The Afterlife Through a Scientific Lens
If our universe was a 3D simulation, it wouldn’t be odd to presume the existence of more than one version. But, of course, the idea that we are living in a simulated reality is nothing more than science fiction. If that’s what you think, there’s a lot of catching up you need to do.
Understanding This Life
If our universe was a 3D simulation, it wouldn’t be odd to presume the existence of more than one version. But, of course, the idea that we are living in a simulated reality is nothing more than science fiction. If that’s what you think, there’s a lot of catching up you need to do.
The latest findings in science are suggesting that we are most likely living inside a simulation. Elon Musk (creator/owner of Tesla and SpaceX) said the chance of our world being a simulation is “a billion to one,” and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (renowned astrophysicist and author) was asked to comment; he said it was hard for him to disagree.
Unlike Cartesian philosophy, scientific truths are based on mathematical theories and confirmed by empirical evidence, not “silly” brainstorming and meditation. The Earth orbits the sun not because it’s a reasonable possibility, but because science has proved it through quite irrefutable evidence. If you believe in – and understand the workings of – the objectivity and reliability of the scientific method, then you should also know that the probability of our universe being an illusion is the product of almost a century’s worth of experiments and empirical findings in quantum mechanics/fields and astrophysics.
The real world is so far removed from what we think it is that scientists today by and large acknowledge the inescapable limitations of our sense perception. In other words, no, the world is nothing like it seems. Biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins eloquently explains this scientific consensus – on the staggering unreliability of our senses to perceive the real world – in a TED talk. “Solid things, like crystals and rocks,” he said, “are really almost entirely composed of empty space…. Why, then, do rocks look and feel solid and hard and impenetrable?”
How much empty space are we talking about? “The familiar illustration is: the nucleus of an atom is a fly in the middle of a sports stadium, and the next atom is in the next sports stadium,” Dawkins said. “So it would seem that the hardest, solidest, densest rock is really almost entirely empty space, broken only by tiny particles so widely spaced they shouldn’t count. Why, then, do rocks look and feel solid and hard and impenetrable? As an evolutionary biologist, I’d say this: our brains have evolved to help us survive within the orders of magnitude of size and speed which our bodies operate at. We never evolved to navigate in the world of atoms. If we had, our brains probably would perceive rocks as full of empty space. Rocks feel hard and impenetrable to our hands precisely because objects like rocks and hands cannot penetrate each other. It’s therefore useful for our brains to construct notions like solidity and impenetrability.
“So, ‘really’ isn’t a word that we should use with simple confidence. If a neutrino had a brain, which it evolved in neutrino-sized ancestors, it would say that rocks really do consist of empty space. We have brains that evolved in medium-sized ancestors that couldn’t walk through rocks. ‘Really,’ for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be in order to assist its survival. And because different species live in different worlds, there will be a discomforting variety of ‘reallys.’ What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished world, but a model of the world, regulated and adjusted by sense data, but constructed so it’s useful for dealing with the real world.”
That last line is very important and I will get back to it later. But let’s take a step back. What does modern science say about the “objective” reality of our world, the reality that’s not confined by human perception? Here’s how one of the world’s top quantum physicists, Dr. Nick Herbert, explained it back in the 1980s:
“The world isn’t made of things. It’s not made of objects…. The notion that big things are made of little things, quantum theory doesn’t describe the world that way. Big things aren’t made of little things. They are made of entities whose attributes aren’t there when you don’t look, but become there when you do look. The world exists – when we don’t look at it – in some strange state that is indescribable, and then when we look at it, it becomes absolutely ordinary, as though someone were trying to pull something over our eyes.The world is an illusion.”
The above quote might sound like something said by a medieval philosopher or a Zen master, or perhaps some fringe scientist who had been excommunicated from the scientific community, but it’s not. The above description is the consensus view of all science. That being said, it’s important to understand that this lab-proven absurdity of the real world does not bring pleasure to a scientist’s heart. A truly passionate scientist wants to understand how the world works, not poeticize zinger lines like DeGrasse Tyson’s “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” But Tyson has no choice but to make that conclusion because the contradictions between lab results and human logic have, so far, been irreconcilable, and many scientists have come to accept the fact that they may forever remain so.
Einstein, for example, was one of those scientists who was so bothered by what he and his colleagues have found in one lab experiment after another, that he insisted till his last breath that someone will surely come along one day and disprove all of these contradictions, because “God does not play dice with the universe.”
While most scientists agree that Einstein’s position on the quantum world is false, many sympathize with it. After all, how could the sub-atomic world (which our universe is most certainly made of) operate by a different set of laws (or lawlessness) that totally contradict the laws that our visible universe operates on? How could one object exist in more than one place at the same time? Or how could objects exist and not exist simultaneously?! Such lab-proven contradictions are not taught in schools and undergraduate colleges – except maybe for a few token pages – because there aren’t many graded assignment questions that could be generated for them. But if you had the privilege of studying quantum theory in graduate school, it wouldn’t take much to agree with Musk and Tyson and the rest of the scientific community today, that it’s extremely hard to believe that our universe is not a simulation.
The hurdle of education
An education system predicated on standardized testing as a method to measure a student’s knowledge and training has no room for open-ended questions. When you have a classroom with 20 to 30 students, all of whom told from childhood that their future depends on what alphabet they earn from standardized tests, every minute the teacher spends allowing students to be curious and imaginative is counterproductive! Individual curiosity and imagination do not get rewarded (and can’t) – how could they when standardized exams come with standardized answers?!
A teacher could design a course where students are graded on how deep their minds can go, but then that would not be a standardized system of education, and results would vary from one classroom to another, and from one teacher to another, which would render the entire education system chaotic, i.e. unmeasurable, i.e. producing unreliable results (the very problem that standardization was introduced in the 1860s to solve).
But it is precisely because our education system is designed on pre-packaged answers to pre-packaged questions that students are not only not rewarded for deep thought, curiosity, and imagination, but they are even actively blocked from indulging in them. With classes starting before their bloodshot eyes adjust to learning temperature, they get bombarded for seven to nine hours with factory answers to questions that never crossed their minds, and then they’re sent home with loads of assignments designed to prepare them for the anxiety attacks known as standardized tests. It is child abuse, and it might take society decades or centuries before they realize what a real torture it is to convert children into bricks in a wall.
When is there time for children and young adults to play, and to look at the sky and wonder about the stars? In fact, a student whose mind slips into a waking-life dream, or who builds a spontaneous desire to do something creative (instead of being an idle learning sponge), is diagnosed with a mental illness called attention deficit disorder (ADD), and some are sadly put on medication to restore their “focus” on their “road to success.”
One of the unintended (or perhaps intended) consequences of such an education system that steals the best twelve to twenty years of our youth is that we rarely have original thoughts of our own, and even when we do, we are trained to dismiss them as worthless or nerdy or eccentric – thoughts you better keep to yourself lest they commit you to a mental asylum. After all, we don’t get gold stars or an A+ for “thinking,” and parents don’t buy their children the latest PlayStation or Nintendo when they come up with a fascinating original thought!
A good degree from a reputable school might land you a decent job – a place where your curiosity and imagination continue to not matter, or continue to bring you nothing but trouble. But an education system that aims to land you a decent job can’t tell you shit about the universe we live in, or what the meaning of life is.
Consider this image below as exhibit A of how shitty your education has been. If you recognize what that image is, congratulations, you’ve been successfully brainwashed. Do you actually think that this is what an atom looks like? Unless you have attended graduate-level classes in physics, your teachers will have probably never thought to mention that little bit of truth: no one knows what an atom looks like, no one has ever seen an atom, and more importantly: atoms don’t even exist!
“It’s a very nice picture,” said David Tong, Cambridge professor of theoretical physics, in one of his lectures three years ago, referring to that drawing of the atom. “It’s a very comforting picture. It’s the picture we teach kids at school, … even teach our students in undergraduate university. And there’s a problem with it. The problem is: it’s a lie. It’s a white lie we tell our children because we don’t want to expose them to the difficult and horrible truth too early on. It makes it easier to learn if you believe that these particles are the fundamental building blocks of the universe, but it’s simply not true…. In fact, the best theories we have in physics don’t rely on particles at all. The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature… are something much more nebulous and abstract… fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe [that] ripple in strange and interesting ways… we call them fields.”
Take note of the disparity between the type of accomplishment a scientist is rewarded for, vis-à-vis the type of accomplishment a science student is rewarded for. The former gets rewarded for discovering something new – a mental exercise that requires plenty of curiosity and imagination – whereas the latter is rewarded for regurgitating what the former had discovered! You do realize that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein did not learn about F = ma and E = mC2, respectively, from the schools they dropped out of.
Imagination is the Key to Reality
Why is it so hard, then, to consider the possibility that there are other simulations, co-existent or post-existent to the one we’re in right now? In light of the unfortunate hurdle of education (the abusive de-programming or overriding of our innate ability to think freely) outlined above, it is not surprising how an “educated” human being could outright dismiss the possibility of an afterlife, when they can’t even explain the possibility of this one! Why should they contemplate any idea that did not appear in their textbooks? These “A” students, whose cups are always full, can explain the Big Bang theory in under a minute, like they’re explaining how to make an omelet – first you crack two eggs, then you scramble them, add peppers, onions, mushrooms, cheese, and a hint of salt and pepper, and voilà! That’s how we got the universe!
Never mind the incredible mathematical improbability of this entire universe being created out of nothing, have the properly educated ever contemplated the making of an omelet? I mean, have they really watched the transformation of an egg on a heated pan without being asked by their lab teachers to do so? Have they ever looked closely at how sugar dissolves in a transparent cup of tea when stirred? If these events were not so familiar and mundane, they would be magic tricks performed by Shin Lim on America’s Got Talent. And that is precisely the problem with our fellow educated humans: no time for curiosity, no time for contemplation, no time for imagination; the very basic tools that our pre-industrial ancestors took for granted as the most reliable tools to perceive reality.
Thanks to our global, mandatory education that sucks life out of life, creativity and imagination are no longer considered ways of knowing, of discerning, of understanding. At best, they are shelved under “fiction” under the guise of retaining some literary value, the very antithesis of truth and reality!
It’s a lot like the 9-dots riddle, where you’re asked to connect all nine dots (aligned as shown in the image to the right) with only four lines, without removing the pen from the paper. Ask your students in any class to solve this riddle, and you’ll get virtually everyone excitedly trying to solve it. Ask them to explain the three reasons the Russian revolution happened in 1917, and you might get your top three students interested. Why is that the case? It’s because the answer to the 9-dots riddle comes from within, from imagination, not from a textbook!
Likewise, I can’t discuss with you the possibility of the afterlife if your thought processor is set on “textbook mode.” Instead, I’d like for you to take a few moments, to open up the pores of imagination, through a short meditation, starting with contemplating your smartphone. Take a look at it; a pondering look. Consider the years of science and technology that went into putting together all the little tiny gadgets and circuit board bits that allow your phone to do all the stupendous things it does. Just the idea of scrolling down a list made of light, with the slightest touch of a finger, web-accessing a seemingly infinite amount of texts, sounds, images, and videos, is jaw-dropping. And yet billions of smartphone holders do not show the least sign of awe. Clearly, it’s because we’ve gotten so used to them, they became so banal that our consciousness ignores their awesomeness the way we ignore the subtle buzzing of a refrigerator.
What’s a million times more remarkable than a smartphone is You! Think of what it took to put you together. Nine months of construction inside a womb, without the tools or the supervision of conscious engineers. Think of how it all started: a single cell you can’t see with the naked eye, embedded with an unconscious chromosomic code. And what code! Imagine the amount of work it would take for a team of a thousand scientists to make a microchip the size of a cell, a microchip that’s designed to split and replicate itself. Sometimes we forget how incredibly unbelievable every tissue and organ in our bodies came out of that first, unconscious cell, all assembled with impossible precision to create our bodies. If splitting cells in the womb could speak to one another, one of them would say, “Hey, I’m going over there to join millions of bone cells to become part of this baby’s spine. What about you?” And the other cell replies, “I’m transforming into a stomach cell… something about secreting hydrochloric acid to digest food.” But, of course, it’s even more mindboggling that they don’t talk, that they are not aware of where they are going or what they are doing.
No electric engineering is match to the electric grid that wires your entire body, all connected to an organic central powerplant that gets fueled with… oxygen and sugar, of all things! And to recharge that electric power grid, you don’t plug it into an electric socket. You just lie down and fall asleep! How crazy is that?!
The brain is also the command center to every function in your body – operating unconsciously – from sweat glands that secrete salty water to cool off the surface of your body when exposed to high temperatures, to a self-upgrading immune system that kills germs and viruses that even the most advanced medicine today struggles to eliminate – an actual anti-virus software, totally unconscious to us, commanding an army of millions of unconscious white blood cells that can identify and destroy the enemy.
Also wired to your brain are two panoramic, high resolution 576-megapixel cameras, with a cleansing liquid dispensed automatically whenever irritated. Or consider how, right now, you are staring at these words – black shapes against a white background, and your brain is processing them in nano seconds, converting them into thoughts and emotions. And when you want to look up a memory, there is no button you need to click on or a search bar to type into. You retrieve saved files through sheer will! And talk about an infinite memory capacity! Do I have to go on?
You’ll hear some educated people tell you that all that marvel can be “easily explained” when you consider that it took billions of years of evolution, the probability that there were millions of faulty versions that were not fit to survive… totally missing the point! The point is: why should the ability to describe the mechanism of something in nature, like rain fall or a human organ, somehow make it any less mysterious and mind-blowing? What is it with this “education” that sucks life out of life, and ranks us based on our ability to be a technical and boring cog?
Question: which of these two events is more probable: (1) an entire universe created from nothing, or (2) a second universe created out of the existing one?
Scientists have no reason to claim that an afterlife is impossible – or even improbable – because science is secular when it comes to facts: a scientific truth is not required to match our preconceptions or meet our expectations in order to be accepted. They’re not even required to make sense, as Tyson eloquently and aptly put it. The measure of what constitutes a scientific truth has everything to do with empirical results. But until the empirical results of a hypothesis become available, it is neither discouraged nor antiscientific to hypothesize. On the contrary, all scientific truths began as hypotheses. And hypothesizing requires a great deal of imagination.
Sagan’s Square in Flatland
So what is it like to hypothesize an afterlife, now that we have come to understand how weak and limiting it is to select sense perception and human-based logic as one’s sole criteria to discern reality? Imagination and intuition can help us go beyond our sensory limitations, like when we engage in parables.
One such parable that could give us a glimpse of worlds beyond our world is demonstrated by the late Carl Sagan – astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist – as he poetically asks us… “Imagine that we are perfectly flat. I mean, absolutely flat. And that we live, appropriately enough, in a flat land (a land designed and named by Edwin Abbott). Everybody in Flatland is, of course, exceptionally flat…. We have width and length, but no height at all. That being the case, we Flatlanders know about left right, we know about forward back, but we have never heard of up down.
“Let us imagine, that into Flatland, hovering above it, comes a strange three-dimensional creature. And the three-dimensional creature sees an attractive, congenial-looking square [one of us], watches it enter its house, and decides, in a gesture of inter-dimensional amity, to say hello. ‘Hello!’ says the three-dimensional creature. ‘How are you? I am a visitor from the third dimension.’
“Well, the poor square looks around his closed house, sees no one there, and, what’s more, has witnessed a greeting coming from his insides: a voice from within. He surely is getting a little worried about his sanity. The three-dimensional creature is unhappy about being considered a psychological aberration. And so he descends to actually enter Flatland.
“Now a three-dimensional creature exists in Flatland only partially, only a plain, a cross-section through him can be seen. And as [it] descends through; slithers by Flatland…. the square, as time goes on, sees a set of objects mysteriously appear from nowhere, inside a closed room, and change their shape dramatically. His only conclusion could be that he’s gone bonkers.
“Well, the [three-dimensional creature] might be a little annoyed at this conclusion, and so, not such a friendly gesture from dimension to dimension, makes contact with the square from below, and sends our flat creature fluttering and spinning above Flatland. At first, the square has no idea what’s happened. He’s terribly confused; utterly outside his experience. But after a while, he comes to realize he’s seeing inside closed rooms in Flatland. He’s looking inside his fellow flat creatures. He’s seeing Flatland from a perspective no one has ever seen before, to his knowledge. Getting into another dimension provides, as an incidental benefit, a kind of X-ray vision.
“Now our flat creature slowly descends to the surface, and his friends rush up to see him. From their point of view, he has mysteriously appeared from nowhere. He hasn’t walked from somewhere else. He’s come from some other place. They say to him, ‘For heaven’s sakes, what’s happened to you?’ And the poor square has to say, ‘Well, I was in some other mystic dimension called ‘up.’’ And they will pat him on his side and comfort him, or else also ask, ‘well, show us! Where is that third dimension? Point to it!’ And the poor square won’t be able to comply.”
Multi-dimensionality is just one of many ways to imagine how other worlds could pre-exist, co-exist with, or post-exist ours; worlds that we may never be able to access in our familiar physical form. But that being said, the truth is equally probable in the opposite direction. It could be that there are no other worlds, and that what underlies our hypothesis has more to do with wishful thinking than anything to do with objective reality.
The Square’s Friends and the Case Against the Afterlife
In the eyes of the unimaginative intellectual types, imagination gives us Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Understanding through imagination is perceived as immature child play. A grown-up’s mind, on the other hand, knows that there is no Santa Claus, no Tooth Fairy, and no gods or resurrection. Like the square’s friends in Flatland, they ask: show us… where is this other world you talk about? And to be fair, they do make a compelling case: human beings have always been aware of their mortality, and therefore carry a burdensome load of sadness and disappointment. What better to alleviate that pain and sadness than the belief in a continued existence after death?
The square’s friends might argue that when a loved one dies, he or she often appears in our dreams, so vividly, which reinforces this “delusion” that the dead are not really dead, but are communicating with us from another world. And so every culture in human history has managed to fabricate, over centuries, the wildest stories and narratives of life and death and the afterlife; culminating in organized religion. Essentially, they argue that the belief in an afterlife is born out of dissatisfaction and fear of mortality, and later that fear and that dissatisfaction metamorphosize into canonized truths passed down from one generation to the next. And what’s more, these narratives are planted in our heads at such a young age when our brains could barely distinguish the sensory world from imaginary ones (i.e., when our imagination has not yet been completely tamed and our consciousness of reality not yet completely trained).
Among these nonbelievers, we also come across some neutral views, like those of Noam Chomsky or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who’d argue: so what if someone believed in an afterlife? What’s the harm? Let them believe in it if it brings comfort and meaning to their lives.
The above arguments are good at trying to understand the human psyche and our desire for a second life. But that’s not an argument against the scientific plausibility of other worlds. Wishful thinking is not grounds for proving or disproving a theory. The square’s friends need to answer this question: if one day scientists were able to prove empirically that there’s an afterlife, and it becomes the scientific community’s consensus, would they accept it as a fact? Or would they join the anti-science opposition and replicate the Flat Earther movement?
The Afterlife is “Scientifically Plausible,” Says Scientists
Imagine your soul and mine hovering, 14.8 billion years ago, in infinite nothingness; before the Big Bang banged, before time was time. Imagine I say to you, “you know, one day, an entire universe will be created from this nothingness, and there will be galaxies and stars and planets, and on planet Earth there will be oceans and mountains and forests, gardens and butterflies and rivers, animals and cars and computers, and you and I will be talking to one another in the flesh, and our words will be uttered in a human language,” you would have every right to declare me the king of bullshitters. Not only are the odds impossible, and the evidence unsearchable, but the names of those things I mentioned wouldn’t have any meaning because they have not yet existed.
Suppose then, in that insane pre-Big-Bang conversation, when I added the phrase, “and there will be death and resurrection,” you replied, “Look, I was with you when you were talking about the galaxies and the stars and jungles and mingles. But you totally lost me with that ‘afterlife’ bit. That was just over the top bat shit crazy talk.” Really? You were okay with oceans and jungles made from void, but the afterlife bit is what unscrewed your light bulb? To think that an afterlife is so ridiculously impossible while you are witnessing this life, is like watching a magician disappear an elephant into thin air, and the only thing that blows your mind is how his socks don’t match.
So listen to me for a minute, as our souls hover over these abstract letters, and let me tell you that one day, the power button on the universe simulator will be pushed, and this entire hologram of existence will disappear, like a film when you turn off the TV. Only before that happens, our souls will have been uploaded onto an inter-universal cloud, a waiting area outside the frame of space-time, awaiting the installment of Universe 2.0, before being downloaded into our new avatars.
The plausibility of that scenario hinges on a key ingredient that, luckily, is (thanks to quantum biology) within our grasp of observation: the hovering soul.
The soul, or the self, is the term our ancestors most probably used for consciousness. An afterlife is totally baseless unless two things were true: (1) there is a consciousness (soul) that is separate from one’s material body, and (2) this consciousness can be stored or preserved outside that material body. And if you think that modern science does not support the plausibility of these two premises, it means you haven’t been paying attention to the last few decades of scientific research, and I’ll gladly present you with several leads and updates.
Two Scientific Views on the Soul
What is consciousness? To be clear, it’s not the same thing as being awake. It is possible to be conscious and asleep (i.e. dreaming), and to be awake but unconscious (vegetative state; lights on but nobody’s home). Also, consciousness is not the ability to recall memories – people with partial or total memory loss were still observed to function as conscious human beings. And consciousness is not the ability to compute and analyze – computers can do that, and they are not conscious (and there’s no compelling evidence that they will ever be, despite all the talk about artificial intelligence). Rather, consciousness means awareness of one’s own existence, of one’s individual self. So what do scientists and philosophers say about the nature of consciousness?
On the one hand, we have a team of scientists and philosophers – classically described as empiricists or monists – who have come to explain consciousness as a byproduct of the human brain; a mental construct that we forged to make sense of our existence (like how Dawkins explained our constructs of concepts like solidity and impenetrability because they are useful for us to understand the world we live in). In other words, we recognize consciousness not because it’s really there, but because it’s convenient to presume its existence as a concept to describe our experience of the world. In the words of Anil Seth, professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience, “We are part of, and not apart from, the rest of nature.”
On the other hand, we have another team of scientists and philosophers – classically described as rationalists or dualists – who have come to see consciousness as an element not belonging to the physical world, but in that “up down” metaphysical dimension in Flatland. In other words, don’t bother looking for it, or think you can detect it with a measuring device in some lab.
In the late 1980s, however, Sir Roger Penrose, a world-renowned mathematical physicist and cosmologist, have come forward with a hypothesis that contradicts both schools of thought (or you could say he found a middle ground). “There is a current view that consciousness is something that arises from some complicated computation,” He said in a 2013 interview, referring to the monist view of most neuroscientists today. “People think that because they can do things amazingly fast – they can calculate very quickly, and they can play chess extremely well… somehow consciousness arises from that. Now my view is quite different from this. I think there is a lot of computational activity going on in the brain, but this is basically unconscious…. What we do when we understand something is not computing. There’s something else going on.” Penrose then also distances himself from the dualists and metaphysicists, by affirming that he’s “a great believer in science,” and that the something else is “still obeying the same laws that are going on in the universe outside us.” In other words, the mystery of consciousness, he believes, must lie within the grasp of the tools of scientific empiricism.
Consider this image by Edward H. Adelson, and in particular the squares marked “A” and “B.” If the brain was nothing more than a super computer, then we should be able to recognize that the color of square “A” is 100% identical to the color in square “B.”
By any means of objectivity, the colors of squares A and B are undoubtedly identical. And yet no matter how hard we stare, our brains will just not accept it! Instead, the human brain chooses to project its own analysis and deduce that the darkness in “B” is caused by the cylinder’s shadow cast upon it, and that it’s in fact a much lighter shade than the color in square A. The image is copy-pasted below, but with a color-contrasting bar to help us dispel our false (albeit useful) projection.
Mental projection of reality also happens when I introduce myself to someone who only knows English, and I say “my name is Oday.” Even though their ears received the sound of my name exactly as I uttered it, their own brains are convinced they must have heard me wrong (just like we’re convinced that square B is lighter than square A). Due to their unfamiliarity with the name, they unconsciously doubt their own auditory senses, and their brains project what theythink I said. “Dave?” some ask me, or “nice to meet you OJ.” Others will swear they heard me say “José.” I even had a waitress once write down “O’Gay.”
Our brains are not only receiving images and sounds and smells and tastes and sensations, they are also projecting images (like a projector in a cinema) “from parts of the cortex that aren’t receiving any input,” said Anil Seth. We are actually projecting way more sensory data than we are receiving, as one neuroscience experiment after another have repeatedly shown. It’s much more than optical illusions. If you’re looking at a door, your brain unconsciously projects what the back of that door looks like, even though you are not looking at it. In fact, your brain is constantly projecting, so much so that it sometimes even ignores and overrides data received by your senses (like how you don’t notice the buzzing of a fridge, or how you don’t feel the pain from a cut in your skin until after you see it). And in dreams, everything you see is projection (zero external data). You can project beaches and sunlight, even though your eyes are shut and your brain resides in total darkness.
Neuroscientists know that our brains project reality, but they can’t explain how or why that’s the case, nor can they physically identify the exact cerebral process of consciousness. And that’s where Penrose comes in. In 1989, he published The Emperor’s New Mind, in which he expressed his hypothesis that consciousness cannot be explained by classical physics, but that the answer may lie in the quantum world, where the laws of physics fall apart. He had no evidence to support his hypothesis, until Dr. Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist, contacted him and filled in the missing piece: microtubules, the tiny stuff that neurons are made of. “Their sizes are incredibly small, approximately two nanometers.” A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. “The key component is that these microtubules contain high densities of pi electrons… positioned in such high clusters to allow [them] to be quantumly entangled…. This means that information at [one point] in the brain can be processed and transferred to [any other point] instantly, with no traceable path.”
Because of Hameroff, Penrose was able to transform his hypothesis to a solid theory: the orchestrated objective reduction (Orch O.R.) model,“a biological philosophy of mind that postulates that consciousness originates at the quantum level inside neurons, rather than the conventional view that it is a product of connections between neurons. The mechanism is held to be a quantum process called objective reduction that is orchestrated by cellular structures called microtubules.”
What are the implications of postulating that consciousness belongs to the quantum realm? I will let Dr. Hameroff explain it in his own words.
“The world,” Hameroff said, “appears to be divided into two realms, described by two different sets of physical laws. (1) The quantum realm, which is immaterial, co-existing possibilities, non-local, unified, connected, has some ultimate truth (although we don’t know what it is yet), deeper levels of reality, and in many senses: spirit-like. (2) The classical world, the billiard-ball universe that we live in right now… is material, Newtonian, definite, macroscopic, local, predictable, disconnected, post-modern, and somewhat boring, actually.
“What is life? If you approach life from classical physics, you see that biology is a set of self-organizing functions. There’s no secret to life. Brain activities are equivalent to computers, and consciousness is an epiphenomenal illusion with no causal power. That’s the party line in standard neuroscience and philosophy. Accordingly, Thomas Huxley said years ago, “We’re merely conscious automata, helpless spectators,” like Pac-Man. That’s the story we get from classical physics’ approach to the brain.
“Applying quantum physics to biology [however], first by Erwin Schrödinger, who came up with Schrödinger’s equation, Schrödinger’s cat, Schrödinger’s book “What is Life?” – where he suggested that quantum effects play key roles in living systems, and Schrödinger’s protein which was proven in 2007, showing that protein can be in quantum superimposition of two or more different states at the same time.
“If quantum consciousness is correct – for example if Penrose’s idea is correct – we are literally ripples in the fine structure of space-time geometry…. Levels of consciousness can resonate from the Planck scale, the bottom level of the Universe, multiple hierarchical levels to the brain. This is consistent with Eastern philosophy, and also indicates that afterlife, reincarnation, and out-of-body experiences that we’ve heard about are plausible. The quantum soul... this may be scientifically feasible.
“What if consciousness could be uploaded or quantum-teleported, even to artificial media, made of graphene, fullerene, or microtubule arrays, for enhanced, enlightened states of consciousness and pleasure? Maybe in the future we’ll have some kind of graphene arrays with some kind of conscious experience… where perhaps when our bodies give out, we can upload or download our consciousness to some alternative medium and exist independently [from our bodies], or just do it for fun.”
Compared to topics like gravity, electromagnetism, and Newton’s laws of motion, the science I have displayed in this essay might appear unfamiliar, fringe, which would then compel your brain to project the feeling that it can’t be serious. “If this was the general consensus among scientists, why have I not come across it?” you might ask. And if that’s what you’re feeling, I can’t blame you. I blame our schools and the dysfunctional structure of our educational system. Roger Penrose, for example, is a world-renowned mathematical physicist and cosmologist, who worked with Stephen Hawking to develop “the mathematics of the Big Bang and the properties of black holes.” Dr. Stuart Hameroff, whom Roger Penrose teamed up with to develop their theory of quantum consciousness (Orch. O.R.), is an anesthesiologist and a professor at the University of Arizona, and the director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, and author and contributor to several scientific outlets. Nick Herbert, author of Quantum Reality, is one of the world’s top quantum physicists and foremost authorities on Bell’s theorem (the one responsible for proving that our world is “non-local… that there exist interactions between events that are too far apart in space and too close together in time for the events to be connected even by signals moving at the speed of light.”
The current body of science does not prove nor disprove the possibility of an afterlife. But one could argue, like Dr. Hameroff does, that there’s plenty of evidence in the science of consciousness (on the quantum level) that makes it plausible. If consciousness does indeed emanate from the quantum world, it means thatthe death of the brain does not destroy consciousness, but only makes it disappear from the physical (visible/detectable) world, while it remains entangled with the simulated universe. And if that’s the case, consciousness can manifest itself again in a similar or totally new format (in this universe or another).
If the human body (and especially the brain) was analogous to a smart phone, then consciousness would be analogous to a SIM card (not the metal and plastic it’s made of, but the information coded into it). A phone without a SIM card can still switch on and off, but it wouldn’t function as a phone (no signal, no calls, no messages), and it wouldn’t possess a unique identity (it would just be an exact factory replica of millions of other phones). That being said, the SIM card would also be totally useless without a phone to be inserted into. Thus, to have the full human experience you’ve come to know, you’d need both, a fully functioning body and a consciousness (a sense of awareness of yourself). If you lose the body (through the natural process of death), it doesn’t mean that the information on the SIM card will also expire. Quite the opposite in fact: in 2011, the no-hiding theorem has been “experimentally tested and confirmed,” which reveals that, in the quantum world, information (like consciousness) “cannot be created nor destroyed.”
But as stated earlier, the scientific evidence has ruled out the hypothesis that thoughts, feelings, or memories are consciousness itself. So it could be that when your unique consciousness is revived again (your SIM card inserted into a new phone), you won’t remember anything from your past life. But if you can’t remember, doesn’t that mean the SIM card has been reformatted to its factory settings? Could you still be you if you can’t remember anything you thought of or felt or experienced?
Perhaps that’s not the kind of resurrection most people have in mind. Perhaps what they really want is to continue from where they had stopped, not start again with a clean slate, which would take all the fun out of resurrection. How can we recognize a second life if we can’t remember the first? We might as well be a totally newperson (new SIM); wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway (defeats the whole purpose of eternal life).
If memory does not transcend death, something else does: our actions. What we do in life leaves an eternal print in the universe, even if no one remembers it. And that alone should suffice the altruistic soul to fill their life with meaning and purpose. The concept of karma (Sanskrit for “action; effect”)– found in virtually every human culture –is believed to play a role not only in this life, but continues to influence the next. Everything you do now, no matter big or small, will determine the features and qualities of your next life. How you use your free will alters your consciousness the way a photon alters the spin of an electron in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen quantum entanglement experiment.
And if you take the “universe is a simulation” theory into account, it is very likely that your consciousness is not located inside your body at all. Yourphysical existence would be a hologram, an avatar or a voodoo doll of yourreal self (as portrayed in sci-fi movies like Avatar, the Matrix, and the Thirteenth Floor), while your real selfresides at the source (the simulation’s projector). In that case, every action you do in the mirror world will have an instantaneous effect (karma) in the real, invisible world.
These are but speculations based on scientific facts. They range between possible and probable, depending on the depth of the observer’s imagination. But, once again, nothing said above is scientifically definitive. Where we go from here, with our science goggles on, there are two possible futures.
In one future (let’s call it F1), scientists make little to zero progress in the question of consciousness and the afterlife, which means we stay forever stuck in this quantum riddle. F1 is quite probable because we have already reached a point of scientific ignorance where someone like Tyson says, “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” What he really meant to say was “scientists are no under no obligation to make sense to you” … or to themselves. This is a sign that science may have reached the limits of its explanatory powers. But the arrogance that Tyson and many contemporary scientists exhume perhaps tricks them into conflating reality itself with what they observe through their science goggles. Thus, in their eyes, it’s the “universe” that failed to make sense to us, not science!
In the other possible future (F2), scientists make huge leaps in quantum biology and quantum physics, and we learn more about the nature of our consciousness and its relationship to the simulated universe, perhaps get a clearer picture of how the transition from one life to the next actually happens. But until then, and even if we remain stuck in F1, we know enough to recognize that there’s more to the observable world than meets the eye.
I don’t see a future where quantum physics and quantum biology are reduced to obscurity or falsehood, because otherwise the entire credibility of the scientific method will be at stake, and we can then stop relying on it to understand anything. Ruling out the degradation of science leaves us with one direction: tumbling deeper into the rabbit hole (where the “universe” continues to make less sense), which means that ruling out the possibility of an afterlife is an experimental impossibility.
Finally, if you are still in doubt that your consciousness is most likely not a product of your physical being, I will leave you with these words from Richard Dawkins:
“Steve Grand points out that you and I are, ourselves, more like a wave than a permanent thing. He invites us, the reader, to think of an experience from your childhood, something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: You weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does.”
The Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch O.R.) model. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orchestrated_objective_reduction
Biography by Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roger-Penrose
Is Your Brain Really a Computer, or is it a Quantum Orchestra? https://www.huffpost.com/entry/is-your-brain-really-a-co_b_7756700
Lisa Zyga, Quantum no-hiding theorem experimentally confirmed for first time. Source: https://phys.org/news/2011-03-quantum-no-hiding-theorem-experimentally.html
Tyson exhumed that arrogance again when once tweeted: “the universe is blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pains,” to which Norm McDonald aptly replied, “Neil, there is a logic flaw in your little aphorism that seems quite telling. Since you and I are part of the Universe, then we would also be indifferent and uncaring. Perhaps you forgot, Neil, that we are not superior to the Universe but merely a fraction of it.” Tyson’s tweet would have been absolutely true if had used the word “science” instead of “the universe.” But like clergymen, scientists can’t help but pretend to be speaking on behalf of a superior being (gods and universes).