05/22/2012 12:36 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

The Natural Selection of the Immortal Soul: A Thought Experiment (VI)

Note: This is the sixth part (more or less) of a nine-part essay that I am posting over the course of "a week or so," which in my dialect means at least a month. The first part may be found here.

V and a half. A Clarification

When I told a friend in London that some readers had accused me of highjacking a powerful scientific theory in order to prove my religious beliefs -- in effect, of putting a gun to Darwin's head and making him to fly me to heaven -- he said, "Maybe you should have called it a thought experiment."

It was a joke, of course: I had already attached that subtitle to the first two installments of the series. But as some readers seem to have missed all the cautionary road signs I've planted so far, I will add a few more.

This is not a theory I am trying to prove. I am not trying to prove anything -- least of all my "religious beliefs," which are, in any conventional sense, negligible. If you put a gun to my head and asked me if I believed in an afterlife, I would say no. Or, more likely, I would equivocate (which I am quite capable of doing even at gunpoint) and say that I put the odds at about one in three. (By "afterlife" I mean survival of the individual mind, not some sort of mystical union with the universe, which I find actuarially more challenging.)

If you then asked me to give the odds that there is an afterlife and it has a Darwinian explanation, I would shrug (very carefully) and say, "Maybe one in 15."

Why, then, do I pursue this thought experiment, given that it matches neither my temperament (squeamish) nor my experience (subnormal in matters paranormal), and that I give it only a small chance of corresponding to reality?

I pursue it because it is, as Oppenheimer said of the Manhattan Project, "technically sweet." Following Darwinian logic, we end up in some unexpected places. Of course, to get there we must accept, heuristically, the premise that the human mind might be capable of existing independently of the neuronal activity on which it usually depends. While that is not a proposition I would bet on, neither is it one I would reject out of hand. Apart from the hearsay evidence of folklore, religion and esoteric practice, there is the vast literature of "near-death" and "out-of-body" experiences, including some cases that some credentialed scientists consider to have some objective corroboration. Finally, there are the first-hand stories I've heard from a few trusted friends.

Not much to go on, true. But given how little we know about consciousness, it's enough to let me suspend my own materialist bias and accept, for the length of this thought experiment, the premise on which it rests. Those for whom such a suspension is impossible need not be detained by this essay. Those for whom it is possible will, I think, find these speculations only a few degrees more speculative and untestable than numerous others, often by reputable scientists, on the origins, nature and destiny of art, music, language, love, conscience, consciousness, life, matter, energy, the cosmos and other things that may have slipped my mind. Granted, most of those speculations have the advantage of trying to explain things that are known to exist, rather than things that are merely believed by some people to exist. But I don't mind working under a slight handicap.

VI. Reverend Ancestors

According to Stanley Cavell, watching a movie is like being dead: you are hidden in darkness, effectively bodiless, watching life unreel but unable to intervene.

According to the late essayist Jerry Stern, being a parent is like watching a movie: you want to shout, "No! Don't do it!" -- but even if you do, it will have no effect.

Rub the two similes together and sparks fly, as from fur in the dark.

Maybe Cavell is wrong and being dead is more like watching a play from the wings: though mostly unseen, you can coach or heckle, make mischief or smooth frayed nerves.

Maybe Stern is right and some living parents feel deader than dead, in the sense of being dead wood: utterly ineffectual. And maybe some dead parents feel as if they're still alive and can't help helping, meddling, kibbitzing.

Would kibbitzing be the limit of their powers, or could the dead be helpful in a more concrete way? Could they intervene directly in the physical world?

In folkore and the annals of psychic research, they routinely do. Tapping, rattling, lifting, shaking, even the materialization of foreign objects ("apports") are, for what it's worth, standard features of the séance. Tales of helpful meddling by spirits -- such stuff as nudging a skier away from a precipice, hiding a passport so that a fatal flight will be missed or apporting a parking space at 7:45 p.m. a block away from a Broadway theater -- are legion. They are, to be sure, even harder to swallow than reports of mere communication. (How, one wonders, do ghosts have it both ways, drifting through some solid objects while finding firm purchase on others?) My point, however, is not that spirits exist and do these things, only that many people who think spirits exist think they do these things.

They have been thinking it for a very long time.

Ancestor worship (or, if you prefer, veneration) is found in cultures spanning a vast stretch of time and space: from Egypt to Rome, from China to India, from the Philippines to Celtic and Teutonic Europe. Significantly, it is nearly universal among indigenous peoples in the hothouse of human evolution, Africa.

The premise of ancestor worship is that the dead can be helpful in direct, practical ways: that they can bring game, or rain, or a copious harvest. In Sulawesi, Indonesia, that belief is embodied in yard-high wooden effigies called tau-tau that are fashioned when family members die and are set on ledges outside the vaults, carved in limestone cliffs, in which they are buried. The attitude of the tau-tau is one of watchful care: the right palm facing sideways to receive blessings from heaven, the left upward to transmit those blessings to the living.

Or consider this prayer traditionally recited by a merchant clan of Huizhou, China, at the spring festival of Qing Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day (from Nancy Zeng Berliner, Yin Yu Tang, p. 19):

"Being prostrate [in front of the tombs of the ancestors, I am] aware that it is from the souls [of our ancestors] that our good fortune has come, and it is they who make the offspring more and more prosperous with the passage of time. ... Being prostrate [in front of the tombs of the ancesstors, I] wish your frozen souls will stay clear and your jadelike spirits will be as active as when you were alive, so that you will benefit your sons and prosper your grandsons and so that they may inherit the good fortunes you had before. Every one of your offspring will be noble and famous, and they will have gold and jade piled up. ... The fame that the family holds will spread as melons' vines do, and the fortunes we enjoy will develop as crickets reproduce. Whenever [the people of this family] try to obtain something, [they] shall achieve it. When [they] engage in farming, the sunshine and rain will alternate in a perfect way. When [they] devote themselves to learning, [they] will be successful in examinations and receive high official posts thereby."

A tall order, this, asking of these "active" spirits a dizzying range of interventions in matters social, economic, even meteorological. Whether Chinese in the age of Foxconn still credit the ancestors with such powers is unclear, but in 2008, Tomb Sweeping Day -- an observance perhaps 2,500 years old -- was declared a national holiday in the People's Republic.

The ancestors' love is not unconditional. Ancestor worship is just that: forebears must be buttered up with liturgy, sacrifice and behavior they approve of, lest they become peevish, withhold their boons, even punish their errant offspring.

This, however, is no obstacle to our project. The dead are people, too. Like the living, they have complex feelings and are not pure Darwinian agents. Dead parents, like living ones, can lose patience with wayward children. And by keeping the family on the straight and narrow, they may even improve its long-term success.

Next: Saints Preserve Us