1. wzrd1 says

    Given this year, I really must ask a question.
    Is there life before death? If so, I sincerely hope I had a wonderful time while alive, for indeed, we’re in hell – a Bizarro World.

  2. chesapeake says

    PZ, seeing your hair reminded me of my recent very long locks,which I got so tired of that one day I took my beard trimmer and cut the sides and my girlfriend cut the back, and to my amazement, it looked pretty good. I feel so much better because it gets oily pretty quickly. You might want to try it if your hair bothers you. My gf was urging me to get a haircut so this allowed me to not risk my life.

  3. PaulBC says

    It’s interesting that few people care as much about a “before life” though I guess if you believe in reincarnation, you have that covered. If we didn’t exist to begin with then why would we continue to exist later?

    I would like to live a lot longer, though the exact amount varies. Should it be enough to take a tour of neighboring stars at a reasonable speed (less than 0.1c) so maybe a few thousand years, or long enough to enumerate all possible proofs of a non-trivial theorem until I found the shortest one (well past the expected lifetime of the universe). What always scared me, though, was the ∞ part. Yikes! That is just asking for boredom. (This was explored in the season finale of The Good Place but I think it should have been pretty clear already.)

    In fact, when you consider that a lot of people can’t even figure out what to do with their retirement years, I really don’t get the need. At least being a ghost stuck on earth to warn the living, you’d still have a job of sorts.

    I am a finite being and I am totally comfortable with that.

  4. PaulBC says

    The truth is we all turn into sea foam. It’s a beautiful ending in its own way. Hans Christian Andersen was really onto something there. He just made the mistake of thinking it was only for mermaids.

  5. Ridana says

    I don’t get how déjà vu is supposed to be evidence of past lives. In a past life I wouldn’t have been experiencing the exact same thing I’m getting déjà vu over. Temporarily out-of-sync parallel dimensions briefly overlapping, now we’re talking. ;)

    His name is actually Malarkey? That should be a tip-off.

    Love the skull and bones sheet. ^.^

  6. says

    I love to interrogate people’s theories of ensoulment and how afterlife works. It turns out that it’s hard to have an “afterlife” without dismissing a bunch of physical law. Usually you get “souls are energy” which is so delicious because you can ask where on the EM spectrum they fall and how they are not detectable. (Would a wandering soul interfere with the LIGO?) if they have mass they would be easy to find, and if they don’t, how would they stick to the body and not remain in one frame of reference as our bodies go spinning and orbiting off through the cosmos, etc. “So you’re telling me ‘Heaven’ is a place that has no location where disembodied energy beings vibrate praises at eachother?” It really is disappointing how vast are the gaps in common or garden theories of ensoulment.

    The best theory of afterlife is, of course, Mark Twain’s “Extract From Captain Stormfield’s Trip To Heaven.” Twain does a good job of exploring how theories of heaven expound on it being a dead boring place best avoided.

  7. Anton Mates says

    PaulBC @4,

    What always scared me, though, was the ∞ part. Yikes! That is just asking for boredom.

    Hmm. Assuming that you’re permitted to retain your physical health and mobility and so forth, why should an eternal life be more boring than a long-but-finite one? Most human happiness comes from activities we repeat every day/week/month anyway. Our memories are limited and imperfect, so visiting Alpha Centauri or coming up with an amazing proof will probably still feel new even if you already did it 2,000 years ago.

    (And if you’re immortal with a perfect memory, then each new century of experience will leave you massively changed psychologically, so you can still repeat activities and enjoy them from a fresh perspective. Or so I would imagine.)

    The humans who get bored most easily are children, after all. I’d like to think that immortals could divert themselves indefinitely with the contents of their own heads.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @9:

    Usually you get “souls are energy” which is so delicious because you can ask where on the EM spectrum they fall and how they are not detectable.

    Not all energy is electromagnetic. Also, why should they be currently detectable? Is there a theoretical constraint that dictates this? Since there is, AFAIK, no actual theory of soul, I don’t see how there could be.

    Trying to ‘debunk’ something for which there is no theory is a misuse of science. And in case anyone wants to point to Sean Carroll, please don’t. His invocation of the Standard Model, and the Dirac equation in particular, is ‘blinding you with science’ hogwash amounting to “if there were something, we would have seen it already”, which is just lazy horseshit.

    AFAIC, the appropriate response to claims of ‘ensoulment’ is that there is no evidence for such a thing, and that there are powerful reasons for thinking it is no more than a fiction created by humans uncomfortable with their mortality.

  9. whheydt says

    Re: Marcus Ranum @ #12…
    You mean like dark matter and dark energy?

    Granted, both are inferred from the behavior of things we can detect, but neither has been detected in and of itself. The same was true until quite recently of gravitational waves.

    So, really, I think the question about “souls” becomes, what effects do they have on things we can see or measure that would differ between existence and non-existence? If there is no way to infer them because of indirect effects, and no direct detection, then the simplest explanation is that they don’t exist. Therefore it becomes the job of those who assert their “reality” to propose a test that will, at least, indirectly detect the proposed “soul”.

  10. PaulBC says

    Anton Mates@10 OK, sure. But my gut says that I would get bored. Admittedly, I can see the counterargument too, particularly when you go beyond ℵ₀ there might be all kinds of transcendent experiences inaccessible to my finite mind as currently constituted.

    I think what I fear most is being locked in. There are days when I might wish I had more waking hours. But suppose I had a pill that could safely keep me awake for the next year. Would I take it? I like sleeping. (I would probably take it during a more goal oriented part of my life but right now it just seems like it would be more time to fill.)

    While I’m in no hurry to die, it’s a relief to think at some point it could just all be over and leave the resources and experiences to others to enjoy. Also, I think that is the actual state of affairs, so there is not much point in speculating about circumstances that are unlikely to apply.

  11. PaulBC says

    “Souls” as such are not usually considered detectable by physical means (in conventional religion, though you can always find someone claiming to be able to communicate with the dead and create physical manifestations).

    It is reasonable to conclude from this that because they’re unfalsifiable there is no reason to take their existence seriously, but it seems silly to me to argue that they need to leave some kind of physical trace if they’re assumed to transcend physics.

    (Actually, though, if the naturalist explanation of human intelligence were incorrect and intelligence were mediated through a soul, I guess it would by definition be detectable since it would have to affect brain function by producing physical effects inexplicable by neuroscience. Otherwise, the soul is just an observer as long as the brain functions.)

    I think a more interesting question is why people believe there is a soul, and I think it’s something like a tendency to attach material permanence to a virtual object. People sort of understand (I hope) that a note played on a guitar string does not go to note heaven when the string finally comes to rest. It would seem extremely silly to ask where the music went. But other humans are very real to us, and it’s a different thing entirely to say that some matter was “resonating” to a distinct personality, and that personality no longer exists with its dissolution into component parts. But this does seem to be the case. It’s sad, sure. I also find it kind of a relief as well.

  12. says

    You mean like dark matter and dark energy?
    Granted, both are inferred from the behavior of things we can detect,

    That is “detection”! They are even measuring it and its disposition using second-order effects. They are far from “undetectable” but they’re “poorly understood” and “invisible”, sure.

    We’d detect souls if they were energy or had mass or interacted with photons or a whole panoply of things we use to gain knowledge about things (the first piece of knowledge, as we see with dark matter/energy is to learn that it exists). As far as I have seen the evidence for souls is “I feel like I have one.” Oh, OK, Let’s just take that on faith.

  13. vucodlak says

    I don’t necessarily believe in life after death, but I do hope for one.

    Why? Because I would like to be truly happy, if only for a little while. I would like to know what it is to have love and trust in my life beyond the few furtive and fear-tinged days that I’ve known it in this one. I would like a chance to know an existence in which family and enemy were not synonyms. I would like at least a shot at a life defined by something other than terror. I would like, more than anything, not to be so alone.

    I have no reason to expect that another life would be any better than this one, and it could certainly be worse, but that’s a chance I’d be willing to take. It seems that some people have been happy, sometimes, surely. That some of them have been able to make connections with other people. Maybe that could be me, next time. Maybe not, but despite everything I’m a twisted optimist.

    That’s why I want an afterlife (yes, I know no one asked).

  14. PaulBC says

    Marcus Ranum@16 I’d be surprised if anyone on this thread is seriously arguing for the existence of a soul. Demanding evidence still strikes me as silly.

    Some matters of faith are unfalsifiable by definition. Transubstantiation at a Catholic mass is not expected to be detectable. In other cases, evidence is provided, but you don’t get to decide when. So God can appear in a burning bush to Moses, but you don’t form a hypothesis about the right preconditions and see if you can get the bush burning again.

    It’s not science. You are certainly free to conclude on that basis that it’s nonsense, but demanding that it conform to the rule of science strikes me as equally nonsensical. Nobody ever claimed that it does.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @16:

    That is “detection”!

    No it’s not. Their existence (in the most popularized forms) is accepted by most astrophysicists, but there is active research in alternative theories.

    We’d detect souls if they were energy or had mass or…

    Most particle physicists believe in some sort of Grand Unified Theory which unifies the electroweak and strong interactions. That would necessarily involve particles which we haven’t, and quite possibly never will, detect. The idea that if something has energy or mass we could detect it is just nonsense.

  16. PaulBC says

    vucodlak@17 Interesting. Nah, I like being a little bit happy a lot of the time. I can tolerate not being happy some of the time. I would be disappointed not to be really excited about something now and then, but it’s rarely about other people in that case. Usually it’s the sense of learning something new or completing a project of some kind.

    “Truly happy”? Not even sure what that would be. In fact, I suspect it’s a bit self-defeating (like “true love”) because you’re always going to find yourself measuring reality to something unobtainable you conjured up in your fantasies.

    The problem with life after death is who says it would be happy? Maybe I’ve already drawn a large debt of unearned happiness and I’ll be digging ditches or the spiritual equivalent for many mortal lifetimes to come. That’s assuming I’m not downright wicked and have some horrible torture lined up for me. I do not believe these things or fear them, but I certainly don’t imagine I have any kind of reward coming either.

  17. whheydt says

    Re: PaulBC @ #18…
    So far as I can tell, the proposed indetectibility of souls and change with transubstantiation has more to do with advances in scientific measurement capabilities than it does with any proposed reality. It’s very much a “God of the gaps” argument.

    The experiment I would propose would be to see if a Catholic priest can tell the difference between a wafer that has undergone transubstantiation and one that hasn’t. If someone who is supposed to able to tell can reliably demonstrate that he can, then we can move on to the “how” and the “what is different”. But first, one needs a reliable test that there is a difference. (Cue the various requirements to eliminate knowledge transfer from the one who treats the wafer to the one being tested, and other “blind test” requirements.)

  18. unclefrogy says

    that guy is spouting such rubbish it is hard to even take it seriously.
    I have been re-listening to one of my favorite song lately “The Circle game” by Joni Mitchel probably because so many have gone unnecessarily these last few months and there is so much crazy crap still going on. I think that the idea of a soul is really like a kind of a zen koan. An idea to question like what is the thing that experiences life not a thing that is some how separate from the world that has shape and life. As commonly used it is just the idea of the self living on forever. The christian soul worshiping god in heaven for all eternity differently is the personality living forever which is all just wishful thinking to escape death. all without questioning what is death and what is life two things that are wrapped up in each other.
    uncle frogy

  19. PaulBC says

    The christian soul worshiping god in heaven for all eternity differently is the personality living forever which is all just wishful thinking to escape death. all without questioning what is death and what is life two things that are wrapped up in each other.

    Actually what offends me most about the idea of a soul is to think of the complexity of the body we inhabit, with its needs and with its pains, elaborate mechanisms to metabolize nutrients and supplying oxygenated blood to our brains, which is the seat of our sentient existence. And someone wants to tell me: nah, that’s a big put-on to trick you. You are really a wispy spirity thing and don’t need all that.

    I mean this seems to me to be load of crap. What’s the body then, just ballast, or a big anchor to keep my soul from floating away? I really find it offensive rather than beautiful to imagine my real existence could be something that doesn’t need all this. I find it much more wonderful to think of my sentience arising as an emergent property of this assembly of matter and energy, and an ephemeral one at that, tied to this assembly and destroyed by its dissolution.

    My feelings are not a proof of anything, but if the soul were in fact to exist, it would be as ridiculous and disappointing as finding out that the earth is 6000 years old and dinosaur bones were planted there just to fool us.

  20. PaulBC says

    I also think that considering each other as creatures of flesh and blood, tied entirely to the fate of our bodies, is more likely to inspire compassion and understanding that considering our bodies avatars in some kind of supernatural video game. That is the kind of thinking that makes war seem heroic and justice deferrable to an imagined afterlife.

  21. evolutionaryautistic says

    Oh, I have an announcement. Franklin Graham called for a day of prayer and fasting, so, even though it is one day late, we should all indulge our athiest souls by eating a bunch of chocolate and watching the most blasphemous thing you can find.

  22. says

    I’ve had the experience of walking through a tunnel towards the light but I was very much alive. I had been hypnotised by a hypnotherapist who used this as part of imagery to help me deal with an extremely stressful period in my life. When the stress was getting too great I could use a relaxation technique to recall the scene which also include the other image commonly reported in NDEs, a pleasant natural clearing in a woodland. Its amazing what you can convince your mind to produce. I’ve also had a vivid and somewhat frightening out of body experience while I was dreaming. Got to sign off to pay the bills by writing a book about it.

  23. birgerjohansson says

    If we ever develop “strong” AI, with the full spektrum of creativity found in humans, they will not be chained to a biological substrate and will in a real sense be capable of being “uploaded” if their chassis is falling.
    I do not begrudge our potential descendants this ability.
    As for biological entities doing the same- I suspect you would have to re-design the human brain from the bottom up.
    This puts it in the same time frame as Olaf Stapledon’s First And Last Men.
    I suppose they will be around in time for terraforming Venus (yes, I know that is hardest, most impossible engineering project you can choose. That us my point).

  24. Gorogh, Lounging Peacromancer says


    Do they comment on why the vast majority of caregivers* likely are not experiencing shared death experiences? Are they lacking rapport or something? The nurses I know tend to be very sober, down to earth (may be a cultural thing, also hospices are not hospitals I know) about pain and death and such, are those people just less susceptible? In other words, do those folks (“true believers”) posit that you have to have faith in order to experience it?

    Marketing spiritual items is truly the worst of all worlds.

    *Had to look up what I meant… turns out, care_giver_ and care_taker_ are very different things.

  25. John Morales says


    I suspect you would have to re-design the human brain […]

    Redesign, eh? :)

    Anyway, all this talk of souls is irrelevant for a supposed afterlife, since they’re not needful. A materialistic supposition suffices.

    All that is necessary is for a sufficiently-puissant entity to recreate in its entirety the body (in, presumably, within a suitable environment for its continued existence) of someone who has died.

    Anecdotally, I once dreamt that I became aware of myself in a rather empty space, and I became aware of a couple of people who informed me that I was a fair distance away from my time; at that point, I thoughtfully responded “Huh, so I’m a simulation. Interesting”.

    (Weird, no?)

  26. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    best evidence ever was RBG inhabiting that fly to pester Pence debating Harris. [giggles]

  27. birgerjohansson says

    John Morales @ 29
    -Had you been reading the first chapter of Farmer’s “Riverworld” novel the evening before? It definitely inspired part of “Matrix” 😀

  28. birgerjohansson says

    LykeX @ 32 -that sounds just a bit like the last novel in Peter Hamilton’s “Night’s Dawn” SF quadrology. Tons of souls trying to find their way back into a biological host…

  29. birgerjohansson says

    Re my previous comment-it is a variant of “The Simpsons already did it”
    – if you can come up with an idea, there is already a science fiction novel based on it.

  30. birgerjohansson says

    …..And I recommend Farmer’s novel “Traitor to the Living” -a conflict of lebensraum between living and dead!

  31. PaulBC says


    Oh yeah, as for NDEs, funny how it’s only living people who report them.

    The dead usually have DEs. (Reporting is the difficult part.)

  32. chesapeake says

    I have always been a skeptic about NDEs but I am given pause by the work of Kenneth Ring at UCONN, social psychologist who I took undergrad. and graduate courses with about 10 years before he started his research into NDEs. Over more than 10 years he became convinced by his research that there is life after death and in this Times article he says he is looking forward to it, but not soon. It was my strong impression that he was an excellent researcher and that is makes me interested in his research.I ordered one of his books a couple of years ago, Lessons From The Light Hardcover – August 21, 1998 to find out what he found so convincing . Haven’t looked at it yet.

    Another researcher, Sam Parnia,has developed a protocol that seemingly could provide convincing evidence but has not so far. His method is to place objects on shelves that are not visible from below but would be to a “spirit” floating near the top of the room. Veridical reports made while the pt. was “dead” would seem to be good evidence for life after death.

    Moody’s work is not considered persuasive by NDE Researchers because it was just case reports. Ring’s work was much more rigorous. In the TIMES interview he reports that NDEs, which are common, have profound effects on people. I only wish I could have one so I would feel much much better. It easy to make jokes about these reports, and some are major frauds, but what Ring reports is serious stuff.
    I’ll believe it when I see it. And probably not even then.

  33. John Morales says


    In the TIMES interview he reports that NDEs, which are common, have profound effects on people.

    Yeah, I had more than one of those.

    For example, on my bike (ZX9R), I decided to overtake something like 6 or 7 typically-slothy cars (imagine only doing 90kph or so in a 100kph zone!) blocking my way on a two-lane road since the coast was clear, so I pulled into the other lane and gunned it. All was going well until the second car (boxes on wheels, they are) from the front decided to also overtake and pulled out right in front of me. Since I was doing over 180kph by then, braking was not an option and there was no room to pull back in… I had to go to the dirt road verge beside the road. Good news, I didn’t prang it.
    That got the heart pumping.

    Anyway, I never was and never shall be quite that foolish again.
    So yeah, a profound effect from a near-death experience. ;)

  34. PaulBC says

    Though I don’t believe in the validity of NDEs as evidence of an afterlife, it does seem to be true that people report such experiences. My father actually told us something like this happened during surgery in the 1970s–floating above the table and hearing doctors discuss his case. I don’t know if he had heard of this before. I can think of two objections to taking this as evidence of an afterlife, first the most obvious one.

    Unless the experience of being outside one’s body actually involves seeing information the patient would otherwise not be aware of, then it is as easily explained as a vivid dream, though it’s interesting if patients in this situation have similar dreams (not accounted for by hearing of similar cases).

    But suppose you did find an example of a patient leaving their body and being aware of things hidden from them in their present state. That would be interesting to be sure, but not a proof of life after death. The fact that they eventually came back to tell the tale suggests that their brain remained intact. Even if they claimed to have this experience during a period when their brain did not register activity, it doesn’t mean they’re correct about the time.

    An alternative explanation would be some form of telepathy seated in a functioning brain. I don’t believe any such thing exists, but if it did, it would make more sense to investigate an explanation within a naturalist framework than immediately leap (a) to the conclusion of mind-body dualism and from there leap (b) to the conclusion of life after death and make the final leap (c) that this life continues indefinitely in the absence of a body.

    As I stated above, my big objection to mind-body dualism is just “Well, then why would we have a brain at all?” given the cost of maintaining this organ.

    Tangent: I have often wondered about the experience of having uncanny hunches (more lucky guesses that have helped my in school and work than spooky premonitions) and wondered if my brain is really thinking or engaging in some kind of quantum weirdness looking a little ahead into the future (though I believe it is attributable to coincidence, subconscious thought, and the fact that I don’t keep track of the hunches that fail). My point though, is that even if there were a real phenomenon here to explore, that doesn’t mean it happens without a functioning brain.

    Suppose I figured out how to project myself “out of body” consciously. That would be pretty cool, but it would not prove anything about a “soul” as much as a surprising property of the brain to engage in remote sensing. The reason I find this extraordinarily unlikely (aside from lack of any known mechanism) is that if would be such a useful skill, why would we rely so much on our ordinary senses. If it is a skill that people cannot tap except when near death, that is also contrary to common sense, because you probably have the least need to be aware of anything going on when you’re stuck on an operating table.

    All the same, the evidence if any might be interesting to evaluate. It is just a big jump to go from that to life after death.

  35. Jado says

    “The only evidence I need for an afterlife is faith.” AKA “There is a Heaven cause I want there to be one. Nyah!!”