Final Thoughts on Death

This is the fifth post in a series where I think about death and the afterlife. The first post was kind of an introduction, the second covered the elimination of consciousness at death, the third was about reincarnation, the fourth was about an afterlife, and the this final one will be my concluding thoughts.

Our society has an unhealthy relationship with death. It is something we pretend isn’t happening but we all know it will likely come to each of us. As far as I know there has not been anyone who has been able to escape it, though the film “The Man From Earth” had an interesting premise and you should all go watch it on Netflix. Part of our fear comes from how sheltered we are from death in the modern world and part of our fear comes from not knowing what happens afterwards.

Nobody actually knows what happens to our consciousness after death, and anyone that says they know really mean they have a hypothesis that is based on subjective feelings or intuition. Regardless of what happens we really shouldn’t have anything to fear, the most likely scenarios are either neutral or good. Though I have no more empirical knowledge about death than the next person I think the likelihood of each scenario we discussed is as follows (first being most likely and last being lease likely):

  1. Nothing. I think it is most likely that when we die our consciousness dies with us. This hypothesis fits best with our current understanding of life and our universe. That isn’t to say it is the only possibility though, it is possible that humans have a consciousness that exists separate from our bodies and upon bodily death that consciousness continues to exist. We just don’t have, and may never have, the technology necessary to measure that. I still think that is unlikely though.
  2. Video Game:  The next likely scenario to me is that our entire existence is really a simulation or game for a technologically advanced species and our consciousness is all that is “real” about this universe.. Upon my death my consciousness will return to the future and play a new game or do whatever it is advanced species who have overcome death and can harness all the energy needed to never need to work. This hypothesis also has the benefit of fitting within our understanding of the universe and human nature, though I’m not sure if it could ever be verified. If a species can create a simulation this advanced surely they can program it to prevent the characters from discovering it.
  3. Traditional Reincarnation. Now we move much further down the likelihood scale for me. The first two exist in cooperation with our understanding of the universe while the rest require more subjective measures. If our consciousness stays alive and moves to another being after death we have no objective way to check that. Instead, subjective measures like past-life regressions, DMT use, and patterns of spiritual traditions that exist throughout different cultures are all we have.
  4. A General Afterlife. Perhaps when we die our consciousness does move to a heaven (or hell) but no religion has it specifically right. Humans have rewritten, translated, and passed down orally almost all of the divine documents in the world and a lot has been messed up. The prophets were also all human who may have gotten the spiritual path or message from a being from another universe but things got lost in translation or were dummied down for the audience. Instead of any religion having a monopoly on truth it seems more likely that patterns that exist almost universally throughout religions should be trusted instead of worrying about the details of which person to deify.
  5. A Specific Afterlife. This seems like the least likely scenario to me. The idea that one specific modern interpretation of a prophet’s words is the truth is unverifiable and seems to ignore everything we know about history and science. It also seems to point to a cruel and selfish deity who would punish and torture good people because they grew up in a place where the “wrong” religion was more common.

So, there we go. Just my random thoughts on death and the afterlife. Things like this go through my head a lot when working (stocking groceries isn’t a very mentally intensive activity) and I like to play with different scenarios. Maybe I’ll do more multi-post series in the future, this was fun.

Maybe Something Completely Different…

This is the fourth post in a series where I think about death and the afterlife. The first post was kind of an introduction, the second covered the elimination of consciousness at death, the third was reincarnation, this one will be about an afterlife, and the final one tomorrow will be my concluding thoughts.

One of the most common human beliefs about death is that there is some sort of afterlife that is different than this. This usually takes the form of a heaven and hell where people are sent based on how they lived their life. In fact, an afterlife is one of the key tenants of most (if not all) religions. Unfortunately, most religions believe they have a monopoly on truth when it comes to this issue which prevents religions from being compatible. Our consciousness on this plane of reality is a one time event, after this our spirit shoots off to another universe where we will either suffer greatly for our misdeeds (which can be simply not having the “right” faith) or be rewarded eternally for our faith (even if that faith requires us to kill innocent people).

I am pretty open to the idea that our consciousness exists outside of the body, that it somehow communicates with another dimension in a way that science has yet to decipher… hell, I’m even open to the idea that this is a one-time ride and afterwards we move on to another dimension that is vastly different than this. But, I can’t really believe any of the religions have the details correct. It is simply impossible for all of them to be right and pretty unlikely that any one of them is. Many organized religions not only require faith in the unseen, they require faith that our current reality is wrong. They require a belief that science and nature are lying to us, and instead we should trust our subjective feelings.

Now, I know that sometimes the subjective is all we have but when the feelings of one group of people are in direct opposition with the feelings of other people then there is a problem. I know many Christians who say they “know” that they are correct. I have also met many Muslims  who “know” that they are correct. In fact, the more sure someone is that their faith is correct the more heinous they can justify acting in this life. I’d be the Westboro Baptists are more sure that they “know” the truth than most religious people.

Religion and the afterlife just seems too much like politics to me. But, instead of making campaign promises that they will never be held accountable for religious leaders make afterlife promises that they can never be held accountable for. And in the mean time they take money and power from those who have very little.

I understand the appeal of an afterlife, particularly if your life on this earth is really shitty. Atheism, or really any belief that there isn’t an afterlife, is kind of a privileged belief. Thinking that this is all there really is or that our suffering has no meaning can be a depressing idea, but just because an idea is depressing doesn’t mean the opposite is true.

If there is an afterlife I really don’t believe any of the religions have a monopoly on the truth about it. It is possible that we are connected to another universe that we go to after death thanks to “God” who is more evolved than us, a being that is simply more technologically advanced than us, or just nature connected us through some weird evolutionary trait, but if that is true it seems we should look for common patterns throughout faiths instead of believing that one is correct.

Maybe More of the Same…

This is the third post in a series where I think about death and the afterlife. The first post was kind of an introduction, the second covered the elimination of consciousness at death, this one is about reincarnation, tomorrow will be about an afterlife, and the final one will be my concluding thoughts. 

With death and the afterlife on my mind I have been pondering what comes next for our consciousness when we die. Yesterday, I wrote about the possibility that our consciousness simply disappears with our bodies. Today I am going to write out some of my thoughts on another option, reincarnation (for lack of a better term).

The idea that our consciousness moves on to another body or life similar to this is not a new one, but it can take some modern twists. My understanding, which is pretty minimal, of early thoughts on reincarnation saw our souls as attached to our body but distinctly separate. When we die our souls move on to another body that is in a uterus somewhere, or maybe there is a purgatory like system with a line that souls get in. I wonder if the attachment to a new body is random or there is some choice involved? Anyway, the soul gets a new body but generally can’t remember the experiences from the old lives on a conscious level. Some hypothesis say that past lives can be remembered through hypnosis, dream interpretation, etc. As far as I know most traditional views of reincarnation don’t allow for human souls to enter the bodies of alien bodies, but some allow for us to enter animals.

A more modern twist on this, and one that could hypothetically exist in our reality, is kind of like the Matrix. Imagine the human species (it could be an alien species but for convenience sake I will just say human) reaches a level of technological advancement where we are able to harness all the power in our sun or galaxy or whatever and can automate everything. We have overcome death and computers/machines take care of all our needs. Our time could instead be spent doing recreation and exploration. One of the forms recreation could take would be really advanced video games.

Right now, I might be nothing more than the character of a video game. Maybe an NPC, but maybe I am actually a playable character by an advanced human. It would be like World of Warcraft but created by people who are incredibly advanced technologically. Future humans would be able to design whatever universe they wanted and play any character they wanted, time could even be distorted so that playing a lifetime would take only a few minutes or seconds of “real time”.

Now, it might seem ridiculous to have advanced technology and games like this and decide to play as a random dude in the early 21st Century… but maybe not. Maybe there is something really exciting and monumental that is going to happen later in my lifetime that is worth experiencing first-hand. Or maybe priorities of the future humans have changed that experiences like an average life have value. Or maybe if you live forever you eventually get bored with being Kings and Generals and “important” figures. That was certainly the case for the Q in Star Trek: TNG in the Q-Continuum who spent time being a dog or a fence just because they had done everything else.

While ancient views of reincarnation can’t be verified with our modern use of technology I am not ready to discard them completely. There are lots of experiences that are necessarily subjective (taking DMT for example) but are also understudied, it is possible that consciousness does move on from the body and enters other bodies after discarding this one, like a snake casting off skin occasionally.

The more exciting, and at least technologically possible at this point, reincarnation hypothesis for me is the one involving technology. Our universe exists in some super advanced harddrive in the future and when I die my consciousness will return to the player who will remember this experience, grow from it, and maybe decide to play another round as Keira Knightley, Rosa Parks, Spartacus, or Bob the gas station attendant.

Maybe Nothing…

This is the second post in a series where I think about death and the afterlife. The first post was kind of an introduction, this one will cover the elimination of consciousness at death, tomorrow is about reincarnation, the fourth will be about an afterlife, and the final one will be my concluding thoughts. 

Yesterday I talked a bit about what I would like to happen to my body if I die. Basically, return me to nature, let the animals feast upon me, or my partner can do whatever the hell she wishes. I’m dead. I won’t feel anything. She can burn me, bang me, abandon me, blast me into pieces, or send me to Europa. Whatever she wants and makes her feel better, I won’t feel it because “me” is no longer a concept that applies to that body.

But what happens to our consciousness*?

I feel like there are three primary possibilities: they disappear, they move to another body, or they move to an afterlife. There are many variations of the latter two that I’ll ponder on in future posts but this post is about the first possibility, that we simply die.

Our current understanding of science and the natural world seems to argue that when we die our consciousness is eliminated with our bodies. To my knowledge there have not been any peer-reviewed studies that show our consciousness can exist outside of our bodies and that it continues to exist once our bodies die. We are stardust and to stardust we shall return.

The scientist in me loves this, but is also open to more information (as all scientists should be). It would be a fatal hubris to assume that what we know about the human experience now is end of knowledge. It is possible that we are simply unable to measure, read, or understand the spirit at this point (or maybe any point). Reality doesn’t conform to human knowledge. Sight existed long before we understood light, it is possible that consciousness exists in a state that can leave the body after death but we just don’t have the technology to view it.

That being said, I don’t think that is likely. From what I know at this point it seems likely that our consciousness dies with our body. I’d like more research though, particularly into the experiences people have had on DMT and other psychedelics that seem to open gateways in people’s minds to other dimensions and lives. But then again, I like research into all the drugs I enjoy so maybe I am biased.

Either way, the idea that after death there is nothing isn’t a scary idea. I have no reason to fear what I will experience when I die then I do to experience fear when thinking about life before I was born. If consciousness is nothing but an evolutionary side-effect it actually makes me smile a bit. 100% of my existence, that was forged in the heart of stars, will be used to provide life for other creatures and eventually be blasted around the universe. The atoms will never arrange themselves in a way that makes “me” again but it will join with other atoms to be a part of other lives and reactions.

That is immortality.

* I’ll be using the term consciousness but you could also call it a soul, spirit, or something else.

What comes after this?

In the last 10 days I have had a close friend die and I finished reading “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Stories from the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty. My thoughts have been on death a lot. The book has had me thinking a lot about what I want done with my body if* I die, while KJ’s death has me thinking about what could possibly happen to our souls/spirits/consciousness after death. This post is mostly about the former but I am going to write about the latter subject a bit in the near future.

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” really touched me in two ways. First, I definitely do not want my body to be buried in the traditional sense and I probably don’t want any type of cremation. I guess it really won’t be up to me though, and I shouldn’t care. I’ll be dead. What happens to this shell has no bearing on my future happiness, so if my partner wishes to bury or cremate my body she is free to do that. Hell, she can do whatever she wants with it… if it makes her happy or provides some comfort then I support it. It is unlikely that she will do either of those though.

My plan for my body would be to return it to nature in some way. No elaborate procedures to make my corpse look “life-like” for a ceremony or anything. I’d rather my body be laid to rest in the woods where the animals and bugs and environment can consume me.  I’ve eaten meat before and there is something romantic to me about letting other animals eat me. Maybe plant over me so that my cells can create more life… maybe an oak, I love oak trees. At the very least I’d like to be buried without a casket or anything and let the worms have me.

The second message from the book is that the western world has an unhealthy relationship with death. We pretend it doesn’t exist, we hide our elderly, we do anything we can to maintain the image of youth. For really the first time in human history we are not surrounded by death. Children used to die regularly, families lived with elderly relatives until death, and family members were responsible for cleaning and maintaining bodies after someone died. Now, we push that all onto businesses who charge hundreds and thousands of dollars to spare us from confronting our own immortality. Perhaps we wouldn’t fear death as much if we saw it and touched it regularly like our ancestors did.

Another part of our fear of death is fear of the unknown. It is strange, but I was afraid of death a lot more when I was a Christian than I do now that I am an atheist. My religion made me always wonder if I was truly “saved” but now I don’t fear death. I think there are three basic possibilities for what happens to our consciousness after death: it disappears because it is permanently attached to our bodies, it continues to exist but in another form or body in this universe, or it continues to exist but moves on to some sort of afterlife. I see no reason to fear any of those…. but more on that later.

Death is natural. It isn’t something we can stop. We can make healthy choices that will likely prolong it (eat a plant-based diet, exercise regularly, get checked by a doctor, minimize stress, have a strong community, don’t interact with cops, etc) but in the end we don’t have much control over it, and we shouldn’t really worry about or fear things outside of our control.

* I’m still a transhumanist and believe we will someday cure all the diseases that cause death… maybe within my lifetime but maybe not. I hope to have the option of immortality but we may not be there yet.

Passing the Torch

“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.”
– Henry David Thoreau

A week ago my friend ended his own life.

It may sound kind of strange or cold but the last week has been the easiest part of the grieving process for me. Given my 30ish years of life and my time in the military I have become uncommonly familiar with unexpected deaths. That is the great cosmic joke, the more we love and more friendships we have, the more we will lose and greater pain we will feel. When it comes to death though, I know my role, I become the rock that fate seems to want me to be. I’m the one that is available for calls and texts, I’m the one whose shoulder stands ready to be stained by the tears of my friends. As time passes people start to heal and come to terms with the tragedy, they need me less so it becomes my time to mourn. So I mourn in the only way I know how, I spill my tears and blood onto the page.

My friend, KJ, was more than a friend to me. We were pretty close early on because we had a very kindred spirit. In him I saw what I could have been, both the good and the bad. If I had the bravery he did I would have started my own business. If I had the compassion he did I would have dedicated myself to helping others as he did. We both shared a sort of wandering nature, a lack of firm direction that can cause the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We also both suffered from depression. If I hadn’t had a stranger contact me at Tumblr I would have ended my life that night in Washington DC when I lay in bed with my gun in my hand. If my best friend wouldn’t have introduced me to MDMA and Burning Man I may have ended my life sometime later.

Is there more I could have done for KJ? If the world was slightly better at dealing with mental illness or allowing life-changing medications into the market would he still be alive? I don’t know, and none of us ever will. All I know is I did the best I could for someone I loved, that is all any of us can do.

I can’t find a way to be angry at KJ for how his life ended. I know anger is a response for many, it is a way to cope, but it is not my way, at least not in this situation. Part of it is my congenital stoicism and part of it is how I see a reflection of myself in him and his life. If it is depression that caused this then anger towards the disease is warranted, but not towards him. If KJ wasn’t depressed when his life ended, but took his life of his own free will who am I to judge or be angry? His life was his own to do with as he wished. Some may call it selfish but to take ones own life is less selfish than to demand someone to live (and maybe suffer) for my own benefit or happiness.

What I can, and should, do is move forward in a way that KJ would have wanted. He wouldn’t want his life defined by how it ended, which is really nothing more than a small fact or footnote to an amazing person. His life is not defined by his last breath. The spark that he ignited, the friendships he created, the love that he shared, and the way he inspired me (and I am sure many others) shall be his legacy. One of the pairs of Robin Socks I have will move from my sock drawer to the little alter I keep for my friends. The other pair will go to Burning Man to mix with ash and playa dust as the Temple Falls.

The body of someone I loved is empty, but his spirit lives on in some form. I will gladly take part of his torch now into the future, his spark will live in me for a while before fate and circumstance stills my heart as well. And then my spark will be carried by others, but I won’t be alone because I will have KJ, Kaluza, Brad, my grandmother, Fifer, and all the others that have passed with me. KJ is immortal, he lives on. To steal some lyrics from Kottonmouth Kings, I hope people see me the following way… for that is surely how I will always seek KJ.

I hope one day people will say I was a good guy and every time they were around me I made them smile
And so I hope one day soon we will make a change and when I’m dead I hope my life wasn’t lived in vain.
I know in my heart that I tried to live right and I will fight to the death until freedom is legalized.

You made us all smile brother. You were more than a good guy, you were the best. Your life fighting for freedom wasn’t in vain, we will carry your spark and turn it into a roaring fire. We will live as you would have wanted. I love you, and I will miss you. Thank you for all you did.

Keep a stool reserved for me and order me a glass of scotch. I got some work to do but I’ll be there when the time is right.

Congenital Stoic

Marcus Aurelius... looking all stoic.

Marcus Aurelius… looking all stoic.

I finally finished “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” and absolutely loved it. Reading it made me realize I have a lot of stoic tendencies, or I am what the author called a “congenital stoic”. Sometimes books seem to come into your life at the perfect time, and that is the situation here for me. I’ve always had an interest in philosophy but never pursued it much, partly because of my own ignorance and partly because modern philosophy seems overly stuffy and pedantic. I am finding that early philosophy was different.

Stoicism falls into the category of “life philosophy”. Stoics, like many Greek and Roman schools of thought, look to find the best way to have a good life. They don’t get stuck on definitions like what “good” or “life” means, instead it is an observation of the human condition, and then applying the lessons learned from observation to your life. While much of human existence has changed in the last two thousand years a lot of it remains the same. Stoic pursuit of tranquility may be even more important in the modern world where society tells us that joy comes from owning certain things, making a certain amount of money, becoming famous, etc. Stoics believe (and I gladly count myself as one of them) that tranquility comes from the inside only, and that consumerist pursuits are fleeting and bring no real lifelong happiness.

The author, William B. Irvine, wrote the book in a format that would be perfect for teaching a college course on Stoicism. In fact, as a professor that was precisely his goal. It starts with some history, then moves on to techniques Stoics advise to reach tranquility, then comes the application of these techniques to specific circumstances the ancient Stoics faced, and finally using Stoicism in the modern world. Personally, I found the history part to be interesting but unnecessary, it was really the five techniques that serve as the “meat and potatoes”.

The first technique is called Negative Visualization and is something I have found myself naturally doing ever since my time in the military. Practicing Negative Visualization is simply taking a few moments throughout the day, maybe when you are driving to work or in the shower, and think about how fleeting the things in your life could be. It is thinking about the “worst case” scenario so that you can appreciate the blessing in your life. If occasionally I think about how my life would differ if my wife died tomorrow or if I was hit by a car and became paralyzed from the neck down then I can really enjoy the blessing in my life. This isn’t dwelling on things to a point of paralysis, it is just meditating on things for a bit to get perspective.

The author uses two hypothetical fathers as an example. The first father never things about the possible death of his daughter, and because of that he thinks there will always be tomorrow to teach her to ride a bike, enjoy some time bonding, or to express his love. The days will go by quickly and with little appreciation for this father. The second father weekly meditates on what life would be like if his daughter became ill and died. He takes advantage of the limited time he has to play with her, learn about her interests, and express his love. The second father has a much more joyful existence due to negative visualization.

The second technique is the Dichotomy of Control. It is recognizing what is in your control and what is not, with the former category breaking down into things completely in your control and things partly in your control. Things that are out of your control completely (the weather, other people, traffic, a brain aneurysm coming out of nowhere and killing you) you shouldn’t even think about. It is a waste of mental energy and will only bring about disappointment to focus on those things.

Instead, we should focus on the things that we have at least some control of. Our own emotions, our response to the weather, preparing our property for our death, etc are all things that we control in some way. In fact, we should work on shifting our perception of events that are partially in our control so that we are only effected by things we can change. For example, if you are in a tennis match with someone you are in control of your own performance but can’t do anything about your opponent or the weather. So, the stoics believe that instead of focusing on winning the match you should focus on doing your best. Your best performance is completely in your control, winning the match is not.

The third Stoic technique is to practice is a type of Fatalism, which is the idea that things happen because of fate. The modern practice is more of a Buddhist belief that you can’t change the past or the immediate present so it does no good to focus or worry about it. The past is already done, all you can do is impact life moving forward so you should focus on that. It reminds me a lot of the economic principle of “sunk costs”.

The fourth technique is Self-Denial. Basically, we benefit when we deny ourselves things we could have. For the ancient Stoics this meant going around without shoes, living in poverty occasionally, and wearing clothes that don’t block the cold instead of being comfortable. I struggle with determining where I am with this practice. My current bike ride and minimalist lifestyle could be considered Self-Denial because I could surely find a better paying job and make my life more comfortable, and my current life puts things in perspective because I know I can survive periods of time without a stable food and water supply, no shelter, bad weather, being stranded, and unexpected changes to my life. But, I don’t find the ride difficult or really a challenge, I am not attempting to deny myself anything. So I guess I need to work on this a little more in my practice, though Irvine does explain this is kind of an advanced technique and shouldn’t be practiced early on in a Stoic’s journey

The final technique is Meditation, though it isn’t the type of meditation we normally think about. This would be more properly called Reflection. It is looking back on our past and observing how we handled situations. We shouldn’t look at them with regret or desire to change the situation, but instead we should coldly observe what we did and what we would do if the same situation came up again.

The application of these techniques to specific scenarios, both modern and ancient, is discussed for many chapters. They are a great read but really only one stuck out at me at this time, and when I made the realization it caught me by surprise… the application of Stoicism to luxurious living. While I don’t have a luxurious life I have found myself in the trap of being a “connoisseur” in two areas, sex and beer.

The problem with being a connoisseur is the pursuit of richer things prevents you from living a life of tranquility. If you are a foodie you may have once enjoyed a bowl of macaroni and cheese, but as you experience more things and desire greater experiences you are no longer satisfied. Soon, a $2 box of pasta tastes disgusting and you are dedicating more and more time and resources for a “refined” palate. Instead of being satisfied and content to have all the nutrition you need to survive (which is the purpose of food) instead you want more and more and more. That is kind of how I stand with beer and sex, I’ve had probably a wider variety of both than most people but I find myself wanting more. I need to stop focusing on the “new” and enjoy what I have easily available to me.

All in all, I really loved the book and plan on reading it again soon. I am also going to jump into the reading recommendations the author provides. Admittedly though, reading this and/or practicing Stoicism isn’t for everybody. I have a particular disposition to this way of life at this point and many people don’t, which is fine. There is no monopoly on the “right” life philosophy, though I think everyone would benefit from having one. Finding a philosophical standpoint allows us to navigate this world using our ability to reason instead of just our evolutionary urges to increase pleasure and avoid pain. So, at this point I call myself a Stoic with some sprinkling of Hedonism, though I haven’t read anything about ancient Hedonism which means that might be the next step.