Posts Tagged ‘Life After Death’



(Excerpted from Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture, by Chris Edwards)

Dinesh D’Souza’s book, Life After Death: The Evidence, is a Frankenstein’s monster of half-baked assertions, tweaked fallacies, and glaring contradictions all held together by the single thread of a new Christian narrative. These problems will all be dealt with in due course. However, the most important thing that any reader, atheist or religious, will take from his book is that science is the supreme arbiter of truth. D’Souza’s clumsy attempt to provide “empirical evidence” for the afterlife is not really a work of science at all. Instead it is an attempt to enshroud religion and science in a new narrative, one that is not detrimental to faith. But even a casual reader will be able to sense that this fails. By ceding the grounds for “truth” to scientific method, and by subjecting matters of faith to matters of science, D’Souza has posited a new revelation. In the Gospel According to D’Souza, the divide between reason and religion is only, like our lives on Earth, a temporary aberration. A better time is coming; one where the lion of science and the lamb of religion will lie side by side and the believer’s faith will be rewarded with intellectual fulfillment.

D’Souza’s entire book is a case study in contradiction. First of all, the main thesis of the book is that there is solid empirical evidence for the existence of the afterlife. Yet, mega-pastor Rick Warren wrote the Foreword. (Warren, who believes in talking snakes, invisible people, and the walking dead, blames the rise of atheism on “public gullibility.”) Also, for some reason, D’Souza includes a chapter about near-death experiences and then dismisses them but claims to keep an open mind. Why include evidence that he himself discredits? After his “scientific” case for the afterlife, D’Souza then includes a chapter about why it is good for people to believe in the afterlife even if it can’t be conclusively proved to exist. One could search through peer reviewed science journals for the rest of this life and the next and not see a similar argument made for the existence of neutrinos.

The main philosophical argument that D’Souza (and Warren) makes goes like this: No one knows what happens after we die, even scientists are guessing, so when we are dealing with the unknown at least Christians and religious people have faith, which is better than nothing. In other words, when there is an absence of evidence it is best to bet on faith. He sums up this up by illustrating how he quieted one of Daniel Dennet’s followers at a Q and A session after a debate. After a wordy explanation of David Hume’s philosophy, which states that in the absence of evidence that no claim can be made, D’Souza writes:

When I heard the student’s question, the first thought that occurred to me was that his so-called principle of parsimony not only wiped out religious claim; it also wiped out atheism. Consider the statements “God does not exist” and “there is no afterlife.” Are these statements inherently true? No. Nor can they be shown by external verification. Consequently they, too, are incoherent by this standard…Well, then, I said, by your own criteria the principle is meaningless. We can toss it out and not bother with it any further.
This was a good moment for me…. (29)

It is unclear why this was a good moment for D’Souza. First of all, he needs to understand that his argument is out of alignment with his claim. He’s claiming a belief in an all-powerful deity, and the best he can come up with is to say this can be proved with the statement, “there is no evidence for the deity, which means that his non-existence and his existence are equally plausible.” That’s pretty thin ice for a very big god to be standing on.

Secondly, in regards to the afterlife D’Souza doesn’t understand that atheists don’t make absolute statements. We merely assess odds. For example, looking at the afterlife is like looking at a locked door to a room without windows. If a rationalist and someone who believed in the supernatural were standing outside the door they could assess odds as to what is happening inside. The rationalist would concede that he doesn’t know what is going on in that room, but that it’s a pretty good bet that whatever is in the room is acting in accordance with the law of gravity. The supernaturalist, in contrast, could insist that Jesus and the twelve apostles were drinking beer and eating jalapeños in the room while levitating a foot off the floor—and that because the rationalist couldn’t prove that they weren’t there was a 50/50 chance that they were.

The point here is that the burden of proof falls on the positive, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and that D’Souza offers no proof whatsoever for his extraordinary (afterlife) claim. Instead, he makes the bizarre assertion that absence of proof is somehow proof.

Oddly, D’Souza responds to the atheistic criticism that one can justify faith in any bizarre idea in this way:

A little scrutiny of these examples will quickly show that the craziness here is entirely on the part of the atheists. We have combed the earth without locating a single unicorn, we seem justified in rejecting unicorns…Celestial flying teapots are also very unlikely, as are Flying Spaghetti Monsters, but our derision is prejudicially solicited by the particular examples chosen. Teapots do not fly, and past is an unlikely ingredient to produce flying monsters. (27)

I might add that seas don’t part, men don’t rise from the dead, serpents don’t speak, and virgins don’t give birth. But that is beside the point. Here D’Souza makes a properly worded rationalist argument against absurdities like unicorns and pasta gods. He says they are unlikely and, since we haven’t found any evidence for them; they probably don’t exist. This is exactly what atheists say about god and other supernatural beings. But D’Souza then makes a very strange argument:

On the other hand, if we modify the examples slightly to involve matter and energy that is undetectable by scientific instruments yet is presumed to exist in order to account for the motions of the galaxies, we have just described “dark matter” and “dark energy,” widely accepted by scientists today. (27)

How the purported existence of dark matter works as proof of the afterlife is beyond me. I suppose D’Souza’s vague point is that since things (apparently) exist that can’t be scientifically measured (yet), that heaven could exist and be made of the same stuff. It’s a bit like saying that since we know there are tiny particles like quarks, then there must be microscopic horses. The two have no connection. Besides, dark matter is something that is posited in order to make sense of observations of gravitational effects. Likewise, before we had technology capable of detecting high frequency sounds above the human hearing range, it would have been acceptable for a bat-watcher to assume that such sounds existed so that he could explain bat behavior.

The problem of assessing statistics and odds is endemic in D’Souza’s book. Oddly, for a book that is supposed to be about the afterlife, the author insists on bringing up traditional (and thoroughly discredited) arguments for the existence of a god or gods. He spends considerable time going into detail about the “fine tuning” of the universe, and then tries to state that scientists, blinded by that pesky scientific method, are afraid to resort to a supernatural explanation. The message is that the odds that the universe is fine tuned for human life are so bad as to require some “tuner.”

Clearly, the universe is equally fine tuned for the existence of smallpox and venereal disease as it is for the existence of puppies and chocolate milkshakes. An African orphan dying of AIDS and malnutrition will find little comfort in the recollection that a series of highly unlikely events had to occur for her to be in her state of agony. Still, this “fine tuned” argument is often used by theologians to prove there is some power, nice or not, somewhere out there. The trick that D’Souza is playing here is simply to take an ordinary statistical principle and make it seem cosmic and mysterious.

The recipe for this statistical trick is simple. Simply state the odds that should be calculated before an event after the event. If you want the event to appear even more unlikely, begin adding complicating factors (which is very easy to do after the fact). Pretty soon, (voila!) you’ve made an ordinary event appear to be extraordinary.

D’Souza’s claim that in order to explain how our solar system is set up “just right” for life to exist on our planet, scientists must assume a fanciful polyverse is outright false. Life is here, the odds against life existing before the fact are meaningless after the fact.

D’Souza also tries to make the case that almost all cultures have a vision of the afterlife, going back to pre-Christian societies. Well, all cultures also produced language. Does this mean that each culture was tapping into a mysterious “language realm” or is it better explained by the fact that all humans share a voice box and flexible tongues?

Chapter six of D’Souza’s book begins with the old Platonic trick of reifying verbs:

[A]sk yourself, how much does your mind weigh? What are the dimensions—length, width, and height—of your consciousness? (92)

He might as well be asking how much running weighs, or what are the dimensions of eating. Thinking is a description of what the brain does. It is not a thing to be measured. This reification of thinking is a serious problem. How can “thinking” go on without a brain any more than “running” can go on without legs? States of consciousness can be changed by altering, through disease, education, experience, or trauma, the stuff of the brain. When the brain dies, consciousness ends—its supporting “hardware” is gone. Similarly, when the legs are gone, it’s safe to assume that running stops. Sure, it might go on in some nether realm, but, I mean, come on.

Even worse than his misunderstanding of statistics is D’Souza’s shocking misreading of evolutionary theory. I say it is shocking because D’Souza is neither a creationist nor a proponent of Intelligent Design. D’Souza seems well aware of the fallacy inherent in William Paley’s “Watchmaker Argument,” and his argument is just another form of the hourglass fallacy I detailed in the chapter about Deepak Chopra.

In chapter six, D’Souza attempts to fuse faith and evolution by citing two scientists, Christian de Duve, and Simon Conway Morris:

[T]hey insist that evolution among several species has followed predictable pathways. Eyes, they content, have evolved on separate evolutionary lines on multiple occasions. Placental and marsupial mammals are not closely related, and yet they have developed with similar structures and forms. Morris writes that “each group has independently navigated to the same evolutionary solution.” Duve and Morris don’t deny the factor of chance, but they insist chance itself follows a largely predetermined trajectory. (104)

This is where, D’Souza implies, god hides. Scientists can’t see it because they are trained not to look for supernatural causes, but it is there. D’Souza breaks up the big god that creationists and ID’ers so covet and puts the pieces in the cells. We have here not a single big god but trillions of tiny gods.

D’Souza is right that there is a principle which guides evolution—there are two in fact, which explain how complexity evolves, but there is nothing mysterious about them. The principles are “survive” and “mate.” The reason that eyes develop in so many animals is because it is useful for animals to detect visual (electro-magnetic) sensory data in a way that best suits their purposes. This is why flies and humans, both of whom have eyes, perceive and make sense of light in different ways. It’s the same with the other senses. Think of a rotting carcass. For humans, the smell is revolting. For vultures, it’s the olfactory equivalent of a dinner bell.

Virtually every page of D’Souza’s book is lousy with fallacies and false metaphors, and to point every one of them out would require a book in itself. It would also be to miss the point. D’Souza is not seriously trying to meld logic and faith. He’s trying to change the prevailing narrative in secular society, which is that religious dogma has given way to scientific truth. In a society that cherishes medical and technological advancement, one can hardly challenge the precepts of science any longer. The only thing left to do is to assert that religion and science are compatible.

The problems with trying to create a narrative around such notions are legion. First of all, atheism and science cannot be separated. Science is the daughter of atheism. Smallpox was only cured when people began looking at the disease as a natural phenomenon and dismissed any supernatural cause. In fact, everything that works in the world is a result of atheism. One has to begin with the assumption that there are no supernatural entities that interact with the world and then one can proceed. For example, despite what the tired cliché says, everyone in a foxhole is an atheist in practice. If they believed that a divine power would stop the bullets flying at them, they wouldn’t be in the hole.

Secondly, science has taken human knowledge further and further away from the narrative of the religious texts. This has been true in the Western world since Galileo. How can D’Souza square this circle? Early on he writes:

As an atheist friend of mine quips, “How can these Christians be against logic and inventions?” Actually, Christians aren’t opposed to either. Rather, they recognize that, to a large degree, science and reason have become enemy-occupied territory. Science and reason have been hijacked by the bad guys… (12)

However, D’Souza claims that if Christians will only embrace reason and science they will see that “it stunningly confirms the beliefs that they held in the first place. What was presumed on the basis of faith is now corroborated on the basis of evidence, and this is especially true of the issue of life after death.” (13)

If this is the new narrative, then it has serious problems. D’Souza tries to explain his point by stating that the authors of Genesis, for example, claimed that the universe had a starting point and did this despite the pre-Hebrew idea that the universe was eternal, and that this controversial notion has recently been confirmed by science’s Big Bang theory. This is an outright con. Will science one day come to prove the biblical assertion that the Earth was made before the Sun?

Occasionally, by chance, scientific theories and conclusions seem to coincide with ancient, vaguely worded mystical claims or predictions. But there are major differences. Scientific theories and conclusions are always orders of magnitude more specific than mystical claims and predictions. As well, science advances, mysticism doesn’t. Scientific understanding of the universe is constantly improving, while mystical (in D’Souza’s case, Christian) understanding of the universe has not improved in two thousand years.

D’Souza, spends a lot of time in his book explaining how quantum physics presents a universe which acts in ways we don’t understand, and he then builds a rope ladder to the moon from this.
His odd syllogism seems to be:

A. The universe doesn’t make sense
B. Therefore things that don’t make sense sometimes are true.
C. The afterlife doesn’t make sense so it must be true.

D’Souza then tries to dismiss the claim, based on quantum physics, made by Stephen Hawking, that the universe doesn’t need a starting point. Why does D’Souza dismiss this? Because it doesn’t make sense.

Anthropologists might more plausibly point out that the brain evolved for the purpose of survival in the wild in Africa. It is capable of abstract thought, but only after rigorous training. So it’s not surprising that the workings of the universe defy common understanding. It was not created to be understood nor were we created to understand it.

D’Souza’s theme about science supposedly proving what had once been presumed by faith is the only coherent thread in the book. He writes:

So what does modern physics have to say about the Eastern and Western conceptions of life after death? In Newton’s time, the verdict was decidedly negative. Today, however, the situation is completely different. Modern physics has expanded our horizons and shown how life after death is possible within the existing framework of physical reality. The materialist objection has proven to be a dud; in fact, modern physics calls materialism itself into question. In a crucial area, and sometimes against the objections of the scientists themselves, modern science has proven itself not the foe of religious believers, but an unexpected ally. (89)

And here is the New Narrative: Up until now, science has made a mockery of faith. However, this can only be because we have an incomplete understanding of the universe. As our understanding grows, we’ll see that science will come to prove the precepts of faith to be true. We are just now entering a stage where the spotlight of science has become broad enough to reveal that religious truths were right all along. This whole religion versus science thing has just been one big five hundred year misunderstanding that will be cleared up now that science is getting its act together. This process of reconciliation has been delayed only because close-minded scientists are trained not to see the supernatural.

One might add that very few people in the world, a very few scientific specialists, truly understand quantum physics. Dinesh D’Souza is not one of them. And the chutzpah of D’Souza in citing concepts he probably does not even vaguely understand as “proof” of his wishful thinking is breathtaking.

It is not possible to argue that god or the afterlife exists and that there is evidence, but that faith in him or it is required. An all-powerful god who wanted his existence to be known would not rely on inferences and statistical fallacies for his proofs. If he existed and wanted to be found, there would be no debate. A measurable afterlife would be something we could directly detect, not something we should believe in. D’Souza encourages Christians to embrace reason and science and trust that eventually this will support their faith. Maybe they will grasp what D’Souza didn’t, that you can’t have your faith and prove it too.

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