Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Heaven and Science
Without doubt, reports of near death recollections have excited folks looking for a glimpse of a afterlife for the human soul. The idea of the immortal soul is imbedded deeply in the mythos of our culture and is accepted by most. It has been tied up with a wide range of religious teachings that contributed nothing to our understanding. The soul is the living active memory of our lives. We can comprehend that idea.
Today, we can comprehend the idea that such a materially defined soul could be mapped onto a physical device to provide a form of immortality or at least longevity for the soul.
It is not a big leap from that idea to taking on the challenge and creating that capacity ourselves. There are plenty of reasons that prohibit us from doing it now, but they are exactly the type of difficulties that science tackles and overcomes.
The creditable idea is that science will allow us to preserve the human soul as defined above. It is creditable that living human beings will one day be able to automatically record their lives.
I can take this further for if you wish to go back and read my appropriate posts you will discover that I have conjectured that mankind has already completed techno development back before the end of the ice age whose end they triggered. They had transitioned into space adapted humanity with long lives and then exited to space habitats using large magnetic exclusion ships. After the Earth settled down, they recolonized Earth with a number of settler populations whose lives were naturally short. We are the descendents.
It makes complete sense to record those lives and restore them to donors if possible. No data is ever lost and it becomes possible to attract volunteers to the task at hand which happens to be terraforming the Earth to accept huge populations. This job is well underway. It is humanities primary mission. Of course, it would be better to not tell us anything.
All of a sudden heaven merely becomes a real place in which we resume our lives as space adapted humans, perhaps until we take another tour of duty.
My point is that I can construct a paradigm for heaven and God that once again conforms rather nicely to our only sources, while stripping out the overlay of mystery. It certainly were science is taking us and the only oddity is that we passed this way before.
Can Science Explain Heaven?
Scientists try to explain near-death experiences.
By Lisa Miller | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Mar 26, 2010
There are those who believe that science will eventually explain everything—including our enduring belief in heaven. The thesis here is very simple: heaven is not a real place, or even a process or a supernatural event. It's something that happens in your brain as you die.
I first encountered this idea as I was researching my new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. I was having lunch with my friend and colleague Christopher Dickey, who told me that his father, the writer James Dickey, had a fantasy of heaven in which all of his closest friends were sitting around a swimming pool, chatting. "There was nothing special about the pool itself," wrote Chris in Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son. "Nobody walked on the water. And he never told me who the friends were ... But what he took away from the dream was a sense of contentment, of being at ease with himself and the world, as if he had gotten a preview of heaven. He called that place 'The Happy Swimming Pool.' " Chris believes that everything we think we know about heaven happens in the moments before death. After that, there's nothing.
Science cannot definitively proof or disprove Chris's theory, but some scientists are willing to take guesses. And these guesses are based, in part, on a growing body of research around near-death experience (NDE). According to a 2000 article in The Lancet, between 9 and 18 percent of people who have been demonstrably near death report having had such an experience. And surveys of NDE accounts show great similarities in the details. People who have had NDEs describe—like some religious visionaries—a tunnel, a light, a gate, or a door, a sense of being out of the body, meeting people they know or have heard about, finding themselves in the presence of God, and then returning, changed.
Andrew Newberg is an associate professor in the radiology department at the
who has made his reputation studying the brain scans of religious people (nuns and monks) who have ecstatic experiences as they meditate. He believes the "tunnel" and "light" phenomena can be explained easily. As your eyesight fades, you lose the peripheral areas first, he hypothesizes. "That's why you'd have a tunnel sensation." If you see a bright light, that could be the central part of the visual system shutting down last. University of Pennsylvania
Newberg puts forward the following scenario, which, he emphasizes, is guesswork. When people die, two parts of the brain, which usually work in opposition to each other, act cooperatively. The sympathetic nervous system—a web of nerves and neurons running through the spinal cord and spread to virtually every organ in the body—is responsible for arousal and excitement. It gets you ready for action. The parasympathetic system—with which the sympathetic system is entwined—calms you down and rejuvenates you. In life, the turning on of one system prompts the shutting down of the other. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in when a car cuts you off on the highway; the parasympathetic system is in charge as you're falling asleep. But in the brains of people reporting mystical experiences—and, perhaps, in death—both systems are fully "on," giving a person the sensation both of slowing down, being "out of body," and of seeing things vividly, including memories of important people and past events. Does Newberg believe, then, that visions of heaven are merely chemical-neurological events? He laughs nervously. "I don't know." He laughs again. "It's, um … I don't think we have enough evidence to say."
Since at least the 1980s, scientists have theorized that NDEs occur as a kind of physiological self-defense mechanism. In order to guard against damage during trauma, the brain releases protective chemicals that also happen to trigger intense hallucinations. This theory gained traction after scientists realized that virtually all the features of an NDE—a sense of moving through a tunnel, and "out of body" feeling, spiritual awe, visual hallucinations, and intense memories—can be reproduced with a stiff dose of ketamine, a horse tranquilizer frequently used as a party drug. In 2000, a psychiatrist named Karl Jansen wrote a book, Ketamine: Dreams and Realities, in which he interviewed a number of recreational users. One of them, who called himself K.U., describes one of his drug trips this way: "I came out into a golden Light. I rose into the Light and found myself having an unspoken interchange with the Light, which I believed to be God." Dante said it better, but the vision is astonishingly the same.
Adapted from the forthcoming book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlifeby Lisa Miller. To be published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright ©2010 by Lisa Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with the author.