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Prominent atheist Sam Harris has a couple of videos on YouTube in which he answers questions from Reddit users, covering everything from atheist ethics to alien abductions and life after death. Harris is an interesting one – he seems very open to some specific ‘spiritual’ approaches to life, and edge science topics like parapsychology, while also being a vociferous critic of formal religion and a hardcore proselytiser for the scientific orthodoxy. Whether you agree or disagree with his views, I think he still makes for an interesting person to sit down at a table with and discuss some of the deeper topics in life, religion and science. You can watch the first part at YouTube, and I’ve embedded the second ‘conversation’ below:

Here’s an interesting excerpt from his response to the question “In the absence of religious belief, how do you talk to a child about death?” (at 21:50):

There’s this taboo in our society around admitting we don’t know… that seems to me to be a problem. It’s actually the basis for exploring anything honestly, to admit that you don’t know.

Now with death, I can honestly say I don’t know what happens after death. There are reasons to be skeptical of survival of death. There are certainly reasons to be skeptical of any specific story about survival, but in terms of the relationship between consciousness and the physical world, I’m not in a position to say “oh yeah, I know exactly what happens after death – you are zeroed out in precisely the way you are zeroed out before your birth.”

Now, there are good reasons to believe that’s true, based on what we know about the brain, but this is not a matter of scientific certainty and if consciousness were in some way independent of the brain, I wouldn’t expect the world to appear much differently, or any differently than it does now… there’s a mystery to consciousness.

But I don’t see the giving of false promises and false fears to children to be paying any kinds of dividends that we want to conserve in our culture.

…I think we can honestly say we don’t know what happens.

I think this is a fine response, although I’ve pulled out one section (in italics) that I just don’t agree with. If consciousness *were* found to be independent of the brain, the entire modern Western worldview is tipped on its head – and furthermore, a whole lot of avenues are added to the map of reality, many of which may well lead to places that committed atheists have plainly said don’t exist.

Nevertheless, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a high-profile neuroscientist (and atheist) not simply parroting the talking points, and being honest enough to say that, at this point, consciousness remains a mystery, and we *just don’t know* if there’s something beyond death. (This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Harris discussing this topic)

Which is all the more reason to consider scientific exploration of these areas not only a valid endeavour, but an important one – rather than dismissing it as fringe science.

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