After Linear Time: Anthropological Ruminations on the Afterlife

A review of “After Linear Time: Anthropological Ruminations on the Afterlife” an article by Phoebe Cottam UCL

At heart this essay questions the basis and nature of anthropology. This academic discipline is apparently caught up with a desire to be seen as a formal science – however “that anthropology is a science is a significant point of contention within the discipline”. Certainly within UCL there appears to a striving to prove anthropology’s objectivity. This is reflected in the seminar on discussion on “afterlife” which prompts this essay response. The seminar appears to have commenced with a demand to disavow any belief in afterlife and to consign any non-materialist beliefs to the “observed” and presumably inferior races and civilisations.

Cottam asserts that anthropology is a science – “firstly for its positioning within an ontology I call scientific, secondly for its commitment to objectivism”. The first half of this statement appears to be a statement of an axiom and the second to anchor the study of humans within objectivity.

The essay quotes Wallach and Schmidt (Repairing Plato’s Life Boat with Okham’s Razor) with their definition of scientific worldview comprising:

– The atomist hypothesis
– The mechanistic hypothesis
– The materialist hypothesis
– The time irreversibility hypothesis

The rest of the article questions the earlier assertion that anthropology is a science, essentially by attacking the latter time irreversibility hypothesis, which is a fundamental assumption of both mechanism and materialism. Anthropologists find many societies have a concept of co-existing linear and non-linear time , for instance “the two forms the Maya imposed on their past, historical time and cosmic time”. Essentially if existence transcends linear time then a fundamental tenet of the ontology of science is undermined. This leads to the essays’ eventual conclusion that there is a belief system operating within anthropology that wishes to suppress other beliefs – “we cannot presume an anthropological discussion of the afterlife to be apolitical”.

The essay might equally have made a significant evidence based challenge to each of the three other pillars of the scientific-materialist paradigm. However at heart it is pure logic that undermines any claim by anthropology to be a science. A study of man by man must always involve the subject with the object, and it has been proved within mathematics (Godel’s incompleteness theorem) and science (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) that because of an infinity of self-referential feedback loops that all “knowledge” is unprovable and can ultimately be traced back to an original axiom or belief.

As Douglas Hofstadter puts it (Godel Escher Bach) “By the way, in passing, it is interesting to note that all results essentially dependent on the fusion of subject and object have been limitative results. In addition to the limitative Theorums [eg Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorum], there is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that measuring one quantity renders impossible the simultaneous measurement of a related quantity. I don’t know why all these results are limitative. Make of it what you will.”

Faith is at the core of all, and we would do well to step outside the edifice of thought that it gives birth to, and openly acknowledge our intrinsic beliefs. Atheist materialists simply start from that as an axiom (see above for the 4 hypotheses underlying the scientific worldview). Their dishonesty is to pretend that the resultant logic chain somehow proves the initial premise. Other great religions at least simply state their belief as just that – belief.

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