Sunday, November 12, 2006

Googling about the afterlife

I'm always surprised at the number of times a Google hound finds my blog after typing in the search string, "Where do we go when we die?" They usually end up at this post of mine, which probably doesn't reassure them. Most of us would like to believe that something of ourselves is not tied to the material world, that we somehow possess consciousnesses that transcend matter: disembodied minds or spirits or souls that pass on to the next adventure or torment-realm. I can't say whether this is the case, but if I were to guess at the truth of the matter, I'd say that we probably don't move on to what rock singer Prince has termed "the afterworld."

In the above-linked post, I talked about my own disagreement with the Buddhist view that there exists a post-mortem continuity of the aggregates of personality-- a self that is by no means a fundamental self. I agree that there's no fundamental self, but I disagree that experience continues after death. Many modern Buddhists, especially Western ones, probably stand with me on this, so I have to be careful when I say the continuation of the skandhas (aggregates) is "a Buddhist view." I wrote that post two years ago, and have had no reason to change my belief on the matter, though I am open-minded enough to admit that certain possibilities can't be ruled out.

The basic impulse behind the question "Where do we go...?" is the survival instinct, which manifests itself as an attachment to one's "I." This self, which I think I possess or am made of, is too precious let go. Annihilation is a horrible prospect for most of us, which is probably why it's portrayed as a great, yawning Void in existentialist literature-- the horrible chasm into which we must inevitably disappear.

It would be nice, wouldn't it, if death were something like a pleasant dream, or something along the lines of CS Lewis's vision of heaven in his final book of the Narnia series, The Last Battle. I suppose there's a chance this might be so, but I don't really believe that.

Our greatest chance at an afterlife may come if we ever figure out how to digitize consciousness-- make it something downloadable, uploadable, replicable. Think of the many weird directions in which such consciousness could be pulled: once inside the circuitry, simultaneously bound and liberated by the rules of math, limited only by the processing power and storage capacity of whatever device it's placed in, a digitized consciousness could experience weird and wonderful phenomena that simply cannot be conceptualized by an enfleshed human mind: ten-dimensional space, for example. Or being an immense, wispy, twisting fractal creature, moving around and through other fractal creatures. In such a realm, awareness of the larger universe would no longer be tied to the dimensions of one's cyber-avatar, but would instead be instantaneous and simultaneous: the smallest change in this digital realm would be intimately known to us. Imagine retaining a will in such a realm (as a true consciousness would), and possessing the godlike power to transform into any shape-- to be Thought Incarnate: Now, I'm a dragon. Now, I'm a galaxy. Imagine living in a realm stocked with nothing but this type of deity. What would such a place evolve into, as the gods interacted? What new sort of consciousness might emerge from such a crucible?

But... this is all cybernetic. Thought isn't a disembodied phenomenon. Even in the weird world I hinted at above, you'd still have to have hardware, and there would still have to be maintainers-- human or otherwise-- for the hardware, custodians of the stored consciousnesses. And perhaps therein lies the hollowness of my cybernetic heaven: it's not really an escape from the material realm, after all. Such a heaven would be a hell: an eternity of illusory omnipotence and real dependency.

Simple death is better. Embrace your mortality. As one character says in the French movie "Renaissance," "Sans la mort, la vie n'a plus de sens." Without death, life no longer has meaning.


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