Biology doesn’t end when we die, so Mindful Biology must on occasion deal with life’s end. By necessity, considering what happens after death, beyond the inevitable bodily decay, is mere speculation. But even wild imaginings can have value, if they force us to look at topics we might otherwise avoid. In that spirit, I’m posting a revised version of an essay written four years ago on Easter Sunday, as a riff on death’s possibilities.
Death? With possibilities? This seems an oxymoron. Isn’t death the end of possibility?
Obviously, not all traditions believe so, and writing about the subject brings one into hazardous territory; almost any discussion about death is doomed to raise hackles on the necks of either spiritualists or atheists, or both
For fun, let’s begin with the supposition that every spiritual and philosophical tradition offers a glimpse of truth, however clouded in myth or superstition. At the same time, let’s stipulate that none enjoys undisputed authority (except amongst its adherents). With those starting points, let us piece together a coherent whole from what comes to us via sages, saints, shamans, philosophers, and ordinary humans throughout the ages. We can also use our own experiences of transcendence, even if brief or uncertain, in building up the picture.
Most spiritual traditions believe in something that survives death. Either this persisting self is assumed to depart the material plane for an ethereal realm (such as heaven), or else it is thought to reincarnate in a new body. Ghostly persistence in the ordinary world is usually seen as problematic, and many cultures employ rituals to deliver ancestral spirits to their proper home, away from the living. But even here there are variations, with some groups honoring their ancestors as near and available.
My knowledge about comparative religion is minimal, but even this incomplete sketch shows three different putative fates of the soul: heaven (or its counterpart hell), reincarnation, and persistence among the living. A skeptic would point to these contradictory beliefs to argue that death is simply the end of consciousness, and that talk of life after death is wishful at best and delusional at worst.
But I see things differently. When I encounter seemingly irreconcilable ideas, each embraced by one or more ancient and inspired traditions, I try to imagine what sort of universe would accommodate them all. How could spirits simultaneously move into an ethereal field of existence, populate the next generation of humanity, remain nearby to guide the living, and seem completely imaginary, all at the same time?
What follows is speculation offered in a spirit of creative inquiry. Granting that no one can know the answer for sure, we can have fun playing with the possibilities.
Suppose human consciousness is more like a turbulent fluid than a collection of discrete, particulate souls. Perhaps I embody not a solid soul named Will, but a temporary aggregate of conscious fluid that has built a persistent (but not permanent) identity. Buddhists view consciousness something like this, but to my knowledge they don’t take it in the direction I’m planning.
Suppose, after death, a little bit of this fluidic eddy named Will enters a human soon to be born, a little drifts into contact with the greater sea of awareness (heaven?), and a little remains in proximity to those held dear. In other words, post-mortem fate isn’t single, it’s multiple. This view is consistent with what we see in biological life: a robust mixing and flowing of matter, energy, and information. A body decomposes; it’s resources get used by creatures large and small as life moves on.
Such an organic afterlife would accommodate some key religious beliefs, but also some skeptical ones. Over time, with all this separating, diffusing, and mingling, the entity Will must cease to exist. In that sense, death is a process that ends in a permanent loss of identity. The skeptic, of course, would insist death is rapid, that consciousness is lost soon after the brain loses blood flow. Even so, an organic afterlife does keep in play the very rational notion that an eternal soul seems counter to the way nature works. Nothing around us is permanent; even the planet has an expiration date, some five billion years hence. Why should a soul last forever?
Why should Will be immutable when nothing else is? The ‘stuff’ of my body will separate and recycle, so why not the ‘stuff’ of my soul? On Earth as it is in Heaven, and in Heaven as it is on Earth. The skeptic has a point: eternal souls seem counterintuitive.
We could speculate further, and imagine the soul-aggregate can influence which path is taken (a version of this idea forms the core of the Tibetan Book of the Dead). A person with strong familial ties among the living might, at first, remain largely concentrated nearby. A soul-aggregate with many loved ones already departed might flow into the Great Mix, in essence joining those who have gone before. A soul-aggregate excited about life, and displeased with its ending, might focus on rebirth. A person tired of living might opt for maximal dispersion; death as the true end of that stream. Who knows?
Certainly, I’m not claiming knowledge. But if we start with the premise that most spiritual and philosophical traditions possess part of the truth, if we don’t reject the ones we dislike as irreparably mired in superstition, then this model of the afterlife is a reasonable synthesis. It incorporates the common themes in religious thinking, and it echoes the way of nature, wherein resources get broken down, mixed, and recycled, over varying spans of time.
How could this comfort the bereaved spouse, or child, or parent? Imagine a mother, who died with young children, for a time remaining near her offspring and husband. Later, part of her moves on to try life again, entering a new family. Another part goes further, easing into a realm of pure consciousness, timeless and unperturbed, eventually to be reunited with all the soul-stuff that remains behind. Perhaps death isn’t an absence of possibilities; perhaps it’s an abundance of them. As eons pass, the remainder of the mother’s self dissolves. Its ingredients mix with those of others, and all distinct traces of her vanish. I find this outlook sweet and reassuring, as odd as that might sound.
While slow dissipation and recycling would undermine our sense of permanent identity worthy of preservation, it does offer the consolation that death wouldn’t be the bleak end we fear. We’d have to give up notions of both immortality and mortality, for something in between.
This isn’t purely an intellectual exercise for me. In the course of meditation and occasional experiences of transcendence, some of these ideas emerged as strongly felt realizations, not through ordinary-process thought. They don’t just strike me as reasonable possibilities, they feel like direct truth. This view of death makes sense to my mind, heart, and soul (or soul-aggregate).
But this is not science, and I could be wrong. The notions lie beyond reach of solid proof, no matter how well they match the way the natural world operates. I offer them publicly only because they seem worth considering, not least because they partly bridge the gap between contradictory viewpoints held by those of different religious persuasions, including atheists. If people could be convinced to consider them without prejudice, they might help soften some controversy.
Note: The above speculations assume that human consciousness can persist in some form after death. Although I’m assuming this for the sake of argument, I’m not convinced.
Mechanisms that might support conscious persistence are currently unknown to science, though some adventuresome thinkers (such as Irvin Laszlo) have offered plausible-sounding preliminary models. Despite a serious explanatory gap, there are ample reasons for suspecting consciousness might have a role after death. There is, after all, a very long history of such thought, bolstered by many phenomena that seem difficult to explain any other way. And while there are obvious cases of hallucinations, dreams, and frauds, I’m not ready to consign the entire notion to the dustbin because of mistakes and trickery. Any reasonable person who explores the available information with true objectivity must end up at least a little open to the idea that some aspect of consciousness can reach from beyond the curtain of death. What I’ve presented above takes continuing consciousness seriously, and then explores how it might behave post-mortem so as to synthesize different forms of the afterlife.
Having written all this, I must still admit to a great deal of uncertainty, as is likely to be the final position of anyone who looks at this issue without bias.