Mar 23, 2023
“Once alive, always alive, but not always alive in time. Life, at least conscious life, is not time bound. You’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound.”
“Do you believe in Life after Death?”
“Do you even hear yourself? Life after Death? After Death? What is death other than the cessation of life? How can life come after it? Death is death. It’s not a nap.”
“So you’re a nihilist then?”
“Of course not. I don’t believe in ‘Life after Death’ because the concept doesn’t make sense to me, but I do believe in ‘Life after Life’, or better yet, ‘Life beyond Life’.”
I’m 75 years old! If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve reenacted this scene…
Sometimes I feel as though the world is divided into three camps. The first group, we’ll call them Hummingbirds, believe in Life after Death. The second group, Crows, believe some version of ‘you live, you die, end of’. And me, and maybe you, we’re Sparrows.
The problem is with the word ‘death’. It appears to be a quite ordinary common noun. One might even say, a very common, common noun. Just try going a whole day without using it even once in a sentence!
‘Death’ is a common noun that allegedly means either ‘end’ or ‘transition’. It means neither; in fact, it has no meaning at all. Death is a phantom word; it is an example of what Alfred North Whitehead called The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. We imagine that something is ‘really real’ when in fact it is only ‘real’ as a concept in our minds.
Think of an Old Testament Baal (a Canaanite idol). The hunk of gold certainly exists…but it has no content, no meaning. It’s vacuous. So is ‘death’. The word exists (e.g., in a dictionary) but it has no content…no meaning.
We imagine that our minds shape our language. Nothing could be further… It is our language that shapes our minds. This is the origin of idolatry, and it is the origin of the concept of death.
“Are you for real? I see dead people (like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense); and dead birds (hopefully not Sparrows) and dead cats and dead mosquitoes and…” Well, you get the picture.
Of course! ‘Dead’ is an adjective. It describes an objective state of affairs; it demarcates the boundary between one state of affairs and another. ‘Death’ is something else again. Death is a process and an experience. It is subjective. But it is an experience that no one has ever had, ever will have, or ever could have. Death cannot be experienced because it is literally defined as the absence of experience.
Life, at least conscious life, can only ever be one thing, ‘life’. Are you alive? Well, congratulations… or condolences, but either way, you’re stuck with it.
When we think of life, we specifically think of various time-bound processes: eating, making, talking, etc. Philosophers talk of organisms as dissipative systems. But time itself, by its entropic nature, is finite; life is not. Conscious life is negentropic; it is the suspension (or retardation) of finitude.
So we have a paradox. Once alive, always alive, but not always alive in time. Life, at least conscious life, is not time bound. You’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound.
Where conscious life ends and organic chemistry begins is not on the menu today (although it is a most delicious dish in its own right). Today, I ask only that you agree with me that ‘conscious life’ exists, that it is a thing.
Agreed? Ok then. Unlike the other processes (above) that we routinely associate with life, consciousness is not time-bound. In fact, it is the specific function of consciousness to resist time. Consider Heraclitus’ famous river. It cannot be alive, much less conscious, precisely because it flows. Change is continuous. Therefore, it cannot be conscious. Consciousness is a product of a variation in the flow rate…and rivers just flow.
Sidebar: Heraclitus is the real nihilist. His famous ‘panta rei’ (Greek for ‘everything flows’) is equivalent to the Latin, ‘nihil est’. Panta rei equates being with flow, which is entropy, the annihilation of being. So being = not-being? This is the basis of an entire philosophy? But I digress.
A river is not a thing-in-itself. It is an accident of geography, a gash in the surface of the earth. Its existence, its flow rate, its course – all accidents of nature. It does not resist time; it models time. “Oh time is like a river…nothing but a river.” (Grayson Hugh)
That is not to say that the river isn’t teeming with life; it certainly is! Microscopic animals, unicellular plants, fish, and one big freshwater mammal, my flabby, bleached white, Uncle Ned. How about water nymphs? How about pre-biotic eddies from which life as we know it might evolve (and did evolve)? The river teems with life, at least some of it conscious (Ned?), but the river itself is not conscious, not conscious of itself or its world; it just flows.
As Proust so brilliantly illustrated in his Remembrance of Things Past, consciousness is the suspension of time, whether in a fleeting moment of self-reflection or in a long lost memory retrieved from early childhood.
Consciousness is not time-bound. Certainly, it is dependent on time-bound structures, e.g., a brain, for its origin, but once it occurs, there is no ‘sufficient reason’ for it to cease to be. Once thought, thought! So no, I am most certainly not a nihilist. I just don’t believe in ‘life after death’; I believe instead in life beyond life, i.e., consciousness.
Image: Two panels - the despairing "Hell," and "Ascent of the Blessed," featuring a journey through a tunnel towards a brilliant light - from a late 15th century painting by Hieronymus Bosch at the Palazzo Ducale, Venice.