What the Hell?

gunI usually don’t post about the concept of Hell because I’d much rather post about ideas that I have a higher chance of changing my mind on.  But it’s a concept that should be talked about because many people still believe in the idea and many are haunted by it (most of them believers – at least the ones that are humble enough to realize that they could be wrong about their worldview, or humble enough to realize that because they are human it’s possible that their sincerity of belief may not be pure enough to surpass the level they imagine required).

There are a growing number of believers who have more nuanced versions of Hell which aren’t really all that bad.  Some say that Hell is just a description of what life on earth could be like when we don’t act in kind and loving ways.  The Universalists say that Hell is a place that will be empty because all roads, no matter what, lead to a God who loves and cares for all of his created beings.  A growing number of intelligent, well-studied believers who hold strongly to a high view of scripture have found that annihilationism is strongly supported after a proper in-depth study of the original language and context of the bible (my own view related to the bible is shown in the comments that Travis and I wrote on this post.)  And some believe that everyone will always be able to choose love/heaven, even after death, and that the only people who will be left in Hell are the ones who eternally want to remain completely hateful and don’t want anything to do with love.

But there are still some who believe in the idea of eternal torment for all who don’t choose a certain belief before death.  The concept of Hell comes in different forms – real fire, some kind of physical pain, or just the complete lack of love – all things which are horrific ideas.  I can’t make any sense of an all-powerful being who creates creatures and loves all of them yet will allow any of them to be in a place like that (and who even knew that would happen before creating them).  There is another idea that I can’t make sense of – the idea that even though this type of Hell is real, we shouldn’t think about it, and we should only concentrate on the fact that a God exists who loves us and wants us to be with him.

Imagine if I had proposed to my wife like this:


Me: Honey I love and care about you so much and I want for the two of us to be together forever.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, why is there a man pointing a gun at me?

Me: Oh honey, why are you concentrating on insignificant side issues like that?  All you need to do is concentrate on how much I love and care about you.  The choice is completely yours – will you marry me?

Potential wife: No seriously, what’s the guy with the gun for?

Me: It’s totally not important, but if you really want to know – he will kill you if you say no.  But again it’s so insignificant when you realize how incredibly strong my love is for you and how much I care about you and wish the best for you.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, uh… oh, I just realized I forgot something really important in the car outside – I’ll be right back to answer your question after I get it.


I think the story speaks for itself.

I feared the idea of eternal sadness for many years:  when I was first introduced to it by my friend in high school, while I was a Christian with doubts, and many years afterward.  If you still fear this idea I recommend this post, as well as Charles’ post.  The first link is a more general post related to angst about ultimate questions, but Charles’ post goes into specifics of the Hell concept.  His post and all of the comments there are very instructional and helpful, and you can learn more about my own thoughts on the concept of Hell by reading my own comments there.


(image credit: fineartamerica.com)

 

Can There be a Purpose to This Post?

EvangelistsA few weeks ago Josh brought up some good points about meaning and purpose in life at this link on Nate’s post.  We hashed through some of that over there but I thought I’d try to add a few more of my thoughts on the subject.  I actually agree with a lot of what Josh wrote (although I’m not sure he realized that), but there were some things he wrote that I thought could be looked at from a different angle.

First I’d like to explore what in the world is meant by “life’s meaning”.  For this I’d like to start with a quote from Loyal Rue:

When individuals articulate the meaning of life they are attempting to specify why they value life. 1

I believe this hits the nail on the head, and I believe it explains why atheists are actually correct when they say that their life is still meaningful to them even without a transcendent purpose.  They have their own reasons why they value living: perhaps relationships with friends and family, or the sheer joy of helping others, the enjoyment of learning, looking on a breathtaking vista, breathing in the fresh cool air of a new fall season, or all of those and more.  Whatever it may be, living is important to them (i.e. they value it) and they have many reasons to continue living.  That is what atheists are trying to express when they say “my life is meaningful” or “we can create meaning”.  This is why I believe that part of Josh’s last comment is not entirely true:

I do think it covers up the deeper reality that there really isn’t any reason to continue living the life we live without ultimate purpose.

There are reasons to continue living.  We have those reasons ourselves.  And my reasons for living aren’t even only within myself.  I know there are others who love me and want me to continue living as well.  So there are actually reasons to live even external of myself.  However, where I agree with Josh (and perhaps he just didn’t word the above carefully) is that outside of the desires of human beings there are no transcendent reasons to live if the more popular forms of naturalism are true (I say it that way because not all naturalists are alike in their beliefs).  What I think theists don’t realize though is that many atheists realize this and their response is “so what?”.  This actually is similar to the Buddhist response and relates to the parable of the poisoned arrow I explained in this post.

I’d like to dig even a bit deeper.  I think there may be a distinction between “meaning in life” and “meaning of life”.  What I mean is that usually when someone asks “what is the meaning of life”, I believe they are asking what meaning there is above and beyond humans (a.k.a. transcendent, ultimate, or cosmic). I’d like to share with Josh and others that I can relate to their need to have some “higher purpose”.  Feeling like I could be a part of something bigger than myself was a big draw for me before I became a Christian, and was a significant loss for me when I left.

Now when theists say “there is no meaning of life without God”, I believe there is actually a hidden premise in there.  The premise is: “meaning must come from a thinking, intentional mind” (because that’s how the monotheists who push this argument define God).  This seems to be a foundational belief, but I don’t see any logical reason that this must be true.  Perhaps there is somehow meaning built-in as a basic property of reality.  I believe this is a bit more of an eastern way of looking at things (perhaps Taoist), but Spinoza, Einstein and others seemed to also express such ideas.  But my western mind has the same bias that theists have, so while I’m open to possibilities I lean toward agreeing that “meaning can only come from thinking, intentional minds.” But think about that – where does that premise come from?  I believe it comes from our own experience that purpose and meaning are generated from human minds.  So there you have it – it comes full circle.  The very argument itself shows that humans can create purpose and meaning (which some theists, including Josh, agree to). They may not be eternal, but that’s not the point.

Further, I’d like to ask my readers to think and comment on 3 thought experiments. Theists will probably learn the most about themselves from them, but I believe some atheists can benefit as well.  Keep in mind that the experiments may not be possible scenarios, but that’s how thought experiments go:

  1. Consider a world where there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God who has created human beings for a purpose.  However, God tells all of us that absolutely nothing (including himself) is eternal.  All will come to an end at some point in the far future.  But he tells us that he still has a purpose for all of us to be alive.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  2. Consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God (don’t ask me how – it’s a thought experiment!), and there also is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds.  However, we also know for sure that human beings will exist for eternity.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  3. Last consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God and there is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds, but in this last world human beings all die like we do in our real world.  Also, we all know that humanity will come to an end at some point far in the future.  Most traditional monotheists would not find this kind of life meaningful.  But really think about it – what would you do if tomorrow scientists, philosophers, and theologians all got together and came to a 100% consensus that this is the way the world is?

The first 2 scenarios actually have an interesting story to them. In my blogging I’ve actually been surprised to find that some theists have desires which are very different from the ones I had as a Christian.  When I was a Christian it was more about feeling like I was a part of something grander than myself, so I would have answered with a resounding YES to question #1.  Eternity really had nothing to do with it.  In fact living eternally has never been much of a big draw for me.  I obviously wouldn’t want to live eternally in sadness, and I’d be ok with an eternity of bliss, but to be honest never-ending consciousness just seems a bit too much to me.  What I was very surprised to find however in an online discussion I had with Brandon was that the idea of “something(s)” being around in eternity and being affected by his life was an important factor for him in regards to meaning. I believe there is a lesson to be learned from this – all of us should know and recognize that we are all built differently, with different needs and desires.  While there is a great deal of overlap in many of our needs, when it comes to our desires related to questions of meaning it really does span the map.  My wife is the perfect example of this – she is the most content person I’ve ever met and it boggles her mind why anyone would ever care about or need any kind of ultimate purpose in their lives.  So theists should keep in mind that if they are trying to sell their worldview with the “meaning card” their effort may very well be wasted.

And in regards to eternity, this quote from John McTaggart is worth thinking about:

If we do not start with the certainty that love for an hour on earth is unconditionally good, I do not see what ground we should have for believing that it would be good for an eternity in heaven. 2

Lastly, given that I have a bit of agnosticism in me, in my mind there is still the possibility that there really is some meaning to the universe, be it from gods or from some basic properties of the universe.  While I’ve fully faced scenario #3 and already dealt with the fact that there is likely no transcendent meaning, I see no reason to completely dispense with the idea.  I talked more about that as well as other related things in this post.  I think it’s good to face all different kinds of possible scenarios in similar ways.  We can never remove our preferences, but it can help in reducing bias.


Footnotes:

  1. “Nature Is Enough”, by Loyal Rue
  2. Quoted by Erik Wielenberg in “Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism”

The Unknowable Is Not Worth The Worry

ReligionsToChoose

Has there ever been a time in your life where you’ve thought deeply about ultimate questions?  Whether you call it religion, philosophy, metaphysics, or just important life questions, many (not all) people wonder about these things.  For some it even gets to the point of worry or fear when they begin to realize that they are human and may be wrong about what they believe.  Perhaps it is worry about the afterlife.  Or maybe just general worry about not having the correct answers to ultimate life questions.  For example, Robert Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, has said in some of his interviews that the question of whether or not God exists has even tormented him.

There were several times in my life that these questions tormented me, but I no longer see any benefit from allowing them to control me.  I still have what I like to call a healthy interest in ultimate questions but I don’t let them get to me in the way that they did years ago.  Two periods in my life stand out very clearly to me – the first was right before I converted to Christianity, and the other was around the time that I left Christianity.  The second period especially was a very dark time for me, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to a noise fearing that God was about to punish me.

Fear is a natural thing and it saves us many times from getting badly hurt or killed, but it can be distorted and used in the wrong ways if it is applied toward “the unknowable” region of ultimate questions.

While I am not a Buddhist, many times what people of eastern religions say seems much more healthy to me than the more traditional mono-theistic religions.  What Ananda Guruge says in this particular video really resonated with a lot of what I have been thinking for several years now (especially the last part about the man shot with an arrow):

The “parable of the poisoned arrow” has a lot of wisdom in it that I believe we can all learn from.  This link explains it even clearer than the video and it’s worth the read.

My point is not that we should entirely give up on thinking about and exploring uncertain questions – obviously trying to understand the truth about reality is an important part of life and has the obvious benefits of improving our lives the closer we get to the truth about that reality.  That is what scientific, philosophical, and all other fields of investigations are all about.  By all means that should continue, but a healthy balance and understanding of uncertainty is also an important part of that process.

There isn’t too much I can say to people who don’t believe ultimate questions are elusive, that’s just something that some people begin to realize at some point in their lives, and some people never get there.  I’ve shared some of these ideas in the first few posts of my blog – much of it has to do with the realization of our humanity and ability to be wrong, especially as knowledge claims become more and more removed from our sphere of experience and more nebulous (or inscrutable) as far as probability claims might go.  But if you have gotten to that point then it should be very clear that worrying about these elusive questions cannot end up being healthy for your life in any way.  All that it does is physically stress your mind and your body with no productive purpose or conclusion to help it reach to.  In fact in some cases stress can negatively impact our rational decision making process – so in effect allowing these questions to torment you can possibly cause you to form the wrong conclusions about the very questions that you want properly answered.  If you want to learn more about the mind, fear, stress, and ways to overcome fear this post by Victoria N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ is a great place to start.  Victoria has a lot of information related to the mind and has studied a great deal on the subject.

During that dark period of my life I described before, I searched several different religious traditions, spent a lot of time with several different religious groups, and met weekly with my former pastor to discuss and read many different books related to religious questions.  There came a point where I realized that the torment was hurting me more than helping me so I decided after a year or so to take a break.  I ended up spending several years very rarely reading or thinking about religion.  What is interesting is that instead of that being a dark time in my life, It ended up being filled with light – filled with life, love, friends, family, falling in love, getting married, having children…  It was after that long period that I was able to return to a more balanced, healthy, and much more enjoyable exploration of ultimate questions.

Afterlife Debate Review

Debate Results

First a copy of the debate results from Sean Carroll’s post-debate review (click on images to enlarge):

death-crosstabsdeath-piesThe winner was the team whose numbers changed the most and the first chart shows that Carroll/Novella won.  The second chart is just interesting because it shows that they won not by changing minds of the undecided, but rather more people who started out “For” the proposition changed their minds to be “Against.”

My Own Views

As far as my own views go, I’m doubtful that there is life after death but not with very high confidence because while I have read more about it than the average person I still am a layperson to the topic.  At any rate while the topic is certainly of interest to me I definitely believe that it is not worth worrying about.  No need to worry about things that are very uncertain and even unlikely.  But if science can shed light on this question then I feel it is worth the effort, so I was very glad to see this debate.

I was hoping for more references to controlled experiments that have been done related to the topic, but there was only generalities and not a lot of specifics in this debate which is kind of par for the course in public debates.  I was definitely not persuaded by the “For” team.  In my opinion Alexander and Moody did a poor job and it was mainly mistakes in strategy.  The “Against” side did better but again I was hoping for more specifics so I wasn’t moved dramatically.

Opening Statements

Alexander’s main thrust throughout the entire debate was the story of his own NDE.  In fact, that was practically his entire opening statement.  Only in the last 30 seconds did he add that he has read and heard of many NDE stories and has found that the similarities far outweigh the differences.  I thought it was a mistake to base most of his case on an anecdotal story.

Carroll’s opening statement was typical of his style – a non-technical Bayesian type approach detailing what we would expect if there was an afterlife and what we would expect if there wasn’t and then comparing those expectations to what we all see.  There was nothing earth shattering there.  All points that most people like myself are familiar with but a lot of people probably don’t systematically list them out.  A very important and common point that he brought up was that the NDE stories tend to match with the cultural biases of the individual (Christians see Jesus, Hindus see Hindu gods, a young girl met Santa).

Moody’s opening statement and his entire strategy was a poor choice in my mind.  His main argument was that this is not a scientific question, but rather that critical thinking and logic will solve this problem.  He also conceded that parapsychology is a pseudo-science.  Obviously I’m all for critical thinking but when it comes to questions that involve evidence that can be analyzed, logic alone cannot make a strong case.  Nevertheless Moody did contribute a little more later in the debate.  He also mentioned the common features of NDE’s (feeling outside of the body, and seeing a light, a panoramic view of life and deceased loved ones), and further added that sometimes bystanders of dying loved ones have identical experiences.  More on this later.

Novella’s opening statement and entire performance was the best of the four.  He claimed that science is very sure that mind is a process of the brain.  (Of course anyone can claim whatever they want, and it would be nice to see polling on this but I don’t anticipate that happening).  He then went on to form a hypothesis that “mind is entirely the brain”, and listed what we would expect if that were the case: (1) if we change the brain then the mind will change, (2) if we damage the brain then the mind would be damaged, (3) if we turn off the brain then the mind will turn off.  He didn’t detail any experiments showing that these things have been demonstrated but I don’t believe it is hard to find data to back these statements.

As far as (3), I was immediately reminded of my “conscious sedation” in my outpatient surgeries.  After the surgeries I had absolutely no memory of what had happened.  Where was my “soul” during that period?  Sure enough doctors have drugs that interact physically with our brains that can “turn them off”, and they are utilized daily.

Then Novella went on to talk about natural explanations for NDE’s:  there can still be brain activity during a coma, vivid memories could form while coming out of a coma, reality module in our brain could be malfunctioning.  Finally, an important point for me was the claim that every element of an NDE can be duplicated with drugs, anoxia, lack of blood-flow, or by turning off circuits in the brain (later he mentioned 2 others: hypotension and electromagnetic brain stimulation).

Highlights in the Exchange

The rest of the debate was interactive followed by short closing statements.  Here are some highlights:

  1. (48:37) Moody explained the “mind body problem”, mentioned epiphenomenalism, and then actually said “my answer is, I don’t know”.  (!!)
  2. (49:40) An interesting exchange between Novella and Alexander ensued for a while:
    1. Alexander asserted that his neocortex was non-functional during his NDE and that there were memories he had that he knew had to have happened during that period.  I agree with Novella that there is no way that he could tell that those memories formed during that period.  They could have very well have been formed in recovery.  A very interesting point Novella made was that the parts of the brain that construct our sense of time could also have been malfunctioning.  Novella also noted that no fMRI, Petscan or EEG was taken to document zero brain activity during the coma.
    2. (53:35) Alexander noted that there are cases of people getting information they could not have gotten by any natural means.  Novella’s response was clear-cut: the cases he has read like this are just like cold readings from psychics, and are not controlled experiments.  He also mentioned there are attempts at controlled experiments that have failed; e.g. cards on a shelf only viewable if the patient was actually floating above – “and by the way, we can make you float above your body!”.
  3. (57:04) Moody claims respect for physics but says it doesn’t rule out another dimension, and that it is conceivable.  Carroll’s response at 58:00 is spot on, stating that it is conceivable that angels are in the moon guiding it around the earth, but we don’t take that seriously as an idea because there is no need or evidence for it.  Moody also ends up conceding the falsifiability problem.
  4. (1:00:13) Great quote from moderator to Moody: “What you’re saying sort of reminds me of the editorial to Virginia about Santa Claus written in the 19th century in which Frank Church who wrote this editorial said to the little girl, ‘do you see fairies dancing on the front lawn, no of course you don’t but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there'”.  That link is well worth the read by the way.
  5. (1:01:12) Moody describes a story of a dying patient (from a car accident), his doctor, and scrub nurse all having similar feelings of the presence of the patient’s dead wife (who died in the car accident).  It’s these kinds of stories that is at the heart of the whole afterlife topic so it’s worth listening to.  While some people have their beliefs because of indoctrination, there are definitely others who honestly believe because they think these stories are good evidence for the afterlife.
    1. Another quote from the moderator: “we are talking about ghosts now, and I’m sorry that sounded pejorative but we are talking about something that a lot of people would challenge as incredibly implausible…”  This is exactly the kind of point I’ve tried to make before – why are skeptics clearly judged for doubting afterlife and gods when many people find it quite acceptable to doubt the existence of ghosts?  I believe it’s because historically we’ve gotten morality all wrapped up in the question of afterlife and gods.  I don’t believe they need to be wrapped up and there are certainly many eastern religions and liberal western ones that would agree.
    2. Novella said that these stories could be constructed after the fact and that we have this similar level of evidence for UFO’s, bigfoot, and many other paranormal phenomena.  To be consistent you would have to accept all of those if you accept this kind of evidence for the afterlife.  This is a good point, but I’m not sure it’s that easy to clearly compare the level of evidence between all of these types of claims.
  6. (1:04:28) Discussion about the fact that scientists don’t understand the mechanism by which the physical brain creates consciousness.  I appreciate this mystery as well, but I don’t believe it a strong case for the afterlife.
  7. (1:12:15) I was glad to hear from Novella that there are currently some ongoing bigger controlled experiments to test out remote viewing, but no references.
  8. (1:21:30) Telepathy, remote viewing, OBE’s, past life memories:
    1. Novella: 100 years of parapsychology hasn’t come up with compelling evidence.  He didn’t give specifics, but I think the Stargate Project is relevant here.
    2. Alexander: evidence is overwhelming, and he gave 2 references: Irreducible Mind, and The Afterlife Experiments.  Novella strongly questioned the methodology of the second and said the writer allowed himself to be bamboozled.
  9. doh(1:26:27) Alexander saved the best for last.  A clear distortion of Carl Sagan’s views on past life memories in children.  Alexander said: “Carl Sagan admitted that past life memories in children, the evidence for that is overwhelming…he said that in his book The Demon-Haunted World on page 302; he says exactly that, {applause} period.” -> well I own the book and this is what was written: “At the time of writing there are 3 claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.  I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true.  The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support.  Of course, I could be wrong.” [bolding is my own, but italics is not]  Alexander was clearly stretching the quote beyond reasonable on this one – apropos in my mind, because it is a hint at the kinds of things that could be going on with some of these “beyond coincidental” stories.  Also apropos is the second part of Sagan’s book title: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”.

Summary

I actually don’t judge others for having a difficult time accepting that some of these surprisingly coincidental stories don’t have some “higher” explanation to them, but I don’t appreciate the lack of respect toward skeptics who don’t believe that these stories rise to an acceptable level of evidence – because they believe they are being consistent with the expectations of evidence in other fields of investigation.  My own educated guess is that Carroll and Novella are correct that all of these claims only rise to the level of anecdotal and pseudo-scientific, and that once a sufficient amount of scientific experiments are performed in this arena, consciousness is better understood, and the more the public is educated on that, belief in afterlife will slowly fade away much like alchemy, astrology, and young earth creationism.

Afterlife Debate This Week

This Wednesday (May 7th) there will be a debate called “Death is Not Final”.  It will be live streamed from New York City at 6:45pm Eastern Time from this link.

Participants are:

  1. Eben Alexander (For)
  2. Raymond Moody (For)
  3. Sean Carroll (Against)
  4. Steven Novella (Against)

This should be a very interesting debate, given that all of them are either scientists or medical doctors.  I am always open to listening to objective scientific reasons for any point of view even if they differ from my own current beliefs.  This particular topic is one I’d love to listen to because there doesn’t seem to be enough education to the layperson on this topic other than anecdotal stories.  While debates should always be just an introductory starting point to further research they are a great way to see both sides of an issue right away.

Oh, and by the way, I’m still working on that fine-tuning post I mentioned before.  I’m about 75% done with it.  If I don’t complete that post in this lifetime I’ll probably complete it in the next. 😉