Sunday, October 12, 2008

Consciously Conceptualizing Death

Death is so strange to us because consciousness cannot experience death, which involves the lack of itself. So says Jesse Bering in Scientific American.
...people in every culture believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are unsure about what happens to the mind at death. My psychological research has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness. Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it will feel like to be dead. In fact, it won’t feel like anything—and therein lies the problem...

So why is it so hard to conceptualize inexistence anyway? Part of my own account, which I call the “simulation constraint hypothesis,” is that in attempting to imagine what it’s like to be dead we appeal to our own background of conscious experiences—because that’s how we approach most thought experiments. Death isn’t “like” anything we’ve ever experienced, however. Because we have never consciously been without consciousness, even our best simulations of true nothingness just aren’t good enough.

1 comment:

MT said...

We experience at least partially a descent into unconsciousness or "unbeing" and a renascence of consciousness and being every sleep cycle, not to mention our experience of the out-of-body state of being we call dreaming. The common nightmare of paralysis probably derives from our subliminal awareness of the actual paralysis that undertakes our bodies as we fall asleep. We're plenty experienced, but we're phobic anyway. Based on our vulnerability to illusions and denial of the obvious, consciousness seems like an imperative--and imperative to to make sense of everything being input to the brain from the body and the world around at each instant, which means to knit it into the chain of recent and more distant past instants (themselves subject to revision for the greater good) as a first-person narrative of agency and experience. In the sense nature was said to abhor a vacuum, maybe the brain abhors a narrative or psychic vacuum. Like the resistance in the plunger of a syringe as you draw liquid into it, maybe brain activities tied together to form a single story resist untying, and in a way that while itself unconscious causes anxiety. Or that's what comes to my mind at the moment.