Friday, December 09, 2011

What Is It Like To Be Dead?

People on the Internet are apparently interested in pictures of dead animals.  Mixed Meters' most popular picture is of a dead squirrel.  It's been copied several dozen times.

Death fascinates.  And no death fascinates a human more than their own.  Most everyone, I'm sure, wonders how they will die.  They also wonder what life will be like after that. 

Post mortem our physical processes stop completely.  There will be no sensory perception.   There will be no seeing or feeling or hearing or touching or tasting anything.  No moving, no breathing, no thinking.  All sense of time will stop (which is a good thing: who wants to be aware of their own body slowly decaying?) 

But this question persists.  People want to believe in "something more" - there must be something besides our daily comings and goings in the vast and varied world, overfilled as it is with endless wonder, intense beauty and incredible depths of mystery.  We conclude that all that great stuff is not enough.  There must be more.  We humans demand more.  The little self inside each of us - our consciousness - comes to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it will exist forever.

So we grasp any notion which makes it seem that "me" will survive "my death" regardless of what will actually happen to "my body".  We really need to convince ourselves that part of us, the essential internal awareness part, won't just disappear because of small inconvenience like, say, passing away.  Religions even have names for this everlasting body part: they call it the "soul" or the "spirit".  Too bad it doesn't really exist, whatever it is. 

I have found my own answer to the 'what is it like after death' question.  I find it kind of comforting.  My answer seems logical (to me).  It's simple.  It is rooted in a certain past experience which every single one of us has absolutely had already.  But before I get to that, I need to blather on a bit.

People who prefer not to think about this question for themselves might chose to subscribe to a pre-formed answer.   Predictably, such answers come from religions.  There are a lot of religions available.  Most of us got our religion, complete with beliefs about the afterlife, from our parents.  It was chosen for us.  Each religion has well-established dogma designed to comfort the living as they contemplate their own or their loved ones' "life" in the afterlife

If you subscribe to such dogma, hey, good for you.  I believe everyone should be free to believe whatever they want - no matter how little effort they spent adopting those ideas in the first place.  Someone else has thought this through for you already.  Might as well take advantage.

Suppose you happen to be a Christian.  Have you ever wondered why it is that you believe that you'll go to heaven after your death rather than be reincarnated into another body?

I came across an interesting anecdote about the origin of the Christian belief in heaven.  It was in a book called Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino.  On page 262 he discusses the Council of Nicaea which, I'm sure you remember, was called in the year 325 by the Christian Emperor Constantine to decide issues of faith:
Most Christians of A.D. 325 believed in the enlightenment of imperfect human souls through successive reincarnations. ... 

To settle the reincarnation debate, two votes were held in Nicaea.  In the first vote, the bishops were asked to choose between the afterlife taking place (a) in the kingdom of heaven or (b) right here on Earth, by cyclical rebirth.

The first vote weighed in against the earthly reincarnationists, whereupon Constantine ordered the immediate execution of those who had voted for a belief in an earthly kingdom of God.

He then held a second vote: (a) afterlife in the kingdom of heaven or (b) afterlife in an earthly kingdom of God?

The second vote was unanimous, of course.

... The reincarnationists ... were subsequently declared "heretics" and ... were purged from existence.
So, apparently, Christianity chose its deeply held vision of an afterlife (the belief that, if we're good, we go to a land of fluffy clouds where we sprout wings, wear white robes and practice the harp) through the dual processes of democracy and mass execution.  I hope your faith is enhanced by knowing that other people voted and then died so you could believe in heaven.

Actually I encourage people to invent their own ideas about post-death.  The world would be a better place if everyone did this for themselves.  We're free to just make up answers.  These days no one needs to die in order to create new notions about post-death life because there are no more Roman Emperors to off you if you choose wrongly.  Well, maybe there are still a couple in theocratic countries.

Of course I don't expect you to agree with my ideas and I pretty certainly won't think much of yours.  Curiously, all our answers can be correct.  Yes, every single answer, no matter how much they contradict one another, could be absolutely correct.  This is because there is no hard evidence to the contrary.  The dead have been very lax about sending dispatches from beyond the grave.  A few crackpots claim to have had near-death experiences, but they all seem to return with the same ideas they started out with.

My own ideas about afterlife focus on the origin of our consciousness, specifically how we came to be aware of the passage of long periods of time, especially lifetimes of time.   For my little "me" (or, if you will, your little "me") to think it would exist forever it first has to have some awareness of the successive stages of its own life.

It might be useful to compare our self-awareness with that of other animals.  As an example, take our dog, Chowderhead.  He knows who he is and seems to realize that time is passing.  He has a remarkably short attention span.  Maybe he remembers what happened yesterday.  I doubt that.  Maybe he expects that there will be another day tomorrow, a day just like today, although I doubt that as well.  Does he remember being a puppy?  Does he know that he's getting older?  Does he know that he will die?  Not likely.

So it's easy to reject the notion that Chowderhead expects to have an afterlife.  People may believe that "all dogs go to heaven" but this idea did not come from the dogs themselves.  When Chowder encounters dead animals he thinks of them as things to eat.  For example, dead squirrels.

Other animals are smarter than dogs.  According to this webpage, there are four animals who live in close proximity to us here in suburbia who are brighter than Chowderhead: rats, pigeons, crows and, of course, our neighborhood squirrels.  Squirrels must have some conception of longer periods of time because they store nuts to use as food during the hard Southern California winters. 

We humans were apparently not classified as "animals" in that intelligence list.  Chimps and dolphins came in first and second.  I have no clue whether chimps or dolphins are smart enough to know that they will die.  It would be interesting to know whether they have invented a conception of life after death.  Possibly not, because dolphins and chimpanzees do not have the advantage of another essential tool in afterlife belief: culture.

Living chimps or dolphins cannot consult the wisdom of previous chimps or dolphins.  Without autobiographies or biopics detailing the lives of accomplished members of their species (Flipper and Bonzo come to mind), they cannot contemplate the story of an entire dolphin or chimp life.  Without constant statistical analysis of their activities, they have no way to know what their life expectancy is.  

What's more, dolphins and chimps have no way to leave their own thoughts to future generations as yet unborn.  Do they even know that millions of years have passed encompassing countless generations of creatures just like them?  Do they realize that they will have descendants who will live through the same stages of life that they had?

Whatever the answers to those questions about other animals, we human animals definitely know all about this stuff.  We realize that humans just like us existed in the past and others will exist in the future.  We are acutely aware of famous ancestors, perfect beings in every way who are worthy of emulation, Buddha and Christ, Beethoven and L. Ron Hubbard, who seem to have survived death because their creative ideas have become important landmarks in our culture.  If they can live on in our memories through those ideas, why can't we make up some as well?

It is through our culture, our books, cave paintings, our People magazines, that we humans are able to learn about the lives of other members of our species, either long dead or recently passed.  Human history has been one increasing torrent of media - starting with a few storytellers whose work was eventually written down into various bibles and epics, all the way to actual torrents of files on the Internet.  Maybe we modern men and women need an afterlife just to finish reading all the books and watching all the movies we won't have time for before we die.

Our cultural tools have made us acutely aware of the cycle of life: birth, growth, marriage, reproduction, retirement and, ultimately, the senior citizen discount at Denny's.  In fact, my generation of Americans - I'm what you call a "baby boomer" - has intensified this notion through our shared life cycle.  We are going through it together.  We were all young at the same time, more or less.  Now we're all turning Sweet Sixty together.  In between, we obsessed about life stages - for example in this book which is subtitled Predictable Crises of Adult Life.  I remember reading it in my twenties.   

All this cultural memory and veneration has allowed us to develop our conception of human lifetime.  We realize that each of us is born, lives a life, learns from his or her elders, accomplishes things great or small, possibly reproduces, eventually grows old and dies. We learn about this as children. It's easy to ignore at first; eventually we realize that it's happening to us.

As I have found out over the last few years, it becomes impossible to ignore.  If I try to convince myself that my recent milestone birthday represents only half of my life, then I must somehow believe that I will eventually become the oldest living human on the planet.  A lot of self-denial goes into growing old.

It's inevitable that the cycle will complete and each of us will die.  To avoid thinking about it, we seek an escape clause, a way out.  Why shouldn't we be the exception?  Why shouldn't some part of us avoid death and live on?  Why shouldn't believing make it so.  Of course it should, because my little "me" feels so unique.

We know that time will continue after we die.  Other people will live on.  Civilization with continue, economies will rise and fall.  Wars will never end.  How, we ask, can all this possibly happen without us?  It doesn't seem fair.

I'd like to point out that there is a segment of the life cycle which is often overlooked: one more stage in the sequence of birth, life, death and after death.  That stage is the period before we are born.  (Or if you're one of those people, before you were conceived.  Either way works for me.  I think I'll go with "born".)

Do you remember before you were born?  Not likely.  Once again, there are crackpots who claim memories of past lives, but I think their ranting is easy to ignore.  Because it's a free country you can choose the crackpot you prefer to believe.  I wonder why are you are still reading this.

Anyway, let me point out that each one of us was born once.  Time existed before we were born.  During that pre-born time events happened: other people were born, they did things and then they died.  We have no direct experience of those people or of those events or of that time because ... well, because we weren't born yet.

During the time before our birth we did not experience the passage of time.  Our embryos had to form and start to grow brains and nervous systems to make us capable of perceiving time.  Our pre-birth is one pitch-black endless instant of nothing happening.  It is an experience we all had - although none of us remember anything about it.  

And if you can conceive of what is was like to be you before you were born, then you should have no trouble imagining what it will be like to be you when you are dead.  Yes, that's my idea: being dead is exactly like not being born yet.

That's all I wanted to say.  To me, it seems pretty obvious.  I find it reassuring to know what to expect of being dead, because I've already had that same experience before I came into existence.  The notion makes me feel much better about living and, eventually, dieing.

If my idea didn't instantly strike you as an excellent explanation of what is going to happen after you die, then I apologize for wasting your time.  No matter how old you might be at this very moment, you have only a limited amount of time left to live.  It's a really good idea not to waste any of it.

Here's a Mixed Meters post about a living squirrel - complete with video and music: The Squirrel In Mike and Lynn's Aviary


Birth and Death Tags: . . . . . . . . .


David Ocker said...

I ask myself: why did I spend so much effort writing about afterlife when it doesn't even exist? Possibly, by coming to my own conclusion about what it will be like "then", it will be easier to concentrate on my own real life now - which is damn good. I only get one and I'd like to make the most of it while I have the chance.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

what!! no rainbow bridge?

Anonymous said...

I'm terrified of death and the thought of being dead, never waking up, leaving people behind never to return see what happens to the human race see if we discover other planets with life like our own
Too much missing out on things.
I don't want to die and I don't think anyone does I really wish there was an afterlife even though I know there's not :'(

Anonymous said...

i like the idea of what it was like before i was born NO PAIN - NO DESSIONS- COMPLETE PEACE- i'm looking forward to it i've seen and done all i want think of all the bad things you won't have to think about again.

philippe Orlando said...

When you're dead you return to the non-state you were before being born. You are not born, you doh't exist, then you exist, then you return to that state, or I should say non-state of non existence. For the individual not being born or being dead are the same thing.