All creatures have an awareness of death due to the innate programming which enables the “fight or flight” response to danger: yet man appears to be the only life-form that concerns itself with the possibility, when no immediate threat exists. This awareness of potential, and inescapable, demise has a profound affect upon humanity. From the creation of pyramids, and graveyards filled with lesser monuments denoting an individual’s existence; to the very structure of society: the obsession with our mortality permeates the lives of everyone.
Mankind’s knowledge of the inevitability of death has likely endured since the evolution of the ability to reason in the abstract, and not surprisingly, man has responded with denial. We cannot accept an end to physical existence, and therefore, create a mystical escape from the reality of the situation. The Neanderthal ritual, of interring the dead along with tools needed in everyday life, shows that they felt the deceased would continue to require these implements. From this point, of our first hard evidence of a belief in an afterlife, the concept has progressively become more complex, with each variant tailored to the differing needs of various segments of the population: none of these ideas based on proof, but all of them the result of fear.
Fundamentally, all faiths believe in reincarnation: whether it be in this world, or in an ethereal location. We can see that the body dies, and remains in the physical world; the animating force is gone. Convincing oneself that existence somehow continues, means having to assign that force somewhere else; therefore, religions generally place this “soul” into a new “container”. Much of the religious community believes that souls are reborn in physical forms: humans, other living things, even inanimate objects. The remainder see the life-force recreated as a perfect ethereal entity, and because any mental acuity lost during life is restored in the new existence, this “spirit” is not the same one which inhabited the body at death.
An interesting twist to physical reincarnation is found in early Buddhism. In this case, one is basically repeatedly condemned to rebirth in human form, until reaching a state of perfection, which then frees a person from existence: becoming one with the universe (or God). Reincarnation, from this perspective, is indicative of failure; and the ultimate reward is the very thing which the common man fears the most: a final end to individuality.
The strangest of beliefs are to be found in the Abrahamic sects. As the ancient religion evolved, it took on the elements of other cultures which promised more in an afterlife. Gradually, the religion fractured into different denominations, leading to the thousands of related faiths that are in existence today. This, of course, means that every variant practices one-upmanship: each pledging ever greater mystical compensation after death. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in a physical human reincarnation, where life continues in a wholesome future Earth: although still having to work for a “living”, you will live forever (and presumably, work forever). The Seventh Day Adventists, in their version, top that by promising financial wealth, including a country estate. Latter Day Saints approach the limits of egoistic rewards, by recreating couples as corporeal gods ruling over, and populating, their very own alien planets.
Human illusions of an afterlife are a reflection of what we know, and what we are; and are confined by the limits of our imagination. To appeal to the broadest base possible, most religions find it necessary to target those who cannot comprehend concepts far removed from everyday life. This results in forms of rebirth that are tainted by anthropomorphism, and restricted by cultural values.
In Western beliefs, sexuality has the greatest impact upon perceptions of immortality. Sects which promise things such as a youthful appearance, material gain, or a perfect body-image; are projecting values that only have significance in mate attraction and selection. In a state where reproduction is no longer an issue, such competition serves no purpose. A cultural aspect of sexual bias is rooted in the attitudes held during the period when their doctrine was composed: in the Judeo-Christian Bible, women are “unclean”, and all angels are male. Even in the Common Era, when ‘Revelation’ was written, the “hundred forty four thousand” people chosen to enter the kingdom of heaven are all virgin males, “not defiled with women”. Contemporary Western religious society wisely learned to ignore this prejudice in their holy books, and avoided alienating half of their potential converts. The Islamic branch of the Abrahamic belief system even has an aspect of “heaven” tailored to the lusts of young men. Muslim terrorist groups use the promise of an afterlife which includes sexual intercourse with a plenitude of virgins, if the man dies in the service of Allah. In the archaic patriarchal culture of fundamentalists this, for males, is their version of paradise.
Hinduism, while believing in reincarnation in animal, as well as human, form, still applies society’s values to rebirth. Your actions in life, being good or evil, determine which creature you are destined to be recreated as (karma). To return as a human signifies that you had good karma, whereas an animal form indicates bad karma. Fundamentally, this comes down to a belief that all animals are born “evil”, and all people are born “good”. Being that evil exists only within mankind and that it is impossible for other living things to be conceptualized as such, this is simply inappropriately projecting human values onto non-human entities.
A widely held theistic belief is that the mystical reward of eternal existence includes the obligation to perpetually praise one’s god or gods. Such a concept inspires two interesting thoughts. First, it suggests that a god possesses an ego which requires positive reinforcement. If such is the case, then it logically follows that the deity is subject to emotional insecurity, otherwise “ego stroking” would be unnecessary; for praise serves a need. To define a god as an unconditionally altruistic entity, one must conclude that the need being fulfilled is that of the worshippers: which is a desire to appease the being they fear. This self-serving act by the “souls” of the dead, should inspire pity in the “heart” of their anthropomorphic deity: for in its purest form, altruism requires no reinforcement.
The second notion evoked by the idea of endlessly praying to a god, is whether spending eternity performing this duty is a reward, or condemnation. What price is too high for immortality? If your sole reason for existence is to forever sing the praises of the entity which enables such an existence, how many centuries must pass before this perpetual servitude becomes a prison you cannot escape?
No particular theistic belief in an afterlife can stand up to close scrutiny, because it is a blind faith in a desperate promise made by others who also fear death. Everything relating to “rebirth” is mere speculation, since nobody can speak from experience. It is counter-productive for a person to devote too much thought toward their religious doctrine pertaining to this matter, because finding flaws may lead to a loss of faith. All followers carry a seed of doubt within themselves, which they dare not allow to germinate. To lose faith is to relinquish hope, and for many, their reason for enduring a life that is perceived as far from ideal.
Although most religions create their vision of “life-after-death” based on criteria which only apply to the physical world we are familiar with, linking to mortal life and culture has serious drawbacks. By envisioning a form of existence limited by our experiences, we make a situation where, over eternity, awareness must ultimately become indifferent. A state will be reached where you exist only for the sake of existing. Without an inevitable end, life is no longer precious, and we lose our motivation, and the potential for growth. Life has meaning and purpose primarily because the opportunity to experience it is finite. We are creatures of passion, and our intense drives are all associated with the fact that, as individuals, we are genetically programmed for death. From a human perspective, physical immortality without goals and dreams, nor risk and the unexpected, eventually becomes purgatory.
Creating images of existence beyond death, without requiring any evidence to support such claims, means that all such beliefs are equal. Because every vision is founded only on faith, with no empirical connection to reality, anything we can imagine is just as valid as every other existing belief. To demonstrate how far this can be taken, let us recall a fundamental philosophical truth: nothing beyond this moment of your unique cognizance can be proven to exist. Therefore, if you alone may exist, and all else is simply an illusion created by your awareness: death is unreal. There is only the universe created by you, as an entity; everything seemingly having substance only because you believe it does. Since the passage of time is just your perception of such, a “lifetime” may be infinite.
Using this same philosophical concept, we can suggest that your “life” consists of an instant, where all memories are an illusion, and the universe wholly exists for that moment of self-awareness. It cannot be proven otherwise, and you cannot apply physical laws to dispute it, because physics only has meaning within your imaginary reality.
Further scenarios can be developed by venturing into the realm of Cartesian Dualism, where the mind (or soul) is entirely independent of the corporeal world: a viewpoint held by most religions. If the soul is eternal, how would we establish that anything exists beyond our own consciousness, and is there any reason for the material universe we perceive, to exist at all? If there is a physical world in which our soul temporarily resides, then how could we be sure of our transition from it, to an ethereal form? Perhaps upon death our awareness then creates the illusion of an ongoing life, blocking out the memory of the moment of physical demise. Perhaps you physically perished decades ago, and all of this is merely a fabrication of your “mind”.
What do we really know about death? From the perspective of the living, it is impossible to know what it is to be deceased. So-called “near death experiences” are just that: near to death, not gone and returned. The similar hallucinations, such as a bright light, reported during severe trauma have been adequately explained by several studies as having a physiological cause, and have nothing to do with the end of life. Actual death is irreversible and other terms, such as “technically dead”, only refer to reversible states, which have little in common with the absolute form.
The most interesting aspect of what is known about mortality has to do with the relationship between the mind and the body. The essence of who we are, our personality, resides in the brain. When the electrical activity in the brain stops, that person ceases to be, even though medical science is often capable of keeping the physical body alive. On the other hand, if the body is severely damaged and unable to function, the electrical force in the brain comes to an end. This indicates that your “soul” consists of energy, and requires that the cellular community, which makes up your body, be functional; otherwise your consciousness cannot exist within it. The life-force within each of your cells can continue on without “you”, provided basic needs are supplied; but society sees no purpose in maintaining this empty shell that is a person in appearance alone.
Brain injury can often destroy the memories of past experiences, and lead to a dramatic change in an individual’s behaviour. Damage can also cause the loss of innate abilities. This is because the information that makes you the person you are is stored in specific locations within your brain, which means that the empirical and instinctive components of your personality are dependent upon particular groups of brain cells. The mind as a whole is the sum of its parts, and can be considered separately from the body, however, the constituents which enable the mind to be weighed as a complete entity unto itself are inseparable from the physical: destroy a significant portion of the knowledge held by the brain, and the “person” who existed prior to the injury is dead, regardless of how long the post-trauma individual lives on. You are the sum of all of your experiences, and eons of innate programming: it is this unique combination of every detail of the past which defines your soul, and the physical body is a vehicle for this consciousness.
Anencephalic infants are those that are born without a brain: both cerebral hemispheres and the cerebellum are missing, and only the brainstem is usually present. Although normally aborted, some have been born and allowed to perish. Considerable debate has gone on surrounding the prospect of using these infants as living organ donors; keeping them alive in order to provide body parts needed by other newborns. The quandary is how society defines life and death. In some jurisdictions, the lack of higher brain function means that anencephalic infants are legally, although not physiologically, dead. Other Local Authorities consider them to be alive because the brainstem regulates their autonomic system: meaning that their bodies are capable of self-regulation; and in some cases, innate knowledge such as suckling, is present. Here we have a living organism that is genetically human, yet it is incapable of consciousness, dreaming, or feeling pain. In legal terms, the infant is a human life in that it cannot be directly killed once it is born, yet at the same time it is not considered human because the basic requirements for survival can be withheld in order to cause its death. These babies have no personal awareness: in other words, they do not possess a soul, and demonstrate that what we judge to be a human spirit does not exist without the presence of a brain.
Consciousness is detectable energy dependent upon mass. The fact that said consciousness can be fractured through the segregation of the mass, suggests that it cannot exist as a whole, unless the mass does as well. Energy and mass cannot be created or destroyed, only changed. Therefore we can conclude that upon death, the energy that is your soul changes into another form, because the mass (brain matter) which enables its specific structure has changed; this is verified by the fact that we can no longer measure the consciousness as an electrical force after a person’s demise, nor do we see evidence of any electrical disturbance separate from the body. Since systematic disruption of the brain leads to a progressive destruction of individuality, as the components of one’s consciousness are lost; we can conclude that death is a loss of the “sum of awareness”. Logically nothing is truly instantaneous, for even a nuclear detonation over an apple will vaporize the stem before the base; so technically, death is always a “dismantling” of the mind.
Can we therefore conclude that an afterlife does not exist? No, because such a conclusion would be based entirely on physical laws, and we cannot categorically state that physics applies to something ethereal, while lacking empirical evidence either way. However, we can use inductive reasoning to suggest that individuality does not persist after death. The fact that brain damage can result in a partial loss of identity, and because your mental faculties begin to steadily decline from your thirties on, due to an ever decreasing number of brain cells; shows that a portion of the force that is your soul has left your physical body. Since this fragmentation applies right up to the moment of death, with pieces of the mind failing prior to the extinguishing of the final spark of life, we can conclude that the final brain cell contains the innate knowledge programmed into every cell, but almost nothing pertaining to the individual.
To decide that the components of your personality somehow reassemble after your demise requires the capability of this energy to “wait around” for the missing pieces. How would we accommodate for the reality that we are the sum of our experiences and genetics to this moment in time? Any part of our awareness that is separated from the whole would cease to evolve. Since we are constantly changing, a portion of our consciousness from the past is no longer “us”, it is a part of the person we once were. To allow for the religious concept of rebirth requires the magical intervention of mystical beings, which reincarnate the soul in a form acceptable to the followers: not old, handicapped, or mentally diminished; but as the entity the devotees wish to be, not as they were at death. This, of course, is assuming that human individuality beyond life would have some sort of significance to such gods. In a universe full of an infinite number of things, this would seem to be a wishful and narcissistic attitude.
What of such things as spirits and ghosts? In Western religions, their doctrine states that no one has been reformed from the dead, and will not be until their “judgment day”; while in Eastern beliefs, individuality is eliminated or diminished upon death. If ghosts were to exist, as representations of the dead, then the billions of people who have passed away would so crowd the world that they should be quite commonplace.
Dealing with mortality causes considerable distress to many people. Although everyone is aware that all living things ultimately must die, most suffer greatly when someone dear to them passes away, or age and/or a serious medical condition forces them to face their own impending doom. Some individuals fear the pain of death, yet obviously death itself cannot be painful, only the events leading up to it. The signals sent to the brain indicating physical damage cause the sensation of pain; when the mind ceases to function, these signals are no longer received. Bodily pain, after the fact, exists only as an abstract perception and cannot be relived, so even for those who believe that they are reincarnated in much the same form as they are in now, the discomfort is part of being alive, not dead. Physical pain occurs only among the living, and death is an absence of it.
Some members of organized religions fear a manner of eternal suffering being imposed upon them in an afterlife, due to the sins they have committed during their lives. Fortunately most of the belief systems, which use absolute forms of reward and punishment to condition their followers, are moving away from such doctrine. It is apparent, with people who are afraid of a vengeful god, that their faith is not so strong as to encourage them to simply change their ways. In reality, individuals who truly believe in their church’s dogma should look forward to their opportunity to advance to “paradise”, and be happy for those who have gone before them.
There are people who judge a life by its length, and we have all heard the elderly say such things as “he was so young”, when referring to the passing of someone in their fifties. To a young person, being over fifty is old, because the perception of life-span is relative. Not long ago, life expectancy was less than sixty years, and for almost all of the two million years of human existence, people did not live beyond thirty years of age. Some life-forms exist only for a day, while others for centuries; yet all live a full life-span because every species has its genetically programmed limitations, and every individual member of a species is predetermined to meet its end at a specific moment in time due to cause and effect. Any particular person’s life is neither too long nor too short, but exactly what it was destined to be.
When we mourn the death of someone we care about, what we are really doing is mourning our own loss. Whereas the deceased is presumably no longer concerned with the affairs of the corporeal world, we are left with a void in our lives which will always be there. This sense of self-pity can be devastating, particularly for males; the death rate for men soars immediately following the demise of a spouse, and gradually tapers off over time (there is no corresponding phenomenon among women). Such a trend is an excellent example of how important attitude is to one’s life. If you cannot cope with the loss of someone, it will have a negative impact upon your physical, as well as mental, health; and increase the likelihood of your own death. Your inability to deal with the situation will influence others who share your grief, and you may add to the decline of those who are also emotionally connected to the deceased. You have to accept that everyone must one day perish, and rarely at what could be considered as an opportune time, because your realization that death is a natural part of the experiencing of existence allows you to contribute toward the well-being of other survivors, as well as your own. We may always miss the presence of the person who has gone, but our obligation is to the living.
Mankind has reached a point where science has allowed us to extend the human life-span, and work is being done to find a way to turn off the cellular “clock”: the natural programming within a cell which limits its reproductive time, and leads to the eventual end of the entire organism. Nature has also designed a backup system to protect the health of the greater whole, the species, by limiting the fertile period of females. Aside from the obvious dangers of short-sightedly tampering with human genetic programming, while being incapable of understanding the reasons behind the natural order; this attitude of “existence at any price” has already created a soon-to-be realized crisis.
The so-called “Baby Boomers” are now in their fifties, and are making ever-increasing demands upon the medical system. This huge surge in human population travels like a tidal wave through the timeline of the Developed nations, and the members of this group are drawing close to the maximum life-span for people born soon after the Second World War. Major changes in the very structure of Western society will be necessitated by the fact that in another fifteen years, there will be proportionally too few people to financially support the elderly, using the system in place now. When people begin to see the effect of this aging generation, in the only way that appears to concern the majority of First World individuals, which is financially; a debate will ensue over the merits of prolonging the lives of those who are perceived to be nonproductive members of society. If the Western World holds true to form, any possibility of a lightening of the financial burden will be countered by the significance of the “Baby Boomers” as a voting block, and our system will evolve into one which apportions out major medical procedures according to age. Due to the way in which our culture functions, this means that the rich and powerful will still be able to extend their lives for as long as is scientifically possible, while the rest of the elderly will find themselves facing considerably fewer options. The future idea of dealing with a death from aging will be sold on moral grounds, by suggesting that it is ultimately best for future generations, yet fundamentally this approach will be motivated by purely selfish concerns.
Death is a natural and necessary mechanism which renews a species, and permits it to evolve and advance. The greater organism, mankind itself, remains vibrant through this renewal process. The upcoming difficulties which will face the Developed nations, concerning an aging and deteriorating population, must be dealt with on a personal level. As always, this dilemma is the sum of the problems of each individual which, in this case, is accepting personal mortality. Any attempts to impose restrictions upon the life-span of the common person for the alleged “greater good” are valid in principle, but decisions affecting one’s own demise are as personal as is possible. The socio-political determinations that are likely to be made in order to protect the standard of living, while maintaining the status quo, will be based on materialistic, rather than moralistic, criteria. Adjusting our social structure in an egoistic direction will have negative consequences in the future, for many people fail to realize that we are dealing with a temporary phenomenon, and this huge surge in the number of elderly will be followed by a corresponding spike in the death rate; balance will be restored naturally.
I have had the opportunity to objectively observe a number of aged people in Intensive Care Units. Most of these individuals had already undergone numerous medical procedures, and were facing further treatments intended to delay the inevitable. The physical suffering they were experiencing was superseded by their emotional agony. With mental faculties already impaired by the deterioration of mind and body, the numerous drugs used to control their physical pain added to their confused mental state. Truly lucid moments are few, under these circumstances, and the people fluctuate between expressing a desire for death, and periods of intense fear; yet when doctors ask for permission to do additional invasive procedures which are intended only to prolong the suffering, because there is no chance of recovery, the patients always give their consent.
Everyone has a value to mankind. Although people often highly rate a child’s worth, due to positive potential (yet it is just as likely to be negative), the wisdom gained over a lifetime is also precious. Being in the twilight of life does not diminish one’s ability to contribute to humanity, but a point is reached where we cannot experience anything more of value to us as individuals, and the wisdom we have gathered is being lost due to the ravages of time. Even though we may end up in a situation where the inevitability of death becomes an immediate concern, fear causes us to cling to life regardless of the indignities we must endure. It is difficult to comprehend how one can fear our undeniable fate over the prospect of a brief extension filled with suffering, while knowing that death must ultimately win out.
Barring the existence of an anthropomorphic deity who gains pleasure from pointlessly torturing lesser entities, the very worst fate one could face at the end is nothingness: no awareness, sensations, or substance. From this perspective, the very least that death will bring is eternal peace. When we linger in this world beyond what is reasonable, we pointlessly inflict unnecessary torment upon ourselves, and prolong the emotional distress of those who are close to us. We condemn ourselves to a “hell” of our own making.