Up until a couple of years ago, I had a pretty strong conviction that some grand, strange things happen after we die. A sort of ultimate union with the source in which all consciousness become one and individuality and identity are lost forever. I used to imagine it as a grandiose play of bright flowing lights in a space of otherwise black nothingness.
My ideas have changed since. They may change again, and even change back, but as of now they are different. I still don’t know, of course, what really happens after we die. No one really can at the moment, but one possibility I had not considered at all sounds pretty valid to me now.
Have you ever fainted? I have never fainted, but I hear that when you come around, it’s as if you enter into light again from an unmeasured period of complete blankness. As if you had simply left for somewhere. This is different from sleep. We drift off to sleep and drift out of it. We dream in it. I don’t know about others, but I have an approximate sense of time even as I sleep. When I wake up, I can roughly tell how long I’ve been sleeping. I’m more accurate in the order of minutes, and not so much when I’ve been sleeping for hours. But at least the errors are of the same order as that of the duration of sleep. It’s like a CMOS clock that keeps ticking after you turn off your computer. So sleeping is not a complete blank, except in the special case of people with a specific brain injury that renders them incapable of dreaming. They have testified that sleeping for them is a period of complete blankness, which even causes them to always feel unrested.
What is blankness? It will undoubtedly be difficult to describe it, for our language is built with the purpose of communicating conscious experience, which blankness is the absence of. To put it simply though, a period with no conscious experience whatsoever must be a period of blankness. What is it like? Again, by its very definition, it cannot be like anything because you never feel it. You are nowhere when it happens. You just come around later with no memory of it whatsoever. I don’t know if you retain a sense of time passed after you recover from a fainting, but from things I have heard, I don’t think so. It’s as if someone just cuts off the flow of time at one point and stitches it to another point some time down the line, and you miss whatever happened in the story of the universe in the middle.
Thus, blankness is physically achievable, whether via fainting, brain injury, going into a coma, or some other mechanism. Even though it may be an experience many of us have never had and thus cannot even imagine (I don’t think there’s anything to imagine about it even if you’d had it), it is undebatably possible. And people have come back from it and described it as complete blankness, devoid of experience or journeys or revelations or other worlds.
So why isn’t it possible that the experience after death is just that? Just nothingness? It is already evident that spending time without any conscious experience of anything is possible. With death this state just has to continue forever. If it is quite possible for you to ‘be nowhere’, why not in death? Why is it so difficult for some, including my past self, to believe that?
Almost the whole of what we call this enigmatic consciousness is shaped and structured by our raw sensory perception. Our consciousness, supposedly abstract and transcendental of our physiology, nevertheless turns out to be a collection of inward imaginings of various physical stimuli. We can think, you say, which has nothing to do with our senses. But what do we think? We think images, happenings, things in motion, colour and sound, time flowing and events unfolding as we perceive them in our mind through much the same routes that are analogous to our raw physical senses. We cannot imagine feeling a magnetic field or ultraviolet rays or perceiving another thinking mind. No matter how much we claim our consciousness to be transcendental of our physical senses, we cannot imagine any experiences outside the standard sensory perceptions.
If our consciousness, the only kind of consciousness that we all know personally, is thus so tied down to our biology, then when that biology demonstrably stops working at what we know as death, why shouldn’t our first assumption be that consciousness also switches off right there? If a problem with a small part of our physiology can evidently cause us to faint and switch off our consciousness, why should we expect that with absolutely no part of it working any more, we shall have experiences and meet people and go places? That we shall be judged for our actions in our lifetime, and accordingly be sent to different destinations? It sounds just like life all over again, with conscious experiences deriving from the same sensory perceptions we are used to, and logical decision-making abilities, except without the service of any of our physical senses or our brain whatsoever. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t there a problem here? Now think of all the religious war we have fought over the things that supposedly happen once we’re dead and how many consciousness-es we have snubbed out in the process.
The more I think of this, the more my favourite little theory of the grand bright uniting lights falls apart in a hundred sad little pieces. I am known to cause myself these unhappy things, armed with just a keyboard.
But indeed, why are we so easily persuaded to believe that there exists experience after our body has stopped working? Why do we, after an entire lifetime of continuous real-time proof that our consciousness is inseparable from our physicality, expect it to just carry on after death? Is it because we fear nonexistence? I, for one, do. Although I cannot put down simply why one should fear it, it is a deep-seated fear among many. But I have a hunch that it is a baseless, irrational fear. It is not simply a fear of the unknown, as some would opine. I do not, for example, as far as I can tell in my limited self-analysis, have a fear of the unknown. I think it is instead a fear of estrangement, of being torn away from all that we know and love and depend on. Familiar people, things we like to do, and all that we love about the world. These are things that exist, and they will be absent in nonexistence. The only limited substitution we can imagine for nonexistence is thus complete solitude, in a stifling static blackness. But it is, as we see now in the light of the discussion, a false picture. For in nonexistence, one cannot oneself exist. Experiencing nothingness, in the form of static blackness, is not non-experience. If there is no experience, one cannot experience this nothingness either. Thus, there can be no loneliness, no estrangement, no sadness. There can only be nothing. Sadness therefore lies only in our moments of thinking about a false picture of nonexistence, not in nonexistence itself. So what are we finally worried about? Should we worry at all? One moment you’re here and you’re happy with everything around you, the next moment you’re not there, you’re not anywhere. What’s to worry about? It’s completely twisted, this fear and deep sadness that we have built around the prospect of death.
In conclusion, I still don’t know if this is what happens after death, but it sounds like a likely possibility, and also by Occam’s razor I suppose any alternate, more elaborate theories can be dumped in favour of this one. In the end nobody can be sure. But we’ll all find out anyway, won’t we?
What do you think happens after death? Why do you think so? Hit me with your thoughts.