Sunday, December 03, 2006

Afterdeath (Part 1)

If the fear of death, as it’s been said, is the beginning of wisdom, it has also been, by extension, the cause of much folly.

Since our subjectivity is the one constant of life—the context, as it were, of all experience—it is impossible to imagine its loss. In our imagination, extinction becomes a semblance of night, like being locked in a dark room forever. But of course, being locked in a dark room is still an experience, while extinction is not. The fear of death, then, is different in kind from the fear of pain or any other fear, because of its unimaginable nature.

The ineffable nature of subjectivity, its wondrousness, if you will, lies at least partly in the fact that is not reducible to any experience or object, but is the precondition for every experience of every object. This gave rise to the idea of a spirit, soul, or self—some sort of being-essence that inhabits the body. Human beings could clearly perceive that the body was mortal, but could not accept that the spirit was mortal as well. Indeed, the presupposition of a spirit separate from the body already assumes that the spirit is permanent and the body impermanent, since it is the intuition of unconditioned reality that gave rise to the idea of a spirit in the first place. From this separation, it follows that the spirit survives the body, in other words, the notion of “life after death.”

The argument describes a process founded on human desire and fear. Like all animals, we seek to survive, and we avoid death. With greater awareness, however, comes a more acute form of avoidance: the fear of death as a lasting mental influence rather than just a feeling-reaction in the moment. When human beings became aware of their mortality—not just in times of threat but in all times, as a form of knowledge, and retainable in the memory—they first manifested the signs of culture that we identify as human. And among the earliest such signs, if not the earliest, were burials of the dead and funerary rites.

The ineffable and ungraspable nature of subjectivity, when intuited by a higher (human) level of awareness, leads to the notion of spirit or soul, which simultaneously transforms the instinctual avoidance of death into an emotional and intellectual fear of death. (It is significant that this higher awareness is commonly known as “self-consciousness,” for it involves reflection.) From this fear of death, in turn, is born the notion of life after death.

Although the idea of spirit separate from body does not withstand the scrutiny of scientific reasoning, humans still cling to it because of their fear of death. The idea can’t be disproved empirically, of course (since death is inherently non-empirical), but even the overwhelming power of logical argument will not change anything as long as the fear of death remains a dominant force in culture. The paradox is that many forms of religion have sought to free us from the fear of death, and by various means, even while retaining the assumptions regarding a spirit or soul that end up perpetuating that fear. Those forms of religion and spirituality that honestly seek the truth, therefore, are faced with the necessity of grappling with the idea of spirit, and resolving the contradictions that leave the mass of humanity in bondage to fear.

(This is the first in a series of articles about beliefs concerning survival after death.)

3 comments:

whig said...

Human consciousness is emergent, made up of billions of conscious living neurons and other cells which have their own memories and free will within their own constraints.

Cells die and are replaced, and become part of new organisms, new emergent consciousness, which retains the memory of those cells.

The yeast of life devours us, and makes us what we are. It permeates every part of our bodies and will grow within our remains.

There is no death, only transformation.

Chris Dashiell said...

My views are similar to yours, at least in respect of the idea of transformation. "We" are anonymous, and in that respect there is no death.

whig said...

I like to say (because it's true and bears repetition) that words are metaphors, and religion/spirituality/science are just alternative models for describing the same indescribable phenomena of material and mental reality.

Of course that makes communication difficult, but if experience can be shared then the words which refer to the experience can be shared with understanding.

No point replying further, we agree, I'm just being verbose.