehow makes them true. It's what you desire to believe. What drives you nuts is that you know that I am *not* bitter, not angry, not full of anxiety, and have no motive for disbelief other than a dispassionate personal evaluation of the evidence. It would be so much easier were I to be the angry villain. Then you could use that to explain why I don't believe. But you can't, and it drives you and others crazy. Your attempts to irritate me drive towards that end. If I am not angry and bitter, then perhaps you can make me that way.

Your entire ploy is greatly undermined by the emotional desperation of your tactics. How can I value the strength of a person's belief when there is so much emotional overlay driving them to take a position? I don't care much about what an oil company executive believes about global warming, and I don't care much about what a person with an anxiety disorder and profound debilitating fear of death think about the evidence for an afterlife.

Inwardly, you hope beyond hope that I go insane, fail at whatever ways I attempt to be happy, come close to death and then cry out in desperation that I am going to believe in the supernatural no matter what because the pain of not believing is too unbearable. But you project your own anxiety onto me. I have very little.

It is perfectly standard for human beings to desire the failure of their friends. Since everyone wants to be the best, the failure of others is a step forward. That's people. I observe. This is how it is. Don't blame me, I didn't make the rules. People are silly creatures of emotion. A small percentage of them are capable of thinking rationally... once in awhile. Once in awhile you are too, but not right now.