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Afterlife and the Mind
October 16, 2008 10:07 PM   Subscribe

Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death. Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too? Examining self-consciousness and mortality.
posted by amyms (219 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite

 
Basically, if you think you've got it figured out, that's the surest sign that you don't.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 10:14 PM on October 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


I am scared shitless of dying in horrible pain or dying alone. Otherwise, who cares. The separation of the ego from the consciousness should not be discernible after death, and if it is, bonus round. DISCOVERY.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:17 PM on October 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened.

Someone's materialist agenda is showing.
posted by shivohum at 10:18 PM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


I took a metaphysics class at ASU and the conclusion of the class was that the mind ceases to exist also. It was a heavy conclusion to realize. There were a couple of religious girls that actually left the class in tears at some point. One of the best classes that I have ever had. I know that one class is not much of a qualification, but I feel I understand the subject more than a vast majority of people.
posted by Mr_Zero at 10:18 PM on October 16, 2008 [7 favorites]


"Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one's memory. And yet, I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure."

(It seemed appropriate. But really, so does Hamlet or Mrs. Dalloway or basically everything.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:22 PM on October 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?

No.
posted by philip-random at 10:24 PM on October 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


My biggest fear is that I will be dead but aware, and that somehow death will be more emotionally painful than life. Or that I will be aware of the trials and tribulations of the loved ones I've left behind, but unable to intervene or help them in any way. I spend way too much time worrying about this kind of thing, but I think the unknowns have kept me from acting on any suicidal tendencies I have when they rear their ugly heads.
posted by amyms at 10:25 PM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


William Hazlitt 'On The Fear of Death'
posted by Abiezer at 10:26 PM on October 16, 2008



Basically, if you think you've got it figured out, that's the surest sign that you don't.

Exactly. We don't even know what the mind or consciousness is. This is open territory.
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:31 PM on October 16, 2008


A lot of folks feel as close as the living are going to get lie in three letters: D M T. I'm fairly convinced.
posted by item at 10:41 PM on October 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


Who would not think, seeing us compose all things of mind and body, but that this mixture would be quite intelligible to us? Yet it is the very thing we least understand. Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being.

-Pascal
posted by Bromius at 10:41 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


For the longest time, I thought that when I died, I'd feel the way I did when I watched Faces of Death. I was about 6 years old, so I was probably more horrified than others. Then my grandparents died when I was in middle school. They passed peacefully, or at least to my knowledge. I now like to think of dying as, well, going gently into the good night.
posted by Xere at 10:46 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wernher von Braun:

But I think science has a real surprise for the skeptics. Science, for instance, tells us that nothing in nature, not even the tiniest particle, can disappear without a trace.

Think about that for a moment. Once you do, your thoughts about life will never be the same.

Science has found that nothing can disappear without a trace. Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation!


Of course if we're all just illusions, this is bullshit and we were never here in the first place.
posted by Clave at 10:51 PM on October 16, 2008


I now like to think of dying as, well, going gently into the good night.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:53 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Someone's materialist agenda is showing.

You say that like it's a bad thing.
posted by scody at 10:53 PM on October 16, 2008 [28 favorites]


You loose hearing first,

Then you get tunnel vision, then a whiteout. You feel cold, but it isn't really cold. It's the total lack of sensation. Some people might perceive this lack of sensation as warmth, others something else. I use the term 'you' loosely at this point, because other portions of your mind are not available at this point. Portions of memory might be available, but the ability to process them is severely impaired. The white noise that envelopes your senses constricts and more of 'you' pass through it, to nothingness.

'You' don't care at this point, it feels good to let go. At this point I'm pretty sure more and more of what is left of you ceases to be, but something annoyed me into willing myself back. When sight returned I saw the ashen face of my brother yelling at me to speak to him. Portions of my body clicked back on and complained at me for abandoning them, it kinda hurt.

I'm pretty sure I almost died, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if most people experienced what I did when they go. All I can say is you really don't care when you get there. If that is at all comforting to anybody.
posted by The Power Nap at 10:54 PM on October 16, 2008 [58 favorites]


We don't even know what the mind or consciousness is.

Are you serious? It's chemical processes. Is this really something people worry about?
posted by mwhybark at 10:57 PM on October 16, 2008 [14 favorites]


You know the way it was before you were born? That.
posted by nicwolff at 10:58 PM on October 16, 2008 [34 favorites]


posted by The Power Nap
eponysterical.

posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:58 PM on October 16, 2008 [13 favorites]


All I can say is you really don't care when you get there. If that is at all comforting to anybody.

Wow, The Power Nap, I'm interested in knowing what happened to you, if you feel comfortable expanding on your comment.
posted by amyms at 10:59 PM on October 16, 2008


And really, death freaks me out something terrible. I'm not ashamed to admit it. It often helps me to approach it with a (deliberately fake-optimistic? doggedly nonchalant?) Bokononist attitude.

"Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:02 PM on October 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


Considering how difficult it is to peg down something like consciousness (let alone self-consciousness), I think the implicit association with life might be a bit of a reach (was Ms. Schiavo alive? Was she conscious? Was she self-conscious?). Something can certainly be alive but not conscious in any normative sense. Beyond any testable hypothesis, there is no reason to conclude the opposite to be true or false.

A hospice patient once confided that he wasn't particularly afraid of dying, but not existing scared him terribly. While the author of the article would be quick to point to the biological death and consciousness dichotomy, I'm not so certain. It could be a fundamental change in consciousness that moves towards entropy, loss of ego if you will, where the self is not clearly defined.

I myself have a dread fear of dying but not losing consciousness. How terrible to be akin to an Alzheimer's patient aware that his faculties are going, but impotent to do anything about it. Now I get this on a molecular level. A free floating consciousness with nothing but it's own madness to occupy it. I can't think of a better hell.

When I'm ready, I'll be happy to die, and have my consciousness snuffed out.
posted by quintessencesluglord at 11:04 PM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


just before I clicked this thread, I was reading this poem.

A Poet at Twenty

Images leap with him from branch to branch. His eyes
brighten, his head cocks, he pauses under a green bough,
alert.
And when I see him I want to hide him somewhere.
The other wood is past the hill. But he will enter it, and find the particular maple. He will walk through the door of the
maple, and his arms will pull out of their sockets, and the blood will bubble from his mouth, his ears, his penis, and his
nostrils. His body will rot. His body will dry in ropey tatters. Maybe he will grow his body again, three years later. Maybe
he won't.
There is nothing to do, to keep this from happening.
It occurs to me that the greatest gentleness would put a bullet into his bright eye. And when I look in his eye, it is not
his eye that I see.

Donald Hall
posted by vronsky at 11:06 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Bad reaction to a bee sting, blood pressure crashed. Might have been a bad epipen too, as it was long expired. Nothing cool, sadly.
posted by The Power Nap at 11:07 PM on October 16, 2008


I'm far more scared of infirmity than of death. I don't worry about death much at all, other than to hope I go before I lose my mind.
posted by Caduceus at 11:07 PM on October 16, 2008


The period after you die is just like the period before you were born. This seems so obvious to me that I always feel that people who claim otherwise are subtly pulling my leg.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 11:11 PM on October 16, 2008 [10 favorites]


Ahh, thanks for that, The Power Nap. My son has had a few anaphylactic reactions due to his various allergies, but his Epi-pen has always done the trick and he's never lost consciousness, thank goodness. Scary stuff.
posted by amyms at 11:15 PM on October 16, 2008


nicwolff said: You know the way it was before you were born? That.

Mr. President said: The period after you die is just like the period before you were born.

That's what I like to think too. I hope you're both right.
posted by amyms at 11:18 PM on October 16, 2008


Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood.

I actually do remember that moment. I was 4 and my dad made an offhand comment about something and how "no one lives forever". I asked him what he meant and then cried for about 2 days. I think most kids come upon the realization more gradually, piecing it together from things here and there.
posted by the jam at 11:25 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


i need to check my outlook calandar. i've really been putting this off.
posted by breakfast_yeti at 11:29 PM on October 16, 2008


A lot of folks feel as close as the living are going to get lie in three letters: D M T. I'm fairly convinced.

Ah yes, the DMT Elves. I thought they might show up in this thread. My most significant time with them came via strong LSD and a pretty much endless supply of nitrous oxide ... and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra for what it's worth. Suffice it to say, I've never been dead (as far as I know) but my so-called consciousness has taken some long strange trips to deeply weird locales, at least two of them well removed from the constraints of my physical body.

Proof of life after death?

Sorry, I don't think that exists. The proof, that is. At best, I'm left with a love of the great mystery of existence (that much I do believe in) and a fondness for laughing at such lame-brained materialist fundamentalism as the following from the article in question:

Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce.


Thanks for the post by the way. Nice to get away from the political psycho-dramas for a while and discuss something real.
posted by philip-random at 11:38 PM on October 16, 2008


There HAD to be a dog anecdote in there.
posted by deafmute at 11:58 PM on October 16, 2008


CLYDE BRUCKMAN: I have only one dream. I dream it ever night. You're not one of those people who turns everything into a sexual symbol, are you?

AGENT MULDER: No.

CLYDE BRUCKMAN: I'm not concerned with where I am or how I got there. I'm at peace and it's then that I realize I'm dead. My body begins to turn a greenish-white with spots of purple. Next, the insects arrive. The inevitable follows, putridity and liquescence. Before I know it, I'm nothing but bones. When I start fading to dust, I lose whatever care I still might have had about where my clothes are and as I begin to feel myself slipping away towards I know not what...

I wake up. Well, good night.
posted by Auden at 11:59 PM on October 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


materialist fundamentalism

That's right. These idiots that go around saying that stuff that exists, exists, and the stuff that doesn't, doesnt - well, God help them.
posted by liquidindian at 12:00 AM on October 17, 2008 [30 favorites]


nicwolff: You know the way it was before you were born? That.

Well, there's an asymmetry of 'knowledge' here, at least going by the seeming successive linearity of change. so the lack of consciousness (or strictly speaking, memories) of the "prelife" doesn't equate to lack of conscious affect after life.
posted by Gyan at 12:07 AM on October 17, 2008


I'm pretty sure I almost died, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if most people experienced what I did when they go. All I can say is you really don't care when you get there. If that is at all comforting to anybody.

I took a blow to the head that put me on the edge. I was passing in and out of consciousness for hours. It eliminated a lot of my fear of death. Had I kicked the bucket, it would have been relatively peacefully. It's not like I was really much there for events post-concussion.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:23 AM on October 17, 2008


I'm comforted, I believe in"
posted by Mblue at 12:31 AM on October 17, 2008


Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in the world, at one time people shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with all speed through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life? It were easy for him to do so, if once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not.
- Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
posted by nasreddin at 12:36 AM on October 17, 2008 [15 favorites]


Baby Mouse.

.
posted by zaelic at 12:37 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


nicwolff, Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America , I am completely in agreement. Is this something that came to you at some point? I've had this view of death pretty much as long as I can remember, which I've always assumed had to do with not being raised in a religious tradition. Heaven has always seemed like a ridiculous concept.

I think there's a lot of conflation between death and dying. Dying seems pretty crappy. Death, not so bad.
posted by billyfleetwood at 12:39 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Death isn’t “like” anything we’ve ever experienced, however. Because we have never consciously been without consciousness, even our best simulations of true nothingness just aren’t good enough.

Not true. When experiancing a grand-mal siezure (or tonic clonic or whatever the latest term the medical community is using these days) your brain is effectively dead. Your body might be busy doing the bacon dance but your heart isn't pumping blood, your lungs aren't breathing but most importantly your brain is, for all functional purposes, dead. When your brain boots back up you know that you temporarly ceased to be.
posted by Pseudology at 12:42 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


When your brain boots back up you know that you temporarly ceased to be.

Wow, Pseudology, what does that feel like? Does it create an existential crisis?
posted by amyms at 12:48 AM on October 17, 2008


Is the author the same Jesse Bering who wrote this?
As scientists, we must toil and labor and toil again to silence God, but ultimately this is like cutting off our ears to hear more clearly. God too is a biological appendage; until we acknowledge this fact for what it is, until we rear our children with this knowledge, he will continue to howl his discontent for all of time.
When your brain boots back up you know that you temporarly ceased to be.

What did the blue screen look like from the other side? Did they start you in Safe Mode first just to make sure things were working properly?
posted by pracowity at 12:58 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


CLAUDIO: Death is a fearful thing.

ISABELLA: And shamed life a hateful.

CLAUDIO: Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

-Measure for Measure, Act III Scene 1


Claudio's desperate plea here isn't wholly representative of Shakespeare's view of death, but this particular speech has always moved (and kind of terrified) me.
posted by milquetoast at 1:08 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


Basically, if you think you've got it figured out, that's the surest sign that you don't.

Well, in light of that folksy homily we should all agree that science should be fucked.

Really hard, in the ass, while creationists Cretins (apologies to the Isle of Crete) hoot and holller on.

--ugh. And don't even offer a reacharound.
posted by sourwookie at 1:20 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


In the absence of any sort of evidence, why do humans jump to the silliest conclusions possible?

"Hey, look! My dog is dead."

"I'll bet he went somewhere. Like a happy place."


"No, I think he's dead. He ain't moving. There's no blood or oxygen in his brain. He's just decaying matter at this point. He didn't GO anywhere."

"Yes, he did. He went to a land of purple rainbows. Everyone frolics on a magic cushion of clouds and eats candy floss."


"Dude, put down the bong. Seriously. All the evidence we have points to the fact that my dog and his consciousness have simply ceased to exist."

"PURPLE. RAINBOWS. CANDY. FLOSS."


"You can't seriously expect me to buy this fantasy."

"Just look how happy he is. Frolicking."

Dead. Body. No circulation. No breathing. Deadness. Decay. No functions. Worms.

FRO-LICK-ING. ON. CLOUDS.


.....and scene.
posted by chuckdarwin at 1:24 AM on October 17, 2008 [21 favorites]


Unicorn on the cob writes "I am scared shitless of dying in horrible pain or dying alone"

Unless you die very quickly, you'll be conscious of dying alone, as you lose first the ability to communicate meaning, then the ability to communicate at all, then the ability to see and then to hear anyone else. It's pretty terrible and very frightening.

But I'll take the pain, and even the loneliness. What scares me is dying too quickly to understand what's going on. Yeah, sure I won't be there or anywhere to regret or know the not knowing, but I want time, if even just in my own mind, to organize myself, remember a few people and things, take a final fix on land before sailing into blue oblivion.
posted by orthogonality at 1:31 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


The Power Nap writes "You loose (sic) hearing first"

Maybe you did, but I could still hear even when wasn't able to keep my eyes open. It can't say if I heard more faintly or just had to work harder to interpret what I could hear.

"You feel cold, but it isn't really cold. It's the total lack of sensation."

No, I was really cold, and I still had sensation of pain. Especially when the IVs went in.

"'You' don't care at this point, it feels good to let go."

Definitely not. Resignation, perhaps, a sense that I was doing all I could to marshal my my dwindling resources and keep some spark lit, but resigned to the possibility i wasn't going to make it. Acknowledgment that my fate was now in others' hands. But I was going to grimly hold on as long as I possibly could. So much so, that it got in the way of composing myself; I knew I didn't have sufficient resources to both hang on and to settle things up in my head, so I chose the hanging on.
posted by orthogonality at 1:47 AM on October 17, 2008 [6 favorites]


What did the blue screen look like from the other side? Did they start you in Safe Mode first just to make sure things were working properly?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but I think I've wasted too much life booted up in Safe Mode.
posted by rokusan at 2:03 AM on October 17, 2008 [15 favorites]


Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Death is only felt by those left behind. Sucks to be them.
posted by Sparx at 2:16 AM on October 17, 2008 [5 favorites]


-We don't even know what the mind or consciousness is.

-Are you serious? It's chemical processes. Is this really something people worry about?


I wish I could be that dismissively, simplifyingly certain of what mind and consciousness are.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:21 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


The article was actually about how we conceptualize the death of other people. That is, when our loved ones die, it is difficult for us to truly imagine that they do not exist.

We still have this vague notion that they are out there *somewhere*, doing *something*. Even for materialists, this is a common slip-up.

I have no problem with the non-existence of a character from fiction. They never existed. Its a story.

I have no problem with the non-existence of a cousin of mine who hasn't been born yet. This is the problem with the "Death is like before you were born" thing. There's an infinite amount of potential future cousins - boys, girls, rascals, geniuses. But there's only a finite amount of Dead people. It is as if anything, any piece of clay can be given the spark of life. But once something possesses the spark of life, it becomes more difficult to understand how it can disappear. Where did their memories go? Their perspective on life? Their imagination, their dreams, their obsessions?

Intellectually, I can answer these questions. Psychologically, it is not so easy.
posted by vacapinta at 2:27 AM on October 17, 2008 [7 favorites]


The price of life is death, which is, all things considered, well worth it.

My big fear is an eternal increasingly improbable life, a lonely mournful existance as we are forced to watch everyone we love die around us.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:31 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wish I could be that dismissively, simplifyingly certain of what mind and consciousness are.

It's a fabulously fast neural net, but it's nothing computers won't be able to achieve in the next hundred years or two. The internet itself, taken as a nervous system, is already more complex than many of our ancestors. That it is regularly having nightmares and groping for the words to describe them is something my email inbox can attest to.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:38 AM on October 17, 2008 [6 favorites]


From the linked article:

In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance. It's sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief.

The idea that you can strip culture away, like the icing on a cake, to get to what's 'really' underneath strikes me as every bit as wishful and irrational as the idea that our minds go on living after our bodies are dead. It astonishes me that the director of an 'Institute of Cognition and Culture' should have such a naive and impoverished idea of what culture is.

Other than that, the article is quite good.
posted by verstegan at 2:40 AM on October 17, 2008


That is, when our loved ones die, it is difficult for us to truly imagine that they do not exist.

It's not THAT hard, is it? I miss the people who have died, I really do. Every time something cool happens, I go to call my dad. I still think he's going to answer.

Then, I go "Oh, fuck. He's dead." That bit is really hard to take. But I don't imagine him as alive in any way, or frolicking on magic clouds. He's just completely gone.

Sorry if people aren't strong enough to get their heads around that idea, but it's the best theory we have (based on the evidence in hand). Dead people cease to be.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:48 AM on October 17, 2008 [5 favorites]


Intellectually, I can answer these questions. Psychologically, it is not so easy.

I agree. And I think I should explain further where I'm coming from earlier.

The article is built on what we know about the brain so far. I've no argument with that and can offer nothing by way of scientific evidence to refute anything the author claims. I do, however, have my own belief system wherein I do believe in a soul that lives on after death. This is because of the question of consciousness that I've been asking myself since I was a child: why did my "I" appear in this body, and not in, say, a jellyfish, or my sister, or some woman in Bhutan? I explain it with the existence of a soul. Now, I do not claim to know with any degree of certainty what happens after death, if the soul that lives on possesses consciousness, or even with 100% that I'm right in this belief of a soul. For all I know, death = lights out and that's that.

This is why the tone of the article confused me a bit. He seems absolutely baffled that people actually believe the consciousness lives on after death, despite everything we know about the brain. Is it really that strange? I realize a lot of people confine what they consider real to the very concrete, and I think it's fine, better safe than sorry, right? Stick with what you know to be. But does it hurt us to believe that we or our loved ones live on after death? I realize the author isn't contending that it does, of course. I just wonder why he seems so exasperated with all these people who just won't let go of the idea of an afterlife.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:54 AM on October 17, 2008


Oh, the dead still exist; the pattern we'd describe as their thread of consciousness hasn't been surgically removed from space-time. Speaking of things in "the past" as if they do not exist is too reliant on our particular "forward" experience of time, and is more like drawing a line in the sand and claiming that nothing beyond it is real.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:57 AM on October 17, 2008 [7 favorites]


Basically, if you think you've got it figured out, that's the surest sign that you don't.

Well, in light of that folksy homily we should all agree that science should be fucked.

Really hard, in the ass, while creationists Cretins (apologies to the Isle of Crete) hoot and holller on.


Either I've misunderstood what you're trying to say, or you don't understand what the scientific process is about, because certainty is pretty much ruled out of scientific enquiry. The minute someone can demonstrate a real, meningful flaw in your favourite theory, it gets modified or discarded.

Religions, on the other hand, are all-too-commonly the stuff of certainty.

But does it hurt us to believe that we or our loved ones live on after death?

It does if we think, "Hey, it doesn't matter if I get blown up with this bomb, I'll meet up with my friends in the afterlife," amongst various possible aberrant outcomes.
posted by rodgerd at 3:01 AM on October 17, 2008


It does if we think, "Hey, it doesn't matter if I get blown up with this bomb, I'll meet up with my friends in the afterlife," amongst various possible aberrant outcomes.

Belief in an afterlife is not mutually exclusive with caring about whether or not you live or die, and there are plenty who would contend it "doesn't matter if I get blown up with this bomb" without necessarily believing in an afterlife.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:08 AM on October 17, 2008


Mr. Praline: Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:20 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Clouds, puffy and somewhat kid ichorous . Anyway, gravitea.
posted by Mblue at 3:29 AM on October 17, 2008


Rodgerd, I think the point of "if you think you've got it figured out, that's the surest sign that you don't" is to comment on the unknowable "experience", for lack of a better word, of just being gone.

Of course, I could have just missed the point. That happens a lot.
posted by Ludi at 3:30 AM on October 17, 2008


I still remember my first realization that people I know could die but one thing that has never ceased to baffle me is how anyone could honestly believe that the soul somehow continues to live. I always assumed you had to be a little tongue-in-cheek about it and I'm stupefied people genuinely believe.

If someone believes that the voices in their head are real, they can be declared legally insane. If someone truly believes they could one day BE a voice like that, with no body attached, then it's ok, because it's a religious conviction.

I admit, years ago I liked to imagine that after I died, ME would be born again as someone else, totally unaware and with none of my memories, and would read about the old me but not realize they HAD BEEN me. All the while I knew it was just imagination and not real world, though.

And as for dying, I know first-hand that the most gruesome ways are probably the least painful - the first shock obscures all sense of pain and lasts for a while. If you're lucky to die then, you die a happy person. If not, and the body begins recovering, the pain kicks in. Partly for this I think decapitation is a very humane way to die and the guillotine was a great way to do what it was meant to.
posted by Laotic at 3:31 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


I know first-hand that the most gruesome ways are probably the least painful
You have inefficient, well, voice.
posted by Mblue at 3:38 AM on October 17, 2008


Usually I like to terrify myself by contemplating mortality at say, three, four in the morning. It's great to get a jump start on that before breakfast.

Next up, a quick game of 'Do I have cancer?' Then maybe a round of 'have I wasted my life?'
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:41 AM on October 17, 2008 [28 favorites]


I asked a death related question in AskMe a while ago and some of the answers the signs of death in a person where illuminating.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:49 AM on October 17, 2008


Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

posted by matthewr at 4:05 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


There was another askme thread about death where I made a totally awesome comment and linked to some interesting philosophy lectures online on the subject.
posted by leibniz at 4:07 AM on October 17, 2008


This whole topic - the serious appreciation of death - seems to have brought out the worst in the MetaFilter community.

Worst because this entire thread lacks the density of truly snarky comments we all know and love from MetaFilter. When confronted with our own mortalities we get all misty-eyed and maudlin, all pablum and pall-bearer, all sangfroid without joie de vivre.

If death can teach us anything then it should teach us to laugh in its face. HAH! I laugh at your ugly face, Death! I ridicule the intense seriousness of your expression. I poo-poo your overarching denouement in favor the beating smelly heartbeat of life itself!

Myself, I hope I die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.

My uncle, bless his soul, knew exactly when he would die... down to the exact day and time. So the judge told him.

I have chosen my own death, and I look forward to it. Old age.

You've been a wonderful audience! I'm out of here!
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:10 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


My experience was almost Hollywood stereotypical, complete with the big bright light beckoning me into it.
It was probably mid-morning...2am or so...and I had awakened from an otherwise deep sleep. I felt...odd. Unsettled and disoriented. I looked over to the bedside clock to check the time and couldn't make any sense of the display. It seemed like gibberish. It all felt very weird.

I glanced around the room to get my bearings (which makes no sense now, since the room should have been pitch-dark at that time of night. We were living in the country and there were no lights to leak in through the window that would allow me to see anything.) I was in my bedroom. That was my wife soundly sleeping next to me.

I looked out the window above our bed.

There was no window. Well, the shape of the window was there, but what was there now was the purest, most impossibly white light. And like a moth to a flame, it was drawing me to it. I crawled up the bed and moved closer to the light. I can't tell you the emotions that started to wash over me as I grew near. Joy. Happiness. An indescribable sense of peace. "Bliss" is the only word that comes close. Simply put, I had never known such utter happiness. Then...it hit hit me...I realized what was happening. I recall having the conscious realization that "Holy shit. I'm dead."

With that realization, I slumped away from the light and settled back into bed, only to be immediately awakened by my wife...frantic, obviously scared, and yelling my name...shaking me with all her might. She had been trying to wake me for several minutes (or so it seemed to her) after she become aware that I was not "there". She said I was not moving or breathing and she had been pounding on me to respond. She was obviously shaken by the experience. According to her, I had never moved. I was just lying there.

Now, this is not to say I know with absolute certainty that I know what death is like. All I'm saying is, based on this experience, I don't fear it. Often, when I think about that amazing sense of bliss I felt, I think I might actually welcome it.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:12 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


I thought the author's idea that 'person permanance' (the same construct that helps us understand that just because we can't see someone, doesn't mean they cease to exist) can't just be switched off covers my own experience pretty well. I know my grandparents are dead; I don't think of them as still existing in any way or afterlife or whatever; and yet I still 'forget' every now and then that I can't just call them up for a chat.

My favourite fictional take on death and near-death experiences is Connie Willis's book Passage. It's about an NDE researcher, trying to ask people what they've experienced before the charlatan Crossing-Over-style writer gets to them first and blurs their memories by telling them about the angels and tunnels they saw. It's funny and sad and fascinating, and perhaps just a few chapters too wordy.
posted by harriet vane at 4:14 AM on October 17, 2008


Basically, if you think you've got it figured out, that's the surest sign that you don't.

Anti-intellectualism.
posted by DU at 4:19 AM on October 17, 2008 [6 favorites]


I asked about this once in AskMe too.
posted by gerryblog at 4:30 AM on October 17, 2008


My experiences of near-death were pretty much like what The Power Nap described above. For me it was hypothermia, on two separate occasions. What hurts is not the dying part, but being revived. They don't make me scared of dying, but maybe a bit scared of the memory, of how easy and relatively painless it tells me it would be if I decided to die on purpose. But being brought back from that hurts, lots. Going under was kind of blissful, once I stopped feeling the cold (which was while I was still 100% conscious, by the way).

After the second time, I finally learned not to sit on snow banks. Ever. No matter how tired I am, and no matter how soft and comfy the snow is.
posted by idiopath at 4:41 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


> Are you serious? It's chemical processes. Is this really something people worry about?
> posted by mwhybark at 10:57 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Folks with one of those inconvenient hyperactive curiosity lobes certainly do, because of what Marisa said.

Like step 2 in the Underwear Gnomes' business plan there's a bit of a gap in the story where something interesting doesn't get mentioned. It goes between 1. chemical processes and 3. the bacon starts to dance. Exactly how does it happen that a few kilos of protein becomes aware of itself? We'll need a few more details about step 2 before we even have a publishable paper, let alone a Nobel prize.

And if we did have those details they might answer Von Braun's objection (basically, "That which has happened cannot un-happen") and they might not. We won't know until we have them. I expect, at the 99% confidence level, that consciousness goes *poof* when the supporting bacon dies. But high confidence is not certainty, and until we have the details we won't be ably to give a good account of why the bacon substrate is required by the dance or, conversely, why once the dance has gotten started it's a self-sustaining reaction and no longer requires the bacon, which was just a catalyst.
posted by jfuller at 4:50 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I suffer from sleep apnea. I experience death many nights if I don't wear that damned C-pap
machine.
posted by doctorschlock at 4:51 AM on October 17, 2008


Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?

Depends on the underlying nature of reality. Suppose this is all a simulation?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:19 AM on October 17, 2008


People want so badly to believe that the consciousness continues after they're dead, but how many have actually examined the repercussions of that theory?

I suggest that we exist in a state of total isolation, in the same infinite blackness that naive people perceive as the state of non-being. The destiny of every one of us is to become a mad, lonely god, whose final thought is an eternity-long scream to the nothing, begging for oblivion.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:21 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


How awkward it is to live in a Universe where the truth is not only hidden, but so often obfuscated.

I'm always kind of wary of people who claim to be comfortable with the concept of their own non-existence. I mean, really? I can't imagine too much else more worthy of concern, but maybe I'm just an egotist that way.

I have the same wariness of fervent materialists, too. It dismisses way too many very interesting questions and thought experiments. If my "self" is just a collection of structural and chemical states, what happens if (or when, if you believe in a time unbounded, closed Universe or strange brains stuff), the improbable, but not impossible happens and this exact same state occurs in nature after my death? Is my "self" reborn? If the answer is no, and this is a different "self", then what binds and defines my current structural/chemical set as my "Self" from moment to moment? Cause and effect? The "Self" is an illusion? Doesn't that seem awfully bothersome and nonsensical on an intuitive level?

One can make a pretty good case for the arrow of time being a product of consciousness, too. What's so special about the causal connection between my present-mind-state and my time-separated next moment's or next day's mind state and, say, a spontaneous mental twin's physically separate mind?

It just seems to me these discussions of the self in a purely materialistic Universe leads straight down the road to say that the idea of self itself is nonsense. And yet, to me, "cogito ergo sum" is all I've got and the only thing that is both empirically unfalsifiable to outside observers but totally irrefutable to my internal observer. If the self is an epiphenomenon, it's a damn persistent and impenetrable one. To that end, it's actually easier to imagine that there's no there out there than to imagine that there's no me in here.
posted by Skwirl at 5:22 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Did they start you in Safe Mode first just to make sure things were working properly?

The start-up process was gradual, the one time this happened to me. I had a dream in which I died. At that point the dream ended, and then I was neither asleep nor awake, but in some other kind of brain state. At first there was nothing, for an indeterminate time. Then some measure of awareness returned, just pure perception. Some more time passed. My eyes opened as if on their own, but the visual sensations coming in were entirely meaningless. Then a couple of tentative thoughts: "I am dead. ... No, I am not dead." After a minute or two I remembered that I had a body I could move around, and remembered that I was a human being. Then things came back to normal, more or less. It did feel very much like the operators who control the simulation that is our universe took me off-line for a while for some debugging.

Suppose this is all a simulation?

It could be. Whatever it is, it's very mysterious. If it were a simulation, that would not mean that whoever is running it gives any special status to our individual perceptions of self and consciousness.

The "Self" is an illusion? Doesn't that seem awfully bothersome and nonsensical on an intuitive level?

No, one can get used to it. I find it a rather comfortable assumption, both intellectually and emotionally. Still, no point thinking about it too much.
posted by sfenders at 5:41 AM on October 17, 2008


when my daughter was 2 years old, i asked her if she remembered where she was before she was born. she answered "on the beach with all the other babies".
posted by kitchenrat at 6:10 AM on October 17, 2008 [46 favorites]


If you're thinking about death, you're missing life. Death will be whatever it is. Make the most of now.
posted by Eideteker at 6:11 AM on October 17, 2008 [7 favorites]


I beleive that the "Self" or sense of Self is what we loose when we die. We are always an integral part of the universe, connected body and soul. And when we die, though we may loose ourselves as independent entities, we will continue to continue to exist. Like a drop of water into the sea.
posted by freshundies at 6:15 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


A better question is this: will the dolphins who died for your tuna sandwich be waiting in heaven to exact their revenge? Or those clever little monkeys we gave cigarettes to; do they get to sit on clouds with oxygen tanks for their emphysema, waiting to smack everyone upside the head?

...and unless they give us guns in heaven, we're all gonna be screwed. You damn well know the lions and tigers will be running amok. Just think of all the babies they're eating up there!
posted by aramaic at 6:17 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


nicwolff said: You know the way it was before you were born? That.

The problem with that is most of us don't really have any memories from before we were about 2 years old. So that "before you were born" concept of consciousness extends quite prominently into the time after we were born. If after is like before, then a couple of years of pure dementia at the end is actually the most natural thing you could look forward to.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 6:20 AM on October 17, 2008


all I know is I better have a bad ass death rattle
posted by evilelvis at 6:21 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


ZenMasterThis: Suppose this is all a simulation?

Well if it's coded correctly I would hope a periodic garbage collection pass would redeem any memory being occupied by the dead, freeing it up for new 'souls'.
posted by nfg at 6:24 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's chemical processes.

What about subjective experience? This is actually a difficult problem; you're entitled to your opinion, but you haven't solved or clarified anything.

The internet itself, taken as a nervous system, is already more complex than many of our ancestors.

Complexity = consciousness? I don't see why you'd think that. I don't see how you go from "consciousness" to "complexity." If you think everything that's complex is conscious, you'll get some very strange conclusions, e.g. the whole universe itself is conscious.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:31 AM on October 17, 2008


"Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood...."

I loved playing Rosencrantz.... that speech in particular. At the time I was going through the first major existential crisis in my adult life, questioning the very nature of existence and my place in it. And the fates decided I should act out my troubles in front of a paying audience.....

The idea of death doesn't scare me as much as the idea of infinity. At least death is possibly finite. You die - thats it. The spirit is snuffed out.

But what if there is an afterlife and we hang around forever? What if our spirits never get rest?
Nothing in this universe just disappears- so it makes some sort of sense that the spirit would go somewhere. As above, so below.

Too much to think about. Much too much.

"Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end?"
posted by AzzaMcKazza at 6:41 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


No-one who claims to have experienced "death" could have actually experienced it, because, ipso facto, they are here to make the claim. Had you experienced death, you would be dead now. Your body would have died, which includes your brain, which includes your neurons, the emergent activity of which is "you". You suffered significant reduction in some biological activities for a brief period, which if it had continued past a certain point would have led to your death, but you did not die. It's a brown-out, a flicker, not turning off. Any biochemical process beyond a very trivial level of complexity is one-way; to be resurrected from actual death would be like unfrying eggs, where almost every single one of your cells is, for this purpose, a fried egg.

What happens to "you" after death is what happens to the light after the light switch is flicked off, to the computer program after the hardware of the computer is turned off, to the story after the book on which it is written is destroyed. It can't be interacted with first-hand, any more. It can still be interacted with second-hand (consider a child's question "Daddy, what was grandma like when you were my age?" or a biography of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte) but this is strictly one-way: you can receive information from the dead, but they cannot receive information from you, because information cannot go backwards in time.

At least, this is what all available evidence suggests.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:42 AM on October 17, 2008 [7 favorites]


"Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start." We all experience 'not-self' when we sleep thousands of times in our lives, and we awake the next day still ourselves. These facts weaken this hypothesis. This from an atheist and materialist who will be the f'reelz not-self at the moment of death.
posted by eccnineten at 6:43 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


When experiancing a grand-mal siezure (or tonic clonic or whatever the latest term the medical community is using these days) your brain is effectively dead. Your body might be busy doing the bacon dance but your heart isn't pumping blood, your lungs aren't breathing

Just an FYI, this is not true for all tonic-clonic seizures (or even most as far as I know). People can still breathe and the heart can still keep beating. If that were true, the fatality rate due to tonic-clonic seizures would be off the charts.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:47 AM on October 17, 2008


I was in a Value Village the other day and picked up this book out of curiosity because we get a lot of people asking for books by that author (Sylvia Browne). It was full of the most pandering, wish-fullfulling bullshit you can imagine ("when you die and go to Heaven all of your friends and loved ones will be there waiting for you and you will attend concerts by all of history's greatest musicians and have meals cooked for you by history's greatest chefs, etc. ad nauseum), and it made me very, very depressed to think that people might actually believe and find comfort in what this con artist is selling.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:51 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Mmmm bacon
posted by fullerine at 6:51 AM on October 17, 2008


We don't even know what the mind or consciousness is.

Are you serious? It's chemical processes. Is this really something people worry about?


No, people don't really worry about that. Well ... except for philosophers, scientists, doctors, non-traditional healers, religious scholars, and billions of other people who occasionally marvel at the mysteries of the human mind. But aside from that, no.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:54 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Pseudology, I breathe during my grand mal seizures, my heart beats, and out of 50+ seizures over 9 years, I partially remember two. I know that I breathe and that my heart beats because my husband checks every single time. He checks because we're deathly afraid of this, and also the aneurysms and heart attacks that can sometimes happen. With all of that said, even though I wake feeling like a washrag that's been wrung out and I have no idea what year it is, I'm pretty sure I haven't died or "temporarily ceased to be."

Your comment is interesting to me, though, because by the end of every seizure my lips are exceptionally blue. Where do you get your information?
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 7:07 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I want to know about the experiences of young children who are resuscitated after drowning in cold water. Here's a case report in JAMA of a 2.5 year old girl who was resuscitated with a good neurological outcome after 66 minutes of submersion in cold water. It seems to me that those kinds of occurrences (which are not uncommon, as such things go), are the closest thing to an extended period of true death (i.e., zero brain activity).
posted by jedicus at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2008


One things for sure, this thread has made me wish I don't waste so much time on the Internet.
posted by chillmost at 7:26 AM on October 17, 2008 [5 favorites]


Terribly simplistic I know, but I look at conciousness as a sum of all memory and experience. All held in the marvel that is our brains. Body and brain die, well so does what is held there. A bit like RAM I guess.

After life is so last millenia. Lets get life right first.
posted by twistedonion at 7:35 AM on October 17, 2008


I operate under no subtle illusions regarding the substance of my "hereafter."

When I die, Jesus will call me forth from the cave of my body - like unto his friend, Lazarus. He will call to me, "Come out!" and I will come. He will remove the bandages from my face and body with his Gospel hands.
He will smile at me for a moment, before urgency overtakes his countenance. Pressing a longbow and quiver to my chest, he will speak - "Ranger! Quickly, there is no time. Formians have seized the Ironforge Keep. You must, with haste, assemble a party of great fighters - warriors, sorcerers and rogues - and seek out the seven mana crystals and summon the Dragon himself to fight by your side! Go - go now! And take this map!"
And I will vanish into the dense forest that I know so well - my swift legs carrying me to the nearest town, to the nearest tavern, to begin this mighty campaign that will last into all eternity.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:37 AM on October 17, 2008 [32 favorites]


I think this is a good subject. The more I ruminate on it, the more certain I become that it is the very carrot used to control people.

"Strap this bomb on kid, you'll be rewarded after you push the button. It says so right here in this book."

"OK. Do I get virgins?"

"DO YOU?!?? SEVENTY-TWO OF THEM. EACH ONE MORE CHASTE THAN THE LAST."

"Awesome."

*click*
posted by chuckdarwin at 7:50 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


I had a BP crash experience (during labor), and though it was quickly attended to, I can attest to that momentary feeling of beautiful surrender, and the welcoming of the inevitable.

My son had a terrifying accident when he was three (I posted this FPP on kindertotenlieder sometime after). He was shocked (wet hands groping for a matchbox car behind the couch came in contact with a socket) and had a seizure, stopped breathing, turned grey. I literally felt him slipping away from me as I held him in my arms. Those moments when I was trying to revive him were the most horrifying moments of my life, because he was GONE. Even once he started breathing again, he wasn't there. He came "back," as my daughter said, but for minutes (that seemed like hours), he simply wasn't there.

He has no memory of it now, although he recently boasted to his shocked kindergarten class that one time he died and came back to life (which is not at all anything we told him about it). When he talks about it now he mostly remembers the time afterwards, when he felt fantastic and everyone else was scared. But at the time, when he was three, when I talked about it with him and asked him what had happened and what he remembered, he told me he had just been playing and then had a "bumpy-bump," and after that, he said, "And then you went away from me."
posted by mothershock at 7:57 AM on October 17, 2008 [8 favorites]


It'll be no different than before I was born.
posted by samsara at 8:00 AM on October 17, 2008


But does it hurt us to believe that we or our loved ones live on after death?

Given that a belief in the afterlife is in almost every case accompanied by the belief that events in life affect the afterlife, I'm going to say that yes, it does harm us. It distorts our priorities and makes another world more meaningful than this one. After all, you're only alive a fewscore years, but you're dead forever.

To be honest, nobody knows what happens to your consciousness after you die. Anybody who tells you they do is lying. They do not know; they have no way of knowing. There is no evidence whatsoever to believe that consciousness survives, only wishful thinking and todesangst. So live for the life you have and work to be satisfied with the life you've led. It's the only one you have any reason whatever to expect.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:02 AM on October 17, 2008 [7 favorites]


The more I ruminate on it, the more certain I become that it is the very carrot used to control people.

I think it's more that people in general like to hear comforting things. Heads buried in sand and all that. A human condition. It's like this whole credit crisis thing. The amount of people that have said to me "I don't think it's that bad, so and so is a business man and he says everything will be fine." Same with the climate - "but Scientist X says it's not our fault" (even though a gazillion other scientists say the opposite).

Same with death. As long as there is someone there to reassure that death is not the end then people that require that level of comfort and delusion will eat it up. Problem is that believing bullshit instead of just being uncertain is dangerous. Whether it's bullshit economics telling you to keep spending, or bullshit science telling you to keep polluting, or bullshit theology telling you to keep praying.
posted by twistedonion at 8:05 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Also, I'd like to point out that Near-Death Experiences can be triggered by high-gravity situations. It appears to me that the classic NDE is what the brain does when confronted with a critical situation: it gives the consciousness something pretty to feel while it attends to the business of trying to save the organism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:06 AM on October 17, 2008


We don't even know what the mind or consciousness is.

Are you serious? It's chemical processes. Is this really something people worry about?


I never said I was worried about it. But yeah, I'm serious. I dare you to define what consciousness is and where it originates. There's no proof that it's a product of our brain, to assume so is a distorted human and cultural reaction . The term "Chemical process" just brushes off the fact that it has not, and may never be understood in material terms and words.
posted by Liquidwolf at 8:06 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Does death come alone, or with eager reinforcements?

Angels are bestial.
posted by everichon at 8:06 AM on October 17, 2008


I have no doubt in my head that death is simply the end, there is no lingering existence to my consciousness and that when the lights fade, I simply won't be anymore. This idea, with relation to myself, doesn't bother me one bit.

When I think about it as it pertains to my my family, friends, and pets, it terrifies me. Every now and again, I have these gut wrenching moments when I realize that the people around me are going to be gone, and one day I'm going to have to deal with that.

I hate those moments.

It still seems odd to me that I worry more about my reaction to losing them then my fear of being lost myself, but I guess that's just the nature of the thing.
posted by quin at 8:09 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


A laudable sentiment, eideker, but I don't want to base my life philosophy on the Vodafone strapline.
posted by mippy at 8:23 AM on October 17, 2008


quin, I've felt the same fear since I was a kid, along with remorse at the time I decide to spend away from them, even though I know they won't be around forever. I worry about leaving my children (especially my autistic son) when I die, but I don't worry about what will happen to me. I try not to think about all of this because it doesn't help anything. Whether there is an afterlife or not, we all will still be dead, and there's nothing we can do to change that.

At least not yet.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 8:24 AM on October 17, 2008


So when I die, I won't be attacked by flying pigs whose bacon I nibbled on or flying cows
for all them baloney sandwiches.
posted by doctorschlock at 8:28 AM on October 17, 2008


"I am scared shitless of dying in horrible pain or dying alone"

This. Although I wasn't at all afraid of death before my son was born. Now its with me all the time. What's interesting is that while I do fear my own death, I'm more fearful of his ... not for the obvious reason (clearly I don't want my son to die) but because the idea of him dying alone or in pain and not really understanding what's going on frightens me more than I can possibly describe.
posted by anastasiav at 8:30 AM on October 17, 2008


It'll be no different than before I was born.

I remember noticing, when I was 3-4 years old growing up in Europe, in the early 1950s, that adults had a lot of conversations referencing "the war". I asked what it was, and my mother told me there had been a war, that bad people had been in the country and done many bad things, but now they were gone and we had peace, and that the war had happened before I was born.

Since I had no concept that anything had happened before I was born, I assumed from this that the world, and everything in it, had started with the war, with great chaos and danger, and then all this got resolved and I was born. It was how I rationalized the void that I sensed back there behind my conscious memories and knowledge.

Then I noticed that adults spoke of certain events as being "before the war," which confused me, so I asked, "what was there before the war." I remember it being an enormous revelation to realize that before the war there had been peace just like now, and that the world had been around for a very long time before I existed.

Then, I remember having other thoughts about consciousness, including becoming conscious of thinking, itself (I told my mother in some excitement that I could "talk without making any sound.") And I asked whether eyeballs, not connected to a body, could see. My mother explained that they needed to be connected to a brain. So, if you had just a brain and eyeballs, could you see? The conversation led to an understanding that most of the body is necessary for consciousness to exist—reinforcing that before I had a body, I could not see, or think, or have consciousness, and it was not blackness or an abyss—I simply did not exist.

Still, it took many years before I tied that same concept of the pre-existing void to what happens to consciousness upon death.
posted by beagle at 8:35 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


...and after that, he said, "And then you went away from me."

Wow. I can literally feel the gut punch of that one little comment.
posted by pardonyou? at 8:40 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Speaking of things in "the past" as if they do not exist is too reliant on our particular "forward" experience of time

Awesome! I'll just take your car, then. Hey, you still had it in the past, man! Don't be so linear!

Religions, on the other hand, are all-too-commonly the stuff of certainty.

Science indeed does not ever achieve absolute certainty, but it does reach conclusions which seem so immensely likely that to disbelieve them is perverse, at best.

Gravity pulls masses toward other masses.

Electrons and protons have opposite charges.

The mind arises from activity in the brain.

Technically, none of these conclusions are absolute, but for practical intents and purposes it is perverse to seriously suggest that they should not be treated as facts.

Postulating that because we don't understand how consciousness works, it may actually go on after you die, is like saying that because you don't know how your computer works, it may still function when it's not plugged in.

Sure, that's possible. I wouldn't lay any bets on it, though, or spend even one of my precious seconds of life praying for it to occur.

Usually I like to terrify myself by contemplating mortality at say, three, four in the morning.

Hey, me too!

The destiny of every one of us is to become a mad, lonely god

One of my standard sound-bites for dealing with unimaginative theists is to say "The afterlife is where God shows you what it's like to be Him. It starts out as heaven, but after a googolplex or so years, it's definitely hell."

Pressing a longbow and quiver to my chest, he will speak - "Ranger! Quickly, there is no time. Formians have seized the Ironforge Keep.

Wait - I take it all back. Where's the church for this religion?
posted by dansdata at 8:48 AM on October 17, 2008 [5 favorites]


Liquidwolf I'd say the term "physical process" is more accurate, but it amounts to much the same thing. We do not, yet, understand the workings of consciousness, but this hardly means that it is a mystery or something that must be ascribed to non-physical processes.

Every single other thing we have ever observed is the result of physical processes. While there is the faint possibility that consciousness is the solitary exception, I think its so unlikely that we can safely dismiss that hypothesis unless massive evidence supporting it is discovered.

Most likely as we delve ever deeper into neurophysiology we will discover that consciousness is purely a result of the way our brains work. Which means that when our brain stops working out consciousness will cease to exist. But, for now, the mere fact that brain damage can cause dramatic personality changes should be sufficient to demonstrate that our personality, our self, is a function of our brain. No working brain == no self.

And, ultimately, that can allow us to truly produce a real afterlife. Once we understand the brain (and I think that its inevitable that one day we will, the time horizon on that is uncertain, but the idea that the brain is somehow magic and we can never understand its workings is preposterous), then it shouldn't be too difficult to duplicate the process that results in consciousness on a sufficiently advanced computer. If Moore's law keeps up we should be seeing computers with complexity equivalent to the human brain in less than a century.

Once that happens it should be possible to map a person's brain, upload it, and allow that person to live on as a computer program. I hope to live long enough to do that myself, and if not I hope that my child can live long enough to do that himself. I strongly suspect that within no more than a few hundred years, and possibly within my own lifetime, technology will have advanced sufficiently to cheat death.

Like everything else we have achieved as a species, if it is possible to cheat death, to live on after our bodies fail, it will be the result of people applying reason, logic, and observation in a materialistic fashion to explain the universe. No god, no spirit, no ghost, will give us an afterlife; we must built one for ourselves if we want it to exist. We must wrest it from a mute and uncaring universe. And, I think we will.

If I'm wrong I hope to face my own death, which I am all but certain will be the total annihilation of my self, with both a certain equanimity and an upraised middle finger to entropy. And, because I'm bizarre, a glass of sherry left out just in case.
posted by sotonohito at 8:49 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Party on until you die!
posted by doctorschlock at 8:53 AM on October 17, 2008


Once, back in high school, I passed out. I awoke a few minutes later on the other side of the room from where I had been sitting. I have no memory of what happened in those few minutes. It passed by in a flash. It was like someone had erased those minutes from my life. I didn’t even dream. I expect death will be just like that, only this time I won’t wake from it, that black out will just keep going forever. Time will cease to exist as far as I’m concerned. This universe is mine and mine alone and when I die, it’ll go with me. Your universe will keep going, I guess.
posted by bondcliff at 8:58 AM on October 17, 2008


"I am scared shitless of dying in horrible pain or dying alone"

I've almost died twice, and both times the only thing I wanted was to apologize to friends/family for dying in such an amazingly stupid way. The first time I briefly tried writing something with my blood, but it turns out that's a lot harder than it seems. You just end up making horrible smears on the sidewalk, and then you realize that not only will it fail as an apology, but it may even make things worse.

It's a very strange feeling.

It took the second near-death to make me stop doing such stupid things. Possibly because that time I had access to paper & pen, got to write my apologies, and (having been saved) was able to read them later. I still wonder if destroying those letters was such a good idea.
posted by aramaic at 9:04 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why do we wonder about it? Because, by definition, it is unprovable - all we can do is wonder and speculate, because we can never know for sure until it's too late.
posted by dossy at 9:08 AM on October 17, 2008


The worst part would be dying and waking up with a bunch of dead assholes.
posted by doctorschlock at 9:13 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


sotonohito

The idea of shedding the body and uploading the mind into a computer or box or whatever vehicle is an interesting one, I've had late night discussions about that with friends. i agree that's possible, and maybe that will be our greatest achievement - to make an afterlife. I've often thought maybe we do have a chance to make our own afterlife in this life. And the theory that we're already existing in a computer simulation is mind bending to contemplate.
I get the strictly materialist point of view, but i don't completely subscribe to it. I don't think personality or individuality continues after death either. I think of life as more of a force that inhabits vehicles in many forms ( plants, animals, etc) , and spreads itself to habitable areas, possibly outside Earth , adapting and thriving where possible, like bacteria or spores. That idea doesn't really explain what it is to be self aware or conscious , but consciousness could be a tool for life to contemplate itself and further spread itself , a survival skill at least.
posted by Liquidwolf at 9:14 AM on October 17, 2008


As folks who've undergone an ego-death experience (high fevers, some sorts of drugs) may notice, individual unitary consciousness gets to looking like a bit of a habitual illusion or oversimplification that we ordinarily can't see around.

Letting go actually feels sort of liberating, if a bit rending. If death is like that, it oughtn't be too terrible. I can't imagine it'd be worse.
posted by LucretiusJones at 9:15 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


As someone who has, truly, felt the comfort of believing in a religious reality ("having a nice afterlife" not being so important as "being a created, loved, person possibly existing in that loved state even after physical death") I often have a hard time on these topics with people who have never felt that comfort.

While I'm willing to believe that religion is just a coping mechanism for dealing with the real horror of consciousness and our own mortality, I can't despise myself for having been supremely happy when I truly believed.

Nor can I despise others who do. Yay life, enjoy the day, carpe the damn diem, all that, but it is a loss to go from feeling yourself the beloved child of the author of the universe to being a random short-lived occurence in a universe that is in itself random and meaningless.

I live and care because I am in the habit of living and of caring for myself and others, but it's only a habit now, not a choice of any consequence, because there is no consequence. Even if I released a supervirus and snuffed out humanity, that wouldn't be of any consequence either. Nihilism ahoy. Hard to get excited about that, really.
posted by emjaybee at 9:26 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


Douglas Hofstadter's angle on it was that you now know what it's like to not to exist right now in Paris, in Moscow, or in Timbuktu (assuming you are not presently in one of those places). When you die, the number of places where you do not exist increases by one.
posted by infobomb at 9:27 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


If I didn't have very important commitments here, I'd have been long gone by now.
posted by Xoebe at 9:31 AM on October 17, 2008


I fear both death and dying, mostly because it just annoys me to no end that I'll never get to see how things work out. Do we make if off this rock? Will we ever meet anyone? etc., etc.

And the thought of all the books I'll never get to read makes me twitch.
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:34 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


>Basically, if you think you've got it figured out, that's the surest sign that you don't.

>>Anti-intellectualism.


It seems to me that when you think you've got it figured out -- whatever it may be -- you tend to stop thinking about it. Hence, I think this may be anti-anti-intellectualism.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:36 AM on October 17, 2008


emjaybee I find your POV interesting because I was not raised in a religious environment, and have never believed myself to be the special creation of a universe creating being (a view that still strikes me as astonishingly egotistical). But I'm not and never have been a nihilist, and I find that viewpoint baffling.

From my own standpoint, the universe has no meaning imposed upon it by a god, nor does life, but that simply means that it is my job [1] to produce meaning. I care not out of habit, nor from any societal god belief that has leaked into my brain, but because life is an opportunity, my single shot at existence.

As for consequence, of course there's consequence. My actions impact the lives of others, and my own life. What could be more consequential than that? The idea that one's actions make a distant creator smile or frown seems much less consequential to me.

longdaysjourney Damn skippy. Especially the part about books I haven't had a chance to read.

[1] Everybody's job really, but I can only be responsible for my part of it.
posted by sotonohito at 9:45 AM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


materialist fundamentalism

That's right. These idiots that go around saying that stuff that exists, exists, and the stuff that doesn't, doesnt - well, God help them.


It's not the materialist argument that I take exception to; it's when it's presented as AN ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY. Sorry but this just happens to run counter to my personal experience of life, the universe and everything ... and based on what I've been reading, I'm not the only one who feels that way.

I would argue that all certainty is really just an extreme application of belief and that we all indulge in it constantly, usually in minor ways that are pretty rational (ie: belief that there isn't a sniper waiting to blow your head off the second you head out the door on the way to work in the morning). It's when this certainty gets applied as ABSOLUTE FACT to issues where there are compelling counter-arguments that it gets annoying.

Still "convinced" after thoughtful filtering of all the thoughts and arguments presented above that that your consciousness is no more or no less than a series of chemical reactions in your brain, then I'll leave you with a Robert Anton Wilson line: "Convictions cause convicts" ... and urge you to delve into some of his work, THE COSMIC TRIGGER 1 being a darned good place to start.
posted by philip-random at 9:54 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Every single other thing we have ever observed is the result of physical processes.

I think this is where we go wrong in the Western view: yes, every 'thing' is a result of physical processes, but awareness is not a 'thing', but rather what gives rise to all of the things, including observations about the physical. And yet, awareness is not something beyond or separate from 'things', like a spirit or ghost.

I think we're hitting a brick wall here in Western science and philosophy that will never be resolved by starting from a purely physical/reductionist mindset. We'll never be able to look at a collection of 'stuff' and prove that subjective experience comes 'out' of it somehow.

We're at a point in our society where we've really had to struggle to go beyond various mythic views of reality (and some people still identify very much with this struggle, trying to show fundamentalists how 'stupid' their beliefs are and so on). And yet, getting too thoroughly entrenched in the rationalist/physicalist viewpoint can blind us to views that may be even more accurate that have already been worked out (I'm thinking specifically of Madhyamakans like Nagarjuna).

Our fundamental awareness cannot be described in any kind of logical or conceptual terms, because it's not 'inside' the 'stuff' that is so well described by science; and yet, it is not outside or beyond the 'stuff' either. I think as Westerners we see this kind of paradox and freak out because we're afraid we're back on the slippery slope to having to blindly accept myths about burning bushes and parting the Red Sea or something. But that doesn't have to be the case.

Once that happens it should be possible to map a person's brain, upload it, and allow that person to live on as a computer program.

While I imagine such things are possible as well, I wonder how you can be sure that upload would be 'you', any more than your child would be you, or a genetic clone of your body would be you. Do you have to do the upload one neuron at a time to ensure sufficient continuity or something? What kind of proof would you need before agreeing to subject yourself to the process? Do you think we will work out some kind of "laws of continuity of consciousness"--if you change the physical substrate by this particular amount, the self is continuous, and if you change it a little bit more, it's not? And how do you figure this out, other than by asking the resulting upload, which would surely say it's the same person even if it's a "zombie"?

On preview, I think it's also a mistake to assume that by dropping a dogmatic, religious view, the only alternative is pure nihilism. That's just flipping to the opposite side of the coin. Both of these extreme views are mistaken, but the nihilist view is more dangerous (or at least, it is to whatever extent our actions are influenced by our belief systems rather than just by habit).
posted by dixie flatline at 9:55 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


Sotonohito, you read my mind.
posted by LordSludge at 9:57 AM on October 17, 2008


I'm not worried about death. I'm in the process of loading my mind into Metafilter so I'll continue to exist digitally even after my biological functions cease.

When I make comments, I do so with the mindset that I contribute to the discussion and my soul.
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:57 AM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Another interesting article by that author (mentioned in the original piece).

What this study raises for me is the question of whether, given the apparent innate status of belief in a continuity of consciousness, what effect it may have on ontological questions. In other words, causality, rejection of irrationality, continuity--what's the relationship between these a priori objects of logical thought and the unalterable basis for our meta-thinking. In other other words: if we simply can't TRULY think of certain things in way that goes against (possibly) the structure of our brains, what does this mean about any certainty, beyond the practical "planes fly" "cancer is bad" "You can't talk to the baby mouse anymore"...?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:00 AM on October 17, 2008


Although I wasn't at all afraid of death before my son was born. Now its with me all the time.

Since becoming a mother, I have become the white knuckled jackass in the passenger seat, saying, hey, aren't you following a little too closely and gasping and terrifying everyone else by overreacting to imaginary near-misses.

Yay for being that person for the rest of my life.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:21 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure I almost died, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if most people experienced what I did when they go. All I can say is you really don't care when you get there. If that is at all comforting to anybody.

This is called oxygen deprivation, as anyone who has ever held their breath with their head between their legs in the back of a schoolbus can attest.
posted by cmoj at 10:24 AM on October 17, 2008


This is called oxygen deprivation, as anyone who has ever held their breath with their head between their legs in the back of a schoolbus can attest.

You're doing that right now, aren't you?
posted by philip-random at 10:25 AM on October 17, 2008


If I have time to think of it (say, a nice few rounds with cancer, stuck in the bed), I'll frantically try to read as much as I can. That comment about regretting the books unread literally put a physical twinge of pain in my heart.

Books are the great escape; if I'm dying, they will be my closest allies.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:37 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


A stimulating post amyms and wonderful, so very MeFite thread.

When people I loved died, like my dad, I found the relationship continued because he is part of who I am as a person. As I go on, so does he. As I evolve and change as a person, so his and my relationship evolves as well. There was an intense sense of physical loss at first but then I felt his companionship in my life, ongoing presence, his humor, curiosity, caring and our differences. There are so many things he, a scientist, would have loved after he died in 1978, like the internet. So I enjoy them for him in a way. It seems natural to share with those I love, whether they are here or not, the things I enjoy in life.

Facing my own death has been revealing. I wanted to believe in reincarnation as a Buddhist but found that the closer I get to exiting this mortal coil the more bravely honest I want, or aspire to be. The truth is I don't believe in reincarnation. It was rough coming to that. The sense of finality, the feeling that I'll be forgotten, disappeared, don't have kids or a spouse to remember me or visit my grave.

Perhaps, if there is mind-energy that goes on it finds resonance with other similar energy? Boy, that sounds majorly flaky.

And then I read my favorite essay on this topic, recommended by MeFite rtha: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to do With God.
posted by nickyskye at 10:40 AM on October 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


I hope asavage can come by and tell us when Mythbusters will tackle this one.

Like a couple of people upthread, I have had occasion to confront imminent mortality (although in my case due to serious illness, not trauma). My feeling at the time was the vague disappointment that I didn't get as much time as I had been hoping, like I was being pulled out of a really engrossing movie only halfway through. I was peeved I was going to lose out on a lot of good places to see, fine meals to eat, and beautiful women to kiss.

Since then, I have been to many cool places, enjoyed a lot of fantastic meals, and kissed a lot of wonderful women, and generally enjoyed myself thoroughly. My favourite author wrote: "While we are alive we should sit among coloured lights and taste good wines, and discuss our adventures in far places; when we are dead, the opportunity is past."

In short, I wouldn't agonize too much now over what happens then: no one is in a position to state authoritatively, and we will all find out eventually.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:41 AM on October 17, 2008


...but because the idea of him dying alone or in pain and not really understanding what's going on frightens me more than I can possibly describe.

This is far and away, without any question, my greatest, deepest, most gut-wrenching fear. The only fear I've had that can literally incapacitate me (in fact I had to leave my desk and walk around for a few minutes after reading your post). That in many ways it would be worse than them actually being gone, to know forever more their last thoughts involved our inability to be there, to fix things, to protect them.

On a slightly lighter note, my 4-year-old daughter informed me earlier this week that if she dies, she'll run home really quickly and grab a bunch of her dolls and toys so she won't be bored in heaven.
posted by jalexei at 10:46 AM on October 17, 2008


Given that a belief in the afterlife is in almost every case accompanied by the belief that events in life affect the afterlife, I'm going to say that yes, it does harm us. It distorts our priorities and makes another world more meaningful than this one. After all, you're only alive a fewscore years, but you're dead forever.

Sure, if you're a fundamentalist. For everyone else, like I said, belief in an afterlife isn't mutually exclusive with caring if you live or die. Maybe it provides you with a comfort in knowing you'll be close to your diety, or that you'll be reborn as someone/thing else, or that your loved ones are still around in spirit, or that bad people meet some sort of punishment, or that your soul beams out in all directions at once contributing a tiny spark of energy to the infinite expanse of the universe - but it doesn't necessarily stand in the way of being able to make the most of every day you have on this earth.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:53 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


While I imagine such things are possible as well, I wonder how you can be sure that upload would be 'you', any more than your child would be you, or a genetic clone of your body would be you.

The same way you can be sure that the person who wakes up after you go to sleep or get knocked out is 'you', and in fact the same way that you can be sure that the person who will be sitting in your chair in five seconds is 'you'. Mindfuck!
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:55 AM on October 17, 2008


I try to live life as fully as I can because that's my major complaint about dying: I don't want to go away. I like it here. I want to see more things, I want to discover more stuff, I want to eat more nifty food, I want to See What Happens. The future is bound to be awesome. I want to see it. But I know full well there will come a time when What Happens will happen without me around to see it, and that infuriates me so on some fundamental level.

But maybe what comes next to the consciousness is awesome, right? The energy inside you has to go somewhere, so maybe it goes to a wholly higher plane. And maybe that's so awesome that nobody ever really wants to go back. (Or maybe you get wings and a harp.)

In the absence of that exact knowledge, though, one cannot draw any conclusions except to state that the end of existence is just plain The End. It's the final scene of The Sopranos. A quick cut to black mid-movement, mid-song, mid-sentence, mid-thought.

Only you aren't around to go "What the fuck?!" right afterwards.
posted by Spatch at 10:59 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


No person who has ever fallen to a purely vegetative state (i.e. no brain function) has recovered their selfhood beyond their biological function (machines keeping them alive). Correct me if I'm wrong, but miraculous recovery stories are exaggerated and when you're declared brain dead, unless you are misdiagnosed, you're not coming back. When the brain goes, the self goes, and I believe that even if you reject that the brain is the self, you must contend that the two are phenomenally connected in some sense.

Oh, the dead still exist; the pattern we'd describe as their thread of consciousness hasn't been surgically removed from space-time. Speaking of things in "the past" as if they do not exist is too reliant on our particular "forward" experience of time, and is more like drawing a line in the sand and claiming that nothing beyond it is real.

Sure, but it's difficult to see how entropy, complexity, and universal expansion somehow point to the eternity of everything that can or has or will exist/ed. We certainly have some issues with understanding consciousness, it remains one of humanity's mysteries which will likely see a revolution in the future. Being open minded is good and well, but one must be critical and and at least in the corporeal sense it seems that consciousness ends at death. Any conception of the self is too difficult to make an absolute statement about, though I am inclined to say that consciousness is directly connected to the experience of subjectivity and the self too becomes one with the amorphous.
posted by ageispolis at 11:07 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


The idea of an afterlife scares the bejesus out of me. I've never got this need for there to be an endless beyond, especially a paradise. Paradise terrifies the hell out of me, since a realm of endless pleasure is essentially requires obliterating everything I take to be me anyway. My pleasures are learning, creating, sex, being stroked, and food. Either my perception would have to be altered such that an additional channel of pleasure was added, or I'd have to spend eternity eating chocolate chip cookie dough with a considerate lover and a stack of textbooks. And that itself is a weird, scary idea, because why would being dead involve some sort of reward?

I might put up with limbo, in the sense that the Christians have described all those virtuous pagans having philosophical debates under an aura of sadness, and unbaptized babies lying around. Reincarnation would be the same as ceasing to exist, as if I say, came back as a South Asian telemarketer or something, the things that make me Phalene would be gone. Free roaming the cosmos would be okay for a century or so, if I could communicate with other dead people (otherwise 'Ooo, shiny things!' would get old fast) .

But when I sleep, mostly I remember nothing. This state of non-being never bothers me, so why should endless non-being after my brain is shut off matter? I don't relish the shutting down process, and hope I get as long as possible out of my body (realistically I can see 60-70 more years, assuming no calamity), but I kind of look forward to my brain being off, and an end to petty human concerns.
posted by Phalene at 11:09 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


The same way you can be sure that the person who wakes up after you go to sleep or get knocked out is 'you', and in fact the same way that you can be sure that the person who will be sitting in your chair in five seconds is 'you'. Mindfuck!

OK, but there we can fall back on a story of physical continuity. If you start to accept that subjectivity 'finds itself' somehow across a radical physical change, it seems kind of unclear how you square that with the rejection of more conventional notions of reincarnation.

Anyway, it just seems to be a strange scenario to contemplate--maybe billions of people have already uploaded and all report that it's A-OK. But do you really know what happens to you when you do it, other than by running the experiment yourself?
posted by dixie flatline at 11:22 AM on October 17, 2008


dixie flatline I don't want to simply dismiss your views as mystic claptrap, but I honestly can't follow what you wrote. Can you elaborate?

For example, you wrote "every 'thing' is a result of physical processes, but awareness is not a 'thing', but rather what gives rise to all of the things, including observations about the physical. And yet, awareness is not something beyond or separate from 'things', like a spirit or ghost."

I simply can't parse that. You appear to have claimed (and I'd like to know where your evidence is that you're right) that awareness isn't a "thing" [1], and also that it is a thing. To me that looks like an inherent contradiction, along the lines of saying "blue is not a 'color', but it is not something beyond or separate from 'colors', like grapes or naked mole-rats." Can you help me out here?

All that has been observed is physical. No life force, no ghosts, no gods, nothing mystic has ever been observed, felt, or otherwise shown to exist. I am, as you may have divined a staunch materialist for the very simple reason that it is the only position that seems to make any sense at all. I mean, if we are to assume that non-observable phenomena exist how are we supposed to decide *which* ones exist and which ones are merely made up?

Some people say they believe in ghosts, others say the believe in demons, or angles, souls, or spirits, or gods, or magic, or astrology, or whatever. Since no evidence exists to demonstrate the existence of any of those things why shouldn't we say "well, they probably don't exist then?"

You seem to see danger in taking a strictly materialistic view, can I ask why?

Re: uploading a brain you wrote "While I imagine such things are possible as well, I wonder how you can be sure that upload would be 'you', any more than your child would be you, or a genetic clone of your body would be you. Do you have to do the upload one neuron at a time to ensure sufficient continuity or something? What kind of proof would you need before agreeing to subject yourself to the process?"

Well, my child isn't me in any sense. He's adopted so my genes aren't part of his makeup, and he's got his own brain. The only parts of me that are in him are various memes that I've transmitted to him. A clone wouldn't be me either, it would have my genes (of course), but not my memories or even my way of thinking. If I raised a clone of myself from infancy he would likely be similar to me, but still a separate person.

I do assume that my brain [2] is me, because I can't see how it could be otherwise. Therefore if we manage a perfect duplication of my brain (and associated parts) I don't see how it could be anything but me.

To use an analogy if we took a copy of Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat" [3] made a photocopy of it, would you argue that the copy it wasn't the book?

Presumably if the upload process did not involve destroying my brain immediately after upload the meat me and the silicon me would be identical. After that presumably we'd diverge as we had different experiences.

As for your last question, what would it take to prove to me that the process worked? Well, if the people who developed the process subjected themselves to it, I'd at least feel confident that they were sure it worked. I'd like to talk to some uploaded people, ideally people I knew pre-upload and see how they communicated, if they felt like the same people, etc.

If I were dying anyway I'd take a chance, and I presume that'd be the most likely source of early volunteers. If you're dying anyway and the process doesn't work you haven't lost anything, and if it does you've gained a true afterlife.

[1] And why the scare quotes around thing?

[2] And spinal column, and various other important biological bits.

[3] One of the most amusing novels yet written, originally published in 1889 it has never gone out of print. If you haven't read it I recommend that you do, you won't regret it.
posted by sotonohito at 11:22 AM on October 17, 2008


Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?
posted by Xurando at 11:24 AM on October 17, 2008


We don't even know what the mind or consciousness is.

uhhhh. AND?
I know that if I club you over the head fast enough and hard enough until the jelly like pinky-gray stuff comes out you won't be employing that "mind" thing very much for a walk'n around anymore.

Are people really this dumb? It's like saying evolution is only a theory. Or gravity is still a mystery.

Well gravity isn't such a mystery that if you step off the Empire States building your chances of missing the ground goes up every time you try.
posted by tkchrist at 11:30 AM on October 17, 2008


OK, but there we can fall back on a story of physical continuity.

But that's just a story. As Joni Mitchell wrote, you are physically continuous with stars and will be more directly physically continuous with a dead body, yet none of them are 'you'.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:30 AM on October 17, 2008


I never said I was worried about it. But yeah, I'm serious. I dare you to define what consciousness is and where it originates. There's no proof that it's a product of our brain, to assume so is a distorted human and cultural reaction . The term "Chemical process" just brushes off the fact that it has not, and may never be understood in material terms and words.

OH PLEASE. What nonsense. No Proof? Okay. Cut your head off.
posted by tkchrist at 11:34 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I was in second grade I went into the hospital for a routine operation to have my tonsils removed. The Dr's gave me too much anesthesia or I had a bad reaction and my heart stopped. I was already unconscious when this happened. It lasted for at least several minutes. I have no memory of this. I remember being put under before the operation and waking up in recovery after. I did not experience any sites or sounds or thoughts during my "death".

Based on this experience it is easy for me to see that death is probably the end of conscious or the self completely. It also would seem that the process of dying is a creation of the conscious mind before it has lost all functioning. But I'm not going to say I know for sure what will happen after I die.

Enjoy the people and things you love in life....
posted by Justin Case at 11:40 AM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


No Proof? Okay. Cut your head off.

At best, that proves that chemical processes are necessary. That doesn't prove that chemical processes are all there is to consciousness.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:44 AM on October 17, 2008


There is no death. Don't identify with the space suit.
posted by Curry at 11:47 AM on October 17, 2008


Your body might be busy doing the bacon dance but your heart isn't pumping blood, your lungs aren't breathing but most importantly your brain is, for all functional purposes, dead. When your brain boots back up you know that you temporarly ceased to be.

Same is true for general anaesthesia: save for the bacon dance. That, hopefully, isn't happening.

I've had surgery twice; the first time I asked the doctor if the sensation of "losing time" would bother me, and he said that no, it would just be like taking a nap. LIES.

It was NOTHING like taking a nap. I woke up *bawling* because the feeling of having lost time, of having temporarily ceased to be under general anaesthesia, was AWFUL. The second time I had surgery, I already knew how this would feel when I woke up, and I was less bothered by it. I was also in a lot more pain, which distracted me from the emotional anguish of having been temporarily dead.

I've also had a near-death experience, the classic "going into the light" business, floating above my body and all that. And while it wasn't clear what the "light" was, I certainly was not at all bothered by what was going on and was generally puzzled by why everyone around me was so damned upset (both from my "observations" outside of myself and from the reactions when I woke up) - I kept telling everyone I was fine - despite the fact that I had been very nearly dead and was likely to end up so again in the near future. I was six years old, so I do not attribute any of this to any sort of "go into the light" stories or descriptions of death.

I've never been afraid of my own death, my "near-death experience" having been a lot more pleasant than the illness that caused it, but the inevitable deaths of my loved ones makes me want to crawl under the bed. Especially my mom. My mom and I have a very close relationship, and the near-certainty that I will be around to experience HER death and that loss - makes me want to die first so I don't have to deal with it. Except that I wouldn't want HER to deal with that kind of grief, so I'm stuck with living and knowing that loving means an inevitable unbelievable loss.

It'll be no different than before I was born. - posted by samsara
Eponysterical.

The question "What were you before you were born?" is one of the basic Zen koans.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:52 AM on October 17, 2008


I care not out of habit, nor from any societal god belief that has leaked into my brain, but because life is an opportunity, my single shot at existence.

As for consequence, of course there's consequence. My actions impact the lives of others, and my own life. What could be more consequential than that?


Of course; that's the only reasonable route to take. You're here, might as well make the most of it. But as far as your "opportunity" really goes, it's illusory. Whether you sit in a box for the rest of your life or eliminate all poverty and ilness changes exactly nothing in the long run. Which can be freeing, or crushing, depending on one's point of view.

The comfort of (my former) religion was not just in feeling loved and cherished (which I do not find egotistical, since my particular religion went to great pains to tell me that I was loved despite my failings, and beyond any possible desert) but in that I was part of a larger story. A bit player in every sense of the word, certainly. But with some role to play, which it was my mission/hope/desire to puzzle out by doing the best I knew to do the right thing. For the record, I was not so much concerned with having fun in the afterlife as in knowing I had done a good job and made a difference in my earthly life. The rest was too unimaginable to be something I spent much thought on.

Not meaning to get into apolegetics here, just pointing out that there are compelling, complex reasons why religion maintains the strength it does. You will not understand that if you dismiss it as simple wishful thinking.
posted by emjaybee at 12:14 PM on October 17, 2008


does it hurt us to believe that we or our loved ones live on after death?

Without question.

To take the most obvious example, the idea of the afterlife has commonly been used as a justification and motivator for both self-sacrifice in conflict (such as war) and murder (trial by ordeal, for example). I would hasten to point out that while such a belief system appears maladaptive toward the individual's interests, it does not appear maladaptive toward the social unit's interests (country, family, tribe), and this explains why our cultures propagate the belief.

I'm not well-informed enough to review this in anything more than passing, but it is also my understanding that the Western concept of the afterlife has two philosophical forebears, the Eastern and Egyptian concept of the discrete, individual, immortal soul, and the Hellenic and Platonist concept of an emanating and infinite ideal. Our cultural understanding of both God and the afterlife can be seen as a mashup up of these contending, essentially in-conflict ideas.
posted by mwhybark at 12:32 PM on October 17, 2008


From Cryptonomicon, right after Douglas Shaftoe says "May God have mercy on their souls" when thinking about the people who died in a sunken WWII submarine they've just located...

Think what you will about religious people, they always have something to say at times like this. What would an atheist say? "Yes, the organisms inhabiting that submarine must have lost their higher neural functions over a prolonged period of time and eventually turned into pieces of rotten meat. So what?"
posted by jasper411 at 12:38 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


To take the most obvious example, the idea of the afterlife has commonly been used as a justification and motivator for both self-sacrifice in conflict (such as war) and murder (trial by ordeal, for example).

Really? People have also used the concept of democracy as a justification and motivator for both self-sacrifice in conflict (such as war) and murder. I suppose democracy hurts us, too. Let's not baby and bathwater this thing. The thing itself - belief in an afterlife - is not a harmful concept.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:47 PM on October 17, 2008


emjaybee wrote "Whether you sit in a box for the rest of your life or eliminate all poverty and ilness changes exactly nothing in the long run."

Nonsense. And, more to the point, show me how the existence of a deity changes that. I mean, IIRC, according to Christianity in the long run the only thing that matters is whether or not a person was saved. Murder, rape, kill, commit genocide, that doesn't matter. What matters is whether you wind up in heaven or hell. Sounds quite a bit more nihilistic than my philosophy.

More to the point, I maintain that your position is simply wrong. We can't predict what humans will bring into the universe. We may discover a way to build new universes, or survive the end of this one, depending on actions taken now. If the human species goes extinct before spawning new species and traveling to the stars that would be different, in the long run, from if we didn't. The singularity advocates may be right, in which case we could very well give birth to a deity level intelligence in the next couple centuries.

The thing is that "the long run" is, at this point, completely unpredictable. Back in the 1300's that wasn't really true, most people, especially in Europe, were pretty sure that things would continue as they had until the end of the world. But today? Hell, we can't even predict what life will be like in 100 years, much less 1,000, or 1,000,000,000! To claim that our actions will change nothing in the long run seems quite foolish.

Who knows what the long run will bring. All I can say for sure is that only if the human species destroys itself, or abandons science, will we end up changing exactly nothing. Every human who has ever lived has lived to bring us to this point. And now, thanks to their efforts we can see so far that the horizon has vanished completely.

Perhaps we'll build von Neumann machines and turn the entire mass of the galaxy into a distributed computing network. Or travel out ourselves and seed barren planets with life. Who can say? I do think that we have the potential to change the entire course of history in the universe. Not me personally, but I have my own impact.

All I know is that my actions do have consequences. Not as large as the consequences of the actions of people like Bush, Putin, and so forth, but consequences nevertheless. In the long run my life may have been merely another brick in the wall, there's nothing shameful in that I think.

jasper411 Of all the things Stephenson ever wrote, that one pissed me off the most. When I read that I said "you know what, fuck Neil Stephenson" and couldn't bring myself to read the any further for a couple of days. That's about the single most offensively wrong statement I've ever heard anyone make about atheism. Its so wrong that it isn't even false.
posted by sotonohito at 12:59 PM on October 17, 2008


When others die, from our perspective they don't go anywhere different than if they were to move away to Albania and never be seen again. While your physical contact with them stops, I think it's fair to say that your emotional relationship continues until you completely forget about them. What comes out as grief, in my experience, is actually love. There is something about knowing for sure that you will never see someone again that sharpens this, but in truth every time someone takes their leave of me, it's possible that I will never see them again. I don't grieve at this...I hold the love or the feelings for them until next time. And if many years later I discover that they have died, it just seems to be no big deal. It actually doesn't change my relationship them all that much.

Having someone die in your arms is more present, more raw and more emotionally powerful for sure, but having had that happen too, I think it's just shades of the same.

So our experience of each other's abscence is one thing.

From the INSIDE though, that seems like a very different story. From some of these near death experiences, it seems that the process of death is a very different experience. I wonder what happens to mind?

So tkchrist, I think it's not as simple as you bash my head in and my mind stops working. Of course wy body will stop working because you have severed the physical connections I need to make it work. But will I remember that you did that to me?

This is interesting to me as a meditator, but I'm just going to have to what to find out what really happens.
posted by salishsea at 1:00 PM on October 17, 2008


Aren't the documented personality changes associated with localized brain damage enough evidence that consciousness is a purely physical phenomenon?
posted by polyhedron at 1:00 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Of course; that's the only reasonable route to take. You're here, might as well make the most of it. But as far as your "opportunity" really goes, it's illusory. Whether you sit in a box for the rest of your life or eliminate all poverty and ilness changes exactly nothing in the long run.

It seems precisely the same for Christians, though. The Bible says how it all ends, and while you may personally be able to secure eternity for you and a few others, that in itself is insignificant when compared to the Big Picture, just as much as we secular types are insignificant when compared to the Universe.

That goes double for evangelical Christians who believe that it's all about being "saved" -- in this style of Christianity, there is a very great difference between living your "saved" life in a box and living an "unsaved" life in which one eliminates all poverty and illness: the latter person burns in Hell. "Opportunity" here is reduced to one single decision.

The thing itself - belief in an afterlife - is not a harmful concept.

It is often more instructive to ask whether something is good or beneficial, rather than simply "not bad" or "not harmful". There are many moral and cultural frameworks in which a belief in the afterlife is not good, mainly because it's probably a lie, if an extremely comforting one. The fact is that belief in a specific afterlife with a specific path to membership implies that hardly anyone gets to go (see above for one example of a religion that's A-OK with that), or, alternatively, that absolutely everybody who posits such a system is wrong about the afterlife. And if you take option #1, then there's the problem of proving that your system is the correct one...

I mean, there is no better example of "baby and bathwater" than a system in which 99.99999% of all human beings who ever lived don't get to go hang out with Buddha/Shiva/Muhammed/Jesus/John Frum/Whoever. Too bad so sad, our lives sure are enriched by belief in an afterlife! At least we're not those "nihilist" atheists! To me, this is far, far more nihilistic and empty than the simple acceptance of one's position in the materialist universe: insignificant according to the large view, but in the small view, a God unto one's own, with the potential to create things much larger and more long-lasting than oneself through imagination and labor.
posted by vorfeed at 1:09 PM on October 17, 2008


Sotonohito, that's a mighty optimistic view, and requires almost as much faith as a religious one. Which doesn't mean it can't be correct, just pointing out that you're proposing heaven by earthly means--an end to death and presumably suffering, an eternal future for our species, or some derivative of same. Preservation, in some form, of our genes and memories/accomplishments, presumably. The old earth shall pass away, a new earth be born. Or earths, or universes.

I find myself slightly less optimistic about our ability to reach that level, though not opposed to the idea.
posted by emjaybee at 1:14 PM on October 17, 2008


Too bad so sad, our lives sure are enriched by belief in an afterlife! At least we're not those "nihilist" atheists!

If you scroll further up in this thread, you'll see I don't take this haughty position of atheists. I perfectly understand not believing in an afterlife. You'll also see, further up in this thread, a couple examples of benefits in the belief thereof. Adding to the comforts and reassurances mentioned in that comment, I'd add that for many people it also acts as guidance for living, whether you choose to avoid punishment or lean towards reward (in Christianity and Hinduism, as two examples). Which is of course not to say that absent the belief in an afterlife, a person doesn't have this sort of moral compass. Not at all; I know plenty of atheists who make better Christians than a lot of self-described Christians. I only mean to point out one other way in which belief in an afterlife can be a benefit.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:30 PM on October 17, 2008


emjaybee I don't think I'm really an optimist, I figure its either that or extinction. There really doesn't seem to be any middle ground, either we (as a species that is, not us individually) will survive, thrive, and shake up the universe or we'll wipe ourselves out. If you can think of a third option please tell me what it is.

Already we've had a few opportunities to completely wipe ourselves out (Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov's fateful decision [1], etc), I argue that the actions of those people have changed things in the long run (or at least as long as the choices of others don't kill us all they have).

[1] Its completely tangental to the discussion, but we should have statues of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov in every town. His birthday, or the day of his decision, September 26, should be not merely a national holiday but a planetwide holiday. As it is most people don't even know who he is.
posted by sotonohito at 1:40 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


sotonohito, I'm probably not explaining anything too well, and perhaps I shouldn't have started down this road. Maybe I can just say, it seems to me there is some benefit in undertaking a direct investigation of the nature of our awareness, and that when we do so, we find that it cannot fit into neat little boxes like "is X" or "is not X". Although we may come to recognize this, it doesn't mean that we have to lapse into accepting all kinds of strange beliefs in angels and demons and so on. However, if we accept that materialism is the complete picture of everything, we may prematurely cut off the possibility of a deeper, non-conceptual understanding. (The issue here is not to find, or go out and invent, non-physical phenomena, but to ask, what is the nature of the experiencer of phenomena? If the experiencer is part of the phenomena, then what is it that's experiencing that?)

Of course, that probably just sounds like more mystical claptrap, which is fine :) It just seems to me many times there is a false dichotomy created in these types of discussions: either you're a hardcore materialist, or you believe in mythical tales of supernatural beings. I'm suggesting there is a sense in which materialism is not 'the whole story', and yet we don't have to appeal to the existence of supernatural events either. Is that a paradox, and does it sound meaningless? Very possibly. But I'm not sure I can put it into words any better than that.

One issue with most materialistic views is that they can't find a way to take seriously the reality of inner, subjective experience. Often they will wind up denying that such a thing exists in the first place, simply because they can't come to terms with it--which seems to contradict our most fundamental experience.

That's where I run into problems with the uploading thought experiment. For example, say you make a perfect quark-by-quark copy of me, resulting in dixie and dixie-prime. My intuition is that I will continue to exist as dixie, having his subjective experiences and so on. I won't have dixie-prime's experiences, nor will I have the experiences of both at the same time, nor somehow 'jump over' into dixie-prime. If you kill me five minutes after you make the copy, I will die as dixie, whatever that may entail; I won't somehow 'become' dixie-prime. (Again, this is just an intuitive prediction--how could I ever know without running the experiment?)

These are things I often ponder myself, so I hope I'm not coming across as trying to present some kind of final answer, or induce some conversion to a different belief system.
posted by dixie flatline at 1:45 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the article:

My psychological research has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness

As a physicist, I believe that my thoughts and ideas are real, physical objects, just like everything else in the universe. I see no reason why these thoughts cannot be described (on some level) with the same language used to describe the motions of the sun and the moon. Thus the shared experience of reality that involves measuring an electron’s mass (which could be considered in some sense objective) is the same shared experience that involves thinking about triangles. In this sense the idea of the triangle (i.e. the triangle ideal) is a physical object that my mind can come into contact with, but it could also be considered separate from my mind (just like my body can come into contact with electrons that could otherwise be considered separate from my body). If we’re all touching the same electrons (quantum mechanics), then it seems reasonable to believe we are all touching the same triangles. Thus the collective consciousness is not just a kooky metaphor, but a real, physical object, much like your own mind.

In the context of the article, the problem with understanding the persistence (or lack thereof) of the mind after death is that it is hard (if not impossible) to tell which ideas are your own and which ideas represent ideals. The triangle will persist after you die (as long as you don’t get to too solipsistic), but not all your thoughts about the triangle will persist. How do you tell those apart? What does it feel like to “give up your thoughts” to the universe? All I know is that I’m not yet ready to find out…
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 1:47 PM on October 17, 2008


My own closest-to-death experiences were my 2003 Heart Failure and my 2001 Attack By Antibiotic Resistant Staph Bacteria.

In 2003, the worst part was shortness of breath with the feeling that I was being grabbed from below and dragged under against my will. I never (thankfully) got past that situation to see what WAS past there, so I was always in "fighting" mode. But there were also times when I felt so peaceful at reduced-functionality-mode that I had no fear of anything, not even my memories of 2001.

In 2001, it took about 36 hours after I was admitted with a 104degree fever and a football-sized swelling in one arm, that they got anything under control (they went up to the next-to-last-resort antibiotic) and it was all mostly empty time, except for when a surgeon went to work draining the poison from my arm, which, even with maximum local anesthetic, was the single most painful experience I can remember (and I screamed like a chorus of Wilhelm, Janet Leigh in Psycho and a Hog-Calling Champion, put through an amplifier set to 11... the hospital was in Burbank, and I was told I interrupted recording sessions at Disney Studios).

This really has nothing to do with the Permanence of Death, but more recently when told by a semi-realistic Christian that the Hell of the Unbeliever was not an "eternal fire" but eternal nothingness, a "Death of the Soul", I realized I was totally OK with that. If they were telling me that not believing in Life After Death would result in No Life After Death For You, it didn't scare me at all. But living your life to certain arbitrary rules in order to earn post-death existence on a plane where you have no control at all? Yeah, I think I'll avoid that. Considering that God, as defined by most major religions, is the type of personality I have always tried to avoid as a boss, oblivion sounds even better. I would hope that my final experience before oblivion would NOT be something awesome and wonderful, because I won't be around to remember it.

Bit it is nice to have written some words, giving my thoughts and feelings an existence outside my consciousness. Some are on paper, but most are on this ethereal Web, none are eternal, but much will outlive me, and I regret very few of them. THAT is Life After Death. (Which apparently makes MetaFilter, Twitter, WordPress and a few freelance writing markets my Pantheon of Gods. Hmm.)
posted by wendell at 1:59 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Which is of course not to say that absent the belief in an afterlife, a person doesn't have this sort of moral compass. Not at all; I know plenty of atheists who make better Christians than a lot of self-described Christians. I only mean to point out one other way in which belief in an afterlife can be a benefit.

Again: which moral compass do you choose, and what makes your choice the correct one? There are many competing moral systems. The belief that yours is manifestly the correct one brings you back to the same problem that belief in a specific afterlife does: it's either a hugely "baby and bathwater" thing (in which the vast majority of people who have ever and will ever live must necessarily be stuck with a moral system which is wrong), or it's not the correct one at all, and neither is any other system which purports to be the correct one.

Besides, IMHO one's moral compass has very little to do with "belief in the afterlife" -- it has to do with culture, which may or may not include a belief in the afterlife. Just as you admit that atheists have a moral compass, despite the lack of belief in an afterlife, I will also readily admit that most theists do not think about whether X, Y, or Z will lead to heaven, so much as they think about whether or not it is wrong. Heaven is a place where those who do Right go, but Right itself tends to be a much larger issue.
posted by vorfeed at 2:02 PM on October 17, 2008


Dixie,

From my understanding of quantum teleportation, your state would be transferred in its entirety and the original would be destroyed in the process. Some people see this as a lighting fast process of what you described, but to me it is just simply a change of medium. You're state 'dixie' is described by your atoms and their state, then 'dixie' is instantly transferred to another set of identical atoms via entanglement.

The reality of this is way stranger, because it implies that for this to work there has to be three corporial 'dixie's. One must exist at the destination. The second one must get entangled with the 'dixie' at the destination and travel to where the original 'dixie' currently resides. Then the second must entangle with the current 'dixie' to teleport his state to the coporal form at the destination.

Imagine if you will, someone drinking coffee when a mindless doppleganger lurches through the door. The person looks on in horror as this creation shambles over and merges with their body, before exploding in a spray of vicera. In a distant location, another mindless doppleganger roams around an enclosure moaning before snapping to concousness screaming "Get the f*ck away from me!".
posted by The Power Nap at 2:13 PM on October 17, 2008


sotonohito said:

I do assume that my brain [2] is me, because I can't see how it could be otherwise. Therefore if we manage a perfect duplication of my brain (and associated parts) I don't see how it could be anything but me.

[2] And spinal column, and various other important biological bits.


When I examine those various other important biological bits, it becomes unclear to me at what point I can take pieces away and still call you “you”. We could chop off your arms and legs, probably even remove your digestive and renal system. Artificial lungs and heart seem reasonable. But why don’t we keep going? How does removing your spinal column make you any less you? What of paraplegics who don’t have working spinal columns? Could we put your head in a jar, and call that you? You wouldn’t need a face, or even a skull. A floating brain then? But your position seems to be that your brain could be faithfully reproduced anyway, so why are we holding onto it? Throw some computer chips in the jar and you’re still there! The obvious conclusion (some might say paradox) is that your initial assumption leads to the conclusion that nothing about you makes you you! This is not necessarily an invalid assumption, I think philosopher David Hume took this position when trying to deny causality and continuity of self.

But if this is your position, then duplications of your brain can’t be you because you’re not even you yourself. Personally I don’t find this to be a very helpful definition of the self.

If you open the definition of “you” to include your subjective experience (which may or may not be a product of the brain and/or other bits), you run into some interesting problems. The book and the copy of the book are two different objects. They do not possess the same history of experience, only to “diverge” upon being copied. The copy of you would possess these same features. In other words, it would be a different object. In language that I am comfortable with, that would make it definitively NOT you.

The problem I have is that all evidence I can find points to subjective experience as being inaccessible to others by any means (that’s pretty much the definition of subjective). How could this copy then have your subjective experience? That’s like saying it has your memories but can’t remember them, at least not like you remember them. Almost as if this duplicate had been told everything about your life, but never had the chance to experience it. Again, in the language I use to talk about these kinds of things, I wouldn’t call this clone “you” in any sense.

To sum up: Would this duplicate possess a subjective experience? Would it be equivalent to your subjective experience? If not, how could it be you? If so, how could that be (i.e. you are not occupying the same physical space and time)?

Of course, if you insist that the sum total of what makes you you is equivalent to the current physical state of your brain [2], you can avoid all this messiness. I happen to think that assumption is fallacious, and do not agree with your inferences thereupon.

A cheaper way to argue this would be to posit that the “self” depends upon the precise arrangement of particles in your “brain” (up to and including electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, hell even photons!) which, according to modern particle physics, cannot even in principle be faithfully reproduced.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 2:15 PM on October 17, 2008


I'm terrified of dying. Not because of the state of death itself, which is presumably total nothingness. But because I'll be missing out on so many things.

I want to be alive when they build that space elevator. I want to know what smart people think of Shakespeare 400 years from now. I want some 13-year-old to explain to me how this wonderful new aodrngåoag-ok aowe49--tt-thing works.

I wish Aubrey de Grey (?) weren't a total kook.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:21 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Again: which moral compass do you choose, and what makes your choice the correct one? There are many competing moral systems. The belief that yours is manifestly the correct one brings you back to the same problem that belief in a specific afterlife does: it's either a hugely "baby and bathwater" thing (in which the vast majority of people who have ever and will ever live must necessarily be stuck with a moral system which is wrong), or it's not the correct one at all, and neither is any other system which purports to be the correct one.

I think every person who claims a moral compass should examine their motivations, and it's healthy to do so. But I don't think that when you come to the conclusion that your moral compass is "right for you", that this necessarily means it's "right", period. With regards to an afterlife, there are certainly those who take the baby and bathwater position that "Since I believe A, and A is right, then anyone who does not believe A is wrong and therefore damned." I don't count myself among those people, and I think there are many faiths that see their version of the afterlife as benefitting even those who don't practice the faith which espouses it. Even the Catholic church has gone so far as to say that good people who aren't Christian can attain Heaven.

Besides, IMHO one's moral compass has very little to do with "belief in the afterlife" -- it has to do with culture, which may or may not include a belief in the afterlife. Just as you admit that atheists have a moral compass, despite the lack of belief in an afterlife, I will also readily admit that most theists do not think about whether X, Y, or Z will lead to heaven, so much as they think about whether or not it is wrong. Heaven is a place where those who do Right go, but Right itself tends to be a much larger issue.

Oh, I agree entirely. Belief in an afterlife can never and should never be a person's sole moral compass. Being good for goodness' sake is regarded as a higher virtue.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:21 PM on October 17, 2008


But I don't think that when you come to the conclusion that your moral compass is "right for you", that this necessarily means it's "right", period.

Frankly, this does seem to be a prerequisite for most theist belief. If your moral system is not "right", period (at the very least, right for "Our People"), then why do the Gods demand it, and why should it be the one which permits entry into Heaven?

Even the Catholic church has gone so far as to say that good people who aren't Christian can attain Heaven.

As previously discussed, this is because much of the Catholic definition of "good" depends on one's actions on Earth, not one's religion. However, when they say "good people who aren't Christian can attain Heaven", they are most certainly still asserting that only "good people" by the Catholic definition may apply. People with belief systems that are diametrically opposed to Christianity -- and, remember, that's the vast majority of human beings who have ever or will ever exist -- still burn.
posted by vorfeed at 2:52 PM on October 17, 2008


And one last thing: if everyone gets to heaven regardless of whether or not they believe in an afterlife, that makes the belief itself, as well as all its trappings, a waste of time and effort at best...
posted by vorfeed at 2:55 PM on October 17, 2008


I once drove my car into an intersection and the next thing I knew I could only see and hear something like that TV "snow" you used to get before the advent of VCRs and cable when you couldn't get reception. I remember thinking "that's weird" and then somewhere along the line seeing blood and realizing that I had been hit. It occurred to me that I might be dying, but that didn't bother me much: the snow was kind of calming and I just didn't really feel anything. That's when I lost my fear of death.

Then a voice started talking to me telling me to stay awake, and it turned out to be the first cop that arrived at the scene. He had an Alabama accent, and I remember apologizing to him for the accident, saying that I thought I had had the right of way. I never did see what he looked like.

A few years later I went to a event at a university campus where a couple of Buddhist monks from a Tibetan music group were giving a talk about their religion. There was one guy in the audience that asked the monks what life after death was like. The monks said that they didn't know. So the guy, not satisfied by that, asked again with different phrasing. And then again, and again.

Finally, one of the monks, obviously exasperated, said "You should stop asking us this question. You'll find out the answer for yourself sooner or later."

That struck me as the correct answer.
posted by moonbiter at 3:08 PM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


If your moral system is not "right", period (at the very least, right for "Our People"), then why do the Gods demand it, and why should it be the one which permits entry into Heaven?

Again, this is a fundamentalist notion, and primarily a Christian one. It's very narrow. The people who wrote those laws had their reasons, whatever they were - I imagine it had something to do with keeping people in line. But fortunately, faith is a living thing which changes over time, and this notion of "my way is right, period, and all others are wrong" is a bit old fashioned. You can see this in the growing ecumenical movement.

if everyone gets to heaven regardless of whether or not they believe in an afterlife, that makes the belief itself, as well as all its trappings, a waste of time and effort at best

Does it? I'd say it still provides those who believe in the afterlife any number of benefits, in terms of the comfort and reassurance it brings.

As previously discussed, this is because much of the Catholic definition of "good" depends on one's actions on Earth, not one's religion. However, when they say "good people who aren't Christian can attain Heaven", they are most certainly still asserting that only "good people" by the Catholic definition may apply. People with belief systems that are diametrically opposed to Christianity -- and, remember, that's the vast majority of human beings who have ever or will ever exist -- still burn.

No. The "good people" in question are those who have shown forgiveness, kindness, charity, and any slew of moral qualities that are no more "diametrically opposed to Christianity" than they are to any other faith.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:08 PM on October 17, 2008


"He's not dead really is he, not if we remember him"

But then Spock did come back to life...
posted by A189Nut at 3:18 PM on October 17, 2008


“You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened.”

I do this almost every day. For about 6 to 8 hours.

Plus what nicwolff sed about before you were born.

Also, I have been dead for a few minutes. Same deal as sleeping. Totally unconscious of everything until I woke up in the hospital with a nurse’s boobs in my face.
Beat the hell out of where I thought I’d end up.

I guess technically, having been ‘dead’, this is my ‘afterlife’.

Although I like the ‘Billy Pilgrim’ perspective. Once you exist, you exist forever.
Which makes sense, since you only don’t exist from the perspective of those forward (or far enough backward) in time.
Which is true for all points. One second ago is gone. But does it no longer exist?

Although that’s more about the nature of existence and consciousness and the indestructibility of energy than ‘death’ per se.
Given the mutability of the universe implied by QM, our sphere of existence could be infinite in variety.
So who is to say what even identity really is? Or what our existence, even now, is? Consciousness could be infinite in form and our sense of ‘self’ could only be a transitory illusory state based on an emphemeral sense of the passage of time.

Of course then the practical upshot is that not only can we not ever know that, but it would be utterly horrific to know that on the order of being trapped in sleepless eternal isolation unable to escape from the sense of self.

Why death would mark the point of that revelation (or lack thereof) or translation, I have no clue.

I didn’t see a white light, nothing. Nada.

But I do know I have no fear of death. It’s the pain and suffering just before you get there that sucks. Although it is the pain of loss of others that hurts me.

And not knowing what happens.

I’m usually the last to leave at parties. Hell, I don’t even like finishing books. Must be why there are so many sequels and trilogies and such.

I can’t imagine reality is that different.

Only real difference is it’s not ‘me.’ But then, what is?
posted by Smedleyman at 3:33 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?

Some folks look that way well before they're dead.
posted by bwg at 4:13 PM on October 17, 2008


> As a physicist, I believe that my thoughts and ideas are real, physical objects, just like everything else in the universe.

So, as a physicist, you'll be aware that for physicists real means measurable, and not measureable means not real? In fact, according to the Carnap-Bridgman criterion, a proposed entity must be supplied with two logically independent means of measurement before it can be considered for promotion from mere intervening variable to hypothetical construct--that is, something that may have a supportable claim of being independently real in nature.

So if a thought is a real physical object, it has mass. What's the procedure for measuring a thought's mass?
posted by jfuller at 4:17 PM on October 17, 2008


"Comfort" is only a good thing when there is cause for it. If there is no afterlife, the "comfort" afforded by belief is no better than the "comfort" that the presence of a Judas Goat provides for sheep.

Refusing to deal with reality and lauding the providing of comforting lies are not positive actions, and praising those who do these things is childish. Cursing those who seek to put an end to the lies is despicable.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:18 PM on October 17, 2008


this notion of "my way is right, period, and all others are wrong" is a bit old fashioned. You can see this in the growing ecumenical movement.

No, this notion of "my way is right, period, and all others are wrong" is absolutely intrinsic to any claim of universal good or evil, and most ecumenical movements do indeed make such a statement. Ecumenical movements claim that all faiths (or, much more commonly, all Christian faiths or all Abrahamic faiths) have access to universal values like Truth, Goodness, God, etc, but they do not claim that there is no such thing as Truth, Goodness, or God. These churches are most certainly still espousing an absolutist point of view, it's simply a bit less specific (i.e. does not include specific questions of doctrine) than that of their brethren.

Hell, even the UUs have a list of values which they believe to be correct. And if they are correct, then a diametrically opposed set of values is incorrect, and we're back to the same problem.

Does it? I'd say it still provides those who believe in the afterlife any number of benefits, in terms of the comfort and reassurance it brings.

There are any number of things which bring comfort and reassurance and provide other tangible benefits. For example, one could very easily find comfort and reassurance by serving one's Earthly father, rather than one's Heavenly father; one could find comfort and reassurance by building a great and lasting hall used by the community for all important functions, rather than one used primarily to honor the idea of the afterlife.

Also, assuming that one's culture values truth (even self-defined, non-universal truth), believing a lie, even a comforting one, is not beneficial.

No. The "good people" in question are those who have shown forgiveness, kindness, charity, and any slew of moral qualities that are no more "diametrically opposed to Christianity" than they are to any other faith.

Er, I think you mis-read my statement? My point is that forgiveness, kindness, and charity are Catholic values, and that they comprise the Catholic definition of "good people". Thus, people with values which are diametrically opposed to these do not go to Heaven under the Catholic system.

You can say all you want about how "good non-Christians go to Heaven", but it still only applies to those who fit the Christian view of "good" -- and, again, that's a fraction of the people who have ever lived, or ever will live.
posted by vorfeed at 4:38 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


In Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything, the author mentions:
Atoms, in short, are very abundant.

They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you.

We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms - up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested - probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to be thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis Presley.)

So we are all reincarnations -- though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere - as part of a leaf or other human being or drop a dew.
In short, on an atomic level, we all live forever.
posted by bwg at 5:01 PM on October 17, 2008 [10 favorites]


Well, I will share one piece of info that I don't tend to share with people IRL (because it freaks them out) and that is
I AM DAMN CURIOUS.

That being said, not curious enough. I mean, I'm also curious about France. And you can come back from there.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:07 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


abc123xyzinfinity Well, I like having a body, and need a body of some sort to let me interact with the world (and I assume I'd go mad if totally isolated); but I maintain that the part that really makes me *me* is my memories, my thought processes, etc.

To make an analogy (always a risky pastime) I recently built myself a new computer. New mainboard, new RAM, new case, new powersupply, new hard drives, new everything. I installed my OS and copied over my files, settings, etc (nice and easy in Linux). The thing that made my computer "mine" was not, I argue the specific processor, or physical hard disk, but the data on the disk. My bookmarks, personal documents, etc.

The same, I think, can be argued about my self. A body, or some means of being able to communicate, interact, etc with the outside universe is necessary, but not the essence of myself. Its my memories, my way of thinking and whatnot that is the essential me. This essential me is currently represented in the state of neurons in my brain [2] but can theoretically be represented in other ways that still produce the same result. Just as the file containing my bookmarks is currently represented by magnetized bits of steel, but could be represented in a flash drive, or burned into a CD as more and less reflective spots, etc.

The important thing is not how the data is represented, but that it is there and able to interact meaningfully (I need *some* I/O hardware, a net connection, etc or else the bookmark file is useless).

From my POV it isn't that my essential self is non-physical, but that the physical media is less significant than the data. Neurons, transistors, quantum gates, whatever. As long as I've got my memories, my thoughts, etc then I'm me regardless of how I am physically present.
posted by sotonohito at 6:07 PM on October 17, 2008


When I die, I'm going out into the fifth dimension, where I'm gonna find Grant Morrison.

(And snog him unmercilessly).

(I hope).

(Hey, it sounds better than getting eaten by weasels).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:43 PM on October 17, 2008


>> As a physicist, I believe that my thoughts and ideas are real, physical objects,
>> just like everything else in the universe.
>
> So, as a physicist, you'll be aware that for physicists real means measurable...

Sorry jfuller, I should not have made the first part of my statement without qualification. It's fair to say that what I'm talking about is metaphysics and not physics. I was hoping to imply that my inspiration comes from science and not mysticism, but looking back on my post that might be a dubious claim as well.

according to the Carnap-Bridgman criterion a proposed entity must be supplied with two logically independent means of measurement before it can be considered for promotion from mere intervening variable to hypothetical construct--that is, something that may have a supportable claim of being independently real in nature.

I'm not familiar with this criterion, and I'm having trouble understanding the terms used. What is an intervening variable? And why do we need two independent means of measurement in order to claim a measured object "independently real in nature"? My limited internet search turned up very little on the subject of the Carnap-Bridgman criteria. From what I understand, Carnap and Bridgman were associated with a positivist school of thought. The one seemingly relevant source I could find associates positivism with objectivity, but also drops this nice quote, which I find instructive:

"... since its objectivism hangs entirely upon the sense experience and actions of the experimenters, it falls back into a subjectivism which makes scientific ideas mere shorthand summaries of experience."

http://www.archive.org/stream/whatsciencereall029208mbp/whatsciencereall029208mbp_djvu.txt

> So if a thought is a real physical object, it has mass. What's the procedure for measuring a thought's mass?

I'm not sure I agree that all objects in physics have mass. Photons have a momentum associated with their energy that could be interpreted as a relativistic mass due to the mass-energy equivalence, but are generally considered to be massless particles. Do they fail the Carnap-Bridgman criteria?

I will conceed that it is probably impossible to "measure a thought's mass," but I don't know if that rules them out as objects. Are there other ways to measure thoughts? I am not claiming that I have a physical explanation for the way thoughts are formed and interact with nature, or a proposed experiment to measure a thought, so I guess I am most definately doing metaphysics. I apologize for the confusion, but I would like to state for the record that Democritus did not have any proposed methods for measuring atoms, but we got there eventually anyway.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 8:02 PM on October 17, 2008


Sorry jfuller, I should not have made the first part of my statement without qualification. It's fair to say that what I'm talking about is metaphysics and not physics. I was hoping to imply that my inspiration comes from science and not mysticism, but looking back on my post that might be a dubious claim as well.

What exactly are your credentials?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:29 PM on October 17, 2008


No, this notion of "my way is right, period, and all others are wrong" is absolutely intrinsic to any claim of universal good or evil, and most ecumenical movements do indeed make such a statement. Ecumenical movements claim that all faiths (or, much more commonly, all Christian faiths or all Abrahamic faiths) have access to universal values like Truth, Goodness, God, etc, but they do not claim that there is no such thing as Truth, Goodness, or God.

When did I claim this was the case? I'm talking about universal values common to all faiths and the faithless alike. That the "way" in "my way" refers to a particular faith.

My point is that forgiveness, kindness, and charity are Catholic values, and that they comprise the Catholic definition of "good people". Thus, people with values which are diametrically opposed to these do not go to Heaven under the Catholic system.

The Catholics don't have a monopoly on these things! People whose values are diametrically opposed to forgiveness, kindness and charity aren't getting into Heaven. So? This is still a far cry from your claim that particular faiths necessarily take an exclusive attitude that anyone not following that faith are damned.

I think the terms are getting mixed up here. I was trying to respond to your claim that "there is no better example of 'baby and bathwater' than a system in which 99.99999% of all human beings who ever lived don't get to go hang out with Buddha/Shiva/Muhammed/Jesus/John Frum/Whoever" by pointing out that only in the fundamentalist sense is a good person's entry into paradise blocked because they didn't subscribe to the newsletter, that in an ecumenical sense, all good people who share core values shared by all faiths - or those who don't ascribe to any faith - are allowed into paradise. I frankly don't see how the ecumenical approach somehow excludes 99.99999% of all people from paradise.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:10 AM on October 18, 2008


Wish I had time to read all these comments. I got halfway through and it's been enlightening.

One of the particularly ominous things about everyday life is that many people cease considering their own mortality. It's definitely not impossible to imagine that you don't exist, but it takes some time and calm that a lot of us don't find. And I often wonder if much of the cognitive debate here takes place simply because we're so used to and so preoccupied with existing that we find it hard to jump out of that frame of mind and adjust ourselves to a perspective where that existence ceases. I'd imagine, as per the article, that kids especially probably have a hard time making the jump from "Oh, cute baby mouse" to "baby mouse is no longer real". It's a very

what

moment.

As for my own "cosmology" and the way I find significance for it, I remember that when I was younger I was subjected to a multifaceted theological upbringing, including "extinctualism". What astounded me, about the time I was 6-7, is piecing together all the religious and existential sluice poured at me and realizing that no matter what the outside cosmology is, in my own mind, I am a god, and that reality is what I decide it is, and that yes indeedy, we all are. It's the incredible power of imagination that created (or divined) all these different cosmologies in the first place. That realization that I could create them too was and still is the defining idea of my life. And more than that, the detritus left to me by other minds, other gods who created universes, ideas, feelings, songs, paintings, devices...they have given me tools to enchant and enhance my own little godhood in so many ways. When you really slow down and consider the enormity of your own power over your universe as you create it, and the influence it's possible to have on others through stories, gestures, and every other action you take, it's hard not to be overwhelmed.

Whatever is out there, if anything, even if it's just simple chemistry, it's given we humans (and other stuff, I'm pretty sure) an amazing gift. It's given us faculties of sense and pleasure and an infinite ability to influence those senses, and moreover, given us the power to add and enhance our experience via culture, stories, creativity, and invention. We are all gods in our own minds, and we can touch the godhoods of others.

It's a realization that awes me every time I think about it. It's the defining beauty of my existence, and I hope that whatever reality you exist in, you feel the enormity and beauty of this fact as well.

Loopy, I know, but it's how I get through the day, and how I direct my moral compass. It's so simple to imagine yourself in another's place and imagine the positive impact your actions have on them. There is no greater source of joy than the imagination and the knowledge that you've made another feel joy as well.

Jesus H., and this is me sober. I think I'll shut up now.
posted by saysthis at 1:24 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Errrr, four responses and a little late.

When your brain boots back up you know that you temporarly ceased to be.

Wow, Pseudology, what does that feel like? Does it create an existential crisis?
posted by amyms at 12:48 AM on October 17 [+] [!]


yes, it makes you want to consult a religious expert about life after death but then you realize that they're full of shit and just as in the dark as the rest of us.

When your brain boots back up you know that you temporarly ceased to be.

What did the blue screen look like from the other side? Did they start you in Safe Mode first just to make sure things were working properly?
posted by pracowity at 12:58 AM on October 17 [1 favorite +] [!]


Close. You wake up without most of your memories. You don't know who you are let alone where you are and how you got there. In one of mine I thought I was still in high school even thought I was 21. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for them to come back.

When experiancing a grand-mal siezure (or tonic clonic or whatever the latest term the medical community is using these days) your brain is effectively dead. Your body might be busy doing the bacon dance but your heart isn't pumping blood, your lungs aren't breathing

Just an FYI, this is not true for all tonic-clonic seizures (or even most as far as I know). People can still breathe and the heart can still keep beating. If that were true, the fatality rate due to tonic-clonic seizures would be off the charts.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:47 AM on October 17 [+] [!]


It wouldn't suprise me. My sources of information are... diverse which leaves them open to being wrong. Perhaps it was a rumor. The doctor did say, though, that the body wasn't getting adequate oxygen and that the heart spasmed with everything else.
posted by Pseudology at 1:47 AM on October 18, 2008


When did I claim this was the case? I'm talking about universal values common to all faiths and the faithless alike. That the "way" in "my way" refers to a particular faith.

Except that they're NOT universal values. They are Christian values. What, do you think they crucified Jesus because he had a lot of boring, run-of-the-mill ideas that everybody was already putting into practice? Did you think the Christians called other people "barbarians" and utterly destroyed their religions simply due to a minor difference of opinion on doctrine?

The idea that forgiveness, kindness and charity should be primary values was quite radical at the time, a time in which most people lived (as roughly half of all people do today!) in systems which value familial piety, honor, strength, enlightenment, and/or wealth. Thus, nearly every human being who ever lived before 1 AD, along with roughly fifty percent of the human beings living today, are excluded from heaven by the Christian system, because their values did not match Christian values.

People whose values are diametrically opposed to forgiveness, kindness and charity aren't getting into Heaven. So? This is still a far cry from your claim that particular faiths necessarily take an exclusive attitude that anyone not following that faith are damned.

Um, no, it's not. Look at what you've written, there: people who do not follow the tenets of that faith -- in particular, a life led by forgiveness, kindness and charity -- don't get to Heaven. What the hell else can you say to that, other than "anyone not following that faith are damned"? You can stretch it ecumenically to say "or compatible faiths", like you're writing copy for a software box in 1986, but it still doesn't go real far, because not all faiths are compatible faiths.

in an ecumenical sense, all good people who share core values shared by all faiths - or those who don't ascribe to any faith - are allowed into paradise. I frankly don't see how the ecumenical approach somehow excludes 99.99999% of all people from paradise.

You really think the Aztecs went to heaven? The Norse, the Mongols, the Comanche, the Masai, the Spartans, the Han? And all our warlike, animist tribal ancestors, stretching back through time to the very beginnings of culture? Come on. For universal values, there sure have been a lot of human populations who weren't particularly interested in living by Christian morals... the vast majority of them, in fact.

You seem to want to make these universal moral statements not count as part of "the faith", but I'm afraid they're very close to the core of it, as you yourself admitted in your post at 1:30 PM. That goes especially for those ecumenical movements you like so much, who do not really have specific points of doctrine, yet still get hung up on these universal value statements.

Sorry, but you can't claim that universal value statements are both a major benefit of religion and don't matter as part of "the faith". If they matter, then you've still got the problem of exclusivity. And if they don't matter, then religion has all the deep meaning of a security blanket.
posted by vorfeed at 10:21 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Except that they're NOT universal values. They are Christian values.

Kindness, forgiveness and charity are solely Christian values, eh? News to me. The crucifixion of Jesus, you might remember, had more to do with his challenge to the religious establishment of the time, for what his followers were touting him as, as well as what the Romans saw as the potential for an uprising.

people who do not follow the tenets of that faith -- in particular, a life led by forgiveness, kindness and charity -- don't get to Heaven. What the hell else can you say to that, other than "anyone not following that faith are damned"?

You can say that the principles of forgiveness, kindness and charity aren't trademarked by solely one belief system. Just because one faith professes a set of values does not mean those values are the sole property of that faith.

You really think the Aztecs went to heaven? The Norse, the Mongols, the Comanche, the Masai, the Spartans, the Han? And all our warlike, animist tribal ancestors, stretching back through time to the very beginnings of culture?

I don't have the slightest idea. But there were there contemporaries who valued forgiveness, kindness and charity, and today, in our modern age, the values or kindness, forgiveness and charity can be fairly safely considered universal. Unless, you know, you want to continue asserting that because Christians value these things, that they are solely Christian values.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:51 AM on October 18, 2008


But in any event, I think we've veered pretty far afield from your original question, i.e., how does belief in the afterlife benefit anyone. There are benefits to believing, yes, but perhaps I wasn't clear enough - by saying there are benefits, I don't mean to say that those who don't believe in an afterlife are "missing out" or what have you - just that for those who do believe in it, there's a certain assurance that comes from it, for themselves and their loved ones. That's it. I don't mean to tout this as "right" - I don't have the key to the secrets of the universe and for all I know death means wormfood and nothing more.

I try to be very careful about this, because it seems to be far too easy for people to interpret an explanation of beliefs as proselytizing. I'm just trying to be clearer. I think the divine speaks to each person in its own way, and each person makes their own way towards it. Just because I have my way there doesn't mean I think it's the only way; just mine, the one suited for me, perhaps even the one chosen for me.

This is why I can't begin to speculate who gets into paradise; I was only recounting what one group - the Catholics - had to say on the subject, and I hope that didn't come across as my own faith. There's plenty about Catholicism I respect, and plenty that doesn't jibe with me, but it's not what I profess. For all I know, they do indeed believe that war-like people don't get into paradise (although I am pretty certain entry is judged on a case-by-case basis, and not solely on ethnicity, but I could be wrong).

Anyhow, I want to thank you for not having this back-and-forth between us tailspin into yet another LOLRELIGION diatribe.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:42 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


But there were there contemporaries who valued forgiveness, kindness and charity, and today, in our modern age, the values or kindness, forgiveness and charity can be fairly safely considered universal.

NO, THEY CAN'T. Period. "The values or kindness, forgiveness and charity can be fairly safely considered universal"? Do you know that rape-caused fistula is an epidemic in Africa, even in many Christian countries? Did you know that slavery is still commonplace around the world? Do you realize that our own country -- the most Christian country in the world -- is full of people who will happily argue against these values, especially the last one, as they are clearly "communist"? And that all of these actions are considered by the people who practice them to be not only acceptable, but positive, and sometimes even the sort of thing one does in the name of God?

On top of that, go ask people in China whether these values ought to be given primary importance, above, say, familial piety. You know, China, the most populous country in the world?

Your assertion is ridiculous. No, your personal values are not universally shared throughout the world. These ideas may exist throughout the world, in one form or another, but they are not anywhere close to being the most important values in all cultures, and in some they are even considered negatives. And in historical terms, it's even worse: their primacy can be measured in mere seconds, compared to years and years during which any number of other values held sway around the world. Sorry to disappoint you, but these values are far from "universal", no matter how much you may wish otherwise.

Unless, you know, you want to continue asserting that because Christians value these things, that they are solely Christian values.

Nobody said that they were "solely" Christian values. I only said that the vast majority of historical peoples did not have these as primary values. There certainly were some other cultures who shared these as primary values, as you point out, but not enough to make up for the vast, vast majority who did not, especially as you move further and further back into history. And that goes for nearly any universal moral value you care to invent, not just the Christian ones -- if there's anything sociology has taught us, it's that there are very few universal values, and an exception for almost every rule.

You can say that the principles of forgiveness, kindness and charity aren't trademarked by solely one belief system. Just because one faith professes a set of values does not mean those values are the sole property of that faith.

Again, I am not talking about "sole" or "solely" anything. Whether or not forgiveness, kindness and charity are the sole property of Christianity, people who do not share them go to Hell under the Christian system... and as I've shown, that's most of the people who have ever lived.

It does not matter if your system is Christian or Pastafarian, does not matter if it is fundamentalist or ecumenical, does not matter if it is liberal or conservative. If it makes any universal moral statements, it's exclusionary to those who do not abide by them, by definition... and there have been many people and cultures which did not abide by them, despite your assertions to the contrary.

What you're essentially saying is that the set of cultures which believes X, Y, and Z includes the set of all cultures -- sorry, but no, it rather obviously doesn't.
posted by vorfeed at 11:48 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


"The values or kindness, forgiveness and charity can be fairly safely considered universal"? Do you know that rape-caused fistula is an epidemic in Africa, even in many Christian countries? Did you know that slavery is still commonplace around the world? Do you realize that our own country -- the most Christian country in the world -- is full of people who will happily argue against these values, especially the last one, as they are clearly "communist"? And that all of these actions are considered by the people who practice them to be not only acceptable, but positive, and sometimes even the sort of thing one does in the name of God?

Yes, thanks, I'm fully aware that people aren't all exactly the same, and that people do bad things.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:06 PM on October 18, 2008


But in any event, I think we've veered pretty far afield from your original question, i.e., how does belief in the afterlife benefit anyone.

Maybe so, but it seems to me as if you've down to nothing but "it's comforting", and I addressed that back at 4:38. In short: there are any number of comforting things which do not require belief in a lie and/or a great deal of energy and effort with no tangible real-world benefits to show for them.

Comfort at the expense of reality is not necessarily a good thing; it is clearly sub-optimal when compared to comfort which does not come at the expense of reality, in any case... assuming that one's culture has any interest in reality, of course.

Yes, thanks, I'm fully aware that people aren't all exactly the same, and that people do bad things.

Wait, what happened to your "universal values" which are "common to all faiths and the faithless alike"? Gee, could it be that they're not universal?
posted by vorfeed at 12:12 PM on October 18, 2008


In short: there are any number of comforting things which do not require belief in a lie and/or a great deal of energy and effort with no tangible real-world benefits to show for them.

I realize there are other things which provide comfort and reassurance, but it doesn't make the afterlife any less of a source for said comfort and reassurance. Calling it a "lie" - as opposed to just something you personally don't believe in - doesn't change that, nor does it take me a "great deal of energy and effort" to believe in it. As for "tangible, real-world benefits", well, I'd say feeling happy to know that those I've loved who've passed on are in a better place gives me a very real benefit, "tangible" or otherwise.

Wait, what happened to your "universal values" which are "common to all faiths and the faithless alike"?

Um, they're still common to all faiths and the faithless alike, even if bad things happen. I never claimed that each and every individual person on the planet Earth follows those values to the T, or that people were without imperfections.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:23 PM on October 18, 2008


Oh, also, in addition to "there are other things which provide comfort and reassurance, but it doesn't make the afterlife any less of a source for said comfort and reassurance", I'd add that belief in an afterlife and drawing from other sources of comfort simultaneously is perfectly possible as well.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:29 PM on October 18, 2008



Um, they're still common to all faiths and the faithless alike, even if bad things happen


No, they're not. You're just making an unsubstantiated assertion based on your own parochial understanding of what a moral value is. Many people can and do make the case that charity and forgiveness are not morally justified.

At any rate, what you're ignoring is that most Christians--i.e., everyone who isn't Catholic or Orthodox--don't (or are not supposed to) believe that doing good deeds gets you into heaven. Salvation by faith alone, remember?
posted by nasreddin at 12:49 PM on October 18, 2008


Not to mention, the Norse did believe in an afterlife--in Valhalla, where you ended up if you were a successful warrior. I.e., if you did a good job slaughtering, plundering, and raping the ninnies who believed in forgiveness and compassion. Where's your moral compass now?
posted by nasreddin at 12:53 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


No, they're not. You're just making an unsubstantiated assertion based on your own parochial understanding of what a moral value is. Many people can and do make the case that charity and forgiveness are not morally justified.

Yeah, could just be wishful thinking on my part, and on further reflection, probably is.

At any rate, what you're ignoring is that most Christians--i.e., everyone who isn't Catholic or Orthodox--don't (or are not supposed to) believe that doing good deeds gets you into heaven. Salvation by faith alone, remember?

Catholics and Orthodox combined outnumber Protestants globally, so I'd say most Christians don't believe in salvation by faith alone.

At any rate, I'd merely been trying to show benefits to belief in an afterlife; benefits that I don't think are necessarily mutually exclusive with other sources of comfort, guidance and reassurance, nor does my believing in it harm anyone else. That's really, totally it.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:00 PM on October 18, 2008


Calling it a "lie" - as opposed to just something you personally don't believe in - doesn't change that, nor does it take me a "great deal of energy and effort" to believe in it.

The fact that it's a lie has nothing to do with whether or not I personally believe in it. It has to do with the logical inconsistencies I've been talking about in this thread. Again, because all of them claim that the others are incorrect, either only one of the universal-moral-claim religions is correct, or none of them are. Even if the former is actually the case, we humans have absolutely no way to be sure that we have selected the correct one.

For example, Monty Hall shows me 20,000 doors, and tells me that I may open just one, with the caveat that there is a paradise behind just one of them and total destruction behind all of the others. It is not beneficial to live my life as if this is the case. Even if it's not a lie, it is as good as a lie, because I've no real chance of winning paradise, and neither did every other human being who has ever played the game. And there have been many, many more human religions than just 20,000, nearly all of which have asked a lot more from their followers than opening a single door... the only way to win is to refuse to buy into the game.

Ecumenical and other liberal traditions don't change those odds much -- maybe they stretch the winning pool from one door to ten, or even a hundred, which still makes the effective odds zero. Attempting to stretch the definition of religion to encompass nothing but your "universal" values doesn't help much, either, as the total number of historical religions still dwarfs the number which abide by them.

Thus, anyone who claims to have discovered a universal moral statement, even if it's something as wishy-washy and non-specific as "kindness, forgiveness and charity", is either lying, or may as well be. In either case, there is absolutely no benefit to believing them, especially since it is quite possible to be kind, forgiving, and giving even if these do not comprise a universal moral good. Moral values can be justified by their effects on the real world; it is not necessary, nor is it beneficial, to reach for any otherworldly justification for them.

Um, they're still common to all faiths and the faithless alike, even if bad things happen.

Again: no, they're not. There are entire civilizations which did not operate according to your "universal", "common to all" rules, and in fact considered them to be signs of weakness and degeneracy. They did not consider their ideals to be "imperfect" or "bad" in the least, either. You'd think that would be enough to refute your belief that these values are universal, but apparently your position on this is built on faith (or, on preview, wishful thinking) rather than logic, so I guess there's not much I can say to change your mind.
posted by vorfeed at 1:08 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]



Catholics and Orthodox combined outnumber Protestants globally, so I'd say most Christians don't believe in salvation by faith alone.


You're right. It's still a significant number, though.

At any rate, I'd merely been trying to show benefits to belief in an afterlife; benefits that I don't think are necessarily mutually exclusive with other sources of comfort, guidance and reassurance, nor does my believing in it harm anyone else. That's really, totally it.


I don't believe in the afterlife, but for all I know, you may be right, and it's not my place to tell you otherwise. What I don't like is that this argument veers too close to the old "religion is good because of its social utility" position, which manages to trivialize faith and insult nonbelievers simultaneously. Your belief in an afterlife shouldn't be justified by anything except the fact that you want to or feel like you need to believe it. No other justification is possible or necessary.
posted by nasreddin at 1:09 PM on October 18, 2008


Moral values can be justified by their effects on the real world; it is not necessary, nor is it beneficial, to reach for any otherworldly justification for them.

You realize that this claim is ridiculous, right? Suppose I believe in fairness as a moral value. Everyone else starts believing in fairness too. We have a society where everyone is scrupulously fair and unfair inequalities are eliminated. Whoop-dee-doo. Now show that society to someone who doesn't believe in fairness--how are you going to prove to them that this is somehow good, without making them believe in fairness first? It goes back to the impossibility of turning an "is" into an "ought."

Unless you're talking about some kind of Kantian morality, which I don't think anyone has ever put into practice.
posted by nasreddin at 1:14 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


What I don't like is that this argument veers too close to the old "religion is good because of its social utility" position, which manages to trivialize faith and insult nonbelievers simultaneously. Your belief in an afterlife shouldn't be justified by anything except the fact that you want to or feel like you need to believe it. No other justification is possible or necessary.

Fortunately, this is what I've taken pains to assert a couple times in this thread - that this is my belief, the one for me, and doesn't necessarily mean I'm right and others are wrong. If I didn't make this perfectly clear first here and then here, here I am saying it again.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:21 PM on October 18, 2008


(Whoops: first here, that is.)
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:24 PM on October 18, 2008


You realize that this claim is ridiculous, right?

You realize that I don't believe in the existence of universal moral values, right?

I'm not claiming that it is possible to PROVE that believing in X is right -- of course that's ridiculous, for the reasons I outlined above. I am claiming that it is possible to JUSTIFY belief in X, within a given cultural framework, based on the real-world effects of X as viewed through that cultural framework. We do not need to say, "charity is correct because God says so, or because it is intrinsically and universally correct", when we can say, "charity is correct for us, because it creates a positive outcome according to our existing cultural framework".

For example, a culture which values the full participation of all members may see charity as a moral good because it allows the least able to participate; a culture which values quality over quantity may see charity as a moral evil for the exact same reason. And no, there is no way for the members of one society to prove to the other that charity is somehow good (or evil), without making them believe in charity first, or at the very least re-framing charity as a good (or evil) in their cultural framework.

IMHO, morals do not necessarily need to be justified, but it's certainly possible to do so without resorting to God. All it takes is a willingness to admit that one's morals (and one's justification for them) are correct only with respect to one's own belief system.
posted by vorfeed at 1:56 PM on October 18, 2008


IMHO, morals do not necessarily need to be justified, but it's certainly possible to do so without resorting to God. All it takes is a willingness to admit that one's morals (and one's justification for them) are correct only with respect to one's own belief system.

Thanks for the clarification; I agree with you completely.

Although, in terms of your general argument against MSTPT, I disagree with this:

In either case, there is absolutely no benefit to believing them, especially since it is quite possible to be kind, forgiving, and giving even if these do not comprise a universal moral good.


What you're doing there in some sense goes against the relativist (not a swear word) argument you've just proposed. You're prescribing a certain class of goods as a benefit, with the assumption that the goods are universally accessible in the same way. It's true that, for you, there's no benefit to believing in an afterlife--that you can have reassurance, a moral compass, etc., without it. But someone like MSTPT doesn't have the same relationship to those goods that you do. Like it or not, for them the subjective experience of a moral compass (as opposed to an abstract concept of a moral compass as such) is intimately tied to a religious concept of the afterlife. To expect that people can and should reconfigure their relationships to these things to match your own is precisely what absolute-morality advocates do. Effectively, "moral compass" and "comfort" and whatnot simply mean different things to you and to a Christian--that they're denoted by the same word shouldn't delude you into thinking they're commensurable.
posted by nasreddin at 2:10 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Like it or not, for them the subjective experience of a moral compass (as opposed to an abstract concept of a moral compass as such) is intimately tied to a religious concept of the afterlife.

Absolutely. That's what I've said since the beginning -- the only unassailable benefit of religion is its function as a subjective security blanket. You'll note that I never said it's not a security blanket, or even that it's necessarily a poor one... simply that most other security blankets in the world don't have the same attributes, and that some of these attributes make this particular security blanket sub-optimal for those who place a high value on logical truth.

Clearly, it's possible for other people to decide that those attributes are A-OK with them, seeing as how they do so every day. It's the "it's a social good", "these are universal benefits" argument I object to. And for what it's worth, I nearly put "there's at least one moral system in which there is absolutely no benefit to believing them", but figured it was overly pedantic... one can see this in my "assuming that one's culture values truth" and "assuming that one's culture has any interest in reality, of course" comments a bit earlier. Those whose cultures do not value logical consistency clearly have no problem with absolute moral statements.

To expect that people can and should reconfigure their relationships to these things to match your own is precisely what absolute-morality advocates do.

Trust me, after an entire lifetime of living in a very Christian country, with personal values which are not Christian, I understand that I can't expect other people to change their morals.

That said, I don't think that moral relativism means that we've nothing to say to each other about morals. It merely means that there is no Platonic moral form floating in space somewhere, waiting to be discovered. In particular, it does not mean that morals have no effect on culture, or on the physical world, and it does not mean that we shouldn't all strive to develop our society's morals toward a positive (from our POV) effect.

As far as I'm concerned, relativism frees human beings to create their own moral systems, all of which are equally (in)valid, but it does not require them to tolerate all of those systems, because they are not equally (in)valid from the viewpoint of any given individual or culture. Relativism means developing your own viewpoint, and accepting that it is not the only possible viewpoint. It does not mean abandoning viewpoint entirely.

In short, the truth is that other people certainly can reconfigure their relationships to these things to match my own, even if it's unlikely, and they certainly should do so... from my point of view. So I argue, and hope to spread my own beliefs to like-minded people by doing so.
posted by vorfeed at 3:01 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


That doesn't prove that chemical processes are all there is to consciousness.

What does this even mean?

It proves that without chemical processes (or some other unknown as yet created technological substitute) there is no consciousness. PERIOD.

Is human consciousness a marvelous endlessly interesting thing? Yes. But stepping out of the biological and into the terrain of metaphysics is a leap of faith not science. And certainly not anything to do with observable phenomena. IOW: All this goofy crap out about near death out-of-body experiences etc can be explained and even simulated with biological means.
posted by tkchrist at 7:40 PM on October 20, 2008


All this goofy crap out about near death out-of-body experiences etc can be explained and even simulated with biological means.

The strange experiences of near-death and related things can be easily ignored, dismissed as side-effects of the workings of the brain that are unimportant to daily life. Many of the other strange mystical experiences, and more subtle ineffable effects that arise in human consciousness due to these mysterious chemical processes, are not so easily dismissed. Understanding and developing one's own perception and consciousness is a large part of what religion is about, one that too often gets neglected in this kind of metafilter thread, as well as in many churches. Scientific approaches haven't yet gotten as far. The kingdom of heaven is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it.
posted by sfenders at 4:15 PM on October 21, 2008


Towards a neuropsychology of religion
posted by homunculus at 3:12 PM on October 23, 2008


Many of the other strange mystical experiences, and more subtle ineffable effects that arise in human consciousness due to these mysterious chemical processes, are not so easily dismissed.

YMMV.

Hey look! The bad mens at the Discovery Institute are committed to equal opportunity for muddleheadery!
posted by mwhybark at 8:13 AM on October 24, 2008


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