So, I get it that conventional wisdom says that people die and then they’re gone. That without a physical structure to contain a consciousness, the consciousness must not exist. And I get it that such a view is regarded by many as scientific.
Is it, though?
I mean, I’m not going to throw quantum mechanics at you. One could. But perhaps the one who should do that is a quantum physicist (in other words, not me).
I’d like to invite us all, instead, to think about consciousness just a little. Set aside religion for a moment. Set aside materialist assumptions that to believe consciousness can survive the body is just weakminded pap meant to comfort the grieving. Let’s set aside the whole topic of death for a moment and just think about the nature of consciousness itself–especially since we ourselves, apparently, claim to actually be conscious.
There are people who study near death experiences (NDEs), and if you read their work, you can read about the science of what happens physically in the body and specifically in the brain when one is technically dead or when one is in a vegetative state. That’s not what I want to talk about here either, though, but I will pause and recommend two books that I’m in the middle of reading:
I haven’t finished either yet but they are fascinating and indicative of a lot more scientific interest in this topic than I had realized existed. If you’re reading this in Milwaukee, I can tell you that yes, the Milwaukee Library has them: check CountyCat.
There are also lots of scientists, serious ones, who believe in a God: according to a 2009 Pew survey, about half of scientists believe either in God (33%) or in some form of higher power (18%).
But that’s just about belief in deity, right? And I have found that many people who believe in a “higher power” nevertheless don’t believe it affects them in their daily lives–they profess this ONE wildly unlikely (in my opinion) belief in an omniscient omnipotent being, and then at the exact same time, regard it as ridiculous to believe in the consciousness of trees, rocks, and the dead (all of whom at least can provide evidence of their existence either now or at least at some point in time, putting them one up on the monotheistic God, if you ask me, which, in fairness, you didn’t). Many people who believe in a higher power simply regard that belief as abstract and irrelevant to the lives they lead and the world they live in.
Let’s set aside ALL of that and get a little more personal. You are a person. You make decisions, conscious ones, in your life. You experience inspiration and you form aspirations. You laugh, which implies a certain perspective and the ability to see multiple perspectives simultaneously. You probably even love. All of these activities, and likely even your thinking, I would argue, are influenced by a large dollop of spirit. Yes, the neurotransmitters in your body affect your feelings, and your hormones probably contribute to your feelings of romantic love. But do you really think that you are programmed to act and react in certain ways by the combination of your genetic makeup and your upbringing? Or do you recognize within yourself a certain unique tendency to make your own decisions that may not match your genetic background or your upbringing? If you have ever laughed, you have placed yourself outside a situation so that you could see the inherent absurdity of it. Did you ever wonder how you did that?
Did you ever get angry over politics (either nationally, locally, or even office politics)? Why? Did your neurotransmitters tell you to? Or did something else rise up in you to protest a perceived injustice?
Did you ever make a decision that could have gone either way? What in you caused you to go one way and not the other? If you are purely material, shouldn’t you really make the same sorts of decisions consistently?
If you are purely material, why exactly do you love? What is the actual nature of your relationship with the people you love? What exactly do you love in those people? Is it their material bodies? Is it the common thread of experience that runs through their lives even as their bodies experience cell death and eventually are entirely replaced with different cells?
What is the nature of your experience when you dream and how do you explain it?
I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I don’t care what you think (I learned that from JP). What I am saying is that these ARE interesting questions to think about. And it’s not scientific to say, “let’s don’t think about spirit.” The scientific thing to do is to examine the evidence, not to dismiss it out of hand. We don’t all have the resources to conduct a large scale study of consciousness, but we can certainly examine our own consciousness. We may be only an n of 1, but we can still ask ourselves: why did I do that? why do I love this person? why am I outraged by that behavior? why did I laugh at that?
I know we’re not objective when we study ourselves. Tough shit. We have to do the best we can. That’s what scientists do as well. Science is not lacking in subjectivity. It just tries to be aware of possible sources of bias and to address or adjust for them. So yeah, when you examine your own mind, I’m expecting you to do likewise.
Who ARE you? What are you actually made of?
I mean we know that you’re an ecosystem made of many other organisms. We also know that you’re made of atoms that are constantly in motion even when you think you’re sitting still.
Are you even sure that you are a person? If you are, what does that mean?
See, these are all questions that need to be examined before you can say, “Consciousness? That’s the one thing that we don’t know what it’s made of and we don’t know where it goes when you die, even though all the other components of your existence go to places that we can identify.”
If you’re thinking, “Consciousness? We can’t measure it so it doesn’t exist,” then you’re being illogical, because we can’t measure it while you’re alive either, so perhaps you’re not conscious now.
If you’re thinking, “Consciousness is not a noun, it’s a verb, it’s brain activity,” then I think that’s a promising direction of thought, but it doesn’t explain how your brain can cease to be active and then become active again (as in the case of a near death experience) without you losing your sense of identity.
Either way, my point is, we can’t address the question of whether the dead are conscious (and therefore reachable to have a dialogue with) adequately unless we first address the question of whether WE, the living, are.
Prove to me that YOU exist, living readers. 🙂
This is the latest in my Notes on Grief series. You can find the past posts here: