Is a natural afterlife possible? Answering this depends on what we mean by a person, since that which is traditionally supposed to survive the body’s death is the personal self, or more specifically the individual’s innermost self. Mystical traditions in the world’s religions identify that self with God, so that the afterlife is thought to be the “union” of an individual’s mind with the ultimate source of all minds. This is a euphemistic way of saying that in the afterlife we’re all destroyed as we realize that only God is real.
The Plausibility of a Natural Afterlife
In any case, most religions identify the self with a spirit, that is, an incorporeal substance. New Thought adherents attempt to explain this substance in terms of energy, vibrations or other such pseudoscientific notions, so that the self-help advice sold by leading members of that movement can appeal to a secular crowd (because that crowd has the most disposable income). If we assume the naturalistic, cognitive scientific picture of the self, though, this metaphysical dualism between mind/spirit and body looks as though it reifies higher-order thought. Reification is the concretization of something, such as treating a thought as though it were the same as that which only symbolizes it. In effect, Judaism’s ban on idolatry prohibits the reification of God, since the monotheist’s God isn’t supposed to be any particular being but the ground of all beings. Likewise, if the self is something sustained by the brain, the religious notion of the immaterial spirit is only a symbolization of that mostly hidden inner reality of consciousness flowing into particular thoughts and feelings. If we ask what the human brain does that distinguishes us from other species, the answer is that it thinks abstract thoughts. Those thoughts in turn allow us to use language and form meaningful social relationships and thus communities bound by cultures that include religious ideas; moreover, our abstract ideas can act as models or simplifications of our environments, which enable us to discover how natural processes work, to predict and to plan for events, and thus to technoscientifically control the wilderness by reshaping it according to our wants and needs.
The natural self, then, isn’t a thing that thinks abstract thoughts. To speak of a possessor of thoughts is to reify or to concretize the self, to mistake a symbol or other simplification, such as the Cartesian mental substance or the immaterial spirit, for the self’s reality. The human self isn’t identical even with the brain, as is clear from the computational, which is to say linguistic, aspect of thinking. Just as a computer program can be implemented in different devices, so too a pattern of thinking is multiply realizable. In any event, the person that we most wish to survive bodily death is just the stream of thoughts itself, including the appetites, fears, tastes, imaginings, fantasies, cogitations, and all the myriad other forms of thinking that make for the experience of being a human person. Some of these thoughts are more primitive or animalistic than others, but all are distinctly human to the extent that they have rich layers of meaning owing to their intellectual connections to background thoughts or worldviews that draw upon language and culture. For example, other species have appetites and fears, but animals lack personal selves if those mental states of theirs have only mechanical roles in causal relations as opposed to having higher meanings in a certain autonomous project, that being the creation of a coherent inner self through practice in introversion. Each self is different because we have different patterns of mental activity owing to our distinguishing artistic judgments about what sort of person we want to be. We practice being one sort of person or another by feeding our impulses so that we accumulate peculiar assortments of mental habits which individuate us.
The question of an afterlife, therefore, is about whether a pattern of thinking can survive physical death. To some extent, this question was answered long ago by Plato who distinguished between biological afterlife through procreation and intellectual afterlife through the survival of ideas. Plato lives on, in part, because the survival of his texts sustains Platonism, the system of ideas that reflects some of his mental habits. But this isn’t the survival of the whole self, since most of Plato’s mental habits aren’t recorded in Platonism. As science fiction authors have speculated since the invention of the computer, the whole self may be immortal, after all, as long as a computer can implement the entire pattern of mental activity that comprises the inner self. A computer program can be copied and stored on multiple devices, greatly increasing its potential longevity; in addition, the program would be immune from biological degradation or from the vicissitudes of the cellular or animalistic life cycles. Simulating a mind would require being able to predict how a person would respond to any situation, by weighting each possible thought in terms of its probability given either some sense impression or another thought. For example, someone who works at a zoo may be more likely to think of elephants in superficially non-elephant-related situations, since she’s liable to interpret her experience in terms that she considers important on the basis of her experience. If she loves elephants, she’ll be in the habit of wondering about their inner life or about how our modern activities endanger them. Again, someone whose parents smoke and who takes up that habit herself will have a high probability of thinking of smoking a cigarette when faced with certain stresses. With enough study, such habits should be predictable, in which case we could map out the relations between our mental tendencies, which amounts to laying out the blueprint for reproducing the personal self in question.
Now, even if a futuristic supercomputer could compute these probabilities, you might think that implementing a program that duplicates a long-deceased person’s inner life would be impossible, because the data would have been lost: no one has studied the vast majority of people’s mental proclivities or discovered the key to preserving them by calculating the probabilities of their associated thoughts. Thus, an afterlife could be possible only for the future generations in which the requisite computers for simulating persons are combined with the technology for mapping out the relations between the person’s thoughts. But not so fast! The mapping technology is a red herring, because a futuristic supercomputer could theoretically bypass that tedious business by implementing all possible systems of mental association, thus reproducing the mental essence of our species. Mapping our mental potential would thus be akin to mapping our genome.
Would such a comprehensive computer program count as a potentially immortal afterlife for each person who ever lived? You might think it wouldn’t, because as John Locke said, that which is crucial to personal identity is memory, which connects earlier and later stages of ourselves despite whatever growth or other changes we may undergo. Suppose those computer programs, which instantiate all of our patterns of mental activity could likewise be implanted with memories of their former, embodied lives. How would the programmers know which body to assign to which mind or indeed which set of experiences to assign to each future, immortal self? This sort of afterlife would seem to require a simulation not just of every mind, but of the entire world of the past, complete with all the complexities of known history and the remembered events that provoke our reactions and thereby help to define our personality. Again, suppose the all-powerful computers of the distant future can achieve this stupendous feat of engineering, by simulating all possible worlds, thus mooting the simulators’ ignorance of how the past actually unfolded. One of those possible simulated worlds would be the right memories shared by future versions of everyone who ever actually lived, meaning memories that correspond to what actually happened, including the memory that the sky during the day was blue rather than green, that President Obama was African-American rather than Chinese, that your grandmother’s apple pie tasted better than her chocolate chip cookies, and so on.
Suppose, then, the simulated minds, existing as patterns of mental activity generated by superpowerful computer processors were equipped with memories of their former life and even of being transformed, as it were, into digital code. Would that be the right sort of afterlife? Not really, you might think, because the memories shouldn’t be merely implanted, but they should flow from physical continuity between the stages of the person’s development to make for a unified identity. Thus, when we sleep each night or get drunk or struck in a car accident, we lose consciousness and incur gaps in our memory. But we identify with the self that regains consciousness, because our body is intact. We integrate the memory loss in an explanation of how the gap occurred and we learn to live without complete information pertaining to ourselves. There would be no such physical continuity between, say, a person who dies in the fifth century CE and the simulation of that person’s mind that might occur five centuries from now. The person’s body will have rotted away. However, this too is something of a red herring, because the physical continuity between our earlier and later stages is superficial. Our childhood bodies are hardly similar to our adult ones and even the cells of our adult bodies frequently die and are replaced by new ones. This is why our skin can recover from cuts or bruises, for example, since skin heals itself by replacing the affected cells.
In any case, physical continuity is inessential. If the personal self consists of the mind that the body produces as a work of ideational art projected by the brain into psychological and social spaces, the transformation from embodied to simulated person might be compared with that between child and adult. The body changes drastically, but the self retains its identity as long as it can intellectually accommodate the transition in its worldview. For example, the simulated self might feel identical with its former, biological self by rationalizing the chasm between the rotted body in the earth and the mind’s resurrection in cyberspace. A child’s body is connected with its adult form because there are causal relations between the two. But as the Buddhist says, every event is interconnected with every other one. Perhaps, given chaos theory, quantum mechanics and the conservation of matter and energy, some of the molecules that form the body may tangentially impact the mass resurrection in the distant future. For example, the molecules might be recycled in the earth that eventually sustains a plant that provides oxygen to the software engineer that oversees the resurrection of the mind that once inhabited the body that used those molecules in its thumb. This may seem merely incidental, but there’s nothing magical about causal relations. The closer you look at the latter, the more ceteris paribus they seem, which means that even a causal relation has exceptions because the conditions that need to come together to produce the effect may be interfered with by events not modeled in the science that posits the causal relation. This is to say that even causal relations are contingent and messy. Whether a series of events counts as causally ordered depends, to some extent, on the theorist’s interests. The simulated mind might be disposed to identify with the self that originates its memories, in which case it will overlook the tenuous relation between its incarnations.
Moreover, even if the simulated self isn’t really a survival of the earlier one, because there’s no reliable connection between the two bodies (since the molecules of the decayed thumb wouldn’t tend to have the same effect in similar circumstances, which is to say their influence on the future programmer would be entirely coincidental), this metaphysical lack of identity might not be as important as the psychological integration. Just as the simulated mind might resort to a mystical perspective in which everything is united by its interdependence with everything else, so as to mitigate the strangeness of being an immortal computer program, we might each presently take a leap of faith that some form of us will survive our physical death due to the futuristic scenario. We do something similar each night, since the continuation of our physical body is secondary to what matters most to the self we want to preserve, that being the lack of interruption in our stream of thoughts. That stream is nevertheless interrupted whenever we enter delta sleep, so that in a sense our mental self dies thousands of times before our brain expires. Again, we feel comfortable with those periods of unconsciousness, because we understand them and confidently expect to overcome them each morning when we awake, having retained sufficient memories to preoccupy us and to preserve the integrity of the project of being ourselves.
Of course, we should be much more confident of awaking each morning than of being resurrected in the distant future thanks to staggering advances in computer technology, since the above futuristic scenario is speculative. But this is a difference of degree. According to Moore’s Law, we do know that, ignoring various factors, the number of transistors in a computer circuit doubles every two years. This law acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the prediction is one of the conditions that comes together to generate the advance in processing speed. Another such condition is that the societies that use the computers must be economically stable, whereas they might on the contrary suffer catastrophic blowback from Islamist terrorists, for example. In any case, we have some reason to be confident that the simulation of patterns of personal, mental activity will one day be feasible. Whether it actually happens is another matter, just as it’s possible you might die in your sleep.
The Existential Value of Artifacts
My point here, though, isn’t just to consider the likelihood of a natural afterlife. Rather, I’m interested in the relation between the near-universal religious anticipation of an afterlife and the technoscientific creation of personal life after physical death, given that the assumption of the latter is at least tenable. Suppose that technology affords our descendants more and more power over natural processes, so that because we’re natural beings, some such natural form of resurrection as I sketched above will one day be realized. In that case, we’re obliged to explain how the ancients foreshadowed an eventuality they couldn’t have imagined, because they had no conception of computers. One explanation we can dismiss is that the ancients would have ventured a mere lucky guess. More likely is the possibility that the ancient dream of immortality had some independent foundation and then the dream acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather like how Moore’s Law figures in the business of researching and developing computers. The problem with this explanation, though, is that it would require scientists and engineers, who tend to be atheists or at least not particularly religious, to feel compelled to fulfill not just the supernaturalist’s agenda, but that of the ancients whom modernists tend to ignore because of their relative ignorance. (This is one of the distinguishing features between philosophy and science, for example, which is that philosophers are more interested in the history of their discipline than are scientists in the history of theirs.) Of course, most people don’t want to die, so those who are developing the technology that may one day end our mortality would be independently motivated to do so. But this leaves the mystery of how the ancients could have stumbled on a scenario that—while hopelessly mythologized and steeped in archaic symbolism (gods, spirits, heaven, divine judgment, and the like)—eerily presages a transformation that has some natural likelihood.
There’s apparently a mystery here because the ancients should have had no reason to expect to live forever. Death was all around them and their life expectancy was low. Medicine was in its infancy and the natural landscape, which was as lethal a place as it ever was, was much more prominent for the ancients than it is for moderns who are more sheltered. Most ancients had to hunt or farm to survive, so they must have been deeply familiar with the cycle of life. The seasons and the stars come and go, and we too perish albeit usually after renewing life in the act of procreation. Why, then, imagine that we might survive the evident destruction of our bodies? The ancients performed elaborate religious rituals to renew the seasons and to appease the gods, but this only raises the further question of how they could have been so audacious as to have dealt with their understandable terror of death by personifying all of nature—including the carcass of each deceased person who was thought to have passed on to another world.
If the question is why they would have hoped they could live forever, the answer is obvious: virtually no one wants to die and indeed our personal nonbeing is unthinkable to us. We can imagine and even long for the death of our enemies, but the thought of the world ceasing to flow through our senses or of our final breath, heartbeat or rumination is utterly repugnant. Our loathing of our inevitable death is evidently one of the means by which we struggle to survive despite that fate, having been genetically built to serve as vessels for the immortal genetic code. And since the ancients likewise distinguished themselves from the other animals by their higher-order intellectual functions, they would have prized their inner life and reified the abstract nature of their mind. After all, we don’t sense a mind in the way we sense everything outside our body, since our main senses all point outward. Apparently lacking physical features, then, the mind, meaning consciousness and the abilities to think and feel, might have seemed immune to natural changes, including death. Conceived of as a spiritual, which is to say supernatural body, the inner self was readily interpreted as immortal.
The mystery is solved, then, if we posit a fear of death common to the ancients and to the future resurrectionists. Most of us don’t want to die and the inner self seems metaphysically different from the transient phenomena we outwardly sense. But this isn’t the real conundrum. The deeper question is why the fulfillment of our natural desire for immortality should be physically permissible. Why would it be technically feasible to acquit the prehistoric and universal longing to live forever? Maybe the potential for immortality through the likes of computer simulation was always present and we merely got historically lucky in hitting upon the means to achieve our species’ most profound goal. But there are other relations between the desire for immortality and the technological fulfillment of it that go unnoticed when we focus on the absurdity of the supernatural form of eternal life. To conceive of the inner self as effectively a ghost is to confess that you’re lost in a childish daydream. Most of what children say is false, strictly speaking, but that’s irrelevant to the effects of childhood creativity, one of which is to distract their impressionable minds from the world’s grim indifference to their nakedly selfish preoccupations. Children are largely helpless, but their mythopoeic projection of fantasy and personhood onto impersonal natural processes insulates them and delays the horror that’s the birthright of all existentially upstanding individuals. Ancient religions acted as virtual reality filters that postponed our species’ reckoning with the existential facts that we alone are the gods we dreamed of and that no one else will rescue us from our instinctive fear of the dark which informs our fear of death. The inner self’s spirituality is only an illusion caused by our inherent ignorance of the brain, owing to the fact that we’re evolutionarily geared towards learning about the outer environment. Thus, there is no heavenly refuge from brutal nature.
The ancient virtual reality systems of Christianity, Islam, and the rest lost their charm in the West after the Black Death, the Protestant challenge to Catholicism, the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. And again the epistemic status of modern substitute myths may be secondary to their function. Now the problem isn’t an excess of childish naivety, as in the ancient animistic mindset that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and between subject and object; instead, we hypermodernists are faced with an excess of knowledge that alienates us from the real world while simultaneously depriving us of our species’ trusty escape mechanism, which is the supernaturalist’s virtual reality generator. Not only must we face the world’s godlessness and amorality, but we’re unable to reenter the childish mode of ignoring nature’s palpable alienness and inhumanity and of pretending or “having faith” that the works of our imagination are as real as the physical world that mindlessly assaults our senses. We cope with this existential crisis by applying our scientific knowledge in such a way that we ironically vindicate our childish yearnings: we engineer artificial worlds that are indeed as real as nature and that embed the morality and spirituality in physical systems, whereas the ancients imagined that those normative properties have always been present. The functions of our devices incorporate our intentions so that any purely physical explanation of their operations is incomplete. This is to say that whereas the animists could only have acted as if the universe is magically full of life, or could only have psychotically believed as much, we emerging technoscientific masters of the cosmos transmogrify and enchant the landscape so that the gods and their heavenly abode can actually be brought into being—in us and in our artificial worlds. We are all wizards and our magic is the personalization of impersonal, prehumanized natural phenomena, the imbuing of lifeless processes with our mentality, the vivification of the undead god.
The Irony of Promethean Defiance
The irony of all of this is telling. Put bluntly, the natural world humiliates the supernaturalist by meeting her religious fantasies with a harsh reality that won’t be denied. To avenge the ancients and thus our species’ childhood phase which we profess to have outgrown but which we jaded hypermodernists are nostalgic about, we apply our enlightenment, which is our clearer vision of natural reality, by way of fulfilling those very childish expectations of all-powerful gods, eternal life, and the timelessness of cultural categories such as morality. For example, we engineer a means by which our thought and thus our inner selves might persist after our body’s decomposition. Whereas nature humbled our naïve ancestors by differing wildly from their cherished but fanciful ontologies, we gods confound that world by replacing it with another—and not just with any other, but with the very world that would have comforted our childlike ancestors. True, ironically we are the higher powers we prayed to and sacrificed livestock for, but the functionalization of natural processes, the injection of human intentions and thus ideals into our technological creations brings heaven to earth, albeit only within tragic limits since even the superpowerful computers of the distant future wouldn’t likely last forever. Still, as Zoroastrianism and the subsequent monotheistic faiths proclaim, heaven is a place in which the old world that includes natural evils of embodiment passes away. If technology one day conquers death, whether through artificial intelligence or cloning or some other means, that will meet a necessary condition of creating the heaven that was once just a naïve daydream and an escapist fantasy.
This historical fulfillment of our childish longings fulfills the criterion that the most profound philosophical truth must at least be embarrassingly ironic. There is no occult correlation between symbols and facts; in so far as symbols such as words or thoughts are treated as bearers of semantic significance, as reaching out and touching what they’re about, these symbols are effectively vestiges of magical thinking. Meaning is real, but only in the aesthetic sense. Symbols are meaningful as works of art that express our urge to magically enchant the undead wilderness. And yet the most artistically significant use of symbols amounts to so much ironic graffiti on nature’s hide. The irony in question is that we do the opposite of what we intend, which is to say that the exoteric, outer meaning in culture tends to be undercut by an esoteric, inner meaning. Consumers take themselves to be happy imbibers of useful commodities, selfish calculators of the hedonic value of various means of satisfying their whims, whereas they’re magicians whose spells have backfired so that instead of enchanting nature with their artifices, the postmodern habitat has trained them to be as gullible and pliant as children.
Artists themselves, from writers to actors to painters and musicians, usually lose their humility or their daemonic inspiration sometime after their work attracts a sizeable following (see, for example, the film director Neill Blomkamp’s downward slide from District 9). The power of fame corrupts even those engaged in the fundamental human pastime, which is that of creativity. First we create ourselves and then we create our worlds which in turn mold the unenlightened masses. Art is absolutely everywhere. Natural elements and regularities which comprise the undead god are divine because they’re supremely creative, but their art which evolves throughout the universe is grotesque rather than sublime because the artist in question is paradigmatically monstrous (mindless but strangely active and ordered). The artifacts left behind by organisms are likewise aesthetic and the ultimate such works have promethean, satanic significance in the existential struggle of the confined, tortured creatures who must define themselves in relation to the unimaginably vast and hideously complex monster they inhabit.
The irony here is twofold in that we’re both greater and lesser than we seem. All sentient beings have the heroic potential for satanic, tragic rebellion against the undead god; indeed, personhood is liberation from the prison of robotic causality and the retreat to an autonomous inner world of arguments, interpretations, visions, feelings, and the like which eventually horrify the person as they enlighten her and which inspire her to take creative matters into her hands. But a person is also ultimately a plaything of monstrous nature. In so far as we behave as predictable, unoriginal animals, as nameless “masses” in the pejorative sense, we still have the potential for enlightenment, and the irony of that reversal is magical in that it’s utterly anomalous (virtually miraculous). And when the enlightened philosopher-artist thwarts the undead god with originality, with a break from the natural program, whether through grim humour or the enlightening of others, or when she succumbs to temptation or is corrupted by the power she earns by her success in her public endeavours, she’s betrayed by her footing in the decaying belly of our maker. Even our greatest art is ultimately for naught and we rarely achieve even that goal of temporarily interrupting the natural decay with the side project in which we pursue our humanity (our wizardly, satanic struggle against the most divine being).
Art is everywhere, but irony, being an indicator of relative creativity (artificiality), is rare and precious. Ironic reversals in which we achieve the opposite of what’s expected and natural are profound revealers of our natural god’s weakness. Nature’s omnipotence lies in its actualization of everything that’s possible in space and time, among other dimensions. The mindlessness inherent in that lack of discrimination entails—somewhere and at some time—the creation of intelligent creators (persons) who may eventually understand their existential situation and respond with valiant reengineering projects. So what looks like a childish theistic daydream of the spirit’s immortality must be overcome along with wild nature: to live forever we must enchant the world, using technology to build the heaven of our imagining, but we must also outgrow the mythopoeic mindset and afflict ourselves with the curse of reason. The posthuman immortals occupying the simulated world in cyberspace would be as divine as the mythical gods of yore, and yet while they’d be greater in that they’d be real rather than fictive, they’d also have a right to be embarrassed by their point of origin: science and technology, the triumphs of modern reason would have as their esoteric, existential significance their utility in a daring uprising which would be simultaneously a pitiful capitulation to a childish, fearful, egoistic yearning for endless life.