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.