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April 27, 2007 5:37 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone with reasonable credentials actually sat down and calculated the probability of an afterlife?

I don't mean a religious scholar who has carefully considered all the religious texts of the world and come to a conclusion. I mean a mathematician/physicist/hard science person who has looked at scientifically accepted data and come up with a probability statement of whether or not consciousness can exist without a body?
posted by 517 to Grab Bag (46 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't see any reasonable basis for a mathematician/scientist to calculate that. What do you use as inputs for the model? You can't do it empirically (there's no experimental evidence), and there's no way to do a first-principles calculation for the metaphysical.
posted by JMOZ at 5:43 PM on April 27, 2007


No.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:52 PM on April 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Almost every mathematician/physicist/hard science person worth his or her salt will tell you that it is currently impossible to calculate whether or not there is an afterlife and that such a question is unscientific by nature, but that there is no evidence of such a thing and they personally believe such an afterlife does not exist.

And then there are scientific rapture theories like Tipler's version of Omega Point; that in the future the computational capacity of the universe will inevitably increase to the point that it is possible to recreate and simulate all possible quantum brainstates, effectively resurrecting everyone who has ever lived.

Such a view is, shall we say, not widely accepted.
posted by Justinian at 5:52 PM on April 27, 2007


Blaise Pascal (who was a scientist in a time when the divisions between science and philosophy were a bit blurrier, but who was both a mathematician and a physicist) tried to work out the odds. I think that's the closest you're going to get.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:59 PM on April 27, 2007


It should be noted that Pascal's Wager is blatantly idiotic, Pascal's mathematical genius notwithstanding.

Starting hint: what about Odin?
posted by Flunkie at 6:03 PM on April 27, 2007


I've never heard it called blatantly idiotic before. Please to enlighten.
posted by found missing at 6:04 PM on April 27, 2007


This would be an incorrect use of probability theory. We don't have partial knowledge of the state, we have absolutely no knowledge of the state. It is sort of like asking the question, "What color would the after life be?" -- you're applying tools that work well with physical phenomena with something that is decidedly not a physical phenomena.
posted by geoff. at 6:05 PM on April 27, 2007


found missing: Pascal's Wager is blatantly idiotic because it assumes there are only two options; believe in the Christian god or non-belief in the Christian god. It can't account for the possibility that the Christian god is false but the Islamic god is real, or the Norse gods, or the Hindu gods, or some god that we haven't posited yet.
posted by Justinian at 6:12 PM on April 27, 2007


You'd have to have clear definitions for a number of terms that are currently not clearly defined, like consciousness, soul and afterlife before you can even begin to calculate probability.

So far as any scientific determination has been made, the aspects of consciousness that we can measure suggest it is an emergent property of the neurochemical activity of the brain. Such activity has never been observed in free-space (ie. without a brain) so based entirely on current science:

no meat = no mind.

Disclosure: I agree with this model of the Universe. No one seriously imagines there are instances of old versions of MS Office executing invisibly in free-space just beside your computer. Software requires hardware.
posted by Crosius at 6:12 PM on April 27, 2007 [3 favorites]


found missing writes "I've never heard it called blatantly idiotic before. Please to enlighten."

How do you pick which God to believe in when many (most?) of them are mutually exclusive?

It only works if your choice is between belief and nonbelief. It doesn't provide for a choice between many contradictory belief systems, each of which promises its own complex sets of awards and punishments for belief and nonbelief, respectively.

That's kind of a big thing to miss.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:14 PM on April 27, 2007


I've never heard it called blatantly idiotic before. Please to enlighten.
It's idiotic in multiple ways.

First of all, as I said, what about Odin? Pascal's Wager fails to take into account the possibility that a god other than Yahweh exists.

And the possibility that that that god would be more vengeful towards people who worshipped false gods (for example, Christians) than towards people who worshipped no god.

Moreover, even ignoring that idiocy:

The portion that goes "If the believer is wrong, he loses nothing"? Come on, that's ridiculous. He's lost a large chunk of his life going to church services and such, and he needlessly stressed about a whole bunch of baggage that goes along with his false religion.

Pascal's Wager is nothing more than gussied-up circular logic.
posted by Flunkie at 6:16 PM on April 27, 2007


Posing the question another way: "Have scientists been able to prove spiritual concepts of an afterlife by concurrently discovering and applying currently unimaginable hard sciences in a study that would undoubtedly shake the entire world. Is it possible such a revelation just hasn't gotten enough press between Vietraq and Sanjayagate?"
posted by rob paxon at 6:18 PM on April 27, 2007


Pascal's Wager has other problems:

- It assumes the deity in question will have no problem with you expressing belief in it soley as a hedge. (ie. Pascal's god can be conned, or at least permits lip-service in preference to disbelief)

- It assumes having religious belief is something you can consciously decide to do. You can't. You can't just say, "Today I believe in Odin," and it is so.
posted by Crosius at 6:25 PM on April 27, 2007


Yeah, it's not published, but my undergrad math professor (a really cool guy, you should see his marble collection) derived a complex yet elegant model. The thing is seven pages long and diagrammed on a big poster that hangs in the department lounge, but to give you a taste,

P(afterlife) ~ Poisson(g-hyp(1e11, n, 1e11))

where g is the gullibility factor of the evaluator, and n is the number of defective neurons in their brain.
posted by azazello at 6:33 PM on April 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, I recommend that the original poster mark monju_bosatsu's answer as the best answer. It is correct and succinct.
posted by Flunkie at 6:41 PM on April 27, 2007


OK, in all seriousness and with no snarkiness: the big problem with trying to formulate this kind of thing is that as science stands today, consciousness is not well-understood. It's not even particularly well-defined. Given the rate of advancement of our understanding of neurobiology, however, it's entirely possible that there might be something that passes for a workable theory of consciousness in the next 20 years or so. At that point, we might be able to speculate on questions like this.

I would guess that the first scientific approximation of an "afterlife" will be a computer that is able to reproduce the functions of consciousness as understood in the constraints of our evolving model of consciousness. Some sort of sophisticated artificial intelligence, but designed specifically to capture those elements of intelligence required to produce conscious awareness. The next step (and who knows if this will even be possible) would be for a person to "download" their conscious awareness into this sort of computer. All this is super-speculative however, since we currently don't even understand what consciousness is very well.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:41 PM on April 27, 2007


There are plenty of scientists who fervently believe in the afterlife. They just don't think the afterlife is science...
posted by MattD at 6:54 PM on April 27, 2007


Justinian: Almost every mathematician/physicist/hard science person worth his or her salt will tell you... they personally believe such an afterlife does not exist.


Wow...

That simply is not true. There are plenty of scientists who believe in God and and afterlife (especially from an historical perspective). A story from atheists.org celebrating how many Scientists consider themselves atheists claims that 45% consider themselves atheists, while 40% believe in God.

Simply because you seem to have made up your mind about the issue doesn't mean that everyone else has. And people say that Christians are the close minded ones...
posted by jpdoane at 7:08 PM on April 27, 2007


What is this "scientifically accepted data" you speak of?
posted by rhizome at 7:10 PM on April 27, 2007


I think you're taking Pascal's wager too literally and not appreciating the way it can provoke thought.
posted by found missing at 7:16 PM on April 27, 2007


jpdoane: uh, that 40% was from EIGHTY years ago. The current figure is 7%. Feel like retracting your insult?
posted by Justinian at 7:34 PM on April 27, 2007


Also, Pascal's Wager (which is pretty damned stupid, most high schoolers can spot the problems), doesn't tell you if there is an afterlife. It simply urges you to believe in one, due to the poorly-modeled expectation value. Not counting various gods, or perhaps a particularly quirky deity who might decide to punish people who believed, and reward those who didn't.

And, aside from the potential creepiness of the Tipler thing (see the Andew J. Wilson story "Under The Bright and Hollow Sky" for a hint of what I'm talking about), there's just no data to work with if you're going for a mystical afterlife. We've got nothing to measure and nothing with which to work. There's only argumentation, which rarely seem to prove much of anything substantive, if the history of philosophy is to be believed.
posted by adipocere at 7:35 PM on April 27, 2007


What is this "scientifically accepted data" you speak of?

I was thinking along the lines of data about unsupported ideas that had latter turned out to be true or false, or the probability of any one idea being true or false.

I appreciate the snark. The question is idiotic due to the way I phrased it.
posted by 517 at 7:40 PM on April 27, 2007


::Al Gore sigh:: No, it's not stupid. It's an interesting decision situation given some assumptions. (Assumptions that some people in fact make.)
posted by found missing at 7:41 PM on April 27, 2007


Define the inputs for such a calculation.
Sheesh!
posted by caddis at 7:43 PM on April 27, 2007


And I don't think that the question of "what is idiotic" is exactly what Pascal was going for, so I fail to see why you're using that to argue that Pascal shouldn't be interpreted so literally, and instead should be interpreted as some sort of vague mental exercise whose purpose is largely unrelated to its actual statement.

Make no mistake, Pascal was arguing for Christianity.
posted by Flunkie at 7:46 PM on April 27, 2007


From a purely mathematical point of view, this question is nonsensical, because it is not clear what you mean by "probability." To a mathematician, this word typically means one of two things:

1) the quotient of the number of outcomes favorable to the event in question by the number of total outcomes (e.g., the probability that a randomly picked card out of a deck is the queen of spades is 1/52, because there are 52 possibilities, each is equally likely, and only one of them is the queen of spades);

2) the proportion of times that the event in question occurs when an experiment is repeated many times (e.g., the probability of dying in a car accident while driving through a particular intersection is 0.0001, say, because this has happened to every 10000th person who has driven through there, over a long period of time).

Your usage of the word "probability" doesn't fall under either of these interpretations, because the existence of an afterlife is a one of a kind event. So, before any calculation about the afterlife can be made, you'd first have to specify exactly what you mean by "probability."
posted by epimorph at 7:47 PM on April 27, 2007


Pascal's Wager has other problems:

To be fair to Pascal, I believe he addresses these points. You can't choose to believe directly, but you can put yourself into a situation in which you will be led to believe, which is more or less the same thing. As this is what God (putatively) wants you to do -- i.e., find your way to Him -- one would further imagine He would not find any problem with it.

I find it strange that hardly anyone ever thinks to ask about the beforelife. If we propose that there are two lives, this one and one after it, it's just as plausible that there are three (or more), and the world we occupy now is an afterlife of some other life. There is exactly as much evidence for a beforelife as there is for an afterlife (i.e., none).

So, assuming that there is at least one other life preceding and following this one, and that the following life bears a relation to this life similar to the one that this life bears to the previous one, it is likely that we will forget this life upon passing into the next one, just as we have forgotten the previous one. Thus, it would be difficult to make the case that I have passed on to a new life -- without my memories or my body, how am I still the same person? Indeed, to say that "I" go into the "afterlife" in this situation would make no sense. I die, and someone else is born. ("Fair trade," Frank Miller might add.)

You could posit that something incorporeal survives the passing of one world to the next (call it a "soul"), and that that part remains constant from one life to the next, but if I can be someone else even though that other person has my soul, then the soul is not an important part of what it means to be a person. In that case, whether the soul exists or not is just semantics.

Or you could just assume that things are just as they appear and that our death is the end of us, just as most of us happily accept that our birth was the beginning of us. No afterlife is needed to explain any part of our existence.

This is a somewhat convoluted line of thought to end up at Ockham's Razor, though it is neatly symmetrical to begin and end with different proverbs (for lack of a better term), but it's what the question boils down to. No, there are no credible, repeatable observations that require an afterlife to explain. Therefore, if an afterlife exists, it has no observable effect. If it has no effect, why posit its existence?
posted by kindall at 7:49 PM on April 27, 2007 [5 favorites]


What you're asking here is really two entirely different questions. An afterlife does not necessarily exist within the bounds of the physical universe that we know. I would bet that many people (and especially hard sciencey types) who believe in an afterlife do not actually believe their dead relatives are floating around in space somewhere, but rather that there are "universes" (I use the term colloquially, not in any kind of cosmological sense) other than this one, and that this is where the afterlife exists. I would bet that many would argue that this is inherently indetectable (but then, maybe I'm just betting on my own thoughts about this). The question of whether consciousness can exist without a physical body is entirely different. For one thing, an afterlife doesn't necessarily mean a lack of a physical body. Of course, some\many may believe this, but this goes back to the problem of defining your terms.

As to the whether consciousness can exist without a body, as someone else pointed out, there aren't really any serious proponents of such a theory. Part of the reason no one like that exists is that science concerns itself primarily with describing observed phenomena (and also extrapolating out from that position what sorts of things might be possible). Since nothing like this has been observed, and apparently no one yet has found evidence that it should be possible according to current theory, people aren't studying it.

Finally, I want to point out that this is really not a question for probability theory. At least, not beyond making armwavy arguments that since the universe is so large, if such a thing can exist, it probably does. I guess once a theory has been developed that supports the existence of consciousness without a body, someone will try to calculate the probability of this actually happening. I would be wary of that person, personally, since there are so many things to consider, and since that depends on the current models being accurate. Cool question, by the way.


Justinian: Almost every mathematician/physicist/hard science person worth his or her salt will tell you... they personally believe such an afterlife does not exist.

Really? You actually believe this?

posted by !Jim at 7:53 PM on April 27, 2007


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on "afterlife"
posted by gimonca at 8:08 PM on April 27, 2007


[okay ENOUGH. Go to MetaTalk with your just-can't-help-it snarks, or email, or elsewhere. Thank you!]
posted by jessamyn at 8:34 PM on April 27, 2007


Justinian: jpdoane: uh, that 40% was from EIGHTY years ago. The current figure is 7%. Feel like retracting your insult?


Justinian - Dang, I'm sorry. I skimmed the article too quickly. I still disagree with your statement, but I'm big enough to admit that was a bonehead move. Apologies for my inaccuracy as well as my tone.
posted by jpdoane at 9:00 PM on April 27, 2007


"beforelife" - I love arguments with infinite regressions.

Fits right in with the homunculus model of consciousness.
posted by Crosius at 9:07 PM on April 27, 2007


I find it strange that hardly anyone ever thinks to ask about the beforelife.

If you use the term "reincarnation" I bet that bags you a lot more Google hits.
posted by furiousthought at 10:37 PM on April 27, 2007


Yes.

You may want to start here and then look here.
posted by euphorb at 10:38 PM on April 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


jpdoane: well, to be fair and since jessamyn yelled at us, it's also true that the original 80 year old study was replicated more recently and a figure close to 40% was reached. The National Academy of Science came up with 7%. Now we can be friends.

FWIW to the OP, wikipedia actually has a decent article on some technological equivalents to the afterlife such as the Tiplerian omega point theory I mentioned earlier. Start here to read about it and why it is not accepted. Many reasons, but short version of one big one; it relies on space and time being infinitely reducible and it appears like that space and time are not.
posted by Justinian at 11:04 PM on April 27, 2007


If you use the term "reincarnation" I bet that bags you a lot more Google hits.

By everyone, I suppose I meant Westerners, or more specifically those who grew up with the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of the afterlife.
posted by kindall at 1:01 AM on April 28, 2007


By everyone, I suppose I meant Westerners, or more specifically those who grew up with the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of the afterlife.

Judaism actually believes in reincarnation. Most people do not know this. Most Jews do not know this.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:10 AM on April 28, 2007


I suggest it's worth thinking about why you think whatever you carry past the end of your meat existence began with your meat existence. Something immortal was created when your meat was arranged thusly, which didn't exist before and yet will exist after?

If you insist on a beginning-point for a supernatural soul, then your closest bet will be for research for that point. Post-mortem interviews are hard. Post-natal are at least more interesting.

jpdoane, justinian: It's reconcilable. You're talking about two different datasets. One about "mathematician/physicist/hard science person" and one about "scientists" (which includes the *ahem* soft disciplines that tack the word "Science" on the end as a defensive claim.)
posted by cmiller at 5:14 AM on April 28, 2007


Not every immortalist believes that existence began at birth (or conception), either.

But yeah, the original question is not susceptible to the methods of science. Ask it again when we know enough about consciousness to take some repeatable measurements, systematically crunch some numbers, and claim 'subject X has consciousness to Y extent, with a probability of Z'.

Until then, you're not in science's league. You can try as hard as you like to play by its rules, but you're not invited to the tournament and you're not gonna win.
posted by eritain at 6:06 AM on April 28, 2007


To a mathematician, this word typically means one of two things:

Actually, to a mathematician, "probability" means neither of these things -- it just means a means of assigning numbers between 0 and 1 to subsets of a set subject to various formal properties.

And to a statistician, probability might mean one of the two things you say; but "the probability of X" can also be taken to mean "the extent to which I (or a rational person) believe that X is true." And for events that by their nature can't be repeated, this is almost the only sensible thing one can mean. The downside is that it's pretty plain that "The extent to which a rational person believes in an afterlife" doesn't make much sense. Nor, to hit OP's followup question does "The extent to which a rational person should believe in an unsupported idea" make any sense. In order for it to make sense one would probably have to have a well-defined notion of "a random idea," which is charming, but surely intractable.
posted by escabeche at 6:20 AM on April 28, 2007


Actually, to a mathematician, "probability" means neither of these things -- it just means a means of assigning numbers between 0 and 1 to subsets of a set subject to various formal properties.
Awesome. As a mathematician I can say this is absolutely correct, and I'm glad someone said it. To be fair, though, such an assignment as an attempt to model real world conditions.

To answer the question, I think the difference between the physical and metaphysical is enough to answer 'no'. I disagree that we'll ever have a scientific understanding of consciousness great enough to say 'yes'. Of course my answer is based on the supposition that consciousness is immaterial but substantive. If you start with a different set of axioms you may come to a different conclusion.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:19 AM on April 28, 2007


William Empson quite convincingly dismisses Pascal's Wager:

"He (Pascal) argued, while more or less inventing the mathematics of Probability, that since the penalties for disbelief in Christianity are infinitely horrible and enduring, therefore, if there is any probability, however tiny (but finite) that the assertions of religion are true, a reasonable man will endure any degree of pain and shame on earth (since this is known beforehand to be finite) on the mere chance that the assertions are true. The answer is political, not mathematical; this argument makes Pascal the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie. A man ought therefore to reject such a calculation; and I feel there has been a strange and unpleasant moral collapse during my own lifetime, because so many of our present literary mentors not only accept it but talk as if that was a moral thing to do. Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of personal honour or of the public good."
posted by WPW at 8:01 AM on April 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of personal honour or of the public good.

There's a blog post about this here, in which somebody makes an Atheist's Wager based on similar logic.
posted by vorfeed at 1:12 PM on April 28, 2007


Something I wrote elsewhere about Pascal's wager:

It seems to me that Pascal was not so much trying to prove:

(1) It is irrational to disbelieve in God.

as trying to show:

(2) It is rational to believe in God.

Philosophers, et al., treat it as (1), of course, but I think Pascal may have been trying to give intellectual comfort to those who were wavering in their commitment to belief in God because of the social and intellectual pressures of French rationalism (including himself, natch).
posted by wfitzgerald at 4:28 PM on April 29, 2007


Actually, to a mathematician, "probability" means neither of these things -- it just means a means of assigning numbers between 0 and 1 to subsets of a set subject to various formal properties.

Heh, yes, yes, I know all about that... I was implicitly talking about probability as it is typically used to model events in the wild (since that was, presumably, the context here), rather than as a purely theoretical abstraction.

Of course, technically speaking, you're right. But, if you define "probability" in the most abstract manner possible, then asking for the probability of something is really a meaningless question until you've explicitly defined a probability function. (So my main point stands.)

I didn't see the need to mention the subjective interpretation of "probability", since that's really far from being mathematical.
posted by epimorph at 2:22 AM on May 2, 2007


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