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By Bard Canning
“Afraid of dying? Don’t be. It’s never going to happen to you, and I can prove it.”
It’s said that Albert Einstein once commented that the most fundamental question we can ever ask ourselves is whether or not the universe we live in is friendly or hostile. He hypothesized that your answer to that question would determine your destiny.
Surely death is the greatest threat that we all face. For many people it gives the universe a decidedly hostile bent. They believe that the race of life can never be won; that we are born to lose.
I do not agree. In fact, I believe that the race was never started to begin with and that death itself is an illusion.
Before outlining my hypothesis, I should make it clear that the aim of my writing is the excavation and study of the truth. The truth as a pure product, consistent for all time. Through reasoned logic I intend to demonstrate that your own consciousness is not as finite in scope and lifespan as you may think.
To put it simply: I do not believe in death.
I do not think that we are immortal, far from it. My belief is that we are exempt from the unpleasant matter of death altogether. I believe that our general definition of sentience needs to evolve with our understanding of the nature of the universe and of human consciousness.
It has been my experience that once the spectre of death is stripped of its shadowy mask it becomes much easier to contend with as a concept. I believe that nothing truly known can be truly feared. If this article gives you solace and enables you to live your life with a little less fear then in many ways I have achieved my goal.
The Alpha and the Omega
“Death, in itself, is nothing; but we fear, To be we know not what, we know not where.”
Everyone eventually reaches the point in their lives where they become fully aware of the inevitability of their own death. It is at this point that they choose to either embrace the overwhelming significance of the realization or to recoil in horror.
“Sapiens” is Latin for “being wise” or “knowing”; coupled with the human genus it forms “Homo Sapiens”. Literally, we are the only animals that know - about ourselves and about the world around us. Surely the greatest gift of sentience is the ability to consider one’s own existence and mortality. I cannot think of anything more appalling than the thought of someone having lived and died without ever having considered the nature of their own existence. This is what fundamentally separates us from animals. This self-awareness is the crowning achievement of the human intellect; to neglect it is to abandon what makes us uniquely human.
It’s All in Your Mind
“If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Morpheus – The Matrix
Though science-fiction, the film The Matrix touches on a very important scientific problem: that there is currently no way for us to know for certain if what we experience is real or a sensory fantasy fed to our brains directly. All of the input information that we receive arrives to us from our eyes, ears and other senses.
Scientists are currently fitting deaf children with Cochlear brain implants that allow them to hear despite having no physical ear-drums at all. Similarly, there are a number of devices under development that can be implanted directly into the visual cortex of the brain, allowing blind people to “see” a digital video image of the world around them.
Reality is all in our own minds. We do not actually experience the real world, only the images, sounds and sensations fed to us by our senses. It’s true that this fantasy is directly influenced by the physical universe but research has shown that we all perceive the outside world in very different ways.
Since all experience occurs within your mind, the memories that you hold leading right up to this very moment are as valid as any dream.
Is “reality” a dream? I believe that it’s more like a memory of what our senses perceived a millisecond ago. A story told to us by our minds to represent our experience of the physical universe.
From an objective viewpoint your “mind” wouldn’t exist at all. An objective observer would only see the movement of atoms and electrons within your brain. Subjective experience is eternally, absolutely subjective.
The Veil of Perception
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
Understanding the nature of death naturally requires an understanding of one’s own existence.
“Cogito Ergo Sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) is the profound philosophical observation made by Rene Descartes in 1637; that there is little that we can prove absolutely except that we, ourselves, exist.
All experience and meaning is created within our minds. The objective universe does not “see” any “meaning”, it simply is.
The confusion occurs for many people when they try to merge the concept of their own subjective intelligence with the objective reality of the universe.
It’s true that at some point we will appear to “die”, but there is no reason to assume that our experience will be anything like how we imagine death to be.
Our brains are “experience machines”. All we can be is what we experience and anything outside of that is a subjective impossibility. Death denotes a complete lack of experience, and so is, by definition, something that we cannot participate in.
Death is Impossible
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
“…your lifetime is but a parenthesis in eternity.”
The spectre of death is an illusion, and one that you will never have to face. It’s not something that should concern you since you won’t be taking any part in it.
Death may be a frightening concept, but, just like an imaginary bogeyman in your closet, you won’t be present when it comes knocking.
You felt no pain, happiness, love or fear before you were born, and you won’t feel anything when your time is done. If it saddens you to think that at some point in the future you will no longer physically exist then why does it not sadden you to think of the trillions of years before you were born in which you were also absent.
“Death” describes an infinite “nothingness”. We cannot experience “nothing”. If you are experiencing nothing, then you are not experiencing anything at all.
You cannot truly fear something which cannot exist for you. You can fear the concept of death, but it is nothing more than a shared myth, an illusion.
The Ghost in the Machine
“We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”
Many terms have been used to define our “spirit”, “soul”, “mind” or “qualia”. When the supernatural elements are removed, I believe that these terms fundamentally refer to the same concept. Since our conciousness exists in the dimension of pure thought it could be said that we are living in a “spiritual plane” every day of our lives.
A subjective experience may be created by the functioning of a complex system, but the subjective qualia cannot be experienced by an outside observer, only by the mind within the system itself.
The 19th century *** Hermann von Helmholtz proposed an experiment to demonstrate the nature of qualia: his instructions were to stand in front of a familiar landscape, turn around, bend down and put your head between your legs. He suggested that it would then be difficult in the upside-down view to recognize what you found familiar before. What you were seeing was not the landscape, but your mental representation of it.
“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
Morpheus – The Matrix
All subjective human experience exists in the dimension of pure thought. It is therefore impossible to truly conceive of anything in the physical universe.
All of our experience occurs within our brain. Even the world that we see around us is still a representation formed within our brain as an interpretation of what our senses perceive.
For example, the visual experience of color is entirely created in our brain. Light waves bounce off of objects and return to us at different wavelengths. Our brain attempts to delineate these differences by assigning different colors to these wavelengths. This evolutionary trait developed because it served a useful purpose for our species. Conversely, it was not sufficiently useful for us to perceive the ultraviolet or infra-red spectrums, so we did not evolve this capability, whilst other creatures did.
In truth, most of what we see is simply a representation for the physical world which helps us to understand and interpret it. This is highlighted in cases where these representations break down, such as during psychoactive drug experiences or in severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
The same is true for the other senses and experiences, such as pain. For example, if you hold your hand over a fire you experience the sensation of pain. The experience of pain is not intrinsic to the flame, it is simply a signal sent by the pain receptors in your hand to alert you that your body is being injured. It is a interpretation of what is occurring and it exists only within your mind.
Your experience of daily life is as real as your dreams, since both exist completely within your own mind. It is for this reason that our experience of life could be compared to a dream-state.
When you wake up, does the person that you were in the dream die? No, who you were was only an illusion created in your own mind. But, then, the same can be said for when you are awake.
The truth is, who you are right now is an illusion; your illusion.
I’ll Be There in Spirit
Boy: “When you take apart a Lego house and mix the pieces into the bin, where does the house go?”
Girl: “It’s in the bin.”
Boy: “No, those are just the pieces. They could become spaceships or trains. The house was an arrangement. The arrangement doesn’t stay with the pieces and it doesn’t go anywhere else. It’s just gone.”
A popular scientific observation is that all of the atoms in our bodies are in constant transition. They are shed from our bodies and replaced at a constant rate. The atoms within your brain are replaced every twelve months and most of your body is replaced about every seven years.
Therefore, how can you say you are the same person that you were a year ago? You can, of course, because your subjective consciousness is not a physical entity, it is an intangible system that is supported, but not reliant on, a physical substrate.
As with any system in the universe, our minds are sustained by a physical substrate; in our case, the protein-based biology of our brains. The components of the system may change, but the system itself remains.
Similarly, in a PC a program can be copied from a magnetically-encoded disk drive to an electronically-encoded RAM chip whilst maintaining its integrity.
If the carbon-based biology of your conciousness is constantly changing without your mind disappearing, then why couldn’t your mind be safely transferred to a silicone-based substrate, such as a computer processor?
The truth is that it doesn’t matter what form your mind takes, as long as its structure is maintained. This leads us to the conclusion that our minds may one day be copied into a computer; furthermore, that this copy would itself be a sentient individual.
As uncomfortable as it may make some people feel, there is no evidence to support the notion that your consciousness is inextricably linked with the biological package of meat, bone and grey matter that houses it.
I believe that the concept of a “soul” has been created by people as a means to escape their existential fear and remains unsupported by evidence or reason. What we have is conciousness; a complex system which is reliant upon, but not restricted to, a particular physical substrate.
The Chemistry Between Us
If you take the chemicals that create the emotion of love and combine them on a petri dish then have you created love itself? Most people would say that you haven’t, but when this reaction occurs within a human brain an emotion is said to have occurred.
Scientists can describe the physical properties of a single thought by recording the electrical and chemical activity in the brain, yet what they are mapping is simply matter and energy moving through space, it is not the thought as experienced by the thinker. The qualia is “lost in translation”.
There is a gulf between the dimensions of objective facts and subjective experience. The two can influence each other but are separated by a fundamental divide.
“…this world known as the First Sirian Bank is a planet with a… crust consisting almost entirely of crystalline silicon… over the billenia earthquakes and so forth have caused the formation of billions of transistor junctions within that crust, forming by natural means the largest computer in the galaxy… we find the First Sirian Bank not only alive, but possessed of a universe-view sufficiently advanced to call him Human.”
The Dark Side of the Sun – Terry Pratchett
If you accept that your thoughts occur as an organised system, supported by a physical substrate then you must also accept that random thoughts are occurring throughout the universe whenever a sufficiently complex and ordered system is formed. Through pure chance, emergence, evolution or conscious design, complex electro-chemical reactions could be formed to create a precise analogue of the processes taking place within a human brain.
Therefore the universe could be filled with a diffuse, disorganized intelligence. A “God Consciousness” if you like.
The only difference with the human mind is that our brains create linear cohesion and a home for these thoughts to interact and evolve.
It is a common assertion that we are sentient individuals because of the ordered complexity of our minds. Yet, it would be absurd to suggest that we would become more real or more sentient if our brains were increased in size or complexity. You are real now, and you would be real if someone removed half your brain. You might lose some of your capabilities, but you would still be a real, sentient individual. There are tumour patients who have had half of their brains removed. It would be absurd to consider them to be half as real or half an individual. The same is true if the order of your brain was to be eroded completely. You might become significantly less intelligent but you would still exist as microscopic flashes of intelligence appearing throughout the universe. Except by then you would have lost the division between yourself and other minds because your thoughts would have spread out and merged with the general intelligence “fog”.
When your physical body dies your consciousness does not disappear, it merely becomes disorganized and less constrained by the linear concepts of time and space. Some people consider this to be rejoining the “God Consciousness”.
“For thousands of years, we have tried to understand how we think: that is, how a mere handful of matter can perceive, understand, predict, and manipulate a world far larger and more complicated than itself.”
Stuart J. Russell
If the right chemical reaction was created in a test tube which exactly mimicked the thought processes of a person sitting in a cafe eating a raspberry tart, then who is to say that this thought hasn’t actually occurred? Just because it has not taken place in a brain does not mean that it is less real, or that the qualia is lost.
In fact the “person” would not even realise that they existed in a test tube rather than a cafe since they would only be aware of what they perceived through their thoughts.
You are only aware of what you perceive through your thoughts.
Your mind can never die since death is an event restricted to the physical world and does not exist in the dimension of pure thought.
“They’re made out of meat. …These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“…And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you have probed?…”
“… We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”
“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”
If you cut open a brain you can’t see the thoughts, only the physical clues that demonstrate that a thought is occurring. The electrical currents and chemical reactions are like a wake left in the ocean behind a boat that cannot be seen. The wake is evidence of the boat, but it is not the boat itself. The wake provides evidence that the boat is moving, yet if you stood below deck and closed your eyes you would not feel as if you were moving at all. In the same way, our consciousness exists on an ever-changing ocean of atoms within our skull (which is on a planet flying through space) yet we experience ourselves as a fixed, consistent conciousness.
The existence of our mind is evidenced by the “wake” left in our physical brains, but only we can experience our own consciousness.
Hold That Thought
“Music is what feelings sound like.”
A thought cannot exist within any one moment in time. If that were true then you could cryogenically freeze someone’s brain, halting the electrons and chemicals in that moment, and the person would be stuck forever thinking the same thought.
A thought does not exist at a fixed point in time, rather it exists in the transition between points. Music is the same. A piece of music is not the notes on the page; rather it is the journey from one note to another that creates the song.
So are our thoughts created in the journey between moments in time.
Pause or End Game?
“You are the music while the music lasts.”
If our consciousness is a chain of connected thoughts, like a string of musical notes, then “death” describes a chain of thought that is no longer continuing.
No pain can be felt, no disappointment, nothing.
“Nothing” is nothing, so it cannot exist, and so therefore neither can “death”.
Thank You, Come Again
A life can only be said to have ended when there is no chance of it continuing again. In regards to our consciousness, death is more like a pause than an end.
In an infinite universe anything is possible and everything is inevitable. There is every chance that your chain of thought may be continued again somewhere, sometime, in the infinite possibilities of time and space.
It’s true that the atoms forming your mind will have changed, but take a look at your own body: in the last few years almost every atom has changed within it. Who you were then no longer exists; they could be seen as “dead”. You are a copy of that body, gradually constructed around it using the proteins and enzymes absorbed from your dietary intake. If by random chance your final thought pattern was reconstructed a trillion years from now in another place, who is to say that this would not be you? Amazingly, you would not feel that any time had passed at all.
“Thus that which is the most awful of evils, death, is nothing to us, since when we exist there is no death, and when there is death we do not exist.”
No person should fear death. Fearing death is a logical fallacy.
It’s like a mathematician fearing that a particular formula could erase all of the numbers. This is impossible since the numbers would always remain present; a particular formula might equal zero, but the numbers that created it would still be present, ready to repeat the formula once again.
Pi in the Sky
“I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity.”
To illustrate my point I ask you to look briefly at the number Pi. Pi is an infinite stream of chaotically generated numbers. It has been suggested that within these numbers would be the atomic positions of every atom in your body. Every thought you’ve ever had is contained, somewhere, within Pi. Indeed, so is every possible experience you might have.
You might say “So what? It’s just numbers; it’s just math. It’s not real experience.” Yet, your brain right now is just atomic particles moving from one position to another. Your conciousness can be reduced to pure math.
If the universe is infinite, we are destined to live out every possible experience through the infinite possibilities of time and space. We can never die. The atoms that form us may change, but they have shifted constantly throughout your life without destroying your consciousness.
The Mind as a Meme
“You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.”
One question that arises when we consider the constant changes that occur within the physical structure of the brain is how our consciousness can remain so consistent, despite the constant shifting of the physical foundations. My answer is that the mind is a highly complex and multi-layered meme.
A meme is the conceptual equivalent of a gene. It is a concept that can be shared between conscious minds without losing its fundamental integrity; like complex religious beliefs, or the simple custom of shaking hands.
Memes tend to compete with each other for survival and are subject to the same laws of evolution as other forms of life. Memes have been shown to develop self-defensive adaptations with varying levels of internal intelligence. In fact, I assert that since memes are complex intelligent systems they are as valid a form of life as our own protein-based genes or the humans which they construct.
In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins describes how memetic concepts often survive the passage of time and the transition from person to person without losing their integrity. They achieve this by utilizing a kind of conceptual compression; a step-by-step mapping of their structure that eliminates less important details in favor of the core concepts.
The example that Dawkins gives is that when a carpenter teaches the technique for building a chair he describes a single step as “nail this here”, not “swing the hammer at thirty degrees and hammer five times.” These details are not important in achieving the goal; a goal which can be achieved despite many small changes whilst still producing an accurate recreation of a chair.
Our minds are the same in that they are memes kept alive by neurons that transfer their information from one generation to the next without losing fidelity. Even though the cellular and atomic structures of our brains are constantly changing, our meme-mind stays intact. Small details may change as the cells die and are replaced but the core integrity survives.
Your mind is a substrate-independent system. It is a consistent meme on an ever-changing ocean of cells and neurons.
An analogy would be if you recorded a time-lapse video of a tattoo on a person’s arm; it would seem to hover unchanged under the skin despite the skin cells that surround it dying and being replaced over time. Similarly, an image moving across a digital screen remains consistent despite being illuminated by different pixels as it moves.
Your mind was never intrinsically linked to a particular set of atoms or a particular location in space. Because it is a meme it can be recreated at a later date, out of different materials and in a different location.
The universe is not linear – nor does it move at the speed of our subjective experience. This is all our own dream and unique to us.
Just watch a fly buzzing around some time. Do you think it is experiencing the world at the same speed as you?
Physics teaches us that the universe as we see it does not exist exclusively within this moment, or any moment at all; rather, it exists in all possible moments of time.
You really do have all the time in the world, because there’s no end to speak of, only the natural progression of your own story, which is all in your mind.
How can you rush a thought? A dream? You can only work against it or in harmony with it.
Work in harmony with your dream, your spirit, and you will enjoy happiness in your life.
Since the world that we see and feel is all created within our own minds, then so too is our experience of it. As Buddhists have taught for thousands of years: “You create your happiness; it comes from within.”
“If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it, is to die over and over again.”
“Some people are so afraid to die that they never begin to live.”
Henry Van Dyke
The ultimate answer is to find meaning, peace and happiness in your life.
Most importantly, discard your fears about death or time passing you by. There is no end to be feared.
Anything that does not ultimately increase your happiness is unnecessary. I believe that if we all act from what makes us truly happy then there should be no deliberate suffering in the world. No truly happy person would ever needlessly harm another. People only increase suffering when they are insecure, fearful or lacking personal contentment. Therefore, any thought that does not serve to increase your happiness is irrelevant. This is why I believe it is important to strip death of its mask so that it no longer stands as a forboding figure at the end of our lives.
Enjoy this dream of “life”, and don’t worry about the end approaching, for that too is an illusion.
The universe is not dark or cold, it is simply free of emotion and subjective experience. It is composed of energy that occasionally condenses into matter and matter that occasionally evolves into sentient beings; all of which eventually returns again to the great river of energy. This energy is the source from which we have all emanated; indeed, we have never been apart from it.
We like to draw divisions and imagine that we are somehow separate from each other and the universe, but the truth is that we are all fundamentally intertwined.
We are truly “at one” with the universe.
Following is the poem that I wish to be spoken at my funeral (modified from the original by Mary Elizabeth Frye).
“Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow;
I am the diamond glints on snow;
I am sunlight on ripened grain;
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awake to greet the dawn
I am the day as it is born.
I am birds in circling flight;
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.”
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Feel free to leave a comment – I try to read and respond to them all.
Contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org (questions, comments, publishers and literary agents are all welcome :)
If you’re looking for specific ways to eliminate fear and stress in your life and connect with a deeper sense of purpose I highly recommend the book Your Erroneous Zones by Dr Wayne Dyer.
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