How delightful that after so long you should again be seeking my counsel! I remain, of course, your ever-affectionate Uncle; but what a tizzy you seem to be in! I suppose it is understandable. Here you are, a junior devil – still only a junior devil, alas – and you find that the soul you have been set to ensnare has suddenly become a leading champion of the Enemy! Eben Alexander, a neurologist of good standing and therefore surely our rightful prey, has had a near-death experience, and on his recovery has published a book sensationally claiming that he now knows the truth of the afterlife at first hand. Why me, you complain in whining tones, why does it have to be me that gets the Celebrity Christian?
Please compose yourself. As a matter of fact the situation is nothing like as bad as you suppose; in fact I will venture to say that it is excellent. In the first place you talk as though Dr Alexander had undergone a miraculous conversion, but in fact is it not the case that he was always a declared Christian? Of course, we should prefer him not to be a Christian at all, but if it must be so then a Celebrity Christian, I assure you, is the very best kind he could be. Consider, to begin with, the opportunities for that most useful sin, spiritual vanity. I say opportunities, but are we not in fact dealing with a sin which is already fully realised? The symptoms of vanity are bad enough in those people who merely insist on telling one about their dreams; this fellow believes his are a Divine revelation which we must all read about! I hardly think Dr Alexander, in the quiet of his own mind, can suppose himself to be much less than a saint – and then which of the saints could claim to have the further distinction of being a proper scientist? A neurosurgeon, to boot! He surely feels that he has been called to a high and lonely eminence. Apart from its inherently damnable qualities, this vanity will encourage a misplaced feeling of certainty and divert his attention away from the very area – his own failings and imperfections – which most need his attention. And of course it is always especially delightful when a man’s religion is the very thing that helps drag him Hellwards.
In passing we may note that while firm faith is highly adverse to our cause, a feeling of scientific certainty about God and Heaven is very helpful to us. The humans forget that faith can only exist where there is doubt (otherwise why would the Enemy leave them to work things out for themselves in that perverse manner of his?) and forget that if they behave well merely in order to get into a scientifically established Heaven, their acts are self-interested and lack true virtue. Our Lord Below once pointed out to the Enemy how well this all works for us: look, he said; to be virtuous the humans must not be acting for reward, so only someone who doesn’t believe in Heaven can really be good. Only the atheists have an opportunity of disinterested virtue – and obviously only the believers have faith; so between the two tests virtually no-one can qualify for Paradise. No wonder, he said, that the Pearly Gates stand almost unused, disconsolate angels telling each other hopefully that surely this year a couple of people will get in, while all the time the mouth of Hell gapes and swallows, gapes and swallows, a thousand miles wide every time. I’m not asking you to concede defeat in any humiliating way, Our Father Below explained to the Enemy, all I’m saying is, be realistic – let’s get round a table on this one and see what we can work out? I regret to say, dear nephew, that these very rational and reasonable overtures were summarily rejected.
The second splendid thing about a Celebrity Christian is the scope for humbug. It’s virtually impossible for these people to be completely honest. One of Dr Alexander’s claims to a special status for his revelation is that, uniquely, it was scientifically established that his ne0cortex was entirely inactive throughout the period of his absence; established by neurological investigations and CT scans. Now as a neurosurgeon Dr Alexander must be well aware that even fMRI scans only measure neuronal activity via the proxy of blood flow (albeit it’s a fairly good one), and that CT scans don’t measure it at all, merely looking for damage and possible bleeding. The ‘neurological tests’ we may confidently take to be little more than the observation that he was unresponsive while unconscious. None of this would actually prove that his neocortex was completely inactive. Even if it were, a scientist of Dr Alexander’s standing surely knows the evidence that dreams and dream memories may be generated almost instantly at the point of awakening: they do not have to have occurred in real time. So on two counts it cannot be shown that he was having experiences while his neocortex was ‘dead’. We need not accuse him of direct dishonesty over this; but he clearly isn’t going out of his way to correct any misunderstanding which might arise and be helpful to his case.
At the same time he realises quite well at some level that in recounting his vision he isn’t telling the strict and literal truth. Does he suppose that those high cheekbones possessed by his female guide were real cheekbones, of real bone with real marrow, fed by real blood with real haemoglobin oxygenated by contact with real air? No: if he thinks about it all (which you should discourage, by the way) he thinks the cheekbones were spiritual, or metaphorical; but he has to keep saying they were cheekbones, because if they weren’t real, why should we suppose he was really in Heaven or that any of it was actual, rather than simply a set of absurd noodlings by a man who was half conscious? Once that gap has opened up between what a man says and what he knows to be the strict truth, the beetle of humbug is in place and we can begin to force the gap wider; keep him thinking that he has to make allowances for what simpler folk can cope with, and within a few years he’ll be thinking of himself as peddling a mere metaphor for a sophisticated truth from which in fact all honesty and semblance of real religion has long since leached away. Any tiny, dangerous fragment of real mystical experience which Dr Alexander may have had will be quite lost under a heap of things he thinks it judicious or appropriate to say or think. It isn’t likely, of course, that Dr Alexander had a genuine mystical experience of any kind, even in a fleeting, momentary form, but it’s just the sort of cheating the Enemy indulges in now and then, letting the little vermin have an uncovenanted fragment of the truth in amongst the falsehoods which they actually sought out for themselves.
Of course you will want to keep Dr Alexander from realising quite how absurd his noodlings are; in this respect I think we can be proud of the work we have done within the education system. A man like Dr Alexander can pass right through to the highest level of academic attainment these days without ever reading Plato or encountering any of the classical texts or poetry which might enlarge his cramped imagination. If we were now to reproach such a man for expressing his vision in terms fit only for a child’s comic paper, we need no longer fear that he will apologise and try harder, or even issue a manly rejection of the triviality of our complaint when set against the importance of his message; no, far likelier he will embark on a gratifyingly silly defence of comics as an imaginative medium and mature art form!
Naturally others, by contrast, can be encouraged to realise in full the absurdity of the noodlings: another great benefit of Dr Alexander’s intervention is the heart it will put into our friends the atheists. If this is the tosh we are up against, they’ll think, we need not work too hard. I dare say Professor Dawkins will allow himself an extra glass of port and perhaps decide he can cancel one or two of his more tedious public appearances. This is all good in two ways: first, of course we like the atheist cause to prosper; but also we like people to relax into their slogans and their easy rhetoric. We like the well-worn clichés. We don’t want anyone impelled to try a bit harder to come up with new ideas on either side. The last thing we want is for people to be prompted into genuine fresh, open-ended thought; and I’m sure you’ll take good care that never happens with Dr Alexander’s revelations.
Your affectionate Uncle,
Apologies to C.S. Lewis, and to readers who notice that Screwtape’s theological acuity and literary gifts seem to be a bit below his old level. I should add Lewis’s customary warning to readers: Screwtape, like all devils, is an habitual liar and nothing he says should be taken at face value. In passing, it’s worth noting another thing about near-death experiences: materialist champions of artificial intelligence are often accused of wanting to change the meaning of certain words – ‘intelligence’, ‘learning’ and so on – to favour themselves: but it seems that some on the other side are just as bad and want to monkey with the meaning of that simple, homely old word ‘death’!
What about it, though: could our consciousness possibly survive death? There has always been rather strong evidence that consciousness arises from the activity of our brain. Stop the brain with a blow to the head and you get unconsciousness: stop it permanently with a slightly harder blow and you get death. Over the last hundred years or so the correlation has been worked out in more and more detail and the empirical evidence of exquisitely detailed correspondences is pretty overwhelming. Although we don’t yet have a scientific explanation of consciousness, the size and shape of the gap where one might go is becoming clear. In fact, I should say it’s now rather difficult to see how the kind of God envisaged by Lewis could be conscious; never having had to face the challenges of survival on the ancient savannah which presumably shaped the evolution of the human brain, and not having any neuronal apparatus, it’s becoming hard to imagine how He (or Screwtape) could possibly manage it. As a matter of fact I suspect that Lewis and his fellow Inklings had a slightly unorthodox neoplatonic conception of God which they partly kept to themselves; but that’s another subject.
We can arrive at a similar conclusion about our own physicality without being so brutally reductionist. When I sit down and think seriously about what day to day life as a disembodied spirit would be like, I find myself in some difficulty. With no eating, sleeping, walking around or working, I don’t quite know what would be left of my life. Perhaps if there is a spiritual internet I could carry on blogging: surely the discussion of the mind itself is a sufficiently immaterial activity to go on after death? Well, maybe: but my motives for doing it all seem to be based in my animal nature. Curiosity – the way the primate brain goes on demanding to be fed, whereas the feline one obligingly goes to sleep once the stomach is full – is part of it; a vague fear that I don’t basically know what is going on here (anywhere), which no doubt relates to simpler nervousnesses out on that ancestral savannah; the acquisitive pleasure of having ‘got’ something, even if only an abstract argument; they all have their roots in biology and would probably cease to influence my ghost. If so, what would that ghost amount to, and how much would it have in common with the robustly biological animal which pressed the keys to create this text?
It could still be that although our mental life arises from neuronal activity it has a spiritual dimension, but it seems to me that the contest is almost a default win for materialism because traditional dualism barely offers any view as to how spiritual consciousness actually works. An honourable exception is the theory offered by Sir John Eccles with Karl Popper; but their psychons seem to me to mirror neurons a little too closely.
There’s scope for a panpsychist theory whereby our consciousness relapses into its constituent parts after death; but although those parts would still be conscious to some degree it wouldn’t be our distinctive individual consciousness, so to my taste it’s not much better.
What then, about a thoroughly materialist survival? Could the details of our neuronal activity be recorded and then replayed in some suitable medium – or could our neurons gradually be replaced by silicon? I put aside here the Searlian theory that consciousness requires some as-yet unknown special property of neuronal tissue, because hypothetically we can grow artificial neuronal tissue and use that if it’s really necessary. My concerns here are to do with identity. It might be possible to replay an exact copy, but a copy isn’t me; and if I gradually get replaced, won’t I be gradually phased out in a similar way? The fact that I might never know it and might be replaced by a very similar individual is not really enough. I put aside here also the idea that neuronal replacement is theoretically impossible, that the process of neuronal interaction is such that for esoteric reasons it cannot be stopped and restarted or bits replaced; although that’s an interesting hypothesis it doesn’t look as if things work like that.
It does look, though, as if our essential neurons never do get replaced in the normal course of events. We do actually correspond in relatively simple physical terms to a definite set of neurons that last us our whole life; and when they go, we go. Without proving anything absolutely, I think that gives quite a bit of weight to my fears about the effect of substitution on my identity.
It’s not life after death, but what, for the sake of completeness, about just going on as we are: what about getting that same set of neurons to last forever? Let us, as Woody Allen put it, not live on through our work, but live on through not dying. I don’t know why that should be impossible, but I suspect it is. It is noteworthy that remaining young and fit indefinitely should surely have the best possible survival value; yet all the large organisms produced by evolution die. It looks as if we’re up against some fundamental constraint.
My own conclusion is that death is indeed inevitable, final, and definitive. That is an unpleasant prospect, but perhaps when I am grown up I will at last be calm and clear enough about it to be able to tell the assorted merchants of immortality what I think is actually the final truth; one good life is enough.