A biological view of death and how it serves Life.
After Death Discussion
This essay covers a lot of ground in a speculative manner. Unlike most of the content on this site, it touches on controversial topics. Please consider it a lighthearted jaunt through a landscape of ideas, not a weighty statement of belief.
I don’t know what happens after we die. But if we start with the premise that most spiritual and philosophical traditions possess part of the truth, then this model offers a fair synthesis. It incorporates common themes, and it echoes the way nature recycles everything.
How could this comfort us? Imagine a mother who dies, leaving behind young children. At first, her maternal love will keep most of her soul-stuff nearby. Later, when the kids appear to be doing well, part of her might move away to enter a new family. Another part might go further, flowing into a sea of pure consciousness, dispersed and unperturbed. Eventually, when her loved ones reach the ends of their lives, part of her might re-aggregate to greet them. Then, as ages pass, all remainders dissolve. The mother’s patterns, and her children’s, gradually mix with those of countless others, until distinct traces vanish. To me, such creative flow sounds comforting.
While inevitable dissipation would dash hope of eternal preservation, it offers solace. We give up notions of both immortality and mortality, for something—or many things—in between. Perhaps death isn’t an absence of possibilities; perhaps it’s an abundance of them.
This isn’t purely an intellectual exercise for me. During meditative and spontaneous experiences of transcendence, these ideas have seemed like realizationsrather than speculations. So this view of death is meaningful to me, personally. I’m not sure how much my altered state experiences should influence what I believe, and they should influence others even less. Still, they flavor what I’m writing, so they warrant mention.
Obviously, I could be wrong. What I’m envisioning matches the natural world and aligns with my direct experience, but it’s still just envisioning.
The goal here isn’t to answer the big questions about life after death. Mainly, it’s to bring people together. Given the anger—and sometimes hatred—between groups that disagree about the afterlife, it’s important to reconcile views to the extent possible. I’m suggesting a way to begin. Beyond that, I’m trying to make sense of traditions that have helped me, which range from the extravagantly spiritual to the strictly scientific.
In my opinion, it’s pointless to talk about an afterlife without asking how it might occur. Admittedly, my opinion has been shaped by a scientific education, but that doesn’t invalidate it. I respect that religions operate on faith, and I believe faith has a lot of value. But if we are to come together around a shared understanding of the world, we need more. It would be nice to have solid proof, but we don’t. The next best thing would be a plausible mechanism.
Religious and skeptical dogmatists dismiss evidence that doesn’t fit their world view, even if it looks pretty reliable. Speculative mechanisms won’t convince anyone committed to an opposing belief. But it might be useful to those with open minds.
First, let me explain why a ‘mechanism’ could make a difference. Human experience is a dynamic pattern of sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and so on. It is situated in the much larger pattern of change we call reality. Patterns occur all around us. Common ones are ocean waves, music, and galaxies. They require some sort of structure or medium, such as ocean surfaces, musical instruments, or the fabric of spacetime. Prior conditions set up the patterns, and the structure sustains them. In the case of ocean waves, local movements of water molecules sustain waves as they travel hundreds of miles. In this case, small-scale movements of water comprise the structural mechanism of long-range propagation of waves.
Some patterns are simple, like the regularity of sunrise and sunset. Structural mechanisms may also be simple: the sun and earth are separated by space, and the earth spins at a uniform rate, so the sun rises and sets, day after day after day. Other patterns are fantastically complex: our thoughts draw from a lifetime of influences, and they change moment-by-moment in idiosyncratic ways. Such dynamic complexity can only be sustained by a structure that’s at least that complex. Thought arises from the coordinated, fluctuating activity of millions of brain cells within a vast neural web. Because thinking is just one part of human consciousness, the entirety of a person’s experience is even more complex. If we are to continue after death in any form we’d recognize as a continuation, there must be something sustaining these fantastic patterns.
Religious believers don’t worry about this issue; their faith is enough, and if pressed, I imagine they’d say pure spirit is capable. But I was trained to want details. What might soul-stuff consist of, and how could it sustain patterns?
One possibility was articulated by Irvin László: quantal processes throughout space might hold vast amounts of information in an organized way. By sustaining flow and change in the information, this ‘akashic field’ might enable our consciousness to persist even after the storage system we call a brain dies.
Another possibility has been proposed in various forms. Perhaps the brain acts like a receiver rather than a generator of consciousness. We know TV shows aren’t generated within television sets; perhaps our individual soul pattern isn’t generated within our individual brain. Instead, the brain receives soul-signals broadcast from elsewhere, which we experience as personal consciousness.
So what is doing the broadcasting? Maybe it’s the akashic field proposed by László, but maybe it relies more on biology than physics. Personal consciousness might arise in a distributed way, from multiple brains rather than one. Just as large websites run on multiple servers, perhaps individual consciousness runs on multiple brains. Most of the activity would be in the individual’s own brain, but some would run on the brains of acquaintances, and possibly even strangers or animals. If so, then aspects of individual consciousness could persist after the individual’s death. (There are psychological parallels to this idea, as summarized in the book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone).
Notice that soul-stuff grows less mysterious with these proposals. We now envision a flow of patterned and conscious information, either in an akashic field or a collection of brains. We’re used to information flow, which happens all the time in our devices. What’s more, some scientists model brain activity using equations developed for flow in bodies of water, and with a bit of a leap, we can envision this extended across multiple brains.
Of course, we’d still need to explain how the patterned flow propagates between brains, which is a tall order. I’ll explore that question in a moment.
First let’s look at the tableau so far. We’ve sketched hypothetical mechanisms for an afterlife that might, someday, be scientifically tested. How plausible they are is debatable, but if proven they’d go a long way toward reconciling spirituality and science. Mindful Biology has hoped to contribute to that project its inception.
But what if atheists and skeptics (and most neuroscientists) are right and our consciousness ends when our brain does? Does that rule out life beyond death?
Not really. For one thing, when individuals die their impact on the world continues. Here’s an example: my mother died in 1965, but one of her effects (me) is still here. To the extent she influenced people around her, and to the extent I’ve influenced those around me, her lasting ‘footprint’ is larger still.
Life, as a communal and biospheric process, does not die when we do. This explains why people try to leave legacies. It partly explains why the rich fund buildings stamped with their names. And lest those of us without legacies or fortunes feel insignificant, we can remember the the butterfly effect from chaos theory. It shows how tiny actions may have big consequences. If we invite a destitute couple home for a meal, and this restores their faith in humanity so they bring a child into the world, and that child grows up to solve a major planetary problem, then our kindness has improved the future for millions of people. Sure, we’d neither know nor (gasp!) get credit, but we’d have had a major impact on collective wellbeing. Any one of our actions could shape the future in a big way, and every one of them shapes it in small ones. Surely we live on in this important sense.
The way our actions propagate through time establishes a sort of afterlife, but it’s not the sort religious folk envision. They picture humans surviving beyond death, not just the effects of human action.
So consider how Albert Einstein once consoled a bereaved friend by assuring him that his wife remained as alive as ever in spacetime. In Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, time is merely one dimension on equal footing with three spatial ones. Just as trees don’t disappear after we pass them, moments of our life don’t disappear after we live them. They persist ‘forever’ in four dimensional spacetime. We are eternal in a very real sense, if this part of the theory is correct.
It might not be correct. Physicists continue to debate the nature of time. Even so, this manner of life beyond death can’t be dismissed as non-scientific fantasy.
According to anecdotal and experimental reports, people have accurately described events distant in space and time. Some accounts can be written off as coincidence, delusion, or fraud, but others seem credible. Some striking anecdotal reports have been vetted, and some experiments have been replicated by careful researchers. On a personal level, a few events in my life seem difficult to explain any other way. Granted, skeptics dismiss all these reports. Yet they often base their dismissals on little more than the insistence: “that’s impossible”, which is hardly convincing.
If brains can gather information beyond ordinary limits of space and time, then they might also (though unconsciously) share information with one another via the same channels. A flow of information between brains could be the basis of distributed individual consciousness, as proposed above. This doesn’t answer the basic question of how information broadcasts between brains, but if the reports of ‘impossible’ knowing are accurate, then a mechanism exists even if we’ve yet to explain it scientifically.
When added to Einstein’s notion of persons remaining ‘alive’ in prior regions of spacetime, the proposal can be extended: perhaps personal consciousness can run today on brains that existed yesterday. This would mean that after we die it could run—in part—on our own brain, resonating through spacetime with neural activity back when we were alive.
So what are we envisioning now? Our individual consciousness runs on numerous brains that exist currently and historically. And when one brain dies, personal consciousness persists (in modified form) using all those other brains. Hence, an afterlife.
In addition to distributed brains (or instead of them), personal consciousness still might arise from Laszlo’s akashic field or mechanisms I haven’t heard about or imagined. The game here is playing with possibilities, and I’d welcome new ones.
And if you find all this too untethered to take seriously, I don’t blame you. But if you’ll bear with me, I promise this post will sound more grounded before it ends.
One could ask: why insist on mechanism? Isn’t that using the reductionist strategy? Well, yes. Reductionism’s faults don’t come from the method; they come from acting like reduction is all we need. While I’m convinced complex experience can only arise from complex structures, I don’t believe structures—by themselves—will ever explain all our experiences.
So what has this line of thinking accomplished using the reductionist approach? It has sketched a hypothesis linking the afterlife to consciousness and brains. If we were to continue, the next steps would be empirical. We’d want to: 1) firmly establish that brains can access information distant in time and space, 2) find the mechanism that allows such access, 3) show the same mechanism linking brains across time and space, and 4) demonstrate activity in living brains consistent with the sustenance of ongoing experience for people whose bodies have died.
I don’t know if this proposal deserves that much effort, and I’ll probably die without knowing if there’s any validity in it. But in the spirit of this post, I wonder: could my interest in the question prompt an afterlife that shows me the answer?
Is the organic afterlife dualistic?’ I don’t think so. Structure doesn’t hold consciousness the way a cup holds water. Soul-stuff consists of both structure andconsciousness. The two are simply different views of the single mystery we call Life. Their relationship could be summarized like this: a conscious mind is what brain structure looks like from the inside, and brain structure is what a conscious mind looks like from the outside. Similarly, no one says the ocean containswaves; waves are simply part of its nature.
We don’t need to explore the vast conceptual territory around structure and consciousness. Yet there is one question we should ask with regard to the afterlife. If structured activity gives rise to patterned experience, what happens to experience when structured activity ceases?
About 14 billion years ago, at the time of the Big Bang, the cosmos was fiercely dynamic but not very structured. And according to some scientific accounts, thousands of billions of years in the future it will contain plenty of structure, but very little dynamism. The patterns we know as human experience cannot exist at either extreme. But does any experience?
Skeptics, atheists, and most neuroscientists don’t equivocate. For them, the answer is NO. But they’ve yet to prove their hypothesis, and many people doubt it.
I’m going to state my opinion without much explanation. It’s based on a combination of direct experience and my understanding of several spiritual traditions, scientific disciplines, and philosophical outlooks. It’s also based on my esthetic preference, plus something that could be called faith.
I like the Hindu notion of satcitananda, or being-consciousness-bliss. I’m no expert, but as I understand it, the term describes the qualities of ultimate reality, which is the source and substance of everything else. Applying it to a cosmos without dynamic structure, it suggests an experience that remains: one of pure being, pure knowing, and pure love.
In this undifferentiated state, knowing and love are not directed toward an object, and being isn’t observed by something separate. There simply is being, knowing and loving, silent and contained. Many people have touched mystical states that feel like this.
I bring this up because it may be relevant to the ultimate fate of personal soul-accumulations: dissolution into an undifferentiated sea of soul-stuff. Presumably, this sea existed prior to complex dynamic structure, and will remain after the cosmos runs down. When our personal accumulation—or the entire cosmos—relaxes into that sea, tumultuous patterns cease. In their place settles a spacious, timeless experience of being, knowing, and love. Though this isn’t a heaven inhabited by everlasting souls and angels, it sounds pretty nice to me.
Many people would reject a placid sea in favor of rapids, cascades, and surf. For them, there’s the option of cycling back to the dynamic structures of reality, and taking new form. And the cosmos? Does it have the option of resuming structure-building after it reaches its end? Many traditions speak of cycles of creation, and we hear cosmologists say we exist in a so-called multiverse, in which new universes are born all the time. So perhaps our cosmos has options if it ‘wants’ to resume. Yet if we look at its full expanse, from beginning to end, a nearly infinite variety of patterns is seen. Maybe the cosmos doesn’t needan after-life, because its present-life is so full. And maybe, maybe, humanity could find a lesson in that.
Whether or not the current hypothesis has truth in it, our lives are shaped by countless historical events. They also reach far into the future, through the cascading effects of our actions. These facts are down-to-earth, yet they point to something that sounds mystical: we are not separate but deeply connected. Our experience of Life interweaves with the lives of those around us, those who have died, and those yet to be born.
That this post zeroes in on a mystical perspective was preordained. Much of what I write does exactly that (eg, What Is Life?). The difference this time is how the ‘science’ is so speculative. Still, the message remains consistent with lessons from established fields. In ecological, psychological, and quantum mechanical terms, we aren’t separate individuals. Like the mystics say: we’re all one.
Before closing, let’s look more deeply at justice. As usually described, karma and reincarnation balance out unfairness. But as noted, they seem suspect when the ruling elite uses them to justify its status. Also uncertain is the notion that cruel individuals feel the pain of their cruelty in an afterlife. It’s a nice idea, but it’s hard to be sure.
So is there no evidence of justice? Only if we deny the mystical view.
If we are all one, karma takes on new meaning. During life it looks like some people oppress and torment others, but beyond our narrow view as living persons, there is a larger web of connection. Within that web, harm to one is harm to all. This may seem speculative, but there are tangible correlates.
Consider the karmic legacy of slavery, genocide, and theft of indigenous land during US history. We see a price being paid today for the crimes of past centuries. The heaviest burden falls on descendants of enslaved and displaced populations, but the entire nation is beset by distrust, violence, insecurity, and pessimism. So the karmic effect is widespread, affecting everyone in this country and many beyond its borders.
Today in the US we no longer allow slavery, and Native Americans enjoy some control over their remaining lands. The worst crimes are in the past. How is karma just if it affects people who are marginally culpable? Even more concerning, where is justice if the descendants of the wronged are the ones who suffer most? I can’t provide answers, but I believe this: from a mystical perspective, the ‘organism of Life’ (as I call reality) feels all pains from all causes, and each of us is part of that organism.
But let’s look at what we know for sure. One way or another, we all suffer pain in a culture rife with oppression. Though the wealthiest are insulated from the worst of it, they know their situation is precarious. Frightened of humanity, they hire bodyguards and politicians to defend their position. And they never seem satisfied. Maybe that’s small consolation when we watch billionaires fund private spaceships while so many are destitute. Still, their lives look desolate to me, no matter how many mansions and admirers they enjoy.
It’s hard to be sure about individual justice. Some cruel people may never suffer major consequences, either in life or death. Yet cruelty blocks them from the true source of joy in Life: our intimate connection with All. Until the selfish renounce selfishness, they are doomed to miserly isolation. Which is a bit of justice, I think.
If selfishness only harmed the selfish, we could let it be its own reward. But, of course, it causes harm to the global populace, non-human life, and the entire biosphere. With its focus on individual comfort and desire, selfishness may doom the planet to ecological and societal pain for generations to come. In this sense, our ‘afterlife’ isn’t speculative at all, and the organism of Life will reap the karma of it.
We’ve played with several visions of the afterlife. Though they interrelate, the picture probably looks muddled. To close with a bit of clarity, it’s worth looking at the skeptical position one last time. What if death really is the end? Would that that be so awful?
Depression has dogged me almost continuously since age twenty. For years it seemed to demand suicide. During those times, the idea of death-as-end-of-me seemed almost irresistibly attractive. With that plus an atheist upbringing in my past, I’m comfortable with the skeptical view. I remain unconvinced by it, but if it’s correct, that’s fine by me.
I see benefits in the idea of consciousness ending when bodies do: If this life is all we get, then it’s all the more important to cherish it as much and as often as we can.
Building up our ability to cherish Life is the whole point of Mindful Biology. Disagreements about religious views blunt this ability by spurring hatred, oppression, and violence. We’d be wise to reconcile different perspectives, if we can. We would also be wise to discourage selfish behavior that propagates harm into the future, via the only form of afterlife that’s beyond dispute.
And no matter what happens after death, our lives pass quickly. So the wisest choice of all is to cherish Life right now, as much as we are able.
Death’s Presence Discussion
When I first launched this project, its focus was the mind-body relationship. I looked at my work as offering something like marriage counseling, to help mind and body coexist harmoniously. I challenged how our minds criticize, punish, command, and resist our biological bodies, and I hoped to inspire kinder attitudes and behaviors.
After a time, I began feeling uneasy about dividing selves in two, and I now speak less about mind and body as separate entities. Even so, it remains useful to examine our attitude toward the body and, especially, our fear of it. And it seems clear one of our deepest fears arises from our mortality. In this essay, we look at the pervasive fear that alienates us from our bodies.
It seems to me that criticism of the body is driven by our fear that others won’t find us attractive, or that illness will limit our activities, and that death must uproot us from this world. We punish and command the body in fearful hope of optimizing its ability to get us what we want. We resist the body because we fear the way it feels, or the changes in lifestyle it requests or demands.
Some religious thought takes these fears to the extreme and rejects the body altogether. In its place, we are offered dreams of life as pure spirit, free of bodily earthiness, pain, and vulnerability. Perhaps an untroubled, disembodied existence awaits us, but for now we dwell as biological forms. To fear them is not helpful, and it’s probably unhealthy. Fear is stressful, and prolonged stress depresses both immunity and mood.
Where does all this fear come from? Part of it is cultural. We compete in a society where the comely, strong, and capable get the best jobs, the sexiest lovers, and the highest acclaim. Since looks and strength are bodily attributes, and the capacity to master skills comes from a bodily brain, we can’t help but fear our bodies aren’t good enough. Too much depends on them.
Another part is personal. We see ourselves as singularly important beings. Because we reside at the apparent center of the activity surrounding us, it’s nearly automatic to see our ‘self’ as the axis around which all revolves. Even in less individualistic cultures that value families and communities more than single persons, one’s own family or community matters most. When our personal identities and local tribes are valued more than the rest, we fret about the bodies we know and love, which are vital to our standing.
Meanwhile, ease is discouraged by news feeds that show families, villages, and regions hammered by disease, conflict, and natural disaster. No wonder we fear these soft, warm bodies, so easily are they damaged.
Beyond all the facts of life is the fact of death. It hovers in the background of awareness, sometimes lunging forward and confronting us with the body’s inevitable decline, demise, and decay.
What’s missing from competitive obsessions, personal and tribal fixations, journalistic reports, and personal mortality is the bigger picture: our planet spins and life—one way or another—keeps growing and evolving. Living things are neither isolated nor independent; they are sustained by regional ecologies that are embedded in the biosphere, which relies on the sun, and so on. If the body is viewed in isolation, we face a frightening prospect: life within a wet, squishy, mortal thing that ages over time. But if it is viewed in context, we know we live in a vast unfolding process, awash with startling forms.
From whence arose all this creativity? We know about a Big Bang, and we know about natural selection, but to date we don’t know how or why things started. We live in a beautiful mystery that’s been blossoming for ages, without visible endpoint in time or space. Even if this universe, after untold billions of years, cools to the point that life can’t exist, it’s likely that countless other universes will continue.
You could say our predicament is awesome. Consider this definition of the word (from dictionary.com): inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear. The trick is to see how fear can be lessened by reverence and admiration. We will feel frightened as long as we look at vulnerability and mortality as mistakes, as problems that pit us against other people, other communities, and the natural world. But if we look beyond this narrow perspective and see life’s ongoing glory, we can release fear and embrace the pageantry.
One time I was hiking a local mountain with a friend who suffers mild agoraphobia. After we reached the top, with the ocean glittering far below, he said he felt ‘panicked.’ I asked him to describe his sensations, and he reported feeling warm, flushed, and lightheaded, with a fluttering in his chest. I asked: “how is that different from falling in love?” At that moment, his experience shifted from panic to awe. He saw beauty where before he had seen terror.
Fear is debilitating. Wonder is energizing. We think a thick wall separates the two, but they’re like the the two surfaces of a single leaf. Before us glows a single reality that looks terrible or sublime, depending on how we look at it.
As long as we see ourselves as isolated, uniquely special entities that must battle competitors, we will fear our vulnerable bodies. But as we expand our sense of self to include all other people, the whole world, and the unending cosmos, anxiety will fade. A self as vast as all creation does not age, does not die, and cannot be harmed.
Each day, cells within our bodies die and are replaced by new ones. Each day, humans die and are replaced by new ones. On much longer timeframes, solar systems die and are replaced. This is not wrong; it is the way of things. Abolishing fear means opening our eyes to this truth and accepting its wisdom. Once we see our lives in context, our bodies no longer look badly made: they serve their purpose for the time allotted. That is all evolution designed them to do, and it’s all they need do. The universe touches us in these bodies; indeed, it is these bodies. We need not be afraid..