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Pretend we’re dead

27/03/2016

near-death-experience

“The only possible way I could have had my unique set of experiences is by living my life as it is, and that means dying when I die.” – Max Edwards (died 26th March 2016, aged 16).

Mary died a few days ago. She was my grandmother’s last surviving close friend at the Brisbane granny prison in which she’s incarcerated to await her own demise (“Don’t ever let them put you in a place like this, Michael”). Her funeral is the day before Nan’s 95th birthday.

As it happens, Mary died in the same week a popular death cult celebrates the torture and execution of its god. If the day on which their Lord and Saviour was betrayed to his killers by one of his closest companions is Good you’ve gotta wonder what Christians would consider a Bad Friday.

All the death and despair and chocolate in the air got Nan and I to talking about dying. Not that we need much encouragement. So what happens to you when you die? We agreed neither of us have a clue but she assured me that if it’s possible to come back and haunt people then my home is set to get a lot spookier after she croaks.

I guess the minimalist answer to the question of death is nothing. No sensation. No place. No time. No consciousness. Not even blackness, an abyss or the absence of something. Just nothing.

Of course there’s other possibilities. Maybe our bodies don’t actually give rise to our sensations and memories but channel them from some other plane of existence. That’s never seemed likely to me. The senses seem too caught up in the chemistry of the body and the physics of the environment. It’s scarcely credible a sense like sight would exist in the absence of eyes, optic nerves and the visual cortex. And there’s so many other ways to interact with the environment. If I can still see after my eyeballs have decomposed why not echo-locate and taste radio waves as well? Would my perceptions of reality continue to be conditioned by my now non-existent neural pathways? Could I still abuse drugs?

Memory too seems closely linked to the body, most specifically the brain. A bit of acquired injury or the slow burn of senility and your memory’s gone while you’re still alive. Seems a bit optimistic to imagine it would still be there after your head has gone up the chimney or been eaten by worms. It can barely survive a good night out.

I was about eight when Mum and some of her New Age friends tried to sell me on the idea of reincarnation. They were using pendulums and past-life regression to work out who they were thousands of years ago. It’s odd that so many Egyptian Priestesses and Roman Centurions get reincarnated as Woy Woy housewives and bank tellers. Karma must have a sense of humour.

So I’m walking along a lane trying to remember who I was before the indifferent winds of fate blew me into the body of a very bored schoolboy. But no matter how I strained my memory and stretched my imagination there was always something in the way. Me. Then it occurred to me I had to get rid of my memories and preconceptions and hopes if I wanted to know who I was before my current life landed on me. Straightaway I knew. That weird thing happened. The altered state of consciousness familiar from some of my asthma attacks. Of course I hadn’t yet learned to call it an altered state of consciousness. Or a psychotic episode. But the bliss came over me, the tears poured down my face and I knew who I was when I wasn’t me. Everyone. Everyone who is, was or will be. Not very impressive, eh? Not like being Isaac Newton or Genghis Khan or Chico Marx. There’s not much to boast about if you’ve gotta be Richard Nixon as well. So much for reincarnation.

The Buddha’s angle is a bit more credible. He didn’t believe in reincarnation. He preached rebirth. There’s no spirit or soul or self that migrates from body to body, life to life. There’s just craving and cause and effect. So after you die your greed carries on and causes the birth of another needy, greedy, sensation seeking little being. Doomed to dissatisfaction and suffering just like you. It’s like a flame being transferred from candle to candle so it can keep eating wax. Or those silver balls in Newton’s Cradle that forever bounce back and forth, back and forth, until all their karma has dissipated through entropy. It’s not really the same person, any more than adjacent frames of a film are the same picture. We impose the illusion of continuity ourselves. If you’re asking what you’ll be when you’re dead, or what your original face was, or who you were when you started reading this sentence, you’re asking the wrong question. You need to ask what you are here and now. And the answer? Nothing. You never existed in the first place. You don’t even have to wait until you’re dead.

So I don’t think my memories or senses will continue after I die, but what about my consciousness? Those were the lines I’d been thinking along one of the many times I annoyed my father.

“Hey Dad”
Suspiciously, “What do you want Michael?”
“You know when you die?”
“Not yet, but I expect I’ll find out soon enough.”
“But you know how when you’re dead your body stops working?”
“Yes.”
“So your eyes stop and you stop seeing and your ears stop and you stop hearing and your nose stops and you stop smelling and your tongue stops …”
“I think I get the idea.”
“… and your brain stops and you stop thinking.”
“It might be a nice change if your mouth would stop.”
“So nothing new could ever happen to you. Time would stop too.”
“I suppose so.”
“The whole world would move on to the next second but not you. You’d be stuck in the moment you died, always seeing the same thing and feeling the same thing and thinking the same thing. Forever.”
“Which is probably why you shouldn’t waste so much time thinking pointless, stupid things. You might die and be stuck with them.”

It’s pretty hard to imagine how consciousness might arise from electrochemical processes in the body, so it’s hard to dismiss the possibility it might be able to exist independent of the body. That thought has been keeping people up at night for some time.

Rene Descartes was convinced people are an amalgam of two completely different kinds of stuff. Body and soul. Consciousness enters us from another realm and animates us through our pineal gland. Maybe to see Rene as a great thinker you need to compare him to the people he hung out with. Nonetheless it’s the Cartesian conception of the body as a meat machine that informs both sides of the mind-body dualism/monism debate to this day. Nothing beats a metaphor of human beings as artifacts when it comes to crippling critical thought.

Physicalists believe consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, which they think of as a meat computer. ‘Emergent’ means they don’t have to specify how or why consciousness might arise from a complex interaction of neurons across synapses. It just does. Like magic. Except to physicalists there’s no such thing as magic or mystery. Just matter and energy. Physicalists also believe that if you can simulate a brain on a computer it will really think. Why not? If you simulate money on a computer it will really buy stuff. This is a huge advance from Descartes. Computers are smarter than your average machine.

The New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett follows that line of argument to a conclusion. Of sorts. Since subjective experiences can’t be objectified and measured they can’t really be said to exist. Consciousness disappears in a puff of reductionist logic. I don’t think therefore I’m not. I suspect he learned this conjuring trick from BF Skinner. If you can’t explain something, explain it away. Maybe the Buddha would have agreed, but I doubt it. As a New Atheist Dennett knows he’s rational, objective and absolutely correct. He knows your consciousness far better than you do. But he doesn’t think he’ll convince you. That’s because he also knows you’re stubborn, superstitious and impervious to facts.

David Chalmers is probably the best known philosopher of consciousness alive today. He agrees with physicalists that everything you think, say and do is ordained deterministically by the actions of your neurons. He thinks you could replace every neuron in your head with a functionally identical microchip and you would behave exactly the same. I have no idea why he believes this. Microchips are nothing like neurons. He says he does though.

But Chalmers thinks consciousness exists independently of brain activity and doesn’t influence it. Your life isn’t affected by consciousness any more than a movie is affected by its audience. I don’t know if consciousness walks out on particularly boring lives but apparently it isn’t into George Romero. So if you’re a p-zombie you have to get by without any consciousness.

P-zombies would have bodies and brains like regular folk but no internal life. They would look and act in exactly the same way as someone with consciousness despite having none. They would appear to fear death though they would be unable to experience fear, pain, hatred, love, boredom, joy or anything else. They might even write books about consciousness despite not having a clue what it is. So I keep a chainsaw under the bed in case Daniel Dennett breaks the door down.

Chalmers thinks the physicalist universe might be missing something fundamental. That things aren’t made only of matter and energy but that consciousness itself is a basic constituent of everything there is. So to say consciousness ends when you die would be just as solipsistic as saying matter and energy end when you die. He’s not just making this stuff up you know. The idea places him within a long tradition of pantheistic, panentheistic and panpsychic beliefs held by many different people and cultures the world over. Some insist that consciousness is the underlying fact of existence. The basis. The first cause. The godhead. Several of the philosophical systems we put under the eclectic banner of ‘Hinduism’ teach that unmediated consciousness, free of subject or object, isn’t just self, but Self. Not just truth, but Truth.

There’s a Sanskrit pun that goes “Shiva (Pure Consciousness) without Shakti (Creative Energy) is shava (a corpse)”. Yeah, I know puns don’t translate very well. They’re usually kinda lame in their native language too. But one of the many things this one illustrates is that while pure consciousness may be eternal, unchanging and divine, without an object it’s also static and inert. Where’s the Lila in that? Life itself is a product of the interplay of opposing principles. Of dualism. The Buddha tells us that where there is life there is suffering, but the corollary to that is that where there is no suffering there is no life. Is that why happy pills kill?

But if Shiva without Shakti is death, Shakti without Shiva is chaos. Unbounded potential without realisation. It’s the tree falling in a forest that no-one hears. The sound of one hand clapping. The quantum wave-function without an observer to collapse it. It is everything yet nothing of consequence. The cat in the box, both alive and dead.

Perhaps you can’t understand either death or consciousness from the perspective of the other. Consciousness is irreducibly subjective. It only happens to me. Death is irreducibly objective. It only happens to others. One isn’t the missing piece of the other. They have no point of contact but are complete in and of themselves. And the interstices between them are … us. The delusion of the doer, the experiencer, the homunculus in your brain, the ghost in the machine. The frightened, fallen thing that believes itself to be separate from everything else. An unstable emanation of body and soul, matter and mind. Doomed to suffer. Doomed to die.

By now you probably agree with my Dad. I waste a lot of time thinking pointless, stupid things. It’s not as if I even have to worry about time and death and madness and stuff. I’ve got a Goddess who takes care of all that for me. I don’t reckon anyone’s gonna nail Her to a cross.

Those who recognised the title of this blogpost have been onto me all along, haven’t you? The point I’m trying to make has nothing to do with death or consciousness or the blood of the Lamb. It’s all just an excuse for the gratuitous promotion of one of my favourite bands, who rose from the dead last year after a long sojourn in the underworld. I may not know The Answer, but I know what I like. So here they are. The heaviest grannies in rock’n’roll.

Maybe I should buy my own grandmother an electric bass for her birthday. With a 200 watt amp. Some of her fellow aged care inmates are a bit hard of hearing.

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6 Comments
  1. SMiLes.. all i kNow is life..
    better yet.. ALL i FEEL iS liFE..
    and that’s a choice..
    so i never die
    now…
    But yes..
    i remember death..
    when i wished for
    it more than
    anything
    in
    life..
    Blessing of a
    suicide disease..
    the Blessing of death..
    Blessing of now..
    the Blessing
    of
    Life..
    Hmm.. yes..
    both the Muslim
    and the Christian
    religions in practice
    on a Sunday or
    5 prayer
    a day
    fashion worship
    death and what happens
    after death more than life..
    and that
    is literally
    insane.. now..
    The best thing
    of all is i live
    sane
    in an
    epic way..
    in heaven now..
    and that is what i see
    as the real message of
    what’s left in the Christian
    New Testament.. and the
    good news is..
    it can
    still
    be found
    there for those
    who read between
    the lines of those who
    would control others through
    illusory fears.. and promise them
    freedom after slavery of what they
    deliver
    as life.. now..
    True deliverance
    iS freedom iN now..
    And true without a
    creative experience with
    relative free will one is slave
    to tHeir own mind.. Self is a practice
    of the art of free will.. that while relative
    IS REAL…
    WHEN i wake up
    with pain.. i can make
    it dissolve away.. when i get
    tired.. i can bRing energy on instant
    demand.. and sure i can prove it too..
    in reams of photos
    as well..
    and words
    and other
    stuff too..
    Heaven is REAL
    now.. and that’s
    all that
    counts
    now..
    end
    and beginning
    of all that exists..
    now..
    i never die
    now.. and
    that’s
    a FAct..
    nothing
    else counts but now
    iN practice of course wiTh
    WiNks.. i mean duh.. a warm
    shower.. toilet paper.. soft bed..
    Air-conditioning
    in the muggy
    Florida
    Summer..
    if that ain’t heaven
    there ain’t been nuThing
    like it in billions of years
    on this planet..
    i’ll take the
    cooperative
    effort and
    keep smiling for
    eternity iN InFinity
    now.. and F iN appreciate
    the struggles of my ancestors
    who brought me the opportunity
    for this heaven now.. and yes.. whomever
    wrote the magic words in the New Testament
    that work.. iN practice now as Heaven now..
    thanks God of
    Nature for
    hOlding
    my hand
    now like that/this now..
    problem with material reductionists
    from a science point of view.. is living
    in a mechanical state of mind is only analytical
    view.. eraSinG the potential of an entire other
    dimension
    of life that
    is equAlly
    real and magic..
    and yes.. at least in my
    life i can prove this magic is real..
    after living as a robot for the government
    and watching Zombies
    shuffle
    by of
    the Christian
    Fundamentalist
    way iN concrete bible text..
    i
    choose free
    of
    me..
    wITh
    eYes of
    God wide
    A W A K Enow..
    iN practice oN coursenOW..
    And as far as all the other stuff
    goes.. i am well aware
    that i am
    just
    a flea
    on a dog’s back
    named God.. i’ll
    let God take care of
    all the rest.. as quite
    frankly there is no
    other
    choice..
    but to Believe
    and have Faith/Trust/Hope iN DOG..
    lest i run out of blood of drink..
    and
    bred
    of eat..
    Bottom line my friend.. Life is Good
    and truly for decades i never kNew
    what that truly meant
    AS
    DEAD
    iN LIFE..
    most folks who
    focus on life after
    death or do not practice
    real magic are already dead..
    beginning and end of saddest
    creature
    iN the
    F-King entire UniVerse..
    and i ain’t one of ’em.. by far..ALIVEnoW..
    my cat Yellow Boy is more alive than 50
    percent of humans
    who
    walk this
    earth and shuffle by….iN
    Robot/Zombie steps of sidewalk heLL….
    no wonder..
    they wish
    for something
    after death….
    it’s just sad
    man..
    really
    sad..
    i wish
    i could do something
    to bring ’em back alive..
    but ‘they’ are afraid to let
    me do
    mouth
    to mouth…
    iN hEar..E

    Like

  2. AMEN!..:)! iS
    the short version
    of how i feel about
    the fundamental principle
    of the Universe iS music..
    as aLL iS movement maKing
    vibration.. inspiRinG moving
    more iN iNFiniTy.. of
    cycle more..
    yes.. theRe
    was/iS daRk.. then
    liGht.. then moVinG
    danCinG.. sinGinG
    Sound.. and poeTry
    iN attempt to expresS
    essenSE.. oF REAL
    iN symbols
    oF aLL
    kindS
    oF human
    cultural extenSioNs
    oF liFe.. named tools..
    Dance iS the Universal
    Language oF hUman
    along with vocal
    SonG.. as
    iT requires
    zero clothes
    of culture now..
    sTill sAMe as
    hundreds of
    thouSands
    oF
    years a
    go go iN
    human
    primate way…
    If i had one word of advice..
    make it two.. to every human
    at any stage of liFe now..
    iT iS maKinG iT thREE..
    SinG DANcE FReED
    and the
    rest
    WiLL
    evenTuAlly
    fALL iN pLace..
    iF one keeps danCinG
    and never ever gives uP!..
    and yeah.. the CERN Shiva
    dude iS super cool2.. for
    aLL practical
    human
    metaphors
    i am that dude..
    wINks.. around
    the cycle/wheel oF
    LiFe as UniVersAl
    Dance oF SonG.. mY
    onLY True religion.. my
    friend.. NOW.. iN liGht Truth..
    Anyway.. the short human science
    answer iS Dance regulates emotions..
    integrates senses.. increases cognitive
    executive functioning by way of focus
    and short term working memory..
    providing bio-feed back
    oF emoTioNs.. seNses
    floWinG
    from the
    Vagal Nerve
    oF Brain through
    gut and all the receptors
    for neurochemicals and
    neurohormones iN
    cells of the human
    body.. alWays
    now when
    Life noW..
    becomes
    Art and
    Science oF
    Dance and SonG..
    totAlly naked as such..
    or with optional clothes
    of culture.. as the Dance
    Yogi comes down from
    the Mountain.. Desert..
    and or Beach..
    as iT were
    As sTill iS Now..;)

    Like

  3. I’d comment something of substance if I knew something credible enough. In the meantime, even with my limited knowledge of Quantum Mechanics and Buddhism, the organization made the arguments sound sensible to me. Gonna look into the links further.

    Like

    • I wouldn’t take my ideas about quantum mechanics, Buddhism or anything else too seriously. But yeah, if you want to learn about the things I dribble over the links might be a good place to start.

      Some of them are to videos. I know you can’t see the youtube video of the L7 song that gives the post it’s name but if you want access to it, or any others you can’t get in Pakistan, let me know. I can set up some workarounds for you.

      Liked by 1 person

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