moby-dick-(or-the-whale)-76
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RAISING THE DEAD

25 August 2007

I'm continuing with my series of rants about the little ideas and musings that I got from reading Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, about the neurologically proven theory that the rational mind cannot function without bodily emotions and that they are tied up in an inseparable, reciprocal relationship. For a nicer introduction, please read the rant that came before this one by going to the previous episode of that wonderful webcomic Captain August.

Having postulated that there was no afterlife, I started thinking about all the apparent 'evidence' there was to the contrary. In this case: (at times) convincing reports of media communing with the spiritual realm, the dead. I decided to do some research and watched an episode of the well-known medium Char on television. I don't know whether or not Char has a bad name and I'm not excluding the possibility that she practices dodgy voodoo, but I do think she stands as a good example for the average medium. For those of you who don't know her (which would probably actually be a positive thing): Char is an American woman who invites Dutch celebrities to her show and tells them what she hears from their dead relatives.

Before I proceed, I think it may be beneficial to explain the exact, somewhat more scientific reason why the book persuaded me that there is no afterlife. I already told you the story of Phineas Gage, but what you don't yet know is what exactly went wrong when his brain went bust. Damasio explains that our brain has something of a live feed from the body that is constantly updated and that monitors everything that's going on in the background. Think of it like a webcam that constantly generates images every few microseconds. This feed can be put to your immediate attention when something goes wrong. Say that your leg begins to cramp after sitting in a chair for some time: your brain will push the webcam images into your consciousness so you become aware of your altered body state (the cramp). Check it out for yourself: only when you experience something out of the ordinary (either positive or negative) is your attention targeted at your own body and its state. This is what Damasio calls the 'somatic marker', somatic being a fancy word for 'body' and the marker obviously marking everything about that body.

This is what went wrong with Phineas: his prefrontal cortex was damaged and his brain suddenly became incapable of processing those somatic markers when it involved the higher functions of the mind (which are located there). He could still react adequately to base ('instinctual') impulses (which are located in the limbic system), but as soon as he had to make a rational decision, he was unable to choose from the wealth of options that his mind generated. Why? Because, as this case shows, apparently your bodily feelings play a large role in helping you make decisions. For Gage, it didn't matter what he chose because he must have felt subconsciously indifferent to all of them. As a result, he made either bad choices (for much too elaborate reasons to be detailed on this place) or no choices at all.

Now, what the hell am I getting at here? Consider that Gage became a defect man as soon as he became incapable of using the input of his body (the somatic marker). Now consider that when you're dead, you don't even have a body. So those presumed ghosts that occupy the spiritual realm, and indeed the deceased that stroll around in heaven, must surely be the most incomplete, indecisive, defective persons possible! They have no body to give them a preference of one choice over the other, no emotions at all to feed their identities! In short, they're not even human anymore. So how is it possible that people like Char manage to commune with them and feel their emotions and even hear their voice? I have nothing to back up what follows, of course, save for the notion that no matter how weird my theory is, it's a lot less insane than speaking with the dead.

I don't believe that all the spiritually gifted and media in this world are frauds. I'm sure there is a good deal of charlatans among them, but an equal part will be sincere in my estimation. However, that doesn't mean they're actually talking to the dead. Rather, I think they employ some form of telepathy. I should state clearly here that I don't consider something like psychic powers to be in the same vein as spiritual beliefs. I'm positive there are many things in the physical world we haven't yet discovered; energies that people radiate and perhaps psychic bonds between us all. There is nothing mystical about it; in 100 years they might well be everyday scientific fields. Regardless, I think what a true medium does is not conversing with the departed, but reading the mind of the person before them. It is a plausible explanation of how they could know all the things that they couldn't with relative accuracy. It is a far more likely scenario than the hoodoo-voodoo deathtalking. At the same time, I still don't think they're deceiving their customers. In all probability, the medium will really think she's speaking to a relative, whereas in fact she will 'merely' be plucking his/her image and personality from the memory of the survivor.

I think this is the sort of thing we'll have to consider when dealing with reports of supernatural phenomenons. And faced with a lack of proof, we'll have two things to do: remain sceptical and try to think of more likely theories that don't involve impossible miracles.

Of course, there is the off chance that there IS an afterlife and spirits have some as of yet undiscovered way of sustaining themselves and their identities without a body. However, until there is adequate evidence of this, I see no reason why I should believe it. So far, there are only subjective, biased, personal accounts and not a snippet of reasonable proof.

Lesson # 2: There's a reason for everything and it probably doesn't involve supernatural occurrences.

Roderick's comment: Don't be superstitious -be skeptistitious.


Roderick.