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The Afterlife article in Wikipedia concludes thus "Regarding the mind–body problem, most neuroscientists take a physicalist position according to which consciousness derives from and/or is reducible to physical phenomena such as neuronal activity occurring in the brain"

Is this a rational position to hold? Is it not possible that the ever-expanding horizon of scientific knowledge may one day uncover an explanation, or a theory (it may not be true but may be widely accepted) for the existence of the soul and life beyond the death of the body? Even so, one would think that the probability of something unknown being true is 50/50.

Also, given the wild swings of the pendulum of human opinion, is it reasonable to say that the physicalist's view of consciousness as stated above is the final view of physical existence?

  • it's a short hop from rationally assessing to rationalizing... Is there any evidence in support of a soul amongst the living, or anything other than composting after death? – Mr. Kennedy Nov 7 '16 at 6:34
  • 1) There is no mind-body problem. 2) It is not known whether the die will roll a 4. Is the probability that it will 0.5? 3) It is unreasonable to suggest that any view on anything is the final view. – M. le Fou Nov 7 '16 at 7:09
  • Not only is it not rational, it is also an unscientific position. Rather than leaving certain questions open-ended, much of science is based on prematurely closing such question even though there is no rational basis for doing so. – user3017 Nov 7 '16 at 10:16
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    The "ever-expanding horizon of scientific knowledge" may one day include a perpetuum mobile, at this time however the conservation of energy law rules it out. Science ruling something out is not an absolute prohibition, and none of our today's views are "final". But there is a bigger problem with afterlife, at least it is more or less clear what perpetuum mobile is supposed to be. "The probability of something unknown" is not 50/50, in most cases it is a nonsensical expression, you need a clearly delineated sample space of possibilities to have it make sense. We don't for souls and afterlife. – Conifold Nov 7 '16 at 19:07
  • I suppose the converse is true: the usual theories about "afterlife" rule out the possibility of a scientific approach to the subject. – Luís Henrique Nov 8 '16 at 15:27
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There are a number of points in your question that are worth exploring.

Firstly, is it rational for neuroscientists to support a physicalist view? The answer is an emphatic yes. All the scientific evidence, so far established, leads to the view that consciousness is a property of our bodies. As such it is perfectly rational to hold a physicalist view.

Secondly, is it possible that future evidence will overturn that view? Absolutely it is possible. It would be wholly unscientific to hold a position that you wouldn't change in light of new evidence. For example, if, tomorrow, a gateway to the afterlife opened up and you could visit it and return, I imagine most, if not all, neuroscientists would amend their position.

Thirdly, because of the possibility of new evidence should we hold a position assuming that new evidence? That depends. If the expectation is that the evidence is highly likely to be true but we just don't have the ability to prove it, then assuming it is true is quite common in science. Most physicists, for example, were pretty convinced we'd find the Higgs boson as it was the only part of the Standard Model that hadn't been confirmed.

If, however, there is no good, scientific, reason to believe that a particular piece of new evidence will turn up then generally it doesn't make much sense to assume it will. The existence of an afterlife would currently fall into this bucket.

Note, the difference between these points. Just because it is reasonable to expect some new evidence to turn up, it is not necessarily reasonable to expect a particular piece of evidence to turn up unless there are other strong indicators for it.

This is why your 50/50 point is not valid. There is a much greater chance than 50% that we will get a greater understanding of consciousness in the future. But a much lower chance of us finding evidence for the afterlife as there has been no scientific indication so far.

As to your last point on wild swings of opinion. To be honest, there generally aren't that wild swings. Just some people have a strong view one way and others have a strong view the other way. I would not expect scientists to move away from a physicalist position unless there was new evidence that prompted it. Until such a time, a physicalist approach is the most rational even if it eventually turned out to be incorrect.

  • To add to your 50/50 argument, you actually cannot use probabilities in this way. At best, you would use a different statistical concept, likelihood. Likelihood is not a concept that can be used absolutely, as in 50/50. It can only be used in a relative sense. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 8 '16 at 1:09
  • Alex, that's a great answer, thank you, however I am not sure I can agree on one of your points. You write "If there is no good reason to believe that a particular piece of new evidence will turn up" : well our reasoning is based on our beliefs, there may not be good scientific reasons, however the religous person will have good reasons. Now we could say that religous beliefs are not a good reason for future expectations, or we could say the opposite: A satisfactory answer should include an affirmative or negative to the above, I would think. – stackex555 Nov 8 '16 at 12:24
  • @stackex555 fair point. I've added 'scientific' as an adjective for the reason. – Alex Nov 8 '16 at 12:41
  • @stackex555 To a scientist there is no such thing as a good religious reason. Religion is the opposite of rationality. – Matt Samuel Nov 9 '16 at 3:01
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Science does not rule out the possibility of life after death. It has nothing to say about it, just as it has nothing to say about God. Science is exclusively concerned with the natural world, not the supernatural world. That's why great scientists can be deeply religious without contradiction.

if, at some point in the future, a theory about life after death were to be accepted by the scientific community as a genuinely scientific theory, that would mean that our concept of science would have changed.

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Yes, that is an entirely rational position to hold. It would be contrary to experience to argue that knowledge was obtained for no reason, thus we should consider that it is obtained for some use. The usability of that knowledge then becomes a marker of whether it is worth having.

Knowledge about the afterlife would only be of use if some action within our control could affect it in a significant way, or if such knowledge alone could provide us with some emotional benefit. Given the complete absence of any data about the afterlife, each action we take is as likely as any other to have a positive impact and as such there is no utility to be gained by holding a view that such a thing might exist. As to the second, emotional use, that is entirely subjective and I'm sure the reason why only "most" neuroscientists dismiss an afterlife, not "all".

Most scientists attempt to follow a falsification process in their investigations, they do not consider their knowledge to be the truth, but a theory that is capable of being proven wrong, but has yet to be. In order to derive these theories in a relatively objective manner, one has to consider the simplest explanation first otherwise you end up with a situation famously described by Russell.

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

The afterlife is just such a teapot.

  • The same argument can be used for scientific theory for example the theory of relativity that is taught, accepted and assumed to be true. What Russel is talking about is only the consensus view of truth I have no disagreement here. The question should have been "can science rule out the possibility of the existence of the soul?" – stackex555 Nov 7 '16 at 8:45
  • @stackex555 Not exactly, the theory of relativity (general and special) has made predictions which have turned out to be accurate. Science cannot "rule out" the possibility of anything, but it never claimed to do so. It creates theories which make predictions, whilst those predictions continue to be accurate, the theory is useful. A theory which makes no predictions is not useful, the existence of a soul is just such a theory. That is not to say that one might not believe in the existence of a soul, but it makes little sense to debate such a belief with others. – Isaacson Nov 7 '16 at 8:53
  • I suppose the broader issue is the question whether or not scientific knowledge is the only knowledge possible, alternatively we could have a separate thing called 'commonly held belief' or 'group belief' that is not scientific but goes beyond personal beliefs and opinions. – stackex555 Nov 8 '16 at 12:27
  • @stackex555 Yes, there are other ways of constructing knowledge, but what sets scientific knowledge apart is its ability to make predictions. Only this ability is of objective use. We might define a commonly held belief as an article of knowledge, but what use could we then put that type of knowledge to? We couldn't moderate our behaviour on the basis of it to achieve some expected result, because it does not make predictions about the expected result. If it did it would be testable and so would be science. – Isaacson Nov 8 '16 at 12:49
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Given the success of physical science since its revival in the renaissance its an obvious possibility and then a step to take to say that consciousness can be reduced to physics - this would be the physicalist assumption or hypothesis.

Unfortunately, physics, as its stands now and in all its speculative efforts doesn't allow us to hold out such a hope.

However, its certainly correlated with brain structure, which is what most, if not all the reputable work in neuro-science is focused on.

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A physicalist position strengthens the possibility of life after death. If the body is just a machine it just needs to be repaired.

A dead body is a broken machine. Repair the machine, and it's alive again.

To rule out the possibility of life after death in a physicalist perspective, you have to rule out the possibility of being able to repair or restore a machine. As a practical matter some machines may be unrepairable, but I see no justification for declaring that all biological machines at some point must "in principle" become unrepairable.

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    This is not quite what I meant, what I meant was life after the body is dead or unrepairable - the existence of a soul or spirit that continues after earthly life as taught in all the major religions. – stackex555 Nov 7 '16 at 8:40
  • @stackex555, ok but I challenge the idea that there's ever a point when a body is truly unrepairable. Information isn't lost in the universe. Even if a body disintegrates into atoms, it is still restoreable. The technology will exist at some point in the future to do this. The idea of an "ultimate end" doesn't make sense in a physical universe. – Ameet Sharma Nov 7 '16 at 8:59
  • Ameet, I appreciate your point of view, but what is the relation to the mind body problem here? Suppose a technology advanced enough to recover a human life from atoms may be sufficiently advanced to clone that information and behaviour in a separate non-physical realm, for example as a magnetic field that responds to physical surroundings? I do not mean we could create a soul but a non-physical or more to the point an invisible analog of it? – stackex555 Nov 8 '16 at 12:32
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It might turn out that the mind is encoded in some as yet unknown physical structure that survives when the brain is destroyed, but there is no reason to believe that's the case. If some astonishing new evidence happened to pop up, some sort of soul apart from the body could suddenly become a scientific concept. On the current evidence however, the only reasonable scientific position is that consciousness arises from the body only.

If there's no way to test a claim, it's not scientific.

  • I think what you write here is interesting, but you may want to add the corollary to your last sentence -- which is that if there's no way to test it, science can't rule it either. – virmaior Nov 11 '16 at 5:31
  • Yes, but if we have a definition of truth that allows for anything not disproven to be true, then we can't have a common description of physical reality. There will always be an infinite amount of statements that can't be disproven. The purpose of having the concept of truth is to allow us to communicate about our shared external reality. Thus scientists use Occams razor to distinguish between the infinite amount of models that can explain the same observations. – nordmarj Nov 11 '16 at 13:02

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