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Life after death: a debate

Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll along with Yale neurologist Steve Novella won this Intelligence Square debate on the proposition "death is not final". An IQ2 debate about global warming was discussed on this blog 7 years ago.

While the "for" motion (defended by the Harvard-affiliated neurosurgeon with his own near-death experience Eben Alexander along with medical doctor and writer Raymond Moody) was favored 37-31 before the debate, many people have changed their mind and the skeptics (believing that the death is final, after all) have won the final vote 46-31. I am pretty amazed that as many as 38% of the audience changed their opinion about the answer to this fundamental question after the 100-minute debate.

Sean Carroll has promoted the debate: before the debate, debate's afterlife.

The positions of both camps were pretty obvious. Even though the "afterlifers" opposed religion and paranormal phenomena, they would argue that there has to be some afterlife because many people, including Eben Alexander himself, have experienced something astonishing. And these experiences seem to match across the religions and cultures. They would still argue that some "critical thinking going beyond science" is necessary to settle these things.

The skeptics would argue that the mind is a manifestation of the functional brain so if the brain stops its functions, the mind has to disappear as well. All near-death experiences are illusions and there seems to be a big diversity in the people's testimonies which suggests that the perceptions are shaped by their culture and experiences from the material world. Science is enough. Even though I may have written many suggestions that according to the right interpretation of quantum mechanics, the perceptions are primary and the objective reality is a derived notion etc., I would still side with the skeptics on pretty much all questions.

Because the two short previous paragraphs capture the content of pretty much the whole debate, you might argue that 100 minutes may have been too much. There were some original yet important enough ideas.

At the very beginning, Robert Rosenkranz (who is Jewish, e.g. a member of the nation with the highest resurrection rate, he boasted), the founder of the IQ2 debates, said that the afterlife might be analogous to the continuation of the life of the embryo who can't imagine there is life outside its mother's organs. It's a nice analogy except that an intelligent enough embryo would be able to figure out that there should be something outside the mother's body – and even find some evidence supporting it. Also, the embryo can't develop any convincing enough model that would imply that it has to "die" when it gets out of the mother's body. We apparently can construct models that imply such things.

Sean Carroll mentioned our 1619 Winter Queen (of Bohemia) Elisabeth Stuart. It was a promising time of our "de facto Czech Aristocratic Republic" which was ended by the lost 1620 Battle of White Mountain. That battle brought the somewhat backward Germans to the government and meant the "dark ages" – several centuries of the suppression of ethnic Czechs.

I think that quantum mechanics combined with neurobiology in some way might make it fair to say that the "fictitious" experiences of the brain in stress could be "equally real" as the healthy and critical brain's experiences. But they still lack all the tight links to the "exterior world" that is full of phenomena and structured information. So I think it's plausible that people's brains feel some love during the last moments, that these moments are psychologically stretched to thousands of years or the eternity etc., and one could even attribute some reality to these feelings.

However, I think that it will always be true that these experiences lack the "richness of information" that we associate with the normal, "material" world. And if there exists another world with a lot of information and structure, it can't affect our world – these two worlds are pretty much disconnected. If it makes sense to talk about afterlife at all, it is very boring. Richard Feynman made similar observations when he was dying and when he said: "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring." In my opinion, this really summarizes the reason why the "skeptics" are morally right even if quantum mechanics forces us to declare all experiences by the brain to be equally real: the tons of new, diverse, structured, unexpected fun we know from the material life just can't occur in the afterlife regime. The "bulk" of the interesting phenomena occur in the "approximately objective" material world that we know. The "other worlds" may be real and feel like large worlds but they're either lacking the information, or they are causally disconnected from our world.

An older local friend of mine had a stroke recently. He's doing fine and speaking almost normally but even though he is a very spiritual guy, he would say that there were no special experiences etc.

The resurrected guy from Harvard has used quantum mechanics as his defense of afterlife around 46:00 – and he was applauded at 1:04:50 when he said that no neurobiologist in the world can sketch how the brain could possibly create consciousness. Of course that to some extent, I would agree with him about the spiritual message of quantum mechanics. In most others, I would not. Sean Carroll is confused about the basics of quantum mechanics but I agree with him that physicists know these matters better than the physicists who lived 100 years ago. Carroll is also right about the need for skepticism, the need to find evidence for claims – especially extraordinary claims – and many other things, e.g. the claim that you can't always get what you want (1:14:00).

Questions from the audience begin at 1:06:40 or so. In the first answer, the spiritualist Moody said that LSD could perhaps give you some access to other (real) worlds. In the second question, the spiritualist Alexander was asked about his ability to draw his sister he wouldn't have seen before. This question was unfortunately banned as off-topic. Third: Why it's just 10% (of people who have been in clinical death) that have these experiences, and why no one remembers the hell? Alexander thinks that the percentage is higher today.

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reader kashyap vasavada said...

Phenomena like NDE or afterlife have to be based on some extra sensory perception. By definition, it belongs to a world which is beyond our sensory perceptions. If you demand a scientific proof, such claims would usually lose because science is a study of what we can find out by sensory perceptions.So the outcome of the debate is not surprising. As long as science does not understand consciousness, the scientific claims would always be questionable.We have to find a connection between the two worlds e.g perhaps by Yoga(?). As many have pointed out, modern physics is already hinting (not proving for sure) that there could be such a world.

reader Luboš Motl said...

OK, I think that this "extra-sensory" justification - this attempt to claim that science is limited - just doesn't work.

If some "reality" of that realm exists, and it is what the advocates of the near-death experiences are telling us about their experiences, then we clearly *have* conventional sensory observations of the world: we hear those people by our ears. So whatever causes our hearing of these things - and you claim that it's some other world "out there" - must be a subject of science and may be studied by science.

It may affect us "indirectly" because the "other world" first affected the clinically dead, resuscitated person, who then influenced us - but there is nothing wrong about the scientifically studied influences' being indirect. Every influence that science studies or observes is indirect in one way or another. We don't observe objects - we observe the perceptions of the light emitted by these objects. We don't observe distant galaxies even in this way; we trust that our eyes may be extended by telescopes. We don't observe quarks or strings yet we know that they are there because they have indirect effects on our perceptions.

reader PlatoHagel said...

I appreciate your opinion anyway given however boring you might think the subject. Thanks. :)

reader visitor said...

Although I believe that NDEs have deeper meaning and that life after death probably exists, I agree that in this particular debate the skeptic party won. In my view this was in part by bad choice of the participants on the pro NDE side. Moody is already quite old and Eben is just an "experiencer", not a researcher in the field. Thus both Moody and Eben did not even touch large body of evidence coming from current NDE research. I would rather prefer e.g. Bruce Greyson, Pim van Lommel or Sam Parnia to participate in the debate. The main point is that sometimes people in the NDE state wake up with information they did not possess previously (such as their parents had another child before they were born or that their friend also died (independently) during the time of their comma or they were able to describe medical procedures performed on them while unconscious). Currently there are several ongoing studies in hospitals in US and Europe. One such study is AWARE study. They are trying to determine and document, whether patients in deep coma can indeed bring back some new, verifiable information which they could not possess under normal circumstances. If this turns out to be true, how would you interpret such results? I mean apart from obvious skeptic arguments like fraud or information leaking. In my view skeptic side in the debate was also completely ignorant of the NDE research even though such research papers are published in respected journals, such as the Lancet. If you want some quick info about this topic I recommend (apart from research articles) e.g recent books by Jeffrey Long an Paul Perry (Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences) or Pin van Lommel, Chris Carter and other authors.

reader kashyap vasavada said...

I agree with most of what you are saying. But unless we find a connection between the two worlds, we will never resolve this issue.No matter what the ESP people say there will always be an argument: how can you trust your mind? You are having hallucinations, delusion, under the influence of drugs etc. *Material proofs* that scientists accept have a very long way to go. Unless, as you mentioned few months back, there is some hint from quantum gravity world!!

reader Luboš Motl said...

Kashyap, I think that you are twisting all these things upside down.

It is *you* who is arguing that there is a connection between our world and some other immaterial world. I argue that the evidence shows that no such a connection exists! So if such a connection to a completely different, spiritual world were found, I would be proven wrong. It's exactly the absence of this connection in the data that is the partial evidence that I am or science is right!

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Visitor, thanks for your thoughts. I obviously believe that every information that someone brought from the near-death experience is either

1) information he already has had but forgot or
2) information he was fraudulently told in some way or
3) a matter of chance, a guess that sometimes works and sometimes it doesn't.

I would only be willing to discuss the evidence for the "miraculous information brought from NDE" if the other party admitted that all the possibilities above are conceivable for every individual story of this sort.

Whenever I tried to discuss these matters with someone - I mean a fan of spiritual things like that - she or he would try to demonize me as an evil person who dares to question the integrity of these people etc. But it *is* how science has to proceed. Science has to question everything, and mundane or fraudulent explanations are clearly the right explanations in many cases. The theories or pictures I believe are clearly implying that they are correct in *all* cases - but some people just refuse this answer as a blasphemy that prevents them from seeing that it is the actual right answer.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Kashyap, BTW I laughed when I read your sentence on Sean's blog "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."

He's not censoring all "rival physics blogs". The actual reason why the link was censored was that it was 1) my blog, 2) right-wing bloog. ;-)

reader Albert Zotkin said...

Sean Carroll's false and demagogic debates as always. For rich and powerful people concern is whether there is life after death. Concern of poor people is whether there is life before death.

reader ItFromBit said...

Lubos, Your thoughts on the afterlife are fantastic including Feynman's observation that it is probably boring, etc. I like Henry Stapp's ontological argument here:
He argues there is a clinging mental states case to be made per William James, et al., that does not rule out or preclude an afterlife.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Interesting, thanks!

reader Luboš Motl said...

Thank God that with my income 10 times lower than that of many people who consider themselves poor, I am rich enough that I may thinking about the Universe.

reader anony said...

Obviously the only way to address this scientifically is to propose the existence of an "afterlife field" (ALF) mediated by some family of "afterlife particles" (ALP). Since our minds are proposed to interact with the ALF via ALPs with apparent complete unity at death, and not after, then one would have to propose that biological life of sufficient complexity converts some amount of energy into ALPs, so clearly there is some energy delta. We all know of the equivalence of mass and energy, so if we check snopes we find that attempts to measure the soul have been made, and is estimated to weigh 21 grams (with a popular movie based on this measurement). Of course we need to find some way to test for ALPs and therefore must build an ALP detector, I propose we spend ~$10 trillion dollars over the next 25 years designing and building this machine. The design would involve accelerating two boltzmann brains (bb's) that pop into existence via a vacuum fluctuation generated by random firing a series of linear colliders. The bb's are accelerated to to near the speed of light which should have the effect of amplifying the energy of the soul to measurable levels before the bb's are annihilated in a spectacular collision. Of course objects the size and mass of a brain when colliding at near the speed of light would release massive amounts of energy that could potentially kill all life on earth, so we need to build this bb collider in space. I even further propose that clearly any intelligent species in the universe would have conducted similar experiments by now, so we should be scanning the horizons for the signal generated by the bb colliders that surely must be running fairly regularly by now.


reader lukelea said...

Life after death? Why after? Much more interesting is the question of life in the moment of death. Might it be so intense as to equal a lifetime of normal experience? Eternity in a grain of sand as the poet Blake wrote.

reader Shannon said...

There must be some kind of equation that would tell us what comes after life. You scientists have to work harder on it...

reader kashyap vasavada said...

Yes! Sean Carroll has problem with the name Motls! I have seen links to other blogs, some people's own websites. Then I just tried the title " Hinduism for physicists" It went through! World is a funny place!

For the "other world" my arguments will always fall short. First, I do not have any personal experience. Then nobody else knows how to connect them!. John Hagelin , Amit Goswami and others have tried but cannot establish scientifically believable correlation!

reader Shannon said...

My son came to me one day when he was 3 years old asking me very directly out of the blue: "Mum, so we are born, then we grow and then we become old and then we die, right?". Surprised by the depth of the question (wasn't used to it with my daughter before him ;-)) told him "well yes, that's pretty much it... But we have a lot of time to have fun in between..." but he wasn't listening anymore. He got his answer and was happy with it.... I guess he wanted to make sure he wasn't missing anything in the process :-D.

reader kashyap vasavada said...

Hi Lubos: Can you put up with one more pseudo science statement? The "two worlds" may be connected via a worm hole similar to Maldacena- Susskind worm hole which is non traversable by materials but there are correlations between the two sides! As they say little knowledge is a dangerous thing! LOL. Just a fun thought.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Kashyap, LOL, not sure whether the comment is a joke. But the Einstein-Rosen bridge is called "non-traversable" not because it would be designed for souls or something like that.

It's non-traversable because if you jump "into it", you will inevitably see that the bridge is time-dependent, collapsing, and it will shrink to a singularity before you will be able to emerge on the other side.

reader John Archer said...

Yeah yeah OK but I think the real question here is what kind of evidence one should accept as sufficient proof of life after death, and similarly for the existence of a deity? I think we need to decide that first before we all go rambling off on one. These are big claims, so we need big evidence. But what exactly?

Well frankly, as far as the latter is concerned, I'd be rather impressed if we discovered that the fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation turned out to be a huge barcode encoding the recipe for the perfect pork pie.

What would do it for you?

reader kashyap vasavada said...

This was a joke of course. But thanks for the physics type clarification. Incidentally it would be nice to understand why traversable worm holes need a blanket of negative energy if it does not involve a long technical argument. But probably it does.

reader Christopher Fortin said...

Is there some precept in physics that would deny the possibility of additional dimensions we might inhabit but not sense?

reader Sage Basil said...

this is retarded. It's sad that Christians defend their immense cultural heritage by referring to propositions that by their nature can not be known - the existence of God, and the afterlife.

That is not what Christianity means. To see what Christianity means, compare the Tower of Babel a.k.a. the European Parliament to the Sistene Chapel, or, just about any modern building built for a government or an NGO to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The Sistene Chapel is even approximately box-shaped.

What does Christianity mean? The key concepts - virtue, sin, and seeking redemption in the sacrifice of the Lamb - are left out of anyone's education. To excise virtue, today's kids never read more than a page or two of Plato.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Well, for spherically, SO(3) symmetric wormholes, it is sort of easy because every vacuum metric looks like a part of the Schwarzschild solution. Even with a non-negative energy density, you may solve the equations and "R" taken so that the angular part of the geometry is R^2 dtheta^2 +... is always a good coordinate so the solution can never guarantee that the proper radius of the sphere never shrinks below a minimium.

OK, it's a technical argument even in this simple case. For a more general technical argument, see e.g.

reader Svik said...

Some scientists are fools to deny GOD.

When God raises his Son Jesus from the dead after 3 day in the grave He proved his point.

The uneducated fishermen a tax collector and a doctor all give first hand accounts of this in the 4 gospels and letters of the NT.

In fact Paul says over 500 people saw Jesus alive.

This is legal evidence and you don't have to try to prove it with science.

Jesus came to rescue people from their destiny of hell and give them a life eternal life worth living for. Just believe that God raised him from the dead and confess publicly that he is Lord God.

I think our university is less real than heaven. Like a lower dimension with less energy like left over dust like garbage. But God takes the worthless things and used them to show his Glory. Who else would pick simple fishermen to tell his story.

You could also view Jesus as the gateway to heaven or the way or Jacobs latter. Similar to the wormhole sci3ntists r yacking about.

reader Svik said...

Do you need some $$$ Lubos?

Maybe I can send u enough to buy dinner.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Because inhabiting and sensing is the same thing. One just can't inhabit something that can't be sensed.

reader Christopher Fortin said...

Well, ( first, thx for the response ) I'm of course thinking Flatland like environment, where we are in a R4 manifold, embedded in, for instance, R6. If E&M, Grav etc are constrained to the R4 manifold, perhaps there are other dimensions our senses are not evolved to detect. Thinking in a similar fashion to the argument that the standard model has 3 families, due to IIRC the solar neutrino mixing being affected buy a 4th family even if we hadn't see any of its members, I was wondering if there are any experiments or history that precludes additional dimensions in a similar manner.

To relate that to this conversation, if we were actually 6d entities with our senses only seeing 4 ( like a sphere interesting flatland that only sense pressure on the intersecting circle ), it seems that there could be several mode/methods that an intelligence could survive after death.

reader Bob Askew said...

Well it seems the favored stance is "life's a bitch and then you die". Seems that the universe went to an awful lot of trouble for what? I think the key in this very interesting dichotomy is be skeptical but keeping an open mind. I like Tom Campbell's theory he set out in 'My Big Toe' although I don't believe what he says but am inspired to enquire and research for the truth.

reader ItFromBit said...

Lubos, You are getting some play at another blog here:

reader Gordon said...


reader Gordon said...

Out of body experiences occur with stimulation of areas of the angular gyrus in the right parietal lobe and the right temporal lobe. These are easily interpreted as religious God experiences by the person involved.
This is also interesting:
as is Michael Persinger's transcranial magnetic stimulation "God Helmet."

reader Rehbock said...


reader CentralCharge15 said...

Downvotes aren't displayed in the new disqus, I have no idea why.

reader Svik said...

IAfter a short search I don't trust the Eber Alexander NDE account as he does not mention Jesus or discuss the need for atonement by the blood of Jesus.

A better example is In McCormach in the box jellyfish NDE.

I look for positive changes in their lives after the fact.

reader anna v said...

About thirty years ago I was in my metaphysical phase. I read up everything from Buddhism to Castaneda to NDEs to reincarnation stories, and would discuss with people on the subjects. My favorite was the Seth world view because it started from units of consciousness :) and explained all religions known to me..

I had discussions with a professor, an experimental physicist, who was a great skeptic of anything on afterlife and here is how I trumped the discussion:

Two possibilities:

a) When one dies, there is nothing, no self no sensation , thats it.

b) There be something there, we somehow persist as selfs.

My trumping argument:

If a) we will both be nonexistent and there will be no way to know which side is correct.

If b) I will come and wake you up and tell you : "see, I was correct"

Because this is an experiment we will all perform. He has already departed being ten years older then I ( now 74).

Since then I have added a c) to my possibilities:

c) consciousness persists but is chaotic, the bundle of "I" dissolves at death in a large data base.

It is similar to a) as far as the self goes.

Now I am agnostic, waiting to see what happens. If the self persists, I have a road map , like the bizarre maps the first explorers left : "Here there be tigers".

In my then favorite theory, after death, one would find whatever one expected. My grandmother, a great christian, would find herself singing with the angels, until she got bored. If one believed in annihilation of self at death, one will be in a limbo of nothing, until he/she gets bored realizing something is there.

And this is for the interesting link from Gordon :

If we accept a metaphysical theory that consciousness molds the body ( ancient one, with the etheric bodies etc) then it would be surprising if the body could not simulate all the metaphysical states. We know from physics that an antenna is also a receptor, and a receptor can also be an antenna. The reciever in your TV is also an antenna radiating the received frequencies. I AM NOT SAYING THAT THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS. I am saying the fact that NDE simulations happens from the brain does not prove the non existence of life after death, in the way that the antenna properties of your TV do not invalidate the large antenna on the hill.

As I said, I am agnostic, and wait with interest to see , or not see, what happens.

reader Alex said...

Ha Ha.

reader Alex said...

When I die the universe will die with me (from my perspective). Therefore I am God

reader Luboš Motl said...

The truth is clearly independent from - and perhaps uncorrelated to - trouble in the sense of human suffering. If by "trouble", you mean "lots of fudging", the only correct "fudging" that may be rationally said to influence the probability that an explanation is correct is the fudging of the primary assumptions, defining principles or equations of the theory. And those are very efficient and minimal according to what we know.

Whatever evolved has evolved. It has evolved because the laws of Nature dictated it as a "consequence" of the theory and the initial conditions, not because it has a "purpose". The past influences the future but not the other way around. The whole Universe can never have a purpose (in a distant future) even if it may sometimes look so.

reader Peter F. said...

Did I spot a a slight bout of hubris? ;-))

reader Peter F. said...

More Hahahahas! :-DDD

reader Peter F. said...


reader Bob Askew said...

So can we be certain there is no purpose? What predicated the universe into being (matter) and then spawned life? Both matter and life have set paths determined by initial 'laws'.
Matter increases its entropy whereas life struggles to decrease its entropy.
Consciousness may be the third element which seems also to be striving to decrease entropy and become unconditional love.
In any event who gives a rats bottom!
Maybe the 'one' who went to the trouble in the first place???