Earlier today I entered into a conversation with a colleague about how we want to leave this world and whether there was any sort of life after death. His beliefs are quite different from mine, and mine are quite different from most of the people I grew up with. The only thing we could really agree on was that nobody who has ever been to the other side has ever come back1. What I found most interesting about the fifteen-minute aside2, though, was his definition of death: the loss of consciousness.
This concept is an idea that I've heard several times in the past, but hadn't given much thought to. His argument is that biological organisms, particularly the ones that require sleep, experience death every time we fall asleep. Our consciousness ceases to operate and our minds enter into a subconscious state which is typically accompanied by dreams and, occasionally, an echo consciousness3 that navigates that particular world. When we wake up, we are essentially reborn and a new version of us is ready to take on the day's challenges, whatever they may be.
I have a few issues with this line of thinking, though, as this definition of death requires us to have copies of the previous consciousness created every time our bodies regain consciousness. The copies would undoubtedly evolve over time, but they would just be a temporary copy. Here today, and gone the next time we fall asleep. For anyone who has woken up numerous times between the hours of 1AM and 6AM, this could mean we die half a dozen times after a conscious lifespan of anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.
As for the ultimate death, when our bodies eventually give out completely then our consciousness cannot return. There will be no more copies. There will be no more waking. There will be no more dreaming. We will pass into oblivion.
This is a line of thinking I'm not in favour of at all.
My ill-informed belief system for what happens after we die comes from a conglomeration of several ideas, the strongest of which is seen in the Kim Stanley Robinson novel The Years of Rice and Salt. In this book we follow a group of people over several eons and several lifetimes. The characters are born, live their lives, intermingle with each other over and over again without realizing it, then meet in The Bardu after death to discuss their experiences and reflect on the lives they have lived thus far. After an amount of time has passed, the spirits return to Earth and are born again to lead another life, completely oblivious of their previous incarnations.
This idea of reincarnation came at a time shortly after I rejected much of the Christian teachings that had been a regular part of my upbringing. The sheer idea of sitting in Heaven for all eternity and having the same level of omniscience as the Creator of the Universe never really appealed to me. What is there left to learn? What is the ultimate goal people can strive for after heaven? Will (potentially) billions of souls really be worshipping the same omniscient, omnipotent being until the end of time? Why would we be individuals on Earth and work hard every day of our lives only to give up all of the advantages such uniqueness and strife can offer us after passing?
I don't want my existence to end this way. At all. I would rather pass into oblivion like my co-worker believes than to have nothing to strive for.
What's odd about my desire for reincarnation isn't so much the fear of disappearing completely as it is the fear of never knowing anything. If there is an all-knowing, all-seeing deity that created the Heaven and the Earth4, then why would it limit us to experiencing life just once? I am a man born into a 20th-century existence in a not-quite middle-class family with five sisters and two brothers. How could I possibly know what it's like to be a woman? How could I know what it's like to be royalty? How could I know what it's like to be homeless? Confined to a prison cell for 25 years? Madly in love with a fish? A world-famous artist? A beggar on the streets of ancient Babylon? A 5 year old child shot in the head during a pointless fire-fight because my parents happened to have the wrong ethnic background? There have been a seemingly infinite number of experiences here on this planet alone. What about other worlds?
When I try to put myself into the shoes of an ultimate being, I cannot possibly fathom why I would prevent my sentient play things from experiencing all life has to offer. I would send them back to the Earth or other places as often as their spirits wanted to. I would let them explore the universe in as many combinations as they like. Nothing would be off limits. The Bible, which is apparently 100% accurate and true5, proclaims that God loves His humans6. If this is the case, how could we be limited to just one lifetime? How is it fair for humans who are born into a time and place where knowledge of the One True God is non-existent to find the proper path and follow it in order to enter the heavenly gates and eat with The Lord7?
It seems ridiculously cruel.
The universe is a cold and unforgiving place, there's no denying this. Yet I will not accept any belief system that places zero value on life and fairness. The whole "do as I say, not as I do" ethic may have worked before the majority of humanity was literate, but there's no reason for such idiocy anymore.
Belief in a positive, educational, and constructive afterlife is something that I have had for several years. Unlike the vast majority of my other beliefs, it's not based on any fact whatsoever. It's been pieced together using various elements from works of fiction all over the wold. It's not even a complete theory that can play out in any realistic fashion aside from a short story at best, and an incomplete dream at worst. Still, I will hold out hope that after this life I will have the opportunity to reflect on the decisions and events that have played a significant role in making me the person I am today, and the person I will become before this corporeal form returns to the Earth. Disappearing into oblivion would be downright unfortunate; a lifetime of experiences forgotten and thrown away. Spending an eternity on a cloud as an omniscient entity and playing a harp would be just as bad. I hope that there is more to existence than just this.