Статья 'The pull of eternity: hope for Immortality as a belief in supernatural' - журнал 'SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences' - NotaBene.ru
Journal Menu
> Issues > Rubrics > About journal > Authors > About the Journal > Requirements for publication > Council of Editors > Peer-review process > Article retraction > Ethics > Online First Pre-Publication > Copyright & Licensing Policy > Digital archiving policy > Open Access Policy > Open access publishing costs > Article Identification Policy > Plagiarism check policy > Publication Terms
Journals in science databases
About the Journal
MAIN PAGE > Back to contents
SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

The pull of eternity: hope for Immortality as a belief in supernatural

Subbotsky Eugene

Doctor of Psychology

Professor, the department of Psychology, Lancaster University, Great Britain

CR0 2GG, Velikobritaniya, London oblast', g. Croydon, ul. Saffron Square, 11

Другие публикации этого автора




Review date:


Publish date:


Abstract: This article examines the psychological phenomenon of the hope for immortality of an individual consciousness (soul) of a person and humanity in the context of the most recent experimental research of magical thinking. The universe exists million times longer than humanity, thus it irrelevant to make any forecasts with regards to the fate of humanity, Earth, and universe outside the boundaries of several millennia. Then why do the renowned scholars or even research organizations examine the questions that seemingly do not carry practical sense, such as the future of Earth and universe thousands and billons years from now, study of objects that exists in hundreds of millions light years from our galaxy, fate of humanity over the cosmic time intervals of million years? Possible answer lies in the contemporary research of magical thinking and psychology. These studies demonstrated that the belief in supernatural is common not only to children and superstitious people, but also the majority of educated adults who consider themselves as non-believers in magic or god. This implicit belief feeds our hope for immortality of a person’s mind. The scientific novelty consists in the following: (1) For the first time the phenomenon of hope for immortality of human soul is discussed in the context of recent experimental studies on magical  thinking; (2) the forms, in which the hope for immortality is endued in science, quasi-scientific literature and philosophy, are being analyzed; (3) the article is first to examine the problems of human individual consciousness in the context of recent memory theories. The author concludes that despite the incommensurability of time scales of existence of the universe and humanity, the extensive financial resources are spent on the research of problems associated with the origin of the universe, future of Earth and humanity in millions and billions years from now, and objects that are situated on the edge of the observable universe. Psychological studies of recent decades demonstrated a modern educated individual, while consciously denying faith in magic or in god, subconsciously maintains the belief in supernatural. The data from particle physics and cosmology supports an ancient hypothesis of the unbreakable link between the universe and human consciousness, but does not guarantee the immortality of consciousness. Despite the lack of reliable evidence, the subconscious faith of a modern individual does exist, as well as originates the phenomenon of hope for immortality of consciousness of human and humanity.

Keywords: Platonism, memory, participation, anthropic principle, hope for immortality, magical thinking, belief in supernatural, anamnesis theory, morphogenetic field, paranormal phenomena
Problem: Why are we not solipsists?

The current of time's river

Will carry off all human deeds

And sink into oblivion

All peoples, kingdoms and their kings.

G.R. Derzhavin [1]

In his autobiography British film director Michael Winner mentioned that his earliest memory was a lamp-lighter igniting the gas jets on the lamp posts. “One day – he continued – lights will go out… Movie lights will shine on. But not for me.” [2]. This image of the unavoidable cycle of a person’s life reminded me the simple truth known to the ancients: Man is the measure of all things. A human person is that very “god” who creates and supports his or her private universe. The person will pass away and his or her private universe will cease to exist, as silently and completely as it appeared when the person was born. There will be no more physical theories, megaparsecs of space and billions of years of time. There will be no need to be concerned about the fact that sometime in the distant future the Sun will swallow the Earth and there will be no place for people to live in. Surely, our private universe will “burn out” much sooner than that. What will happen after that is not to worry. Philosophers call this point of view “solipsism”.

“But our children and our deeds will remain” – a reader might say. That is true. But for how long? What time is left for humanity to exist? According to most anthropologists, modern humans have been around for approximately 200 thousand years, civilisation – 12 thousand years, human history – 4.5 thousand years [3]. But the universe exists 14 billion years, Earth – 4.5 billion years. Cosmologists predict that in 1.1 billion years, due to the increased solar activity, oceans on Earth will evaporate, and in 7.5 billion years our Sun will turn into a Red Giant and annihilate Earth [4]. According to the cosmic calendar, if the age of the universe takes a year and the age of the solar system takes around 4 months, then modern humans existed for 7 minutes, history from the beginning of literacy lasted for 9 seconds, and the most long individual human life – for 0.25 second [5]. It is clear that the existence of modern humans takes a very small time compared to the existence of the universe, and the length of human history proportionally is still much smaller. Humankind lives on the scale of thousands of years, and the universe – on the scale of billions of years, that is a million times longer. There are a number of scenarios that can bring humankind to its death and do it fast, including nuclear annihilation, biological warfare, global pandemic, ecological collapse, global warming, meteor impact and volcanism [6]. In other words, on the cosmic scale life of humankind, not to mention that of a human individual, is incomparably short and unimaginably fragile, and if you are not a fiction writer then searching for knowledge on the distant future of cosmos beyond a few thousand years makes no practical sense.

And yet we observe an amazing phenomenon. Billions of dollars are being spent every year on studying galaxies that are on the edge of the visible universe, and on discovering quantum particles which can only have theoretical significance. For instance, the cost of the Hubble Space Telescope is estimated over $2.5 billions only to construct, the total operating budget of the Large Hadron Collider runs to about $1 billion per year, while the total cost of finding the Higgs boson with the help of the LHC ran about $13.25 billions. Renowned physicists and cosmologists consider various scenarios of the end of the world (e.g., the heat death of the universe, or the collapse into a singularity point similar to the one that gave birth to Big Bang) [7] and the end of Earth [4], specialists on cybernetics discuss the possibilities of replacing humans with intelligent machines [8] and turning the whole universe into the omnipowerful and omniscient computer [9], philosophers contemplate the attainment by our universe the state of divine unification in the hypothetical “Omega Point” [10]. Ordinary folk like ourselves too can’t imagine the world without us. Thinking of the past or the future we are always present there in person, as if looking at this imagined world “from above”. We can even think about the world prior to Big Bang, without the physical universe, without space and time, but amazingly we are still there. In other words, consciously or unconsciously we live our lives as though we were immortal. In people who believe in God the hope for immortality of the soul is assigned by their faith, but why is this hope implicitly present in people who consciously deny their belief in god and in the supernatural? In other words, why are we not solipsists?

In this paper I would like to discuss psychological grounds for rational adults' implicit hope for immortality of the mind (soul). Although I am aware of subtle differences between the concepts “soul” and “mind”, in this paper I will use these concepts interchangeably. I will try to show that the answer can be found in the context of recent studies on magical beliefs in modern people.

Belief in the supernatural and the hope for immortality

For Babylonians, Sumerians and early Egyptians planets, Sun and Moon were gods – living entities capable of hearing and understanding human prayers [11]. These gods ruled cycles of the year, rainfalls and sea tides. Even the founder of European philosophy Thales of Miletus, who lived in the V-th century BC, believed that “all things were full of gods”[12]. With the belief in gods and spirits comes the belief in immortality of the human soul. The ancient burials with human artefacts indicate that people started to believe in that physical death is not the end of a person, and that a person’s soul survives physical death and proceeds in the realm of the supernatural where gods and spirits dwell. The belief in gods and in immortality of the soul go hand in hand throughout history, culminating in mummification rituals of early Egyptians, Greek’s myths of the underworld and Christian’s belief in afterlife.

Gradually the Greek’s vision of the gods changed: The behaviour of the gods became less capricious and more predictable. Antikythera mechanism - an ancient analogue computer, created in the year 100-150 BC and used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendric and astrological purposes, symbolizes this shift in the antique mind. Such “restraining” the cosmic gods’ behaviour was later spread over the whole nature and gave birth to the notion “the laws of nature” and eventually to modern science. Due to the achievements of science in the XVIII-XIX-th centuries AD, in industrial countries the view prevailed that nature is independent of and indifferent to human beings. The belief in the magical unity between a person and nature became the privilege of small children and a limited number of superstitious adults. As science rejected the belief in the supernatural, so it did to the belief that a human soul (the mind) is immortal and survives death of a human body.

However, recent psychological studies have shown that “at the bottom of the mind”, in the realm of subconscious, we keep believing in the supernatural. An example of such belief is the belief in «mind over matter» magic. The ancients held that if a person wanted a certain event to occur (e.g., rain to come or another person falling in love with him or her), and the person performed certain spells and rituals, then the desired event would really happen. For instance, in ancient Rome people used to write damnations or love spells on led tablets and hide these tablets in certain places, in the hope to get the desired effects – death or love of another person -- with the assistance of the supernatural forces. In order to examine whether educated people today believe in «mind over matter» magic, a series of studies was conducted. In one of these studies participants (university graduates and staff members) were first interviewed on whether they believed or didn't believe in magic and then shown a magical effect: A new plastic card became badly scratched in an apparently empty box after the experimenter chanted a magic spell. The results indicated that when the risk of disbelieving in the effect of magic was high (the participants’ hand could be damaged by the magic spell) half of the participants exhibited the belief in that the magic spell can indeed affect inanimate objects [13]. In another study participants were asked to imagine that a professional witch was going to put her spell on their future lives. In one case the spell intended to make the participants rich and famous, and in another – to make them servants to evil forces. In the interview, most participants denied that they believed in magic and stated that neither of the two spells would affect their lives in any way. Yet when they faced the hypothetical choice between the two spells, most participants allowed the good spell but none allowed the bad one, and justified their decisions in the way as if they indeed believed that a bad spell could magically affect their lives. When asked what they would recommend another person (a scientists and non-believer in magic) to do in this situation, most participants changed their mind and said they would recommend the scientist to accept both spells, in order to prove to herself that she doesn't believe in magic [14]. These studies showed that adult educated participants who consciously denied that they believed in magic, under certain conditions exhibited the belief in the supernatural.

Another manifestation of the belief in the supernatural is “participation” - the belief that there is a supernatural link between objects that have no physical causal link one to the other (e.g., between a person and the person’s picture or a bunch of the person’s hair). This link works instantly and at a distance. People of traditional cultures believed that if one made a doll and named it after a certain person or attached a piece of the person's hair to it, then manipulations with the doll would magically affect the real person that the doll represented [15]. With the aim to examine whether the belief in magical participation works with educated people today, participants (university students) were asked to stick a needle into a doll. The doll was representing either a person who, by his or her improper behaviour earlier in the experiment, made the participants think bad of him or her, or a person who had displayed a positive pattern of behaviour. When later the person who the doll represented started complaining about having a bad headache, participants who had been made having bad feelings about the person acknowledged that they felt responsible for the person's misfortune, as if their manipulations with the doll were the cause of the person’s headache [16]. In another experiment, subjects were encouraged to through darts into pictures of a good (e.g., president J.F. Kennedy) or a bad (e.g., Hitler) person. As expected, the subjects hit the target more precisely when the target represented a bad character than when it represented a nice person. Despite the awareness that hitting a person's photo with a dart cannot possibly hurt this person, subconsciously the subjects followed the magical law of participation and tried not to damage the photo of a nice person [17]. It should be noted that “mind over matter” magic is a case of “participation”, because it asserts a magical link between a thought about a certain event to happen and this event really happening in the physical world.

Altogether, the studies showed that most modern adults hold the subconscious belief that a human person (e.g., a witch or a psychology experimenter) can magically affect both inanimate objects and a life of another person. The adults also believed that there can be a magical participation between objects that are not causally connected one to the other. The unity between the belief in the supernatural and in the afterlife, supported by the historical analysis, suggests that subconscious belief of modern educated adults in the supernatural is accompanied by the implicit hope for immortality of the mind (soul). Indeed, if things can happen that from the scientific point of view are impossible, then the hope appears that the individual human mind can survive death of the body.

Having taken on board the hypothesis that the belief in the supernatural feeds the hope for immortality, I am going to look more closely at how it happened that believing in the supernatural, which came to the ancients naturally, eventually became illegitimate and submerged into the subconscious.

A person and the universe: Conflict of the worlds

The ancients believed that they were in the centre of the world. They lived on Earth. Around Earth gods-planets revolved with which humans communicated through prayers and rituals and in whose realm human souls passed after death. People believed in the cosmic link between a person and the surrounding world. The emergence of modern science broke this link. By stating that the laws of nature are independent from human observers, science erected a stone wall between a person and the universe. A person started to feel himself or herself living on a tiny island lost in the boundless ocean of the cold and indifferent universe. Modern science tells the person that his or her soul is an illusion that accompanies the work of the brain, and when the brain stops functioning the person vanishes from the world. Аs British philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, science teaches us that “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; … that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins” [18].

Not surprisingly, in this soulless and heartless world a person started to feel uncomfortable. While in the magical universe gods gave meaning to the existence of both people and the world, in the scientific universe this meaning was lost. A conflict emerged between the human soul, which is desperate for meaning and eternal life, and the meaningless world created by science. And the attempts appeared to break away from the claws of the world that science had created. The belief in the supernatural that still lurks in modern people’s subconscious began to feed the hope for the miracle – for the chance that the scientific view of the world, with all its formidable convincing power, is missing something important. A search for evidence began that there are things in the world that surpass the laws of nature, and that human life and the mind cannot be reduced to functioning of a human body.

A search for evidence

If a fish in an aquarium were able to think, it would appear to the fish that its little universe is a secure island in the inhospitable vastness of the ocean. A piece of glass separates the cosy world of the fish from the incomprehensible and dangerous “over there”. In ancient Greece and Egypt myths played the role of the piece of glass, in medieval Europe this role belonged to religion, and in the modern world this role went to science. But whereas myths and religion allowed miracles to enter the everyday life, science discredited the belief in the supernatural, thus putting a ban on the hope for personal immortality.

Immanuel Kant drew the philosophical line between “here” and “over there” by bringing all the incomprehensible issues into the realm of the unknowable “Ding an sich” – the “thing-in-itself”. To the fish’s ill fortune (or luck?), the aquarium’s cover has a hole through which strange things sometimes get into the aquarium (e.g., garbage, dust, children’s toys) and approaching which is a little dangerous (there can be cats around). UFO, telepathy, psychokinesis, astrology, near death experiences, symbols and myths of the ancients still unexplained by science – these are the phenomena from the realm of “Ding un sich” that by accident fell into the “aquarium” created by science. These mysterious phenomena may provide evidence for our subconscious belief in the supernatural. But for paranormal phenomena to perform this role, they have to be introduced into the world shaped by science. And the most simple way to introduce these phenomena in the modern world is to a make them subject to scientific scrutiny.

One of these phenomena is the connection or “sympathy” between an individual’s fate and the planets [19]. The “sympathy” is a case of magical participation between a person and the cosmos; according to the Alexandrian astrological tradition [20], a person’s fate can be predicted on the basis of astrological charts. French mathematician Michel Gauquelin [21][22] statistically examined the “Mars effect” – the astrologists’ claim that people born just after the planet Mars raises or culminates become outstanding athletes in various sports. To his own surprise he indeed found a significant statistical correlation between the fact of being born “under the influence of Mars” and athletic talents. Later similar correlations were established between Jupiter and the ability to theatrical acting and Saturn and the ability to scientific activity. British psychologist Hans Eysenk (known for his concepts of personality dimensions “introversion” and “neuroticism”), who used to take astrology claims with scepticism, checked the correlations and confirmed their validity [23]. Eysenk’s colleagues Mayo and White [24] further extended the analogy and showed that people born under odd Zodiac Signs are usually extraverts and those born under even Zodiac Signs tend to be introverts. Later attempts to replicate Gauquelin’s study failed and the study’s effects were explained by selection bias and statistical inaccuracies [25]. Surprisingly though, for myself the study worked well. Having red Gauquelin’s results, I immediately checked for my data (I was born on January 15); and indeed, all was in place: Born under the even Zodiac Sign – Capricorn - (I am an introvert) and under the influence of Saturn (I devoted myself to scientific profession).

Another form of magical phenomena is paranormal psychological effects, such as psychokinesis – a direct effect of thinking on inanimate matter. If it were proven beyond doubt that a grain of sand can be moved by just thinking hard about it, then this fact would radically change our vision of the world. This is because this fact would show that something immaterial – a human thought – is able to affect inanimate objects that are not part of our bodies, and do this not through one of the four known types of physical forces – gravitation, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear.

“Hold on – a reader might say, - but aren't modern prosthetic devices react to the brain signals an application of telekinesis?” No they are not. Devices such as neuroprosthetics react to electromagnetic waves of the brain; a resemblance of their effects to magic is only superficial [26]. Neuroprosthetics do not decode the meaning of a thought but react to the electromagnetic signals that accompany the thought, thus converting these signals into a movement (e.g., switching on the motor of an artificial limb or shifting a cursor on a computer screen). In principle, neuroprosthetics is an advanced version of a remote control. On a remote control we press buttons by a finger, and on a neuroprosthetic device a disabled person “presses the buttons” by intentionally producing appropriate patterns of electromagnetic waves. This kind of interaction is still physical, not semantic. It is not that a receiving end of this interaction – a computer or a prosthetic limb - has a mind of its own and “understands” what a disabled person thinks or wants; these devices blindly react to the physical force – electromagnetic waves produced by a neural signal, which correlates with the thought or the wish. By contrast, at a receiving end of a magical incantation there is another “mind”, which considers the plea and makes a decision about whether to grant or reject it.

Indeed, if a grain of sand can react to an act of human will or thought, then in principle this can be expected from more massive material objects. In other words, this would mean that the “apathetic matter” is not apathetic after all and possesses some kind of subjective inner dimension that can react to a human thought. If that is the case, then a human person is indeed a part of the living universe; he or she is not a tiny detail in the immense “mechanism” of nature, but an interlocutor in the cosmic “conversation” between subjects of a certain “super consciousness”. Interestingly, the possibility of this kind of direct influence of a human thought on certain physical processes has been examined experimentally and the studies indeed found statistically significant effects. Although such effects are weak and cannot be used for any practical purposes, they are nevertheless real [27][28][29]. Being curious and a disbeliever in parapsychology I attempted two studies myself: One on psychokinetic effects [30] and the other (together with an ESP researcher Adrian Ryan) on extrasensory perception [31]. To my surprise, in spite some inconsistencies in the results across experiments in both studies statistically significant positive parapsychological effects were obtained. Nevertheless, today most scientists believe that parapsychological effects lack sufficient experimental support and are impossible to replicate.

One more manifestation of the supernatural, which directly leads to the hope for immortality, is “near death experience”. In his book “Life after life” American psychologist and medical doctor Raymond Moody reviewed hundreds of cases in which people who had been pronounced clinically dead but were subsequently resuscitated described their memories [32]. These memories include such common episodes as going out of the body, levitation, the overwhelming feeling of peace, security and warmth, the feeling of the unity with the universe and a fast movement along a tunnel towards a source of light. The important element of this extraordinary experience is obtaining a new vision of themselves and the universe. According to Gallup poll, only in the US around 8 millions of people reported this kind of experience [33]. Interestingly, in a considerable number of such patients the fear of death disappears. Yet, at present most scientists interpret near death experiences not as a proof of life after death but as hallucinations elicited by the dying brain.

Still another manifestation of our implicit faith in the magical unity between a person and the universe is science fiction served with existing facts and spiced with enthralling speculations. Books by Erich von Däniken gave rise to Ancient Astronauts theory [34]. According to advocates of this theory, halos over the heads of human figures in prehistoric rock paintings represent helmets of the astronauts’ space suits, and miracles described in myths and in the Bible are the observers’ naïve reports of the aliens’ technological wonders. The ancient astronauts could do the feats which people of that time may have associated only with magic: Create human-animal hybrids via genetic engineering, move around huge stone boulders by cancelling the gravitational pull, melt stone by a laser beam, fly in the air and space. At that the authors of this esoteric theory claim that magic has noting to do with these wonders and all of the “miracles” were the achievements of science that was thousands of years ahead of modern human science. If the omniscient benevolent aliens visited Earth in the past, then there is a hope that they would come back in the future and share with us their knowledge on how to live longer lives and travel into other galaxies and universes.

Those scientists who feel uncomfortable about parapsychology and science fiction and yet reject the idea of God put their faith in the power of human reason. Humans will save themselves through the unstoppable progress of reason, science and technology. But overcoming all the dangers that await humankind in the future implies the belief in humans’ extraordinary powers, thus putting humans in the place of gods [35]. Soviet physicist Nikolai Kardashev introduced the hypothetical classification of civilizations according to the type of energy consumed. Civilizations of the I type use the energy of their planets, civilizations of the II type can utilize the energy of their stars, and civilizations of the III type can employ the energy of their galaxies [36]. By analogy, American theoretical physicist Michio Kaku classified technical achievements by their degree of impossibility for modern technologies [37]. For instance, he predicts that in a few thousands years it will be possible to overcome the “impossibilities of the II type”, by creating spaceships that will fly faster than the speed of light, travelling back in time and getting into other worlds through the “wormholes” that connect different universes. Sir Martin Rees, the UK Royal Astronomer, writes: “Wormholes, extra dimensions, and quantum computers open up speculative scenarios that could transform our entire universe eventually into a 'living cosmos'!” (cited in 37, p. 281). French philosopher and anthropologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin brought a philosophical basis under the concept of humanism; he directly pointed out to the magical participation between humankind and the cosmos: “In its present state, the world would be unintelligible and the presence in it of reflection would be incomprehensible, unless we supposed there to be a secret complicity between the infinite and the infinitesimal to warm, nourish and sustain to the very end — by dint of chance, contingencies and the exercise of free choice — the consciousness that has emerged between the two. It is upon this complicity that we must depend. Man is irreplaceable. Therefore, however improbable it might seem, he must reach the goal, not necessarily, doubtless, but infallibly” [10, p.275]. But science fiction and the belief in the power of human reason, with all the thrill and optimism of their futuristic prognoses, provide no evidence to support the hope for immortality.

To summarize, exploration of paranormal phenomena and futuristic theories failed to provide convincing evidence that supernatural phenomena really do exist. Surprisingly, such evidence came from an unexpected source – the domain of modern physics.

The anthropic principle

According to classical physics, the universe exists independently of humankind. However, discoveries in quantum physics put this view under question. In order to understand how this happened we need to look more closely at what it exactly means “to exist”.

Let us imagine a planet that circles the Sun somewhere at the far end of the solar system and thus far didn’t show to humans any signs of itself. Does this planet exist or doesn’t it? We cannot answer this question until our devices registered this planet or its impacts on the planets that we already know. For instance, the existence of planet Neptune had been predicted on the ground of deviations of the known planet Uranus from its orbit. On the same ground in 1906 it was predicted that there was still another planet that was influencing Uranus’ orbit; the unknown planet (called Planet X”) was registered on the snapshots only in 1930 and named Pluto [38].

So, what does it mean “to exists”? In regard to a human person it means two things. First, for a person to exist the person has to be aware of himself or herself. When a person is under general anaesthesia the question or whether he or she exists doesn’t arise. Second, for a person to exist the person has to have memories of his or her past. A person who lost memories of his or her past is a different person; for this person the person who existed prior to the complete loss of memory is dead. The person with no memories of his or her past can restore such memories only by what other people tell him or her, thus relying on beliefs rather than on knowledge.

And what does it mean “to exists” in regard to a planet? Modern science teaches us that planets aren't aware of themselves and don’t have autobiographical memories. Even if we tell the planet its past history it won’t be able to understand the story. It turns out that the planet exists only if people know about its existence. Without the people’s knowledge about the planet the planet doesn’t really exist. Philosophes like David Hume [39], George Berkeley [40] and Arthur Shopenhauer [41] pointed out long ago that the world and human representation of the world are tightly connected. Modern psychology confirmed that a human being can interact with the world solely through his or her subjective experiences - sensations and perceptions. Our conscious representations of the world are built on the ground of our sensations and perceptions [42][43]. Contrary to common sense it appears that without humankind the universe doesn’t really exist.

For a long time physical science resisted this view. Indeed, for instance, fossils that we find in the ground tell us that tens of millions of years ago dinosaurs roamed Earth, and meteorites that fall from space reveal that before life emerged on Earth our universe was already around 9 billion years old. The problem is however that humankind, like the person who lost his or her autobiographical memory, learns about the past from the facts that it observes today. Because we had not observed the universe before humankind came into existence, we have no choice but to believe what the fossils, meteorites and the light coming from the stars tell us about our past and the past of our universe. But the same facts can be interpreted in a variety of ways. For example, advocates of the “scientific creationism” interpret many facts of geology and palaeontology to provide scientific support for the creation myth described in the Book of Genesis [44]. Perhaps the creationists’ interpretation of the facts is not as logical and consistent as the one provided by the theorists of evolution, but it’s the difference in the views that matters. The difference between creationists’ and evolutionists’ views on the same facts shows that we know our past by interpreting the facts we observe in our present. Even in natural sciences interpretation of known facts can change, which alters our theories about the past. For example, quite recently the facts that fossils of the same species of animals and plants were found on different continents separated by oceans were explained by the existence of hypothetical land bridges, which later submerged. It was only when the theory of plate tectonics was developed by Samuel Carey in 1958 that the idea of continental drift (originally put forward by Abraham Ortelius in 1596 and more fully developed by Alfred Wegener in 1912) was finally accepted [45]. Аs a result, the theory of land bridges was dropped and replaced with the theory that all continents separated from one giant supercontinent Pangaea. Again, contrary to common sense it looks as though we create the past of our planet and the universe using the facts we observe in the present.

The realization of the inseparable link between our knowledge and the way we interpret observable facts gave birth to the “anthropic principle”. The anthropic principle was introduced by Australian physicist Brandon Carter in 1973 at the Krakow symposium to commemorate the Copernicus’ 500 birthday and was a reaction to the “Copernican principle” [46]. Whereas the Copernican principle states that humans have no a privileged position in the universe, Carter proposed that "Although our situation is not necessarily central , it is inevitably privileged to some extent."[47]. There are two versions of the anthropic principle. According to Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) the fundamental constants of our universe (e.g., the gravitational constant, the mass of proton, the age of the universe) are such that they make the existence of intelligent observers possible. For example, if our universe were a little younger or older than it is now, life could not emerge because there would be no elements from which living bodies are built. Exactly why in our universe the fundamental constants are just right for making intelligent life possible is usually explained by selection bias, which means that this perfect fit is a chance event. But this explanation comes at a price: It means that although our universe is associated with the existence of intelligent observers, this association is only coincidental and partial. For a chance event to happen, there has to be a pool of variations; on this ground WAP has to accept that our universe is one of many universes, or a part of the multiverse. But most important, from WAP it doesn’t follow that the universe didn’t exist prior to the emergence of intelligent life and will cease to exist with the end of intelligent life.

In contrast to WAP, Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP) holds that life is not just a consequence of a lucky combination of fundamental physical constants, but that intelligent observers literally “bring the universe into existence” [48]. Indeed, according to “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics every elementary unit of matter, such as a photon, does not have definite physical properties until it is registered by observation [49]. Prior to the fact of observation the photon exists in the “superposition state” – an indefinite probabilistic state, which doesn’t allow to say whether it is a particle or a wave. It is the act of observation that defines in what form - of a particle, which has a definite place in space, or a wave, which doesn’t have a definite place – the photon reveals itself. It means that the observer’s consciousness doesn’t simply reflect reality like a mirror reflects a person, but participates in the way the reality “condenses” into something definite, in a sense creates reality. In his Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP) American physicist John Archibald Wheeler rephrased this thought as “it from bit”, what roughly means “matter from information” [50]. In essence, this expression suggests that every physical event contains the observer’s consciousness as a part of itself; the observer’s mind influences reality by asking nature questions that can only have two answers - “yes” or “no”; an answer to this binary option question is a commonly accepted unit of information, or a “bit”. It is important to note that in this context the observers’ consciousness is not the same as a “free play of the imagination”. The act of observation does not create reality by its whim; observers participate in the way reality defines itself through the form they ask the question; one way of asking the question “provokes” electrons or photons to reveal themselves as particles, and the other way makes the same elementary units of matter “react” as waves [see 51 for more on that]. Unlike WAP, SAP implies that a human person and the universe are locked in magical participation; one cannot exist without the other.

To summarise, it follows from SAP that at the level of quantum events supernatural phenomena, such as "mind over matter" and participation, do indeed exist. This shows that the belief in the supernatural that most modern people subconsciously hold is not completely ungrounded. However, from SAP it doesn't follow that the observers' consciousness is immortal. SAP links intelligent observers to the physical universe for as long as both of them exist. Perhaps, the universe is indifferent to its own existence and can perish taking the observers with it in oblivion. Or perhaps, which is more likely, the observers die and the universe vanishes with them.

Even so, the hope for immortality of a human mind can survive by clinging to the idea that the individual consciousness does not have to vanish with death of the physical universe but can join some kind of "cosmic consciousness" beyond the physical universe. But this hope runs into the problem of memory. Аs we know, when a person looses his or her autobiographical memory the person can die before his or her physical death. Because memory is consolidated in the form of engrams (i.e., patterns of changes in the neurons’ synapses of the brain), a halt in the brain functioning also means a complete loss of memory [52]. This means that even if the individual consciousness magically stays after death, this will be the consciousness of “someone else”, and this someone else would never know who he or she had been prior to the moment of death. This problem can be overcome only if one assumes that apart from being rooted in the brain’s engrams the individual’s memory has also a base in some other “storage facility”, which is situated beyond the human body, and even beyond the physical universe. With all the extraordinarity of this idea, there is a theory that proposes the existence of such “out of body” carrier of the individual’s autobiographical memory.

Memory beyond the brain

In Plato’s dialogue “Meno” [53] Socrates’ opponent Meno points out to the “paradox of knowledge” [54]. In essence, the paradox states that in order to inquire into anything you have to already know the properties of what you are looking for, otherwise you can’t recognize the thing you are looking for even if you come across it. But if you know the properties of what you are looking for, then inquiry is unnecessary. On the other hand, if you don’t know the properties of what you are looking for, then inquiry is useless. Therefore, inquiry is either unnecessary or useless. Looking for a way out of this paradox, Socrates puts forward the theory of “anamnesis” – knowledge as recollection. He assumes that the human soul is immortal and goes through a series of reincarnations. This means that when the soul transmigrates in a new body, it already contains knowledge about the world; however, because of the trauma of birth the soul forgets its knowledge. It therefore turns out that what we usually view as learning is in reality remembering of the already known. A teacher is not the bearer of knowledge but a person who helps a student to remember the forgotten knowledge. Socrates illustrated his theory by asking questions about a geometrical theorem to an uneducated slave boy. In the beginning it looks like the boy doesn’t know the theorem, but gradually, by answering Socrates’ questions, the boy comes to the correct answer. This demonstrates, Socrates says, that the boy knew the theorem but was unable to remember it without the leading questions. So, according to Socrates and his follower Plato, knowledge in the form of “universal ideas” is stored not in a person’s body, but in a certain depository beyond the body; this theory also implies that when a person dies his or her knowledge doesn’t disappear from the world but is stored in this magical depository, together with the person’s soul.

Well, it might require some effort to believe in the anamnesis theory. Nevertheless, in the second half of the XX-th century there appeared experimental evidence that seems to confirm this theory. Research has shown that young infants and even newborn babies possess knowledge that they could not possibly acquire through learning. To bring just a few examples, newborns showed the ability to distinguish between canonical geometrical shapes (such as a cross and a circle) [55]; one month old infants could distinguish elastic objects from rigid ones and even transfer this understanding from tactile modality into visual one [56]; at the age of 4 months babies were able to infer that one solid body cannot go through another solid body unimpeded [57], and 15 months old children could predict errors in another person’s behaviour if that person’s actions were based on his or her false beliefs regarding where a toy had been hidden [58]. How could the babies possibly have these cognitive skills if they didn't have an opportunity to learn them through experience?

One might assume that these cognitive skills are innate and transmitted through genes. But this interpretation is unlikely, because genes can carry only a very limited amount of information. The scientists’ early hope that genetic code can exhaustively explain the forming of an individual organism did not come true. Аs British specialist on molecular genetics Rupert Sheldrake writes, genes code linear sequences of amino acids in proteins, which still have to fold into complex 3-dimensional forms. “Even if the protein-folding problem could be solved, - he continues - the next stage would be to attempt to predict the structures of cells on the basis of the interactions of hundreds of millions of proteins and other molecules, unleashing a vast combinatorial explosion, with more possible arrangements than all the atoms in the universe” [59, p.173].

In order to explain the process of the formation of cells, tissues and organs, Sheldrake introduced the concept of “morphic field” – a special non-physical formation that “tells” the cell to which organ of the body (e.g., a hand or a leg) the cell belongs and what functions it performs. Sheldrake illustrates the relationships between the morphic field and genes by the relationships between a TV program we are watching and technical structure of a TV set. The image on the TV screen is impossible to have without a complex technical scheme of transistors and electronic circuits that compose the TV body, but the image is not created by this technical body. The image is created by electromagnetic waves that are captured by the TV body and transformed into the image on the screen. In biology the morphic field plays the role of electromagnetic waves: It contains the “program” of an organism, whereas genes (the parallel to the TV set) convert this program into the whole organism. If a transistor is broken in the TV set, this may cause a defect in the image on the screen. In a similar way, a defect in a genetic scheme (e.g., a mutation) can cause a defect in the structure and behaviour of the organism. But this doesn’t mean that the organism is directly determined by the combination of genes. Genetic mutations change the “tuning of the aerial” of the genes which start to “catch” a wrong program from the database contained in the morphic field. This results, for instance, in a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) growing a second (and useless for its ability to fly) pair of wings. Although Sheldrake doesn’t associate the concept of morphic field with the supernatural, such interpretation is possible, considering that in his opinion morphic fields cannot be “reduced to standard chemistry and physics” [ibid, p.173].

Sheldrake assumes that nature possesses “inner creativity” and “inner memory”. He maintains that the laws of nature are not given from the outset but develop gradually like habits in humans and animals. For instance, new chemical substances develop spontaneously like the known laws of physics developed soon after the Big Bang, but then these new substances begin to facilitate the emergence of the same substances at a distance, through a mechanism Sheldrake calls “morphic resonance”. If on some planets in the universe a certain chemical compound already existed, then the synthesis of this compound on Earth would be faster and easier to achieve than a synthesis of a completely new compound that had never been present in the universe. Sheldrake brings a variety of facts in support of his hypothesis. For example, crystallization of new chemical substances that once was achieved in a certain laboratory makes similar crystallization in an independent laboratory at another part of the globe more easily achievable, without any “know how” exchange between these laboratories. In my view, the morphic resonance is a case of magical participation: The influence of an event on a similar event at an arbitrary distance, both in time and in space, and not through any of the known fundamental forces of nature.

But if nature has its own memory, then it should be able not only to remember but also to forget. In humans, skills not only can be acquired but can also die out (e.g., if a piano player doesn’t practice for a long time, his or her quality of play goes down). Similarly, one can expect that some of the regularities in nature can diminish and even disappear. Confirmation of this hypothesis can be seen in the unexplainable gradual decrease of the reproducibility of experimental phenomena in psychology and other sciences, known as the “decline effect”. In the 1930-th American parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine found that in some of his participants their abilities to correctly guess other peoples’ thoughts were fading until they disappeared completely [60]. Later a similar decline effect was observed in other branches of psychology. In 1990, American psychologist Jonathan Schooler reported the “verbal overshadowing” phenomenon. According to this phenomenon, under some situations putting non-verbalizable thoughts into words can be disruptive: Participants’ recognized objects they had seen and named worse than the objects they had seen but didn’t name [61]. However, with years Schooler found it increasingly difficult to replicate this effect. Looking for an explanation, Schooler writes: “Perhaps, just as the act of observation has been suggested to affect quantum measurements, scientific observation could subtly change some scientific effects. Although the laws of reality are usually understood to be immutable, some physicists …. have observed that this should be considered an assumption, not a foregone conclusion” [62]. In private, Schooler sometimes called the decline effect “cosmic habituation” [63]. When we conduct a scientific experiment, we ask nature a question and expect a standard answer every time we repeat this question under the same experimental conditions. In science this repeated emergence of standard answers is called “replicability”. Yet it turns out that however hard scientists try to maintain the exactly same experimental conditions the nature’s answers eventually fade. It’s as if nature “habituates” to stimuli that are always there. In living organisms habituation is when an organism gradually stops reacting to a stimulus that happens repeatedly. To put it in other words, nature reacts like a living creature – it gradually “forgets” its own answer. Later a similar decline effect was found in other sciences, such as biology and pharmaceutics. For instance, drugs that used to provide a high therapeutic effect with years were loosing their therapeutic power even though they were taken by patients who had never used them before [ibid].

So, there are some grounds to assume that both autobiographical memory of a human individual and the “memory of the universe” (e.g., the laws of nature) can be stored in a certain hypothetical depository, which is beyond the physical universe. Throughout history, scientists gave this depository different names, such as the realm of ideas (Plato), or the morphic field (Sheldrake). The “depository hypothesis” doesn’t replace the traditional explanation of human memory by synaptic engrams but rather complements this explanation. If this hypothesis is taken seriously, then the implicit hope for the “life after life” of an individual human consciousness is not without some grounds after all. And still, it remains only a hope.

A person in the ocean of time: Conclusions

I started this paper with the question of why renowned scientists and even institutions engage in projects that seem to have no practical value in the modern life. These projects include exploration of problems such as the origin of the universe, the future of Earth and the universe in billions of years from now, the structure of objects that are situated hundreds of millions of light years away from the Milky Way or are so fundamental that can exist only in theory, and the fate of humankind in the future measured on a cosmic scale. These studies require serious investments. At that human civilization exists only a few thousand years, is facing a number of urgent challenges (such as ongoing wars, refugee crises, global warming, undernourishment, lethal diseases, overpopulation, and ecological disasters), and can come to its abrupt end at any moment from a variety of lethal impacts. I hypothesized that the acute interest in global cosmic issues has its basis in the subconscious hope of modern people that a person's mind is immortal.

The historical analysis revealed that the hope for immortality of the soul was rooted in the belief of the ancients in the supernatural realm where gods and spirits lived and where after people's death their souls passed. Modern science proclaimed that the belief in the supernatural is a fallacy, and this imposed a ban on the hope for personal immortality.

Nevertheless, psychological research in the recent decades has shown that the belief in the supernatural is alive not only in small children and superstitious adults, but in the majority of educated adults who consciously view themselves as non-believers in magic or in god. The belief in the supernatural gives a person the subconscious hope that the individual human consciousness can be immortal. We reviewed various attempts to provide the implicit belief in the supernatural with evidence: Scientific exploration of paranormal phenomena and the possibility of participation between a person and the universe (e.g., the “effect of Mars”, the direct effect of thoughts on matter, the near dearth experiences), pseudoscientific theories (e.g., the “ancient astronauts” theory), and humanistic approaches (e.g., the “omega point” theory). We came to the conclusion that none of these attempts provided solid evidence for the supernatural phenomena, which leaves the implicit hope for personal immortality without support. The strong anthropic principle, based on the achievements of quantum physics, claims that at the level of quantum events the magical participation between human consciousness and the physical universe is indeed a reality. But SAP does not guarantee immortality of the human mind, as it links the physical universe to intelligent observers for only as long as the observers live.

Finally, we examined the assumption that the mind can survive death of the physical universe by joining the cosmic consciousness. We found that despite some evidence for the possibility that both human memory and memory of the universe are stored in a depository beyond the physical universe, this assumption remains mostly hypothetical.

And yet, the hope for immortality lives and keeps providing inspiration for scientific and non-scientific studies. Why is it the case? Because a hope takes its strength not from knowledge, but from passion and belief. And most people passionately want to live in eternity and, subconsciously, believe in the supernatural. This subconscious belief feeds the rational people's hope for personal immortality.

A lonely traveller on a yacht in the middle of a boundless water desert – this is my image of a person, at the dusk of his or her earthly journey, who firmly believes in science and is already unable to accept a common religious faith. Joys of discoveries of childhood, aspirations of youth, confident steps and achievements of adulthood – all of this is behind. And what is ahead? Almost nothing, on the honest rating. Of course, there are still remains of the health in the body, canned food in the storage, fresh water in the cistern and the yacht is still on the float… But in the mist that lies ahead the inevitable moment is already visible when the journey will come to its end. And still, something elusive and subconscious glimmers in the darkness – the little ray of hope. The hope that the omniscient being is looking at you and is ready to open their embrace to you, selflessly and unconditionally. That your life was not just a splash on the boundless surface of the ocean of time, and your deeds – both good and bad – will be appreciated in eternity. For a nonreligious person this hope has no scientific and logical grounds. A person like that understands that by his or her conscious disbelief in god and the supernatural he or she does not deserve this hope. And still, the hope is there. Locked in the dungeon of subconscious, this hope feeds endeavours that from a rational point of view are impractical and initiates inquiries in issues that are beyond our understanding. Against all odds, we live as if our soul is immortal.

But all life is against all odds. There is no ground for a system of such complexity as a human organism to exist and not to fall apart at any time, yet this system lasts. And it seems to me that this hidden, subconscious and “unlawful” for a rational person belief that life and the mind are irreducible to the laws of nature, that there is something bigger than an individual and even all humankind can possibly comprehend, that the supernatural is not a fallacy but a reality – is the feeding ground for the person’s last hope: The hope for immortality.

Winner M. (2005). Winner Takes All: A Life of Sorts. London: Anova Books.
Moravec H. (1988). Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Tipler, F. (1994). The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York: Doubleday
Pierre Teillard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man, Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers. https://archive.org/stream/ThePhenomenonOfMan/phenomenon-of-man-pierre-teilhard-de-chardin_djvu.txt
Krupp, E. C. (2003), Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Courier Dover Publications.
Subbotsky, E. (2001). Causal explanations of events by children and adults: Can alternative causal modes coexist in one mind? The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 19, 23-46.
Subbotsky, E. (2005). The permanence of mental objects: Testing magical thinking on perceived and imaginary realities. Developmental Psychology, 41, 301–318.
Frezer, D. D. (1980). Zolotaya vetv'. Issledovanie magii i religii. / Per. S angl. M. K. Ryklina – M: Politizdat.
Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCarthy, K & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 218-231.
Rozin, P. Millman, L., & Nemeroff, C. (1986). Operation of the laws of sympathetic magic in disgust and other domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 703-712.
Gauquelin, M. (1969). The Scientific Basis of Astrology. Stein and Day Publishers. New York.
Gauquelin, M. (1991). Neo-Astrology : A Copernican Revolution. Arkana, Penguin Group. London.
Eysenck, H. J. (1975). Planets, stars and personality. New Behaviour, 29 May, 246-249.
Mayo, J., White, O., & Eysenck, H.J. (1978). An empirical study of the relation between astrological factors and personality. Journal of Social Psychology, 105, 229-236.
Dunne, B. J., Nelson, R.D., & Jahn, R.G. (1988). Operator-Related Anomalies in a Random Mechanical Cascade. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2, 155-179.
Jahn, R.G. (2001). The challenge of consciousness. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 15, 443-457.
Jahn, R. G., & Dunne, B.J. (2008). Change the rules. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 22, 193-213. http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_22_2_jahn.pdf
Subbotsky, E. (2013). Sensing the future. Reverse causality of a non-standard observer effect. The Open Psychology Journal, 6, 81-93. http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/subbotsk/Sensing%20the%20future%281%29.pdf
Subbotsky, E. & Ryan, A. (20140. Motivation and Belief in the Paranormal in a Remote Viewing Task. The Open Behavioral Science Journal, 8, 1-7. http://benthamopen.com/contents/pdf/TOBSJ/TOBSJ-8-1.pdf
Moody, R. (1975) Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon-Survival of Bodily Death. New York: Bantam.
Gray, J. (2007). Black Mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia. London: Allen Lane.
Kaku, M. (2008) Physics of the impossible. A Scientific exploration into the world of phasers, force fields, teleportation, and time travel. New York: Doubleday.
Subbotskii, E. V. (2006). Stroyashcheesya soznanie. Moskva: Mysl'.
Subbotsky, E. (2016). The barrier for robots. Subjective experience as a magical phenomenon.
Carter, B. (1974). "Large Number of Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology". IAU Symposium 63: Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data. Dordrecht: Reidel. pp. 291–298.
Barrow, J.D. & Tipler, F. J. (1988). The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wheeler, J. A. (1990). Information, physics, quantum: The search for links. In W. Zurek (Ed.), Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information. Redwood City, California: Addison-Wesley.
Subbotsky, E. (2016). Miracles in law. Magical underpinning of physical universe. SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences (accepted).
Day J. M. (1994). Plato’s Meno in focus. London: Routledge.
Slater, A., Morison, V. & Rose, D. (1982). Visual memory at birth. British Journal of Psychology, 73, 519-25.
Gibson, E.J and Walker, A.S. (1984). Development of knowledge of visual-tactual affordances of substance. Child Development, 55, 453-60.
Baillargeon, R. (1987). Object permanence in 3 1/2-and 4 1/2-month-old infants. Developmental Psychology, 23, 655-64.
Onishi, K. H., & Baillargeon, R. (2005). Do 15-months-old infants understand false beliefs? Science, 308, 255-258.
Sheldrake, R. (2013). The science delusion. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Schooler, J. (2011). Unpublished results hide the decline effect. Nature, 470, 437. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110223/full/470437a.html
Lehrer J. (2010). The Truth Wears Off. The New Yorker; 52-57.
Link to this article

You can simply select and copy link from below text field.

Other our sites:
Official Website of NOTA BENE / Aurora Group s.r.o.
"History Illustrated" Website