Monday, 29 August 2011

Review - Is There Life After Death? The extraordinary science of what happens when we die. By Anthony Peake,

This book was thrust into my hands by a fellow magician, because she'd found it interesting and thought it might be my kind of thing. I think the author would have me believe that this was significant, a signal from my Higher Self who reincarnates endlessly into the same body, the same life-cycle, again and again.

For this is Peake's thesis - that we are each in one of the runs of our own personal, solipsistic, endless Groundhog Day. These repeats are an Eternal Return that differs only in tiny or great differences that increase with the degree of experience of the re-incarnating Self.

This book follows a pattern familiar from the science-mystic fringe: introduce a wacky and exciting idea, back it up with an unusual stretch of interpretation from quantum physics, then proceed to contrast 'Western thought' unfavourably with some interpretation of Eastern mysticism.

Peake kicks off with a dubious leap from the double slit experiment and the Copenhagen Interpretation, about which he writes one or two things few physicists would agree with.

Then it improves, with a good rundown of Bohm's Hidden Variable interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Then he presents the fascinating theory that input from our senses is 'buffered' until the buffer is full then released to consciousness, a sort of quantization of memory into packets. Which generally cannot be re-accessed - we are not talking about normal memory here, but the vivid memory of flashbacks, where a specific memory swamps consciousness.

Then he moves on to Pribram's holographic theory: (p90)
'In the same way that the image on a holographic photographic plate is a swirl of blurs and fuzziness, so it is with the universe "out there'. It is only when the lens of the brain, acting as a laser light on a holographic plate, brings out the three-dimensional image that the universe comes into being.'

He quotes Pribram:
'Maybe reality isn't what we see with our eyes. If we did not have that lens - the mathematics performed by our brain - maybe we would know a world organized in the frequency domain. No space, no time, just events.'
That is a stirring thought, and reminds me of how, in Northern myth, that drama is the primordial giant Ymir sacrificed by Odin and his two brothers to generate a comprehensible universe.

Then we're into Oliver Sacks-like meditations on what the weird zones of human neurology tell us about ourselves.

One of the unavoidable problems with a solipsism as encompassing as the one he seems to embrace is: How do you argue from the contents of your universe? How can I use quantum physics ideas, or neurological findings, to argue my position, when these sciences don't reflect any objective reality?

The idea that raw reality might have 'No space, no time, just events.', and that everything else is something we construct, is a degree of solipsism I can get with - the Woden-Vili-Ve in us hacks a (fairly) coherent universe from that timeless, stagnant Ymir confusion - but there is an Ymir there in the first place: solipsists tend to throw the Ymir of objective existence out with the universe we make.
He doesn't deal with this, doesn't justify his particular blend of facts from one direction and factless depths of solipsistic speculation on the other.

However, there is something very tempting about this idea. And it falls into that vast category of ideas which grow from that basic sense that there is something deeply, disturbingly wrong in our common grasp of what is happening in the world.

So why don't I 'convert' wholeheartedly to the belief system here?
Because, first, it violates Occams Razor, by sewing together a bunch of speculative ideas; and second, because I'm a constitutional pessimist, and this is one of those interpretations of the universe that attempts to rescue some degree of human-heartedness to what seems an indifferent or even hostile set of physical conditions. I suppose it succeeds in that, but it does seem rather harsh that we don't know that we are immortal. Surely if we're running the multiversal show, we would overcome that painful illusion?

I shall remain haunted by the core idea in this book, of serial virtual reincarnation, because it does explain a lot. Would I recommend the book? Yes, because it will give you an itch for the mystery.

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