If I’m Gonna Die Eventually, How Can I Be Conscious Now?

Back in my rebellious teenage days, a rotund, sweat pants-wearing Bloggerbels spent the vast expanses of free time afforded by his status as a social pariah on pondering the deepest questions of human existence. Taking Homer Simpson’s classic utterance of “Everyone is stupid except for me” as my non-ironic life’s motto, I furiously scribbled my undercooked “insights” into beaten-up notebooks, presumably so that posterity would not be robbed of my precious gift.

One of the many imagined “epiphanies” that sprung from just below my mussed brown hair was related to the connection between consciousness and the afterlife. How, I asked myself, could I simply cease to exist at death, given that I was quite obviously conscious and aware at that precise moment? If there was clearly some conscious agent present to pose the question, how could that same asker simply seem to exist? How could this seemingly unbroken stream of consciousness simply stop? It would feel like a negation of every undeniably real moment of consciousness that had become before.

Back then, my inability to conceive of my own non-existence gave me a comforting sense of certainty that there must be something after death. Unfortunately, in recent years this paradox has become less of a comfort for me, and more of a distressing brain-twister. With roughly half of my life now standing between me and my teenage years, I find myself becoming less certain about many things, and certainly more aware of the limitations of the grey mass of spaghetti stuffed inside my bone helmet. Instead of thinking that I will surely live forever just because I find the alternative hard to fathom, I instead find myself distressed by the fact that death is a mystery so utterly beyond my comprehension. It is humbling to consider that the human mind seems so ill-equipped to wrap itself around even the most basic questions of life.

Examining the question through analogy has done nothing to reassure me. The nightly “death” of sleep is still impossible for me to grasp after having gone through it well over ten thousand times, and yet it is undeniably real – a routine but still completely incomprehensible disruption of my consciousness. Or there is that famous Mark Twain quote: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” When I first read these words – in Christopher Hitchens’ harrowing Mortality – they initially struck me as extremely reassuring. As far as I can recall, not yet being alive was, indeed, perfectly comfortable, and it’s quite possible that no longer existing will be an equally cushy gig. But the corollary of this, if our inability to conceive of the a time before our conscious minds came into existence does not constitute any sort of proof that we have been alive forever, the mere fact of our inability to conceive of the moment after our deaths can also not provide us with any special reassurance.  Assuming that something can only be true if it is easily grasped by the human mind is, unfortunately, one of the most common and pernicious fallacies, and liberating myself from it and cliff-diving into the unknown is a harrowing but weirdly invigorating experience. (See also: “if I feel like I have free will, how could I possibly not?”)

The broader issue here is the malleability of human consciousness, which, if it could survive death, would raise all sorts of thorny issues. Consider the grisly example of someone degenerating from senile dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Would they regain all of their faculties at the moment of death? Would someone who died in infancy continue to “grow up” in the afterlife, or forever remain at an infant’s level of cognition? And if there is something fundamental to the human “soul” that goes beyond such defining factors as age or sheer level of lucidity, what is left that is identifiably us when all of these supposedly extraneous factors are stripped away? By comparison, simply dying and completely ceasing to exist seems to be a fairly elegant solution – but of course, its elegant simplicity is not, in itself, any proof that this will be the actual outcome, either.

So, to answer the question I posed in the title of this post: who knows? I’m definitely gonna die, hopefully not too soon. Nothing I can observe in the external world suggests that any part of me will survive beyond the decomposition of my body, and I’ve finally learned better than to draw any grand cosmic conclusions based on the extreme narrowness of my subjective experience. All I can say is that, based on my observation that the universe is more apathetic than actively cruel, there seems to be a more than 50% chance that I will not, in fact, spend eternity tormented in a horrible lake of fire. (But if I do end up there, it will be because I was tossed in by a God who loves me deeply – so deeply, in fact, that he wants me to burn forever in a flaming pit of agony. I know that doesn’t make any sense by any normal human standards of love and compassion, but well, it is not for us to fathom the inner workings of the Divine Mind; although, as luck would have it, we do seem to possess a lot of extremely detailed information about precisely what types of errant behaviour will lead to this particular display of Infinite Love.) Being at least 51% likely to become nothing more than worm food (and, eventually, space dust) doesn’t really sound so bad by comparison, does it? And the sooner we can accept that nobody knows anything about any damn thing, the sooner we’ll realize that life is just a crazy carnival of dogs shaking paws, fatal heart attacks, rusting scraps of iron, farting hippos, and stars going supernova. Enjoy the ride, people!

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