Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no afterlife of any kind, either, say the physicists

Hasn’t Sean Carroll learned from Stephen Hawking’s experience? Nothing stirs up the public like a physicist explaining how silly their cherished myths are. Now Carroll gives the physicists’ perspective on life after death.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

And then he body-slams the opposition with the Dirac equation. Theologians break down and weep. The faithful flee, and then riot. Churches implode as the void at their heart is exposed.

Well, we can hope.

The biologists’ perspective, which is a little less fundamental, is simply that there is no identifiable ‘receiver’ localized in the brain (no, not even the pineal gland, as Descartes believed), distributed physiological activity is associated with thought, and injury, disease, and pharmacology can all profoundly influence the mind. Furthermore, the way the brain works involves trans-membrane ion fluxes and synaptic activity — it’s all electrochemistry and biochemistry. In addition to that new physics, we’d need a new chemistry to explain how spirit interacts with neurotransmitters or gene expression or protein phosphorylation.

While we won’t see the churches shut down, at least we can say that wishful thinking withers in the face of science.