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Faulty religious reasoning and sloppy secular arguments about the afterlife earn a skeptic’s side-eye

Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia

Michael Shermer
Henry Holt
2018
320 pp.
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Awareness of one’s mortality is universal for human beings. Its conceptualization often starts at a very young age, as preschoolers observe and note the differences between alive and dead organisms. Between the ages of 7 and 10, children come to understand that death is permanent and irreversible, which often leads to anxiety or a fear of death. Despite a growing ability to rationalize, this fear persists in adults.

Various cultural inventions aim to remedy this disturbing emotional reaction. Each transcendental explanation of what happens when we die is inevitably followed by an additional mythology that provides a cognitive reinforcement, resulting in a strong, coherent set of beliefs.

In his new book, Heavens on Earth, Michael Shermer aims to deconstruct systems of irrational beliefs. In particular, he provides analysis of three concepts: The first is a belief in immortality or in an afterlife. Sometimes this belief relates not to an individual but to the preservation of a species. The second is a belief in a utopia where a better version of one’s self lives peacefully among peers. The third is a belief that one belongs to a group that has special insight into the nature of life after death. As Shermer shows, prognosticators of both religious and secular utopias can fall victim to this way of thinking.

It is not difficult to imagine the evolutionary reasons behind these beliefs: A fear of death is a rationale for a belief in immortality; a desire for a well-functioning society provides foundations for utopias; a craving for meaning pushes people to perceive themselves as particularly important. Cognitive shortcuts that simplify complexity, such as confirmation bias (a tendency to search for information that is consistent with preexisting beliefs) or patternicity (a tendency to search for patterns in both meaningful information and meaningless noise), help to establish and reinforce this mode of thinking.

Throughout the book, Shermer investigates a multitude of examples, from religious heavens and spiritual traditions that search for universal consciousness and reincarnation to science-driven quests to create humans who will—in one form or another—live forever. He challenges each, in turn, using techniques from his skeptic’s toolbox, reminding us, for example, that according to scientific methodology, a preponderance of anecdotes is not evidence for a preferred belief.

A skeptic, Shermer shows, must also be sensitive to the conceptual structure of the language used in argumentation. Techno-optimist theories based in science are a particularly rich area for this type of consideration. Shermer analyzes both transhumanists, who focus on preserving the physical body, and singularitarians, who, inspired by the rapid proliferation of information and computing technologies, believe that the self is simply a pattern of information that we will eventually be able to move from the biological brain to an artificial one.

Conceptual inconsistencies within these frameworks are frequent. For instance, if we want to combat aging, what do we define “aging” to mean? More fundamentally, how do we define self-identity? Shall I insist that it is inseparable from my body? If I upload my mind to a computer, how shall I conceive of my original self versus the copy?

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Humans aren’t alone in acknowledging death. Mourning has been noted in elephants, for example.

Shermer also touches on the ways that strong beliefs can be used in various, not always commendable, manners. True, strong ideologies can motivate visionaries like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, or Elon Musk. But beliefs can also be used to encourage people to commit atrocities, as the Nazis did with the idea of racial supremacy in pre–World War II Germany and ISIS does today, promising its martyrs a paradisiacal life after their suicidal sacrifice.

Even if we can rationally reject each irrational argument in favor of an afterlife, Shermer acknowledges that belief will persist and that this makes it real, in a way. “Heavens above may or may not be real, but heavens on earth are, at least in the minds of those who believe in them,” he writes. “In that sense, the empyrean realm of gods and heavens that resides in the brains of believers is as real as anything in the terrestrial kingdom.”

We all seek to live a meaningful and purpose-driven life. But how do we do so without invoking an afterlife? “Through recognition of our uniqueness, through our gratitude for having the chance to live, through the love of others and others’ love for us, and through engagement with the world with courage and integrity,” writes Shermer. We can find “heavens on Earth,” he argues, right here in the wonders of our own universe.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Department of Philosophy, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.