Sunday, October 23, 2005

Is an Afterlife Meaningful?


Does the concept of an afterlife even make sense? It is true many religions teach or assume an afterlife for people. In some cases it is reincarnation, and others it is heaven or hell or something in between. But what does it mean for someone to leave this life and enter an afterlife? Put another way, how do we know it is the same person in the after-life? If I die, and someone called Daniel enters heaven, is that me, or is it just someone like me with my name?

One can ask: what makes me me? How do I know I'm the same person as that person that looked just like me and inhabited my house yesterday? Well, there is a physical continuity between me and that person, and I have the same memories has he had, and my personality is the same. Perhaps none of these are perfect answers as they are all subject to gradual change, but let's suppose they contain a majority of what defines me.

Now clearly death is the end of our bodies. So physical continuity between us and whatever comes afterwards definitely breaks down. Then at best, from an correspondence perspective, an exact copy of one could be made, including a copy of the states of all one's neurons so that one's memories and personality are the same. Now I doubt most people would really want this, especially those suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer's, but assuming an improved body just complicates the correspondence, and I'll pass over that for now. Assuming then that an exact replica of me is made, including the state of my brain and my memories. Is that me?

Well if this is possible, there is no need for me to die for a replica to be made. A replica could be made now and placed in an appropriate world. Is that me? I would not think so, and I would not care for that replica any more than I would any other person. Another possibility is that after I die, not one but two replicas are made of me. One is put in heaven and one in hell. What should I think about that? Which one is me or are both me? I can't say that I care too much about the fate of my replica or replicas and would not consider them me. So it seems there is a crucial correspondence problem between me and whatever being is supposed to be me after I die. If an exact copy of me now is not going to be me, then an exact copy of me after I die is not going to be me, nor is any other improved copy.

Some might reply: it is one's soul (or spirit) that defines a person, and the transference of the soul is what constitutes a correspondence of a person. That is, it is me if my soul gets transferred to that body. But what is the soul? What part does it play in one's person? Presumably it is a non-physical thing, as if it were physical thing it would join the body in the grave. But can a non-physical thing influence the physical world? If it does then physics as we know it breaks down at that point. So I think we can safely reject that, and so conclude that whatever the souls is, it has no effect on the body or world. So it seems the most the soul can be is a label for a person; after one dies the soul or label gets attached to some other body. But this seems strange -- why should I care about some other body just because it gets my label? Moreover, if bodies can be replicated, maybe souls can too. Then perhaps multiple bodies will get my label after I die.

To conclude: I have a direct connection to my past and future in this world, and I understand how my current actions affect the future state of myself in this world. However, even if there is an afterlife, I see no connection between me and whatever creature or creatures follow me in the after-life. It is the same as someone making a clone of me -- all very well, but I have no attachment to that clone. In addition, transferring or copying my soul into that clone doesn't build any direct connection to it.

27 comments:

  1. I think the important point is that if there is a soul, an 'essence' that is us (some thing like a volatile memory kept in the RAM of a computer) then we need to ask - if I transfer this electrical memory into another body, does that become me? Or rather is it ME?
    If I apply cold logic to it, the only way to go about it is as follows:
    1. Isolate this 'soul' and learn how to transfer it.
    2. Create a full grown clone that would be inert (mentally)
    3. While alive, a person's(say charlie's) 'soul' is transferred to the clone.
    4. If our logic works then the clone would behave exactly like Charlie. Secondly Charlie's body would become mentally inert showing that the 'soul' has actually moved house and that it is not just a copy.
    5. The final proof would be to reverse the process and see the real charlie reanimated and the clone going back to mental inertness.
    rgds,
    Lavanian

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  2. Post script:
    As far as meaning to afterlife is concerned - well think - how many of us do really understand the true meaning of life? Every day, hundreds die, without even having learned the meaning of THIS life.
    rgds,
    Lavanian

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  3. Ah, but is the second part of your point 4 right -- namely if one copied the state or soul of a person into another, why should the original person stop living? Surely he could continue on just as before, and now there would be two with the same mental and other states. This shows one of the problems with maintaining personhood between bodies or this life and the afterlife.

    Daniel

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  4. Hi DM: you may know who I am after reading this post, but I prefer to preserve anonymity on the web.
    I think you somewhat gloss over the point on the soul being nonexistent because a non-physical thing cannot influence the physical world. There is something in me that would make me want to kiss one person and kick another. These are physical actions, but the desire to do these things is not necessarily physical. I think that what makes me desire to perform certain physical actions is what people refer to as the soul, or in some cases, the will.
    Maybe the soul does continue after death in this world, but it does not have to be in any sort of physical body, which makes some of your points and Lavanian's irrelevant. Just a thought. I too do not know what happens after death.

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  5. In traditional cultures a lot of things that were not understood were assumed to be caused by gods or spirits or demons. As we've learned to describe things in purely physical terms, we don't need gods for rain or demons for schizophrenia, and the evidence for these spiritual beings falls to zero. The mind is a more complicated thing yet, and we have limited understanding of it, but great progress is being made in understanding how it works and what causes our desires. I'm quite confident that we'll be able to explain our desires are purely physical phenomena and that we will not need to invoke a soul or spirit for them.

    Another way to look at it is to observe that animals have desires, all the way from caterpillars up to apes. Surely one would not postulate all of them have nonphysical souls too? If we say they don't, then we no longer hold desires as evidence for souls.

    If we don't have any evidence for a nonphysical soul, and rather we believe in one because we desire an afterlife, then I would say it is very likely we are deceiving ourselves.

    --Daniel

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  6. Do rocks have life? No. Because they lack a soul. Plants and animals have a "vegetative" soul that keeps them alive but which is incapable of intellectual reasoning. They can neither learn a language nor compose classical music or engage in a philosophical discussion and so on.

    The soul is where our Intellect, our Will and our Memory reside. In other words, YOUR personality is in your soul. The soul also has spiritual interior senses.

    You are a composite of BODY and SOUL. You have Spiritual needs as well as Physical needs. In fact, the search for Truth that you have, is coming from your soul, not from your body for your body does not need to understand what TRUTH is...

    When the time comes for your soul to leave your body, that's when your vital functions will cease to exist.

    You do not control any of your vital functions with your intellect and you cannot decide when your last day on earth will be... unless you kill yourself but that is a violation of the natural law.

    Your soul looks just like you only that it is not corporeal. It is like a hologram of yourself, and it is who you are.

    Your soul, separated from your body, will be able to continue to think, perceive, see, remember, learn, feel, enjoy, etc., just as your body did but in a much higher level since it is no longer confined by the boundaries of your finite human body.

    The body is not what dies when we die. Death is the Separation of the SOUL from the BODY.

    The soul does not get transferred to another body. You only live ONCE. There is no REINCARNATION.

    We will enjoy Heaven and Hell BODY and SOUL at the day of the Resurrection because it is with our bodies that we attain either Sanctity or Damnation, and they too shall be rewarded accordingly.

    With the same body that we sin, we will suffer in Hell while with the same body that we practiced Holiness, we will enjoy Eternal blissfulness in Heaven.

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  7. We have a desire for spiritual things (reading, learning, mental rest, praying) as well as for material things (food, clothing, shelter,etc).

    Animals have no desire for an afterlife because they are not rational beings.

    Animals have no Free Will and they cannot make intellectual decisions. Only Human Beings have Free Will and have the power to decide between Good and Evil.

    I hope this helps clarify your confusion.

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  8. To the person who wrote a description of the soul being our intellect, memory and will. That is perhaps what people thought a millenia ago, but it is not at all what we have found through science. We are able to physical parts of the brain that account for different aspects of our intellect and memory. Whether we like it or not, we are complicated computing machines. If our physical brains are damaged we can lose our memory or intellect. When we die, our memory banks disintegrate and lose all their memory. There is no evidence for any sort of duplicate, non-physical soul that does thinking for us.

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  9. Yes, the physical part of the brain is connected to the soul but that does not mean that it is the brain alone that takes care of our vital functions.

    If it were so, we would be controlling with the use of our minds, the sistolic and diastolic movements of our hearts, our breathing, and even the blinking of our eyes, but these things continue even when we have BRAIN DAMAGE... so your theory is INCORRECT.

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  10. And this is the verdict, that The Light came into the world, but people preferred Darkness to Light, because their works were evil.

    20
    For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.
    21
    But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

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  11. I think I could agree that our minds cannot control the involuntary movements of our bodies.

    Try to stop breathing and you'll see what I mean. I don't think these things can be controlled with our minds, so I guess there must be a soul in charge of it. But I could be wrong. If anyone could shade some light on this, I'd appreciate it.

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  12. I agree there are lots of unconcious or subconcious activities of our minds and bodies. We are only conciously aware of a very small portion of the activities going on inside our brains. But the other processes going on in the background are physical operations of our brains and bodies. For instance levels of sugar and oxygen in our blood are constantly monitored and adjusted through rate of breathing and other mechanisms. There is no need to postulate a "non-physical" soul that survives the body on death.

    Daniel

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  13. If we are not conscious of these background activities, then who is it? It has never been up to us to decide when to give our last breath or when to stop the beating of our hearts.

    It is just logical and natural to infer that a higher power or a superior being is making this decision for us.

    That's why this is a decision that is way beyond our human control, way beyond our intellectual control and understanding as well as way beyond the decisions of our free will.

    Nobody will know when our number is up. Only God knows it. We know when we were brought to this world but we don't know when we will go.

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  14. Dan, could you share your insights on my comments above?

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  15. I don't see the logic. Not being aware of something that one does, like one's heart beating, doesn't imply some supernatural being is causing it to happen. Our bodies are complicated machines and our conciousness is only one part of it, and aware of a portion of it.

    Daniel

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  16. Daniel,

    In your original post of this thread, you wrote:

    < quote >
    But can a non-physical thing influence the physical world? If it does then physics as we know it breaks down at that point.
    < /quote >

    With all due respect, I believe your knowledge of physics may be a little outdated. ;-)

    It was Descartes who first proposed the "interactionist" point of view, that is, mind and matter are two different kinds of stuff, but each can affect the other. After that, philosophers argued for many years about how this could be possible without having physics as they knew it break down, and they proposed many solutions that to me seem far less appealing than interactionism.

    Having the benefit of a more modern outlook, it took me a while to understand the problem they were trying to solve. I believe the thing that bothered them was that their model of physics was entirely mechanical and deterministic. Clearly, this gives rise to Laplace's daemon, and excludes the possibility of the mind affecting the body.

    Of course, we've moved well beyond that rigid model of physics, and Laplace's daemon is good and dead. It seems that God does indeed play dice. Or you could say that God has left a back door open for interactionism.

    Let me put it another way. Back in 9th grade, before I had ever heard of quantum mechanics, the idea of physical determinism bothered me profoundly. I concluded that in order for free will to make sense, there must be some undiscovered device in the brain, however small, that is under the control of the soul, and not subject to the predictions of physics. To a scientist, this would necessarily look like a "random" process, meaning that he could find no law that governs it. Only years later did I find out that this device does in fact exist. Not only that, but microscopic randomness is the basic design principle of all the universe.

    Knowing this, I don't understand how you could claim that the idea of the soul influencing the brain would cause physics to break down. To me it seems quite the opposite: Schroedinger has planted a great big red flag right in the center of physics, pointing to the place where natural and supernatural meet.

    I have not yet read the book, but I believe that Popper and Eccles's "The Self and its Brain" takes a similarly interactionist view, and fleshes it out in some detail.

    Let me end with a quote from Eccles:

    < quote >
    I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition.
    < /quote >

    - S

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  17. S:

    Let me clear up a misunderstanding. By physical I don't mean solid or mechanical. I include photons and gavitons and quantum mechanical effects. What I am saying is that particles or things are governed by universal laws (or patterns) as opposed to being influenced by things outside the universe. That is, the particles in one's brain behave according to the same rules where ever they are. What makes them special when they are in the brain is simply the arrangement of surrounding particles so that together they enable thought and memory etc.

    Now I think you are mistaken when you say: < quote > Schroedinger has planted a great big red flag right in the center of physics, pointing to the place where natural and supernatural meet. < /quote > It is true quantum mechanics introduces randomness, but it is not complete randomness; rather it is very tightly controlled probabilistic randomness. The wave equation is deterministic, and this determines the probabilities for all the states in the universe. Events must occur according to these probabilities. For example, radioactive decay is random, but at the same time it's half life can be precisely predicted. If the supernatural is going to influence the natural, then it is going to have to adjust these probabiliies. And that is my point: it will need to break the laws or patterns of physics.

    As for the superstition quote, let me quote www.thefreedictionary.com:

    su·per·sti·tion
    1. An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.
    2.
    a. A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance.
    b. A fearful or abject state of mind resulting from such ignorance or irrationality.
    c. Idolatry.

    Scientific reductionism seems a very natural assumption given what we know about the universe, so if it is a superstition, then there must be a strong rational argument why our experiences cannot be explained by our being physical machines. There are plenty of emotive arguments, but I haven't come across any rational ones. Perhaps I should read Eccles, but that type of emotive judgement on his part does not make me hopeful he'll provide a rational argument for it.

    DM

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  18. S:

    As far as free will goes, what is clear to me is that we have a feeling of freedom and that we often make our own decisions. Beyond this I am not sure exactly what free will means. But this is compatible with both determinism and indeterminism. Here's an illustration. I choose a number for a lottery and the next day the winning lottery number is chosen in a completely random way. I accept that I had a fair chance at winning and the result wasn't rigged. Now say that the winning number was actually determined randomly the day before I chose my number, but was only revealed on the day after. The result is completely determined, however I still feel that it was a fair process. In the same way our free will isn't affected by things being predetermined or not.

    Actually, as far as randomness goes, I don't think we can distinguish between a deterministic random number generator and a truly random one. If so, that seems to be a proof that there is no way to distinguish a deterministic universe from from indeterministic one; all the apparant ramdomness could equally well be attributed to a deterministic random number generator or an indeterminstic one.

    DM

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  19. Hm, it seems we’ve landed right back in the philosophy of statistics. What is a probability anyway?

    Let me propose that a probability is a subjective measure of incomplete knowledge. If I say that a coin has a 50% chance of landing heads up, I am admitting that I do not in fact know on which side the coin will land. But that does not mean I know nothing about it. What I do know is that in my long-term observation, coin tosses have ended in heads half the time.

    Having determined the probability of an event may give me a feeling that I have “understood” it, even though I can’t predict it exactly. But it’s important to keep in mind that this knowledge does not actually tell me anything about how the coin decides how to land. For example, you point out that the decision may or may not already have been settled beforehand. For that matter, could it be that all US coins are fitted with tiny remote-controlled weights, and the government secretly decides all coin tosses? I’m not claiming that this is the case, but saying that the coin comes up heads half the time doesn’t disprove the idea.

    There are numerous well-established psychological experiments in which the probability of various outcomes can be measured quite accurately. Let’s say, for example, that we believe the results of Milgram’s experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment). A participant has a 67.5% chance of administering the final 450V shock when someone in authority has told him to do so. Armed with this statistic, would you claim that you have proved that the participant had no choice in the matter? After all, he is bound to act in such a way as to produce the 67.5% probability. Nonsense, I say. The experiment has not told you anything about what is going on inside the participant’s head, nor was the experiment designed to do so. All you have discovered is that given a very large sample size, you can find a trend in how people respond.

    You wrote
    < quote >
    What I am saying is that particles or things are governed by universal laws (or patterns) as opposed to being influenced by things outside the universe.
    < /quote >

    This conclusion can’t be derived from the laws of physics. Quantum mechanics tells us that we cannot find natural laws to predict the outcome of microscopic events. It does not tell us, and is not designed to tell us, whether there is a causal link between the non-material world and these outcomes.

    - S

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  20. From Webster:

    < quote >
    Main Entry: su·per·sti·tion
    [...]
    2 : a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary
    < /quote >

    I believe this is the meaning that Eccles has in mind.

    For an example of rational arguments for the existence of the supernatural, see my posts on the thread "Reason, Faith and Truth Seeking" in this blog. You may disagree with my points, but I think calling them emotive would not be fair.

    - S

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  21. S:

    I didn't mean to call your arguments emotive; I agree that is unfair. But the reasons for scientific redunctionism are not weak or irrational. So I still hold that the superstition charge is unwarranted and emotive.

    DM

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  22. S:

    Back to the probability issue. You make a good point that we can't prove there isn't a causal link between the supernatural and the natural. Let me examine the options available.

    You give the example of people choosing actions in an experiment. Their actions can be described statistically even though they are each the result of a free choice.

    Let me expand on this for the real world of quantum particles. Each particle has a multi-dimensional probability density describing its location and velocity. This density can be predicted theoretically, or measured emprically through multiple experiments. So here are two interpretations:
    (1) There is an inherent random spread of particles in nature whose overall probability density is described by quantum mechanics. Let's say this randomness is generated by a universal random number generator.
    (2) Alternatively, whenever a measurement is made of a particle a supernatural force decides where it will be. Here the density function simply describes the statistics of what the supernatural force decides.

    As described these are empirically indistinguishable, and number 2 does have a strong causal link between the supernatural and the natural. But it seems a bit much. Why should a supernatural force be deciding the location of all the particles in the universe at every instant? The first alternative seems much simpler, since all it requires is a random number generator and no supernatural forces.

    Another option is a mixture of the two possibilities. That is, most of the time we assume explanation 1, but occasionally the supernatural intervenes with number 2. The difficulty here is that if the laws or patterns of physics are to remain unchanged in the switch from 1 to 2, then the supernatural intervention must be indistinguishable from the random number generator. But if this is so, then the large scale statistical mechanics will remain the same, and it is hard to see what the supernatural force could achieve. But actually, here is a potential solution: say the supernatural entity can reset the universal random number generator to any value it likes. Then it simulates how the universe progresses. If it doesn't like that way, it resets it again and re-sumulates until it finds a solution it likes. Then it resets the actual universal random number generator. That way without breaking the laws or patterns of physics the supernatural entity can get any of the possible outcomes that it likes.

    So there you have it, my best explanation for the red flag you described. But it seems pretty far-fetched and much more complicated than a universal random number generator. There is no evidence to distinguish explanations, so one can choose which to believe based on faith or based on Occam's razor.

    DM

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  23. As an interesting side note, it seems that Leibnitz actually believed something similar to what you propose, though of course he didn’t know about quantum mechanics. He realized that there are possible outcomes and impossible outcomes. There are also constellations of the universe we are inclined to consider as possible, but could not actually be made to work. His conclusion was that of all the truly possible alternatives, God chose to create the best one.

    I don’t think I’m willing to swallow Leibnitz whole, but it does certainly seem that any entity capable of inventing material existence from scratch would have no trouble remaining involved via quantum mechanics should he so choose. Bach comes to mind as a fitting picture. He invented the rules of Western harmony (not quite from scratch, but every metaphor has its limits), and then proceeded to write sublime music within these rules. Perhaps the fact that the aesthetic idea of “freedom within a structure” is so compelling could be a hint that there’s something profound about it.

    Bringing this back round to the original question, I’m not claiming that quantum mechanics proves the existence of the supernatural. My main reasons for believing in the supernatural are the ones I’ve mentioned before: existence, cognition, and morality. To my mind, these cannot be understood satisfactorily without supposing a non-material existence. I’m sure the good Friar William of Ockham would not fault me for this reasoning.

    - S

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  24. William Occam may not have objected, but the razor named after him would. As I showed in my last reply, the supernatural intervention model entails enormous complexity, whereas the purely natural model is far more parsimonious. It is not a proof or disproof, but it should give one reason to reconsider the supernatural intervention model.

    DM

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  25. If there is no tangible or visible evidence for a soul (spirit,etc.) you rule it out. In fact
    since there is no evidence for a soul (qualitative/quantitative properties) one can't know what a soul is & therefore do not know what one is talking about.

    It is totally self evident that cognition, consciousness, the mind, etc. can not continue to function after the brain disintegrates which makes this declaration of afterlife an absurdity typical of the authority fallacy. A product of Judeo/Christianity which is Arab culture & tradition.

    These are 2 examples of reification based in logic-tight compartments of invincible ignorance( the will to ignore the facts is invincible). To reify is to create a word(s) to denote a thing that has no evidence of existing also called thingizing. God,Soul, afterlife are reifications. I'd replace the word GOD with the word DETERMINISM which is a valid scientific theory in theoretical physics such as Einstein's belief in a unified field theory or a Theory of Everything (see: John D. Barrow).

    Developing a cloned Afterlife - A super algorythmic topology of your cortical synaptic matrix taken when you die via some method like quantum entanglement (see: The God Effect by Brian Glegg) hooked up to an entire endogrine system and functioning cloned midbrain or implanted in a stem cell cloned humanoid brain of the humanoid body nutured from inception corresponding to the extracted synaptic algorythm. Science is progressing exponentially. I bet something like this could occur in the far future if mankind survives as a species. I sense it would be like waking up after an operation under anesthesia. This could be used for space travel around the galaxies.

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  26. If there is no tangible or visible evidence for a soul (spirit,etc.) you rule it out. In fact
    since there is no evidence for a soul (qualitative/quantitative properties) one can't know what a soul is and therefore does not know what one is talking about.

    It is totally self evident that cognition, consciousness, the mind, etc. can not continue to function after the brain disintegrates which makes this declaration of afterlife an absurdity typical of the authority fallacy. A product of Judeo/Christianity which is Arab culture & tradition.

    These are 2 examples of reification based in logic-tight compartments of invincible ignorance( the will to ignore the facts is invincible). To reify is to create a word(s) to denote a thing that has no evidence of existing also called thingizing. God,Soul, afterlife are reifications. I'd replace the word GOD with the word DETERMINISM which is a valid scientific theory in theoretical physics such as Einstein's belief in a unified field theory or a Theory of Everything (see: John D. Barrow).

    Developing a cloned Afterlife - A super algorythmic topology of your cortical synaptic matrix taken when you die via some method like quantum entanglement (see: The God Effect by Brian Glegg) hooked up to an entire endogrine system and functioning cloned midbrain or implanted in a stem cell cloned humanoid brain of the humanoid body nutured from inception corresponding to the extracted synaptic algorythm. Science is progressing exponentially. I bet something like this could occur in the far future if mankind survives as a species. I sense it would be like waking up after an operation under anesthesia. This could be used for space travel around the galaxies.

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  27. My son recently committed suicide. Since then, we've been communicating through various avenues. My blog journals our conversations about death, the soul, the afterlife, consciousness, and other spiritual matters. I hope that by healing and helping others, I will also heal. I hope you visit my site. Any feedback will be appreciated. The URL: www.drmedhus.com/channelingerik

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