Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia

Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia

A scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality from the bestselling author and skeptic Michael ShermerIn his most ambitious work yet, Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth...

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Title:Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia
Author:Michael Shermer
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Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia Reviews

  • Andrei Khrapavitski

    Finished reading Michael Shermer’s new book Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia. I found it a timely read, given my interest in future-related topics. I have had my fair share of arguments with both religious zealots and pseudo-scientific transhumanist believers, but even I needed a dose of high quality skepticism not to get too excited after reading authors like Kevin Kelly or listening to another podcast about the promise of CRISPR and life extens

    Finished reading Michael Shermer’s new book Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia. I found it a timely read, given my interest in future-related topics. I have had my fair share of arguments with both religious zealots and pseudo-scientific transhumanist believers, but even I needed a dose of high quality skepticism not to get too excited after reading authors like Kevin Kelly or listening to another podcast about the promise of CRISPR and life extension science.

    Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, is a perfect choice to bring anyone back to reality. But realism is not equal to existential pessimism. No, far from that! I had already recommended his extraordinary book Moral Arch as a supplementary reading to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. These two books can give you hope in humanity. So let’s see what Shermer’s latest offering will bring.

    Heavens on Earth begins by dismantling humans’ long-lasting belief in the afterlife. No sugarcoating here. If you believe in the Garden of Eden or Jannah or Tian, etc., prepare for the hard truth. No, you are not going to heaven. Good news, sinners, you are not going to hell either. Shermer not only explains why any version of afterlife you may think of is unlikely but offers reasons why our species tend to believe in life after death.

    After dealing with traditional religions, Shermer has some bad news for transhumanists and singularitarians, fans of Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Aubrey de Grey, Zoltan Istvan, and the like. No, singularity is not that near. No, you will not live forever. No, your diet won’t help. No, you will not get uploaded into a computer. And, with the current state of development, cryonics is probably waste of money. Bam! Some hard-hitting facts hard to swallow even for atheistic technology buffs.

    Shermer retells a sad story of FM-2030, a lifelong vegetarian and transhumanist who believed he would live forever, even wrote a book Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World. FM-2030 died from pancreatic cancer and was placed in cryonic suspension at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale. Cryonics is a growing industry. People want to believe that one day in the future when technology is there, someone will bring them back to life. Well… As I noted above, there’s a low probability this will ever happen to those who are currently frozen in such facilities.

    Spoiler alert! If you need any physical law that can settle the question of immortality once and for all, the second law of thermodynamics can do the job. Entropy is why you are alive and why you will not live forever. You can read more on it and the arrow of time and get done with the whole thing.

    Shermer is not a physicist. He mentions entropy and even the multiverse, but he doesn’t touch the topic of infinities. Modern understanding of cosmology leaves the door open for those of us who want to have, at least, a dim hope about coming back to life. Any organism, or even a planet, is a finite system (with a finite number of atoms and possible combinations), while most versions of multiverse are either infinite or near infinite systems. If you take infinite time and keep on shuffling randomly, you can get the exact match. Some physicists claim that there may be exact copies of you and me somewhere in the cosmos. In theory this can go on forever. If this gives you hope, so be it.

    But don’t delude yourself. Shermer approaches this topic from another perspective. He recalls Derek Parfit’s personal identity thought experiments. Those cosmic copies are more like your clones. Imagine that you are cloned. Would you agree to be killed while your clone lives on? As Shermer claims, what counts in terms of our personal identity is our memories and our POV self (the way we view ourselves). Even if we could split into two organisms with exactly the same memories, from that moment onwards we get to live separate lives. Here Shermer differs from Parfit who doesn’t consider POV self as relevant. But the conclusions they make are similar. On this later.

    Having ripped our hopes apart about afterlife and immortality, Shermer directs his skeptic eye to those who attempt at creating heavens (or utopias) on earth. Communists, Nazis, fascists, etc. Our species did some appalling social experiments in the past. But some contemporaries did not learn from mistakes. Shermer focuses on the phenomena of the Alt-right and the Regressive Left, two worrisome trends in the XXI century American and European politics. Two sides of the same coin. In fact, Alt-right is the direct consequence of the regressive trends on the Left, claims Shermer.

    So what are we left with? Is there no hope for us? To the contrary! We are living in the best period of human history so far. We should enjoy every moment of our brief existence. Organisms, Shermer claims, are survival machines for our genes to be passed along, reproduce and live on in other organisms. We should embrace the fact of our mortality and find purpose and meaning for ourselves. Shermer is right to claim that purpose is not the same as happiness. I know what he is talking about. Like when I’m running 10K or doing some hard coding task, the feeling is not happiness. But there’s a personal purpose in that. It gives me a short temporal meaning. We need to learn to create such goals. For instance, having children (whom I don’t have) can, in fact, make you less happy but can also create meaning for you.

    But is that all? Religious people have a sense of awe. What’s left for a person like me? I don’t believe in any deity. But I totally agree with Shermer here. Atheists can have a sense of awe. I do. This sense comes from the fact of being alive, being conscious and having what can be termed as a cosmic perspective. When I stroll through the parks of my beloved city of Vilnius, looking at squirrels or birds, trees and flowers, when I travel to the coast of Scotland or mountains of Norway, it is hard to ignore the beauty of our planet. In cities, it is hard not to get mesmerized by the art, magic of music, grandeur of architecture produced by the humankind. When I explore machine learning algorithms, I can’t but think that this math is to some degree an attempt at representation of decision-making inside of my own skull. And when I look at the stars, which I like to do when the weather allows, I can’t but feel awe at the vastness of what I see.

    Reading this book, I couldn’t but agree with the famous skeptic. Look around, this is the real heaven we have. Let’s just not turn it into hell for one another. Share good ideas, fight bad ideas. Be kind to those who share these precious moments with you. Cosmic perspective helps a lot. We are all on our little spaceship Earth. This is all we have. Let’s try not to screw up.

  • Dan Graser

    Michael Shermer is simply an indispensable writer and his latest volume is one of his very best. This is a complete survey and analysis of the various notions of the afterlife and immortality divided mainly between:

    1) How these claims have been scientifically tested and evaluated

    2) How such notions have been depicted throughout humanity's history in works of art, philosophy, and literature.

    3) How we have attempted to transcend our mortal limitations

    4) What we can reasonably expect in this area

    N

    Michael Shermer is simply an indispensable writer and his latest volume is one of his very best. This is a complete survey and analysis of the various notions of the afterlife and immortality divided mainly between:

    1) How these claims have been scientifically tested and evaluated

    2) How such notions have been depicted throughout humanity's history in works of art, philosophy, and literature.

    3) How we have attempted to transcend our mortal limitations

    4) What we can reasonably expect in this area

    Not only dealing with those familiar claims from the various monotheisms, Shermer casts an equally critical eye on those claims from New Age "gurus" (a nice way of saying charlatan), near death experiences, reincarnation, gruesomely cynical mediums preying on the desperate, as well as the efforts of some scientifically and pseudo-scientifically minded people seeking to extend human life as long as possible in the form of cryonicists, extropians, transhumanists, Omega Point theorists, singularitarians, and mind uploaders.

    There are many skeptical writers I enjoy but Shermer's worldview is probably the closest to my own and his indefatigability to examine the numerous spurious claims in this area of discourse with an objective, scientific mind is commendable and makes for mind-clearing, lucid reading.

    Where many volumes on this subject are just full of woo-woo, pseudo-scientific, and platitudinous nonsense, here there is only reason and science and yes; it is possible and necessary to speak of such matters in such terms. That we have been led to think otherwise is among the most frustrating things surrounding mature conversation of this subject and an act of intellectual abnegation. Shermer is a sagacious guide through this territory and his broadly focused work ends on the most reasonable and hopeful of tones. A must read.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    In this short book Shermer tackles the human mortality and beliefs about the afterlife with pertinent side forays into transhumanism, religion, and utopian ideologies we substitute for immortality and meaning. For such a short book a lot of ideas are touched upon from the starting point of human mortality we explore what happens physically at death, We move into traditional conceptions of the afterlife from antiquity and in the Abrahamic religions. We also cover briefly the afterlife possibiliti

    In this short book Shermer tackles the human mortality and beliefs about the afterlife with pertinent side forays into transhumanism, religion, and utopian ideologies we substitute for immortality and meaning. For such a short book a lot of ideas are touched upon from the starting point of human mortality we explore what happens physically at death, We move into traditional conceptions of the afterlife from antiquity and in the Abrahamic religions. We also cover briefly the afterlife possibilities open to atheists. These include cryonics, various technological options like gene therapy, medical interventions, and mind uploading into the cloud, even Frank Tiplers extremely speculative Omega Point Theory where a supercomputer of the far future resurrects us all into a simulated heaven. Shermer is skeptical of all these ideas and points out the problems with all of them. He touches on my favorite form of afterlife the true slacker option of letting huge amounts of time and space to randomly resurrect us after an inconceivably long period of time or huge expanse of space. He calls it something like resurrection and the googolplex. I call it Poincare Recurrence since that is the mathematical name for it. (see video below).

    He also explores ideas around mortality which could supply meaning to a finite life. He talks about terror management theory which he argues is too simplistic an idea. Human behavior could maybe be explained as partially the management of our fears about mortality but we have drives also around reproduction which also explains some of our behavior (again not all of it). He then talks about utopian ideologies to make a better world as a substitute for meaning if we must live a finite life. The Classless society is one recent utopia, the master races is another even darker vision (unfortunately making a comeback with the alt-right.) The 20th century is a guide for what happens with such projects. Hint they don't end well. Anyway, I am to the left of Shermer politically but he does a good job of pointing out the problems of getting carried away with Utopias especially ones based on shoddy thinking. I enjoyed this book but is only a teaser I would love to see his ideas more fully fleshed out. I will include a video on Poincare recurrence to give a flavor of my oh so slacker vision of the afterlife.

  • Jerry James

    If you're already a skeptic there is not much in this book that's surprising, but Shermer is always enjoyable. The end of the book was the most fun for me as he outlined all the things that provide meaning for life without the use of religion.

  • Book

    Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia by Michael Shermer

    “Heavens on Earth” is an intellectually provocative yet accessible book that explores the afterlife. Dr. Michael Shermer is a well-known skeptic, professor and accomplished author of many books. This enlightening 303-page book includes twelve chapters broken out into the following four parts: I. Varieties of Mortal Experiences and Immortal Quests, II. The Scientific Search for Immortality, III.

    Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia by Michael Shermer

    “Heavens on Earth” is an intellectually provocative yet accessible book that explores the afterlife. Dr. Michael Shermer is a well-known skeptic, professor and accomplished author of many books. This enlightening 303-page book includes twelve chapters broken out into the following four parts: I. Varieties of Mortal Experiences and Immortal Quests, II. The Scientific Search for Immortality, III. All Our Yesterdays and Tomorrows, and IV. Mortality and Meaning.

    Positives:

    1. Shermer is a gifted writer. He has great command of the topic and is able to convey his thoughts in a clear, concise manner.

    2. As fascinating a topic as you will find, the scientific search for the afterlife, in the capable hands of Shermer. “This book is about one of the most profound questions of the human condition, one that has driven theologians, philosophers, scientists, and all thinking people to try to understand the meaning and purpose of our life as mortal beings and discover how we can transcend our mortality.”

    3. Intellectually provocative. “To experience something, you must be alive, so we cannot personally experience death. Yet we know it is real because every one of the hundred billion people who lived before us is gone. That presents us with something of a paradox.”

    4. Makes great reference to other great authors. “In his book Immortality, for example, the British philosopher Stephen Cave contends that the attempt to resolve the paradox of being aware of our own mortality and yet not being able to imagine nonexistence has led to four immortality narratives: (1) Staying Alive: “like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this world—is the most basic of immortality narratives.” (2) Resurrection: “the belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.” (3) Soul: The “dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity.” (4) Legacy: “More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future” such as glory, reputation, historical impact, or children.”

    5. The debunking of the soul. “The soul has been traditionally conceived as a separate entity (“soul stuff”) from the body, but neuroscience has demonstrated that the mind—consciousness, memory, and the sense of self representing “you”—cannot exist without a brain.”

    6. Interesting look at suicides. “People desire death when two fundamental needs are frustrated to the point of extinction; namely, the need to belong with or connect to others, and the need to feel effective with or to influence others.”

    7. A look at Christian heaven. “Once you get to the Christian heaven, what’s it like? Since no one has ever gone and come back with irrefutable evidence, believers must once again be content with biblical or theological narratives, sprung entirely from the imagination of the narrators.”

    8. Addresses ideas about the afterlife and immortality from the perspective of spiritual traditions. “Dualists believe that we consist of two substances—body and soul, brain and mind (called “substance dualism” by philosophers). Monists contend that there is just one substance—a body and a brain—from which consciousness is an emergent property, “mind” is just the term we use to describe what the brain is doing, and the soul is just the pattern of information that represents our thoughts, memories, and personalities.”

    9. Philosophically provocative questions. “In other words, if brains are not the source of consciousness, then what is?”

    10. Examines evidence for the afterlife. “And we can ask ourselves what’s more likely: that NDE accounts represent descriptions of actual journeys to the afterlife or are portrayals of experiences produced by brain activity? Many lines of evidence converge to support the theory that NDEs are produced by the brain and are not stairways to heaven.”

    11. Debunked claims and stories. “It is revealing that the author of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, improbably named Alex Malarkey, recanted his allegedly true story, admitting that he made it all up.”

    12. Examines reincarnation. “In this sense reincarnation is a type of cosmic justice in which the scales are ultimately balanced, or life redemption in which wrongs are righted and the crooked is made straight, and it fits squarely into the Law of Karma, which holds that the world is just so justice will prevail sooner (in this life) or later (in the next life).”

    13. A look at biases. “Such longings make us all subject to a number of cognitive biases, most notably the confirmation bias in which we look for and find confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence.”

    14. Examines the soul. “The neurobiologist and philosopher Owen Flanagan summarizes the three primary characteristics of the soul: the unity of experience (a sense of self or “I”), personal identity (the feeling of being the same person over the course of a lifetime), and personal immortality (the survival of death).” “The vast majority of people base such belief on religious faith, but science tells us that all three of these characteristics are illusions.”

    15. So can science conquer death? “They are the cryonicists, extropians, transhumanists, Omega Point theorists, singularitarians, and mind uploaders, and they are serious about defeating death.” “As the name suggests, singularitarians are scientists considering singularity-level technologies to engineer immortality by, among other things, transferring your soul—the pattern of information that represents your thoughts and memories as stored in the connectome of your brain—into a computer.”

    16. A look at utopias. “In 1935 a former chicken farmer instituted the Society for Research and Teaching of the Ancestral Inheritance, devoted to the historical and anthropological search for the origin of the superior Germanic race. His name was Heinrich Himmler, and he went on to became the Reichsführer of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) and the titular head of the Reich’s die Endlösung der Judenfrage—the final solution to the Jewish problem. Such is the power of myth when put into action.”

    17. So was Atlantis real? Find out.

    18. A look at Hitler’s inspiration. “Adolf Hitler, in fact, read Chamberlain’s biography of Wagner, and he drew heavily from the racial theorist for his own ideas about racial purity, one of which was that for the Germanic peoples to survive, the Jews would have to be removed from German society.” “All such utopias are premised on a vision of a past that never was and a projected future that can never be, a heaven on earth turned to hell.”

    19. A look at why we die. “For scientists, the ultimate answer to why we age and die begins (and ends) with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which guarantees that the cosmos is running down and in the long run must come to an end hundreds of billions of years from now.” “To date, no convincing evidence showing the administration of existing ‘anti-aging’ remedies can slow aging or increase longevity in humans is available.”

    20. Interesting perspectives. “Participants reminded of global warming, for example, were more supportive of international peacemaking, in the sense that a threat to all of us reduces the concerns about the differences between us.”

    Negatives:

    1. Honestly, this wasn’t Shermer’s best effort.

    2. Lacks depth.

    3. No formal bibliography.

    In summary, I enjoyed this book. Shermer has a knack for covering very interesting topics and does so with the layperson in mind. I like Shermer’s approach and what keeps this book from five stars is the lack of depth and dare I say I sense the book was rushed. It lacks the awe I sensed from what I consider his greatest book, The Believing Brain. That said, I’ve enjoyed Shermer’s books and look forward to more material in the future. I recommend it!

    Further suggestions: “The Believing Brain” and “Why People Believe Weird Things?” by the same author, “Immortality” by Stephen Cave, “The Problem of the Soul” by Owen J. Flanagan, “Science in the Soul” by Richard Dawkins, “The Physics of the Future” by Machio Kaku, and “How to Create a Mind” by Ray Kurzweil.

  • Tim Gorichanaz

    We're obsessed with what happens after we die. We can't seem to help it. This is an engaging synthesis of different views on the matter, with a New Atheist tilt. It finishes with a "what's the point of life?" section much along the lines of Sean Carroll's

    .

  • Malathi Mrinal

    Approximately 100 billion humans have come and gone since the beginning of time, he notes, and not a single one has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife, “at least not to the high evidentiary standards of science.”

    “Heavens on Earth” does just that, bringing the high evidentiary standards of science to bear on heavenly claims. Shermer examines the claims of spiritual seekers, who see consciousness as primary, an essence from which all human experience is derived. He tries to take the

    Approximately 100 billion humans have come and gone since the beginning of time, he notes, and not a single one has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife, “at least not to the high evidentiary standards of science.”

    “Heavens on Earth” does just that, bringing the high evidentiary standards of science to bear on heavenly claims. Shermer examines the claims of spiritual seekers, who see consciousness as primary, an essence from which all human experience is derived. He tries to take these views seriously — especially those of his friend and intellectual rival Deepak Chopra, the most prominent American proponent of these ideas. He even attends a conference and meditation training at the Chopra Center in California. But in the end he is critical of Chopra’s lack of rigor, dismissing his writing and thinking as “gobbledygook” and “pseudo-profound bafflegab.”

    Like every Book of Michael Shermer :Heavens on Earth: is a must read

  • Kevin Rhodes

    For me, Michael Shermer is an acquired taste. I enjoy his TED talks and read his books, I subscribe to his email newsletter… but he’s one of those guys who absolutely and endlessly loves to debate , and I’m quite sure he’s never lost an argument in his life. For me, that approach to life gets old, and even though I could never win an argument with him, I really don’t want to. For me, reason has its limits, and when he pursues his arguments out to the max and minutiae, I find myself rolling my ey

    For me, Michael Shermer is an acquired taste. I enjoy his TED talks and read his books, I subscribe to his email newsletter… but he’s one of those guys who absolutely and endlessly loves to debate , and I’m quite sure he’s never lost an argument in his life. For me, that approach to life gets old, and even though I could never win an argument with him, I really don’t want to. For me, reason has its limits, and when he pursues his arguments out to the max and minutiae, I find myself rolling my eyes.. But on the other hand, the keenness and utter capacity of his intellect, the scope of his research, the breadth of his analysis… these things are staggering. The man does his homework. And somehow, he manages to communicate his deep and rich love of life, so you end up if not liking then at least appreciating him -- like that friend you wouldn’t give a hug but you appreciate because he keeps you honest and barks at your laziness. For all of these reasons, if you’re interested in the topics of this book, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  • Leonard Singer

    First two parts ugh; last two parts worth the read.

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