The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
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Today’s article is a guest post by musician, activist, long-time friend of SASHA, and Christian evangelist Rocket Kirchner.
In Christopher Hitchens last days, Hitch seemed to be more troubled by Sam Harris postulating the possibility that consciousness can survive the grave than Hitchens constant debate with Theists. With the Atheist/Theist polemic at least he knew where he stood. But not with his fellow Atheist Sam Harris asserting that “one can be a good Atheist and firmly believe that consciousness will continue on after death.” Is this a creedal statment from Harris or merley a flirtation? Or is it just plain open inquiry? Either way, Hitchens response to Harris was, “Be careful, Sam: This manner of inquiry can lead down a slippery slope.” As a Christian practioner myself, and one who has studied for decades the history of Atheism, I am intrigued by Harris’s proposal.
My intrique is two fold: The first is Philosophical, and the second is Sociological. The Philosophical one is obvious: a major player in the New Atheist movement specializing in a subject that many Atheist consider to be not important or taboo. The Sociological intrigue is how this would affect the Atheist-to-Atheist dynamic within its own movement, and also how it would find common ground for an ever-expanding dialogue between the Atheist and the Theist. It is interesting to note that the new Freethinker movement of the post-modern era is now reaching a point where there is a breakdown from a general Zietgiest, to many thinkers in the movement becoming specialists. Historically-speaking, we need not be surpised. This happened in both the pre-Socratic era in Greece, and the post -Socratic era at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Harris has indeed found his niche.
Hitchens’s fear of the slippery slope with regard to Harris is that Harris is willing to consider Oxford analytic philosopher Nick Bostrum’s Simulated Universe theory (think the movie The 13th Floor), or Oxford analytic philosopher Galen Strawson’s further probing into John Searle’s work on the mind/body debate. This was both mentioned in their debates with 2 rabbis on the afterlife, which can be found on YouTube [editor’s note: Link forthcoming]. There is a real fear that Bostrum and Strawson, if they keep pushing these things, just might end up like former lifelong Atheist-apologist & British analytic philosoper Antony Flew, who actually became a Theist before he died and wrote a book on the subject. If Flew wasn’t safe then no one is. The slope seems to be getting more slippery. Mmm. But I digress.
It must be made clear to the reader at this juncture that Harris has stated emphatically that his position on the possibility of consciousness continuing after death is diametrically opposed to N.T. Wright’s most exhaustive work to date on the alleged literal resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. However, one must ask: To even propose such a concept, is Harris equating reductio ad absurdum with credo qua absurdum? Maybe so, considering the fact that all of this is being met with raised eyebrows. And this raises another question: If Sam Harris was really a true-blue reductionist, in its strictist philosophical definition, why would he even tamper with the possibility that we humans are not our brains? I mean, for crying out loud, the man is a neuroscientist! How can one be an Atheist and not be a reductionist? His Atomist-Material view of the universe is shakey at best.
Neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles said that the he could never find the self in the brain. DNA discoverer Sir Francis Crick challenged that. They both died with the issue unresolved. So we have a Mexican standoff. Which is it? Is the Self only an expression of neurons and synapses firing, or does the Kantian observer stand outside the brain? In other words, where does the locus of the Self actually reside?
The upshot of all of this is this: To ask questions about the plausability of consciousness surviving after death automatically opens up another channel of dialogue about consciousness in the here and now. That was Zeman’s concern, and as the trajectory of inquiry continues, the question of consciousness morphs into the question of what it actually means to be a person, something that Merton and Susuki probed in their interfaith Catholic-Buddhist dialogue. All of this moves deeper into the question of what it means to be human, or what is a human being? And that takes it to that ever-vexing question that has echoed through all of Western philosophy: “The Ex Hypothesis” (aka, the existence of a Supreme Being ). Regardless of Occam’s razor, questions of such serious import always seems to unravel back to sqaure one. And then it all starts up all over again. The slope is slippery, indeed.
Rocket Kirchner is a long-time friend of SASHA. He is a professional musician, pacifism activist, Christian evangelist, and life-long student of philosophy.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!