In a recent article in Discover Magazine, Sean M. Carroll tackles the often controversial subject of whether there is life after death. Sean concludes that although a majority of people (more than 50% according to the Pew Research Center) believe in some form of afterlife, current day understanding of scientific laws make it highly improbable, if not outright impossible.
Most of the information that we have regarding the existence of an afterlife comes from people’s accounts of near death experiences (NDE’s) and encounters with ghosts and spirits, or from religious teachings. Scientists have yet to prove that these NDE’s are real and not just a figment of the imagination. Regarding religious teachings, these are based on faith and not on scientific inquiry and knowledge. In order to believe in an afterlife, one must believe there there is some form of consciousness that persists after our bodies deteriorate. Most people refer to that “consciousness” as a soul. This leads to further questions of what that soul is, what it is comprised of, and how it interacts with the atoms that make up our bodies.
Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.
Sean points out that the mathematical equation that describes how electrons behave in our everyday world is called the Dirac equation. Roughly speaking, this equation describes the relationship between the velocity of an electron and its inertia, and electromagnetism and gravity. However, Sean admits that the equation is not complete as it hasn’t taken into account nuclear forces and the existence of the elusive Higgs boson (or God particle). Could the inclusion of these help create that “new physics” that Sean requires in order to allow for the existence of a soul, and by extension, the existence of an afterlife?
Perhaps more interesting than the article itself, is the back and forth commentary of its readers. In a period of 9 days, Sean’s article has garnered 170 responses. As one would expect, there are a lot of consenting and dissenting views on the topic. However, most agree that the subject needs more consideration and more variables in order to be fully accepted or dismissed. Consider the following responses:
The general assumption — among physicists who believe in Christ, or Christians who believe in physics, or any combination of the two — is that the spacetime governed by the Standard Model is a subset of a more complete reality. Whether you want to use the extradimensional analogy of Flatland (the brain is to the soul as a cube is to a tesseract) or the computer science analogy (the brain is to the soul as the user input is to the user) or any other visualization, it isn’t that confusing.
If the spacetime we know and see and test is but a tiny slice of a larger reality, and the larger reality only regularly interacts with ours in a few controlled ways (consciousness, etc), there is no reason to presume that we would be able to detect any portion of that reality that is necessarily located outside our own, any more than we would expect a computer program to be able to tell you anything more about its hardware components than the signals it is receiving from them.
From Jesse M:
But in an infinite multiverse, isn’t it likely that somewhere out there a pattern of information identical to our own brain’s last conscious experience will arise somewhere, and will survive to have additional experiences? This would seem especially natural in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, leading to the theory of quantum immortality.
From Andrew S:
There is no evidence for life after death, supernatural phenomena, free will, unnecessarily complicated physical theories, or any number of other fantastical things. The reason why many people believe such things anyway is because if they didn’t, then they would probably conclude that existence is the ultimate trap in which they have no power, no control, and no purpose. Thus, natural selection will favor those that believe in these things (even if these beliefs are false) to the extent that such beliefs allow or encourage them to reproduce rather than kill themselves in despair.
From Raghavan Jaganathan:
Consciousness without material is possible . But material without consciousness will merely be stone and mud. ( quarks and electrons).
To read the original Discover Magazine article and/or participate in the discussion go here.
Photo courtesy of HDRenesys.