This article is a response to a recent one on Medium.com by Ryan Reudell entitled ‘Does Consciousness Continue After Death?’ (I’ll quote it extensively, but if you would like to read it first, click here.) His answer to this question was a firm NO, and he claimed that ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ supported his viewpoint. It seemed clear to me, however, that what he really meant by these terms was the philosophy of materialism and those who advocate it. It is a frequent ruse used by dedicated materialists to claim that what is merely their worldview is ‘science’.
I responded: “These are not facts, or science, merely your firmly held opinions. Stating opinions with conviction does not make them any more true. The things you say are facts are debatable and controversial, therefore not facts”.
He responded: “Graham, I respect your disagreement and I honor your right to think differently, but if what I’ve said are merely firmly held opinions, then make your own response based on facts and science. Because I’m sharing the “opinions” — and by opinions, I mean the thoroughly researched observations and experiments of highly educated, experienced scientists — of those who know more about this than either of us. Right now your response to my article is merely a firmly held opinion. Give me something factual to work with so we can have an honest debate”.
So here we go.
The debate between the philosophy of materialist science and alternative understandings is a theme that I frequently address in my articles; hopefully my followers will be interested in yet another episode in this saga. Some of the material here will be restating things from earlier articles, so feel free to jump ahead, if you think you are familiar with it.
I’ll begin by noting things that Reudell considers to be facts, thus science, but which I think are merely opinions.
Firstly he says: “We know everything you and I are made of. We already have the language to describe the most basic parts of the universe — all the elementary particles and the forces moving them around, including the ones inside our bodies”.
I’m impressed, but surprised, by his confidence. He therefore believes that this statement amounts to ‘science’. Why then does a recent issue of New Scientist magazine¹ have blazed across its front cover: ‘Why the Laws of the Universe Explain Everything… Except You?’ Someone clearly thinks that Reudell’s belief is not science. The accompanying article² was entitled: ‘Your Decision-Making Ability is a Superpower Physics Can’t Explain’, and the subtitle was: ‘In a universe that unthinkingly follows the rules, human agency is an anomaly. Can physics ever make sense of our power to change the physical world at will?’ The article clearly suggested that physics was struggling to do this, and then quoted Matt Leifer from Chapman University in California: “If I’m saying that something doesn’t boil down to the laws of physics, then I’m basically positing something supernatural, that’s outside natural laws”. Very interesting indeed! Perhaps, contrary to what Reudell says, we do not know everything you and I are made of.
My second criticism in response to this first statement is that Reudell seems to be suggesting that elementary particles are things, material objects. Physicists will tell you, however, that what appears to us as matter is an illusion, and is in reality patterns of energy. They will also tell you that particles emerge into and out of existence at incredibly fast speeds. Where are they coming from, and where are they going to? No one really knows, but speculations are made about hidden non-material levels of reality. Physicists also speak of massless particles. How can matter be made out of ingredients with no mass?
Continuing on that theme, another recent issue of New Scientist magazine³ asked on its front cover: ‘What is Reality?: the More We Look at it, the Less Real it Seems’. The title of the accompanying article⁴ added “Why we still don’t understand the world’s true nature”.
That’s strange; I thought that Reudell said we did. His opening statement above, about elementary particles and forces, suggests that he has complete faith in what is known as the Standard Model. Here is what this article has to say on that subject: “By roughly the middle of the 20th century, physicists thought they had at least identified the fundamentals of the game: particles and quantum fields. The particles made up the matter and energy around us, and the quantum fields were responsible for forces, like electromagnetism, which governed how they interact. The rules of the game were set by quantum theory. This standard model has broadly stood the test of time. The discovery of its final missing piece, the Higgs boson, was confirmation that it is at least on the right track. And it arguably fulfils at least one philosophical definition of reality: what exists and what does it do? According to philosopher of science Tim Maudlin of New York University, if you have answered both these questions, then you have essentially cracked the problem of reality”.
So far so good for Reudell. However, the article continues: “But the standard model is nowhere near a complete answer. It leaves out many things that physicists are pretty sure are real even if they have yet to be characterised, including dark matter and dark energy. And it can’t account for the force that substantially defines our experience of reality, gravity. Despite high hopes that the Large Hadron Collider would follow the discovery of the Higgs with at least some hints about a more complete theory, none has yet been forthcoming”.
This missing “more complete theory”, as I would have thought every scientist knows, is that there is as yet no theory of everything which can accommodate both quantum theory and general relativity, even though both of them on the whole are considered to be ‘true’. This is a problem on a grand scale, exercising the minds of the world’s greatest cosmologists and physicists, not some minor inconvenient detail that needs to be worked out. The Standard Model is not the be-all and end-all of our understanding of reality.
From his statement we can also deduce that Reudell seems committed to an approach known as Reductionism, that if we can only get down to the basic building blocks of matter (elementary particles) then we will understand how the universe, including human beings, works. In response I can say that as early as 1968 there was a symposium at Alpach of scientists (and other intellectuals) which rejected this approach. The participants were mainly scientists, and sixteen are listed. Some of the better known names (in scientific circles) were: Jean Piaget (Professor of Experimental Psychology, University of Geneva), W. H. Thorpe (Director, Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge), Viktor E. Frankl (Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology, University of Vienna), Paul A. Weiss (Emeritus Member and Professor, Rockefeller University), and Ludwig von Bertalanffy (Faculty Professor, State University of New York at Buffalo). Others included the Director of the Centre for Cognitive Studies at Harvard, the Professor and Head of an Institute of Neurobiology and Histology, a Professor of Psychiatry, a Professor of Developmental Psychology, a Professor of Psychology, and a Professor at a Genetics Department. The proceedings of the symposium were recorded in Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences⁵. Some very impressive qualifications there!
You could argue, therefore, that Reudell’s worldview is already more than fifty years out of date. (Remember that the article mentioned above said that the Standard Model was formulated “by roughly the middle of the 20th century”.) Since 1968 many more scientists have concluded that Reductionism cannot explain the universe, that is to say that the parts cannot explain the whole, as explained by Marilyn Ferguson in her classic book about the emerging new paradigm, The Aquarian Conspiracy: “Science has always tried to understand nature by breaking things into their parts. Now it is overwhelmingly clear that wholes cannot be understood by analysis”⁶ (her italics). Scientists have therefore turned to other understandings based on the concepts of systems theory, holism, complexity theory, dissipative structures, a holographic universe, downward causation, synergy, and self-organisation. A well known advocate of this approach would be Fritjof Capra — see for example The Web of Life: a New Synthesis of Mind and Matter⁷.
Reudell continues: “Scientists are strongly convinced they will never discover new particles that will matter in you and me — no new particles that will change the way we think or behave or how we’re conscious… We have a complete view of 100% of what makes you… you. In the physical sense”.
From this we conclude that he thinks that consciousness is the result of interactions of particles. Also that we humans are nothing but these interactions. I submit that these are merely opinions for which there is no scientific evidence or, more accurately, that they are preconceptions based on the assumption of the truth of the philosophy of (atheistic) materialist science. I am happy to concede, up to a point, that we have a complete view of what makes us human in a physical sense. It would then have to be demonstrated that that is indeed all we are. Science has never done this, although the unnamed scientists, whom Reudell approves of, may claim that this is the case.
Here is the second point that Reudell calls science, but which I think is merely an opinion: “There is no particle in your mind — no atom, electron, proton, or neutron — that will pass on so much of a nanogram of your personality, thoughts, feelings, values, or anything related to your identity to another life. No particle survives death. The hardware of your brain dies and the software of consciousness dies with it. Everything that is you in You dies… When the brain dies, consciousness dies”.
My first reaction to reading this passage was, why does he need to keep repeating himself? This is what led me to say in my response “stating opinions with conviction does not make them any more true”.
Once again we are confronted with the unproved assumption that personality, thoughts etc. are manifestations of elementary particles. Putting that to one side, however, it is more interesting to consider the following: “We know what makes you You is in your brain because there are fully functioning, conscious humans with no arms or legs yet when someone suffers brain damage, their personality can irreparably change”.
I accept that the relationship between consciousness and the brain is exceedingly complicated, and I don’t dispute the truth of this statement. However, in one of the issues of New Scientist mentioned above, there was another article entitled ‘Teen born without half her brain has above average reading skills’⁸. It opened by repeating the title, then said: “The 18-year-old also has an average-to-high IQ and plans to go to university. Brain scans reveal she has more of the type of brain tissue involved in reading than typical. Tests of her brain activity indicate that the right side of her brain has taken on some of the functions of the left, suggesting that the organ has adapted to compensate for the missing tissue”.
The title of the Leader accompanying the article⁹ was ‘A woman with half a brain offers more proof of the organ’s superpowers’, and the subtitle was ‘From a teenager excelling with half a brain to the organ’s visual areas being co-opted in people who are blind, our brain’s ability to adapt continues to amaze’.
The leader went on to say: “This week, we cover the case of a teenager born without a left hemisphere. Given that this is the half of the brain specialised for language, you might have expected her speaking and reading skills to suffer. Not so. In fact, she has above-average reading skills”.
I think it is reasonable to say that being born without half a brain constitutes what Reudell calls “brain damage”. In this case, however, far from the personality changing irreparably (for the worse), the brain actually adapts and compensates for the damage. I would like to hear the explanation as to how the unintelligent motions of elementary particles have achieved this extraordinary feat.
My next response to his second point is that, if what Reudell says is true, then there would be no possibility of reincarnation. Why then do some children have memories of past lives, the details of which, so far as is possible, have been authenticated by scientists? I have previously written a longer article about this, which can be consulted if anyone is interested. This is not necessary, however, because what follows are extensive quotations from that article, in order to extract the main points.
The best known researcher in this field is Ian Stevenson, who began work in the 1960s, then published Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation¹⁰. He describes “an almost conventional pattern. The case usually starts when a small child of two to four years of age begins talking to his parents or siblings of a life he led in another time and place. The child usually feels a considerable pull back toward the events of that life and he frequently importunes his parents to let him return to the community where he claims that he formerly lived. If the child makes enough particular statements about the previous life, the parents (usually reluctantly) begin inquiries about their accuracy. Often, indeed usually, such attempts at verification do not occur until several years after the child has begun to speak of the previous life. If some verification results, members of the two families visit each other and ask the child whether he recognises places, objects, and people of his supposed previous existence. On such occasions the case usually attracts much attention in the communities involved and accounts reach the newspapers” (p16).
Stevenson further says: “The child claims (or his behaviour suggests) a continuity of his personality with that of another person who has died…in a few cases the identification with the previous personality becomes so strong that the child rejects the name given him by his present parents and tries to force them to use the previous name. But in most cases, the subject experiences the previous self as continuous with his present personality, not as substituting for it” (p359).
Stevenson openly admits that his cases are not definite proof of reincarnation, as in his title merely suggestive. He nevertheless states that some of the cases furnish “considerable evidence” for reincarnation, and that “about thirty others are as rich in detail and as well authenticated as the ten best cases of the present group” (p2). He is aware of nearly six hundred cases, of which he and his colleagues have investigated about a third.
In a later book Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect¹¹, Stevenson makes an even more extraordinary claim, that birthmarks or birth defects on a person correspond to wounds or death blows from a previous incarnation. He says that such marks “provide an objective type of evidence well above that which depends on the fallible memories of informants. We have photographs (and occasionally sketches) which show the birthmarks and birth defects. And for many of the cases, we have a medical document, usually a postmortem report, that gives us a written confirmation of the correspondence between the birthmark (or birth defect) and the wound on the deceased person whose life the child, when it can speak, will usually claim to remember… The birthmarks and birth defects in these cases do not lend themselves easily to explanations other than reincarnation” (p2).
He says that he is “well aware of the seriousness — as well as the importance — of such a claim” that “a deceased personality — having survived death — may influence the form of a later-born baby”, but “can only say that I have been led to it by the evidence of the cases” (p2). He believes that this is “a better explanation than any other now available about why some persons have birth defects when most persons do not and for why some persons who have a birth defect have theirs in a particular location instead of elsewhere”. He agrees that there are other causes for such marks, yet thinks that these “account for less than half of all birth defects” (p3).
We can easily understand why Stevenson is “aware of the seriousness” of this claim, since it deals a fatal blow to the philosophy of materialism which Reudell is advocating, and his specific claims; how on earth could a ‘memory’ of a wound from a previous life be represented on a later body according to the rules of orthodox science?
Erlendur Haraldsson carried on Stevenson’s work, and reports on his results in I Saw a Light and Came Here: Children’s Experiences of Reincarnation¹². In it there is a foreword by Jim Tucker, who says of Stevenson, that once he began looking for such cases, he found hundreds more”. “He quickly saw that details the children gave could often be verified to match ones belonging to the life and death of one particular deceased person”. A review in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that “in regard to reincarnation he has painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases… in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds”. Tucker says of Haraldsson that he shows “the same dogged attention to detail that Stevenson did” (all quotes Pxi). I hope this description qualifies him to be a scientist worth listening to.
Let us remind ourselves of Reudell’s ‘scientific’ claim: “There is no particle in your mind — no atom, electron, proton, or neutron — that will pass on so much of a nanogram of your personality, thoughts, feelings, values, or anything related to your identity to another life. No particle survives death”. Would he accept any of the above as evidence that he is wrong? I doubt it, even though these were methodical and extensive studies by reputable scientists. The least we can say, however, is that the issue remains unresolved, and to say that science has proved that nothing of any person’s identity survives death is clearly not a fact, merely an opinion, and, given the above accounts, perhaps an unlikely one at that. I, of course, do not believe that it is the interactions of elementary particles that are responsible for the effects that Stevenson and Haraldsson describe.
Reudell and I seem to be arguing about what is called old paradigm and new paradigm science. Readers familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s work will appreciate those terms. I obviously assume Reudell’s article to be part of the old paradigm which is gradually disappearing into history. He will hopefully respond to this article with his defence of this old paradigm.
I’ll now offer some further examples of scientists who disagree with Reudell’s claims. Two books with striking titles which obviously contradict his worldview are:
- The Spiritual Brain: a Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul¹³
- Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness¹⁴
Another prominent scientist with similar views is the late Sir John Eccles, Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine. (Is that educated and experienced enough for Reudell? To see an impressive list of his credentials and honours, click here.) He co-wrote with Karl Popper The Self and Its Brain¹⁵, which is self-explanatory. Another book of his is The Human Mystery which contains the Gifford Lectures of 1977–1978¹⁶. In its preface he makes an important statement relevant to the current discussion: “I believe that it is vitally important to emphasize the great mysteries that confront us when, as scientists, we try to understand the natural world including ourselves. There has been a regrettable tendency of many scientists to claim that science is so powerful and all pervasive that in the not too distant future it will provide an explanation in principle of all phenomena in the world of nature including man, even of human consciousness in all its manifestations. When that is accomplished scientific materialism will then be in the position of being an unchallengeable dogma accounting for all experience. In our recent book Popper has labelled this claim as promissory materialism, which is extravagant and unfulfillable. Yet, on account of the high regard for science, it has great persuasive power with the intelligent laity because it is advocated unthinkingly by the great mass of scientists who have not critically evaluated the dangers of this false and arrogant claim” (pVII). I offer the suggestion that the unnamed “highly educated, experienced scientists” whom Reudell admires so much are scientists of this type.
There is a series of conferences called Mystics and Scientists. (Its 43rd conference will take place this April.) I have a book which is a collection of contributions from the 1980s and 90s¹⁷. Scientists willing to appear at these conferences, thus rejecting materialism and speaking from an alternative, new paradigm, viewpoint, were:
- Fritjof Capra: The New Physics and the Scientific Reality of our Time
- David Bohm: Cosmos, Matter, Life and Consciousness
- Paul Davies: The Cosmic Blueprint: Self-Organizing Principles of Matter and Energy
- Kurt Dressler: The Experience of Unity
- Glen Schaefer: A Holistic Philosophy of Nature
- James Lovelock: The Environment Now and the Gaian Perspective
- Brian Goodwin: Complexity, Creativity and Society
- Lyall Watson: The Biology of Being: A Natural History of Consciousness
- Rupert Sheldrake: Evolutionary Habits of Mind, Behaviour and Form
- Charles Tart: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology
- Sir John Eccles: The Mystery of the Human Psyche
I suggest that none of these scientists would agree with the statements that Reudell calls science. At the very least they would consider them limited or highly debatable.
I’ll turn now to two books under the general editorship of Edward F. Kelly:
- Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century¹⁸
- Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality¹⁹
In the preface to the first of these Kelly says: “We also identify a variety of specific empirical phenomena, and a variety of critical aspects of human mental life, that appear to resist or defy understanding in terms of the currently prevailing physicalist conceptual framework” (Pxxix), which is obviously the framework that Reudell subscribes to. Some of the phenomena discussed are: ESP and parapsychology, hypnosis and Mesmerism, genius, savant syndrome and prodigious memory, memory and consciousness surviving bodily death, reincarnation (and birthmarks and birth defects in relation to this), memory as not being a brain function, secondary centres of consciousness, a deeper self beyond the ego, mystical and conversion experiences, near-death and out-of-body experiences, dreams, hallucinations, apparitions and visions, trance, placebo and nocebo effects, ecstasy, voodoo death, possession, faith healing, automatic writing, mediumship, psychosomatic phenomena, artistic creativity, and invisible environments interrelated with the one we know directly.
I assume that Reudell and his ‘scientists’ would dismiss all or most of these as illusions, brain malfunctions, or nonsense believed only by credulous, gullible people. They are nevertheless discussed seriously and in great depth by Kelly’s team.
The remainder of Reudell’s article consists of statements typical of modern materialist scientists. They are the brave, heroic figures who have faced up to the truth of the tragic human condition, and who struggle to make the rest of us lesser mortals face unpleasant truths, instead of seeking comfort in religion and fantasies of the afterlife. The only logical solution is to adopt a philosophy of Humanism (a term which he does not use, but which seems to me to apply to what he is saying). I have criticised advocates of Humanism in earlier articles²⁰.
Reudell’s article is a typical statement from the Bible of (atheistic) scientific materialism. Like all fundamentalists, he is convinced of the truth of his worldview. Are what he considers to be scientific facts really facts, or are they just opinions? I leave the reader to judge. The very least we can say is that, if there are such differing understandings among scientists, then any particular worldview remains a hypothesis, thus an opinion rather than established science.
He may choose to appeal to “thoroughly researched observations and experiments of highly educated, experienced scientists”. These authorities are so far unnamed, and I hope he reveals them, in order to take the debate further. I would be surprised if they were any more educated or experienced than those I’ve mentioned in this article. If he chooses only to read and be aware of scientists who agree with him, and ignore all those who don’t, then it is hardly surprising that he arrives at the conclusions he wants to arrive at.
To conclude, I’ll repeat one of his statements: “No particle survives death. The hardware of your brain dies and the software of consciousness dies with it”. He is so confident of this that he puts the opening sentence in bold print. This is one of the more bizarre things that he says, implying that elementary particles are material objects, that our bodies are composed of them, that one collection of particles is exclusive to us and dies with us, in effect that they are our elementary particles. I hope that he would consider Richard Feynman to be a “highly educated, experienced scientist”, one of “those who know more about this than either of us”. He is, after all, a Nobel laureate in physics. Feynman has been quoted: “Today’s brains are yesterday’s mashed potatoes”, in which case they can presumably be tomorrow’s mashed potatoes as well. Does Reudell really understand quantum physics and the nature of elementary particles?
1. issue 3269, February 15th 2020
2. By Richard Webb, click here.
3. issue 3267, February 1st 2020
4. click here.
5. Edited by Arthur Koestler and J. R. Smythies, Hutchinson of London, 1969
6. Granada Publishing, 1982, p168
7. Flamingo, 1997
8. by Jessica Hamzelou, issue 3269, February 15th 2020, click here.
9. click here.
10. University Press of Virginia, 2nd edition 1974
11. Praeger, 1997
12. White Crow Books, 2016
13. by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, HarperOne, 2007
14. by neuroscientist and cognitive scientist Alva Noë, Hill and Wang, 2009
15. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983
16. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984
17. The Spirit of Science, edited by David Lorimer, Floris Books, 1998
18. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
19. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015