Pandora I: Consciousness and Death


This post is the first installment of the Pandora series on death.

I do not know if it is possible for consciousness (or synonymously, awareness) to survive death. Therefore, let me treat two cases separately. The analysis applies to awareness in general, but I’m mainly concerned with myself.

1. Consciousness cannot survive death.

I want this. I want life to be over when I die. Ideally, I’d grow old in good health in this life. But that’s talking about cherries on the cake. If I would die tomorrow, and my consciousness would terminate without any remainder, it’d still be the same cherry cake, just with different toppings. Why?

Humans and animals suffer. The scale of this suffering on Earth alone is staggeringly vast: millions of years and countless individual beings among billions of species who have been eaten, killed by kin, who have starved, and who have felt various kinds of pain. Humanity couldn’t have existed without the sufferings of trillions of individual predecessors. That’s just Earth. There is a vast cosmos beyond Earth. 

The last thing I want in a universe this brutal is that my consciousness continues after death. 

2. Consciousness can survive death

There is this principle: if something happens once, it can happen twice—and will often take place a million times. If consciousness can survive once, why not twice? 

Even if I get reborn into a loving family, what if my subsequent lives are among cannibalistic squid? No thanks. I want to know the finish line. Indefinite transmigration does not sound appealing to me at all. In fact, I’d prefer a miserable life as a human than a happy one in a world with transmigration. Human life is peanuts compared to potential transmigrational horrors.

What to do facing this uncertainty? Stick with physicalism, and hope that physicalism turns out to be right? Become a skeptic? Dismiss the possibility of an afterlife? Turn to Islam?

I’m not a fan of proselytism so I will not answer this question. Instead, I will tell you what I did. I first contemplated this problem when I was seventeen. 

I learned about Buddha-Dhamma* from translations of Early Buddhist Texts and from a handful of Buddhist monastics who earned my hard-earned trust. The single most important thing in my life is practicing the Buddha-Dhamma. It has given me more than I can express in words. Above all, it has given me a refuge from the potential dangers of transmigration. I don’t know if rebirth is real. But I assume the worst. 

“Von Neumann’s sense of invulnerability, or simply the desire to live, was struggling with unalterable facts. He seemed to have a great fear of death until the last… No achievements and no amount of influence could save him now, as they always had in the past. Johnny von Neumann, who knew how to live so fully, did not know how to die.” (source)

I am not unfamiliar with this desire to live. Like many others, I have first-hand experience with a wide variety of sensual pleasures. I have had the privilege of attending physics lectures at uni from a Nobel Prize laureate in physics. I am well-traveled. I am happy with my social life. Given good health and two peaceful millennia, I’d like to live for 2,000 years on Earth. But death, not life, is most important to me. Not that I fear death.

I prepare for it. 

*Buddha-Dhamma refers to the teachings of the historical Buddha.


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