Death and Consciousness

What happens to our ideas, memories, hopes and attachments when we die? In short, what happens to our consciousness?

The body no longer transforms energy into heat and motion, it no longer continues process of self-replication. Over a period of time, it undergoes chemical transformation. The body may disappear, but the parts that make it up do not. Its primary components just dissipate and rearrange themselves, and become part of other entities.

Does our consciousness also transform? Or does it just disappear after the intake of energy stops, leaving not a trace and contributing to no other entity? Here are some possibilities:

1. Consciousness is entirely a product of material conditions, and can be reduced to material processes. When those material conditions change, consciousness just disappears. This is the predominant assumption of scientists, who claim to be realists about it. But in many ways, it is also the most mystical. This is an argument that material processess can create something that is clearly not material. Yet this something can still cause change in outside material conditions and influence other non-material consciousnesses. And then this active, causal entity just entirely disappears, leaving not even a trace of energy, heat or motion.

2. Like the body, consciousness transforms. Perhaps it disaggregates like the body, with its component parts joining other entities and becoming unrecognizable. This is like Buddhism, in that there is no inherent self, however much we may imagine there is. We are just a temporary confluence of disjointed mental and physical functions.

3. Or perhaps the process of transformation goes the other way: Consciousness was already disaggregated when trapped in our bodies. After death consciousness is liberated, becoming part of a larger, more complex system. Our self is a temporal effect, just like a song.

4. Consciousness does not change at all. Our consciousness is always part of a broader entity that transcends our individual minds, and which we usually can not perceive because of the limitations of our bodies. When the body dies, consciousness itself is not affected. Our self is an aspect of something much more transcendent, the atman.

5. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. This means that it is grounded in material conditions, but it has attained a new level of organization that follows patterns and laws that are different than and not reducible to those of its component parts. Like #1, this may also disappear when we die. But we cannot be certain, because this does not preclude that 2 or 3 may also be true. What it asserts is that there is an intimate but indeterminate relation between the basic components of consciousness and consciousness in and of itself. This leaves open the possibility that consciousness can create and influence matter just as much as matter creates and influences consciousness—i.e. it is a two-way street, not the one-way street of option #1. So perhaps it is the transformation of consciousness that causes the body to disappear, rather than the other way around.

I find #5 to be most likely—in part because it is the most open-ended and holistic. But lets face it, I have no good reason to think so. It just seems to best fit my emotional predilections and ideas presented in books that I like. Which means I am choosing on the basis of arbitrariness and authority. . . . . But so is everybody else. We have no idea, regardless of how committed we are to one vision or another.


Posted on August 18, 2012, in Consciousness, The Big Questions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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