Wednesday, December 30, 2015

more a sort of après vie

Bit of a splurge of blogging tonight as this will probably be my last bloggortunity of 2015, since we'll be away on various New Year travels for the next few days. So, lastly, I must recommend to you the Radio 4 programme Beyond Belief, which I listened to the most recent broadcast of on Monday afternoon while driving back from Staffordshire.

Just a cotton-pickin' minute there, you'll be saying, this is some sort of religious broadcasting spot, isn't it: surely just the sort of thing to make your blood boil? Well, yes, you're absolutely right, but it's fascinating for precisely that reason - a window into a world of wishy-washy nonsense. Wishy-washy since this is the impeccably liberal and inclusive end of the religious spectrum where religion is rarely referred to as such, but more often by the more cuddly term "faith", and all the participants in the weekly discussion are impeccably civilised and no-one calls anyone an infidel or tries to blow themselves up.

This particular programme provided an excellent subject for the participants to chew on: the afterlife. Specifically, what happens to us after we die. Now mainstream science is reasonably clear about this, and the general consensus goes as follows: while there's some greyness over the exact point of transition between being "alive" and being "dead" (more on this shortly), no evidence has ever been found for consciousness persisting in any way after death, and all the supposed bright light/feelings of peace/beckoning relatives stuff can be explained by restricted blood flow to the brain, something that hallucinogenic drugs also induce, with startlingly similar results. It should also be noted that there have been a swathe of books published in the last few years on this subject, some achieving spectacular sales, and almost all being revealed, on the application of a bit of investigative scepticism, to be the products of either epic self-delusion or cartoonish greed and mendaciousness. And, equivocate about the exact point of death as much as you like, once it's happened, that's it: your physical remains (or, at least, those that can't be recycled in some way) are just useless dead meat and will either be burned or buried and left to rot.

So anyway, the principal rhetorical tricks wheeled out in Beyond Belief included:
  • The refusal to commit to any sort of concrete claim about anything. There was a lot of "well, the texts say" but also an acknowledgement that the established churches have said many things in the past, many of them based on things that the texts say, that they've subsequently rowed back on. The key point here is that concrete claims can be tested and found wanting, which is the last thing anyone wants;
  • A general reluctance to criticise other religions, sorry, "faiths", even when their claims clearly conflict with your own and you can't both be right. The only time the discussion got a bit pointed was when someone brought up the 72 virgins thing, but since they apologised for mentioning it almost in the same breath and then agreed hastily that it was a ridiculous question, there wasn't actually much discussion of it;
  • Following on from that: no sceptics or atheists allowed, even if you might think having one on the panel would add a bracing note to the discussion. Imagine, as I fantasised about after a similar listening experience here, having AC Grayling or someone similar on the show.
  • A slippery refusal to define your terms. When some token lip-service was paid to "science" and "rationality" - words that always come with slightly sniffy scare quotes in this sort of programme - they wheeled out the rather flaky-sounding Sam Parnia to explain his research programme into experiences that happen "after death". One of the problems with this is that his definition of "death" is upon cardiac arrest, whereas a more usual one these days is upon cessation of any measurable brain activity, the whole point being that modern science has made cardiac arrest, even multiple ones, an eminently survivable experience, the only downside of which is a load of people who've survived one queuing up to tell their bullshit stories about meeting Auntie Beryl in a big white room;
  • A general amused tolerance for the terrible gaucheness of anyone wanting to tie down claims to things that can be tested. Along with this comes a lot of insistence that the experiences being talked about are in some way "ineffable" and beyond the reach of rational enquiry and in some cases even beyond the reach of language and requiring metaphor and poetry to describe them.
Near-death experiences and the afterlife, in common with most mystical bullshit, require one fundamental belief: that the brain and the mind are two separate entities and that each can exist without the other. Every single test that has ever been done to test this has concluded that they are not, and that the mind, consciousness, call it what you will, is purely and simply a product of the physical substrate. In spite of this simple fact, one which would seem to reduce a discussion of the sort trailed by Beyond Belief to about twenty seconds, or maybe even less - as long as it takes to utter the word "no" - it is still apparently possible in the 21st century for a group of highly-educated people to spin out a discussion of this sort to half an hour and not make a single concrete claim, still less reach any useful conclusion about anything. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

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