Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia by Michael Shermer
A scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality from the bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer
In his most ambitious work yet, Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth.
For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, and though no one has ever returned from such a place to report what it is really like—or that it even exists—today science and technology are being used to try to make it happen in our lifetime. From radical life extension to cryonic suspension to mind uploading, Shermer considers how realistic these attempts are from a proper skeptical perspective.
Heavens on Earth concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and how we can live well in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.
An exploration of “one of the most profound questions of the human condition, one that has driven theologians, philosophers, scientists, and all thinking people to try to understand the meaning and purpose of our life as mortal beings and discover how we can transcend our mortality.”Despite never having experienced them, everyone holds strong opinions about death and the afterlife, writes Skeptic magazine publisher and Scientific American columnist Shermer (Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye, 2016, etc.) in this intriguing analysis of an area no one takes for granted. Young children don’t understand death, and adult circumlocution usually adds to their confusion (“He’s gone to a better place…”). By the teenage years, writes the author, “we understand that death is inevitable, universal, and irreversible. At the same time, most people also tend to believe that some part of life may continue into the next life, a tendency reinforced by most religions.” More than 100 billion people have died over the past 80,000 years; none have returned to life, and near-death experiences don’t qualify. In one of many no-brainers that fill the book, Shermer points out that anyone near death is, by definition, not dead. Another crowd pleaser, reincarnation, becomes a stretch if 10s of billions of wandering souls try to cram themselves into the 7.5 billion bodies currently alive. Since deeply held beliefs are often immune to evidence, the author’s blend of common sense, neuroscience, experimental findings, and history will attract few readers expecting a strong argument for the existence of an afterlife. This is a pity because Shermer proceeds to less controversial subjects. Vast life extension violates no natural law, so it may eventually happen. Legitimate scientists, as well as the usual eccentrics, are working on it. From hippie communes to the Soviet Union, attempts to create a perfect society invariably flop, and readers will find Shermer’s reasons why entirely reasonable. Finally, the author delivers a moving essay on the meaning of life.Not a polemic but an ingenious popular-science account of how we deal with mortality.
“[A] fascinating book…Shermer visits…utopian theories with detail and considered analysis, drawing readers along increasingly unrealistic (or are they?) possibilities for our future evolution. It’s a journey as boggling as it is engrossing.” —Maria Konnikova, The New York Times Book Review
“[An] intriguing study.” —Nature
“[An] ambitious, erudite volume…bringing the high evidentiary standards of science to bear on heavenly claims.”—The Washington Post
“[An] inviting and informative tour of human kind’s various conceptions of where God locates himself…In bringing so many heavens together, Mr. Shermer does us a service. Among other things, he shows us why we are lucky that not everything can be fully grasped by our limited capacities.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Faulty religious reasoning and sloppy secular arguments earn a skeptic’s side-eye….Michael Shermer aims to deconstruct systems of irrational beliefs.” —Science Magazine
“This is fascinating stuff.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“[T]he author delivers a moving essay on the meaning of life… an ingenious popular-science account of how we deal with mortality.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Michael Shermer is a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationality.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, host of Cosmos and StarTalk, and author of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
“This book’s theme is the one of greatest practical importance to all of us: does some heaven or afterlife await us after we die? Most Americans, and even many atheists, believe that the answer is ‘yes.’ If there is no heaven, how can we find purpose in life? Michael Shermer explores these big questions with the delightful, powerful style that made his previous books so successful—but this is his best book.” —Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steeland other books
“Thank goodness for Michael Shermer’s sound and inspired mindfulness and for this importantly useful volume. Truly a delicious read. Ten Goldblums out of a possible ten Goldblums!” —Jeff Goldblum, actor
“Heavens on Earth is absolutely brilliant, filled with profundity, startling facts, and mind-expanding ideas. Michael Shermer somehow manages to be entertaining and scientifically erudite at the same time. He also brings some of history’s greatest thinkers to life and makes their ideas accessible. This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time.” —Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package
“[A] refreshing change. Most takedowns of religion simply preach to the unconverted, so to speak, and they hardly ever convince true believers to recant. Heavens might not convince them, either, but Shermer listens topeople with spiritual leanings and engages them in legitimate debate. The book also does a valuable service in scrutinizing modern, scientific visions of the afterlife…Shermer calls himself a skeptic, but he’s a believer, too, a believer in human potential…”—The American Scholar
“How do you convincingly dismiss most of civilization’s beliefs in the hereafter and still arrive at fresh optimism about the meaning of our all-too-human existence? …Michael Shermer does a fine job of it – and much more – in his absorbing 15th book.”—Book Page
“Shermer argues compellingly that awareness of our mortality leads us to live purpose-driven lives, since our legacy may be the only thing that survives our deaths.” —Booklist
“Shermer succeeds not only in analyzing human beings’ efforts to live forever in a utopian existence, but he ends the journey by encouraging readers to seek the forms of heaven which exist around us, in our own lives.” —Library Journal
“I appreciate every evolutionary step skepticism takes toward openness. Heavens on Earth is an affirmation that other world views deserve respect and understanding. In this book science may actually be catching up with the world’s wisdom traditions.” —Deepak Chopra, M.D., author War of the Worldviews and You Are the Universe
From the Publisher
Shermer, author of The Moral Arc and founder of the Skeptics Society, dives into humanity’s deepest questions about life and what happens after death. He explores religious versions of the afterlife and science’s attempts to explain it, yet approaches both with caution. Incongruences among different religions are examined, and Shermer suggests that their explanations of life after death do not measure up to scientific scrutiny. Even the secular medical community’s mechanical attempts to prolong lifespans and touch immortality are dissected and found imperfect. Much like Shermer’s previous work UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, this book also requires strict adherence to scientific methods and measurable observations when dealing with supernatural or paranormal occurrences. Shermer succeeds in not only analyzing human beings’ efforts to live forever in a utopian existence, but he ends the journey by encouraging readers to seek the forms of heaven which exist around us, in our own lives. VERDICT The comprehensive scope of this book’s topic lends itself to readers who are looking for multiple religious points of view, whether for scholastic or personal research.—Bonnie Parker, Southern Crescent Technical Coll., GARemembering those who served, a revolutionary reformer, a life in poetry