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Afterlife: Does Physics Have the Answer?

From the ancient Egyptians to popular fiction, the question of whether an afterlife exists has puzzled and intrigued us for millennia. Now mainstream physicists have turned their focus to the subject, but few can agree on an answer.

In the words of the now famous scientist, Aaron Freeman, who wrote Eulogy from a Physicist, “According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.” Whether your views on his remarks align or not, he does make a valid point. We are a measurable mass of chemical and electrical energy, and that includes the lightning-fast synaptic transmissions that allow us to think, feel and make sense of the world.

Artistic impression of a man walking up stairs to heaven
Artistic impression of a man walking up stairs to heaven -Pixabay

Even when these processes stop, many believe that the sum total of our memories, emotions and that nebulous of all things, consciousness must go somewhere. If we are to take that law of conservation as fact, where does the consciousness go when our bodies can no longer support them?

In 2013, Freeman compared human existence to particle physics. He likened people who are looking for love to quarks in that they were attracted by strong forces. This seemed to spark a much larger debate with scientists such as Sean Carroll, Cosmologist and Physics Professor at CALTECH. Professor Carroll argues that if there was an afterlife, consciousness would have to exist as a separate entity to our physical bodies. He claims that no current or past research has been able to prove that this is the case.

Instead, Carroll proposes that consciousness at its most basic level is a series of atoms and electrons, which combine to form our minds, and that the laws of the universe prevent them from operating after physical death. Carroll is quoted as saying, “Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die.”

He backs his claim by citing the Quantum Field Theory (QTF), the belief in which there is one field for each type of particle. For example, a photon cannot exist on the same field as electrons, muons in another and so on, but this is no more than a current popular theory. Professor Carroll explains that if life existed in any form after death, tests on the quantum field would have discovered the presence of what he calls, ‘Spirit Particles’ and ‘Spirit Forces.’

Writing in the journal, Scientific American, Carroll says, “If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the standard model. Most importantly, we need some way for that new physics to interact with the atoms that we do have. Within QTS, there can’t be a new collection of ‘Spirit Particles’ and ‘Spirit Forces’ that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments.”

He goes on to say that, “Once this is accepted by all scientists, then they can truly begin to understand how the human mind operated.”

This strikes me as an exceedingly arrogant stance to take, particularly as his entire argument is underpinned by an unproven theory of quantum mechanics, that has yet to find some common ground with classical models in the formation of a Grand Unified Theory. Just because existing experiments have not detected those forces he glibly named, doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t exist. It might simply mean that the equipment currently available to researchers are not sensitive enough to detect them.

If you insisted that gluons and muons existed in Newton’s time, he would have thought you had consumed too much laudanum. No scientist worth their salt should be making such sweeping statements while there are still so many unanswered questions related to this intriguing area of investigation.

Woman surrounded by light
Woman surrounded by light - Pixabay

It’s true that anecdotal evidence of survivors from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) have possibly given the field of study a bad reputation, particularly as many of the experiences related can be rationally explained by the shutting down of certain biological functions after death. Speakers at the Big Think Conference 2017, attributed NDEs to the neurological processes that result from a reduced blood flow, coupled with abnormal electrical behaviour inside the brain, giving rise to the ‘tunnel of light’ experience.

Dr Sam Parnia, Director of Critical Care and Resuscitation Research at NYU Langone School of Medicine, states that the cerebral cortex is likely active between two and twenty seconds after cardiac arrest. The inference was that during that time, neural pathways would be influenced by a chemical cocktail of stress hormones released during heart death.

In another study, the Royal Society’s Open Biology, analysed the gene expression in dead mice and zebra fish, and discovered that over one thousand genes became more active after death. In a few instances, the spike in activity lasted for up to four days. Professor of Microbiology, Peter Noble, at Washington University said, “Can you imagine, 24 hours after [time of death] you take a sample and the transcripts of the genes are actually increasing in abundance? That was a surprise.”

Those expressed genes were predominantly those for stress, immunity and also those associated with development. Noble and his colleagues suggest that after death, the body undergoes a step-wise process of shutting down over time.

As fascinating as this study is, I have to wonder what evolutionary purpose this drawn-out biological shut-down serves. If there is no afterlife, why would some biological processes persist long after the body is incapable of survival?

It’s almost as though our minds cling to the physical form on the off chance of kick-starting the body, which would indicate that despite Professor Carroll’s insistence that laws of physics preclude such a possibility, our consciousness does have a state of being outside the physical body.

The journal, Current Biology (September 2017) published an article by French researcher, Angela Sirigu, from the Institut des Sciences Cognitives, where a thirty-five-year-old man was awoken from a fifteen-year vegetative state via stimulation of the vagus nerve. Together with Marc Jeannerod, the team applied electrical stimulation over a number of weeks to gradually revive the patient, long after others had resigned themselves to the belief that the patient’s consciousness was clinically irretrievable.

The vagus nerve is one of the longest running in the body. It begins in the brainstem and trails all the way down to the gut, connecting many major organs along the way. When activated, the vagus nerve triggers the noradrenergic pathway, which then initiates alertness sometimes to the point of fight or flight responses.

No one is sure why this stimulation was able to rouse the vegetative patient, but the fact that he was able to follow people walking around the room with his eyes after just a few sessions when doctors asked him to, would indicate that our consciousnesses are more resilient than some physicists would have you believe. The team are now undertaking larger more rigorous tests to explore their theories further.

If our consciousness can and does exist outside the confines of our physical form, there are a number of theories as to where it might reside. Professor Sir Roger Penrose and Dr Stuart Hameroff are working on their theory that consciousness might be the result of quantum gravity effects in microtubules present in our cells. If they are right, then together they have found the missing link between quantum mechanics and classical physics, which would go a long way towards explaining how our synapses can store the memories, experiences and personalities that make up who we are. If that information has a measurable mass, then where does it go upon death?

The late great Professor Michael Persinger of the Laurentian University, Canada, put forward a controversial theory based on the mathematical analysis of electrical brain output. His suggestion was that the sum total of our memories, thoughts, and feelings generated during a lifetime, vibrated at the same wavelength as the Schumann resonance of the Earth, around 7.83Hz and was therefore wholly in tune with the ionosphere in our atmosphere.

It was his hypothesis, that since the ionosphere was filled with charged particles, it could act as a giant repository for data, in much the same way that old fashioned magnetic tape could store music tracks. It’s certainly a novel idea, and one worthy of science fiction, but then with our current equipment, there is no way to prove or disprove his theory.

Charged particles in an auroral display
Charged particles in an auroral display - Pixabay

Whichever side of the fence your own opinions fall, I implore you to keep an open mind. If we accept that there is no possible way that an afterlife can exist, then more people will be overcome with existential crises and few scientists will ever try to improve the sensitivity of equipment in search of those elusive particles.

Until we can categorically prove where the consciousness is seated and where the energy is transferred to, we still have Schrodinger’s soul to keep hope alive.

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