While I’m generally an extremely stubborn person, my opinion has radically changed on some topics over the years. I don't view this as a bad thing. I don't aspire to be one of those people whose ideas are set in stone, impervious to growth or adaptation.
Some of my changes of opinion have been purely "changes of heart" -- e.g. in my early 20s I transitioned from a teenage solipsism to a more compassion-oriented attitude, due more to internal growth than any external data or stimuli.
Other times, the cause of my change of opinion has been encountering some body of evidence that I simply hadn’t been aware of earlier.
The change of mind I'm going to write about here has been of the latter kind -- data-driven.
What I’m going to write about here is a certain class of paranormal phenomena that seem related to religious notions of “survival after death.” In my teens and 20s I was pretty confident these phenomena were obviously nothing more than wishful thinking. People didn't want to admit they were doomed to die one day, so they made up all sorts of fanciful stories about heavens and hells after death, and reincarnation, and ghosts and what-not.
I didn’t want to die either, but I was interested in achieving physical immortality via fixing the problems that make the human body age, or by uploading my mind into a robot or computer or whatever – by methods that made good solid rational sense according to science, even if they seemed outlandish according to most peoples’ everyday world-views.
(I did, in my youth, acquire from somewhere some sort of intuitive spiritual sense that my mind would continue to exist after my death, fused with the rest of the universe somehow. But I didn’t imagine I’d continue to have any individuality or will after my body died – I intuitively, non-rationally felt I’d continue to exist in some sort of inert form, always on the verge of having a thought or taking an action but never quite doing so….)
My current view of these "survival-ish" paranormal phenomena is quite different. I definitely haven’t had any sort of religious conversion, and I don’t believe any of the traditional stories about an afterlife are anywhere near accurate. But I now am fairly confident there is SOMETHING mysterious and paranormal going on, related to reincarnation, channeling and related phenomena.
My new perspective doesn’t fit that well into our standard contemporary verbiage, but a reasonable summary might be:
- Individual human minds have an aspect that is "nonlocal", in the sense of not being restricted to exist within the flow of our time-axis, in the same sense that our bodies are generally restricted.
- Due to this non-localized aspect, it’s possible for human minds that are evidently grounded in bodies in a certain spacetime region, to manifest themselves in various ways outside this spacetime region – thus sometimes generating phenomena we now think of as “paranormal”
- This non-localized aspect of human minds probably results from the same fundamental aspects of the universe that enable psi phenomena like ESP, precognition, and psychokinesis
- The path from understanding which core aspects of physics enable these phenomena, to understanding why we see the precise paranormal phenomena we do, may be a long one – just as the path from currently known physics to currently recognized biology and psychology is a long one
How did I come to this new view?
The first step was to accept, based on an extensive review of the available evidence, that psi phenomena are almost surely real. My perspective on this is summarized in the introductory and concluding chapters of Evidence for Psi, a book I co-edited with Damien Broderick last year. See also the links on this page. I don’t want to take space and time here summarizing the evidence for psi phenomena, which includes lots of carefully-analyzed laboratory data, alongside loads of striking, well-substantiated anecdotal evidence. It was the laboratory data that first convinced me psi was very likely real. After getting largely convinced by the laboratory data, I started reading through the literature on anecdotal psi phenomena, and it started to seem less and less feasible that it was all just fabricated.
I’ve also speculated a bit about how one might tweak currently understood physics to obtain a physics in which psi could be possible. See my blog post on Surprising Multiverse Theory. Basically, I think it might be enough to posit that the various histories summed over in quantum-mechanical sums-over-histories are weighted in a manner that depends on their information content, rather than just on their energy. This relates closely to a proposal made by the famous physicist Lee Smolin in a totally different context, as well as to Sheldrake’s morphic field hypothesis.
I recall reading (a few years ago) the excellent book Varieties of Anomalous Experience, with its run-down of various case studies of apparent reincarnation, and then digging into that literature a bit further afterwards. I became almost-convinced there was SOMETHING paranormal going on there, though not terribly convinced that this something was really “reincarnation” as typically conceived.
Now I’ve just read the equally excellent book Immortal Remains by the philosopher Stephen Braude. In the careful, rationalist manner of the analytical philosopher, he summarizes and dissects the evidence for various paranormal phenomena that others have taken as indicative of an afterlife for humans – reincarnation, mediumistic channeling, possession, out-of-body experiences, and so forth. (But the book is a lot more fun to read than most academic philosophy works, with lots of entertaining tidbits alongside the meticulous deductions and comparisons – it’s highly recommended to anyone with a bit of patience who wants to better understand this confusing universe we live in!).
Survival versus SuperPsi versus ??
One of Braude’s themes in the book is the comparison of what he (following generally accepted terminology in this area) calls “survival” based versus “SuperPsi” based explanations of these phenomena. SuperPsi in this context means any combination of recognized psi phenomena like ESP, precognition, psychokinesis and so forth – even very powerful combinations of very powerful instances of these phenomena.
One thing that Braude points out in the book is that, for nearly all the phenomena he considers, there seems to be a thinkable SuperPsi-based explanation, as well as a thinkable survival-based explanation. This is not surprising since neither the SuperPsi hypothesis nor the survival hypothesis can be very clearly formulated at this stage of our knowledge. So, he considers the choice between the two classes of hypothesis to come down mainly to considerations of simplicity. In his view, the SuperPsi explanations often tend to get way too complex and convoluted, leading him to the conclusion that there is most probably some survival-esque phenomenon going on along with probably lots of psi phenomena.... (For a discussion of why I agree with Braude that simplicity is key to a good scientific explanation, see this essay, which was reprinted with slight changes as part of my book The Hidden Pattern.)
The contrast of survival vs. SuperPsi makes a compelling theme for a book, but I suspect it may not be the best way to think about the issues.
As far as my attitudes have drifted, I still strongly doubt that “survival” in any traditional sense is the real situation. I really doubt that, after people have died, they keep on living in some “other world” – whether a heaven or hell or just another planet or whatever. I also really doubt that, after someone dies, their soul or essence enters another person so that this other person is “a new version of them” (the traditional reincarnation story in its most common form). One thing Braude’s careful review makes clear is how scantily the evidence supports these traditional conclusions.
The evidence DOES support the conclusion that the paranormal phenomena Braude considers actually happen in the world, and don’t have explanations in terms of science as we now know it. But the evidence does NOT especially strongly support any of the classical religious analyses of these paranormal phenomena. My own view is that these religious attempts at explanation have largely served to cloud the matter. Personally, the main reason I previously rejected these sorts of phenomena entirely, was my reaction to the various conceptual inconsistencies and obvious appeals to human emotion that I saw in these traditional religious explanations.
What we see in the data Braude considers is that:
- After a human being dies, it is sometimes possible for “self and other mind patterns” associated with that human being’s mind to manifest themselves in the world at a later time.
- While a human being is alive, it is sometimes possible for “self and other mind patterns” associated with that human being’s mind to manifest themselves in the world at some distant physical location, without any good conventional explanation for how this could happen
- Sometimes these “self and other mind patterns” manifest themselves in a manner that is mixed up with other things, e.g. with someone else’s mind
- Sometimes these “self and other mind patterns” provide evidence of their association with the mind of a spatially or temporally distant human, which is very difficult to “explain away” in terms of known science
Exactly what specific forms the above phenomena take is a long story, which Braude tells in his book, which I don’t feel like taking time to summarize here right now. Read the book!
Anyway, it should be pretty clear that the above does not imply “survival / afterlife” in any traditional sense. Yet Braude makes a good case that hypothesizing these phenomena to be caused by some combination of ESP, psychokinesis, precognition and so forth becomes inordinately complicated.
From Carbon to Ecosystems
One thing that strikes me is what a long distance exists between potential “physics of psi” explanations like my Surprising Multiverse Theory, and the complex, messy particulars of phenomena like mediumistic channeling. Channeling, for instance, apparently involves subtle intersections between individual and social psychology and culture, and appears to mix up instances of ESP and psychokinesis with other “nonlocal mind” phenomena that are more distinct from traditional psi.
An analogy that springs to mind, however, is the relation between the carbon atom and the complexities of the Earth’s ecosystem. The carbon atom enables the development of life, and this can be seen, in a general sense, via looking at the atom at the micro level, and the nature of the bonds it permits. On the other hand, predicting the specifics of macroscopic life based on the microscopic properties of the carbon atom is something we still can’t come close to doing. We can’t, yet, even solve the protein folding problem (a very particular subcase of this more general problem).
Similarly, it’s “easy” to see that hypotheses like the Surprising Multiverse Theory have some potential to explain how the universe could contain phenomena like mediumistic channeling, apparent reincarnation, and so forth. But getting from something like a low-level information-theoretic tweak to quantum physics, up to specific predictions about paranormal phenomena among human beings, is bound to involve a lot of complexity, just like any explanation bridging multiple hierarchical levels of reality.
Toward a Paranormal-Friendly (Patternist) Philosophy of the Cosmos
I don’t have anywhere near a scientific explanation of these paranormal phenomena I’m talking about, at present. I would like to find one, perhaps by building up from Surprising Multiverse Theory or something similar, perhaps by some other means. Of course, I don’t think it makes sense to reject evidence simply because we don’t have a good theory for it yet.
I do have a philosophical perspective on these phenomena, which helps me think about them in what I hope is a coherent way. My basic philosophy of the universe is summarized in The Hidden Pattern (free pdf) and A Cosmist Manifesto (free pdf). But thinking about paranormal phenomena leads me to enrich and extend that basic philosophy in certain ways.
As I’ve said in my previous writings, my preferred way of thinking about these things involves positing a Pattern Space, which exists outside our spacetime continuum. The whole spacetime universe that defines our everyday being, is just one particular pattern of organization, which in some sense exists within a much larger space of patterns. When a pattern like a human mind emerges within our spacetime continuum, it also exists in the broader pattern space.
But what is meant by a pattern being “within our spacetime continuum"? I haven’t thought about this deeply before. Basically, I suggest, what it means that this pattern is heavily interlinked with other patterns that are “within our spacetime continuum”, and not so heavily interlinked with other patterns that are not “within our spacetime continuum.” That is: the spacetime continuum may be thought of as a special sort of cluster of interlinked patterns.
Since the spacetime continuum is just one powerful, but not omnipotent, pattern of organization, it’s not so bizarre that sometimes a pattern that is heavily interlinked with other patterns in the “spacetime continuum pattern cluster”, could sometimes interlink with other patterns that are outside this cluster. Extra-cluster pattern interactions are then perceived, by patterns inside the cluster, as “paranormal.”
This way of thinking ties in with philosopher Charles Peirce’s “one law of mind” – which he formulated as “the tendency to take habits.” Peirce observed that, in our universe (but NOT in a hypothetical random universe), once a pattern has been observed to exist, the probability of it being observed again is surprisingly high. This is the basic idea underlying the Surprising Multiverse Theory. This seems conceptually related to the statement that the patterns we observe mainly live inside a cluster in pattern space. Inside a cluster, the odds of various entities being connected via a strong pattern should be atypically high – that’s closely related to what makes the cluster a cluster.
Mind Uploading via Reincarnation Machines?If indeed the paranormal phenomena Braude surveys are real, and have some sort of scientific explanation that we just haven’t found yet, then this has fascinating potential implications for mind uploading. It suggests that, when someone dies, their mind is still in some sense somewhere – and can potentially be brought back by appropriate dynamics in certain biophysical systems (e.g. the mind of a medium, or a child born as an apparent reincarnation, etc.).
This raises the possibility that, by engineering the right kind of physical system, it might be possible to specifically induce “paranormal” phenomena that cause a dead person’s mind to manifest itself in physical reality, long after that person’s death.
Of course, this is utterly wild speculation. But what makes it fun is that it’s also fairly logical extrapolation from empirical observations. If the data about the paranormal is real, but the data ultimately has some scientific explanation rather than a religious one, then most likely the underlying phenomena can be tapped into and manipulated via engineered systems, like all other scientifically understood phenomena.
Of course, a scientific understanding of these phenomena will likely include an understanding of their limitations. Maybe these limitations will prevent us from building reincarnation machines. But maybe they won’t.
If we buy the “morphic field” type idea, then what would attract the reincarnation of a deceased person’s mind, would likely be a set of mind-patterns very similar to that person’s mind. This would be in the spirit of the well-demonstrated phenomenon of ESP among identical twins.
In this case, it would follow that one very good way to engineer reincarnation might be to create an intelligent robot (perhaps with a quantum-computer infrastructure?) with
- Lots of the mind-patterns of the deceased person one wishes to reincarnate
- Lots of degrees of freedom capable of being adjusted and adapted
This would be achieved, for instance, if one created a robot intended as a simulacrum of a deceased person based on information they had left behind – videos, emails and what-not. There are existing organizations focused specifically on accumulating information about people so as to facilitate this kind of post-mortem simulation.
The strange and exciting hypothesis one is led to, is that such a simulacrum might actually attract some of the mind-patterns of the person simulated, seducing these patterns out of the overarching pattern space – and thus animating the simulacrum with the “feel” of the person being simulated, and perhaps specific memories and capabilities of that person, beyond what was programmed into the simulacrum.
If you’re a typical tech geek who’s a fan of my AGI work, you may think I’ve gone totally nuts by this point. That doesn’t bother me particularly though.
I mean, AGI is almost trendy now, but when I started out with it 30 years ago everyone thought I was nuts to be thinking about it or trying to work on it. Peer pressure doesn’t really work on me.
I don’t have any real interest in arguing these points with people who haven’t taken the time to inform themselves about the relevant data. If you want to discuss the points I’ve raised here, do us all a favor and read at least
If you’ve absorbed all this data and are still highly skeptical, then I’m quite willing to discuss and debate with you. On the other hand, if you feel like you don’t want to take the time to read so many pages on this sort of topic, that’s understandable – but yet, IMO, by making this choice you are forfeiting your right to debate these points with people who HAVE familiarized themselves with the data.
This is weird stuff, for sure. But don’t blame the messenger. It’s a weird world we live in. We understand very little of it, at present. If we want to increase our understanding as rapidly as we can, the best strategy is to keep an open mind – to look at what reality is showing us and really think about it, rather than shutting out troublesome data because it doesn’t match our preconceptions, and rather than accepting emotionally satisfying simplifications (be they scientific or religious in nature).
Immortality and Immortality
Does this line of thinking I’ve presented here reassure me that my possible forthcoming physical death (I’m 48 years old now, certainly old enough to be thinkig about such things!) may not be so bad after all? Hmmm – kind of, I guess. But I’m not going to cancel my Alcor membership, nor stop devoting a portion of my time to longevity research. I want to keep this body going, or port my mind to a different physical substrate in a direct way.
The apparent fact that my mind exists outside of spacetime, and can potentially be brought back into spacetime – at least in some partial way – after my death, doesn’t really diminish my urge to keep on continually existing within THIS spacetime continuum, going forward from right now. Why would it?
The overarching pattern space is no doubt wonderful, but ongoing existence in this limiting time-axis is pretty cool too – and keeping on living here is very unlikely to stop my mind-patterns from flourishing and romping trans-temporally in the cosmic pattern space, sooo....