An exploration of “one of the most profound questions of the human condition, one that has driven theologians, philosophers, scientists, and all thinking people to try to understand the meaning and purpose of our life as mortal beings and discover how we can transcend our mortality.”
Despite never having experienced them, everyone holds strong opinions about death and the afterlife, writes Skeptic magazine publisher and Scientific American columnist Shermer (Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye, 2016, etc.) in this intriguing analysis of an area no one takes for granted. Young children don’t understand death, and adult circumlocution usually adds to their confusion (“He’s gone to a better place…”). By the teenage years, writes the author, “we understand that death is inevitable, universal, and irreversible. At the same time, most people also tend to believe that some part of life may continue into the next life, a tendency reinforced by most religions.” More than 100 billion people have died over the past 80,000 years; none have returned to life, and near-death experiences don’t qualify. In one of many no-brainers that fill the book, Shermer points out that anyone near death is, by definition, not dead. Another crowd pleaser, reincarnation, becomes a stretch if 10s of billions of wandering souls try to cram themselves into the 7.5 billion bodies currently alive. Since deeply held beliefs are often immune to evidence, the author’s blend of common sense, neuroscience, experimental findings, and history will attract few readers expecting a strong argument for the existence of an afterlife. This is a pity because Shermer proceeds to less controversial subjects. Vast life extension violates no natural law, so it may eventually happen. Legitimate scientists, as well as the usual eccentrics, are working on it. From hippie communes to the Soviet Union, attempts to create a perfect society invariably flop, and readers will find Shermer’s reasons why entirely reasonable. Finally, the author delivers a moving essay on the meaning of life.
Not a polemic but an ingenious popular-science account of how we deal with mortality.