On Lionel Tiger and the afterlife


My colleague Brian Bethune’s probing interview with anthropologist Lionel Tiger, mainly on the belief in an afterlife, is thought-provoking on its own and should also draw many Maclean’s readers to God’s Brain, the new book Tiger has written with Michael McGuire.

Tiger’s beguiling voice in the Q & A, a blend of sagacity and common sense, makes it hard to resist agreeing with his premise. “The idea of an afterlife, for you and for loved ones, is very attractive,” he says. “It seems to me wholly improbable—what’s the evidence?—and yet it works, it just works.”

He theorizes that religions replace the bad idea of death with the good idea of an afterlife, and build their enduring institutions around that welcome substitution. He chides strident secularists for ignoring the fact that this form of belief appears to be natural in the “the great majority” of human beings.

Yet I wonder how natural that way of thinking is, at least in the Western, and particularly English-speaking, imaginative tradition. Besides the Bible, our main sources for any serious pondering of death are Greek myth and literature and, even more directly and powerfully, Shakespeare. From these wellsprings, the perspectives on the beyond that come down to us are the far from the serotonin-elevating heavens of Tiger’s theory.

The Greeks didn’t offer a very reassuring vision of the afterlife. Is there, for instance, a more dispiriting warning about what awaits us than the one Odysseus receives, when he visits Hades, and meets the shade of the hero Achilles, who tells him that he’d rather be a slave on earth than to rule over the dead?

And by far the most famous passage in English literature, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, has etched in the minds of generations the darkest misgivings over what comes next. The hope of the speech is for absolute extinction: Shakespeare makes us shudder at the possibility of an “undisover’d country” that’s more than dreamless sleep.

These unsettling notions are not on the margins of our way of thinking about death; they are at its very heart. If there is a serotonin-boosting consolation in the Greek and Shakespearean traditions, I would argue it’s not about living forever—it’s about pairing off and having kids. Odysseus comes home to wife and son. Shakespeare tells us in a sonnet, “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence/ Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.


On Lionel Tiger and the afterlife

  1. At least one ancient Greek offered a more rigorous treatment than either Homer or Tiger. Aristotle showed in the De Anima that there is an element of the human mind that cannot be material, and hence endures after death.

    This argument was taken up and treated from the viewpoint of modern physics in Barr's Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. As Barr points out, to suggest that there's no evidence for an immaterial aspect of human beings is quite wrong. The evidence, in the form of Godel's Theorems and the Lucas/Penrose argument, points the other way.

    • Tjee, Gaunilon, you're throwing candy around galore. I want to do some reading up. Thanks for the suggestions. Religion is indeed not so easily explained as is done within modern times, in the here and now so to speak. But religion and science must be seen together. Our "eyes" can see through many, many layers, but describe what we see behind the layers is difficult. Very difficult indeed.

      Think about the meaning of perfection, for instance. As an example (and just as an example) we can look at how modern politics is conducted within this framework of seeking perfection. But if perfection would come to exist, life would be over. Although perfection does lay itself bare at times, instantaneously and very fleetingly, it is never to be held onto. We just catch a glimpse of it, to remind us what is so much deeply hidden. Life is practice, practice, practice. And so again today.

    • I have had many conversations with professional scientists who are activist atheists about the requirement of "God" for free will to exist. Surprisingly most of them are quick to reject their own existance as beings rather than consider the alternative.

      • Yes, free will is another interesting one, particularly after physicists were so certain that it had been ruled out in the heady days of Newtonian ascendancy, until QM emerged on the scene. Score one for the philosophers/theologians.

        I'm not sure that "God" is a requirement, but it does seem that an immaterial component (and hence a non-perishable component) to the human mind is.

        It's odd that people who style themselves "free-thinkers" would be so willing to abandon the whole concept of "free will" in order to maintain the notion that the human mind is strictly material. It's even more odd when they start tossing out the whole concept of "reason" in order to evade the Lucas/Penrose argument.

        • I have not read Tiger's book, but Ihave read the interview. What he is talking about is more complex than the interview lets on.

          I agree that "God" is not a requirement, if one comes to a better understanding of what is meant by God. If God is merely understood as a human likeness supreme, I would say we have that backwards; God is personified by the symbolic human likeness supreme. In other words, as long as the workings of symbolism doesn't get confused, the meaning of God could be rescued.

        • Could you explain a little bit what the Lucas?Penrose argument is about.

          • Godel's Theorems state that in every formally consistent system dealing with logic and arithmetic there is at least one statement whose truth cannot be determined within the formalism of the system and that such a statement ("T") can be found and decided (he also showed the method by which this is done). The Lucas/Penrose argument develops this point by considering the human mind – if the mind is merely a computer (i.e. a material system) then its formalism is either consistent or not. If consistent then Godel's Theorem applies, and we can find "T" and establish its veracity according to Godel's theorem…. which would contradict the premise. Hence the human mind must either (a) be an inconsistent system or (b) not be a solely material system.

            At that last statement, many atheists familiar with this topic will insist on (a). The problem is that in an inconsistent system it is possible to both prove and disprove anything within the formalism of the system, so there is no possible way to show that some statements are "true" while others are "false". Reason, in other words, is impossible. Pushed into this corner, atheist "rationalists" familiar with the topic often decide that yes, they are inherently irrational and nothing can be known. Nothing. Needless to say, this is not consistent with any kind of rational inquiry, let alone science.

          • I wonder how energy fits in their equation of a material system. Energy can be measured and will manifest itself in one form or the other but it is not material and is only observable by its effect on material. It is also as consistent as far as we can understand it, much like the human mind.

          • Yes, I think the meaning of energy comes into play as well, but so must the understanding of light be all inclusive. We, as humans, do not stand in any way, shape or form, outside of those tensions (for lack of better word).

            I believe the main mistake leading to misunderstandings is the fact that, as humans, we have come to believe that we stand outside, or apart from. That is not true, of course.

          • Thanks G.

            "Penrose notes that the present home of computing lies more in the tangible world of classical mechanics than in the imponderable realm of quantum mechanics. "

            Yes, I do believe that our mind (interaction of body and brain) works in accordance with QM, and computers do not, therefore computers would not find religion, for instance.

            Tiger also talks about what the aspect of future may mean in regards to religion and he then points to the aspect of the possibility of an afterlife to sooth the masses. That is understandable in many regards. Our ordinary lives cannot be taken up by wondering about deeper issues all the time, and so many people will leave these questions to be answered by religious leaders or for scientific leaders. Fine.

            But the meaning of history and future digs much deeper into our human lives than we may be familiar with. I believe we must also come to a much better understanding of what the definition of present stands for, because I believe it is within the meaning of "present' where we may find the human connection to QM.

          • Gaunilon, I woke up this morning having this example on my mind:

            Trying to explain Godel's theory in human terms without all of the mathematics attached, but considered from the way our thought processes in general fall under the Godel theorum, (either consistency or completeness but not both), then take the meaning of tolerance, for instance.

            If one seeks completeness within the meaning of tolerance, then consistency does not exist. But if one seeks consistency, then completeness does not exist. When one tries to be complete about being tolerant, than being tolerant toward the intolerant would make it inconsistent, yet if one would reach for constistency regarding the meaning of tolerance then the meaning would become incomplete because being tolerant for intolerance would make the tolerance half baked, wouuld it not?

            So outside of mathematical construction, the Godel incompleteness theorum would apply equally, methinks. The paradoxial stand of completeness versus inconsistency and vice versa, of incompleteness versur consistency is very real in our daily lives as well.

          • Actually, one could apply this to a lot of things happening in our human lives. Think about the incompleteness versus consistency or vice versa when applying it to our economic picture. The economic theories might want to be complete but inconsistency will pop up, and when being consistent, the incompleteness pops up.

            In the long about way, this all does relate back to religion in a sense because there is much within our human lives which we cannot fully comprehend, hence the belief in a higher power. Such higher power does not have to be a God perse, but that a higher power exists is not only believable but is indeed very real.

            BTW, I listend to Tiger's interview on the current, and I now think that his explanation about religion is a bit too simplistic. He has some interesting points to highlight, but brings things down too much in simple explanations for my liking, therefore in turn not coming to correct conclusions.

  2. I have had many conversations with professional scientists who are activist atheists about the requirement of "God" for free will to exist. Surprisingly most of them are quick to reject their own existance as beings rather than consider the alternative.

  3. John Geddes, thank you for highlighting Lionel Tiger's interview and book. I may have missed it otherwise. I, like many I'm sure, have been struggling to determine just what my beliefs are. I have resisted the athiest label because I know I am spiritual. Reading about Tiger has made me realize why I refuse to let go of believing in some things – because the beliefs I hang on to are related to the seretonin that they release in my brain. A scientific explanation that fits so nicely.

    I am going to read Tiger's books. Based on this article and Bethune's interview, I may have found a way to relieve my dissonance.

    • "Reading about Tiger has made me realize why I refuse to let go of believing in some things – because the beliefs I hang on to are related to the seretonin that they release in my brain. "

      Or, possibly, because they are true.

  4. John Geddes, where have you been? To say that there is no evidence for an afterlife beyond the Bible suggests that you have been shutting yourself off from the world. There is an abundance of evidence for the afterlife. Let me recommend Dr. Jeffrey Long's recent book, "Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of the Near-Death Experience" to begin with. However, the NDE is only one phenomenon that presents evidence for life after death. There has been credible research for well over 100 years in the area of mediumship which presents evidence that goes beyond the reasonable doubt standard of criminal law. Sure, the pseudoskeptics will tell you it is all bunk and give you invalid reasons why people like Long are wrong, but for anyone who really studies it the evidence is there. Check out http://www.aspsi.org/feat/life_after/tymn/_life_a

  5. So, Geddes, having been such a defender of medicare when Danny Williams did everything he could to avoid it, and you attempted to discredit Williams, perhaps you might comment on this:

    "Last Friday, Jean-Guy Pitre, 65, died after waiting six months for surgery to fix a blocked aorta. A lack of beds in the intensive care unit delayed his operation."

    I guess in Canada, people like Danny Williams can get their heart surgery and people like Pitre are not so lucky.

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