A bottomless can of worms

A bottomless can of worms

by John Reese

When I attended Catholic school as a youngster, I was, of course, taught all about Heaven and Hell, and what awaited me after death. I remember in particular one teacher who said that there was no way to know that Heaven or Hell awaited us, because no one had ever come back to talk about it. It was just a matter of faith. At the time, I was disturbed by this lack of evidence. If I couldn’t be certain, if there was no proof, then I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with this Death thing!

Looking back on it, I am glad to have had teachers like this. Life after death is supernatural by definition – it’s not something you see in nature, and so you wouldn’t expect to find any evidence in the natural world, which, conveniently enough, is the world in which we live. As I was taught back in parochial school, it’s simply a matter of faith. However, there are many who think otherwise – believers in the paranormal, both with and without credentials, tell us that they have objective proof of life after death. That would be nice, but I don’t believe it for a second, no matter how many diplomas they have on their wall.

In the paragraphs that follow, I will attempt to show that, not only is there now no hard evidence for life after death, but there can be no such evidence. Contrary to what mediums, ghost hunters, and NDE researchers would have us to believe, it is not possible to prove the “survival” hypothesis, even in principle.

What we know as reality is based on interpretations of our senses, not on some direct pipeline to the Universe. What we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is limited by primate evolution – we only sense the things that are critical to our survival. Much of what we think we know, we don’t really know. It’s an interpretation based on past experience, which in turn, is limited by what we can experience (for instance, we can never know what a photon looks like).

Using logic, reason, and the scientific method, we have figured out an awful lot that is not directly perceivable through our senses. Once again, however, we are limited by what we can figure out. But that’s a good thing. It’s good to have limits, because that narrows down the possibilities when we try to find answers. If something is stolen from our home, we don’t have to hypothesize that the thief walked through a wall or teleported himself inside, or did any number of other impossible things. We only have to check the doors, windows, and (if it’s a really clever thief) the ventilation system.

This is where, if you want to posit a supernatural explanation for a natural (observable) occurrence, you are opening up what I call the “Bottomless Can of Worms”. For, although there is a limited number of natural explanations for any given occurrence, there is an infinite number of supernatural explanations. All bets are off! It could be anything, because in the supernatural world, anything is possible!

Here’s where we reach the crux of the matter: Although there is no limit to supernatural explanations, True Believers think that they know exactly which of the explanations is applicable to their own experiences. This is quite a feat! Finding a needle in a haystack, by comparison, would be easier than finding your own head.

Let us take mediums as an example. Believers in these supposed conduits to the afterlife think that the information provided by mediums is compelling proof for life after death. Putting aside the problems with the evidence, usually anecdotal or obtained through sloppy methodology or analysis, we have to consider (assuming the evidence can be trusted) what has actually been demonstrated.

Okay – a medium has provided information about our beloved departed Great Aunt Trudy, something only Trudy would know. Of course, she’s dead, so how would we corroborate this? Well, for our purposes, we’re going to put such doubts aside and take the evidence at face value. The information has been confirmed as true, and there was indeed no way it could have been obtained by natural means. Now what? Can we conclude from this:

  1. The information came from a conscious entity?
  2. That entity is Great Aunt Trudy?
  3. Great Aunt Trudy has not been so altered by the experience of turning into a ghost that her identity is now fundamentally different?

The last point is an important one. In the afterlife, are you still the same person? Something else that bothered me in parochial school was the assurance that, although my body would die, my soul would live for all eternity. Well, that’s great for my soul, but what about me? Is my soul me? Is it part of me, or am I somehow part of it? No one ever answered this question to my satisfaction. Of course, no one knows.

Let us consider a few other supernatural explanations for the medium’s success:

  1. The medium can read minds
  2. Satan, after devouring the soul of Great Aunt Trudy and assimilating her memories, is pretending to be her, “Little Red Riding Hood” style.
  3. The medium is in psychic communication with a parallel universe where Great Aunt Trudy is still alive.
  4. The medium has traveled back in time, talked to Aunt Trudy while she was still alive, and returned at the exact same moment he/she left.
  5. Trudy has been reincarnated as a tapeworm larva lodged in the medium’s brain.
  6. At the moment of Aunt Trudy’s death, a separate, non-corporeal entity was born and given all her memories. It may even think it is Aunt Trudy, but it is not!
  7. The medium is omniscient, and thus does not need to communicate with anyone to obtain the information.
  8. The tapeworm in the medium’s brain is omniscient.
  9. The medium devoured the soul of Aunt Trudy, etc., etc.

As I said – a bottomless can of worms. All we can say for sure (since all natural explanations have been ruled out) is that something paranormal has happened. There is still no proof of life after death. To prove it, we would have to eliminate all alternative hypotheses (an impossibility, since they are limitless). Alternately, we could make some predictions to demonstrate the explanatory power of the hypothesis, and see how it plays out. This is also a fruitless endeavor, because in the supernatural world, where anything is possible, there are an infinite number of causes for any given set of effects. In other words, a successful prediction tells us nothing.

From my experience, many true believers would react predictably upon seeing the above list: The explanations are ludicrous; I just made them up; millions of people believe in life after death, but no one believes in any of this; etc., etc. Most skeptics are familiar with these fallacies, and the believer’s infuriating lack of ability to recognize them as such.

What they are trying to do, in this case, is put the lid back on the Bottomless Can of Worms. Sorry, but the Bottomless Can of Worms is not resealable. You can’t remove all rational limits to possible explanations, then arbitrarily slap your own limits (defined personally, culturally, or otherwise) back on there. It is meaningless to argue whether an imaginary little figure is a leprechaun or a fairy, because neither exists except in fantasy. If you want to believe in fantastic things with no basis in reality, go ahead – just don’t tell me that one implausible thing is somehow more plausible than another, just because you say so.

Unfortunately, I don’t need psychic powers to predict that many, many people, perhaps even most people, will continue to open that bottomless can of worms, grabbing a handful of their favorites and pretending the rest are not there. I would have no problem with this, if they didn’t insist on waving them triumphantly in my face. In short, at the risk of perpetuating a bad analogy, I think the world would be a much happier place if people just kept their worms to themselves.