Been a looooong time since I wrote a philosophical entry here. The crank sticking out of the side of my head creaked pretty good before I got it going.
A colleague pointed me to this interesting and well-written essay from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the leading theories for how existence after death might occur. If this is a topic that interests you, I recommend it:
The discussion that prompted the sharing of this article had more to do with exploring a possible character or description of first-person experience, without mind or body necessarily included, and how that might relate (directly via identity) any two or perhaps all first-person experiences that exist or have ever existed.
But, perhaps to my colleague’s disappointment, my own perspective on this topic has been rather simplified for a long time. I can remember a time when fancying concepts like the unison-based metaphysical notion of identity presented in Andy Weir’s The Egg (and similar or derived works) added flavor and whimsy to my ponderings. I have a recollection of describing atheism to my own mother as a kind of freedom from a belief structure that I found restrictive, harmful, and myopic and that she found reassuring, comforting, and nurturing. In those days, being able to ponder alternatives was more important to me than acting on determinations.
My approach to the existence of first-person experience now is to describe it as a character of a person, undivorceable from the existence of the person. Consciousness, I argue, is no more capable of existing without a source than a property like color, height, or smoothness. This relates to the topic of the afterlife directly, of course. What lives on, if not what we know is made up of observable matter, and how can it be identified?
As I read the article linked above, a feeling of sad tediousness grew in me, not for the reading but for my perception of the multitudes of humans that churn (and have churned) in this intellectual pursuit of an alternative to what we perceive with our senses but are reluctant to accept. So much time spent in a hopeless chase!
To me, the search for an afterlife is meaningless in its objective (if not in its exercise), because all evidence points to its futility. Likewise, the fear of and resistance to annihilation is needless, if biologically unavoidable.
Believing as I do in an objective reality and the primacy of reason, I see unsubstantial theorizations of life after death as having little value outside of honing academic skill. But further, and more importantly, I must assign little value to it from a practical perspective. I would argue that being alive as we understand life to exist compels us to apply all resources toward the valuation of what it is possible to value (this excludes intrinsic values, not because they do not exist, but because it doesn’t matter if they do).
All this is to say: If you eliminate the value of sharpening your mind on philosophical conundrums in general, I think smelling a pretty flower in a meadow on a summer day just one time is infinitely more valuable than years contemplating hypothetical escapes from an oblivion, all of which are verifiably outside our purview.
Achievable goals, man.
Pragmatic views on unanswerable questions are, of course, highly reductive and dismissed by philosophers, who live in a world of speculation. If the rabbit asks where is the carrot, the answer is simple. If she asks why is the carrot desirable, the answer is complex. If she asks why there is a carrot, the answer becomes a matter of speculation and no longer meaningful to the rabbit’s continued existence. But as philosophers dismiss pragmatists for calling unanswerable questions futile, pragmatists call out philosophers for mistaking answerable questions to be meaningless.
It is absolutely essential that we, as thinking beings, ponder the universe and seek its order. Secrets can and do reveal themselves. This is done with science, evidence-based inquiry. Philosophy does play a role in this, but I believe it is more akin to the role that science fiction or holistic medicine plays: it provides ideas to investigate, but no real knowledge. It is the dream of a harvest unsown.
If one accepts that this mode of learning is the only one, that substantiated evidence is required for knowledge to be sought, one must also (currently) accept the view that first-person experience and consciousness are characters of a person that do not, as best we know, exist outside of it, and that the afterlife, as best we know and for all intents and purposes, does not exist.
Why then do we entertain and investigate, beyond their utility, fanciful notions like souls and life after death?
Fear. Resistance against an abhorrent, yet apparent, likeliest truth.
What then is the most correct path for one negotiating the integration of this difficult problem into their values and choices? What suits your values better: focusing on and examining what cannot be verifiably answered, without reason to believe this will change, or allowing the uncomfortable yet ostensible case to exist, and finding your best life despite its ever-present, yawning horror?
Who more bravely faces the world we demonstrably inhabit and is most capable of deriving meaning, value, and a profound arc of life?