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I’m disappointed in Clint Eastwood January 17, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Science, Superstition.
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In Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, George has the ability to speak with the dead loved ones of people he touches. At least, that’s what he thinks he’s doing; it’s technically possible that he’s “merely” telepathic, since he never tells his subjects anything they didn’t already know. You guessed it: the departed spirits only ever want to say they’re sorry, and they want those they left behind to get on with their lives and be happy. George, however, is not happy, and is trying to get out of the medium business — “it’s not a gift, it’s a curse!”

Marie, meanwhile, has had a near-death experience, where she saw (can you guess?) a bright light and some silhouettes. This so unnerves her that she travels to Switzerland to meet a doctor who used to be skeptical about the afterlife (and an atheist — what’s that got to do with anything?), until “the evidence” convinced her otherwise. What evidence? She gives Marie boxes and boxes of it, but the only thing mentioned to us is that lots of people have been telling the same kind of stories after near-death experiences. (Alien abductions, anyone?) Apparently, there is a “conspiracy of silence” upheld by the scientific (and religious?) establishment, keeping the truth from being known.

Why am I being such a stick-in-the-mud? It’s just entertainment, after all. My problem is that it’s dumbed-down entertainment, reinforcing superstition and wishful thinking and pseudoscience. I like science fiction as much as anyone, but good science fiction shows an appreciation of good science: it should be original, nuanced, thought-provoking, minimally plausible. While there’s still much we don’t understand about consciousness, we know enough to rule out the naive notion of immaterial souls that float off the body at death while retaining the ability to speak English and recognize grandpa. Our minds are quite clearly dependent on our brains: all the mental capacities that make us who we are — memory, language, personality, etc. — can be impaired or obliterated in living people by damage to the relevant parts of the brain.

It’s no mystery why the idea of an afterlife is so attractive to us. But that is ever more reason to be suspicious of those who claim to know what happens after death, and we should demand much stronger evidence than anecdotes about bright lights and platitude-spouting spirits. This is not a harmless delusion: believing in an afterlife can have disastrous consequences in this life — suicide bombers, environmental neglect, and so on. Even though Hereafter acknowledges that psychics are generally frauds, it still legitimizes the self-deception and general lack of critical thinking that are the hallmarks of its subject matter. I think we should expect more, even from entertainment.

If you want to see a good Clint Eastwood movie, I recommend Gran Torino.

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