Michael Shermer Stares Down the Grim Reaper in Latest Book

As a long-time atheist, I’ve made my peace with my eventual death. More or less. I mean, I want to delay death as long as feasible, given a reasonable quality of life, but it isn’t something that preoccupies my thoughts. Still, I found myself suppressing a strange sense of dread, at times, while reading Michael Shermer’s new book, Heavens on Earth (Henry Holt, 2018). Death sucks—there’s no getting around that.

But how much of a role does fear of death play in people’s lives? I was not familiar with “Terror Management Theory,” which holds, relates Shermer, that “awareness of one’s mortality focuses the mind to produce positive emotions (and creations) to avoid the terror that comes from confronting one’s death” (14—numbers indicate pages). “Thus, we create and invent, build and construct, write and sing, perform and compete, to attenuate the terror of contemplating our own mortality,” holds this theory (15).

Shermer is not convinced by this. After all (goes one of his replies), isn’t it more plausible that terror of death would cause people to simply give up?

Still, I get the sense that the desire to leave a legacy, as Shermer describes (14), as a means to in some sense survive beyond one’s death, plays a large role in most people’s lives. I’ve often thought, as I do my work and raise my son, that it plays a role in mine.

Is Shermer offering but a comforting illusion that we’re driven my something more fundamental than a terror of death? I think not. If all we have going for us is a desire not to die, then, paradoxically, we’d just as well get it over with and end the existential dread. The passion to live, to enjoy ourselves with loved ones, to achieve our goals, to build a better world (and to have sex, Shermer reminds us—17) is a positive striving, not just the negation of death. Anyway, much in Terror Management Theory is speculative and unsupported by evidence, Shermer notes.

Still, death is always there, more or less clearly in the background, and no doubt it contributes a certain urgency to our days. (Shermer is on board with this—see 21 and following.)

Shermer begins his book by pointing out how many people, especially in the United States, believe in life after death. He immediately points to the dark side of such belief—few of us can forget the images of the crumbling Twin Towers. He reminds us that the hijackers behind that atrocity believed they would enter “the gardens of paradise” as their reward (4).

Then Shermer discusses people’s reactions to death, which are not typically rooted in terror. Instead, people approaching death—including people on death row—tend to express love for others.

One interesting observation of Shermer’s first chapter (“A Lofty Thought”) is that we cannot really think of ourselves as dead. Shermer quotes Freud: When we try to “imagine our own deaths . . . we find that we survive ourselves as spectators” (12). For once Freud is right.

In his second chapter (“What Dreams May Come”), Shermer discusses how people reach a belief in immortality. Young children, it turns out, have a hard time understanding death, and as a consequence they often imagine that the dead “really” are alive in some sense and that they might come back to life (37). We seem primed to believe in life after death; “belief in a psychological or spiritual afterlife is natural and intuitive” (38). And of course religions often reinforce such belief (39).

Here is a fascinating finding: One study finds that children taught about the facts of death are less likely “to express a fear of dying” (39). This suggests a point that I often have contemplated: Religion largely arises as a coping mechanism for death, and yet it often seems to reduce people’s ability to cope. Why? I suspect it’s because the certainty of death is easier to handle than the ephemeral (and conditional) promises of an afterlife.

In “Heavens Above,” his third chapter, Shermer reviews major religious beliefs about the afterlife. He points out that the shadowy world of the dead in early Jewish thought is nothing like the Heaven and Hell that we are familiar with today. The idea of Heaven evolved from a projected earthly utopia, where people’s bodies regenerated, to something supernatural, and from something open to a select few to something potentially open to all. And Hell has obvious benefits as a motivational stick.

Moving to philosophy, what should we make of Descartes’s dualism and the fact that people seem to presume that dualism is true? Paul Bloom thinks people are “natural-born dualists,” Shermer reviews (71). What is the evidence for that? Consider one of Bloom’s experiments, in which researchers told children a tale about a human brain transplanted into a pig. The kids thought “the animal will still act like a pig, with the same personality and memories of a pig, only smarter” (72). Only a dualistic view, with the assumption that the mind and the brain are separable, seems to explains that. (Not having read the original study, though, I wonder if the story was leading in any way.)

Shermer goes on to discuss Deepak Chopra’s so-called “mind-monism”; I confess that Shermer has a much greater tolerance for entertaining Chopra’s nonsense than I do. (Chopra serves as Shermer’s foil, although the two are friendly.)

As a side note, Shermer reviews some of the evidence showing the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation, which Chopra also endorses (79–81). This is something I’d never taken seriously, but, given the demonstrated benefits, it’s something I intend to explore. As Shermer points out (as does Sam Harris and others), one can enjoy the benefits of meditation without believing metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

Shermer’s chapters on alleged “Evidence for the Afterlife” again offer a skeptical view (of course). I enjoyed Shermer’s accounts of how, on different occasions, he imagined he was abducted by aliens, hallucinated (he says not what), and felt like he’d left his body, due to “extreme fatigue” while bicycling, a sensory deprivation tank, and a specialized electromagnetic field generator (107). Obviously the mind can play tricks.

I was shocked to read that at least one credentialed “scientist” at a real (and tax funded) university published findings in the current century “proving” that psychics can talk to the dead (111). Had that clown never heard of James Randi?

As I was reading Shermer’s Chapter 7 (“Soul Stuff”), it occurred to me that it’s a good thing that California (Shermer’s home state) has legalized marijuana, because this is some trippy stuff. Shermer even offers a thought experiment of walking in on himself having sex with his wife (126–127). Shermer raises some excellent questions about what it means to be a person, and he even begins to offer a few answers.

As for the possibility of duplicating a person’s mind, this seems impossible. Shermer notes, “There are around 85 billion neurons in a human brain, each with about a thousand synaptic links, for a total of 100 trillion connections” (127). And, as Shermer continues, our neurons and synaptic links reflect only part of the complexity of the brain.

Shermer is a little confusing regarding the problem of personal identity. If it were possible to duplicate a person’s mind and body in the far future, he wonders, then when the new person gained consciousness would that really be “similar to the way I wake up each morning?” Shermer answers himself, “I don’t think so” (129). But why not?

If the duplication were truly perfect, the new person would simply assume the perspective of the old. Of course if the duplication were not perfect—and how could it be?—then the new person might have the experience of remembering to be someone else before, and now living as someone new. So I think the identity problem boils down to the duplication problem. (Of course it is impossible to duplicate long-dead people, as Shermer recognizes—bizarrely, some people think this is eventually possible—but that’s a different problem from duplicating a living person’s mind.)

Chapter 8 is a delightful romp through the personalities, science, and implausible aspirations of those seeking immortality through science. Of course I’d heard of Ray Kurzweil, but I was unfamiliar with most of what Shermer presents about “the cryonicists, extropians, transhumanists, Omega Point theorists, singularitarians, and mind uploaders” (131, emphasis omitted). Shermer does think it’s realistic to perhaps double the human lifespan with advancing medicine (137).

One company, 21st Century Medicine of California, truly has made remarkable progress in preserving an animal’s brain (see 145–151). The problem is that the brains are preserved in such a way that they can almost certainly never be brought back to life. So what do you do with the brains, even assuming the process can be successfully used with human brains? Somehow digitize them and then manufacture a new brain with the same contents? Run their contents as conscious computer simulations? Good luck with that! I think Shermer is right: Whatever resulted, assuming yours was the brain so preserved, would no longer be you.

Here’s my read on this. Beyond the modest goal of incrementally increasing human lifespans, the quest for immortality through science offers pie in the sky. To my mind, the real problem is that we might blow ourselves back to the Dark Ages or get wiped out by a cosmic disaster. Good luck living forever amidst the Zombie Apocalypse.

What we really can accomplish with existing technology (as Robert Zubrin has convinced me) is to colonize Mars (and beyond). That is, we can get the human race into multiple baskets and ensure that it won’t die out altogether. My existential fear is not that I’ll die—I’ve accepted that—but that the entire human race will die. How about we address that problem? (Shermer discusses this possibility later in his book; see 235–237).

In Part III (chapters nine and ten), Shermer takes a sometimes humorous, often ominous look at utopian movements. He examines extensive evidence showing that people tend to be pessimistic rather than optimistic—even though, objectively, we are living in the best period on net for human well-being—and they tend to think that things are getting worse. If things are in decline, then at some point things must have been better, perfect even. And surely there is a way to reverse the decline and reach a new golden age to mirror the glorious beginning age.

Shermer reviews the literature and manifestations of various utopian movements, including the Unabomber’s anti-technology screed (198–199) and the mass-slaughter resulting from Communism. But far and away the best developed section here is Shermer’s terrifying review of the rise of racist ideologies in the 1800s, leading today to the so-called alt-right. The general idea is that society has fallen from a state of “racial purity” and can only be restored by reestablishing the same. The alt-right is explicitly hostile to the classical liberal ideals of free markets and individual liberty, Shermer notes (212). The book is worth buying, reading, and giving to friends if only for this section.

Finally, in his last section, Shermer seeks to make sense of mortality for realists who find hope neither in a supernatural afterlife nor in some technological salvation.

Shermer first addresses the question of why we die in the first place. Surprisingly (to me), not all animals seem to age; a few sorts of creatures can live hundreds of years (225). But people do die, and Shermer explores the scientific theories that seek to explain why.

In his closing chapter, Shermer discusses how people can find meaning in an indifferent universe. He offers a generally inspiring discussion that I leave the reader to discover. He missteps, to my mind, mainly in relating the “purpose” of a living thing—“to survive, reproduce, and flourish”—to the “purpose” of inanimate things such as stars and rivers (245); this blows the concept beyond sense. Yet I love this pithy summary of the basis of meaning: “Purpose is in our nature” (245).

In his book, Shermer seeks to convince us that we can neither live forever nor achieve a utopian heaven on earth. Yet the very existence of the book demonstrates that a person can achieve a sort of immortality and eke out a patch of heaven—partly through his works.

Image: Gage Skidmore