Afterlife As An Afterthought

Last night, I attended a debate sponsored by the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism or more colloquially, “Jew U”) ostensibly on the question “Is There An Afterlife?”; I style it a “debate” although it was more of a moderated conversation. I went because two of the four debaters were Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Pitted against these two atheist celebrities were two rabbis – David Wolpe of Temple Sinai, the very impressive edifice in Westwood near Beverly Hills, who seems to be the rough equivalent of Rick Warren in Jewish circles; and Bradley Shavit Artson of Jew U, a leader in rabbinical training and also something of a notable personage in his own right.

First a word about the format, which I thought was excellent. The debate was before a packed house in the Wadsworth Theater near UCLA. All four panelists and the moderator were seated in wide, comfortable chairs; the chairs were arranged in a gentle arc. The format did a lot to render the format of the event clearly along the lines of a conversation. The moderator asked questions pointed at each panelist to lead to debate, and the panelists spoke for about five minutes each in response to the questions; they interacted with one another, again in about five-minute bursts. They were staggered together: from left to right, we had the moderator, Hitchens, Wolpe , Harris, and Artson. Hitchens and Wolpe, and to a lesser extent Harris, were guilty of “Crossfire”-like interruptions, although it was nearly half an hour into the discussion before the panelists interacted with one another. The moderator wisely did not try to control these outbursts because they produced productive conflict. There seemed to be something of a rule agreed upon in advance by which the panelists referred to one another by their first names, which lent an air of informality to the structured discussion.

This is the sort of discussion that I enjoy best, and kudos to the moderator and sponsors of the event for setting it up that way and to the panelists for making it work. It allowed each panelist to fully articulate themselves, served as an example of respectful disagreement, and kept the tone of the interactions pleasant. And after a time, it became clear through the conversations that though there were disagreements, the panelists all knew one another – if only from prior debates – and had genuine respect and esteem for each other. The format toned down, although did not eliminate, the adversarial nature of the debate; the rabbis from time to time made references to their believing that they were losing the debate, although it was far from clear to me that they actually were. Certainly both sides had plentiful support in the audience, judging by the applause coming after each of the panelists’ various punchlines.

Because punches were thrown; the panelists were in fact sparring despite the gentility of the format. This was where I had something of a problem with the panel, because very few of their remarks were directed right at the subject of the debate. All four admitted in their opening statements that the answer to the question of the existence of an afterlife was unknown and unknowable. Of course, had the discussion been allowed to end there, it would have been a rather short debate, and they were all committed to representing their sides well, giving the audience its money’s worth, and offering areas of conflict. Now, it would be wrong to say that the discussion was irrelevant to the topic of an afterlife, but there was very little discussion of whether that afterlife was real or not.

Hitchens’ position was that belief in the afterlife was one of the several enticements offered by religion and particularly monotheistic religion, and therefore it was a bad thing. Religion traps the mind and the psyche, he argued, and ultimately imprisons its adherents into lives of unhappiness and susceptibility to engaging in cruel and evil acts. Worse, there is no reason whatsoever to believe in any of its promises. Even if it were true that there is a God, there is no reason to think that God created humans to survive death, or it might be the case that there is an afterlife with no God. But no one knows about the afterlife and no one can, because the only way to gather any information to say anything intelligent is to actually die, and that’s a one-way trip. Hitchens personally believes that death is a form of oblivion, the equivalent of what is on the screen when a television set is turned off.

He was also the first and only panelist to reference Hitler, so under Godwin’s law, one might think that he had run out of good arguments and therefore lost the debate – but let’s not forget that Godwin’s law applies primarily to inexperienced debaters, and in fact referencing Hitler and the Nazis is not always a conversation-ender, just only so when used in a clumsy fashion. Hitchens’ reference to Hitler was not to accuse his adversaries of equivalence to Hitler but rather to point out that the “just world hypothesis” built in to the idea of a polarized afterlife (one in which the morally good are rewarded in heaven and the morally bad are punished in hell) is bunk, and sometimes there is evil in the world and saying that God allows that to happen but “makes up for it” by doing justice in the next life is really something of an insult to the people who suffer as a result of the evil done by human beings in this world. This is an example of a Hitler reference that does not violate Godwin’s law, then, because he was not accusing anyone of advocating a Hitlerian policy or position, but rather illuminating a collateral point with reference to an unquestioned evil.

Hitchens had the most interesting thing to say about near-death experiences, which is that the great bulk of the discussion about them relating NDE to an afterlife is “bullshit,” since no one who has had a near-death experience has actually died, as proven by the fact that they came back. He does think that the fact that so many people have had that similar experience makes the subject worthy of study and examination, but dismisses as unlikely the hypothesis that what is actually going on is the transmittal of their consciousness to some other form of existence. But the phenomenon is still very new to human experience because it is only in the last fifty years or so that medical knowledge and technology has advanced to the point that people undergoing certain kinds of trauma inducing these experiences can be revived and returned to health to make these reports in the first place.

Wolpe’s position on the afterlife may be well-articulated in his writings and other public speeches, but based solely on what he had to say in the debate last night, he did not really offer any clear statements on that subject one way or the other. Rather, he seemed to spend the bulk of his energies responding to and rebutting Hitchens’ attack on religion generally. As the designated religious apologist, however, Wolpe did not do much defending of just any religion – with reference unstatedly but obviously literalistic Christian traditions, he left them hanging out to dry as indefensible. Instead, he left the impression that belief and faith are things that happen for people independent of reason and evidence (although I don’t recall him using that exact structure of argument directly) and are more experiential than logical in nature (which is a point he made explicitly on multiple occasions). He acknowledged that indeed religion has been a force for evil in history and even in the present day.

On the subject of near death experiences, Wolpe admitted that the reports are inconclusive, but claimed that their sheer number and overall uniformity suggested that something was going on. When considered against a backdrop in which it is credible for physicists to propose multiple universes, simultaneously in existence, in which all manner of various permutations of things exist, it ought not to seem to unreasonable to suggest that one attribute of humanity is that there is something enduring about consciousness and NDE’s provide a hint (not proof) of that facet of our universe. I was not really sure about the linkage between multiverse theory and the concept of an enduring consciousness, but Wolpe was careful to point out that this other state of existence was not something that could be known, and religious writings about it should be considered metaphorical and not literal. Indeed, he seemed to advocate taking a highly metaphorical approach to nearly all religious writings and holy texts, dismissing claims to their historical authenticity in a way similar to his writings about the historical inaccuracy of the Exodus story.

Harris was the quickest to attempt a definition of terms, which was probably a prudent debating move, and to try and get some understanding of what was meant by the concept of an afterlife. His own writings suggest that there is a possibility that consciousness might survive bodily death, although he is cautious to repeat that not enough is known about consciousness to be able to separate it from brain function. The several pounds of wet matter in our skulls does indeed seem to control every aspect of our consciousness, so if that is to somehow separate from the body, it must find some other residence. He did not precisely state this, but the hint is that if consciousness survives bodily death, it will do so by way of some technological vehicle. Harris’ desire to pin the concept of an afterlife down to a traditional religious model seemed to be tied to his desire to point out that religion has made all manner of obviously false promises, such as justice and compassion dispensed by God.

At one point, Harris offered another form of afterlife theory, a variation on the brain in a bottle theory. At some point, he suggested, humans will construct computers capable of self-awareness. That self-awareness will necessarily be created in the form of some kind of programming algorithm, and that algorithm could be incorporated into a larger program as an autonomous actor and denied the knowledge that it was in fact an artificial construct within that universe. So what if we are all characters in an advanced civilization’s highly-detailed and intricate game of The Sims, and that game might be turned off (perhaps to be restarted later)? Could the player of that game, if she liked a particular character, export the character from one game into another? That could be a form of an afterlife. No one directly responded to this idea, perhaps because it seems silly, but Harris did it not to seriously offer the idea as his vision of what an afterlife might be, but rather to point out that we have no way at all of knowing what is going to happen when our consciousness ends and the overwhelming probability is that even if there is something that survives bodily death, it will be something unrecognizable from our current perspectives.

On the near death experience angle, Harris pointed out that many hospitals have numbers posted on the tops of light fixtures over operating tables to test the near death experience hypothesis. The theory is that if someone has a near death experience and their disembodied consciousness floats out over the operating theater but retains the ability to see things, the “soul” will be able to see the series of numbers on top of the light fixture and upon returning to the body, will be able to report what the numbers were. No one who reports a near death experience has ever successfully done this. I’m not sure what this evidence can be interpreted as; it is entirely possible that were the overall hypothesis of the near death experience to be true, the process is either distractingly traumatic or distractingly novel, which would make it unlikely that someone going through it would pay any attention to a rather subtle and unannounced scientific test of that experience.  But the more likely claim is that the person reporting a sensation if disembodiment is not actually seeing the operating theater from above but rather perceiving something different, having some kind of hallucination induced by the stress of the extreme medical events taking place on that operating table.

Harris and Hitchens had a sharp disagreement, which was unanticipated. Harris suggested that the human fear of death was not fear of one’s own death; death would be much like a deep sleep and virtually no one fears being asleep. Rather, he said, the fear is twofold – one of the suffering that accompanies one’s own death, and two of the loss of people we love in this world. Hitchens responded to this by stating that it is a deep human, and indeed a deep animal instinct to struggle for personal survival and the dread is indeed of one’s own existence coming to an end.

Artson’s argument seemed very amorphous and squishy; he seemed to insist that yes, there is an afterlife, while agreeing with Harris that the afterlife in question was unknowable and incomprehensible and would take a form and character unrecognizable to our present selves. He had little to say about the near death experience issues other than to proffer his own personal belief that an essential and enduring part of our existence was as some form of energy. Mainly, he seemed to argue that regardless of the objective existence of an afterlife, an afterlife ought to exist, and therefore we ought to believe in it because it would inspire us to behave in a more moral fashion in this life. However gracefully and charismatically such a theory might be presented, this is a logical fallacy. There either is an afterlife or there isn’t; whether we want it to exist has nothing to do with whether it does. I want there to be a vein of gold buried near the surface of my back yard, because I might use the proceeds of mining that gold to great good effect, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be there when I go out back to dig.

When confronted with the “belief in the afterlife induces all manner of immoral behavior” argument proffered by Hitchens, Artson conceded that the traditional figure of God as an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, eternal, and unchanging entity could not withstand either logical or ethical analysis. He stated that this was not the God he believed in; he believed in a God that was one who had limited power, limited presence, limited knowledge, and which filled the role of a role model and an inspiration to do good works in the world. This did not get explored in any real detail, which disappointed me because it was a vision of the supernatural with which I am unfamiliar. Such a God might be capable of creating the universe and maybe tweaking it here and there, but powerless to prevent suffering and evil. I wanted a more thorough philosophical explication of this entity to know better where Rabbi Artson was coming from.

Most interestingly, Artson confronted the idea that science was superior to religion. His challenge was that science has made many errors in its history, but no one seems to mind that first-century scientists got a lot of things wrong. However, religious writers may have got things wrong in the first century, but religion is held to apologize for those errors two thousand years later. This was unfair, he thought; a game rigged against religion. In fact, errant scientific beliefs had caused much human suffering throughout history, possibly even more than errant religious beliefs. Disappointingly, neither Hitchens or Harris engaged on this point. But they did readily concede that the very liberal theism advanced by the two rabbis at this discussion was in sharp contrast to more doctrinaire kinds of theism typically presented by Christians or Muslims they had debated before, and they found it a pleasure to engage with the rabbis, suggesting that perhaps because of the tradition of critical thought and questioning built in to Jewish tradition, skepticism had a much more comfortable home among Jews than among other monotheists. I think that Artson raised an interesting point – science is self-correcting through its own workings and processes, but at least in the Jewish tradition, ethical thought is also subject to an ongoing process of review and revision through the Talmudic scholarly tradition, which unlike the scholarship of Christian or Muslim writers seems intent on adapting moral principles to the issues of the contemporary world rather than preserving the traditions of the past in the present.

If it came down to a showdown of wit, personality, and charisma, I’d have to give the nod to the rabbis, on points. Hitchens is of course tremendously engaging and an electric figure. Alone among the panelists, as he got worked up and emotionally engaged, he indulged in profanity. I was less familiar with the two rabbis, but each of them proved to have their own brand of appeal which worked nicely. Rabbi Wolpe, while perhaps more restrained than an evangelical, nevertheless had the stage presence and a few of the body language maneuvers I have seen used to good effect by Christian pastors in megachurches; this makes sense because Temple Sinai is a rough equivalent of a megachurch. Rabbi Artson, by contrast, presented as something of a mensch, a benevolent scholar who was endowed with an extra helping of humility. Harris was something of a cold fish by contrast to the other three.

At the end of the day, though, debates are won and lost on evidence and argument. In that sense, there seemed was no contest in the literal meaning of that phrase. Right out of the starting gate, everyone said that they didn’t know and could not know whether there was an afterlife or not. The closest it got was “probably not” versus “maybe but if so in a form we cannot recognize,” which upon testing revealed that “in a form we cannot recognize” was a supposition based more upon speculation and hope than upon anything rational or evidentiary, and therefore a nearly useless concept. The focus of the debate seemed to be more about whether religion was something that could inspire people to do good or a force to convince well-meaning people to do bad things and a palliative for obvious injustices in the world. It is, of course, all of those things, which everyone knew going in to the debate. Perhaps it is a sign of a good debate that despite a lot of engaging intellectual stimulation, it left me dissatisfied.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Just a couple of quick points, beyond simply stating that this sounds like an interesting evening, and I envy you your chance to go. As an agnosto-Christian, my concept of the afterlife (if it exists) is somewhere in the same region as the rabbis’.

    On that note, I find it interesting that rabbis would engage in a debate (or, rather, moderated conversation) on the afterlife per se.. If I understand correctly, the afterlife is a peripheral consideration for Jewish thought, at best. I’m not at all surprised to read that it was dispensed with rather rapidly.

    And, just to be contrary, I do think you give short shrift to Christian scholarship with regard to adapting to modernity. I will concede that Talmudic scholarship is the gold standard in this regard, but I can look toward my bookshelf and see many books (admittedly not actually mine) that deal with understanding Christian theology within a modern frame.

    • I readily admit I’m not conversant with the theological scholarship of any tradition, which I think only makes sense as I have opted out of all religious traditions. I am aware that there is a considerable body of twentieth-century Christian scholarship, the contents of which I am functionally ignorant aside from the very broadest strokes of C.S. Lewis.

      What I’ve seen more of are literalist and apologetic attempts to reconcile the raw text of both Old and New Testaments to the modern world and to reconcile them to prevailing contemporary ethics. That probably comes from tangling with apologists coming from a more literalist posture than yours.

      I was also not aware before the debate last night that there are writings in the Jewish tradition which explicate that there will at some future point in time be a bodily resurrection for at least the chosen people — and considerable controversy and inquiry about whether those phrases are to be taken literally or metaphorically. It didn’t seem to me that either rabbi I saw last night placed much weight on the idea of an actual bodily resurrection, but I should be cautious about putting words in their mouths beyond reporting what they actually said in the debate or referencing their published statements.

      • The overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews believe in bodily resurrection. And I don’t know of any Reform Jews who believe this. Within the Conservative Jewish faction (of which Wolpe is one of, if not the, preeminent scholars) there is a fierce debate. The holiest Jewish prayer, traditionally said three times a day, makes explicit reference to the resurrection of the dead in Orthodox prayer books. It has been excised or replaced in Reform prayer books. Recently the Conservative movement updated its official book, and there was a huge argument over whether to excise the phrasing. Ultimately it was kept in tact.

        There is almost no consideration of the afterlife in the Hebrew bible. None at all in the Torah, and only vague mention in the later books. There is a peculiar lack of concern with death generally, in fact. Whatever theological bases Jews today have for an afterlife is Rabbinic, and on this point the details are hopelessly confused, as none of the Rabbis agree with one another and were constantly rebutting and rewriting each others’ opinions.

        • Just wanted to correct one point, that there no references to the afterlife “at all in Torah.” Rabbi Gottlieb (he is the “Orthodox Richard Dawkins” or, as I call him, the “Intelligent Richard Dawkins) has a list of all the verses which attest to an afterlife.

          Notably, it misses one of the best verses, Genesis 5:24: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” This verse clearly implies an afterlife because, otherwise, to where was God TAKING him? (i.e., it doesn’t say “because God ‘sent him away'”).

  2. Whatever this debated precipitated I can only guess it was of yet more frustration on the part of Harris and Hitchens as the “faithful” clung to a childish, wish thinking notion of an afterlife no one can say exists, or doesnt exist. This is the teapot arguement again. We want proof. And when you consider the price for viewing this life as but a test of faith, we should demand it all the more, and not bend to whispy interpretations of certain allegedly magic books.
    I’m sorry, but the price of religious peoples delusion of an afterlife is too high and its consequences too dire.

  3. Hi Burt, Thanks for the fair and thoughtful review of the evening. I’d be happy to send you some articles that lay out my theology (Process Theology) in more depth. Just send me a note to
    בברכת שלום
    Brad Artson

    • I’m going to take you up on that, Rabbi. Thank you for a remarkable and interesting evening!

  4. I enjoyed your review of the debate. However, I think Artson/Wolpe are not presenting the traditional “Talmudic” position on the afterlife, while at the same time they claim to adhere to the Talmudic scholarly position.

    First, according to the Talmud, all non-Jews will go to heaven, assuming “they don’t forget about God.” Second, all Jews will go to heaven — except, oddly enough, those who are conservative (like Artson or reform (like Wolpe) Jews. (Essentially, it says that “those who believe that Moses inserted his own views into the Torah will not recieve an afterlife” [which was a common heresy back then) and presumably those who believe that some subsequent scribe wrote it will surely not recieve an afterlife, which is the position of Artson and Wople, in fact.

    Now, I don’t expect them to follow every word of the Talmud. I just find it odd that they claim to follow the Talmudic tradition without actually knowing what it says about the aftelife.

    • The Talmud has much to say on the ha ‘olam ha’ba, and it varies according to how far back in the scholarship we go. There’s the whole problem of gilgul haneshamot, and there you may argue with the Ramban: it’s vexed scholars for centuries and there the Ketuboth at 111b to make everyone scratch his beard. The Rambam gives us yet another view of the afterlife.

      But the debate is very ancient and Mishnah Yadayim is a good a place to start as any: the tzedukim did not believe in resurrection.

      • Yep, the tzedukim (Sadducees) didn’t believe in the afterlife. They, like the early reform movement, were breakaways from mainstream Judaism, a very secular group who refused to believe in the Oral Law. Of course, their opinions can not be considered the Talmudic position — which deifies the Oral law.

        What’s interesting about them is that we don’t have their apologetic works. Therefore, we have no way of knowing why, specifically, they refused to believe in an afterlife. It is especially perplexing since there are some verses in the Bible which claim that there is an afterlife (there are verses in Genesis, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel that briefly make that point). Although, indeed, there are very few verses in the Bible which make that claim, so that may have been their basis for doubting an afterlife.

        If you talk to an orthodox Jew and ask him “Do you hate atheists? Do you hate Christians?”, he will probably say “No.” To the contrary, the existence of atheists (e.g.) makes religion more spicy, in the sense that you think to yourself “wow, these pompous atheists are in for a big surprise!”

        However, regarding the Conservative and Reform rabbinate, there is a palpable hatred and disgust amongst orthodox Jews. In fact, a policy was instituted by Rabbi Moses Fienstien, among others, that Orthodox Jews will refuse to debate or interact with the Reform and Conservative rabbinate (which is why “One People Two Worlds” was banned). Why the disgust? There is a perception amongst Orthodox Jews that the “fake rabbis” are just feeding their audience lies and nonsense. They are deceiving their trusting audiences.

        Like the original article pointed out here, Wolpe said he doesn’t believe there was an Exodus. Now — without debating the historicity of the Exodus at this moment — even atheists can agree that there is no greater mockery of the Torah, or of Judaism, or of our devoted, holy and rational ancestors than to claim that the Exodus is a myth – a nationally experienced, nationally commemorated myth. How can you call yourself a rabbi and doubt the historicity of the Exodus? How can you have Passover services and doubt the historicity of the Exodus? How can you claim that you believe in God, when the book that even Wolpe calls “sacred” contains the greatest lie ever told. For orthodox Jews, that’s deceptive, and misleads the Reform and Conservative Jews who don’t know any better.

        • I think Wolpe doubted teh historicity of the Exodus, not because he has anything against Judaism. Rather, it was because no remains have been found in areas where the Torah claims that the Jews camped for many years. Additionally, he claims that if the Jews were in Egypt, we should have found Egyptian-style pottery in Israel — which we do not.

          Now, I agree that these two reasons are pretty flimsy reasons to doubt the historicity of the Exodus. He seems to put much stock in what I would consider highly-circumstantial, far-from-reliable forms of evidence. Still, I don’t think that you can claim that he has anything against Judaism when he openly doubts the historicity of the Exodus. He is just trusting the consensus of the archeologists.

          • I don’t want to get into a “Is the Exodus a myth” argument, but I will just focus on the two points you made — not to prove that the Exodus happened, but rather to prove how wicked Wolpe is when he denies the historicity of the Exodus. I know this sounds shocking to you secular ears! Wolpe, a “moral” rabbi, is “wicked”? Yes, very much so.
            So let’s focus on Wolpe’s first point, that we don’t find anything in Kadesh-Barnea. When he does this he commits two grave errors. First, he — despite being a rabbi — holds the bible to a different, more skeptical, standard than he would for any other ancient text. For example, despite the fact that we don’t find anything in Damascus from about 2000 BC until 900 BC — and Damascus was a thriving metropolis which was attested to in Egyptian and other ancient chronicles — he demands that we find something in Kadesh. That’s called not being fair to the Bible. We can appreciate why an atheist won’t want to be fair to the bible, but why would a rabbi? Answer: because he is a reform rabbi.
            Then there is another flaw. Someone told Rabbi Wople that there is a Jewish tradition that all the dropped object were returned in the wilderness, so, therefore, we shouldn’t expect to find anything. Now, I don’t expect atheists to take this stuff seriously. But as a Rabbi, you would think he would. What does he do? He makes a mockery out of the tradition, claiming that it was made up to explain the empty sinai desert. That’s called not being fair to Judaism, holding it to a different standard.
            Then there is the issue of, as a Rabbi, being completely ignorant about classical Jewish sources. First, it isn’t clear from the Bible exactly how long the Jews camped in Kadesh. Some commentators (Rabbi Meyuchos c. 1200) say that it was for approximately two months. Wolpe doesn’t mention this fact because he doesn’t know it.

  5. It seems as though ,if there is a “God Consciouness”,in this universe,that it only gets it’s life through life itself ,good ,bad,or indiferent,through all of the life forms that it can and has produced .So we think were so special, so great,aahaa ,most of us “big monkeys with car keys”would not recognise this even if “God Herself”ran out from under the porch and bit them on the backside.

  6. If the subject of discussion was the existence of faeries and all parties agreed that there was no way in principle to prove that they existed would there be any reason to continue the discussion?

    • Which is why the subject changes rather rapidly to issues like whether belief in faeries the afterlife is a benefit or a detriment to society.

      • So if there is no afterlife that is a fact that the masses should not be allowed to have?

  7. I’ve got to say — I was a little puzzled/amused by the fact that AJU wanted to hold a debate on, of all things, the AFTERLIFE with Hitchens and Harris, if for no other reason than that there’s a longstanding Jewish tradition of simply not caring about whether there is/what comes in an afterlife. (I mean this not in reference to scholarship, but to practice/life.) I mean … I’d be uncomfortable using the new USCJ siddur if it edited the amidah to excise resurrection, but do I actually think it’ll happen … meh. Who cares? Theoretically, belief in God would allow for things more ridiculous than that — but then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, anyone who actually claims to understand what’s going on, language-wise (often on a word-by-word basis) in Ezekiel is being disingenuous.

    This is all by way of saying that I think there are many even in the Orthodox world who would agree with me in feeling that Huck Finn’s “Then I’ll GO to Hell,” is a Jewishly valid statement. (And then there are those who wouldn’t…)

    Burt, you may have provoked the closest thing to effective proto-blogging thoughts I’ve had in several weeks. I may ramble on more, later.

  8. As an agnostic anti-theist who likes to think that the scientific method is the best guide for philosophical discourse, when it comes to discussions of consciousness and the essence of being (and afterlife), I have always been perplexed by a simple thought experiment. If consciousness is simply a result of various atomic bits floating around in time-space in tight formation, and assuming that one day man’s scientific prowess will progress to the point where that formation of atomic bits can be exactly reproduced in an atomic-bit replicator, where does the consciousness of the individual reside after duplication? Are there now two identical versions of that consciousness? Can the original formation disintegrate or “die” with the self surviving in the duplicated formation? In some ways this is a sophomoric riddle that might have resulted from the ingestion of too many psychotropic substances in a college dorm, but nonetheless it’s a question I’ve never managed to address to my satisfaction.

    • Well if quantum mechanics is part of consciousness then the no cloning theorem comes into play. You cannot make a copy of a quantum state without destroying the original. But it seems unlikely that QM is relevant to consciousness.

      Anyway questions like this get into the strong AI problem.

  9. So,,,,, I guess i better give ,imaginary virgins ,a vest with a red button,and a good slogan ,like.. “lOOK OUT SWEET BABY ,HERE I COME!!!!”.

  10. Thank you for this. I have been waiting for any news on the ‘debate’, and your review exceeded expectations.

    God knows it is not Hitchens time to go, yet.

    Let me tell you from experience, that Rabbi Wolpe is a super cool guy, even to Catholic waitresses in different countries. I totally disagree with his exodus stuff, he cannot wrap his head around the thought that sometimes the allegory or the metaphor can also be the fact.

    But to listen to him wax poetic on the meaning of the loss of innocence for all of us in our childhood Eden and so on, opened my mind to much.

    Hitchens is a great wit, a court jester I am sure the King enjoys, so erudite, so wise.

    If only these two could understand they only have semantic problems, whereby the Torah says in poetry what science will one allow in fact.

    An example would be string theory postulating one origin, or wave creating the whole universe, imagine that, good vibrations indeed G>D

  11. Hitchens: “The reality is, we don’t know, so we don’ t know.”

    . . . He should have stated, “I don’t know” rather than “we don’t know,” which would have been more honest..

    Therein lies Hitchens’ problem. A massive ego, but lazy intellect delivers easy atheism.

    We should also differentiate between being RELIGIOUS and being SPIRITUAL. The former equals following a dogma. You can be Spiritual, but not Religious.

    • I agree with Jdebar. Moreover, about Harris remark on numbers diplayed in hospital for checking NDE perception people capabilities, I must say while I often agree with Harris usually that on this point, he should investigate much more deeply, as there are several genuine NDE people who were surprised to be able to tell such numbers to their great surprise. Like this old man going through a heart operation and who found himself (as an aware of awareness unit) suddenly below the operation table and seeing this technical furniture serial number he memorized and was able to tell the surgeon about after his NDE and heart operation. The surgeon did not even know about this below table serial number and told the guy he had had an halluciantion. But then he checked below the table and found this assertion to be true ! Harris would have a lot to think about with this one. And there are many of them he should study.

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