Afterlife, near death experiences, fundamentalism and Christianity

Alex Tsakiris, the creator of the paranormal website Skeptiko, interviewed recently a new guest on his show, Kevin Williams, the author of one of the main websites aiming at scientifically defending the existence of a life after death.

In many respects Kevin is a very interesting fellow. I greatly admire his courage to have admitted suffering under a bipolar disorder at the beginning of the show. Having myself ADHD, I know all too well that coming out having a psychiatric or psychological disorder can often be much more risky than coming out as gay within a Western society completely obsessed by performance.

Kevin is a former Christian fundamentalist, who was traumatized by the idea of hell and left the faith behind. However, unlike most people in such a situation in a American context he did not become an angry and resentful atheist but adopted a kind of New Age philosophy where eternal bliss is the inevitable fate of everyone.

I believe that the existence of eternal conscious torments is logically incompatible with the love of God, given the definitions of words, this concept is as meaningful as a married bachelor.

So if Kevin was honestly persuaded this is what Christianity is, then I am very glad he has stopped worshipping such a fiend even if this meant giving up the faith altogether.

While I believe that a small minority of Near Death Experiences seriously challenges materialism, I think we have overwhelming grounds for thinking that the numerous contradictory accounts of heaven (or hell for that matter) are creations of the mind.

It is therefore as unwarranted to use NDEs as proof of heaven than it is to use them as evidence of reincarnation or of widespread torture by gruesome demons.

But I do believe that this feeling of unconditional love experienced in NDEs and in many other contexts is a genuine reflection of God’s love.

And this leads me to a tension in the worldview of Alex and Kevin. Like me, both believe in libertarian free-will, that is that the soul is a necessary and sufficient cause of many things. But if it so, what should God do if he encounters a person (like, say, the late Christopher Hitchen or for that matter Fred Phelps)  who utterly rejects his love? If God is the ultimate love, goodness and joy, spending eternity without him would logically entail ever-lasting torments.
God could turn him (or her) into a new creature who could do nothing else than desiring Him. I find this solution very unappealing, both rationally and morally, because I cannot consider love to be a meaningful concept if the lover coerces the loved one into loving him.

This is why I consider it extremely likely that God will respect the wish of an individual not desiring Him and that he or she will eventually cease to exist.

32 thoughts on “Afterlife, near death experiences, fundamentalism and Christianity

  1. ok, Lothars, i just want to understand better what you mean when you make certain assumptions to get to your main argument that an individual’s free will to reject your god means that the individual will eventually cease to exist.

    assumption 1: your “God” exists

    if this is the case, then i suppose you may have a case.

    personally, i do not see any plausible evidence for your god–for any gods, so am not so sure about your argument.

    (i assume your god is the “God [of] ultimate love, goodness and joy”–whatever that may mean; and that your god interacts with the world about us)

    assumption 2: “that is that the soul is a necessary and sufficient cause of many things.”

    if this is the case, then here too you may have a case.

    ok, i don’t know what to make of the term soul, so i have to ask you to explain what is a soul please. i have asked this of several people of different religions, and i yet do not comprehend what a soul is supposed to be.

    cheers

  2. “However, unlike most people in such a situation in a American context he did not become an angry and resentful atheist ”
    – I know where you are coming from. And I know that particularly US Atheists can be quite spiteful. However, in the context of the USA, you have to understand that Atheists are the most despised minority that exists (except for transsexuals maybe). Polls showed again and again and again that Atheists are more despised than any racial minority and more despised than believers of ALL kinds (including Scientology) and more despised than gays. Atheists are so despised that, with the exception of a handful of ultra-liberal districts, it is impossible to be elected to office if you admit that you don´t believe in God.
    Every city has churches that preach on an almost weekly basis that Atheists are wicked and hate their country. And so on and so forth.
    Where I live, I never felt discriminated against for being an Atheist – and I´m rarely angry and resentful when it comes to religion because it virtually never personally affects ME, it only makes me angry when I hear how people in other parts of the world had to suffer. It´s easy for me to not be angry with religion all the time while living in Germany, if I lived in Utah or Texas, believe me, I would be VERY angry.

    • This American anti-atheist bigotry makes me sick too, as you probably know.

      But does that justify being resentful and angry against religious progressives such as myself?

      This is just another form of collective punishment.
      And as a consequence other religious people will start hating atheism because they were victim of their bullying.
      And the cycle of hatred goes on and on…

      • “But does that justify being resentful and angry against religious progressives such as myself?”
        – Of course not. But don´t take it personal. I don´t know about the particular experiences that you have made, but I´ve seen a number of Christians who seemed to be very nice people being torn apart by commenters on atheist websites – and the reason is often “wrong place, wrong time”. This happens for example when an atheist blog writes about a teenager who was bullied in school and kicked out by his parents because they found out he was an atheist – and a christian pops up in the comment section and agrees that this is awful, but then proceeds to say that those people *obviously* didn´t represent “what Jesus really taught” or something along that line.
        Such a christian probably had good intentions, but as I said “wrong place, wrong time” – the atheists who read this, especially those that were also shunned by their family for being atheists, will not be in the mood of hearing that this “didn´t represent what Jesus really taught” or something like that, but they will most likely be in the mood to blow off some steam. Well that, and there are of course also particular subcommunities / websites that simply attract douchebags (a good rule of thumb is – if the author appears to be a complete dick, most of his regular commenters probably won´t be much better).

    • I grew up in America as an atheist, and never had any problems because of it. But that’s not surprising- one, this was a long time ago, and things have gotten worse recently. Two, it was near San Francisco, which is of course a very liberal community. And three- back then I didn’t make a big deal of my atheism, so I didn’t come into conflict with anyone, or at least no more than arguing cordially with religious friends.

      What Andy says is unfortunately true. I think one reason Christians in America are becoming increasingly hostile towards atheists is that they see them as a real threat now: there are simply more and more of them, and that means correspondingly fewer Christians. This hostility is often met, as Andy says, with hostile responses from atheists- not surprisingly.

  3. “And this leads me to a tension in the worldview of Alex and Kevin. Like me, both believe in libertarian free-will, that is that the soul is a necessary and sufficient cause of many things. ”
    – I´ll grant you, for the sake of the argument, that humans have a soul and that libertarian free will is real. Now, based on that, if you are faced with a situation where you have only two choices a and b and you chose a. I presume that you would believe that the cause at the end of the causal chain that led to you choosing a was a thought that was created ex nihilo by your soul / your free will (at least that´s what all philosophers who espouse libertarian free will say afaict). Now, if the causal chain ends with your soul / free will. How could you have chosen differently? You might say that your soul / free will could have created a different thought that would lead to you chosing b – but that would lead to a contradiction. If your soul / free will is the FINAL element in the causal chain, then there can be, by definition(!), no reason for why your soul / free will chose one particular thought instead of one of the alternative possibilities. So how could you possibly have chosen differently? This is an ancient problem, and the main reason for why the overwhelming majority of philosophers reject libertarianism😉.

    • Unlike question-begging arguments based on neurology, I must say I find this kind of arguments much more challenging, not least because they tend to show that free-will is philosophically, logically incoherent.

      • Depends on what you mean by “free will”😉. As long as hard determinism is false, a real will making real choices among real alternatives (and moral responsibility for those choices) is absolutely possible. It gets problematic when you add the qualifier “libertarian” to the mix, then the contradictions start rolling in.

        • Yeah but your “free will” is incompatible with personal responsability and especially retribution.

          If Hitler was entirely determined by his genes and environment, it would have been meaningless to punish him (if he had commited no suicide before the end).

      • “Entirely determined by genes + environment” would be hard determinism. That makes moral accountability pretty much meaningless. If hard determinism is false though, moral accountability is not problematic at all.

        Retribution / retributive justice, IMO, is completely meaningless in any case. I wouldn´t change my mind about that no matter what I would believe about the issue of free will – I think retributive justice always boils down to mere revenge, it accomplishes nothing beyond fueling our lowest instincts.
        Restorative justice is a completely different matter.

      • I think hard determinism is a possibility, but a very unlikely one.
        If hard determinism is false, quantum + thermal noise in your brain would create real alternatives among which your will can select. You didn´t choose your will, but that is not what is required for moral accountability. Moral accountability requires two things – that you could have chosen differently and that the choice was actually “your choice”. If hard determinism is false and you were not coerced into doing something, than you are morally responsible for what you did. You could have acted differently and what you actually ended up doing depended on you – it was your will that made the call, not anyone elses, which makes the decision “yours” and you are responsible for it.

      • Andy- I don’t see how any kind of indeterminism could make your will “freer” than if the world were deterministic. How could the introduction of some random thermal or quantum noise make your will more free? It would be just like rolling a die to make a choice- that doesn’t make it “your” decision any more than if it’s determined.

        Actually, I think the whole concept of free will is ill-formed. It assumes dualism: that there is the physical world, including your brain, and there is the mental world, where your mind/soul is somehow free of any physical influences. Most atheists would reject this picture of free will, but they still hang on to a concept of “choice” that requires this dualism.

        For me, the only meaningful meaning of free will is “freedom from coercion”. By that I don’t mean the coercion of the deterministic or undeterministic flow of chemicals and currents in my brain, but the coercion of circumstances I can perceive: someone holding a gun to my head, for instance, or being too sick or weak to decide differently.

        Making choices is not something magical or out of this world, but rather something we do just as we eat and breathe. It’s a process of looking at alternatives and weighing them, and then deciding. Whether or not the Universe is deterministic makes no difference: since I don’t have access to the molecular level of my decision making, I cannot know how I will decide. Not knowing in advance how I will decide, and if I’m not somehow coerced, I have free will, in the only sense I can imagine.

        Now if God exists, and is omnipotent and omniscient, then while I might still have free will as far as I’m concerned, in the sense I define it, I don’t have free will from God’s point of view. He knows what I will decide, and He made me in just such a way that I would decide what I decide. So God is responsible for everything I do.

        Of course, perhaps even God doesn’t have free will.

        cheers from foggy Vienna, zilch

      • Hi Zilch,
        I totally agree regarding the word “free”, that´s why I didn´t use it. I think libertarian freedom cannot possibly exist because it´s a self-refuting concept.

        Re hard determinism vs some form of indeterminism:
        To me, it does make a difference if hard determinism or soft determinism is true. If hard determinism is true, everything anyone of us does has been carved in stone at t=0. IMO, hard determinism does not only get rid of the “free” part in “free will”, but of the “will” part as well – I don´t think “will” actually describes anything if hard determinism were true.
        For soft determinism however, what you do is not carved in stone – things could have been different, and what you end up doing depends on factors like what you believe to be true, what you want to happen, what you feel etc.pp. And this, I think, could reasonably be called a “will”. And, unless someone holds a (metaphorical or real) gun to your head and forces you to do something, this “will” has the last call when it comes to making a choice. So the difference to hard determinism is, that things actually could have been different and that the outcome depended on *you* (which would not be true for hard determinism, there the outcome would depend *only* on the state of the universe at t=0). And, afaict, this is all that is required for moral (and legal) accountability. Our criminal justice systems do not presume that the accused had libertarian freedom in acting differently – they only presume that the accused could have acted differently and acted based on his “will” (was not coerced by someone else), not that he could have freely chosen a different “will”.

        “Of course, perhaps even God doesn’t have free will.”
        – If there is a God, then I´m certain that it does not have libertarian free will, unless this God is not bound by the law of non-contradiction😉.

        cheers from rainy Münster


        • For soft determinism however, what you do is not carved in stone – things could have been different, and what you end up doing depends on factors like what you believe to be true, what you want to happen, what you feel etc.pp. And this, I think, could reasonably be called a “will”. ”

          Yeah but if one’s desires are themselves determined at t = 0 I fail to see how one can say that this will is “free”.

          As a great German neurologist said: “Wir haben einen Willen, aber er ist nicht frei.”

        • “- If there is a God, then I´m certain that it does not have libertarian free will, unless this God is not bound by the law of non-contradiction😉 .”

          I see the following problem here.

          Do you believe that the law of non-contradiction is real?
          If so, to what particles (in what place) is it identical to?

          And if it is just a human convention, it might very well be that God is not bound by it :=)

          Gruesse aus England.

      • “Yeah but if one’s desires are themselves determined at t = 0 I fail to see how one can say that this will is “free”. ”
        1. Nope, they are not determined at t=0, only if hard determinism were true.
        2. As I said, I didn´t even use the word “free”. I think that libertarian freedom can´t possibly exist, it is a self-refuting idea.

      • “I see the following problem here.
        Do you believe that the law of non-contradiction is real?
        If so, to what particles (in what place) is it identical to?”
        – The laws of logic could be a human description of an empirical fact (in which case they would have the same ontological status as a scientific model) see:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is_logic_empirical%3F

        “And if it is just a human convention, it might very well be that God is not bound by it :=)”
        – Sure, could be, I don´t think that this is a very productive line of thought, if you affirm statements like “could God microwave a burrito so hot that even he couldn’t eat it?”, then God could also create square circles and be perfectly good + perfectly evil at the same time.

        • “- Sure, could be, I don´t think that this is a very productive line of thought, if you affirm statements like “could God microwave a burrito so hot that even he couldn’t eat it?”, then God could also create square circles and be perfectly good + perfectly evil at the same time.”

          Indeed, I was just pointing out what I consider to be a flaw in your worldview.

          “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is_logic_empirical%3F”

          None of these authors makes any step in the direction of showing what the ONTOLOGICAL nature of logical laws is. Given materialism, they can only be identical to a given set of particles interacting with each other.

          All they do is argue that we ought to enlarge our logical concepts to describe reality, which might or might not be true.

      • “None of these authors makes any step in the direction of showing what the ONTOLOGICAL nature of logical laws is. Given materialism, they can only be identical to a given set of particles interacting with each other.

        All they do is argue that we ought to enlarge our logical concepts to describe reality, which might or might not be true.”
        – It´s not about “enlarging” logical concepts, it´s about whether you ground laws of logic in axioms (like we do it with math) or whether you ground them in empirically determined facts. If you do the latter, the ontological status of logic would be the same as the status of any other model of empirical reality. For materialism, this would mean that they are abstract concepts invented by humans to describe empirical reality.

      • Exactly, Andy. Whether or not logic applies to all universes, it’s empirically evident that it does in ours. Thus, our logic, and math and so forth, can be justified as a description of the way things are, meaning how matter and energy behave here. Nothing else is required.

  4. Okay, Andy, we agree that libertarian free will doesn’t exist, because it’s based on dualism- right? I’m afraid I still disagree with you about there being any difference for us between hard and soft determinism. If you agree that, regardless of whether the world is hard or soft, there is only one future that will happen, regardless of whether it’s carved in stone or not, then our will is just as free (or not) one way or the other, as far as I can see. Of course, if you take the “many worlds” position that there’s a branching at every quantum event that creates a new universe, then there are uncountable many futures- but that’s a different problem, and in any case, the me that I perceive only follows one line.

    Look at it this way. Is life possible in a hard world? I don’t see why not- there’s nothing about hard determinism that would make a difference to the evolution of life. If you believe the existence of life proves that hard determinism is false, I’d like to hear your argument. But if you grant the possibility of life in a hard world, then could living things walk and breathe there? Could they perceive colors? Could they hide behind rocks when they see predators? You see where I’m going: there’s nothing that makes making decisions any different, in principle, from anything else matter does, regardless of whether the world is hard or soft. A world that “could have been different” is no different to our wills than it is to our hemoglobin. Both of them just do what they do.

    And since, as I said, we don’t have a God’s-eye view of our decision-making processes, and thus cannot predict their outcomes, then we are as free as we can be- and it makes no difference to us if the world is hard or soft. At least that’s the way it seems to me.

    Grüße aus nebeligem Wien, zilch

    • Yup, we are in total agreement about libertarian free will. And about “freedom” in general (I don´t think that a compatibilist “free will” is actually “free” in any meaningful sense of the word).
      Re hard determinism and soft determinism and the difference they make for us – I totally agree that we couldn´t actually notice the difference of either one being true instead of the other. What I said regarding the difference that soft determinism would make, is that hard determinism makes not only the word “free” in “free will” meaningless, but the word “will” as well – and with that, any notion of being accountable for anything. Pragmatically, it doesn´t make any difference, philosophically it does IMO.

      • Andy- I don’t see how it makes any difference philosophically either. The whole notion of being accountable for something is also evolved, after all- it doesn’t just come aus dem klaren blauen Himmel.

      • zilch – philosophically, it makes a difference because soft determinism would be absolutely compatible with how our criminal justice systems define accountability, hard determinism wouldn´t be. Our criminal justice systems are not based on the assumption that people have libertarian freedom. What matters here is only that things could have been different / there would have been alternatives (by definition true if hard determinism is false) and that the choices we made are actually *our* choices (which they are if they are determined by our will, but not if they are determined by the universe at t=0).

  5. lotharson and Andy: sorry, I disagree with you both. I think both of you are adhering to some sort of dualism: lotharson’s is “if it evolved it’s meaningless” and Andy’s is “if it’s not grounded in indeterminate choice it’s meaningless”. Again, why would accountability be rendered meaningless if the universe were deterministic? If we can walk, talk, breathe, and escape predators in a hard deterministic universe, we can also hold people accountable: it’s all just stuff that evolved.

      • If you don’t hold dogs accountable for their behavior, they grow up to be bad dogs. I’ve seen it, and you probably have too. Of course you can’t hold them accountable for as much as you can a human, because they don’t understand enough.

        I wouldn’t hold a present-day robot accountable for anything, but I might hold its programmer or operator accountable. But who knows what robots might be capable of understanding, if they keep getting smarter?

        You quoted earlier: “Wir haben einen Willen, aber er ist nicht frei.”
        That reminds me of this quote from Giorello Giulio: “Si’ , abbiamo un’ anima. Ma e’ fatta di tanti piccoli robot.” That is: “Yes, we have a soul. But it’s made of lots of tiny robots”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s