“Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle. And there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die.” These words from California Institute of Technology Physics Professor and Cosmologist Sean Carroll regarding the afterlife are nothing new these days. How many believers have heard these same things from other scientists? Too many to count.
However, with the argument being old-age and nothing new, you would expect that those who take such a position would familiarize themselves with a robust Christian response by now. While it appears this is not the case, I take this on as yet another opportunity to defend what I hold dear as the truth about life and the afterlife.
So, let’s get down to business, shall we?
The Claim That Consciousness Is Merely Physical
Carroll is adamant that no consciousness exists after our bodies decay into atoms. Once deterioration of the body has set in (an indicator that death has been achieved), Carroll says that consciousness ceases. But this presumes that consciousness is nothing more than physical, as blood, urine, saliva, or even human hair, are physical.
However, there’s just one major problem with this assumption: it isn’t true.
Consciousness isn’t purely physical. If it is, where’s the anatomical structure? Do we have a physical consciousness structure like DNA (with its double helix strands)? Who has seen consciousness in a test tube or on a slide for analysis under a microscope? How do we know that someone is conscious? Renee Descartes once said, “I think, therefore I am,” but he said it as a philosopher, not a scientist.
The reason? Philosophy pertains to matters regarding the meaning of life and what life is about, not science. Science pertains to the physical, as Carroll says above. Can someone submit a brain activity specimen in the local doctor’s lab as they would a urine, blood, or saliva specimen? No, not at all. A doctor could perform a brain activity test with neurotransmitters recording information (and so on; this lies beyond the area of my level of expertise), but even then, does that brain activity information show that a person is actually thinking about something in a particular moment? If you’re hungry and ready for dinner, is there a test that can show that? No. Perhaps your stomach starts making noises (which gives it away), but the stomach noises are an effect of hunger, not an indication of the origin of that hunger (that is, how you turned hungry in the first place).
What does hunger look like up close? To be sure, an image comes to mind of Garfield the Cat who eats everything on the table, but can we observe hunger? Can we observe pain? Can we observe fear under a microscope? How does a scientist prove fear exists?
When it comes to pain, how can a doctor prove pain exists outside of patient testimony (“I’m in pain”), an x-ray, a CAT/CT Scan, or some other test? And can someone prove via X-ray that a person is in pain? Perhaps if that test shows a sprain, broken bone, or some sort of impact spot or area on the brain, for example, or the knee. The existence of swelling in the knee can indicate deep arthritis, but it could also indicate an infection. What if the doctor runs all the tests he knows to run but still can’t figure out the cause of it? Surely, if these things are merely physical, there should be a known cause for them, right? Pain can be physical and have a physical cause, but what about someone who’s depressed yet there is nothing physically wrong with them? What can a doctor say to someone who is hurting inside but all the tests that have been run determine the person is in ideal physical shape?
But that’s where some would say, “Science is still discovering causes and effects.” Yes, science is still in discovery; however, that implies that science didn’t put the scientific laws in place, but merely “found” them. It is no different than the truth that Christopher Columbus, contrary to history books, didn’t discover America in 1492; he stumbled upon the Native Americans who arrived there much earlier. The Natives discovered America and were the first to do so, but not even the Natives created America. Even the Natives credited a Creator who was and is greater than themselves.
If consciousness is merely physical, then pain should merely be physical — yet it isn’t. Pain can’t be collected and observed under a test tube. There is a pain whose effects are physical (your body aches) yet whose cause or origin isn’t physical at all (but internal or emotional).
Wind can’t be observed under a test tube, either. Wind is another one of those “physical” things that we feel blowing against our faces on a windy day, but we can’t tell you what wind looks like. We can hear the wind at its worst, and feel the wind chill coming from it (it makes us frozen and cold, so we run indoors to avoid it), but we still can’t see what its anatomical structure is.
Animated cartoons do their best to portray a physical structure for wind, but we don’t really know what wind looks like. It’s why we draw lines coming out of the sky and give them something of a “curl” at the end of the drawing. The wind, to all humans, is “invisible” in that we cannot see it; yet we know it exists. The wind, like pain, or even emotional agony, isn’t observable to the human eye, but it exists, nonetheless.
The wind itself, like the sun, or even the pain that we feel, isn’t purely physical. And so, it’s a bit troubling when Carroll or some other individual (insert a name you’re familiar with or have read about or heard of) wants to argue that consciousness is “purely physical” because to assume that is to assume that consciousness is observable. It is observable, but only in its effects, not in its actual essence. When meteorologists discuss the weather, they have to mention the wind and how windy the day will be — though they can’t actually see what the wind looks like. They have to discuss heat, though they don’t know what the actual structure of heat looks like.
When it comes to non-physical, emotional pain, the wind, or even the existence of gravitational force, scientists have to “assume” these things exist — only because they feel the effects though they don’t see the essence of the thing itself. They can’t see the force, but they feel the effects and they assume it exists. Christians don’t physically see God or an anatomical structure of God, but they feel His presence, they hear Him speak to them in their spirit, and they see miracles happening around them every day.
In that regard, how is Carroll or any other non-afterlife-believing scientist any different than Christians themselves?
The Metaphysical Afterlife
If pain for example, or the wind isn’t merely physical, then what else could there be? What lies beyond the physical? In a word, the metaphysical. The word “metaphysical” comes from two Greek words, meta (beyond) and physis, referring to the physical and observable realm. So the word metaphysical 1) assumes a physical realm, since it is comparable to such a realm, and 2) assumes something outside or beyond the physical, visible, observable realm. The metaphysical, then, is invisible, not physical, outside the realm of the physical and earthly, and is something that cannot be physically observed.
Christians believe this, which is why we take comfort in John’s words in his Prologue to the Gospel that bears his name when he writes that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 John 1:1-2, NKJV). The mere fact that God’s Son came down into the physical realm implies that he came from the metaphysical realm, which scientific law cannot observe, prove or disprove.
History demonstrates that Jesus lived and died by crucifixion on the Cross. His body was taken down, wrapped, and placed in a tomb that no man had ever used, according to Scripture. Science supports the idea that Jesus lived and died by Crucifixion. What science cannot prove or disprove however, is that 1) Jesus is God and 2) Jesus came back to life after having been declared physically dead. Science cannot disprove these things because, why? Well, science is the study of the physical; as Carroll says above, “there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die.” What he means here is that the scientific laws cannot prove the existence of consciousness after someone dies. But this is really a “duh” statement, isn’t it? Because, after all, science can only speak on physical, observable things. When it comes to resurrection, afterlife, and God, science cannot speak on any of these matters.
Science cannot speak or comment on the metaphysical, only point to it (the wind’s invisible essence, or gravity’s invisible essence, for example).
First-Century Physician Disagrees With Dr. Sean Carroll
When it comes to the metaphysical, then, that which is beyond the physical, science cannot comment on it because science is consumed with the physical, and only the physical. But this is a problem of science’s biased nature when you consider that even science “assumes” gravity exists, though it cannot see it, and the wind exists, though science cannot plot its anatomical structure. Science cannot comment on pain that isn’t physical, and thus, cannot comment on the internal or emotional origin of pain (non-physical, mind you), or even the existence of consciousness itself. To study the essence of consciousness under a test tube is impossible because there is no specimen of consciousness that one can collect from another human being unless it’s strictly brain cells or brain matter.
Fortunately, for believers, there is a first-century physician who would disagree with Dr. Sean Carroll: his name is Luke, and he writes in the Gospel that bears his name of a post-death consciousness from a rich man who ended up in Hades:
19 “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’” (Luke 16:19-24, NKJV)
In Luke 16:23-24, the rich man (whose name we do not have on record) is “in torments,” and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.” According to the rich man, he was in Hades, in torment, and his tongue was tormented, on fire, hot, uncomfortable. He wanted Lazarus to cool his tongue. Even in the afterlife here in Luke 16, the rich man still felt tormented. Keep in mind that Luke had written in the verse just before these that “the rich man also died and was buried” (Luke 16:22), just as Lazarus died and was buried.
As Sean Caroll would say, the rich man was decaying and his body was being reduced to atoms; yet and still, says Luke, he was experiencing post-death consciousness in that he could taste how hot his tongue was and feel his tongue on fire. The rich man also had sight, for he knew he was in a flame and that Lazarus could come and cool his tongue.
How did the rich man experience this torment, “get his just desserts,” as many of us would say, if, at death, his consciousness was destroyed and ended?
Dr. Luke disagrees with Dr. Carroll here. I’m gonna agree with Dr. Luke, based on what we know about emotional and internal pain, as well as some diagnoses that tests cannot confirm.
Wrapping It Up
If consciousness is merely physical and ends at death, then it should be observable the same way that so many other natural resources and body organs are, for example. It is not. Dissecting a human would show the human’s skull or cranium, but there would be no way to observe brain activity. Brain activity ceases at death, Carroll says.
And yet, Dr. Luke says in Luke 16 that the rich man was buried but could still feel, see, and experience taste and torment. if there is no post-death consciousness, how can the rich man feel the heat on his tongue? How can he and Abraham, both deceased, have conversation with one another?
Some have said that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16 above) is nothing more than popular folklore of the time, but not every passage of Scripture that addresses post-death consciousness can be attributed to that.
What about Saul, going to the witch at Endor and asking her to pull up Samuel so he could speak to the deceased prophet (1 Samuel (1 Samuel 28:3-25)? We find in this very text that Saul, the living king who has lost the kingdom and the Spirit of the Lord (1 Samuel 16:14), now consults a medium/spiritist in a seance because he wants answers about the battle against the Philistines. Saul had banished the mediums and spiritists out of the land, in accordance with Scripture (1 Samuel 28:3), but now visits one because God no longer speaks to him in dreams, by the prophets, or even the Urim, the item used to evoke God’s presence. Saul says as much to Samuel when the medium pulls up Samuel’s spirit to speak to Saul (v.15).
Notice, too, that when Saul goes to the medium, he says “Please conduct a seance for me, and bring up for me the one I shall name to you” (v.8). It doesn’t appear here that Saul was trying this out for the first time, or that he was unfamiliar with seances. To the contrary, it appears as though Saul was quite comfortable with his request to the medium regarding Samuel. And we find that Saul, the living dead so to speak because he dies the next day, is talking with the already-deceased prophet, Samuel. Samuel tells Saul that what he told Saul when he was alive has come true; additionally, “And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 28:19).
How could Saul and Samuel, one living and one deceased, have a real conversation with real consequences, if the dead have no post-mortem consciousness? If Sean Carroll is right, how do we treat 1 Samuel 28? Is this just another “folklore” or “popular story in their day” text, too?
At some point, one recognizes that there is a part of man that thinks and feels that cannot be observed, that is, to use a word science detests, “invisible.” But Christians do not shy away from the word invisible because God has made the invisible visible (Romans 1:20-21).
Unlike scientists, however, Christians do not limit their study to what is physical; rather, we believe that the physical reveals to us the invisible, spiritual things and ultimately, the Invisible, Metaphysical One who is God Himself.