Having given up a belief in resurrection, physical immortality, eternal soul, or living on through my works, I've settled on another approach for dealing with my eventual demise:
Not being me.
Now, some will say, "That's Buddhism 101." Sort of true. Anatta, not-self, is indeed a core Buddhist concept. But I'm lazy.
Buddhists, including those of the Zen variety, go through a heck of a lot of effort to realize that the entity striving to become enlightened doesn't exist. My feeling is, why not simply begin and end with the nothing-much-of-anything that I am?
Done. Finis. Enlightenment trophy, please.
There's no me who is living, so there's no me who is going to die. Or, to become immortal. So the whole problem of What Happens to Me after Death is irrelevant, since there is no me (or you, of course) before death.
Neuroscience is a great way of overcoming the illusion of me-ness. We humans certainly feel we're in charge of ourselves, which implies there are selves we can be in charge of.
However, neuroscientific evidence strongly points to no "ghost in the machine," as Gilbert Ryle famously put it.
Meaning, each of us is deterministically connected with the world, including other people. This doesn't mean we are machines. Just that we're not free-floating, freely-willing soul "ghosts" separate from the physical body.
In his book Who's in Charge? (subtitle: free will and the science of the brain), neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga asks an excellent question. "What do we want to be free from?"
Again, we feel like we have free will. It seems like I can freely choose what I'm going to write in the next moment. It seems like you can freely choose to continue reading this post, or to head off to another corner of cyberspace.
Questioning the reality of free will is threatening to most people.
Something bothers us about the notion (which almost certainly happens to be reality) that goings-on in the brain are determined by processes outside our conscious control, and that mind/brain are different aspects of the same physical entity, both governed by the laws of nature.
Yet Gazzinaga says, persuasively:
What does it mean to really talk about free will? "Ah, well, we want to be free to make our own decisions." Yes, but what do we want to be free from?
We don't want to be free from our experience of life, we need that for our decisions. We don't want to be free from our temperament because that also guides our decisions. We actually don't want to be free from causation, we use that for predictions.
A receiver trying to catch a football does not want to be free from all the automatic adjustments his body is making to maintain his speed and trajectory as he dodges tackles. We don't want to be free from our successfully evolved decision-making device.
What do we want to be free from?
How about... nothing.
The nothing-separate that is "me" doesn't want to be free of all that I'm connected with. Not that I have a choice in the matter. Life depends on others: energy, food, water, shelter, love, friendships, giving, taking, relating.
Yet mind-body dualists in general, and religious believers specifically, view this world as constraining us, enslaving us, restricting us. This is how the notion of a hideous problem with all existence arises, the subject of a previous post.
Religions want us to believe that something or someone is keeping us from an ideal state of divine freedom. "The Devil made me do it."
Or if not the Devil...
A fall from heaven
Since we're supposedly trapped, we need someone to save us. A...
But then we come back to Gazzinaga's question: What do we want to be free of?
I haven't finished his book, so I can't confidently relate his answer. However, some reviewers have given me a peek into the final chapters, as have clues in what I've read so far.
Gazzinaga doesn't think we're looking upon "free will" in the correct fashion. The way we're looking at this issue is preventing us from understanding what reality really is. It's sort of like understanding that the Earth is round, not flat.
Everyday personal experience isn't going to do us much, if any, good. We can walk to the ends of the Earth. It still will look flat to our eyes. Not long ago, people were afraid they'd fall off the edge of the flat Earth if they went too far.
No amount of introspection (looking within) or extrospection (looking without) will lead to genuine understanding if we're looking in the wrong way with a limited perspective.
The scientific method -- in this case, the methods of neuroscience -- are able to correct individual misunderstandings through careful experiments and explanations. Reading Gazzaniga's book, along with others, I can realize how faulty my feelings about free will are. I can see through the illusions of everyday life, where I believe that a single entity, mysteriously named Me, is controlling what I do with my body/brain.
I seek to be free of... what? For most of my life I never seriously considered that question. I just assumed that something was holding me back from being all that I could be.
With age, and hopefully a bit more wisdom, I've come to understand that the whole notion of a Search for Freedom/Liberation was off the mark. I never was enslaved. Religions want us to believe that we are because they're in the business of selling Get Out of Jail permission slips.
Religions are excellent at marketing. They help create a demand for an illusory product aimed at solving a non-existent problem. Unfettered free will isn't possible, nor is it desirable. Neither is separating mind from body, or soul from materiality.
The key is understanding that the me each of us wants to be free doesn't exist.
This is the illusion that humans daily entertain: we are the masters of our domain, aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
In fact, the illusion that we’ve got a unified operation inside our heads, running the show, is so thorough-going that “even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game.”
So it’s not that Gazzaniga denies the unseen forces that influence all of our actions and moods and impulses. Instead, he challenges the concept of free will as we know it.
“In traditional philosophy, free will is the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice that is not determined by physical forces, fate or God,” he reminds us.
In this view, implicitly, it’s possible to subtract away these external factors—"physical forces, fate and God"—and be left with an essential self, a free-wheeling agent.
But, Gazzaniga argues, neuroscience has dispelled the myth of such a self, of such a “you.” The brain, composed of all kinds of decentralized circuits that work in tandem, has no central command center.
“There is no ghost in the machine, no secret stuff that is YOU.”
“Prior to the startling advances of neuroscience, explanations of mechanisms were unknown. Today they are. Today we know we are evolved entities that work like a Swiss clock.”
It’s no longer useful to ponder the question of free will as such because neuroscience has changed the very meaning of the question. Accordingly, the mind develops ideas and beliefs that then influence the brain, which in turn influences the mind. It’s a constant back and forth. It’s dynamic.