Death is Not my Brain’s Friend – I believe in Neurology, not in God

By Giovanni Santostasi, Ph.D. | 19 June 2013

Robert Blair, The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life. (Credit: William Blake / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

One of the deleterious effects of believing in a religion is in the idea that through this belief one would be assured some form of afterlife. This is a very damaging idea because it is an illusion, a fantasy, a false hope.

In the past religion offered people the soothing feeling that the absurdity of a short existence would be resolved in the end.

It would have been more honest to accept Reality as it is, and to have tried to do the best with a short life, contributing to the wellbeing of present and future generations.

Today, we live in special times.

Through fast developing information and bio-technologies, through our amazing daily breakthroughs in understanding human physiology and nature in general, we are approaching a point where we will be able to defeat death, forever.

Death is not a metaphysical problem any longer; it is a technological one.

We can defeat death with modern biomedicine. We can do this, just as we have accomplished many other “miracles” through science.

Believing in the delusional “spiritual afterlife” that is the core of most religions, doesn’t allow people to realize that it would be much better to fund aging research than to donate to a church.

If people could realize that we are close to a solution to death based on reality, they would support this research. Actually, they would demand it.

Many people hope for an afterlife, but this is as delusional as believing in Santa Claus or fairies. They want it so badly that they make a complete nonsensical commitment to something that is clearly absurd.

This is paradoxical because if these people would support science, that religion often considers an enemy, they would be given all what religion falsely promised – eternal life.

The repertoire of experiences that a single brain can achieve is amazingly big. However, our brains are relatively similar in size, components and biochemistry. We have the same type of neurons and neurochemicals that a rat has.

What differentiates us from animals and what explains the difference in behavior and personality among people are the connections in our brain. What is different between me and you is the type of connections that you and I have, how neurons interact with each other, how they organize and get structured.

In a way, we are different but in a more important way we are very similar.

The human experience is differentiated more in subtle nuances than in fundamental, deeply alien ways. This why so many people like Coca Cola, and some Pepsi. Two choices but really very similar.

As different as humans are, I’m always amazed at how similar our thoughts, fears, and desires are, even across cultures, time, sex, age.

One can explain both how similar and how different we are in the context of modern neuroscience. The picture is not complete, not perfect yet, but we are coming closer and closer.

Some time ago, I went to a lecture, at the Department of Psychiatry, at UW Madison where I worked. The lecturer was showing how the injection of this particular neurotransmitter was increasing the voluntary feeding amount of a rat. And then, how another neurotransmitter was decreasing it.

He plotted a graph of the amount of the chemical substance injected in a very specific part of the brain versus the amount of feeding: he obtained a perfect straight line, indicating a perfect correlation between these parameters. Next, another region was inhibited and the opposite effect was obtained. It is just amazing, a complex behavior modulated by a simple substance.

This is not just true for rats. The same would happen in humans under the same conditions. In fact, the scientist explained that he would like to explore the application of this finding to help people with addictions. Maybe we are a little more complex than a rat but we respond to the same chemicals, to the same stimuli.

To some, it is scary that we are these physical connections between neurons, these electrical currents, these molecules… but why is this scary?

These neurons, electrical forces, molecules are fascinating, beautiful in how they work and behave, and part of the miracle of existence.

On the opposite end, I find that invoking spirits and elves and strange superstitions and the “soul” to explain what we are, is a shame. Why do this, when there is so much beautiful real knowledge about the nature of our beings, unfolding in front of our eyes?

Every day brings new and fascinating discoveries in neuroscience.

Part of what is discovered in our physical brain is that yes – love is a chemical… yes – our thoughts are electrical impulses… yes – our personality and memories are connections among neurons.

If we realize that when the brain dies we die with it, then is not just true, but alright.

When intelligent people who abandon a religious view of the world want to stick with the idea of “immortality of the soul” they usually invoke New Age nonsense such as, “because energy is conserved, and consciousness is a form of energy, after death my consciousness will be conserved.”

I’m so tired of this false argument. Please understand what energy is and understand the fundamental second law of thermodynamics. Conservation of energy doesn’t imply conservation of the highly structured and organized form of matter and energy that supports consciousness in our brain.

You need a material substratum to support a complicated, emergent property like consciousness and energy per se is not enough. The brain produces about 100 Watts of energy, like a typical electrical bulb but last time I tried to have a conversation with a light bulb it was pretty boring.

That is not reason for despair – it is good news and cause for action.

We can do something even about the problem of death. Science can find a way to extend life. What religion promised – Eternal Life – science can actually achieve.

Maybe not today, maybe not in 100 years, but one day it can and will happen.

Believing in the “after life” when it is not true, is like believing in Santa Claus simply because it would be nice if he did exist.

Let’s grow up and believe in people instead.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Giovanni Santostasi, Ph.D. is Associate Scientist, Neuroscience at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is interested in the study of consciousness, intelligence, and memory. He also studies the role of sleep in processing and storing memories. His research areas include computational neuroscience, neural network, and biophysics. He was previously Assistant Professor of Physics at McNeese State University.

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