When life ends, it really … really…really…ends
The possibility of dying without knowing what happens after is an ungluing bit of news.
It is a bad ass factoid that has molded human behavior and created an uncountable number of superstructures of philosophical thoughts. And it is not that we had the luxury of eons to stitch philosophical thoughts together. It all happened in the last 5000 years or so.
Not finding any plausible evidence that the self continues beyond death, if we do reach the conclusion that when life ends, it really ends, is it even possible to ever come to terms with our mortality and have a functional life?
Is it possible to find a place in the landscape of our thoughts where if the idea that our existence is finite springs up hoping to scare us, we just shrug our shoulders and say, meh, thank you, but I am fully aware that it is finite, and move on.
Can we reach a state that is something like I have been told to strive for during meditation — let thoughts (of mortality) bubble up, note their presence, and let them float away with the current.
The question I am pondering is what one needs to do after realizing that when life ends, it really ends, and be able to have a functional and enjoyable existence while we are here.
It is not laborious to infer that there is not a before and an after the start and the end points on the line of time on which I will exist (a timeline that, I think, exists without me, although philosophers will say that it is a debatable point, and starting from that, create another philosophical edifice, which I am sure, already exists).
At least for me, or what I hear from the limited number of people that are in the circle of my small universe, there is no evidence to the contrary.
I do not remember the moment of my birth or what was before that (I was too young to remember anything, and further, as my consciousness evolved, the memories of what was before birth did not come knocking either).
On the other side, it could happen that as I get older and cognitive faculties decline, and if I were to die of natural physical wear and tear, then like birth, I may not even know the moment of death or what comes after.
But if I were to die with my faculties intact, would I then remember what comes after that? There are plenty of unfortunate instances when cognitive faculties are intact until the last moment. Consider the example of the human cruelty of putting people on the death row or under a guillotine.
Another point to note is that not knowing what comes after death is different from not knowing what was before birth. Birth, after all, happened but death has not happened yet, so how would we know what is after.
To push back against the notion that I do live on, for a moment just assume that indeed, I do live on and will continue to exist in some form, and then, consider what some logical consequences of this assumption may be.
There is no reason that my present form is the one and only that is going to pull this trick. If I can do it once then I must have done it before, and that too, no telling how many times. If there is one more of me then why not two or three or 100 or…?
If indeed true and I have lived many times, even then I do not carry any remembrance of what existed after my previous deaths(s) either. One can also put forward plausible hypotheses for explanations why it may be so.
A simple hypothesis could be that because a finite brain cannot carry the information from an infinite cycle of births and deaths, and hence, life has evolved mechanisms to forget what happened before.
Natural selection, after all, can easily come up with an explanation for something that exists and has not yet gone extinct. In the counterfactual worlds where I went extinct, the trait of remembering past lives became an evolutionary burden.
Or perhaps, I do not remember anything because it is the first time I have had a lifeform where I have the consciousness that allows me to think and ponder over this very question. And this would be the one and only lifetime it would ever happen. How convenient.
I can tie myself in knots splitting hairs, but a simple fact is that once I become aware about the birth and death AND do not know what came before and what would come after, I can come up with various hypotheses that can possibly explain why that is so.
In deciding which one is correct, one can also follow the Occam’s razor. Given the overwhelming evidence, the least complicated inference one can draw is that when life ends, it … really … ends.
Also, irrespective of whether I continue to exist or not, as I do not remember anything before or after, functionally, my situation is no different from inferring that when life ends, it really ends.
If I accept that, I open a gate for all kinds of awkward existential questions that come knocking.
Is there meaning to this finite existence? What is the point of being born and going through living only to die? Without any meaning, ultimately is not it absurd to go on repeating the same cycle of activities we engage in day after day after day.
They are the questions that humanity has faced in its past and has tried either to argue out of dilemmas it poses or has tried to find various antidotes as measures of self-protection.
This brings me back to the original question…
Is it even possible to ever come to terms with our mortality and have a functional life? Yes, perhaps, it is possible. Perhaps, I am not mortal after all.
Occasionally for fleeting moments I have a passing feeling of connectedness with the vastness of the universe and that brings the insight that it is possible that when life ends, it really does not end.
I can think of reasons why I will continue after my death is a plausible notion and it comes from realizing that the line of time exists independently of me, and star and galaxies were present along that line before I came along and will continue to exist after I pass away, and (b) the sum of mass and energy is conversed.
I also know that every other thing in this universe is made of the same atoms and at a fundamental level we are all the same. Although the present configuration of atoms that make my current form will disintegrate, I will disintegrate, some of what I am was part of will become part of some other form in the future.
If that is true and is what happens to me after death then do I continue to live as being part of some form. Further, the world in which the form I would become lives would be the sum of acts I do today. This thought also imparts a different meaning to what I do in my present form and its consequences on my future self.
I should make the present a better place, because eventually, my future form is going to inherit it.
As for why I do not remember what was before or after my finite existence, atoms do not have a means to carry memory, and even if I continue to exist in different forms, there was no mechanism for memory of before to carry forth.
I know what you are thinking. How is the plausibility of what I am proposing — when life ends, it really does not end — any different from believing in a religion? A one-person religion of my own sorts.
Perhaps it is, but I have to find my own religion and one that fits my body and mind and allows me to have a functional life.