dead wrong?
April 27, 2011 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Are there any non-theistic/scientific/philosophical 'afterlife' theories out there?

It seems to stand to reason that because of humans' obsession with the afterlife, some people would have come up with theories of post-death consciousness that don't revolve around a deity and some sort of revealed, corporeal alternate world. It seems like the idea that we just cease is, while probable, such an affront to our entire knowledge of how things work that surely some thinkers would have posited alternatives. I am interested in ideas from any culture or period of history. Kind of out-there is ok. Please note, though, that I am not interested in stuff like 'our atoms join the greater universe and carry on forever' or what all have you; I am interested in ideas where some component of human consciousness continues.
posted by threeants to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just to stave off potential sidetracking I'll point out that this is a different question from this AskMe. I'm not asking for personal comfort or reassurance; I'm simply trying to collect various ideas people have put forth.
posted by threeants at 9:15 PM on April 27, 2011


Buckminster Fuller thoughts on synergy may be interesting.
posted by goalyeehah at 9:17 PM on April 27, 2011


I think Biocentrism has that.
posted by Theloupgarou at 9:17 PM on April 27, 2011


Buddhism is non-theistic, and asserts a sort of afterlife. Kant is often described as a deist rather than a theist and he asserted a sort of immortality of the human soul.

But I'm not sure how ceasing to exist is an affront to our knowledge of how things work. Rather, it's consistent with observations that when things die they pretty much stop.
posted by skewed at 9:18 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Buddhist reincarnation isn't based on belief in a deity. The process of karma and rebirth are more like basic physical laws of the universe.

Your next incarnation is controlled by what you do in this life, but there isn't any supernatural judge making a decision about you. It just happens.

...or so I understand it. I'm not an expert.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:19 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


For me and my own purposes, the law of conservation of energy is basically exactly this.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:19 PM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife fits the bill pretty well, although I don't know how literally it was intended. (It's been a long time since my Daniel Quinn phase, but as I recall it's not precisely a corporeal world. It's weird.)

What Dreams May Come is in a pretty similar vein as well. More traditionally ghost-y and there's definitely a Heaven and Hell construct, but without the Christian mythos. (This is a novel, not a book of philosophy, but it's definitely an idea that has some currency with a certain flavor of generically areligious New Age hippie.)

I'm not sure I'm on the right track here, but these may both be worth a read if afterlives in general interest you.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:20 PM on April 27, 2011


Try Nisargadatta, a 20th century Vedantin.
posted by goethean at 9:24 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes. See, for example, the Eternal Return (or Recurrence).
posted by smorange at 9:27 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Frank Tipler's Omega Point natterings might be of use here, as the deity they center around isn't actually considered to be supernatural. To sum up, the omega point is what happens very very very far into the future, when through the inevitable Big Crunch (or the intentional forcing of a collapse if the universe is inconveniently structured for infinite-expansion heat death without interference) all matter and energy effectively becomes alive and gains infinite computing power and subjectively infinite time in which to use it. With infinities to play around with, the Omega Point will then bring about the practical resurrection of everyone who has ever died by way of exactly simulating the entire history of every possible universe. There's a lot of stacking exponents on top of exponents in his stuff.
posted by Drastic at 9:27 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gurdjieff talked about how through conscious efforts one could "crystallize" a more permanent body that would last as long as the solar system.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:36 PM on April 27, 2011


I'm also partial to physical as opposed to supernational theories of how we might survive, but a big problem with Tipler's omega point theory is that it depends on the occurrence of a Big Crunch, which is now considered to be very unlikely. In the 90's when he wrote his book that seemed a likely possibility, but since then it turns out that not only is there not enough mass to reverse the expansion of the universe, but it's actually accelerating.

However, a much more mainstream physical theory is eternalism, aka four-dimensionalism. If we take the "block spacetime" view that time is a dimension in the same sense as the spatial dimensions, then this implies that even though we do occupy a limited span of spacetime we don't actually cease to exist when we die. We simply exist within a certain area of time as we do in at a certain location in space. So worrying that I won't exist in 2100 (or 1900 for that matter) is analogous to worrying that I don't exist in Antarctica or Mars.

And as I understand it (not being a physicist) there are actually good reasons to believe that spacetime does exist in four dimensions, for example the fact that the simultaneity of events depends on the motion of the observer. In other words, what events you perceive as being in the past, present, or future depends on your particular frame of reference, which makes it hard to argue that only the present has a real existence.

I've actually found this idea comforting in dealing with the loss of my dad a few years ago. I like the idea that he exists from 1930-2008, even if he doesn't extend to 2011. I particularly like the idea that he exists there as the same person I knew, not as some disembodied spirit somewhere else.

I'm sure a physicist could explain this better, but it works for me better than magical thinking.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_dimensionalism
posted by wps98 at 9:53 PM on April 27, 2011 [17 favorites]


There are a variety of philosophical theories often collected under the heading "New Dualism" (traditional dualism being the idea of an immortal soul that can survive the death of the body). One version postulates that the brain is hardware and the mind is software (more or less) and all we need is adequate artificial hardware to replicate the brain and you could "copy" the mind onto the artificial brain (but until then, at death, you are screwed). Another version speculates that there's some sort of other observable, measurable substance out there that's different from matter but we don't know what it is yet. (I find this version silly, just go and call it a soul; until you FIND something, it's not science and it's silly to pretend. I think this is your "I'm not religious but I don't like the idea of being forever dead" people.)

Very Q&D and simplified background: Modern dualism essentially notes that how the mind arises from the brain is a mystery, and that consciousness, personality, et al, can't be explained from a purely materialist standpoint (at present). So there must be something special about this mind/soul/whatever that is different from the material, and potentially it can survive the death of the material body. (Although not all dualists think that's the case; some thing there's a "something special" but that it doesn't or can't survive the body's death.) Materialism counters that dualism hasn't proven its case either and that it involves all kinds of complications that materialism doesn't need and that seem unlikely. (Of course, if anyone had proven it, it'd get kicked out of philosophy and into neurobiology or something; philosophy is only for the questions nobody's solved yet. When they get solved they get booted to a different discipline.) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will set you up much better and more completely.

By the by, plenty of religious theories do have a deity but not a revealed, corporeal world. I'm assuming that's not a literal "and" and that you're not saying theories with one or the other are okay but theories with both are not. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:56 PM on April 27, 2011


In Mother London, Micheal Moorcock's most 'normal' novel, a character has a brief vision of the Multiverse that the rest of his characters usually play around in. The idea that there are millions of parallel universes out there is really comforting to him.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:17 PM on April 27, 2011


For me and my own purposes, the law of conservation of energy is basically exactly this.

You might want to go and learn what energy is and what it means for it to be conserved. (Hint: it doesn't mean that the stuff firing between your synapses exists as anything even remotely resembling a coherent, conscious whole after said synapses have stopped firing and your brain has turned to decaying meat. Heat radiating from your corpse is conserving energy.)

The process of karma and rebirth are more like basic physical laws of the universe.

...that rely on 'some sort of revealed, corporeal alternate world' explicitly ruled out by the OP. Unless you can propose how these laws operate and how we might observe and measure them - for example, where is the ledger of a person's conduct stored, how is it updated, and by what mechanism does it reroute the packets of their soul (whatever that is) to a new body upon death?

Anyway:

Benevolent time travelers who upload you into a computer at the instant of death, then take you to live with them in the future in a man-made paradise?

Cryogenically frozen heads being woken up by a technologically advanced civilisation and kept alive in mostly immortal mechanical or biological bodies?

A drastically altered perception of time as the brain approaches death, creating a dream state that's over in a second but feels like an eternity to the expiree? Deliberately inducing such a state through drugs and stimulation of the brain?

Super-intelligent robots who can calculate a past state of the deterministic universe at the subatomic level, then reassemble matter in the present to be identical to how it existed in the past?

Already being in a computer simulation, and 'waking up' when we die?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:20 PM on April 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


Quantum Immortality might count, though it's more of a thought experiment than anything else.
posted by wayland at 10:32 PM on April 27, 2011


The four dimensional thing seems like a semantic shell game. What's the difference between saying "X used to exist, as we can see by these ways the world is different by dint of their having existed" and "X still exists back there in the block"? What are we trying to emphasize with the latter? It has a kind of emotional salience, this imagery - I'd argue because we aren't just positing a block but potential block-observers. What could possibly stand as justification for the latter? I can't imagine.

Reminds me of this joke.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 11:43 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's the Simulated Reality argument.

Essentially, we are just a computer simulation that gets run over and over.
posted by vacapinta at 11:51 PM on April 27, 2011


Try Panpsychism on for size.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 12:04 AM on April 28, 2011


What wps98 is referring to as Four Dimensionalism is explored (without ever using the term as far as I recall) in Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse 5'.
posted by chmmr at 12:25 AM on April 28, 2011


Douglas Hofstadter has an interesting take in his book I Am a Strange Loop, in which we live on to some extent as partial simulations in the minds of other people who know us well (a bit like beta-levels for the Alastair Reynolds SF readers out there).

If you accept a certain view of consciousness I think this perspective makes a lot of sense. It doesn't provide immortality though, just some limited existence after death - this may be one of those things which you either find disappointingly mundane or rather wonderful depending on your perspective. It's a good book on these issues in any case.
posted by larkery at 1:22 AM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I read Slaughterhouse Five at a really young age and it really shaped my view of life, death, and the afterlife. You can transcend the problem entirely by looking at life as a four dimensional object, like the Trafalmadorians.

"The Trafalmadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains…it is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever." - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
posted by mammary16 at 3:22 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


In Iain M. Banks novel, "Look To Windward", a race of aliens experiences the afterlife because a portion of that race had "Sublimed" earlier and created the afterlife for them. "Subliming" is the sci-fi cliche about aliens evolving into pure energy. In the case of this particular group of aliens, some of them elected to evolve into pure energy, while most of the race did not. The ones that did went ahead and created the Heaven of their theologies, and the souls of the deceased (after this event) would be able to enter it, providing a bit of neuro implant technology was working correctly.

A good bit of the novel has to do with the disposition of those killed in a civil war, and the possibility of annihilation because that neuro implant wasn't working (or was purposefully targeted by certain weapons of that civil war).
posted by chengjih at 4:36 AM on April 28, 2011


You may want to read about Possibilianism and read the book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. The idea, as I understand it, is to creatively think about possible afterlives that we cannot currently rule out with science.
posted by Jorus at 6:39 AM on April 28, 2011


In Iain M. Banks novel, "Look To Windward", a race of aliens experiences the afterlife because a portion of that race had "Sublimed" earlier and created the afterlife for them.

His most recent book, Surface Detail, involves manufactured afterlives much more extensively. It's a really interesting exploration that may interest the OP. The basic idea is that technology has progressed sufficiently that your neurological state can be recorded and backed up, loaded into another physical being, or loaded into a virtual being in a virtual world.

This results in a war between two competing philosophies: Groups that historically believed in a hell, and as a result actually manufactured hells for their dead to experience once the technology was available, and the group that thinks this is morally reprehensible and so seeks to destroy the technological hells and free those in them.
posted by odinsdream at 6:39 AM on April 28, 2011


The Evil Genius could simulate our births and deaths, or we could be deluding ourselves into believing that we were born and will die.

That Hideous Strength: "Not until [the moment of his death] did [Frost] suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul -- nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked."
posted by michaelh at 7:10 AM on April 28, 2011


The Physics Of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind And The Meaning Of Life by Evan Harris Walker
He believes that through quantum physics our actual consciousness persists in some way after death.
posted by canoehead at 7:53 AM on April 28, 2011


Surprised no one has mentioned Singularity-style immortality via digital uploading a la Permutation City (which also has some nice riffs on quantum immortality).
posted by gerryblog at 8:24 AM on April 28, 2011


The process of karma and rebirth are more like basic physical laws of the universe.

...that rely on 'some sort of revealed, corporeal alternate world' explicitly ruled out by the OP. Unless you can propose how these laws operate and how we might observe and measure them - for example, where is the ledger of a person's conduct stored, how is it updated, and by what mechanism does it reroute the packets of their soul (whatever that is) to a new body upon death?


I regret that I don't have the time to expand upon this right now, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of karma and rebirth. It's not a judgment or ledger of a person's conduct. It's also not some sort of alternate world; it's the world in which we're living right now. It's no more "revealed" than any other theory, since there is no deity in Buddhism to reveal anything humans can't know on their own.
posted by desjardins at 8:27 AM on April 28, 2011


Well, Plato tells the story of Er, who experienced the afterlife and reincarnation. In fact, reincarnation is a theme throughout a lot of Plato's mythology.
posted by General Malaise at 9:08 AM on April 28, 2011


This article might be helpful to you as well.
posted by General Malaise at 9:10 AM on April 28, 2011


I've actually found this idea comforting in dealing with the loss of my dad a few years ago. I like the idea that he exists from 1930-2008, even if he doesn't extend to 2011. I particularly like the idea that he exists there as the same person I knew, not as some disembodied spirit somewhere else.

I think this is best summed up in Ovid's "Metamorphosis" - 'Omnia Mutantur, Nihil Interit'... 'Everything Changes, Nothing is Lost.' Actually have that tattooed around my arm, it was such a simple and beautiful summation of existence, and a comfort when dealing with the death of a friend.
posted by FatherDagon at 2:00 PM on April 28, 2011


Life in the World Unseen is a book by Anthony Borgia giving a description of the afterlife by a post-humous Robert Hugh Benson. It is said that when he died, he realized the afterlife was nothing like what he had been teaching as a Catholic priest, and was given the opportunity to return to our world and dictate his message through Anthony Borgia. Here is a PDF of the book. I found it to be a great read, and it has helped shape some of my ideas of the afterlife. To me, if I wanted to give a visual description of what I mean, it seems a lot like the movie version of What Dreams May Come, which was mentioned above. It definitely shares some of the concepts from that book, such as The Realms. I highly recommend this book, even if people call bullshit on the writing of it from beyond the grave. I personally don't really believe that claim, but I really do like the ideas presented in that book.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 1:39 AM on April 29, 2011


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