Mark Twain so famously quoted that we can be sure of two things in life; taxes & death!
The great Bard William Shakespeare in his play Hamlet portrays death as “the dread of something after death. The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will“.
As humans we are aware and cognitive that death exists. Many believe that after physical death, there is another existence that awaits us. Tens of thousands of years ago early hominids such as stone age and Neanderthals buried their dead in graves with items such as food, stone tools etc that served them in life and it was hoped would serve them in the afterlife.
The Ancient Egyptians are the most famous culture to have an all encompassing belief in the after life and made elaborate preparations to ensure that the royal pharaonic spirit ascends to a better plane of existence leading the way for all.
Various pagan religions evolved their own concept of what constituted an afterlife whether good or bad. i.e. the Norse had Valhalla, a great hall where the spirits of heroic warriors ascend to.
Our modern concept of Heaven & Hell has it’s roots in the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Judaism and Christianity absorbed these concepts and in various ways adapted for their faiths.
Christianity introduced a kind of ‘half way house’ after death, it is called Purgatory. It is where the soul(spirit) of a recently deceased person temporarily resides in place of purification or temporary punishment awaiting to ascend to Heaven or descend to Hell after they purge their sins.
Philosophers whether professional or amateur like to debate the big question of what happens after we die. They encompass this with Why Are We Here? Why Do we Exist? Is There any Purpose To Us Being? Whether there is a God or Deity that directs us or not.
We now in the 21st Century look for science to explain all in life and now beyond!
Scientists, physicists and medical doctors are looking more at how are minds work, what is consciousness? How can it be defined be defined?. Does this consciousness survive after our physical bodies die? What is a soul/spirit? Does part or all of our consciousness contain a soul or spirit?
Could our consciousness be ‘our’ spirit/soul in toto and although somehow separate interact through our physical brain?
Atheists deny such things as an afterlife, heaven etc., or that there is a spirit or soul within us.
To be logical they should separate any religious connotation from the concept of the possibility of another plane of existence after our lives here are ended. Such an existence may have nothing to do with religious dogma, but be a scientific reality that we are as yet not mentally and technologically advanced enough to discover.
We are on that path now, to be sure. Science is now beginning to seriously looking at these big questions once the exclusive domain of philosophers.
Continuing medical and allied technical innovation can measure and observe more deeply what is happening in our bodies, including the brain, the seat of our consciousness. Doctors are measuring more accurately the point of actual death. Death is measured by diminishing brain activity. Recently for example, in mice it was found that some minutes after death there is an increase in brain activity. Scientists/academics are divided on what this means. Whether the brain’s neurons are firing in a final burst before death, or is this activity a precursor to otherwise undetectable activity. Some academics think that this ‘burst’ is only the final farewell of the brain and our minds/consciousness before oblivion.
This activity may also give rise to the well documented Near Death Experiences (NDEs) of some hospital patients recovering from near fatal life threatening accidents, illness etc. These patients from many cultures across the globe recall seeing themselves leaving their physical bodies and looking down on the efforts of medical staff to resuscitate them. some state that they saw a ‘tunnel’ and travel through it towards a bright light. Near this bright light, some reported having religious experiences or meeting relatives who have previously died and are there to greet them. The patients are then ‘told’ or urged to return to their life. They wake up recalling vivid details of their experience. Again divided academics come up with theories such as hallucinations of a dying brain triggered by certain chemicals.
Other academics point out that these experiences are too vivid to be a dream state and many don’t remember their dreams, especially in such detail. Some of the NDE survivors apparently give details about the event that they could not have known about as they were deeply unconscious. Examples such as witnessing conversations between the resuscitating medical staff or the unique clothes some were wearing. Also why are all the experiences consistently similar from world wide NDE survivors?
Are the NDEs proof or indication of the separation of our consciousness from the physical brain at death, or indeed some chemical reaction of a dying brain?
A question would be why such a reaction exists at the point of death? A chemical reaction causing NDE has no survival or life value as other of the brain’s reactions/activities?
This is where an advanced and relatively new branch of science may provide intriguing clues of what happens to us when we die. Quantum Physics can be described as the science of the unusual and strange.
What happens at the subatomic and quantum level is slowly being uncovered layer by layer. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) leads the way in mining to quantum level of particles that make us, our world and universe.
In essence, particles at the quantum level act in strange and diverse ways sometimes at variance to classical science models. Some particles can simultaneously act on others of their kind that are stretched across the universe! Others particles seem to leap into existence and disappear in a tiny fraction of a second. Where they come from & go to is not known at present. One theory gaining credence, is that a our universe is not alone. Some physicists and theoreticians believe that there are many universes (so called Multiverses) that coexist with ours.
Now some medical doctors and physicists using the uber complicated quantum theories developed by scientific luminaries such as Sir Roger Penrose, are trying to discover what our consciousness may be made up of and even what may happen to it after physical death. Very basically, at a quantum level, our consciousness is thought to exist in ‘microtubules’ within the brain and interacts with our physical world. At death our quantum level consciousness may ultimately may travel via ‘tunnels’ to another universe or existence.
If this is so, would we be aware of any previous lives?
Hmmm, playing at amateur philosophy! I think that if this quantum related theory is true then possibly our memories, and experiences of this life remain in a kind of chemical and neuron storage within our living brains, but when we physically die they become lost. However, our consciousness now unfettered from the physical brain & past memories etc., moves on to it’s next life/existence.
With the ever increasing evolution of computers and computing power, scientists predict that we may in the next decade witness the creation of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Indeed AI may eventually exceed the intelligence of humans. Will this super AI answer the Big Questions in life (and death!)?
Will AI develop a consciousness like humans, or remain algorithmically detached from emotions and such?
I enjoy trying out SIRI the cool voice interactive intelligent and knowledge personal assistant and navigator on my iPhone. For fun I asked it “is there life after death?”
After some silence and searching the vastness of the WWW, SIRI stated that “It does not separate silicon from the Soul” 😉
In my favourite comedy sci fi TV series, ‘Red Dwarf’, the android character called ‘Kryton’, stated that he and other robots believed in a ‘Silicon Heaven’.:)
The subject of survival post life and quantum physics is a very complex subject to go into detail here and I urge you Dear Reader to ‘Google’ NDEs, Life after Death Quantum physics, there are many fascinating and thought-provoking articles out there on the Web.
Finally, I guess we will never know until we individually make that (hopefully a very long way off!) final journey to that ‘Undiscovered Country’.