On February 15th I attended the debate "Is There an Afterlife?" staged by the American Jewish University (the acronym is amusing when pronounced). Against such an existence were Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, interspersedly seated between Rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson who argued the opposing view. The evening would have been better billed as a conversation, given its format, but it was well-moderated and very entertaining.
Hitchens entered last, to a frenzied ovation I felt was a clear tribute to the man, and not an obligatory sympathy of any kind. My feeling is that a large portion of the crowd, if not a majority, was there to see him. That was certainly true for myself - any question of an afterlife having long been settled.
The debate can be summarized as follows: Harris and Hitchens point out that no evidence for an afterlife exists, and that death is an epistemic boundary which is absolute. Hitchens made the point he so often makes that an eternal existence under a cosmic dictator who commands that you stay "at a party which never ends - ever - and also that you have fun doing it," is a scenario most of us would find cringeworthy on closer inspection. So, while belief in an afterlife is largely a manifestation of wish-thinking, we should be careful what we wish for.
Rabbis Wolpe and Artson scoffed and frequently took offense at the alleged "caricaturization" of religion. They took no responsibility for the well-defined beliefs held by most of the religious, opting instead to convince the audience that they were “sophisticated” theists, untarnished by silly beliefs. Every time Harris and Hitchens finished arguing against one religious claim or another, the opposition would predictably chime “but that's not what I believe.”
On many occasions, Wolpe actually responded with such sweeping denialisms as “nobody believes” or “religious people don't say that,” regarding descriptions of the afterlife that many of the Christian and Islamic faithful certainly do believe and declare (think of the rapture or the Mahometan paradise). This continual side-stepping drew objections from both Harris and Hitchens, to no avail.
The moderator, who did a good job in my opinion, repeatedly asked Wolpe to describe his own positive conception of the afterlife, given that he was there to argue for one, but to these prompts Wolpe would only make faces intended to disarm and and then imply “you can't ask me that question, that's not really fair.” Whatever responses he did end up giving seemed more like obfuscation than illumination.
In fact, the only active defense that Wolpe offered was his “feeling, or sense,” that there was something more, something “nonphysical” to human beings which was not explicable on a materialist view. This is a weak type of substance dualism - it only complicates and mystifies, it is incompatible with physics, and it fails to explain anything beyond what is essentially an "it must be due to some spooky stuff" cop-out.
This was the rabbi's only positive argument, and I was sorry that it went unchallenged, since with it he essentially talked himself into a corner. There has been no evidence to suggest that the mind is independent from the brain (Harris did point out that people with brain injuries don't retain their former selves but rather change in often drastic ways). For Wolpe to sense that there is something nonphysical in the universe, whatever it is that is nonphysical would have to interact with Wolpe's brain, giving him the sense of itself, and therefore interacting, physically, with the world. If something interacts physically with the world, then calling it nonphysical seems perfectly ridiculous (even writing the phrase "something nonphysical" feels absurd). Any such physical interaction would in principle be open to scientific study.
To further illuminate the absurd: what happens when a person suffers brain damage resulting from a bike accident at 15 years of age? Upon death, does their whole mind reconstitute as it was before the tragedy? If so, they'll be part of a minority - the majority of souls having had the time to mature through full lifetimes of experience. Do hamsters have little eternal hamster souls? What about bacteria? If bacteria don't have souls, then how is it conceivable for life to have evolved a nonphysical soul out of a purely physical substrate? Did God just drop a soul into early homo sapiens a quarter million years ago, or did homo habilis get a proto-soul? These questions may seem silly. They are... but they are legitimate.
The most patronizing moments of the evening were inflicted by Rabbi Shavit Artson who, every time a chance was given to reply, lamented having the conversation at all. He didn't like the tone. He didn't believe in the argument. He complained about the “cleverness” of the opposition and disparaged what he called the “cartoons” of religion which, perhaps not to reformed Judaism but certainly to religion at large, were exceedingly fair representations of the real thing.
Afterward, I was present when someone asked Artson if he had enjoyed himself. "Not really," he replied after an extended facial contortion. He didn't like nor believe in “religious disputations.” This prejudicial attitude, a kind of a priori sore-losership, was unforgivable. The audience paid for and deserved a lively debate between honest and committed advocates. Hitchens and Harris made their positions perfectly clear, and explained why they felt them worth fighting for. The other side spent most of their time actually denying that they believed the opposite, while never stating what they did believe or why anyone should believe it (which sort of defeats the intended conflict).
Still, it was a great evening thanks to the endless wit from Hitchens, the calm and reasoned argument from Harris, and the occasional cheeky quip from Wolpe (Artson was unredeemable).
The debate has been posted here.