JR'S Free Thought Pages
Two Unwarranted Beliefs Still Held By Many “Liberal” Christians
Evolution guided by God and the myth of an Immortal Soul
By Johnny Reb
Note: Footnotes are indicated by “*” and follow the paragraph in which they are inserted.
I find the ubiquity of religion, the almost universal acceptance of the existence of a deity and an afterlife, perplexing in many ways. I’m still on a quest to fully understand it but I think Bertrand Russell was right when he said that the appeal of religion is based primarily in fear: fear of death, fear of loneliness, fear of freedom, fear of making important life choices and fear of having to think for oneself. As Russell so convincingly argued, the ultimate fear is the fear of death and I suspect that if we had infinite lives that also entailed continuous youthful physical and intellectual vitality, religion would likely not last a generation. People of course are entitled to be as credulous as they like and believe what they prefer, including supernatural entities and the miraculous. Russell was the 20th Century’s most vehement proponent of skepticism in all areas of human endeavor. He considered it an indispensable tool not only in the sciences, but as a powerful mechanism for perpetuating a democratic liberal temperament as a safeguard against illegitimate power and coercion and hoped it would spread and become more popular among the oppressed masses.
Said Russell, “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – it’s good facts, it’s bad facts, it’s beauties and ugliness; see the world as it is and not be afraid of it.” For him, the idea of God is an idea taken from “ancient Oriental despotisms” and “unworthy of free men.” Russell admitted that he could not prove “that either the Christian god or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration.” Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, he wrote a book on ethics, reflecting on the horrors of both religious and political closed systems of thought, asserting that, “I do not believe that the decay of dogmatic belief can do anything but good. I admit at once that the new systems of dogma such as the Nazis and the Communists are even worse than the old systems, but they could never have acquired a hold over men’s minds if orthodox habits had not been instilled in youth.” Specifically, Stalin’s language “is full of reminiscences of the theological seminary” that Stalin attended as a youth and young man. “What the world needs”, Russell said, “is not dogma, but an attitude of scientific inquiry, combined with a belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or by a Deity imagined in the likeness of the believer.”
It’s obvious even to the most cursory observer of history that it’s belief and not skepticism that has been responsible for the untold misery of the human race.
It seems to me that if you simply remove all the reasons and emotional enticements for wanting a belief to be true, I suspect most would be discarded on the intellectual trash heap. Given either of these two conditions, it’s highly likely the comfortable myths, self-deceptive beliefs and palliatives of religion would soon disappear in a puff of smoke.
As Russell has also argued, science can be fascinating, awe-inspiring and enlightening, but it’s also empowering. So forget about the life-enhancing claims of religion and New Age “self-help” gibberish that infects our mass media and cultural landscape. It’s science that allows us to get what we want, to pursue our passions and “follow our bliss” as Joseph Campbell suggested. Discounting inherited genetic and socio-economic obstacles, I submit that there are essentially two things that stand in the way of getting what we want from life: methodological obstacles and superstitions. Science has the capacity to eliminate them both. The first is technological and the more important second is the removal from “reality” all sorts of self-deceptive imaginary entities, forces and bogus powers and hierarchical power structures that constrain and shackle us both physically and intellectually. Once these conforming mind viruses are removed, we can take advantage of the technological innovations provided by science.
It’s often asserted by theists that "you cannot disprove religious beliefs." Anyone who understands basic logic knows this and also realizes it’s not a relevant rational response to whether or not religious beliefs are true or not. One cannot disprove that there are invisible purple goblins in my room as I type on my computer keyboard. It’s primarily a desperate ruse, a worn out trope and red herring employed to close off inquiry and debate.
Following 500 years of the Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, many archaic religious beliefs such as young-earth creationism, an earth centered universe and miracles such as the virgin birth and resurrections from death have been conclusively demonstrated by science to be violations of basic scientific knowledge. But many modern moderately plausible Christian beliefs cannot be as easily refuted by science because they are non-falsifiable propositions. They are simply articles of faith that people choose to believe based on their religious upbringing and personal life experiences. Despite this irrational character medieval religious dogma continues to claim authority in the political sphere while skeptics and humanists rightly challenge the source of this authority. If religious organizations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. And more importantly, does their god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its programs be translated into law? Do the claims even deserve to be taken seriously?
If you have ever attempted a serious religious critique of the absurdity of religious faith with a letter to our pious conservative corporate newspapers, you will discover that religion is a sacred cow, immunized from criticism. Notwithstanding the fact that there is no necessary logical connection between belief in God and ethics, religious claims to truth and reality are not only entertained and promoted by the conservative elites, but their leaders are also deemed moral authorities and consulted on ethical matters, despite religion’s horrific historical track record. You will face the same obstacles with any attempt to critique our so-called capitalist culture of greed, exploitation and pillage, fondly referred to by its disciples as “free enterprise.”
A common corollary to this ruse is that “atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religious belief and that atheists who think atheism is better supported by evidence are just as dogmatic and close-minded as religious believers." This is again a fallacious claim. The atheist does not deny religious beliefs such as the existence of deities, but merely chooses not to believe based on the paucity of evidence. In logic and science, as in a court of law, the burden of proof *is always on the person making a claim. If you want to convince me, show me the evidence.
*Of course I shouldn’t have to point out that beyond the realm mathematical tautologies and deductive logic, there is really no such thing as irrefutable proof - of anything. For example the occurrence of the Holocaust or that the earth is spherical cannot be proven in this strict sense but this does not imply that we must take deniers seriously. Skepticism is an indispensible intellectual virtue in a world of steaming bullshit, but not for ideas that have been supported by a preponderance of scientific evidence. For example, few people would explicitly endorse an inference of the form “there is no proof of p, therefore I am entitled to believe p.” Lack of proof does not give anyone justification for believing. However, I’ve encountered many people, especially those religiously inclined, to believe an equally, even more insidious, fallacious pattern of reasoning: “There is no proof that p is false, therefore I’m entitled to believe that p is true.” In fact I suspect the majority of people you meet at random would accept this violation of basic logic as a rational strategy. But majority rule, as John Stuart Mill has pointed out, can be a form of tyranny when beliefs are endorsed irresponsibly as is the case in deeply religious and ostensibly democratic countries such as the Christian United States (aka The Republic of Jesus). Is it acceptable to have faith in our leaders when someone like a George W Bush claims to have been directed by his Christian God to protect the United States from Islamic terrorism? According to Boy George, if hundreds of thousands must die in Afghanistan and Iraq then so be it.
Science of course has not been able to explain every natural phenomenon. Despite the fact we are getting closer to an explanation or theory, there are many mysteries still to be unraveled in areas of research such as consciousness and the origins of the universe. But often when this point is raised, the religious responds with what philosophers call the “God of the Gaps”. That is, whenever natural phenomena are not presently explained by science, that's where the religious bring in their God through the back door. But what sort of explanation is one that inserts an even more abstruse mystery on top of a pre-existing one? Why should any given unexplained phenomenon be best explained by religious doctrine, especially given the dismal track record of religion in this regard throughout history? Has there ever been a gap in our scientific knowledge that's eventually been filled by religious doctrine or by importing an opaque concept such as a God?
But even many moderately progressive and liberal religious people make claims about the observable world that fly in the face of scientific knowledge and are frequently in direct contradiction to it. I’ve often wondered how much of Christian mythology can be safely eliminated from one’s belief system and yet still be deemed a Christian. I’ve been told by many of my Christian friends that there are two beliefs that are firmly demanded by anyone claiming to be “Christian.” Both of these, the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, are in direct conflict with basic laws of physics and biology, laws that ought to be understood by any Junior High school student. I’d now like to discuss two other specific Christian beliefs. These are not arcane cultish fringe beliefs nor rigid fundamentalist dogmas; not young-earth creationism or the Catholic doctrine that communion wafers are literally and physically transformed into the blood of Christ somewhere in the digestive tract or the dozens of other credulous articles of faith held by certain Christian denominations. Instead I’d like to discuss two widely held beliefs of modern progressive and judicious believers, even many of those believers who haven’t been in a church for years but who are still hedging their bets. These are beliefs held by intelligent and educated believers who respect the accomplishments and precepts of science and don't think religion and science ought to be mixed. And not unlike those aforementioned beliefs, they remain in direct contradiction of the vast preponderance of available scientific evidence.
Let’s put them on the skeptic’s chopping block and deal with them one at a time.
1. Evolution is guided by God.
An Angus Reid Poll (2006) revealed a scandalous medieval scientific ignorance among Americans, indicating that 53% of respondents believe that life was created in its current form within the past 10,000 years by God, 23% accept a form of evolution guided by God, and 17% believe in a strictly natural evolutionary account.* The acceptance of a God guided evolution is a classic extraneous irrelevancy, a trope not unlike the “God of the Gaps”, often referred to as "theistic evolution." From his throne in the Vatican, the Pope has finally accepted the overwhelming evidence for evolution but has endorsed this feeble ploy. It takes the Catholic Church a long time to admit they’ve been wrong. Usually they never do but after 400 years the Vatican offered an apology for burning Giordano Bruno at the stake. His “sin” was contradicting Church dogma by making true scientific claims about the cosmos. But for the Pope, we cannot throw God out with the bath water, so he sneaks him into the equation through the back door. This lame Vatican trope has been also adopted by many progressive and moderate believers. They will readily and correctly dismiss the Biblical claims of young-earth creationism that all life and the contents of the Universe were created by the flick of a switch by God 6,000 years ago, conclusively refuted by the huge volumes of scientific evidence. But their proviso is that, yes, evolution proceeds exactly as the evolutionary biologists say it does, but the evolutionary process is guided by an Invisible Man in the Sky. Now if this is the case, that evolution is an act of an omnipotent and omniscient God, then it surely must follow that everything else that happens in the Universe is an act of God.
*To reality based Canadians, these are mind-numbing statistics. Not unlike the United States, Conservative Christianity in Canada is so far from the mainstream that Conservative Cabinet Minister Stockwell Day was laughed off the stage when he confessed to believing that dinosaurs had walked the Earth with man, his scientific education having been gleaned from the Flintstones. But don't feel too smug. The same Angus Reid poll found that only 59 per cent of Canadians believe in evolution - which, from the perspective of scientists, is somewhat like discovering that only 59 per cent of us believe in gravity. Twenty-two per cent agreed that “God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years”; 19 per cent weren't sure. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most secular province is historically Catholic dominated Quebec, where 71 per cent believe in evolution. But then one has to ask why the United States is the only industrialized country in the free world that has not taken modernity, the Enlightenment and Scientific world view seriously.
But nowhere within the various realms of science, medical research or within all biology and physics, nowhere in genetics, nowhere in the fossil record or the geological record or any of the physical records of evolution, is there even the slightest morsel of evidence for divine intervention in any natural phenomenon.
And after all, surely if there had been an omnipotent omniscient deity tweaking the evolutionary process, we would expect evolution to have proceeded quite differently than it has. We would expect to see, among the changes in anatomy from generation to generation, at least an occasional instance of the structure being modified in non-gradual ways. For example, we would expect to see structural improvements in certain human anatomical components such as knees, hips and backs better designed for featherless bipeds than quadrupeds. One could apply this reasoning to all the other flawed parts and organs of the human anatomy. Moreover, why are our lives so painfully short and conversely, why do we often outlive so many of our bodily organs such as our eyes, ears and brains? God clearly must have preferred certain turtles to humans because some live for 250 years. There are a seemingly endless series of similar questions one could ask of the alleged beneficent perfect deity. If there was such an implausible metaphysical entity that did create this Universe he’s deserving of an “F” in design engineering. God was definitely an underachiever, or maybe he just was suffering a bad hangover or was having a bad hair day when he flicked the switch and proclaimed “let there be light”. My personal preference for the Christian God is “Deadbeat Dad of the Universe.”
Assuming that evolution occurs entirely as a natural, physical process, what we observe is exactly what we would expect. We see so-called "designs" of living organisms that are seriously flawed and inefficient and at times quite inexplicable. That’s because they are not really "designs" at all and exist for no earthly reason except a slow incremental adaptation to the environment that is an integral part of the physical process of evolution. We see structural modifications that are severely constrained by the fact that each generation can only be a slight revised version of the previous generation, with no sudden lurch to a different basic model. We see slow gradual anatomical adaptations severely constrained by the fact that each new version has to be an upgrade to the previous version rather than an inferior one.
By definition, an omnipotent omniscient designer is not locked into the framework of a previous design. He’s would by definition not be stuck with anything at all. An all-powerful, all-knowing and beneficent deity who is capable of supernatural feats of magic could alter DNA at the snap of a finger. Why would he choose to bring life into being by the slow, cruel, tooth-in-claw, often chaotic, violent and inefficient process of evolution? Why did he wait so long to bring his favorite creature, the human being, into the picture? And what was he doing before he created the Universe? Yes, I know – he works in mysterious ways.
Now, it's true that we do see some evidence for gaps and leaps in the fossil record, indications that evolutionary changes sometimes happen very slowly, but at other times more rapidly. But these lurches are misleading because a lurch in evolutionary time may mean taking place over a few thousand years rather than a hundred thousand years. And as recent research has repeatedly shown, evolution can take place surprisingly rapidly, in a matter of decades... and still be an entirely natural process of small changes, incremental alterations in each generation from the previous one. The late Stephen Jay Gould referred to this anomaly as "punctuated equilibrium". Creationists (or Intelligent Designers) who broach this issue invariably set up the proverbial straw man in their denials of evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory is the cornerstone of modern biology and without it we’d regress decades. Bringing extraneous entities like God in the back door of Evolutionary Theory does absolutely nothing to enhance our understanding, violating Occam’s razor and providing no explanatory power whatsoever. Charles Darwin laid out the mechanisms of natural selection long before the discovery and decoding of DNA. Since his time, science has continued to confirm his theory in ways he never could have dreamed of.
Regarding the standard theological explanations and arguments, I should add that they are notoriously short on detail and long on simplicity, I submit that were any of the reasoning’s of the religious presented in any other context, their advocates would readily recognize them as implausible and unsound. Unless one came to the arguments with theological premises and preconceptions, few would conclude that Creationism is in any way a serious alternative to evolutionary biology, or for those who accept evolution, that God is needed as a further explanatory factor, any more than they would think that angels would be needed to assist gravitational forces so the planets can maintain their orbits about the sun. The same could be said about the existence of the Christian God, a God that Christians claim as the only true God among the hundred that have been invented throughout history. If Christians applied the same reasoning and arguments they call upon to reject the Islamic and all other Gods and applied it to their own God, He would be swept into the intellectual rubbish pile as well.
I also submit that any doctrine of a divine Creator is inimical to the sense of awe, wonder and curiosity of the unknown, which I regard as the central spiritual experience.* Spirituality is an opaque concept, a concept sadly hijacked by religion that attempts to deny the non-religious entry with a superficial pseudo-explanation for the mysteries and amazement of the Universe. God is the consummate conversation stopper, closing off debate and curiosity with an air tight facile answer to the awe inspiring mysteries of existence. Moreover, the infantile idea of worshipping anything or anyone ought to be inimical to any mature thinking adult. If you consider yourself a “child of God”, surely any intelligent caring God would want you to eventually “put away childish things” and grow up. So many doctrines of Christianity make no sense to a serious thinking person. To cite one glaring example: do any of the explanations of the morally repellent idea of Christ “dying for our sins” make any sense at all? Is the cross crucifixion any more intelligible or make any more sense than an animal sacrifice or allowing John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy to go free by having the Dalai Lama take his place in the gas chamber? Moreover, since the world has been in a mess since the crucifixion, perhaps Christ did not suffer enough on the cross, because we still ended up with Attila the Hun, Hitler, endless gratuitous religious, colonial and imperialist wars of greed and slaughter – and George W Bush.
*Some of my friends back in the late 1960s claimed to have religious or “spiritual” experiences after smoking some weed or dropping a tablet of acid.
I lose all hope for any redeeming qualities of the big three monotheisms when I see that they prefer the comforting fairy tales of children to the cruel hard facts of the reality based community of mature adults. Better the faith that brings comfort and peace of mind than the skepticism, uncertainty and rationality that brings worry - even at the price of a permanent intellectual infantilism. Faith reflects what is often referred to by philosophers as “fideism”, the proverbial leap of faith, a conscious choice to believe regardless of evidence or argument. But belief cannot be grounded in faith because what is believed is by definition believed to be true . I can only believe the Holocaust occurred because I believe it to be true in the same sense that I believe that the wars in Vietnam and Iraq were immoral and unjust or in the same way that a religiously inclined person of faith believes the stories of Noah’s Ark and Jonah and the Whale are true. That’s not to say that a belief in some rare cases cannot be provisional based on at least some positive evidence, albeit incomplete, such as the human impact of global warming. I personally prefer to keep my beliefs to a minimum until there is a preponderance of evidence; that leaves me with far less that needs justification.
2. A Ghost in the Machine: An immaterial immortal soul that represents consciousness.
Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles - except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don't yet understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural. As ever when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful. – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. – Thomas Jefferson
By the time I had progressed to senior high school, I’d begun to consider the postulation of a Supreme Being intellectual capitulation, a refusal to take complex problems seriously - a facile, groundless and evasive response to deeply disturbing epistemological and moral conundrums. Once I had discovering Bertrand Russell in the school library, it became patently obvious to me that God was nothing more than Santa Claus* for adults, another comforting lie told to us by our loving parents and others who had power over us. Religion promotes the self-comforting delusion that we know what we do not know, and have flippant all too simple answers that we do not have, thereby denying the true intellectual humility of awe, wonder, mystery, and perhaps, inexplicability of existence and the real world. By mere chance I had what I perceive to be the good fortune to start questioning these premises early in life when I became aware of the contradictions between my childhood experiences and what I was told at Sunday school. One striking example of this was the result of my mother's efforts to comfort me following the death of my dog Rusty who died after being struck by an automobile. My mother assured me that I would eventually meet Rusty later in Heaven, but at Sunday school I was subsequently informed that dogs do not have "souls." In spite of my parents not being particularly religious, I can remember being inundated and bombarded by Christianity and God talk by every facet of the culture, even sports and boy scouts. Anyone not believing in an Invisible dictator in the sky was deemed a recalcitrant “weirdo” or even a seriously flawed human being in need of psychological counselling. Later I discovered from my extensive reading and study of philosophy that this doctrine of the “soul”, now long rejected by mainstream science, has a long history ranging from Aristotle to Descartes. Descartes believed that only humans had souls, and so other members of the animal kingdom were nothing more than “unfeeling automata”, immune to pain and suffering. How he was able to reconcile this belief with the obvious demonstrations of pain regularly exhibited by any pet dog, cat or farm animal is perplexing to say the least. My mother is no longer a religious believer, although as a very young woman she did, perhaps at the urgings of her devout friends, have me baptized in a Protestant Church to avoid having my soul stuck in limbo for eons or burning in the Christian fires for eternity. See my essay “Confessions of a Reluctant Anarchist” for further elaboration.
*I wonder how many children who were from well-off families ever thought much about the glaring injustice of Santa Claus bringing so many toys to them rather than to the not-so-well-off ones? Santa it seems was a supply side Ronald Reagan fan, a trickle down theorist conservative. It’s like the benevolent omnipotent Christian God who has enough love to get a child through chemotherapy but not enough to spare him the indignity of the leukemia in the first place.
Although we live increasingly in an age of science, our notions of self and mind remain largely supernaturally based. Central to most religious conceptions is the delusionary notion that persons possess a soul, an immaterial essence that persists after the physical self disappears. If we are not religious, we might suppose that in addition to being bodies, we are also mental agents, in that consciousness and choice depend on something nonphysical that transcends the brain. Primarily due to the dogmas and superstitions of religion throughout history, most people have adopted some kind of metaphysical dualism: that is, the belief that there are indeed two different realms or realities. Antonio Damasio in Descartes' Error argues that this idea is wishful thinking, a "philosophically diseased" picture of the self, bequeathed to us by Rene Descartes, who supposed that the mind was a categorically separate nonphysical entity, issuing commands to the body via the brain's pineal gland. Such metaphysical dualism found fertile soil in the religious tenet that human beings, made in God's image, have incorporeal souls which act outside natural laws, making us the freely willing originators of our choices. This mistaken idea pervades most non-Western cultures today and surveys suggest that it is true of many well-educated Westerners as well. The major religions are almost all dualist: Christians, Jews and Muslims believe in an eternal, non-physical soul, and Hindus believe in the Atman or divine self within. Among mainstream religions, Buddhism alone rejects the idea of a persisting inner immaterial self or soul. Even among non-religious people, Cartesian dualism is prevalent in Western cultures.
The flourishing sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are still very much in their infancy, and the fundamental questions of exactly what consciousness is and where exactly it comes from, and how exactly it works are still largely unanswered. But despite this, if ever was an idea invented for human wish-fulfillment, the soul is that idea. As the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out, the concept of a non-substantial substance is a self-contradiction. From the standpoint of elementary laws of science, it is not possible to imagine a non-physical entity having life and perception. Even believers in souls always imagine them as being like human shaped clouds or fogs. It’s a delusion to believe that the concept of soul is conceivable. Yet, billions of people have believed in a non-spatial entity called God who can travel through space and perceive and interpret vibrations and waves in the cosmos without any sense organs.
Work done by philosophers and psychologists based on the assumption of a non-physical entity which somehow inhabits and interacts with the human body has not furthered human understanding of the working of the mind. Instead, it has encouraged superstition and ignorance while impeding the development of any real and useful knowledge about the functioning of the human mind. More promising is the work of those who see consciousness in terms of brain functioning and who treat neurological malfunctions and mental illnesses as primarily physical manifestations.
Scientific research on consciousness is a burgeoning enterprise and we are getting closer to the answers. The foundations for our understanding of consciousness are beginning to be laid and there are several things that we do know.
One of the most important things that scientists have agreed upon is that whatever consciousness is, it’s an entirely physical and biological process and all the research and subsequent evidence points to this conclusion. Sorry to disappoint, but despite our longings and delusions, there is no evidence for such a thing as a spirit or soul** that is the source of our thoughts, memories and existence and that survives our bodily death. It’s simply a convenient religious construct, an article of faith.
**Most religions have postulated various formulations of a life after death as part of their sales pitch by inventing another of their numerous abstruse hypotheses: an immaterial substance generally referred to as the “soul”. Coherent conceptions of a soul notwithstanding, the idea of an afterlife is highly problematic from three important perspectives. First and foremost, there is not a shred of evidence to support it. As the great skeptic and arguably the finest courtroom lawyer of the twentieth century, Clarence Darrow once stated, “In spite of all the yearnings of men, no one can produce a single fact or reason to support the belief in God and personal immortality.” Second, the notion of an immortal soul contradicts our most rudimentary commonsense notions about death and our scientific knowledge about what it means to die (“life after death” or “afterlife” actually contains a self-contradiction) and third, given that there is some existence following our death, we can only speculate as to what it might involve both quantitatively and qualitatively. (If it means spending eternity with Jesus alongside an angel playing a harp on cloud nine singing “What a friend we have in Jesus”, I think I’d decline the offer and choose oblivion). Even fundamentalists and Biblical literalists cannot coherently and with any specificity explain what the afterlife would be like. The Bible itself provides not a clue either. In the excellent 1991 Canadian movie Black Robe a Jesuit priest was questioned by some curious Native Mohawk potential converts regarding the notion of the Christian heaven and whether there would be women, sex and tobacco in the Christian version of heaven. The reply by the Jesuit (Black Robe) was a resounding “No”. The curious Mohawks grunted and walked away in disgust. I suppose the invention of an afterlife would not matter so much were it not purchased at so high a price: disregard of reality and hence willful neglect of the only world there is.
Mind/body dualism is a left over remnant from Plato and Descartes that was conveniently adopted by religious traditions in order to posit an afterlife and a more savory alternative to the “evils” of the flesh. It’s a religious mythology that’s become ingrained in our popular culture to such an extent that we write and sing songs about body and soul and utter absurdities such as how your mind is willing but your flesh is weak, and sometimes the other way around, the flesh is willing but the mind is weak. According to the philosopher John Searle, once you reject Cartesian dualism, the mind/body pseudo-problem quickly evaporates. There are two principles one could adopt. First, all of our mental processes are caused by lower-level neural processes in the brain. We assume that it's at the level of neurons, but that's for the experts to settle in the end. With regard to neurons and synapses, perhaps you've got to go higher, maybe you've got to go lower - because the behavior of some sorts of lower-level processes in the brain, whether it's clusters of neurons or sub-neuronal parts or neurons and synapses, are responsible for the entirety of your mental life. Everything from experiencing pains, tickles and itches, to suffering the anguish of post-industrial man under neo-conservative global capitalism, whatever is your favorite angst. The second principle is that the mental reality which is caused by the neurobiological phenomena is not a separate substance that's forced out. It’s not some kind of fluid that's squirted out by the neurons; it’s just the state that the system happens to be in. That is to say, the behavior of the microelements causes an attribute of the entire system at a macro level, even though the system is made up entirely of those elements that cause the higher level behavior. Now that's difficult for many people to grasp, that you can accept both the relation between the brain and the mind is causal, and that the mind is just a feature of the brain.
Medical science knows that when we make physical changes to the brain, it changes consciousness. Drugs, injury, surgery, sensory deprivation, electrical current, magnetic fields, medication, illness, exercise - all these can change our consciousness, sometimes drastically and sometimes rendering an entire personality unrecognizable. Even very small changes to the brain can result in massive changes to consciousness, both temporary and permanent.
This works in reverse as well. Magnetic resonance imagery has shown that, when people engage in diverse thought processes, different parts of their brains illuminate with activity. Changes in thought show up as changes in the brain, just as changes in the brain show up as changes in thought. And, of course, we have the drastic change in consciousness created by the very drastic change in the physical brain known as "death."
In sum, all the evidence points to the conclusion that when the physical brain dies, consciousness is lost. The belief that consciousness survives death has probably been researched more than any other paranormal or supernatural hypothesis. The results: nada. No one, not even a scientist wants death to be permanent and this has been ruthlessly and shamelessly exploited by charlatans who claim to be able to communicate with dead loved ones and relatives. Anyone interested in a séance this evening? All that we presently understand about consciousness points to it being a physical, biological process. When we see it happen in any other phenomenon, we assume that what's going on is physical cause and effect. And we have no reason to think that anything else is going on with the phenomenon of consciousness.
So I’m sorry to disappoint you of the religiously inclined, there simply is not a single shred of scientific evidence supporting the hypothesis that consciousness is even remotely supernatural. There are many gaps in our understanding of consciousness, but there is not one piece of solid, rigorously gathered evidence suggesting that any of those gaps can and should be filled with the hypothesis of a God directed immaterial soul. There's not even a good, testable hypothesis explaining how this immaterial soul is supposed to causally interact with the physical brain. All there is to support this belief is a personal intuitive feeling on the part of believers that the soul has to be non-physical because, well, it just seems like that... in addition to the thousands of years of other believers with a similar intuitive feeling, who have told it to one another, and taught it to their followers, and made up elaborate rationalizations for it, and written it into their holy texts.
Tying this discourse in with the previous section on God directed evolution one might ask: If what really counts about us are our souls and not our bodies, why did the god of Christendom wait so many billions of years for our inessential bodies to evolve by the bumbling, painful, and wasteful process of natural selection? Why didn’t he just zap our souls into existence at the dawn of the Precambrian Era (right after he allegedly separated light from darkness) and forget about our bodies? Why did God wait so long to bring the spiritual dimension into the physical framework of space and time? Was it incompetence? Perhaps he just didn’t give a shit.
My bias in the consciousness debate is toward what is referred to as “eliminative materialism”. After being a minority view (Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty) in the 1960s, eliminative materialism has become an important research program beginning in the 1980s with the work of philosophers Stephen Stich and Patricia and Paul Churchland. Influenced by a strong scientific realism, the Churchland’s claim that mental terms like ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘fear’, ‘sensation’, ‘pain’, ‘joy’, etc. belong to the radically false “folk psychology” and are destined to disappear (like ‘phlogiston’ or ‘caloric’ in physics) when the common-sense framework is replaced by a matured neuroscience.
The confusions we have reached about consciousness are deep and serious, and I suspect they reveal fundamental flaws in the way we normally think about it. Perhaps we need to throw out the most basic assumptions and start all over again.