Sean Carroll and the Afterlife

A while back, a reader of my blog asked me to respond to the following video in which Sean Carroll discusses why he doesn't believe in the afterlife:

Sean Carroll On Death And The Afterlife

[Please note that, as a matter of policy I will not review or respond to ideas that are encapsulated in videos, unless there is a text transcript.  I made an exception for this particular person, as a very special favor which is not to be repeated...]

I replied more or less as follows:

Dear _____,

I'm familiar with Sean Carroll's arguments and while I understand that they may be intimidating, he's leaving out something pretty important here.  Namely God.

Of course Carroll is an atheist and so he doesn't believe in God.  But we Christians do think there is evidence for God and miracles from e.g. the Resurrection of Jesus.  Even Carroll admits that sufficiently powerful evidence could change the conclusion that QFT is a complete description of nature.  He just hasn't yet understood that that this evidence does in fact exist, in the form of the historical documentary evidence for miracles.  This of course requires us to believe that, contrary to what Carroll said, sometimes things outside of our current understanding of physics do affect the human world.  But that's not as implausible as he makes out, since it often happens in Science that a theory is very accurate in certain circumstances, except in rare situations where it completely fails due to interaction with new kinds of things.  If the new thing was just new kinds of QFT particles, then it couldn't really work (for all the reasons Carroll mentioned), but if it is something like God, that would not fall under the purview of QFT!

Now while Carroll has defended his Atheism elsewhere, this particular debate was about life after death, not Atheism.  For the purposes of this debate, he's basically just assuming that Materialism is true, and that therefore the only way there could be life after death is if the information in our brain was preserved by some physical mechanism.

Now I actually agree with him that it is very implausible, if Materialism is true, for there to be any physical mechanism which preserves our mind after death!  So nothing he said bothers me.  Because I don't think that the reason we will live forever is because we have some magical soul-particles in our brain (not yet discovered in the laboratory) which happen to have the property of being immortal.

Instead I think the reason we will live forever is that God loves us and that he's promised to do it.  So at the end of time, when Jesus comes back, God will raise us from the dead in new physical bodies, and if that violates the current laws of physics that's okay by him.  (If he wants to copy our information into some other format to keep us self-aware in between the time of our death and Resurrection, he can do that too!  The New Testament suggests that probably something like this is the case, but it puts a lot more emphasis on the Resurrection of our bodies when Jesus returns.)

I also think that Carroll is more confident than he should be that the Laws of Physics can explain why physical systems are conscious.  The so called "Hard Problem of Consciousness" is an extremely deep philosophical puzzle, and even many atheistic philosophers (like David Chalmers or Thomas Nagel) think that there is a mystery here which is very hard to explain on a purely reductionistic materialistic worldview.  While this is a very interesting topic (which suggests that at some level that Materialism may be wrong about some deeply important things), I think it is hard to really prove for sure that this would imply anything about life after death.  Traditionally, many theistic philosophers have tried to prove the Immortality of the Soul through philosophical reasoning, based on facts about the supposed immateriality of the mind, but the Philosophy of Mind is sufficiently confusing I don't think this is the best way forward.

I would instead focus on the fact that God has promised, in the Bible, to raise human beings from the dead and made an advance demonstration of this with Jesus.  Our confidence that he keeps his promises (a.k.a. "faith") is based primarily on our relationship with him and not based on the kinds of pro and con arguments which were made in this debate.  I think our confidence that we will live forever is going to be proportional to our love and knowledge of God, so if you find yourself having difficulty believing in Heaven, the solution is not to directly try to believe in that harder (in isolation from other things) but rather to meditate further on your relationship with Jesus, and then the afterlife issue will straighten itself out automatically.  That's not to say that what we believe about the afterlife isn't important, but only that it follows from a correct understanding of who God is.


About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
This entry was posted in Metaphysics, Reviews, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Sean Carroll and the Afterlife

  1. Mactoul says:

    That QFT is not a complete description of nature should be self-evident if one cares to ponder what physics is. It has nothing to do with God but has to do with consideration of living things esp sentient living things which are animals.

    This lesson, what physics is, seems very difficult for modern physicists to appreciate. But an outsider can easily understand that physics applies only to inanimate matter i.e. what used to be called the Mineral Kingdom.
    And even there, the inanimate matter may contain qualitative aspects that the laws of physics do not cover.
    So, physics is study of the quantitative aspects of inanimate matter.

    Physicists deride this view by invoking vitalism bogie without refuting it. Vitalism is not dead. For a excellent late 20C exposition of vitalism, one can read E. F. Schumacher's Guide for the Perplexed.

  2. Calhoun says:

    Hi Aron.
    A bit off-topic but don't you find Carroll's own solution plausible?. What he calls poetic naturalism,any alleged immaterial aspects or irreducible first person aspects of reality are just a way to describe or talk about material reality .


  3. Aron Wall says:

    How is that a solution? It sounds more like simply a declaration that there is no problem. If unpoetic Naturalism can't explain why we are conscious, then "poetic Naturalism" surely can't explain it either, because it doesn't add any metaphysical data to unpoetic Naturalism! (Does anyone even identify as an unpoetic Naturalist anyway? That seems like a bit of a strawman.) As Carroll says:

    A poetic naturalist will deny that notions like “right and wrong,” “purpose and duty,” or “beauty and ugliness” are part of the fundamental architecture of the world.

    But if it is fundamentally true that nothing means anything, our brains also do not "mean" anything. Thus we would not even have the experiences of right and wrong, etc. But we do. As I argued here, it does not seem to be possible to logically deduce the existence of conscious experience from the Laws of Physics alone. This does not necessarily mean that Cartesian Dualism is right, but it does mean that the Laws of Physics do not give a complete description of reality.

  4. Rodolfo says:

    Carrol's refutation of everything out of ordinary has been the same over the year: "there's no soul particle". He repeated this arguments many times during various situation and this argument is very hard to argue against if somebody has no training in both physics and theology (a.k.a. most people).

    I had a huge admiration for him ( his book was my first serious contact with GR). However, I'm starting to become a little uncomfortable with his positions. :/

  5. Aron Wall says:

    I also have his book on GR in my office! (Although for me it's just one of my reference texts; I learned GR originally from John Baez's web tutorial.) Also I've briefly met him a couple times, and he seems like a nice guy.

    So go ahead and keep on admiring him for his achievements in thinking about deep physics stuff, and popularizing it to a broad audience. I don't want to live in a society where, once you end up opposing somebody for being wrong on an important issue, you aren't allowed to respect them for the good stuff they've done anymore.

  6. Calhoun says:

    Aron Wall says:
    ..... it does not seem to be possible to logically deduce the existence of conscious experience from the Laws of Physics alone....

    I am with you on this but Carroll's main argument is that Laws of physics underlying everyday life have all been discovered. and it doesn't contain anything spiritual,anything like that should be detectable by science.
    in Carroll's view Consciousness,Intentionality and rationality are Weakly emergent high level phenomenon.

    Although I don't see how can consciousness just emerge in the sense of weak emergence given that it seems it is not deducible even in principle .if anything they seem to be cases of Strong emergence

    Does anyone even identify as an unpoetic Naturalist anyway?
    The Eliminators seems pretty unpoetic _

  7. Dom says:

    "I am with you on this but Carroll's main argument is that Laws of physics underlying everyday life have all been discovered. and it doesn't contain anything spiritual,anything like that should be detectable by science."

    If we did discover something in physics that broadly connected to supposedly spiritual things, a naturalist could claim that all supposedly supernatural stuff was just reducible to observable physical laws, and thus, not supernatural.

  8. Johannes says:

    "(If he wants to copy our information into some other format to keep us self-aware in between the time of our death and Resurrection, he can do that too! The New Testament suggests that probably something like this is the case, but it puts a lot more emphasis on the Resurrection of our bodies when Jesus returns.)"

    Actually, the NT strongly supports, not just suggests, the notion that our souls subsist between the times of our death and of the general resurrection, by the same line of reasoning that St. Paul uses to support the notion of the resurrection of the dead:

    "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised. [...] For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised." (1 Cor 15:13,16)

    The implicit premise in this reasoning is that Jesus has a true human nature just like ours, except for sin. Therefore, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, so will we, or conversely in St. Paul's terms, if we will not be raised from the dead, neither has Jesus. Applying this line of reasoning to the immortality of the soul, we can state from 1 Cor 15:13:

    "But if our souls do not subsist between the times of our death and of the general resurrection, neither has Christ's soul subsisted between the times of his death and of his Resurrection."

    OTOH, we positively know that Jesus' soul subsisted between his death and Resurrection:

    "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison," (1 Peter 3:18-19)

    Therefore our souls subsist between our death and the general resurrection.

  9. Andy Jones says:

    It's odd to me that physicists can suggest infinite universes to explain a finely tuned universe, where every conceivable reality is playing out somewhere (the latest Avengers movie and every episode of Friends, for example) or that our own universe may be infinite with infinite versions of myself in it, but God or the afterlife is crazy talk! Could our heavenly selves be in one of these places? Are our entire brains linked through some sort of quantum entanglement to some other far away brain? Is heaven a far away place in this universe or right next to us in an undetectable parallel universe?

    Philosophically, the idea that the entire universe was created (or created itself) for absolutely no reason whatsoever seems absurd to me. Thanks Universe, but what a waste! 17.8 billion years, so one measly species can look up briefly and think "neato", only to die again a split cosmic second later? An atheist would say I'm looking for meaning where there is none, but if there's no meaning, why wake up tomorrow?
    Physics has come a long way answering the "how" of everything but it denies the "why", which seems like the more important question.

  10. Mactoul says:

    As discussed by Fr Stanley Jaki, the physicists lost the restraint imposed by reality when adopting anti-realist interpretations of quantum mechanics, they gleefully begun to create and destroy matter theoretically.
    The sharp gap between being and non-being is thus blurred and what started as a theft of a virtual particle pair gets easily magnified into creation of whole universes out of nothing.

    What is the actual value of this physics? Does the pronouncements of cosmology and string theory have any validity or solidity whatsoever? Any connection with reality? Or is it all just a game?

  11. Hamid says:

    There seems to be a difficulty of connections here. Let us say that someone believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The question is whether he is connected with God in this way as it might be his or her claim. On the other hand, the physicist might also claim that the way to be connected is thru the physicist's way although he might not even express that he possibly believes in God too! Of course, the modern skeptics questioning spiritualism or spiritism might also claim that the problem of consciousness has nothing to do with afterlife not to mention any further matters with resurrection. But there is a question that sociology, psychology or neurology cannot answer properly.
    Suppose that a scientist experiences severe a nervous break down. How is he supposed to come back and reappear in the society as a scientist as he used to be? Can he again achieve the same level of consciousness as he used to have? He is definitely the same person, but he has also experienced something besides being a scientist and perhaps even because of it which is not to his desire either. Thus, if one sets aside the notion of resurrection does one not miss something even within one's life as the moments get passed by in days and nights and years and different possibilities (and perhaps even neural psychiatric difficulties of consciousness not to mention death itself) start to occur?
    Now, in the middle of all these scientific and religious explorations imagine what happens if someone suddenly claimed that he is the Jesus Christ resurrected. The question is that the same events can not possibly occur as they occurred for Jesus Christ almost 2000 years ago. But is it an intelligent question to ask whether this person is connected with God too as the physicist also might unconscientiously claim just as the rulers such as kings or queens or presidents or more generally the governments also wish to somehow claim that they too are most likely connected and not the others. In other words, isn't there such a claim that we and not the others are only connected? And how is one supposed to encounter such a claim?

  12. Cedric Brown says:

    What if Carroll is living in a computer simulation and the regularities of "nature" that he observes are simply the choice of the programmer rather than essential features of reality? Since he is a materialist, he would have to concede the possibility. He would also have to concede the possibility that the programmer might choose to spice things up by incorporating the odd miracle into the simulation.

    So even from the perspective of a materialist, Carroll would have to be open to the possibility of miracles. This is why the attempt to rule out miracles on the grounds of prior improbability is so dubious.

    We should study the regularity of nature in order to find out what nature is like when it is behaving in a regular fashion, not to prove that deviations from regularity are impossible in principle or even particularly improbable.

    Once we encounter something like the Resurrection of Christ, we understand that there is far more to reality than the material world.

  13. Mactoul says:

    Is it really known that the second law of thermodynamics holds for animals? Is there some experimental support?. Animals have mental images and how could entropy of a mental image be computed or even defined?

  14. Zhenghu Maolong says:

    What if the laws of nature are soul-permitting in a naturalistic way? Paul Davies has proposed something like that in his paper:

    (The paper proposes life based on information but it could be related to afterlife if it is possible)

    Or as Roger Penrose suggests, that must be there other mysterious laws of nature that allow the existence of consciousness and soul, if we accept that consciousness is highly related to it or to an afterlife of any sort, could it be the possibility that the soul still respects the naturalistic behavior of the universe as Carroll Demands?

  15. Hamid says:

    وَالسَّلَامُ عَلَيَّ يَوْمَ وُلِدتُّ وَيَوْمَ أَمُوتُ وَيَوْمَ أُبْعَثُ حَيًّا ﴿٣٣﴾ ذَٰلِكَ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ ۚ قَوْلَ الْحَقِّ الَّذِي فِيهِ يَمْتَرُونَ ﴿٣٤﴾. سوره مبارکه آل عمران

    Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive! (33) Such was Jesus, son of Mary: (this is) a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. (Al Emran sura, Quran)

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