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15. Life after death

About 150,000 people die every day in the world. You and I will die, too. Could be from a vein rupture in 5 minutes from now, could be from a car accident next year, could be after 20 years or even longer. I am currently (July 22, 2023) 70 years old, which is 25755 days. According to the "death clock", I would die on Sunday, 18th July 2027, 74 years old. Not so good. Another website calculates my dying day to be 19-01-2026. And yet another site reports that I died 2 years ago. Hmm. I should probably take such calculations with a large grain of salt.

Okay, maybe I should do something about my BMI anyway, exercise more and not drink "tinto de verano" every day. But besides some alcohol, I take a blood thinner, a cholesterol inhibitor and an antacid every day. And I almost don't eat any meat. Hopefully that will help too. Anyway, a day will come, which will be my last.

People are aware that one day they will die. The personality, the separated identity, fears the end of its existence.

I don't want to die. I have a tremendous fear of not being there anymore. The idea of not being there anymore just baffles me. I also find the many painful ways to die terrifying: suffocation, burning, decapitation, heart attack. Horrifying.

Somebody recently posted on Facebook:

"At the end of the day, the only purpose of spiritual seeking is to make peace with one's fear of death."

I think that's true, but I find it anything but easy to dwell on that. In fact, the fear of dying is our most fundamental fear. This fear is described as the fear of destruction, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way of expressing it than just "fear of death".

The idea of no longer existing arouses a primary existential fear in all people who also believe in a separated self (i.e., almost everyone). Just think of that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a tall building…

And what would happen at the moment suprême? In all likelihood, I think, it would be like going under anesthesia: at once lights out, no consciousness, nothing. Without ever waking up again. The body has been dying for years and one day the heart also gives up, the brain doesn't get blood anymore and also dies and that's it.

So I think. But of course I don't really know. This would only be true if our whole existence is only material. Some say there is "something" in us that is not material and this "soul" or separate spirit survives physical death. Perhaps our life is just a phase in a greater whole of spirit and after death we enter a new phase, perhaps in a new body? Many people believe such a thing. But why should I believe that? Is there any evidence for an "afterlife"? My mother always said "no one has ever come back from it," notwithstanding all the so-called "near-death experiences". Near death is not even half dead…

Anyway, so it could be that a non-material part of ourselves can somehow exist without the material body, but there is no evidence for this, as far as I know. Such thoughts are, in my opinion, pure speculation based on wishful thinking.

The opposite of belief in a spiritual ontological principle is called physicalism (the assumption that everything is physical, and that immaterial properties - things of a psychological, moral or social nature - emerge from the physical, that is, the properties of elementary particles and associated force fields). Physicalists have the greatest difficulty with the existence of subjective experiences; they call this the "hard problem" and it boils down to this: the experience of the color red (or the taste of strawberries or the smell of fresh manure, etcetera.) cannot be traced to properties of elementary particles and forces. My guess is this so-called problem is not a problem at all, because it is unsolvable in principle. We do not know in fact what "matter" is, or "energy" or "consciousness"…

There are also physicalists who completely deny that there is such a thing as "mind" or "subjectivity" or "consciousness" at all, which seems absurd to me. By the way, the possible existence of a spiritual principle does not mean at the same time that there would be some kind of permanent core, a personal "soul" as part of that same principle.

But what of the following:

An extraordinary experience happened to me during a therapeutic MDMA group session. I am sitting across from a friend, let's call him S., And I suddenly get very clear images that, somewhere in Japan, I am kneeling on a bridge and that this same friend is beheading me with a sword or about to do so. I see the scene from outside and above as a kind of witness. There was an argument, I think, about a woman but exactly how it played out I can't remember. Anyway, I say nothing about what I have seen, but S. senses that something is going on with me and tells me what he saw, namely that he beheaded me. We both cry. No idea what to make of this or how to explain it. My mother did tell me once that I was walking around as a very small child, saying: "Big sword, head off, lots of blood." And still I have episodes that I get images of beheadings, scaring the shit out of myself.

Of course, this story doesn't prove anything. Perhaps the friend who seemed to know about my drug-induced reverie is telepathic or unconsciously - for example through muscle reading - picked up what was going on in me… Anyway I find this quite puzzling.

Conclusion: no real conclusion, neither for or against. And by extension to the question of whether there is a personal survival after the death of the body: we don't know. Nobody knows. And so I see no point or benefit in having hope.

And of course it is also true that given the fact that there is no enduring, independent self, there is no person actually dying either…

It comes down for me to learn to live with the uncertainty and the real possibility that there is just nothing after death, like there was nothing before conception.

One thing I do know for sure: there is experience at this moment, I am alive and I am living right now, and that is absolutely miraculous. Hence the poet Horace compared the day to a flower:

"[…] be wise, finish the wine and set your dream of the future against the short time you have been given. As we talk, envious time has already flown: seize the day and count on tomorrow as little as possible."

Striving for immortality

If there is then likely to be no immortality after death, perhaps we can try to eliminate death itself or at least delay it until a time when we choose to die. For example, it is thought that it might be possible to "up-load" our personality and memory into a machine or that in the future we will be able to replace body parts for ever. This may even be possible. But is it desirable?

Death is normally seen as an enemy at the end of a life. An enemy that must be defeated. What is not seen here is that the dying process accompanies life from the beginning. Without dying, there is no life. Every time we go to sleep we die in order to wake up refreshed afterwards. Every time we breathe out we die so that we can breathe in again. Every moment thousands of cells die in our body so that new cells can take their place. You cannot stop dying, because then you also stop life, as paradoxical as that sounds. And at the final death of the body, that body falls apart and the atoms and molecules that were part of that body return to the surrounding nature and will become part of other and new life forms. The process of life is at the same time the process of death - two sides of the same coin, of the same process.

Plants and animals have no problem with death. We do, because we identify with a part of our experience, our personhood, which we believe is a perpetual and independent "thing", while that part too is constantly changing, constantly dying, that is. We fear change, we fear death, but if I seriously imagine what it would mean to live as a person for hundreds of years or even for ever, that seems to me the greatest torture I can imagine. Never being able to relax, never being able to surrender, never being able to exhale, never being able to sleep, never being able to be away from myself, never being able to forget. That's what it means not to be able to die. That, for sure, is no life at all.

A think-through:

"The real question of life after death isn't whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves."

Ludwig Wittgenstein