I don't like the notion that I'll die one day.
More than the notion, it's the reality of death that produces a sense of unease which varies from mild mostly unconscious anxiety to a strong fearful awareness of impending non-existence.
So I wanted to provide a blog post addendum to my previous "This is it" ponderings. Not really a counterpoint; more like a therapeutic sidebar for those who, like me, enjoy life and don't relish the prospect of losing all trace of conscious existence for eternity.
There's good reason to argue that I can't help myself. No one can. Such is the position of Jesse Bering in his book, "The God Instinct." I just read a positive review in New Scientist which begins and ends with:
Thanks to evolution we naturally expect there to be a god -- or gods -- watching over us. Our brains interpret the world around us in ways that created God; the notion of the divine is "a scratch on our psychological lenses," says psychologist Jesse Bering.
...This fascinating book presents gentle, nuanced but convincing arguments for atheism. Bering knows he can't change the world, though. Thoroughly and permanently removing God from our heads "would require a neurosurgeon not a science teacher," he says.
Well, in my personal evolution I've reached a churchless state where an expectation that god is watching over me has shrunk to near-nothingness.
However, as I just said, there's still a lingering sense (or wish) in me that something conscious and aware exists beyond our commonplace understanding of the physical. Since I now find it extremely difficult to accept that this is a supernatural divine being, I'm left with exploring the furthest reaches of scientific speculation.
Furthest reaches is a big subject. By nature, almost boundless.
So I'll simply throw out a few approaches for allaying a fear of absolute extinction at death that scientifically-minded folks like me can look into. If anyone has additional suggestions, feel free to share them in a comment.
(These approaches are interrelated, but I'll list them discretely.)
Panpsychism. This philosophy posits that "mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe."
Hmmmm.... sounds good. My personal mind doesn't even seem to inhabit the inside of my head all of the time, such as when I absent-mindedly lose a glove.
But given that the laws of nature are ubiquitous and seem to require some sort of awareness among particles of dumb matter/energy to work, panpsychism holds out the hope that whatever my conscious nature is, the universe shares it in some sense.
Against the backdrop of our immense scientific knowledge of the physical world, and the corresponding widespread desire to explain everything ultimately in physical terms, panpsychism has come to seem an implausible view. Nonetheless, the doctrine retains some attractive and interesting features. The recalcitrance of the mind, and especially consciousness, to fit smoothly into the scientific picture recommends our consideration of them.
Along this line, David Chalmers' philosophically sophisticated conception of naturalistic dualism holds that consciousness is an immaterial aspect of the universe which, however, requires physicality to manifest.
This leaves open the possibility that some form of unmanifested consciousness could pervade the cosmos. Not much to hang an awareness continues after death hat on, but it's a lot more likely than a God in heaven.
Consciousness is fundamental. Some aspects of the universe seemingly are irreducible. For example, space and time (or spacetime, as Einstein realized). Consciousness could be another. There's been increasing discussion of the possibility that it is a fundamental property of the universe.
Due to all these difficult problems in studying consciousness, more and more people in the fields of philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and physics began to realize that, just like time, space, mass, and energy, consciousness is a basic property of matter and it is an inseparable part of the universe. Recently, there have been serious discussions on this topic by researchers in mainstream research journals and research conferences. It is a developing trend in research.
Of course, it isn't comforting to me that space as a whole continues even though the space that my body currently takes up becomes available again, or that time as a whole carries on even though my time on Earth ends with my last breath.
The difference, though, is that I am conscious, while I can't say "I am space" or "I am time."
So there's a slight chance that a fundamental aspect of my consciousness still exists after I die, even if the individual aspect disappears when I do. This would be in the philosophical ballpark of Vedanta, which teaches that the personal self is an illusion while the universal Self is all-pervading.
Digital universe. Physicist John Wheeler is famous for his pithy it from bit hypothesis about the ultimate nature of reality. He wrote:
'It from bit' symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.
This mild version of digital physics isn't as enticingly interesting as farther-out speculations. My favorite is that our universe, naturally including us, is a simulated reality.
Specifically, an alien's simulation.
I'm attracted to the idea that my typing I'm attracted to the idea is the result of an amazingly sophisticated (from our technologically crude 21st century earthly viewpoint) digital simulation being run by a highly advanced lifeform.
I almost added "in our universe," but if our universe is a digital simulation, the creator of it likely exists somewhere completely beyond our understanding.
In the October 2010 issue of Scientific American magazine, the article The (Elusive) Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow tells us that ”If aliens did enforce consistent laws, we would have no way to tell that another reality stood behind the simulated one”.
I guess the appeal of this notion is similar to that of a central Buddhist tenet: what we call "me" doesn't really exist.
In Buddhism believing in an independent self is considered to be a wrong view of reality. But if the entire universe has been fabricated by an alien civilization, then all of our understandings about ourselves and the cosmos are widely off the mark.
So if it happens that I don't really exist as the entity I consider myself to be, what am I losing when I die? Instead of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, it's bits of information to bits of information.
It has long been recognised that technical civilisations, only a little more advanced than ourselves, will have the capability to simulate universes in which self-conscious entities can emerge and communicate with one another.
They would have computer power that differed from ours by a vast factor. Instead of merely simulating their weather or the formation of galaxies, like we do, they would be able to go further and watch the appearance of stars and planetary systems.
Then, having coupled the rules of biochemistry into their astronomical simulations they would be able to watch the evolution of life and consciousness (all speeded up to occur on whatever timescale was convenient for them).
Just as we watch the life cycles of fruit flies they would be able to follow the evolution of life, watch civilisations grow and communicate with each other, argue about whether there existed a Great Programmer in the Sky who created their Universe and who could intervene at will in defiance of the laws of Nature they habitually observed.
Well, if this is true, the bad news is that I've never actually lived. But the good news is that I'll never actually die -- given that I've never been truly alive.
Eternity is mine!