Why There Is No Afterlife: A Systems Perspective,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

The survival instinct is strong within our species. Preservation of one’s existence is of supreme importance, and as social organisms, this concern for survival extends to others as well. In fact, it is reasonable to suspect that the impetus for the evolution of the concept of an afterlife was an attempt to reconcile the need for self-perpetuation (and the perpetuation of others) with the apparent cessation of existence that death implies

As an atheist, I tend to be skeptical of religious notions in general. However, as a naturalist, my skepticism concerning the concept of an afterlife arises from my conclusion that it is inconsistent with my scientific worldview. Moreover, consistent with my naturalist perspective is the acceptance of the implications of biological evolution regarding the relative position and significance of Homo sapiens within the cosmic order.

It is an established scientific fact that our species has evolved from simpler organisms in a process that began more than three billion years ago. Modern humans did not emerge on the scene until approximately 200,000 years ago, and we share a common ancestor with other modern primates. In addition, around 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are extinct, and our species is but one of more than ten million species that exist today.

We can safely assume Westerners in general do not believe that trilobites or velociraptors are at present hanging out with seventy-two virgin members of their species or singing hosannas in some species-specific version of paradise. Nor do most people believe that microorganisms will stand before the throne of “Yahweh” on the day of judgment, begging for forgiveness.

Therefore, if we accept that none of our extinct “nonhuman” forebearers, or members of other contemporary species, have attained an afterlife when they expired, why should anyone believe that Homo sapiens are destined for a different fate? What adaptation occurred in the evolutionary process that permitted the existence of something within Homo sapiens to survive death?

If it is some form of the conscious mind that survives death, why is it only the human form that does so? After all, modern science recognizes that sentience or consciousness in some form is not exclusive to our species. Other primate species even exhibit evidence of social organization and the ability to communicate. It would appear that a form of sentience (consciousness) is an adaptation that arose as a natural progression in nervous system evolution, particularly in species with complex social organization. The point is that the emergence of consciousness occurred within a “hierarchic,” evolutionary context. Does it even make sense to conceive of the conscious mind, or personality, outside of systemic structures that supply it contextual meaning? In other words, if I am a product of nature and nurture, what good is an afterlife in which the physical context that shaped my personality is no longer relevant? After all, what is consciousness without sensory input to provide experiential context?

People believe that the consciousness, or the mind, is associated with the brain. Further, they believe the conscious mind is an epiphenomenon of complex brain physiology. An “epiphenomenon” is defined by Merriam Webster as “a secondary phenomenon accompanying another and caused by it … specifically: a secondary mental phenomenon that is caused by and accompanies a physical phenomenon but has no causal influence itself.” However, the concept of an epiphenomenon does not adequately capture the emergent nature of the conscious mind as a system in itself, with a place in a hierarchic, systemic structure, and that it is more than just a “secondary phenomenon.”

Ludwig von Bertalanffy is regarded as the father of “general system theory” (GST). GST recognizes that there are patterns and isomorphisms found in all fields of science and that GST is a theoretical model that searches for “universal principles applying to systems in general.” Everything in nature (reality) can be viewed through a system perspective, and each system exists as a system in itself (a whole) as well as a subsystem (a part) of other systems (wholes). Every system is composed of subsystems (with the possible exception of the most fundamental of subatomic particles), which exist within a nested, nonlinear hierarchy of systems/subsystems.

Arthur Koestler (in The Ghost in the Machine) referred to this nonlinear, quasi-hierarchical organization of systems as a “holarchy.” Moreover, Koestler had earlier coined the word holon to describe the dual and simultaneous aspects of systems as both “wholes” and “parts.” The interdependent, interrelation, and interaction of subsystems results in a form of self-organization, from which the larger system is an emergent product. Because the whole (system) is more than the sum of its parts (subsystems), the nature and function of a system is both emergent and unpredictable. This emergent quality of a system cannot be predicted from an examination of its subsystems, and determining the subsystemic structure of an emergent system cannot be accomplished through simple reductionism.

The attempt to determine the physical location of the mind within the brain has been unsuccessful because of its emergent character, as well as its complexity, as a system in itself. The brain is an organ system comprising tissues, cells, molecules, and atoms, which in turn comprise subatomic particles. Each level within this “holarchy” exhibits both system and subsystem characteristics. The continued existence of each systemic stratum is contingent on the continued functional and structural interrelationships and interactions of its subsystems. How much influence and contribution the nature and structure of an individual subsystem has on the character of the emergent system cannot be easily predicted or determined. At present, the nature of the mind itself is poorly understood, which complicates the search for the subsystem structures involved in its emergence.

It is known that pathologies can impact personality changes, which is indicative of an impact on the mind’s subsystem structure. Any change in a subsystem can disrupt the interrelationship and interaction of the entire subsystemic structure, which can have minimal or terminal consequences for the system as a whole. A major characteristic of all systems is that they are impermanent and that there is a variation in their relative stability and longevity of systemic integrity. It is the impermanent character of all systems (and subsystems) that makes change and, hence, evolution an inevitable and universal systemic process. That, and the characteristic that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, is the reason for both the complexity of the evolutionary process and its unpredictability. The “extinction” or evolution of a system occurs when as a “holon” it ceases to retain stability within a holarchic structure, of which it is both a system (whole) and subsystem (part).

An important observation regarding systems, concerns systemic “death” or organizational disintegration. When a system “dies,” it does not normally deconstruct into the separate, subsystemic “parts” from which the emergent system was constituted. For example, when the body dies, it does not decompose into separate, fully functioning organic systems. Similarly, if there is a “Big Crunch” in store for the universe in the future, the nature of the collapse will not be like some movie in reverse. Instead, the “dying” system will decompose into subsystem structures lower in the holarchic order that are sustainable within the systemic environment of the “deceased” system. (This is important for explaining the unidirectionality of the arrow of time, irreversibility, and the differences associated with system emergence and system decomposition and their relationship with negentropy and entropy.) A dead body becomes a nutrient source for other living systems and not a ghoulish distribution of functioning organs, and the universe collapses in a cascade of black hole formation.

A compelling reason to reject a belief in ghosts is the perplexing problem of sensory perception of allegedly noncorporeal entities (this is also relevant regarding the so-called near death experience). From a scientific understanding of optics, it is difficult to understand how it is possible for photons to interact with a noncorporeal object. It is also difficult to understand how a ghost could produce sound waves without physically interacting with the physical world. If ghosts are incorporeal, how is it possible to attribute a specific identity to any given apparition if there are no identifiable physical features (facial, body habitus, etc.) or vocal cords to produce identifiable vocalizations?

Regarding the so-called near death experience (NDE), there are obvious indications that this phenomenon has a neurophysiological origin and that the temporal lobe and visual cortex are involved. In fact, mainstream scientists have been able to induce so-called out of body experiences through electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe. This is important, because the anecdotal descriptions of NDEs invariably use language indicative of some form of emotional and sensory characteristics of the experience.

Subjects experience emotions of peace and well-being, see a bright light or religious figures (of a culturally specific nature), or hear sounds of activity in an operating room. The fact that both sensory and memory processes are involved in NDEs supports a natural explanation that is consistent with GST. NDEs result from a malfunction of the subsystem structure of the brain associated with the consciousness system. It is clear that what is actually happening is a form of dissociative consciousness, and it is occurring as a phenomenon associated with the dysfunction of a dying brain.

Regarding the “tunnel of light” phenomenon, an explanation lies with an understanding of the various components involved in vision and how image perception occurs within the brain. In normal vision, photons of light enter the lens, which then focuses this light on the photoreceptors contained in the retina. The light is converted into neuronal signals that are transported through the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain, where visual information is processed.

It is also known that the visual cortex is stimulated during REM sleep, when an individual is dreaming. Blind individuals who were not born blind continue to have a visual component, and there is evidence that even those born blind experience stimulation in the visual cortex during dreaming. There are also studies of the so-called NDE phenomenon that report that blind individuals also report “the tunnel of light” sensory experience.

The important thing to note is that normal vision, dreaming, and the visual component associated with the “tunnel of light” phenomenon have a neurophysiological explanation and are dependent on the activity of components of the brain. All sensory perception occurs in the brain, even so-called NDEs. As the phenomenon of dreaming indicates, there need not be actual events associated with the content of dreams. I once had a vivid dream that I had won the lottery, and I was quite disappointed when I awakened. In like manner, there is no reason that an actual phenomenon is perceived by the brain during NDEs (including for blind subjects). We don’t directly experience the phenomena that we observe; we experience sensory perception of those things. It is also noteworthy that light comprises photons, and photons are physical objects. How is it possible for photons to interact with so-called spiritual phenomena?

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As was mentioned earlier, the conscious mind has been viewed as an epiphenomenon of complex brain physiology. However, if the mind has emerged as a system from a complex arrangement (a subsystem configuration) of neurophysiological, sensory processes, it is more than just an epiphenomenon. The conscious mind, in the terminology of Koestler, is a holon, existing as a system (a conscious mind) and a subsystem as a member of a group of minds that compose a social order. Moreover, the concept of “holophenomenon” is more suitable in capturing the emergent quality attributable to the conscious mind as a system. As a concept, it also has universal application in describing the emergent gestalt product of all subsystem configurations found at every level within nature’s holarchy.

The constitutional integrity of the conscious mind, as a system, is interdependent on the holarchic, physical structure that constitutes the human body. If the conscious mind is located at the apex of this holarchic structure, then the collapse of the subsystem structure beneath it, from which it has emerged, has terminal consequences. The conscious mind becomes just another impermanent system subject to physical laws. It does not survive death, because it cannot exist outside of the holarchic structure from which it emerged and receives its contextual relevance.

The survival instinct is strong within our species. Preservation of one’s existence is of supreme importance, and as social organisms, this concern for survival extends to others as well. In fact, it is reasonable to suspect that the impetus for the evolution of the concept of an afterlife was an attempt to reconcile the need …