Why does the notion of a continuing existence after physical death seem a weird concept to many people? Our continued existence itself isn’t a weird notion. So long as we continue to exist, it’s perfectly normal to do that. It’s the ‘after physical death’ part that’s weird. It’s weird because we’ve never done it (knowingly at any rate), we have no idea how it could work, and because the thought of it is kind of scary and spooky. (We’re talking about death, which, for a lot of people, is taboo, sacrosanct, or just plain unthinkable.)
More precisely, we’ve gotten so used to sharing our conscious existence with physical things, that it seems neither sensible nor even possible that we could exist consciously without physical things. (A physical body; the physical world.) Physical things are kind of built up around our consciousness in layers…starting with our brain cells and other nerve cells, the rest of our body, and then everything else in the world, the solar system, the galaxy and the universe. We’re only consciously aware of a few of these as real things – the nearest and most relevant ones to us – but we’re pretty sure the more distant ones are just more of the same physical stuff.
Where did the notion of an afterlife come from in the first place? It grew along with our consciousness. Hardly a new idea, it occurred to early human beings when they became sufficiently self-aware to get their head around what it meant. (Outside of great apes, dolphins and one or two other species with well developed brains, most living organisms don’t appear to have appreciable levels of what we call conscious self-awareness.)
The big advantage of being consciously self-aware isn’t simply that we know stuff – it’s ‘knowing that we know’. Nothing else we know of besides our own consciousness has this special self-aware ability. Amongst other things, it tells us we have a separate existence from the things around us. (Sounds obvious, but most other organisms are probably unaware there’s a difference between their senses, and what they’re sensing.) But don’t imagine for a moment that same problem doesn’t affect us – some moreso than others. All that makes us different from those simpler organisms is our extra helping of self-aware consciousness.
So our consciousness tells us we’re different from the things around us. (Being consciously aware allows us to identify ourselves as individual personalities in a world where billions of others of our species all do the same.) Consciousness makes each of us aware that we’re unique, and it’s generally assumed that consciousness evolved this way for the sake of genes.
Although we’re probably unaware of it, each of us is working for the good of our own personal genes; we identify ourselves with our genetic bodies and with what evolution designed them to do: replicate and reproduce genes. Conscious self-awareness is our personal viewpoint from where we decide how we want to interact with the world and each other. Our consciousness also informs us that our physical existence (and maybe our conscious existence too) invariably ends in death.
Remember that most organisms are consciously unaware of a difference between themselves and the things around them. (You have to think about that concept a little to appreciate it.) But with evolution and enough consciousness, an organism gradually becomes aware that its sensory impressions are separate from what it’s sensing. As human beings we’ve evolved far enough to take that distinction for granted, but – more weirdness – something else is happening, and not all of us are aware of it. If you think about this, you might realize that your conscious awareness, as non-physical stuff, must be very different than the stuff that makes everything in the physical world. (Including your physical body.)
But how different? And what does this difference mean? What might it make possible? You know what I’m getting at. Maybe it means our conscious self can exist – somehow – after the death of our physical body. Many millions of people hope that’s the case.
Neuroscientists argue that ideas of an afterlife, along with religious notions and God, are a result of the way human beings and their brains have evolved, and are just a product of the same random, chaotic events that brought the universe into existence and drive its evolution. (The universe’s beginnings and most of what happened since sure seem pretty random and chaotic.) And yet here we are, conscious and self-aware. So obviously things aren’t so random and chaotic that they couldn’t create consciousness.
This notion of an ‘organizing agent’ capable of creating conscious self-awareness from within the seemingly random, chaotic universe described by science, would give religious believers sufficient reason to believe in God. (As God, the organizing agent would bring meaning and purpose to everything.)
Scientists also feel a need to find reason and purpose in the way the universe works. But where science diverges from religion is in seeing reason and purpose as emergent properties of our mind; a natural function of our evolution as genetic organisms. They’d say it’s not God’s meaning and purpose, it’s entirely ours. We make connections and seek relationships between things because evolution designed us this way. Just because the universe embodies an ‘organizing agent’ (evolution) capable of creating consciousness, doesn’t mean an intelligent designer is behind evolution, a process that seems perfectly capable of ‘designing’ without being conscious or intelligent. The notion of an intelligent designer merely requires someone capable of thinking up such a notion. (To many, the notion actually implies a lack of intelligence.) Certainly to a rational mind, evolution does appear to be so random and chaotic that the idea of it being ‘designed’ is hard to imagine. The beauty of evolution is in its very unpredictability. And yet to deny the presence of an organizing agent – even in the midst of that random and chaotic unpredictability – would amount to denying the process of evolution itself. The universe, stars, planets, gravity, organisms, our consciousness etc., all exist because of evolution.
Maybe we’re wrong to use words like ‘randomness’ and ‘chaos’ to describe what’s going on. Maybe things only appear that way to our limited human perceptions, which are accustomed to judging things only on the basis of where we’re coming from and what we know.
To a significantly more highly developed consciousness than ours – the kind of consciousness ours will evolve to become in time – what seem to us like random and chaotic events could actually be a superior organizing process.
Think big. Small mindedness isn’t compulsory. Our consciousness appears to have sprung from a process that seems random and chaotic because evolution (as we understand it) takes time. And yet if we could see the evolutionary process speeded up, from a point outside of the temporal dimension (and therefore outside of spatial dimensions too), evolution might appear not as random or chaotic, but purposeful. (Kind of like the Nazca lines become pictures when seen from above.) Or the way the physical forces would be unified in higher dimensional space.
To really test your skepticism quotient, check out Mellen Thomas Benedict, who died and returned to talk about how he was given a guided tour of the cosmos and shown how a new universe is formed, along with other profound stuff.