Shermer Tackles the Big Questions

A review of Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, By Michael Shermer, Henry Holt and Co., 2018. $30.00. 320 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-62779-857-0.

In 1997, Michael Shermer wrote one of the classics of skepticism, Why People Believe Weird Things. He has continued to produce skeptical books at regular intervals, with topics as diverse as intelligent design, holocaust denial, and morality. His new book Heavens on Earth is his most ambitious yet. In it, he grapples with immortality, the afterlife, reincarnation, near-death experiences, the soul, heaven, utopias, and the meaning of life. These are topics usually relegated to the spheres of philosophy and religion; but Shermer approaches them through science, looking for evidence or lack of evidence.

The belief that death is not final is overwhelmingly common, even among a third of atheists and agnostics; but it is not supported by a shred of evidence. As the story goes, humans are terrified of dying, so they have invented comforting narratives including God, a soul that survives the death of the body, resurrection, reincarnation, and methods they hope will extend life. Shermer questions whether contemplating death results in terror. In a survey, only 3% of respondents listed “fear of death” as a reason for their belief in God. Final statements of inmates on death row speak of love, not terror. Anthropologists interpret burial customs in terms of belief systems, but the earliest humans may have buried their dead for a more pragmatic reason: dead bodies rot and stink.

Shermer knows Deepak Chopra personally and believes he is sincere. He has tried very hard to understand what Chopra means when he calls consciousness “a quantum mechanical field of interrelatedness,” but he doesn’t find it credible. He subscribes to the scientific explanation of consciousness as an emergent property of the brain. Without the physical brain, there can be no consciousness, no “soul.” He even checked into the Chopra Center to experience Chopra’s Ayurvedic regimen of diet, exercise, massage, breathing exercises, and meditation. He found the massage and meditation relaxing, and he acknowledges that there is some scientific evidence for benefits from meditation. But he doesn’t accept Chopra’s view of consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe. I was amused to see that Deepak Chopra had written one of the blurbs on the back of the book’s jacket: “I appreciate every evolutionary step skepticism takes toward openness. Heavens on Earthis an affirmation that other worldviews deserve respect and understanding. In this book science may actually be catching up with the world’s wisdom traditions.” I had to wonder if he read the same book I did.

Near death experiences and accounts of reincarnation have been claimed as scientific evidence for the afterlife, but Shermer examines that evidence in detail and finds it lacking. Natural explanations make more sense. Anomalous psychological experiences are explained by science; talking to the dead is explained by cold reading. Strange things happen; he describes a very strange experience of his own, when a radio long forgotten in a drawer suddenly started playing at a time and in a way that held meaning for his family. He says, “There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural and the normal and mysteries we have yet to solve with natural and normal explanations.”

He explains how arguments for the soul are flawed. The very feeling of a unified self is an illusion. We are more like a Swiss army knife, a collection of distinct but interacting modules.  Most of the brain’s operations are not available to the conscious mind.

He covers efforts to extend the human life span, including the cryonicists, extropians, transhumanists, Omega Point theorists, singularitarians, and mind uploaders. He explains why he is pessimistic about the possibility of uploading minds to computers. Even if it could be done, would it be you?

The “good old days” were dreadful. This is by far the best time in history to be alive, so why do 71% of people think everything is getting worse? Shermer tries to explain the psychological and evolutionary factors behind the pessimism. Quests for utopias have repeatedly gone astray. “Humans are not perfectible because no such thing as perfection exists.” Neither utopias nor dystopias are accurate portrayals of reality.

Why do we age and die? Science provides answers, and Shermer covers the evidence in detail. Basically, we die so that others can live. Individuals are mortal, but the species survives. We can even hope to achieve species immortality by some day going to the stars.

The last chapter is titled “Imagine There’s No Heaven: Finding Meaning in a Meaningless Universe.” The feeling of awe for the wonder of the cosmos can provide meaning. Some people call this spirituality; some think it is evidence for God, but neither concept is necessary. Stars died so we could live; that’s pretty cool! From the reality discovered and described by science, we can derive meaning, “through recognition of our uniqueness, through gratitude for having the chance to live, through the love of others and others’ love for us, and through engagement with the world with courage and integrity.” “We create our own purpose, and we do this by fulfilling our nature, by living in accord with our essence, by being true to ourselves.”

The book ends with this hopeful thought:

We are given this one chance to live, some four score trips around the sun, a brief but glorious moment in the cosmic drama unfolding on this provisional proscenium. Given all we know about the universe and the laws of nature, that is the most any of us can reasonably hope for. Fortunately, it is enough. It is the soul of life. It is heaven on earth.

Some will argue that Shermer goes beyond the science, or that these subjects aren’t amenable to science. You probably won’t agree with everything Shermer says in this book, but some of the scientific evidence he describes may be new to you, and it will definitely fulfill the highest purpose of a book: to make the reader think. It might even challenge some treasured assumptions.

It is well written, engaging, and will appeal to the general reader and to anyone who is searching for answers to the “big” questions. There are some unfortunate errors that I hope will be corrected in future editions: Mark Crislip is an infectious disease specialist, not an ER doc; and psilocybin is not LSD.

This article was originally published in Skeptical Inquirer.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.