Why the “You” in an Afterlife Wouldn’t Really Be You

July 23, 2017

The Discovery is a 2017 Netflix film in which Robert Redford plays a scientist who proves that the afterlife is real. “Once the body dies, some part of our consciousness leaves us and travels to a new plane,” the scientist explains, evidenced by his machine that measures, as another character puts it, “brain wavelengths on a subatomic level leaving the body after death.”

This idea is not too far afield from a real theory called quantum consciousness, proffered by a wide range of people, from physicist Roger Penrose to physician Deepak Chopra. Some versions hold that our mind is not strictly the product of our brain and that consciousness exists separately from material substance, so the death of your physical body is not the end of your conscious existence. Because this is the topic of my next book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (Henry Holt, 2018), the film triggered a number of problems I have identified with all such concepts, both scientific and religious.

First, there is the assumption that our identity is located in our memories, which are presumed to be permanently recorded in the brain: if they could be copied and pasted into a computer or duplicated and implanted into a resurrected body or soul, we would be restored. But that is not how memory works. Memory is not like a DVR that can play back the past on a screen in your mind. Memory is a continually edited and fluid process that utterly depends on the neurons in your brain being functional. It is true that when you go to sleep and wake up the next morning or go under anesthesia for surgery and come back hours later, your memories return, as they do even after so-called profound hypothermia and circulatory arrest. Under this procedure, a patient’s brain is cooled to as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes electrical activity in neurons to stop—suggesting that long-term memories are stored statically. But that cannot happen if your brain dies. That is why CPR has to be done so soon after a heart attack or drowning—because if the brain is starved of oxygen-rich blood, the neurons die, along with the memories stored therein.

Second, there is the supposition that copying your brain’s connectome—the diagram of its neural connections—uploading it into a computer (as some scientists suggest) or resurrecting your physical self in an afterlife (as many religions envision) will result in you waking up as if from a long sleep either in a lab or in heaven. But a copy of your memories, your mind or even your soul is not you. It is a copy of you, no different than a twin, and no twin looks at his or her sibling and thinks, “There I am.” Neither duplication nor resurrection can instantiate you in another plane of existence.

Third, your unique identity is more than just your intact memories; it is also your personal point of view. Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, a senior scientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, divided this entity into the MEMself and the POVself. He believes that if a complete MEMself is transferred into a computer (or, presumably, resurrected in heaven), the POVself will awaken. I disagree. If this were done without the death of the person, there would be two memory selves, each with its own POVself looking out at the world through its unique eyes. At that moment, each would take a different path in life, thereby recording different memories based on different experiences. “You” would not suddenly have two POVs. If you died, there is no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer (or a resurrected body). A POV depends entirely on the continuity of self from one moment to the next, even if that continuity is broken by sleep or anesthesia. Death is a permanent break in continuity, and your personal POV cannot be moved from your brain into some other medium, here or in the hereafter.

If this sounds dispiriting, it is just the opposite. Awareness of our mortality is uplifting because it means that every moment, every day and every relationship matters. Engaging deeply with the world and with other sentient beings brings meaning and purpose. We are each of us unique in the world and in history, geographically and chronologically. Our genomes and connectomes cannot be duplicated, so we are individuals vouchsafed with awareness of our mortality and self-awareness of what that means. What does it mean? Life is not some temporary staging before the big show hereafter—it is our personal proscenium in the drama of the cosmos here and now.”

This article was originally published with the title “Who Are You?”


Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com) and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His next book is Heavens on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer


King cancer: The top 10 therapeutic areas in biopharma R&D

July 23, 2017

It’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to drug R&D trends that cancer is the number 1 disease in terms of new drug development projects. But it is amazing to see exactly how much oncology dominates the industry as never before.

At a time the first CAR-T looks to be on the threshold of a pioneering approval and the first wave of PD-(L)1 drugs are spurring hundreds of combination studies, cancer accounted for 8,651 of the total number of pipeline projects counted by the Analysis Group, crunching the numbers in a new report commissioned by PhRMA. That’s more than a third of the 24,389 preclinical through Phase III programs tracked by EvaluatePharma, which provided the database for this review.

That’s also more than the next 5 disease fields combined, starting with number 2, neurology — a field that includes Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Psychiatry, once a major focus for pharma R&D, didn’t even make the top 10, with 468 projects.

Moving downstream, cancer studies are overwhelmingly in the lead. Singling out Phase I projects, cancer accounted for 1,757 out of a total of 3,723 initiatives, close to half. In Phase II it’s the focus of 1,920 of 4,424 projects. Only in late-stage studies does cancer start to lose its overwhelming dominance, falling to 329 of 1,257 projects.

PhRMA commissioned this report to underscore just how much the industry is committed to R&D and significant new drug development, a subject that routinely comes into question as analysts evaluate how much money is devoted to developing new drugs instead of, say, marketing or share buybacks.

The report makes a few other points to underscore the nature of the work these days.

— Three out of four projects in the clinic were angling for first-in-class status, spotlighting the emphasis on advancing new medicines that can make a difference for patients. Me-too drugs are completely out of fashion, unlikely to command much weight with payers.

— Of all the projects in clinical development, 822 were for orphan drugs looking to serve a market of 200,000 or less. Orphan drugs have performed well, able to command high prices and benefiting from incentives under federal law.

— There were 731 cell and gene therapy projects in the clinic, with biopharma looking at pioneering approvals in CAR-T, with Novartis and Kite, as well as the first US OK for a gene therapy, with the first application accepted this week for a priority review of a new therapy from Spark Therapeutics.

Distribution of products and projects by therapeutic area and phase

Source: Analysis Group, using EvaluatePharma data

Unique NMEs in development by stage (August 2016)

Supersapiens, the Rise of the Mind

July 23, 2017

In the new film Supersapiens, writer-director Markus Mooslechner raises a core question: As artificial intelligence rapidly blurs the boundaries between man and machine, are we witnessing the rise of a new human species?

The film features scientists, philosophers, and neurohackers Nick Bostrom, Richard Dawkins, Hugo De Garis, Adam Gazzaley, Ben Goertzel, Sam Harris, Randal Koene, Alma Mendez, Tim Mullen, Joel Murphy, David Putrino, Conor Russomanno, Anders Sandberg, Susan Schneider, Mikey Siegel, Hannes Sjoblad, and Andy Walshe.

“Humanity is facing a turning point — the next evolution of the human mind,” notes Mooslechner. “Will this evolution be a hybrid of man and machine, where artificial intelligence forces the emergence of a new human species? Or will a wave of new technologists, who frame themselves as ‘consciousness-hackers,’ become the future torch-bearers, using technology not to replace the human mind, but rather awaken within it powers we have always possessed — enlightenment at the push of a button?”

“It’s not obvious to me that a replacement of our species by our own technological creation would necessarily be a bad thing,” says ethologist-evolutionary biologist-author Dawkins in the film.

Supersapiens in a Terra Mater Factual Studios production. Executive Producers are Joanne Reay and Walter Koehler. Distribution is to be announced.

Markus Mooslechner | Supersapiens teaser