An Afterlife Considered

Last week I presented to you part one of my interview with Cliff Pickover, renowned scientist, author, educator and all around creative mind. Our original focus was the concept of an afterlife although as you will see we moved on to related topics. I had been drawn to Mr. Pickover after reading his critically acclaimed book, “Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey, from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection.”

In your extensive research did you find that most versions of "heaven" have an accompanying vision of hell?

In his fourteenth-century epic poem Inferno, Italian poet Dante enters the gate of Hell and sees the inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  In 1831, revivalist preacher Charles G. Finney shouted about Hell: “Look! Look!  See the millions of wretches, biting and gnashing their tongues, as they lift their scalding heads from the burning lake!”

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Despite these frightening images, when the concept of Hell got its start, it was not the place of eternal torture and punishment for the wicked; rather, it was simply an “underworld” for the wandering souls of the dead. “This kind of neutral underworld,” write authors Chuck Crisafulli and Kyra Thompson, “spanned cultures and centuries, from the Mesopotamians to the ancient Chinese to the Aztecs.”  Early Israelites and Greeks believed in the subterranean Sheol and Hades, respectively,  in which both good and evil souls resided—but these underworlds do not typically refer to a place of eternal torture or punishment. “In Eastern religions,” write Crisafulli and Thompson, “belief in reincarnation meant that hell, rather than being a place of enteral torment, was more akin to a horrible temp job: You put in your time burning off the ugly sins of one life and get ready for another go at living a good life.”

Sounds a little like the movie Groundhog Day! What about the Ancient Greeks?

The ancient Greeks did have their Tartarus, a specific deep pit of torment for the wicked within Hades, described by Plato in Gorgias (c. 400 BC). The Koran describes a fiery Islamic Hell of many different levels, and the ancient Chinese believed in a version of Hell referred to as Diyu, an underground maze of chambers where souls atone for their sins.

An afterlife is certainly a more comforting notion than the idea that upon death we cease to exist. However is there any scientific evidence to support a belief in an afterlife?

Your readers may be interested in the notion of simulated realities and also quantum resurrection.  First, let’s start with interesting notion of “life in a simulation.” As we learn more about the universe and are able to simulate complex worlds using computers, even serious scientists begin to question the nature of reality. Could we be living in a computer simulation, or could we perhaps spend our afterlives in a simulated reality once our minds are uploaded to computer chips.

In our own small pocket of the universe, we have already developed computers with the ability to simulate lifelike behaviors using software and mathematical rules. One day, we may create thinking beings that live in simulated spaces as complex and vibrant as a rain forest. Perhaps we’ll be able to simulate reality itself, and it is possible that more advanced beings are already doing this elsewhere in the universe. 

Astronomer Paul Davies has noted, “Eventually, entire virtual worlds will be created inside computers, their conscious inhabitants unaware that they are the simulated products of somebody else’s technology.  For every original world, there will be a stupendous number of available virtual worlds—some of which would even include machines simulating virtual worlds of their own, and so on ad infinitum.”

If you could opt for hundreds of years of subjective time in a blissful simulated afterlife, would you do it? Perhaps you could think more clearly, love more deeply, discover new realities, be more creative, and achieve a state of fulfillment, peace, adventure, and/or accomplishment not possible in the real world. 

In your book you talk about “quantum resurrection.” Could you explain to my readers what you mean by that?

The fate of our universe is unknown, and some theories posit the continual creation of universes that “bud” from our own. However, let’s focus on our own universe. One possibility is that our universe will continue to expand forever, and particles will become increasingly sparse. This seems like a sad end, doesn’t it? However, even in this empty universe, quantum mechanics tells us that residual energy fields will have random fluctuations.  Particles will spring out of the vacuum as if out of nowhere. Usually, this activity is small, and large fluctuations are rare.  But particles do emerge, and given a long amount of time, something big is bound to appear. Quantum resurrection may await all of us.  Be happy.  

Q: I have always been interested in the concept of “transhumanism.” Can you talk a little about that?


In New Bottles for New Wine, published in 1957, biologist Julian Huxley coined the term “transhumanism” when he suggested that “the human species can… transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity, [with man] transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature…. The human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”

Today’s version of “transhumanism” is more evolved that the concept that Julian Huxley posited, don’t you agree?

The modern idea of transhumanism, espoused by philosopher-futurist Max More, and many others, usually involves the use of technology to enhance human mental and physical capacities, and perhaps one day we will become “posthuman.”  We may even become immortal in this century through genetic manipulation, robotics, nanotechnology, computers, or mind uploading to virtual worlds—and because we will fully understand the biological basis of aging.  Immortality is not such a rare thing -- some invertebrates are essentially immortal.  Even King Gilgamesh, in his famous Sumerian Epic and quest (c. 2000 BC), craved to abolish death.

If your body could survive indefinitely, would “you” actually persist? All of us are changed by our experiences—and these changes are usually gradual, which means that you are nearly the same person that you were a year ago. However, if your normal or enhanced body survived continuously for a thousand years, gradual mental changes would accumulate, and perhaps an entirely different person would eventually inhabit the body. The thousand-year-old person—this orchidaceous Ozymandias—might be nothing like you. You would no longer exist. There would be no moment of death at which you had ceased to exist, but you would slowly fade away over the millennia, like a sugar cube dissolving in water, like a sand castle being transformed by an ocean of time.

Does the fact that we are in a constant state of change connect us or separate us?

As we age, the molecules in our bodies are constantly being exchanged with our environment. With every breath, we might be inhaling hundreds of millions of atoms of air exhaled weeks ago by someone on the other side of the planet.  Thinking at a higher level, our brains and organs are “vanishing” into thin air, the cells sometimes being replaced as quickly as they are destroyed. A year or two from now, a majority of the atoms in our bodies will have been replaced with new ones. We are a seething mass of atomic and molecular trajectories that form threads in the fabric of spacetime.

What does it mean that your brain may have little in common, at the molecular level, with the brain you had a few years ago?  If you are something other than the collection of atoms making up your body, what are you? You are not so much your atoms as you are the pattern in which your atoms are arranged. People are persistent spacetime tangles. It’s possible that you have an atom of Jesus of Nazareth coursing through your body. Gilgamesh, the historical king who ruled the city of Uruk, could be part of your brain or tendons or heart. An atom in your retina may be in the tears of a happy lunar princess a hundred years from now.

Thank you Cliff for your fascinating analysis.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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