Forget the universe. If science wants to examine infinity, first explore death.


Image Credit: Machiavellicro

I had a girlfriend who would ask a rather unique question to everyone she met whom she found intelligent and interesting.

If you could get every world leader together in one room and have them all agree to cooperate on one issue — and only that issue — until it was resolved, which issue would you choose?

As you might imagine, there were some generic answers like world peace or fix the environment. The more specific ones were always more interesting, like vaccinating every child or enforcing basic human freedoms globally. There were some not particularly well thought-out choices, too, like abolishing religion.

By far though, the most popular was space travel and colonizing other planets. It is a sound choice. To preserve the legacy and longevity of the human race, we must figure out a way to get off this rock, before its inevitable demise, and survive on other planets.

I picked finding more efficient ways to desalinate water and transport it to places that need fresh water the most, but I probably just picked that to have a more original answer than space travel. Hey, I was trying to impress a girl. Yet if you actually put me in that room with all those world leaders, I admittedly would have said space travel.

Until now. Now, I believe there is a frontier that is even more important and about which we know even less than space.

There are two inevitable points in every single person’s life: you are conceived and you die. Science knows so much about what happens in between those two points, but, in regards to what occurs before and after, we mostly just have some biological answers about reproductive cells and fertilizer.

Throughout the tens of thousands of years of human history, we have never been able to answer questions like what is human consciousness? How does it develop? When does it start? And, most importantly to me if I’m in that room of world leaders, what happens to it when all the functions in our brains permanently stop.

It’s like we just hit a wall at that point, and so we end up spending all our energy and resources trying to prolong our time on this side of the wall without ever really trying to figure out what’s happening on the other side. Meanwhile, what happens there could be an infinitely larger part of our existences.

We as a race have peered into the beginning of the universe, but we still don’t know what happens to us after we die. We still don’t have answers to questions like that, and it is imperative to me that we also address the reason why we still don’t.

And here comes the opinion that will make me one of the most unpopular people on the planet and probably also one of the most de-friended on Facebook.

We don’t know because of God.

I don’t mean God the higher being who may or may not have brought all life into existence. I mean God the construct that humans have used throughout history to answer questions to which we did not know the answer.

Look at what every theistic religion teaches. God is the truth. God is the way. God is the answer.

And look how we’ve used that answer. Why did my newborn child die? God. Why are my crops not growing? God. Where did this typhoon that destroyed our village come from? God. What are the stars and moon made of? God knows.

God was the answer we accepted to all of those questions until science came along and actually started answering them. Your child died from a birth defect caused by a lack of nutrition during pregnancy. Your crops aren’t growing because a disease is wiping out all the bees in your region. That typhoon came from uncharacteristically warm sea surface temperatures this year. The stars are mainly hydrogen and helium and what we see of the moon is mainly oxygen with silicon and a bunch of metals.

No, the answers that science provides are not always definite or comprehensive, which does make them less comforting. Yet science provides the mechanism that helps us reach the truth because it allows for the most important answer of all: I don’t know.

“I don’t know” is the beginning of a journey. God is a dead end.

God is not an answer. God is an excuse to ignore questions. God commands us not to consume from the tree of knowledge. God, as humans have used God throughout history, is the manifestation of ignorance.

At the same time, I understand why people feel they need God. We as a species inherently find the unknown to be terrifying. Why? Perhaps God, but I don’t know. What happens after death especially terrifies us because we don’t know what happens but all of us at some point must face it. It terrifies us so much that more people would rather believe there is a chance they might end up in a place of eternal suffering than simply not know.

To me, it is time to thank God for holding down this question for so long, but we need to take over from here. We must start testing that wall that prevents us from observing what happens on the other side of life and find a way to go through it, go around it, or make it disappear.

It sounds bizarre to study death, which for so long has been primarily the field of theologians and philosophers. If you look up metaphysics, it’s categorized as a branch of philosophy, not as a science. Yet what 13 episodes of Cosmos has taught me is that much of what we actually know about the universe was conceived by theologians and philosophers and that the early scientists who tested those concepts were more often than not in their era both ridiculed by the mainstream scientific community and denounced by the religious community.

Yet we know what we know because those scientists pressed forward anyway and inspired others to continue their work. The science of self-awareness, consciousness, and death exists. I don’t know or hear much about it, but I think it’s time to explore it. It’s too important to keep leaving it all up to God.

Update 10:05pm

A brilliant friend of mine who’s a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics read this post and commented that, while there are actually numerous scientists trying to understand the phenomenon of consciousness, there is also a scientific reason why death has not been further studied. The more science reveals about consciousness, the more it comes to a certain conclusion: there is no consciousness after death. The reason why religion dominates the discussion on the afterlife is because science is rather sure that death is the end of existence for one’s self.

That answer did not sit well with me (he admits it never sat well with him either), so I did some more research on the topic of consciousness and was surprised to find some researchers didn’t even believe in the existence of awareness.

I liked one theory in particular (admittedly not grounded in much data) that suggests consciousness is not an individual experience but rather something that exists around us much the same way that light does. Just as concepts like color and brightness don’t actually exist but are rather our brain’s attempts to interpret the presence and degree of light, awareness in this case doesn’t exist except as a mechanism of our minds to process the presence and degree of consciousness. The reason why we haven’t been able to measure it is because we have not figured out how to make observations in the absence of consciousness. Yet.

Following this theory, when our bodies die, we don’t lose consciousness because it doesn’t belong to us any more than light does. Our bodies simply lose the ability to perceive it, but that consciousness remains in the world. That would partly explain phenomenon like global consciousness and why people have out-of-body experiences during cardiac arrest.

In fact, Sam Parnia, the assistant professor of medicine at SUNY Stonybrook who conducted the cardiac arrest experiment even believes that death is a reversible process. If we can resuscitate the mechanisms that support consciousness and all other life functions, could we bring someone back from the dead? Here’s an even more frightening question: if we can create a mechanism that supports consciousness with far lower requirements for life functions (i.e. electricity), could we build an artificial intelligence that is both even more aware than we humans are and much harder to kill?

This theory also raises some interesting quandries. If consciousness is not separate within each individual, that means all experiences by everyone and every thing is shared and perhaps even connected. Thus the human experience, the Earth experience, or maybe even the entire universal experience is actually one infinite omnipresence, and self-awareness is only an illusion that prevents us from recognizing the higher plane of existence to which we all belong.

Of course, that’s a just theory, and right now it has barely more supporting evidence and substantially fewer supporters than the theory that we die and go to a marble palace in the sky. It’s something though, and it’s worth exploring.


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