ALPHABETICAL BRAIN™ VOCABULARY
OF SECULAR SCIENCE STARS
May 28, 2020
HEAVENS ON EARTH:
The scientific search for the
afterlife, immortality, and utopia.
by Michael Shermer.
Henry Holt, 2018 (i-xii, 305 pages)
PROLOGUE — Memento Mori (1-
PART 1 — VARIETIES OF MORTAL EXPERIENCES AND IMMORTAL QUESTS ()
1) A LOFTY THOUGHT — IMAGINING MORTALITY (11-
2) WHAT DREAMS MAY COME — IMAGINING IMMORTALITY (33-
3) HEAVENS ABOVE — THE AFTERLIVES OF THE MONOTHEISMS (48-
PART 2 — THE SCIENTIFIC SEARCH FOR IMMORTALITY ()
4) HEAVENS WITHIN — THE AFTERLIVES OF THE SPIRITUAL SEEKERS (69-
5) EVIDENCE FOR THE AFTERLIFE — NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES AND REINCARNATION (84-
6) EVIDENCE FOR THE AFTERLIFE — ANOMALOUS PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIENCES AND TALKING TO THE DEAD (107-
7) SOUL STUFF — IDENTITY, REPLICATION, AND RESURRECTION (120-
8) AFTERLIFE FOR ATHEISTS — CAN SCIENCE DEFEAT DEATH? (131-
PART 3 — ALL OUR YESTERDAYS AND TOMORROWS ()
9) ALL OUR YESTERDAYS — PROGRESS, DECLINE, AND THE PULL OF PESSIMISM (161-
10) ALL OUR TOMORROWS — Utopias and Dystopias in Fiction and in Fact (178-
PART 4 — MORTALITY AND MEANING ()
11) WHY WE DIE — THE MORTAL INDIVIDUAL AND THE IMMORTAL SPECIES (221-
12) IMAGINE THERE'S NO HEAVEN — Finding Meaning in a Meaningless Universe (238-
AUTHOR NOTES, SUMMARY,
AND BOOK DESCRIPTION
AUTHOR NOTES = Michael Shermer is the director of the Skeptics Society and the host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology. He teaches science, technology, and evolutionary thought in the Cultural Studies Program at Occidental College.
SUMMARY = A scientific exploration into humanity's obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality from the bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer.
BOOK DESCRIPTION = In his most ambitious work yet, Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans' belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth.
For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, and though no one has ever returned from such a place to report what it is really like — or that it even exists — today science and technology are being used to try to make it happen in our lifetime. From radical life extension to cryonic suspension to mind uploading, Shermer considers how realistic these attempts are from a proper skeptical perspective.
The book concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and how we can live well in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.
EDITORIAL BOOK REVIEWS
LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = Shermer, author of The Moral Arc and founder of the Skeptics Society, dives into humanity's deepest questions about life and what happens after death. He explores religious versions of the afterlife and science's attempts to explain it, yet approaches both with caution. Incongruences among different religions are examined, and Shermer suggests that their explanations of life after death do not measure up to scientific scrutiny. Even the secular medical community's mechanical attempts to prolong lifespans and touch immortality are dissected and found imperfect. Much like Shermer's previous work UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, this book also requires strict adherence to scientific methods and measurable observations when dealing with supernatural or paranormal occurrences. Shermer succeeds in not only analyzing human beings' efforts to live forever in a utopian existence, but he ends the journey by encouraging readers to seek the forms of heaven which exist around us, in our own lives. VERDICT The comprehensive scope of this book's topic lends itself to readers who are looking for multiple religious points of view, whether for scholastic or personal research. – Bonnie Parker, Southern Crescent Technical Coll., GA
BOOK LIST REVIEW = More than three-quarters of all Americans, including a third of atheists and agnostics, believe in an afterlife. Prolific author and publisher of Skeptic magazine Shermer (The Moral Arc, 2014) explores this belief by reviewing religious approaches to immortality and reincarnation as well as reports of near-death experiences. He firmly believes in creating heaven here and now and actively works to debunk faith in life after death, looking to neuroscience, which shows that our soul, as defined by consciousness, memories, and sense of self, is connected to our physical brain and cannot exist when the body dies. Shermer visits various scientific and pseudo-scientific organizations working to extend the human life span through cryonics, in which bodies are frozen with the hope that advancing science will allow them to reawaken in the future, or via digitally encoding brain functions with the prospect of downloading one's consciousness in a computer. Far from being enamored by these techniques, Shermer argues compellingly that awareness of our mortality leads us to live purpose-driven lives, since our legacy may be the only thing that survives our deaths. – Dan Kaplan.
AMAZON READER REVIEWS
 Aran Joseph CanesTop 50 Contributor: Philosophy - The Art and Science of Living and Dying = Michael Shermer has written a fine book based on his experiences as a skeptic encountering those who believe either in an afterlife or some sort of earthly paradise. The source of these nirvanas range from traditional religions to the new age and even include philosophical and scientific sources.
The title, Heavens on Earth, however, is somewhat misleading in that the focus of the book is not on these supposed Edens. What Dr. Shermer has really written is a rational guide to evaluating these claims so that you can live a successful life with the knowledge of the certainty of your eventual death. Socrates is said to have said philosophy is the art of dying. Understood correctly, that would have been an appropriate title for this book. As in his other books, he proceeds from the perspective that truth can only stem from the scientific method. With this worldview, he does a good job of debunking the "evidence" of an afterlife from near death experiences and other preternatural activity.
Shermer's section on religion, however, is likely mostly preaching to the choir. Skeptics who only accept replicable, empirical evidence will agree with seeing religious claims of an afterlife being revealed as fictions. Religious believers, with different notions of what can constitute knowledge, will probably be left unpersuaded. More interesting is his discussion of the effort by serious scientists to achieve immortality or at least significantly lengthen the human life span. Apparently, this is something of an industry with hundreds of millions of dollars in grants provided by high tech CEOs. Shermer again provides a dose of healthy skepticism to some of their bolder claims.
While handling supposed paradises deftly, one fault of this book is the lack of any discussion of free will. On the one hand Dr. Shermer devotes the last section to how every individual can create their own meaning in life. But the book is also full of the adage that the brain is simply matter with no room for an immaterial soul. How Shermer squares choosing your own meaning with physical determinism is left unarticulated. Even so, what Shermer has done is to craft a reasonable way of life for modern people that faces and answers the big questions in life. I have yet to read a book by a Christian that can explain how to live a life guided by reason while also believing in doctrines like the return of Jesus within human history to bring an end to a universe that is fourteen billion years old. Nor have I read a book about the singularity in which our digital selves being uploaded into a virtual reality world has any of Shermer's characteristic reasonability.
I highly recommend to all seekers and those who want to lead a fuller and more complete life. Even if you disagree, you cannot fail to be broadened by Shermer's obvious breadth of knowledge, humor and integrity.
 Book Shark, VINE VOICE - Fascinating Topic = "Heavens on Earth" is an intellectually provocative yet accessible book that explores the afterlife. Dr. Michael Shermer is a well-known skeptic, professor and accomplished author of many books. This enlightening 303-page book includes twelve chapters broken out into the following four parts: I. Varieties of Mortal Experiences and Immortal Quests, II. The Scientific Search for Immortality, III. All Our Yesterdays and Tomorrows, and IV. Mortality and Meaning.
POSITIVES = 1. Shermer is a gifted writer. He has great command of the topic and is able to convey his thoughts in a clear, concise manner; 2. As fascinating a topic as you will find, the scientific search for the afterlife, in the capable hands of Shermer. "This book is about 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;" 3. Intellectually provocative. "To experience something, you must be alive, so we cannot personally experience death. Yet we know it is real because every one of the hundred billion people who lived before us is gone. That presents us with something of a paradox;"
4. Makes great reference to other great authors. "In his book Immortality, for example, the British philosopher Stephen Cave contends that the attempt to resolve the paradox of being aware of our own mortality and yet not being able to imagine nonexistence has led to four immortality narratives: (1) Staying Alive: "like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this world—is the most basic of immortality narratives." (2) Resurrection: "the belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life." (3) Soul: The "dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity." (4) Legacy: "More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future" such as glory, reputation, historical impact, or children."
5. The debunking of the soul. "The soul has been traditionally conceived as a separate entity ("soul stuff") from the body, but neuroscience has demonstrated that the mind—consciousness, memory, and the sense of self representing "you"—cannot exist without a brain;" 6. Interesting look at suicides. "People desire death when two fundamental needs are frustrated to the point of extinction; namely, the need to belong with or connect to others, and the need to feel effective with or to influence others;" 7. A look at Christian heaven. "Once you get to the Christian heaven, what's it like? Since no one has ever gone and come back with irrefutable evidence, believers must once again be content with biblical or theological narratives, sprung entirely from the imagination of the narrators;" 8. Addresses ideas about the afterlife and immortality from the perspective of spiritual traditions. "Dualists believe that we consist of two substances—body and soul, brain and mind (called "substance dualism" by philosophers). Monists contend that there is just one substance—a body and a brain—from which consciousness is an emergent property, "mind" is just the term we use to describe what the brain is doing, and the soul is just the pattern of information that represents our thoughts, memories, and personalities;" 9. Philosophically provocative questions. "In other words, if brains are not the source of consciousness, then what is?;" 10. Examines evidence for the afterlife. "And we can ask ourselves what's more likely: that NDE accounts represent descriptions of actual journeys to the afterlife or are portrayals of experiences produced by brain activity? Many lines of evidence converge to support the theory that NDEs are produced by the brain and are not stairways to heaven;" 11. Debunked claims and stories. "It is revealing that the author of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, improbably named Alex Malarkey, recanted his allegedly true story, admitting that he made it all up;" 12. Examines reincarnation. "In this sense reincarnation is a type of cosmic justice in which the scales are ultimately balanced, or life redemption in which wrongs are righted and the crooked is made straight, and it fits squarely into the Law of Karma, which holds that the world is just so justice will prevail sooner (in this life) or later (in the next life);" 13. A look at biases. "Such longings make us all subject to a number of cognitive biases, most notably the confirmation bias in which we look for and find confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence;" 14. Examines the soul. "The neurobiologist and philosopher Owen Flanagan summarizes the three primary characteristics of the soul: the unity of experience (a sense of self or "I"), personal identity (the feeling of being the same person over the course of a lifetime), and personal immortality (the survival of death)." "The vast majority of people base such belief on religious faith, but science tells us that all three of these characteristics are illusions;"
15. So can science conquer death? "They are the cryonicists, extropians, transhumanists, Omega Point theorists, singularitarians, and mind uploaders, and they are serious about defeating death." "As the name suggests, singularitarians are scientists considering singularity-level technologies to engineer immortality by, among other things, transferring your soul—the pattern of information that represents your thoughts and memories as stored in the connectome of your brain—into a computer;" 16. A look at utopias. "In 1935 a former chicken farmer instituted the Society for Research and Teaching of the Ancestral Inheritance, devoted to the historical and anthropological search for the origin of the superior Germanic race. His name was Heinrich Himmler, and he went on to became the Reichsführer of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) and the titular head of the Reich's die Endlösung der Judenfrage—the final solution to the Jewish problem. Such is the power of myth when put into action;" 17. So was Atlantis real? Find out.
18. A look at Hitler's inspiration. "Adolf Hitler, in fact, read Chamberlain's biography of Wagner, and he drew heavily from the racial theorist for his own ideas about racial purity, one of which was that for the Germanic peoples to survive, the Jews would have to be removed from German society." "All such utopias are premised on a vision of a past that never was and a projected future that can never be, a heaven on earth turned to hell;" 19. A look at why we die. "For scientists, the ultimate answer to why we age and die begins (and ends) with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which guarantees that the cosmos is running down and in the long run must come to an end hundreds of billions of years from now." "To date, no convincing evidence showing the administration of existing ‘anti-aging' remedies can slow aging or increase longevity in humans is available;" 20. Interesting perspectives. "Participants reminded of global warming, for example, were more supportive of international peacemaking, in the sense that a threat to all of us reduces the concerns about the differences between us."
NEGATIVES = 1. Honestly, this wasn't Shermer's best effort; 2. Lacks depth.; 3. No formal bibliography.
In summary, I enjoyed this book. Shermer has a knack for covering very interesting topics and does so with the layperson in mind. I like his approach and what keeps this book from five stars is the lack of depth and dare I say I sense the book was rushed. It lacks the awe I sensed from what I consider his greatest book, The Believing Brain. That said, I've enjoyed Shermer's books and look forward to more good reading in the future. I recommend it!
FURTHER SUGGESTIONS = "The Believing Brain" and "Why People Believe Weird Things?" both by Shermer; "Immortality" by Stephen Cave; "The Problem of the Soul" by Owen J. Flanagan; "Science in the Soul" by Richard Dawkins; "The Physics of the Future" by Machio Kaku; and "How to Create a Mind" by Ray Kurzweil.
 Will M - Who wants to live forever? = Intense but interesting book. Heavens on Earth is not a holiday-beach-read. The book is more cold and clinical, I would recommend that you read this book while eating your microwave meal for one in your three walled "cubical" at your insipid temp job. Reading about the inevitablity of a lonely death and a lack of hope for an afterlife is still going better than joining Sandra's birthday party in the employee lounge.
 Elisabeth Brookes - A spectacular book! = This is a deeply human book which addresses the very meaning of what is life and the meaning of life but this is done from a scientific and rational perspective.
 Hardtruth - A sure winner! = Another fascinating and lucid book by a fine writer. Shermer covers a wide range of topics and pulls all the threads together very well.
 Ian Liberman - I highly recommend the book = I actually think it is the best that I have read. You learn about different cultures and how they approach death while Shermer examines the science behind no afterlife. Worth every penny. Congrats to Michael Shermer.
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