Michael Shermer:

"Heavens on Earth" (2018)

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The subtitle is a misleading: the book says very little about "the scientific searh for the afterlife, immortality and utopia". It's a great line to attract readers, but the book mostly discusses non-scientific myths. It begins by discussing our psychological relationship with death and God. It briefly touches on the ancient practice of burying the dead. Elephants passed the mirror test and they too seem to grieve for the dead. Then it discusses various ideas of heaven. what is heaven? A place somewhere in the universe, God’s home, and the place where you go after you die. In some religions it is also a sort of courthouse where your sins will be judged. After a brief, superficial discussion of philosophical issues and nonscientific theories of consciousness (the new-age kind), he presents the putative "evidence for the afterlife". Evidence for the afterlife is obviously non-existent. Shermer briefly mentions the belief in near-death experience and in reincarnation and in other psychic phenomena, and rational explanations/objections to them, but these are religious beliefs, which, like all religious beliefs, are impossible to prove wrong: people who want to believe them will.

This is followed by a philosophical discussion on the self. All the cells of your body change but you are still you. You don’t even look like you used to look but you are still you. Shermer divides the self in two kinds of selfhood: the point of view (POV) self and the set of one’s memories, the MEM self (although later, page 145, are both identified with the connectome, the set of all neural connections in the brain). At one point he explains why they are not the same: if a person’s connectome were uploaded to a computer and then turned it on, it wouldn’t yield the POV of that person. He states that a POV cannot be moved from its original brain to any other medium (page 154). But he never explains why not. So if you want to be resurrected, you need to make sure that both MEM self and POV self are reinstated. Shermer does not believe that simply duplicating the MEM self would do. Shermer basically refuses to believe that the POV can split in multiple POVs. His thought is experiment is about a perfect clone of him, who would believe and behave exactly like him, but wouldn’t be him from the moment that the close starts living his own life. Shermer does not accept the idea that one POV can yield two parallel POVs because he believes that there is only one “I”. Furthermore, Shermer believes that a perfect copy of the genome coupled with a perfect copy of the connectome is not enough to represent who a person is. He writes that a “human life” is also all the relations with other people and their life stories. I feel that Shermer mostly dances around terms, and semantics. A professional philosopher is probably not amused by his discussion.

Shermer has a chapter about the atheists who are using science to create immortality: the cryonicists (Robert Ettinger, Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle), who believe that the self is stored in the brain (it is the memories) and therefore immortality is about preserving the brain, the extropians (Max More), who believe in infinite progress, the singularians (Ray Kurzweil), who believe that a super-intelligent machine is about to be born, mind uploading, etc. Shermer’s argument against their beliefs, besides the point of whether they are technologically feasible any time soon, seem to be that the MEMself is not the POVself and that the POVself is the real self (something he never says explicitly).

That's it for the science. Then we get a discussion on the fact that we are living in the best age so far (thanks to technological progress and economic growth), a summary of recent utopian cults like the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, the Heaven's Gate cult, and Jonestown. He mentions the Soviet Union and various communist countries as "utopias" that killed 94 million people (an inflated number but that's not the point). Then we get an interesting digression into the motivation that drove domestic terrorists such as Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski: the decline of Western civilization. Many people have a pessimistic view of the future because they see a trend towards decline, despite the fact that they have lived in one of the most peaceful and affluent eras ever. This discussion leads to Wagner, Nietzsche and Hitler... and eventually to the alt-right movement in the USA. They were all based on the belief of a "decline" that had to be reversed. Trump's own motto "Let's make America great again" (borrowed from Mussolini) presumes a decline of the USA. This is all fascinating but hardly related to the title of the book. Probably just notes that Shermer had in the drawer and wanted to squeeze somewhere.

Instead of explaining how we can become immortal, Shermer concludes by explaining to us why we die: 1. because of the second law of thermodynamics (that all closed systems decay) and 2. because of the logic of evolution. He then reports theories of why cells age and die. He superficially discusses anti-aging therapies in half a page when in fact there are a lot and some of them are coming out of major universities. That's surprising because, given the subtitle to the book, that was precisely what i was expecting to find inside.

Instead, the last chapter is a philosophical discussion about the meaning of life, or, better, the meaning of death, and why we should face death smiling. He highlights the positive sides of dying: would you be more altruistic if you thought you'll never die? Most people give to charities when they realize that they are dying. Being reminded of our mortality brings out some of the best in us. He calls it "heaven on earth" and thus justifies the fact that he hasn't discussed scientific theories of immortality: who needs them when we already have paradise?

This book is in reality a meditation on death, how it shapes human psychology and even politics and history.

The book’s appeal is as a compendium of trivia related to death, with only a superficial account of scientific research in slowing down the aging process and extending life, and then a lot of philosophical discussion that, again, sounds weak.

I tend to agree with all his conclusions about the various disciplines and facts that he mentions, but I don’t think that he proved us right.