Monday, May 02, 2011

Nepenthe (Slight Return)

Quinn O'Neill:

As an atheist, I sometimes get asked if I’m afraid of what'll happen when I die. Naturally, I'm not afraid of going to Hell or any other supernatural place and I'm not afraid of being dead, but admittedly, there is something that scares me. I'm afraid that I could someday exist in (or as) another body.

...While quantum hypotheses may reflect progress in our understanding they remain controversial. For the moment, at least, subjective consciousness doesn’t seem to be well enough understood to rule out the possibility of recurrence. Not knowing exactly what material entities or neurophysiological processes give rise to a unique subjective consciousness, we can’t affirm that it won’t arise again at some point in the future.

I find this possibility of recurrence frightening. Being somewhat cognizant of recent events around the world and the conditions in which some people live, I realize how lucky I am to have been born in a stable, developed country to parents who could feed me and send me to school. If my subjective consciousness were to arise again someday, I probably wouldn’t be so lucky.

While I don’t believe in a supernatural Hell, human suffering can certainly reach hellish proportions on Earth. If the threat of going to Hell after death is enough to inspire moral behavior, the possibility that one’s subjective consciousness might someday recur should be a powerful impetus for improving circumstances for people on earth. We might even want to rethink our treatment of animals - at least until we can be sure that we won’t someday see the world through the eyes of a circus elephant or a beef cow.

Ha. I used to worry about that as a kid, given that my mom made reincarnation seem like an accepted fact. But what would it even mean for "my" subjective consciousness to recur? What's the difference between "me" in another body at another time in another place with no memory of my former experiences, and a different subjective experience of consciousness altogether? None that I can see. Memory is what gives us a sense of a coherent, singular, personal narrative, despite what we know to be the fact that every cell in our body has died and been replaced over the last decade or so. When your memory is gone, so is your particular experience of being a solid "I" standing still in the middle of life's constant flow. You should want to improve circumstances for people and animals on earth not out of a narrow concern for your own particular consciousness, but because consciousness in general will endure long after you stop experiencing it in the context of your unique and unrepeatable circumstances, and recognizing what it is to experience life as a conscious being should make you feel empathy for all the others who do so.