Rationality of Possible Life-After-Death?

(by Stanislaus Dundon, Ph.D.)

            Two recent books have received generous respectful public attention which I believe a sober, realist philosophy of science should find alarming, although for different, yet related, reasons. The books are The Consolations of Mortality by Andrew Stark, and The Big Picture by Sean Carroll. My comments are motivated by the respectful reviews the books received. Stark’s Consolations of Mortality was reviewed by Colin McGinn in the Wall Street Journal (9/19/16). Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture was reviewed by William Carroll in Public Discourse, the online journal of The Witherspoon Institute (9/22/16).

Stark and his reviewer, McGinn, are both philosophers whose confidence in a starkly materialist world view is a philosophically naïve dismissal of a long and distinguished history of arguments for non-material components of reality.  They casually cast into history’s dumpster every suggestion of non-material reality written before A.J. Ayer, no matter the fame of its author. Thus McGinn opens his review:        “ Given the absence of an afterlife, we….”  That non-material truth, justice and  moral duty actually move the human body is ignored or dismissed.

William Carroll is careful in his review of Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture. Although ultimately skeptical, he tries to lay out how Sean Carroll describes a “poetic naturalism” as a way of describing the world we live in without denying our right to speak of “mind, free will, purpose, morality” and life itself. Sean only insists that we not claim they exist as real and distinct from physical (material) states. They are simply terms and propositions which capture elements of reality and as such are useful ways of talking about our world, yet never requiring any ontological stuffing. The legitimacy of our talking in terms of “natures,” life and “cause-effect” relations is due to their usefulness, a kind of convenient shorthand for profoundly abstruse processes of fundamental particles and “interacting quantum fields.”

William Carroll does not go for the jugular in his  review. Let me offer a scalpel. Neither Stark, McGinn nor Sean Carroll give adequate attention to what Sean explicitly depends on: certain subatomic particles, bosons and fermions and their associated quantum fields. These are the least and most fundamental particles of Sean’s universe. Other theorists choose quarks or strings without claiming any radical conflict. “Boson” and “fermion” may be understood as class-names but designate significantly distinct behaviors. In any case all of these, in their respective theories, are viewed as literally fundamental, meaning they give rise to and explain higher structures and are not dependent on anything more basic.

Particles of any given fundamental type are identical twins of each other and because they are  fundamental they have no common material father. Yet some source or agent of their identity/blueprint must exist and  that source cannot be materially dependent on them!

Let’s consider boson behavior. It is a tendency to join the same quantum state as other nearby bosons. Fermions refuse such gatherings. These diverse behaviors are fundamental properties of fundamental particles even though they are only observed in their interactions with other particles. Any given type of fundamental particles has many such properties, such as inertial mass, color, charm, spin, whose “sizes” and strengths are quite precise and together make up the “blueprint” of the type. Each particle member of that type has that  nearly exact same blueprint. They are identical twins of each other and because they are  fundamental they have no common material father. Yet some source or agent of their identity/blueprint must exist and  that source cannot be materially dependent on them! That is to say the agent is non-material and capable of designing and imposing a blueprint of considerable complexity on the fundamental particles of our cosmos. It is non-material and intelligent. This fact impresses many Nobel laureates if not Stark, McGinn, or Sean Carroll. Hence we have  twenty-some hard-science Nobelists who are theists or deists,  which Charles Colson loved to point out.

Thus Max Born, the German originator of the quantum mechanics Sean Carroll so delights in, said, “Those who say that the study of science makes a man an atheist, must be rather silly people.” Arno Penzias (1978 Nobel Prize for discovering microwaves in space) said, “If I had no other data than the early chapters of Genesis, some of the Psalms and other passages of Scripture, I would have arrived at essentially the same picture of the origin of the universe, as is indicated by the scientific data.” Arthur Compton, discoverer of the “Compton Effect”, relating to X-rays, said: “For me, faith begins with the realization that a supreme intelligence brought the universe into being and created man. It is not difficult for me to have this faith, for an orderly, intelligent universe testifies to the greatest statement ever uttered: ‘In the beginning, God … .'”

William D. Phillips  won the 1997 Nobel Prize in chemistry for using lasers to produce temperatures only a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Phillips once quipped that so many of his colleagues were Christians he couldn’t walk across his church’s fellowship hall without “tripping over a dozen physicists.”

Although biologists are often non-believers due to an odd belief that evolution tells the whole story of origins. But it does not because the physical-chemical mechanisms underlying evolution are not and cannot be explained by evolution. Ernst Boris Chain was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine for his work with penicillin. Chain says, “The principle of [divine] purpose … stares the biologist in the face wherever he looks … . The probability for such an event as the origin of DNA molecules to have occurred by sheer chance is just too small to be seriously considered … .”

In summary, at the most fundamental, lowest level intricate complex design exists, design whose repetition in all members of a type requires a single source not dependent on the design but rather its cause leads us, forces us to acknowledge an intelligent non-material designer.

Now the question is: Can Stark and McGinn appeal to “science” in their materialism and consequent dismissal of an after-life, or are they just choosing one particular scientist, Sean Carroll, for support. They probably know as little about Carroll’s physics as Freud knew about anthropology when he adopted from a single anthropologist the Oedipus complex which most of the rest of the profession thought of as a ridiculous imposition on so-called primitive psyches.

The analogy is not exact because Sean Carroll knows his physics and the hapless anthropologist leaned on by Freud clearly did not know much about the primitives of Australia as pointed out by William Schmidt, a priest, eminent anthropologist, and colleague of Freud at the University of Vienna. Freud, acknowledging his own lack of expertise, simply said he gets to choose his own anthropologist.  And so can Stark and McGinn.  But to call their opinions “scientific” is an abuse. It is stark “scientism” whose abuse of science reveals more about their distaste, their “fear” of God than any intellectual necessity. “Scientism” defined as: an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. The firm conviction of many excellent physicists is that at the end of their inductive (laboratory) and deductive mathematical work they see the evidence of the power and necessity of a non-material creative intelligence. This conviction counters the “certitudes” of a Sean Carrol and scientistic naïveté of Stark and McGinn. Their certitude is that life-after-death is simply impossible largely because such life requires the existence of non-material realities such as human souls.

That the human person, i.e. my “self”, is a composite being of a material body enlivened by a non-material soul is, to materialists, impossible. But if some of the best physicists and chemists in the world find the existence of a non-material intelligent creator a necessary being, no one should claim that immaterial beings, including those which are partially immaterial (our selves) are impossible. What grounds could anyone have for saying that an immaterial creator could not create such a composite? Or could not love such composite beings (us)? And could not plan our lives to be times of growth to be followed by a reward, even scarcely merited, of a joyous life, one in which we are eventually restored to our composite condition, though without the imperfections it may have had?

Such a life-after-death is the traditional faith of Christians and many other religious traditions, though differing in details. And, as laid out above, materialists cannot dismiss so off-handedly the astonishing belief in a joyous, fully human, though transformed, life after death.

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Stanislaus J Dundon

PhD in Philosophy and history of science. Currently engaged in medical ethics and spiritual direction.

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