Recently I’ve been dreaming about having philosophical discussions, which is very strange, to say the least. And one of these was on the topic of the afterlife. My particular insight, from my dream, was that humans have the unique capacity to imagine a life and a world beyond death. It’s hard to imagine that any other creature, no matter its cognitive capacity, would be able to make the same leap. This is not a new insight for me; it’s one my dream reminded me of rather than initiated. Nevertheless, it’s a good starting point for a discussion on the afterlife.
It’s also, I believe, the reason humans came up with religion – it’s hard to dissociate one from the other. Humans are more than capable of imagining fictional worlds – I’ve created a few myself as a sometime sci-fi writer. But imagining a life after death is to project oneself into an eternal continuity, a form of immortality. Someone once pointed out that death is the ultimate letting go of the ego, and I believe this is a major reason we find it so difficult to confront. The Buddhists talk about the ‘no-self’ and ‘no attachments’, and I believe this is what they’re referring to. We all form attachments during life, be it material or ideological or aspirational or through personal relationships, and I think that this is natural, even psychologically necessary for the most part. But death requires us to give all these up. In some cases people make sacrifices, where an ideal or another’s life takes precedent over one’s own ego. In effect, we may substitute someone else’s ego for our own.
Do I believe in an afterlife? Actually, I’m agnostic on that point, but I have no expectation, and, from what we know, it seems unlikely. I have no problem with people believing in an afterlife – as I say, it’s part of the human condition – but I have a problem when people place more emphasis on it than the current life they’re actually living. There are numerous stories of people ostracizing their children, on religious grounds, because seeking eternal paradise is more important than familial relationships. I find this perverse, as I do the idea of killing people with the promise of reaching heaven as a reward.
Personally, I think it’s more healthy to have no expectation when one dies. It’s no different to going to sleep or any other form of losing consciousness, only one never regains it. No one knows when they fall asleep or when they lose consciousness, and the same applies when one dies. It leaves no memory, so we don’t know when it happens. There is an oft asked question: why is there something rather than nothing? Well, consciousness plays a big role in that question, because, without consciousness, there might as well be nothing. ‘Something’ only exists for ‘you’ while you are alive.
Consciousness exists in a continuous present, and, in fact, without consciousness, the concepts of past present and future would have no meaning. But more than that, without memory, you would not even know you have consciousness. In fact, it is possible to be conscious or act conscious, whilst believing, in retrospect, that you were unconscious. It can happen when you come out of anaesthetic (it’s happened to me) or when you’re extremely intoxicated with alcohol or when you’ve been knocked unconscious by a blow. In these admittedly rare and unusual circumstances, one can be conscious and behave consciously, yet create no memories, so effectively be unconscious. In other words, without memory (short term memory) we would all be subjectively unconscious.
So, even if there is the possibility that one’s consciousness can leave behind the body that created it, after corporeal death, it would also leave behind all the memories that give us our sense of self. It’s only our memories that give us our sense of continuity, and hence our sense of self.
Then there is the issue of afterlife and infinity. Only mathematicians and cosmologists truly appreciate what infinity means. The point is that if you have an infinite amount of time and space than anything that can happen once can happen an infinite number of times. This means that, with infinity, in this world or any other, there would be an infinite number of you and me. But, not only am I not interested in an infinite number of me, I don’t believe anyone would want to live for infinity if they really thought about it.
At the start, I mentioned that I believe religion arose from a belief in the afterlife. Having said that, I think religion comes from a natural tendency to look for meaning beyond the life we live. I’ve made the point before, that if there is a purpose beyond the here and now, it’s not ours to know. And, if there is a purpose, we find it in the lives we live and not in an imagined reward beyond the grave.