The point of this article is to define, as far as it is possible, what consciousness and self are, and in how far these entities can possibly persist even after our death. It is an atheistic examination of afterlife in a non-metaphysical way. The article does not cover the question of free decision nor the definition of emotions, and it does not discuss philosophical thought models which are similar to the one proposed in it. Warning: Some aspects of it may offend your feelings, religious or otherwise. The article is exclusively written for K5 but may be reproduced and modified without permission if this part is left intact and significant modifications are marked as such. -- Erik Moeller, July 2001.
Dreams are strange. Once we wake up, we forget them. Although some people think they don't dream, everyone dreams -- dreams are an integral part of our brain's memory management, deleting unnecessary memories and reordering chaotic ones. Since this is essentially a reindexing process and the conscious perception of this process is merely an inevitable byproduct, there is no point in storing the memory of it. Storing memories is a process of several stages (ultra short term memory of about 20 seconds, short term memory of about 20 minutes and long term memory), and if this chemical-electrical process is aborted at an early stage, memories are completely forgotten -- like the RAM of your computer when you turn off the power. There is no way to recover them.
There are situations in which we do store the memory of our dreams. Sometimes it happens during soft sleep or in the transitional phase between dreaming and "really waking up". But these are only fragments of dreams, and since we usually easily recognize them as not being important, we discard them. Dreaming in itself, in this way, is a pretty surprising or even scary process. Every night, while your brain tries to make some sense of your daytime experiences, you are in a different world, usually not aware of the fact that you are dreaming ("lucidity") -- you may have adventures in a different world, you may suffer terrible torture, or you may re-live an actual experience with different results, or different people, or from a different perspective.
You experience all this. Sometimes you feel you make decisions actively, sometimes you feel you are just passively experiencing something. But as an experience, it is not totally different from your real life. We often say that a certain dream was incredibly realistic. But maybe all dreams are equally realistically perceived, and it is only after we have "viewed" them that we forget them differently. As you wake up, it's usually all gone.
Similarly, as you begin to dream, you often forget who you are. It's like dreams and reality are separated by a "mutual amnesia", so you may very well live two, or many more, separate lives at the same time. While it is of course hard to prove (especially to ourselves) that the experience of dreaming has ever taken place in the cases where we forget it, those who write dream journals or use other methods to better remember their dreams know very well that we dream a lot more than we think we do.
This is on its own, while impressive and fascinating, not a life-changing fact. Trivially speaking, you are merely watching yourself throw the trash of your memories away, and then discard the experience itself. Dreams, when memorized, are overinterpreted even today, sometimes seen as predicting the future or explaining parts of the past you have no access to. This is easily understood as dreams often reveal memories of which we don't even know that we have them. Someone who thinks very scientifically may very well come up with a completely plausible alternative reality in his dreams, since his scientific conception of reality is still active in his dreams (fortunately, he is also likely to realize that the dream is just that -- a fantasy without meaning).
Dreams are often fun, and it can be a rewarding experience to unearth their origins ("This element of my dream occurred in the movie I watched yesterday"). Overinterpreted, they become a waste of time or even dangerous, as psychologists and therapists of the last century have shown. But dreams are meaningful as an argument in defining consciousness.
Self vs. Consciousness
One important question that intelligent biological beings ask themselves after their most basic needs have been fulfilled is inhowfar their existence can continue after their physical substrate ceases to function. This line of thought usually begs the question what existence is, so we will begin with that.
Human existence can be separated into two parts: memory and consciousness. Memory of what we have done, and the awareness of our actions. Both of these are integral parts of our experience and cannot be described without it (similar to questions like "How does the color Red look like?"), however, that does not mean we cannot examine how they work. We know a lot about memory (although still far too little), and there are countless philosophical, psychological, neurological and illogical theories of consciousness as well.
The separateness of "self" (as our actions and our memories thereof) and consciousness is a fundamental part of many religions. A person committing suicide may very well wish to have a conscious afterlife but forget the undesirable aspects (memories) of their existence at the same time. That this is not an illogical possibility is illustrated by the analysis of dreams above: We already do have separate lives that are consistently experienced with one consciousness, even though they are tied together by the same memories. Our consciousness is like a computer screen that is used by our brain to permanently project an image of our thought. Whether this "screen" is physically part of the brain itself or separate from it is outside the scope of this article, but let us assume that it abides by the laws of physics just like the brain itself.
So existence is really made up of two parts that could theoretically be separate. Many of us may have the feeling of them actually being separate at times, when we are wondering who we are and what we are doing on this planet. Most of us consider these two parts to be equally worthy of being preserved or "continuing" in some fashion after our death.
The Inevitability of Wishful Thinking
But all arguments made for or against the continuation of consciousness or self must be taken with a grain of salt, since all intelligent animals including ourselves are equipped with a strong drive of self-preservation, indispensable from an evolutionary perspective. Like all of our emotions, we translate it into "rational" thoughts and explanations for the world we live in. For example, the biologically caused mental block against having sex with the people you grew up with (incest taboo), which is necessary for genetic diversity, has resulted in numerous explanations of why incest is bad and must be prevented.
The same thing happens even later in life as we rationalize our actions for good or for bad: The smoker will always prefer to live in the belief that his actions are not harmful to him nor to others and select his perception accordingly, the corporation dumping toxic sludge in your backyard will prefer to believe that the stuff is not really harmful, and those who cause global warming would rather think that it doesn't exist or that it is actually beneficial (all these examples can of course be reversed to a degree, and they have been listed here as a demonstration: if you disagree with them emotionally your brain will immediately come up with explanations of why they are wrong and urge you to search a solution).
The power of selective perception is incredible and exploited by PR organizations, churches and consumer coaltions, who all tell people what they want to hear. It proves that our brain is far from perfect and still very much related to that of the animals we have descended from, trying to most effectively avoid the dangers of their environment once it has figured out the basics. The human brain can be easily fooled and is, in some respects, "fooled by default" to prefer certain thoughts to others.
If we prefer finding the truth to enjoying possibly false conceptions of reality (a preference that is certainly not universally shared among humans but rather learned through experience), we should try to suppress for a moment those scenarios that are desirable and look at the logical consistence of those that are undesirable. Given this introduction, what are the odds for or against an actual "afterlife"?
On the Desirability and Possiblity of Perpetual Existence
If we accept the theory that our thoughts and consciousness are in essence dominated by the laws that dominate the reality experienced in them, it seems inevitable that the dysfunction of the human brain results in the end of both memory and consciousness, thus in the destruction of both of the aspects of ourselves we would wish to preserve. This is a reality that is not easy to accept and many prefer beliefs that imply some sort of immediate afterlife (even if some of these beliefs are unrealistic to the point of being ridiculous as portrayed by most movies depicting an actual afterlife, most of them being comedies for the same reason -- many people wish to believe in a world where you live on clouds as an angel, asexually, somehow enjoying the experience).
Whether such an afterlife is actually desirable is not really examined by most of these beliefs, some of them simply suggest two different possible outcomes (e.g. heaven and hell) and don't go into much detail as to what they involve (usually there's more about hell than about heaven). To examine these very different notions would be material not for an article but for a book, and a lot of books, probably too many, have been written on the subject already.
If we accept the separation of consciousness and memory, one aspect of ourselves can most certainly live on: Our thoughts and ideas can be passed on to others, and as long as they are relevant, they will be part of our culture. They can evolve and turn into something much more advanced, they can stagnate and they can die. The best ideas can reach virtual immortality. But even the more trivial aspects of our existence are remembered by our friends, relatives and loved ones. This is a fact that we can take comfort in: Knowing that, in a way, we will live on. It is also a fact that can motivate us to participate more actively in intellectual discourse, knowing that this may very well be our only chance to actually leave a significant imprint in reality.
The TV show you watch, the game you enjoy, even the sex you have, these, while they can be important to our well-being, are not really the remarkable aspects of human existence (even though they may be experienced as such). Remarkable are the brilliant ideas, the intellectual creations that we share with others and build upon (limiting such sharing through concepts of intellectual property is, in a way, increasing our mortality, limiting the potential impact of our own existence [while admittedly potentially making the consciously experienced part of it more enjoyable]). Remarkable is our improved understanding of the universe we live in, and the practical application of this knowledge. This ability, in quantity and quality, is what separates us from lower life forms.
Perpetual Consciousness ..
Many people will not be satisfied with that, especially those who do not really care about their impact on reality. For them, actually "experiencing" reality may be more important than changing it. If that is your preference, a vision of an afterlife that does not necessarily include our memories but continues the possiblity of making new experiences (including such fundamental emotions as pleasure and pain) may be preferable to you. Or you see your existence dualistically and both aspects of it, memory and consciousness, are equally important to you. So a "memetic" (idea-based) afterlife is certainly not completely satisfactory. Is there the realistic possibility of the continuation of consciousness?
As has already been pointed out above, the possibility of continued projections onto the screen that is our consciousness seems unlikely once our body has died. Not only is it assumed (for lack of contrary evidence) that our consciousness is built on the same biological substrate as our memories, there is nothing to project onto it once we have died. While dreams illustrate the possibility of having different existences with the same consciousness, some phases of our dreams are sleepless, and in these phases, we don't have any significant conscious thoughts; the same is true in many cases of unconsciousness and coma caused by accidents, shock etc. So consciousness is in no way more persistent than the rest of our existence.
Whether it will persist nevertheless seems to fundamentally depend on the way our universe works. Visibly, our universe, while incredibly huge, is limited (if it were not, there would be no night, since a sun would shine from every visible point on the sky at a certain distance), and we know that it will also end in some way or another. But there are theories that describe a universe which is really a "multiverse", comprised of an infinite number of universes, which exist parallelly and/or sequentially. While it may ultimately be proven that our universe is not unique and part of a larger multiverse, it remains an unprovable assumption that it is indeed infinite.
Religions traditionally prefer a finite universe and project infinity into one or multiple separate entitities; these assumptions are not supported by evidence any more or less than the assumption of an inifinite universe. Our universe has certain remarkable variables that support life in it, and that strongly supports theories of multiple universes where ours is the only one being observed. While this condition can also be used to argue for external creation, logically, for reasons of preferring a simpler explanation to a more complicated one if both are sufficient ("Ockham's Razor"), it would be more reasonable to assume an infinite universe or "multiverse". An infinite "parent universe", on the other hand, would have to answer exactly the same questions as an infinite one without a parent, these questions are merely easier to avoid for the inhabitants of the "daughter universe".
Nevertheless, if one accepts an infinite multiverse as realistic, one ignores the fact that infinity is by no means a given prerequisite: The "multiverse" may very well consist of a limited number of universes, and that's it. An unsettling possibility, but it seems like between these two, no logical preference can be made.
.. Through Infinite Possibilities
What does that have to do with consciousness? The answer is quite simple: While an infinite multiverse may still be constrained in some fashion (e.g. it cannot suddenly pop out of existence, there are no worlds governed by non-consistent physical rules ["magic"] etc.), any event that has happened once will happen a second time. The part of the multiverse we inhabit may very well die before this happens, and there may be billions and billions of lifeless universes before another one forms that harbors life, and there may be billions and billions of inhabitated uiniverses before another one that contains intelligent life, and even more so until an inhabited universe forms that harbors intelligent life with consciousness as we experience it.
But time is only relevant to an observer, and after the "death" of our consciousness, we are no longer an active observer. So when, at a certain point, a universe forms in which our consciousness as it exists in this world, at some point is re-created, through evolution or otherwise, the "screen" is turned back on. Like in a non-lucid dream, we will not be aware of our former existence. At the beginning, our experience will, in fact, be even more limited, until we conceive the tools to describe our new reality. How this reality will look is a very hard question to answer. In this "reincarnation" (which does not come with any of the religious benefits of gaining karma or preserving memories), we may very well be a lower animal, if they possess a form of consciousness similar to our own. The more general consciousness is, the more possibilities there are (and the more likely it may be that our existence may be an unintelligent one).
Insofar, it may well be that before this life, we have lived countless lives as beings lacking our current intelligence, or as beings with a superior intelligence. In any case, our current experience may be really a "one-in-a-billion" choice that has followed many, many others, possibly less desirable ones. In that respect, one may consider it especially important to "make the most" of one's life. Emotions are a basic quality of all forms of higher life as we know it, intelligence and culture, however, are not. Using our intellectual potential to the fullest may therefore also be considered to be more important than experiencing the broadest possible spectrum of emotions, since it is so much more exclusive an experience.
In an infinite multiverse, the possibility of forever fading away becomes a contradiction. A finite one, governed by a "parent" universe or God, is in that respect also the less attractive possibility; it turns infinity into a "black box" the behavior of which we merely guess. The specific religious scenarios of an afterlife belittle the infinite amount of possibilities that may really expect us. Even though these considerations are philosophical and not an "exact science", some conclusions seem compelling.
Our existence is not limited by our current experience. Our deeds and our ideas will have effects even after we are gone, and our consciousness is capable of experiencing different lives than our current one (and will do so if an infinite amount of possibilities can be assumed). After we die, memory and consciousness become separate, if not forever then for a long, long time. Our presence as intelligent beings on a planet, especially at this time where technology opens us more and more possibilities of extending ourselves and improving our lives, is a chance of incredible proportions.
The afterlife of many traditional religions tends to consider our presence here as merely a preface to a much bigger and more enjoyable experience. If one assumes such a scenario, immediate suicide would be the most logical consequence, and some cults have followed this logic in hopes of transcendence. Traditional religions only avoid this through fundamentally arbitrary rules against suicide. The outlined philosophy of perpetual existence gives much bigger meaning to our current "incarnation" simply because of its uniqueness and unlikelihood, and gives us many reasons to work towards a better tomorrow in this world -- not necessarily for ourselves but also for those who follow us and those who are left behind. It cannot promise a reunification with those who we have loved or lost in this life, only a new start -- which makes the experience of mourning more important and more difficult.
Pure hedonism, while it can also be deducted from this philosophy, can be interpreted as a waste of possibilities. The same is true for suicide, which, however, becomes an acceptable solution for a horrible and undesirable life. The remaining uncertainties of whether there is a "next life" and if so, how it will look like, prevent us from considering suicide as merely a cheap entry ticket into a new life.
If you consider the logic presented here as consistent and not merely a conscious reflection of wishful thinking, you may deduct from it a simple axiom: "Carpe diem" -- use the day, and cherish it. Consider your actions carefully, for you know that every day may be the last one you experience as the being you are, in the universe you know, with the people you love. Try to leave an imprint on the world you live in by trying to improve it, enjoy its highest pleasures where you can without becoming totally immersed in them. Find much needed serenity in the fact that you will not be forgotten in this world, and that you may have an infinite number of possible existences ahead of you.