The following caught my eye today as I was gathering articles for the Signs page:

McEwan on the afterlife

P.Z.MyersPharyngula Seed sent me a copy of this book, What We Believe but Cannot Prove : Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, and I've been browsing. It's a collection of short essays (sometimes very short) on assumptions held by individual thinkers without solid evidence. It's thought-provoking, even where I think the writer is a dingbat (Ray Kurzweil) or blithering banalities (Kevin Kelly). I rather liked Brian Goodwin's essay on the fallacy of the nature-nurture problem, but so far, my favorite is one by the author Ian McEwan:

What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death. I exclude the fact that I will linger, fadingly, in the thoughts of others, or that aspects of my consciousness will survive in writing, or in the positioning of a planted tree or a dent in my old car. I suspect that many contributors to Edge will take this premise as a given-true but not significant. However, it divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons, by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound.

It's short and obvious, and at first I was critical-hey, it's not that belief that should bear the burden of providing evidence-but he's quite right on that matter of a crucial division. There's also more to it than just a belief in life after death. Are we going to be ruled by reason and the weight of evidence, or are we going to choose to believe in that which makes us most comfortable and reinforces our prejudices?

There are many people on our planet that are convinced that there is more to existence than our brief passage in this life. For some, it is an afterlife for eternity at the right hand of God, or a burning in hell. For others, we reincarnate, coming back in different forms to have new experiences and to learn new lessons.For others, this life is all there is. We live once, due to some chance of evolution that gave us the consciousness to be aware of our mortality.It is hard to argue that one or the other belief is morally superior to the other. Those who say our life is the product of chance will argue that it makes it all the more special, something to be treasured, as the comments to the above post at the Pharyngula blog make clear. A belief that this is all there is is in no way an automatic license to licentiousness, crime, or a lack of moral character.A belief in one or another form of afterlife does not a moral person make, as the history of the crimes committed in the name of one or another god or religion also make clear.Morality appears to be tied to the individual himself in some way that has little or nothing to do with beliefs in God, religion, an afterlife, or a rejection of them.In the West, the crude forms of monotheism that reign have permitted the discussion between the two camps to degenerate to a very low level, as the above illustrates. McEwan paraphrases the belief in an afterlife as a certainty that "that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere". While this is a fair characterisation of the milk doctrine of Christianity, it is not at all a fair assessment of the idea of reincarnation, for a next life has no guarantee of being "better" or "more important". A believer in reincanaton would say that all there is is lessons, and that with karma, one could end up on the receiving end in the next life of the harm we have committed in this one: hardly a "better" life or an eternal paradise.Moreover, if the teachings of esoteric Christianity as preserved in the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church are close to the real teachings of the man known as Jesus, then the man worshipped as the Son of God by Christians who fear they will burn in Hell for eternity for not obeying His word was himself a believer in reincarnation.Many atheists say there is no scientific evidence for reincarnation.Hypnotists who have used what is called past life regression would argue that there is. We discussed the question and looked at some of this evidence in our podcasts on reincarnation. While the evidence is suggestive, it cannot be considered proof. And here we enter into the realm of individual difference, of the inner life and experience of different people. Is there something in us, or in some of us, that convinces us of the probability of there being some form of life after death? Something that is missing in others? We would suggest there is, in the idea of the organic portal. (There is a rich discussion on the topic of organic portals on the Signs forum.)On the other hand, there could be people who grasp onto the idea of an afterlife in much the way that is criticised in McEwan's essay above. They believe it because they have been programmed to believe it in church, with visions of fire and brimstone dancing in their heads. They believe it through fear, the fear of being eternally damned if they don't follow the rules. The belief in such an afterlife may well also be held by the organic portal, so belief or not in an afterlife cannot be used to distinguish between organic portals and potentially souled beings. What is more important, I would suggest, is that, no matter what decision one comes to, it be reached through one's own efforts and research, not by blindly following the ideas of an authority, be it religious or scientific.Nor should we conflate the issue of the organic portal with the question of morality. If an understanding of the distinction between organic portals and potentially souled beings is important, and we think it is, the distinction between moral beings and those without a conscience is even more fundamental and important. Here we are, obviously, referring to the difference between the psychopath and the rest of humanity.Fear is a powerful factor influencing the our lives. It seems to be hard-wired into us on a very deep level. It is so apparent that Freud decided it must so a fundamental part of our psyche and erected the notion of the super-ego around it. One source on the net defines the super-ego thusly:
SUPER-EGO: The super-ego is the faculty that seeks to police what it deems unacceptable desires; it represents all moral restrictions and is the "advocate of a striving towards perfection" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.67). Originally, the super-ego had the task of repressing the Oedipus complex and, so, is closely caught up in the psychodramas of the id; it is, in fact, a reaction-formation against the primitive object-choices of the id, specifically those connected with the Oedipus complex. The young heterosexual male deals with the Oedipus complex by identifying with and internalizing the father and his prohibitions: "The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more intense the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of discipline, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the more exacting later on is the domination of the super-ego over the ego-in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt" ("Ego and the Id" 706). Given its intimate connection with the Oedipus complex, the super-ego is associated with the dread of castration. As we grow into adulthood, various other individuals or organizations will take over the place of the father and his prohibitions (the church, the law, the police, the government). Because of its connection to the id, the superego has the ability to become excessively moral and thus lead to destructive effects. The super-ego is closely connected to the "ego ideal."
In short, the super-ego is the internal parent policing all of our thoughts and actions. It is fear-based, ordering what we can and cannot do according to rules that we have internalised. It may also be an accurate description of the mechanism of morality in some people. Comparing this idea with the stages of development of moral reasoning as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg, of Harvard University, in his The Philosophy of Moral Development, 1981, is instructive. He identified three stages:
1. Premoral (ages 7 to 10) Defer to rules and adult authority based upon expections of punishment and reward.

2. Conventional Level (beginning around 10) Behaviour guided by the opinions of others and the desire to conform. Obeying authority is a value in itself, without reference to punishment or reward or higher principle.

3. Post-conventional morality (During adolescence) Only 10% of the population (in the US in the 60's) attain this level. They formulate abstract moral principles and act according to conscience, not for approval from others or society. Reasoning is influenced by abstract and fluid concepts such as freedom, dignity, justice, and respect for life.
The ability to think fluidly using abstract concepts was missing, according to Kolhberg's study, in 90% of the American population in the 1960s. Given the influence of television and the media in the forty years since, one cannot imagine the situation has improved.There seems to be a correlation between fear, Freud's description of the super-ego, and Kohlberg's first two stages of moral reasoning. The third level, post-conventional morality, is different as it involves abstract thinking, an ability that is missing in a large percentage of the population. The ability to think abstractly and use "fluid concepts" such as freedom, dignity, and justice is missing from the psychopath. When the pathocrats around Bush use these terms, they are not using them fluidly, they are using double-speak, that is, they use them with a different meaning, a hidden meaning that is understood by other pathocrats while retaining their nobler meanings for the normal population. "Freedom" for the Iraqis means the enslavement to US and Israel. "Justice" means that US soldiers who commit war crimes and the politicians that order these crimes cannot be held accountable to the world community, to be judged and condemned.When a person with a conscience thinks fluidly using these concepts, it means one is able to apply them differently in different contexts, according to the essence of the situation. They understand that there are no hard and fast rules, no recipes, for understanding what is right action. Right action, or, to put it differently, good and evil, are determined by the specific nature of a situation. Of course, the psychopath would argue that he was doing the same thing. The difference, when studied over a period of time, would be that the psychopath would never make a choice that went against his own personal interests while the person of conscience would. At times, the right thing would mean putting another person's interests ahead of his or her own.Myers ends his comment on McEwan with the statement, "Are we going to be ruled by reason and the weight of evidence, or are we going to choose to believe in that which makes us most comfortable and reinforces our prejudices?"We concur. Trouble is, it is possible to seek comfort and the reinforcement of prejudices in science and reason as well as in religious belief. There is evidence that suggests the world is a much stranger place than science, in its strict, materialist manifestation, would allow, and there are many scientists who rule out such evidence because it conflicts with their world-view.