05/01/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2012

The Natural Selection of the Immortal Soul: A Thought Experiment (IV and V)

Note: These are the fourth and fifth parts of a nine-part essay I hope to post over the next week or so. The first three parts may be found here.

IV: Wishful Thinking?

Am I, like the anti-Darwinians, driven by fear of personal extinction? Is this thought experiment a product of wishful thinking?

I think not.

At one time in my life, when consciousness was untroubled, the prospect of oblivion filled me with terror. Now it is rather the the thought of an uncomfortable consciousness that gives me pause. I'm sure I am not alone in this. Most of us, I suspect, would prefer extinction to a bad trip, especially one from which there is no coming down. As the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman has noted, those unflinching realists who scoff at the notion of an afterlife may be the ones indulging in wishful thinking.

Most of the (rather flimsy) evidence suggests that the afterlife, if it exists, is -- for most people -- more happy than not. But the odds are not as good as I would like. Similarly, whatever comfort I might take in the thought that the dear departed may still be with us is outweighed by my distaste at the idea that they may be watching as we perform oral sex or pick our noses.

Nor am I driven by any personal experience of the paranormal. I am not a medium; in fact, in these matters I am probably an extra-small. Years ago, when Isaac Bashevis Singer came to dinner in my parents' sukkah on the holiday of Sukkot, I was abashed that none of us had tales of angels, demons, or dybbuks to share, grist for his fictional mill. For him it must have been a wasted evening. A decade or so later, just after my mother's death, he would have got an earful from my father -- but not from me.

Lacking remarkable first-hand tales to tell, I will briefly tell an unremarkable one. Years ago I was invited to speak at a conference in Australia. All my expenses were paid. My wife and four-year-old daughter came along, buoyed by frequent-flyer miles. Taking with me a laptop full of notes and fragments, I planned to write up the talk during the 25-hour flight.

Conditions on the flight were not conducive.

The next morning, having stayed up all night in the hotel room listening to a toilet that sang like a strange rainforest bird, I found myself, five minutes before my scheduled talk, walking toward the main building of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology like a condemned man toward the gallows, clutching a set of fragments that had not yet quite jelled.

As I walked, I prayed -- not to God, but to my grandfather Harry, who had died of cancer a few months before.

Approaching the building, I saw a fair number of people standing outside, among them the organizer of the conference. "We'll have to put off the session a bit," he apologized. "The fire alarm went off, they're trying to puzzle out why. Should be right in half an hour or so."

My mind having been wonderfully concentrated, half an hour was all I needed. The talk, despite a rambling quality which I plausibly blamed on jet lag, was well received.

I tell this story not for what it says about the dead (not much: fire alarms do malfunction) but for what it says about the living. I could just as well report my grandmother's firm belief that Harry, as spirit, gave her the cards she wanted when she played solitaire, or my sister's claim that he routinely helped her find a parking spot.

A few months before, while visiting my grandfather in Florida, I had heard him, in terrible pain, cry out Mama.

V: The Helpful Dead

The belief that the dead are able to help their living relations has been widespread among human cultures, past and present. It's the premise of one of the earliest forms of religion, ancestor worship. And surveys show that it is remarkably common among people of the modern West.

What kind of help are we talking about? How can spirits, presumed to be immaterial, throw their weight around in the material world?

Communication, I think, would be the easiest way. If survival after death means anything, it means survival of the mind. Mind, then, would be one thing the dead and the living have in common. That mind might find a way of communicating with mind is, if not obvious, at least not inconceivable.

What might the dead have to say to us?

They might offer advice. Whether it would be useful is an open question -- after all, we already get plenty of advice from living relatives, most of which we ignore. Yet a mother's kvetching is doubtless more impressive coming from the hereafter than from Westchester. Does new wisdom acquired in that new area code justify that new impressiveness? Maybe; or maybe the message is less important than the medium (so to speak). A smile from the other side might offer more comfort than whole chapters of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Such words as are transmitted need not be profound truths. They need only be psychologically useful to a particular person at a particular time. To take a well-sung example, "Let it be" -- the sentiment Paul McCartney's dead mother Mary allegedly conveyed to him in a time of trouble -- might be enfeebling fatalism for some, but for a control freak like Paul it was surely a helpful corrective.

On the other hand, the dead might have access to special knowledge. (True, I have no way of explaining why they should have access even to ordinary knowledge when their sense organs are mouldering in the grave, but this is one of many technical questions I will put off as long as I can.) The literature of psychic research is chock-a-block with dead relatives telling their loved ones not to get on a particular flight, which in due course crashes. (The cases in which the loved one gets on anyway, and the plane reaches its destination without incident, presumably go unreported.) If spirits are as mobile as they're rumored to be, it's not hard to imagine that one of them might spot the mechanic showing up drunk. Alternatively, if we suppose that the dead live in a dimension beyond time -- that they look down upon spacetime from above, as an airplane passenger looks down upon the landscape -- then their knowledge of the next day's news will be a no-brainer. (Admittedly, it's not at all clear how this extra dimension would fit the crude Darwinian framework I've set forth.)

Communication from mind to mind -- by dreams, visions, manifestations, inner voices, telepathy: the normal assortment of paranormal means -- would thus be one way for the dead to assist their living relatives and so increase their own inclusive fitness. Having access to special wisdom or special knowledge would be helpful in this enterprise but not strictly necessary. In death, as in life, just showing up may be eighty percent of success.

Next: Reverend Ancestors