Jan 31, 2009

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi;Does life after death exist?

It is now clear that the terrorists involved in the Mumbai attacks were fidayeen or suicide soldiers. They came to Mumbai certain that they would not go back and were happy to give up their lives for their jehadi cause.
What makes a man set out on a suicide mission? In some cases, it is desperation. The kamikaze pilots of World War II flew to their deaths in a last ditch effort to prevent Japan’s humiliating defeat. The Sri Lankan Tamils have often lost everything and see no purpose in continuing to live.
But the jehadi suicide attackers—the ones who attacked the World Trade Center and those who stormed Mumbai—are often men who face no particular deprivation and who do not emerge from desperate circumstances.
They do it for religion. They are told that if they die in the service of Islam, they will go to paradise where they will enjoy the favours of innumerable virgins (one good reason for any woman not to die a virgin, I guess) and other pleasures of the flesh.
The key to their motivation is the belief that what happens in this brief life doesn’t really matter. It is the hereafter that counts. So one’s actions in this life must be geared towards ensuring happiness in the next one.
It sounds odd and bizarre when placed in this context—heaven must be a truly dreadful place if all these suicide bombers land up there for their orgies—but it is a concept that most religions share.
In Christianity, actions in this life decide whether you go to heaven or hell. In Hinduism, the soul survives and is reborn, till it is finally freed of the endless cycle of life and death. Buddhism is also big on reincarnation. And so on.
So, take away the concept of life after death—whether in heaven, hell or another body—and most religions collapse. Because prophets cannot ensure justice in this bitterly unfair world, they promise it in the next.
Except: Is there another world? Is there really life after death? And crucially, is there any such thing as the soul, which exists independently of the body?
These are questions that have bedevilled philosophy, science and theology for centuries. The hard, mechanistic scientific view of existence is that our consciousness is contained in the 1.3kg bag of tissue and water that we call the brain. When the brain dies, so do we. Nothing survives.
If you take this view to its logical conclusion then human beings are no more than machines. Advanced, remarkably sophisticated machines, perhaps. But machines, nevertheless. Every action is the result of how our programming reacts to various inputs. If we are programmed (genetically perhaps) to be emotional then we will cry in a given situation. Others who are programmed to be less emotional will not cry in the same situation.
This is the current scientific consensus and it has huge implications for society. The basis of all morality—and therefore, of law—is that human beings have free will. When confronted with a situation, we can choose how to react. If you do something bad to me, it is within my power to decide whether to assault you/kill you/ shout at you/forget about it/forgive you/etc.
But if my reactions have already been determined by my programming, then I really have no free will at all. I will do whatever I am programmed to do. Of course, the programming is a mixture of genetics and conditioning and experiences so it evolves over time.
But here’s the thing: I have no choice in the matter.
Once you take away my free will, I have no responsibility for my actions. And if that is true, then morality collapses. How can you blame somebody for something he has no control over?
The free will vs determinism debate is nearly as old as moral philosophy itself but it has been sharpened over the last decade by advances in science. Neuroscientists are now convinced that there is no evidence of the mind (a great philosophical construct of the last two centuries) or of any consciousness independent of the brain. When the brain dies, so do we. No soul survives. Nobody gets to deflower virgins in paradise.
Many scientists and doctors are religious people and are unwilling to accept the proposition that there is no soul and therefore no afterlife and probably no God. They fall back on what are known as near-death experiences (NDE).
NDEs began to be talked about after Raymond Moody published his book Life After Life in 1975. Moody reported that people who had been declared clinically dead but then revived and brought back to life all reported the same phenomenon: a feeling of floating in the air, looking down at their bodies and drifting towards a tunnel of light, sometimes with Jesus in attendance.
These days, hospitals revive something like 15% of all cardiac arrest victims who have flatlined so we have many accounts of NDEs. And they are all remarkably similar if you allow for cultural variations: Hindus may see Ram rather than Jesus near the tunnel of light.
If these are accurate, then there is indeed life after death. More crucially, a human being is not just a machine. There is a consciousness—a soul, even—that survives physical death.
Put it another way: The scientific survival of religion and morality may well depend on the validity of NDEs.
The trouble is that all the NDE accounts are anecdotes. And many scientists say the phenomenon is one that occurs naturally when the brain is shutting down—it is all inside the patient’s head, not near a tunnel of light.
According to Brian Appleyard in The Sunday Times (London), a research team is now placing pictures near ceilings at hospitals. If NDE accounts are accurate and souls do float upwards, then those who are revived should be able to recall what was on the pictures.
It doesn’t sound like a perfect study. But it represents one interesting attempt by science to take NDEs seriously.
And to tell us whether suicide bombers are wasting their time