Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Analysing the Afterlife

I normally do not go after something like this, because, frankly, it's a no-win situation. You can't make any rational argument against something that is irrational. However, when someone invokes something out of physics or scientific process to justify their irrational belief, then it is then fair game to evaluate the fallacy of his/her argument.

This author is trying to argue that one simply cannot dismiss the idea of an 'afterlife', whatever that may be. His main arguments?

Scientific and psychological reasoning and scepticism have yet to firmly counter the notion that there is an afterlife.


experiential evidence from around this world points to some form of existence in ‘the next’.

The first one is silly and just plain lazy. He's arguing that you can't prove that it doesn't exist. This is nonsense because it is the burden of a person arguing for the existence of something to show that it exists, not the other way around. So while his argument is to counter a previous article that appears to argue why it this afterlife doesn't exist, to turn around and argue that it does based on the point that "you can't prove it doesn't" really is extremely weak.

But the second part is what is more fascinating in terms of proving my continuing point that the general public, or at least those not in science, do not have any clue on the difference between anecdotal and scientific evidence. He is actually touting this "experiential evidence" as if this is something that is reliable and valid. It is a FACT that our minds can play tricks on us. It is a FACT that has been shown many times how people can believe that they saw something that never occurred (see here, here, and here). Therefore, experiential evidence is NOT RELIABLE as valid evidence. It is certainly less reliable when a person is under medical/physiological duress that he/she is near death! So to use those as justification for anything is extremely dubious.

It is ironic that he said that "... The afterlife may go against common sense, but twentieth century physics has taught us that common sense is often a poor guide to truth...." yet, he somehow ignored the rest of what physics has taught us of the nature of scientific evidence and what is valid. You'll notice a common thread here when someone who doesn't know much about physics will pick and choose what he/she wants to take from physics. The author of "The Secret" wants to use quantum mechanics to justify various part of it, and ignores the rest that will render the argument false. The same thing is occurring here. If this person is so respectful of what "twentieth century physics" has to teach us, then take the whole thing, rather than just what's convenient for him.

The fact that something like this continues to be presented as valid argument, and published in popular media without any hesitation, shows that (i) such fallacy is not seen as problematic to be accepted, and (ii) the readers and the general public probably won't catch what I've just mentioned here. Try reading the papers or watching TV. You'll see many more arguments being made that is based on simply a matter of opinion, or based on non-existent evidence, or an incomplete understanding. In many cases, no one is asking for evidence or justification of the point being made. So these things are being said as if they are "facts".

The nature and validity of the evidence being presented to support an argument is something that has been emphasized very little in public discourse. That is what is so discouraging.



voodooKobra said...

When I encounter psuedoscience like ID or plain bullshit like that article, I begin to question the existence of an optimistic future for mankind.

Michael said...

may I ask your proof that an afterlife does not, in fact, exist? An afterlife and God (or gods, for that matter) are most definitely a matter of faith. Belief in their nonexistence is also completely based on faith. Science has been proven wrong, more so now than at any time in history, and to take anything as Scientific fact or convention and to reject anything on the same basis is cultist. You may as well be Branch Davidian.

ZapperZ said...

The burden of proof is on someone who claims that something EXISTS, not the other way around. Science simply cannot go around and try to prove something doesn't exist, because there's an INFINITE number of such thing.

And the fact that science DOES change, whereas religion DOES NOT, when proven wrong, is it's STRENGTH, not its weakness. Science bows down to empirical evidence. Religion (and faith) does not!

And which god, and which version of the afterlife do you believe in? Can you disprove the existence of other versions of the afterlife? What makes what you believe valid, while other versions aren't?


Michael said...

I'm not sure what I believe in. I believe in a mixture of Hindu/Buddhist and Christian beliefs except for judgment. I don't believe we are judged. I believe that all faiths are valid as a way of explaining the same thing. As for Religion not changing, that was not the intent of the authors and framers of the Bible. Judaism, real Judaism, changes every day and Christianity was meant to be as adaptive. Christians just became fat and lazy. Four wholly contradictory stories make up the basis of the Christian faith. A God who is both perfect and petty makes up the basis of the Jewish religion. Buddha believed in release from our bodies without the need for a deity.
One last quick question: as a physicist, do you believe in the Higgs Boson? If you do, do you understand that no one has ever seen one? What would happen to your life if the Higgs Boson were never detected? Would you stop believing in them? Would Physics end?
You're right, the burden of proof is on my shoulders. Why would you believe in anything for which I can offer no proof?

Matthew Laszlo said...

The logical analysis made in your article is very strong, primarily because it is so basic. For those who need a recap:
1) You can't prove a negative, and it is a logical fallacy to assert otherwise.
2) Anecdotal evidence is an inadequate substitute for thorough empirical evidence that has been obtained via the scientific method.

I do, however, have one problem with this article. While it does an excellent job at identifying the irrational nature of the arguments presented by the pro-afterlifer, it fails to replace those arguments with anything of its own. The piece it critiques may have been flawed, but at least it attempted to answer the fundamental question that lies at the heart of all this: What happens to the human soul (or consciousness, spirit, et cetera) after death?

It is true that, under normal circumstances and with most other subjects, it would not behoove the author to provide alternative explanations to the one he/she just dismantled. Most of the time simply disproving a bad argument would suffice. The nature of the subject being discussed here, however, is so grave (no pun intended) that that kind of laissez-faire approach is simply insufficient. Does the author believe that science disproves the presence of an afterlife? Does the author believe that the afterlife has been proven, but through scientifically viable means? Or does the author believe that the jury is out on the subject, but that the individual he/she critiques is muddling our capacity to understand this matter through shoddy reasoning? Any article that debunks one person's theory on the afterlife without at least speculating as to another seems half-finished.

hquest_98 said...

Proof of the consciousness or "I" cannot be disproved by science. So, I think that scientists and philosophers alike should just leave it at that and learn to live with each other.

I work with a lot of physicists at Oak Ridge National Lab that are some of the most brilliant minds in the world and yet they have strong, personal religious beliefs.

They can exist togehter, people.