Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Take it With Me

Scientific American has published an interesting article called "Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death" at, examining the conundrum of how it is impossible for us to comprehend the absence of self-consciousness after death. You can't know what it's like until it happens, but once it happens you won't be around (in your current form, at least) to describe it. It's like trying to imagine what there was before the big bang... it makes your head hurt after a while.

Especially curious is the fact that even people who steadfastly believe that there is nothing after death think in terms of a deceased person having a consciousness:
"One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well—he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now. "
So is the popular human belief of some sort of continued existence after life on earth merely an evolutionary, cultural, psychological defense mechanism against the bleak existentialism of knowing that the entirety of one's existence gets snuffed out and disappears completely when we die? Or is it the touch of the Great Architect, trying to steer us all on the path of leaving this world better than we found it, to ready us for entry into the Celestial Lodge?

I think about this question a lot; I try to be coldly analytical and dismiss my deep-seated belief of some kind of organized intelligence at the heart of creation as a purely human construct, a collective bed-time story to keep us from going crazy at the thought of leaving our friends, families, and happy memories behind for the long, empty night that awaits us all when we die.

It just doesn't work. For all of the scientific advances humans have made during our cosmically short time here on earth, I don't believe that we have learned enough about anything to be able to state authoritatively how everything in this universe came to be, or where our souls go when we die. At the same time I have a hard time subscribing to the idea that there is a single true religion, and that only followers of the "right" faith get a golden ticket to the big Wonka factory in the sky when they die, while everyone else is punished for eternity.

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