The following post is an attempt to explain my own views on death, if your existential sensibilities are easily offended stop reading now…….otherwise, read on.
It seems intuitive that our body houses some mysterious force that is \”Me\”, it is often noted that we think of ourselves as separate from our bodies and residing in a place that sits just behind our eyes. Like the movie \”Being John Malkovich\” we imagine some sort of homunculus that directs our body\’s movement but in some way is not our body. Progress in neuroscience has shown that in every way we care to measure our brain causes our mind, from our memories to the sense of inhabiting our body it all comes down to neural function. So why do people continue to speak of death as the \”Great Unknown\”?
Obviously the human mind is an enormously complex phenomenon and despite the impression I gave in the above paragraph we are still nowhere near being able to completely explain it. Those on the other side of the question from myself mistake this current lack in knowledge for an inability to ever know, this may indeed be the case but the progress made so far seems to make this a low probability outcome.
It may be so that we are psychologically primed to accept the idea that a person\’s \”essence\” can continue after the physical body dies but this is not evidence for it being true. There may be those who consider* the mere fact that it seems natural to us to think of relatives and loved ones who have (in the vernacular) passed on as being somewhere and doing something to be a sort of innate ability to discern the true nature of the universe. This of course can not be used as proof of anything as people may have conflicting interpretations of what is natural, we need an objective way to determine the actual state of affairs. None of this however provides any sort of evidence against the assertion that the mind is simply a product of the brain and if this position is true (and we have no reason to think that it is not) then any consideration of an afterlife becomes moot.
Consider the following parable (if I may use that word):
In a world very different from our own the following scene takes place…
Young acolyte Bronchi was suffering a crisis, during the tense moments he spent on the way to the Most High Respirator\’s chambers he rehearsed what he wanted to say over and over to himself. Each time the words seemed to become ever more convoluted and confused until he was no longer even sure himself what he was trying to say. Too late, he was here. Ever happy to speak to one of the newcomers to the cloister the High Respirator had the acolyte shown in immediately, shuffling his papers and setting them aside in a gesture that showed the young individual that he had his senior\’s undivided attention.
\”You may speak little Bronchi, I can see you are troubled. Please tell me what is on your alveoli?\” The High Respirator spoke in the soothing whisper befitting his station, usually enough to set even the most agitated acolyte at ease.
\”Well, Most High,\” Bronchi started, \”I\’m having… doubts.\”. Once the words where out Bronchi felt a huge relief and simply waited for the Most High to reply, which he did after a slight pause to take in the sudden revelation.
\”Doubts?\” the Most High breathed, as if the very word was unfamiliar to him. \”Doubts.\” he said again, more certainly this time, letting the idea settle into his being. \”How can you have, doubts? You are a Lung, a sacred being full of the divine Pneuma.\”
\”Yes Most High\” Bronchi began \”but it is taught that after we cease to live on this plane we continue to function, to breath. How is this possible?\”
The Most High Respirator inwardly sighed, ah, he was one of those. \”It is a mystery young Bronchi. Our creator endowed us with the ability to take in oxygen and exchange it with carbon dioxide within our aveoli. It is our gift and our purpose and when we pass on our immaterial Pneuma is rewarded for this diligent attention to our purpose with the sweet winds of the afterbreath\”.
\”Yes Most high\” Bronchi said again, clearly becoming less sanguine now that he was being meet with simple platitudes. \”But if I may say sir, breathing is a physical process, as you say, we take in oxygen and this is dissolved in the moist surfaces of our alveoli and passes into our cells while carbon dioxide travels in the opposite direction out of our cells, into the moist surfaces and diffusing into the atmosphere to be breathed out of us.\” Bronchi was warming to his subject and continued hurriedly before the Most high could interrupt \”What does it mean to breath, when there is no oxygen, no alveoli, no cells, no carbon dioxide and no atmosphere? What sense does it make to say that this function continues when none of the parts of the process themselves continue? In what way can we breath when our bodies are dead and we are nothing more than memories?\”
As Bronchi spoke the Most High visibly lost his composure, these were not merely doubts these were unforgivable heresies. He took a moment to compose himself but was still shaking with outrage when he breathed \”You must leave this place and never return, I grieve for you. You are condemned to live out your life without solace as one of the piteous Apneumists. Go!\”
Bronchi slumped but realized the Most High was right, he could not stay here. After seeing through the simplistic dogmas he would no longer be satisfied going through the motions and pretending to filled with the Pneuma. With his new found thirst for understanding he strode out of the Most High\’s office and into his new life.
This fictional story is clearly about a lung who simply can\’t wrap his bronchioles around the idea that he is expected to believe that he will continue to breath after death, without his lung body. As breathing is what lungs do it makes no sense to say that there is this abstract platonic thing that continues after they stop functioning. In the same way, the mind viewed as the function of the brain is also a physical process. Neurons make connections with each other via synapses with neurotransmitters bridging these connections and permitting the neurons to communicate and thus transmit and process information. In a way not yet understood the sum total of this activity leads to what we call consciousness. Once it is accepted that this is what the evidence shows us then this information not only makes the question \”Where do we go when we die?\” absurd, it makes it nonsensical. It seems to me to be willfully ignoring the implications of science to profess that we \”just don\’t know what happens after death\”, as if this is a meaningful statement.
If this post seems intentionally inflammatory I suppose it is but it also fairly accurately describes my own thoughts on this topic as well as the most reasonable position to take based on available evidence.