The Heaven Delusion: Debunking the Evidence for the Afterlife

Heavens on Earth by Michael ShermerHumans have long been incapable of accepting the finality of death. Even in ancient burial sites, some 100,000 years old, we find bodies buried with personal items and objects for “use” in the next life (there’s also some evidence that Neanderthals engaged in ritual burial 130,000 years ago).

Belief in the afterlife, or in the continuation of life in some capacity, has therefore been with us for a very long time. But since intuition and reality are very often not the same thing, what kind of evidence do we have in support of our actual ability to survive death? As Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the claim that we are in some sense immortal certainly qualifies as extraordinary. What then, is the evidence?

That’s the question (partly) that Michael Shermer investigates in his latest book titled Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia. Shermer covers much more than this, including the science of transhumanism, utopias and dystopias, and the science of aging and mortality, among many other topics. But what I want to focus on is the assessment of the evidence for the traditional, supernatural conception of the afterlife.

Thinking clearly about the possibility of an afterlife requires that we adopt the proper skeptical mindset, by which David Hume, the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, described best:

“The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

Most or all of the evidence cited for belief in the afterlife comes in the form of miracles, near-death-experiences (NDEs), anomalous psychological experiences, or supposed direct communication with the dead—in other words, in extremely rare or “miraculous” events.

Hume is advising us to ask ourselves the following question: Which is more likely, that a miraculous event actually occurred or that people’s accounts of miracles are mistaken? Since we have volumes of literature demonstrating the plethora of ways people deceive themselves, but very little evidence of the supernatural, the answer is the latter. Here’s Hume elaborating on the point:

“When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other and according to the superiority which I discover, I pronounce my decision. Always I reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates, then and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”

It’s always, therefore, more probable that people are either lying or mistaken when recounting supernatural experiences like NDEs.

In fact, in one prominent case, this was proven. In 2010, Alex Malarkey published a book titled The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A True Story, which sold over a million copies and was adapted into a TV movie in 2010. The book purports to describe Alex’s experiences in heaven after a 2004 traffic accident, and was used as evidence by believers for the existence of the afterlife.

The only problem was, five years after the book’s release, Alex recanted the entire story and admitted to making the whole thing up. This of course does not prove that every author that recounts these experiences is lying, but it does introduce the possibility, along with the possibility that they are simply mistaken.

It seems to me that with NDEs, people go out of their way to not accept the most obvious explanation. In a traumatic event—often with impaired blood flow to the brain and its corresponding effect on consciousness—hallucinations should be expected. The appearance of any lights or images or figures is entirely consistent with impaired brain function producing a dream-like state.

As to the recounting of specific details during surgery, as Shermer points out, it’s possible that the patient retained a certain level of consciousness (which some patients are disposed to experiencing) or, again, that the patient or the patient’s family is doctoring the story. All we have to go on in these situations is the word of the patient or family, and, as we just saw, Alex Malarkey fabricated his entire story, which would still likely be used as “evidence” for the afterlife had he not admitted to lying.

What about the phenomenon of people having prophetic dreams, such as when someone dreams about the death of a family member that happens the next day? How can an incredible coincidence like this occur without explanation? Well, there is an explanation, but it’s not supernatural. As Shermer explains:

“Each of us has about 5 dreams per night, or 1,825 dreams per year. If we remember only a tenth of our dreams, then we recall 182.5 dreams per year. Using a rounded-off figure of 300 million Americans able to remember their dreams, this generates a total of 54.7 billion remembered dreams per year…each of knows about 150 people fairly well, for a total network social grid of 45 billion personal relationship connections. With an annual death rate of 2.4 million Americans per year at all ages and from all causes, it is inevitable that some of those 54.7 billion remembered dreams will be about some of these 2.4 million deaths among the 300 million Americans and their 45 billion relationship connections. In fact, it would be a miracle if some death premonition dreams did not come true.”   

This is a major point, and applies not only to death premonition dreams but to all major coincidences. As Shermer further explains:

“Then there is the Law of Large Numbers: with seven billion people having, say, ten experiences a day of any kind, even million-to-one odds will result in seventy thousand coincidences per day.”

Of course some of these events will be remembered and reported and used by someone as evidence for whatever supernatural phenomenon they’d like to believe in. But far from being evidence for the supernatural, these million-to-one coincidences are guaranteed to occur every day!

Thinking mathematically, and from a larger perspective, is also a huge problem for those who believe in reincarnation. As Shermer explains in the opening of the book, 108 billion people were born between 50,000 BCE and 2017. In contrast, 7.5 billion people are alive today, making the ration of the dead to the living 14.4 to 1. If reincarnation is real, does each living person today contain 14.4 souls? Or is there a waiting line? The more you think about it, the more absurd the idea becomes.

I understand that nobody wants to die, myself included, but part of having intellectual integrity is the ability to admit when you don’t know something, and to resist the urge to make up answers. No one knows what happens after they die, but the afterlife, as a hypothesis, is weakly supported. And even if the evidence were stronger, the afterlife introduces more questions than answers. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said:

“The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves.”

With no challenges or adversity or goals or growth, is heaven intolerably boring? Who wants to go to a party, however fun, that you could never leave? As Woody Allen said, “Eternity is a long time, especially towards the end.”

Perhaps it’s better to think of death the way Lucretius did, and to focus, instead, on making this life on earth, for the brief moment we’re here, better for ourselves and others:

“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”

Finally, as Shermer reminds us, whether or not the afterlife exists does not really influence the best parts of life either way. The things positive psychology tells us makes us the most happy and provides us with the most meaning—love and family, meaningful work and career, social involvement, and challenges, goals, and purpose—are just as meaningful, and probably more so, without an afterlife.

The search for the afterlife is not only misguided, it distracts us from what is really important in the here and now. We should remember that heaven is not to be found in another time or place, it’s to be found within and around us.

Si requires caelo, circumspice

If you seek a heaven, look around you