Sean Carroll on the afterlife, life, death, happiness, and our place in the universe

Today chanced upon this video speech by physicist Sean Carroll, on his blog, upon his winning an Emperor Has No Clothes Award, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation — won previously by everyone from Ursula K. Le Guin to Dan Savage to Jerry Coyne to Andy Rooney to Jesse Ventura.

Early on he addresses the popular reports, in books like Proof of Heaven, about life after death. Can there be life after death? No. Why?

  • The mind is the brain
  • The brain is made of atoms
  • We know how atoms work
  • [thus, given everything we know about physics] There’s no way for “you” to persist after death

We know the laws of physics that are relevant to the atoms in your bodies well enough to know that there’s no way for the ‘information’ in your brain to survive death. [Intimidating equation at 9:15]

We don’t know all the laws of physics, of course; physics is not done. But we know there can’t be any new laws of physics that affects the atoms in your brain that we could not have detected by now. So: life after death? Two options:

  1. Some ill-defined metaphysical substance, not subject to the known laws of physics, interacts with the atoms of our brains in ways that have thus far eluded every controlled experiment every performed in the history of science,

  3. People hallucinate when they’re nearly dead.

The most interesting part is about 22 minutes in, where he explains how the arc of the universe, driven by the second law of thermodynamics, results in an intermediate ‘mixing’, i.e. complexity, with consequences that include the existence of life.

So the right answer to the creationists is that, not only is it *allowed*, by the second law of thermodynamics, that complex structures like living beings arose here on Earth, but the reason complex structure like living beings arose here on Earth *is because of* the second law of thermodynamics. We are parasitic upon the increase of entropy in the universe. We are little surfers riding a wave of entropy, and so we will eventually scuttle up on shore, and it will just be empty space forever.

He illustrates with three glasses: first a glass with a layer of cream sitting atop a layer of coffee; the third glass shows them completely mixed (after a time), and the middle glass shows the intermediate state, with the complex intermingling representing the current state of the universe, with high complexity and intermediate entropy.

And he talks about death. Where do you ‘go’ after death? You don’t go anywhere; life is not an energy, or force; it is a chemical reaction. The end of life is like putting out a candle; the energy doesn’t go anywhere – the reaction stops.

The afterlife is a false consolation; heaven is a bad idea. Wisdom from poets and songwriters. Because in heaven, nothing ever happens; it’s boring. Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters; in the last chapter the hero can choose whatever he wants to happen: play golf, have sex, have breakfast. For hundreds of years. He gets bored. Everyone has the option of truly dying. How many take that option? Everyone.

It’s a mistake to think that there’s some way of life that will last forever. Even *happiness* is a bad idea; the nature of life is *movement*; there’s no perfect state of being that will last forever.

What do we have instead?

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser.

We are not about our atoms, we’re about the story of our lives. A story with a beginning, and middle… and an end.

Yes, death is serious, because life matters. Because:

The life we have right now is not a dress-rehearsal; it is the only performance we get to give.

And finally,

The universe can be overwhelming. We are very very small, we are a tiny part of the universe, but we are a remarkable part. We are just collections of atoms, but we are collections of atoms that have attained the ability to think about ourselves, to reflect about the world that we live in, and to write our own stories. Our lives will not last forever, and that is what makes them matter so much.

Some interesting Q&A too.

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