Yet again I was inspired by a YouTube video to blog. This time I will be talking about death and dying.
In the video, Jason Silva briefly talks, among other things, about the stress that the idea of one’s own mortality brings to a person. He ends the video by saying that the only way out of this stress is to live a lie. This I have to disagree with. Some time ago, I came to the conclusion that, after various considerations, death all of a sudden didn’t seem like such a scary concept anymore. Mind you, I’m talking about the actual dying, not any suffering that comes before it, and not the worry of what suffering it might bring to one’s loved ones either. It was the dying itself that lost some of its distressing nature for me, and this mostly came from my thinking about rather different (or are they) topics such as teleportation and sleep.
Let’s start with teleportation. As Sheldon Cooper – pardon, Dr. Sheldon Cooper – says in the episode “The Jerusalem Duality” (and I’m paraphrasing), breaking a person down in one location and building them up again in another location is not actually teleporting the person. It’s destroying and rebuilding the person. Even I, who believe that consciousness essentially comes from nothing but the physical processes of the brain, had some trouble with that notion. This is strange, because the physical processes of the brain are retained; they are just moved from one place to another. So I began to think about it, trying to identify the source of my discomfort.
The most obvious answer is that it might be that while the sensation of consciousness comes from the processes of the brain, it still requires a certain continuity. That is, perhaps your consciousness is removed, and another consciousness exactly like yours is recreated, rather than your own consciousness simply changing places. Of course, the new consciousness couldn’t possibly tell whether it itself is an entirely new consciousness, or just the old consciousness continued (and for it, it really doesn’t matter), but that’s not to say it wouldn’t matter for the old consciousness. And that old consciousness is who ‘you’ are at the moment before teleportation! It stands to reason that consciousness would think twice about stepping into that teleportation machine (of course it has to be something you step into). Thus, even after making absolutely sure I wasn’t just accidentally thinking of consciousness as something supernatural, outside and independent of the brain, intuitively, against all my sense of logic, I was still left with a reason to be apprehensive about teleportation. At least as it relates to teleportation of this kind, involving destruction and reconstruction.
However, I ended up integrating another concept into this thought process: that of the “arrow of time”, as discussed by Sean Carroll in this wonderful two-part video (accessed here via TED.com). According to this hypothesis, the reason we experience our consciousness as a continuous flow over the passage of time, is that from one point in time t to the next point in time t+1, the entropy increases, and the moments seem to link up because there’s a causal link between them. You could imagine the universe not as a three-dimensional place, but a four-dimensional one, with one three-dimensional state for each moment in time, and you are present in some subset of these states, with a different set of thoughts at each moment. Perhaps you don’t really exist as a continuous presence, you’re just a collection of states linked together through causality and entropy. When you think about it, the only moment you ever really experience is the moment of now, this very instant. Who’s to say there was anything before it, and there will be anything after it?1
By this line of thinking, consciousness seems to become even more of an illusion than it already was according to physicalism. The sense and memory of what has come before, after all, is such an integral part of consciousness. And in this way, certainly, there could be no more objection to teleportation, assuming that that entropy-/causality-type link will exist regardless of space. Although perhaps you don’t want to assume this, at which point you still wouldn’t want to step in a teleporter. In fact, I probably would still think twice, myself. Who’s to say any of this is actually true, after all? Still, it’s a nice way of thinking about it, in my opinion. A similar line of reasoning could work in favor of deciding to preserve your body using cryonics.
Let’s think further about the nature of consciousness and the continuity of it, however. After all, it’s not that uncommon for us to suspend our consciousness, at least the most common form of it; most of us do so every night. Yet we don’t tend to feel like something gets lost when we fall asleep, and when we wake up, we go on as before. You could argue that this is a different case, as you’re never actually breaking the spatial continuity of the pattern of neurons firing in your brain. There’s also the fact that this firing is still going on in the first place, and we can even still be said to have some sense of awareness as we sleep, at least throughout parts of it. All this is true, but again: It’s a neat thing to think about.
Ifs and buts aside, these sorts of thoughts have allowed me to approach the notion of death – my own death, that is – in a much pleasanter light. For one thing, consciousness no longer seems like such a definitely existent thing to be preserved desperately. For another, I have been reinforced in my idea that there’s nothing after death.3
There is, however, one more reason why I no longer seem to experience quite as much of that stress from mortality that Jason Silva mentioned, a reason which stems from experience, rather than contemplation. Now, I haven’t had a near-death experience or anything quite like that, but I’ve experienced something qualitatively similar recently when I was sick with the flu or something of that nature. At that particular time, I found myself in the bathroom quite frequently, suffering through all sorts of unpleasantries; I was in there once again, when I suddenly found myself feeling quite weak and drowsy. I leant against the wall and closed my eyes, and it was as if I was about to pass out. The thing is, it felt just like the moment shortly before falling asleep, and it was very nice. This first made me really understand what people mean when they say that dying feels agreeable, and believe them when they say so.
In the end, dying is really just a moment – before it, you’re just alive; after it, you’re just gone – and it might in itself even be a comfortable feeling. There is, of course, the issue of suffering that could come before, but that in itself should be no different from suffering you’re going through at other times, like when you’re sick the way I was when I had that epiphany. I imagine when the time comes, if I am so unlucky to go through suffering before my moment, I will get through it the same way I get through suffering as it comes along currently: by realizing it’s a finite amount of physical discomfort, and that’s all it is. Sometimes I can even kind of take myself, that is, my consciousness, away from it, and just leave it going on the background while I’m off, perhaps not entirely elsewhere, but enough so for it to become quite bearable. It’s probably presumptuous of me to speak of it in these terms, since I’m lucky enough not to have experienced any serious, long-lasting physical suffering. I recognize this, and there’s other things to be said about this (as well as about saying goodbye to/worrying about loved ones after you die), but in the end, that’s not what this blog entry is about. For myself, I feel glad to have at least, for now, tackled one of the stressors that surround the idea of one’s own death – albeit perhaps not perfectly. I hope others will be inspired by this, or find their own ways of dealing with it.
Let me end on a very different note by saying that I have the best family thinkable. Here I was, just going about my daily business, when all of a sudden a package gets delivered from my parents’ place, containing various items, snacks, useful paraphernalia… and a small box whose associated message said (in Dutch, of course, except for the last four words), “And When It Gets To Be Too Gloomy, Look In The Box” and which contained some pictures of my family and cats. Thanks, you guys – I love you.
1 This is actually perhaps my only problem with the talk Sean Carroll gives here. I think it’s a mistake to so casually discount the possibility of our universe, or rather, our consciousness, coming into existence as a coincidental meeting of atoms (or whatever actually exists in whatever universe in which we’re ‘coming to life’)2 that gives rise to our consciousness for an instant. He says the reason this is easy to discount, is that it is disproved all the time – every next moment we experience, where everything doesn’t again fall apart into chaos, destroying our consciousness after that one moment, gives evidence that there actually is a world supporting that consciousness, keeping it in place. However, who’s to say these other moments are there? Again, all we’re ever really sure of is the instant in which we exist. Sure, there’s no practical reason for us to factor this into the way we live our lives, but the philosophical idea isn’t so easily discredited, I feel.
2 I say “whatever actually exists”, because that needn’t be atoms or anything similar to what we know in the universe we’re aware of, in this scenario. Our conception of the universe would simply be part of the consciousness as it randomly comes to be. The universe in which this happens could have any number of forms, so long as it allows for the existence of that sort of instantaneous consciousness.
3 Of course, it’s possible that the idea of this, assuming you believe it to be true, actually frightens you more than anything. But to that I would ask: What is frightening about nothing? You couldn’t possibly experience it, so there’s no reason to fear it. I suppose that’s a very rational argument to a rather emotional response, so it might not be useful to you… but to me, it was.