One of the most difficult aspects of leaving religious belief is confronting the reality of death and figuring out what exactly it is.
If there’s no God, does that mean there’s no afterlife? If there’s no afterlife, what’s the point of this life? And what will it be like to die?
Death scares the hell out of us, so much so that mankind has invented multiple stories – powerful, pervasive stories like Resurrection or Reincarnation in order to avoid confronting it head on. These stories are so tenacious that questioning them seems… out of the question!
But in this post I will briefly explain why there is nothing to fear about death itself, because you will never actually experience it – that’s not to say you won’t die, but that being dead does not involve subjectivity / conscious experience, hence it’s not like something to be dead, so there’s nothing about it to fear.
The child stick game analogy
Imagine three children stood in a triangle and invented a game.
One of them is holding a stick in his hands and has his eyes open, while the other two are empty handed and their eyes are closed.
Then, the child hands the stick to one of the other children. As the stick crosses over between them, the one who was just holding it closes his eyes, while the one who just got handed the stick opens his eyes.
They continue this game round and round, passing the stick between themselves, closing and opening their eyes as they go along.
Now, imagine we made the philosophical argument: when your eyes are open, the stick is always in your hands. The corollary: there is no visual field without a stick within the hands. There is no such thing as seeing the stick outside of your hands.
In our analogy, the stick is life, while the visual field is consciousness – (a subjective flow of experience). To be conscious is to be alive. But when you are dead there is no consciousness, so just like the child will never see empty hands, you will never experience non-life.
Why you already know death
I’m going to argue that you already know to some degree what it’s like to be dead, because although you’ve never been dead, two or three things have happened to you that are very similar to death:
- There was a time before you were born
- You experience deep NREM sleep every night
- You may have been under general anaesthetic
I think each of these is actually quite instructive, even though you probably see them as extremely mundane (and that’s precisely the point!)
1. The time before you were born
Pre-birth is, paradoxically, fascinating to discuss for the simple reason that there’s nothing particularly interesting to discuss. What was it like for you before you were born? – well, it’s impossible to answer the question. You’re tempted to say “it was like nothing”, but did you even experience that “nothingness”? No. There was not “nothingness” then “something”, rather there was only “something” and then now we’re having a conversation about a previous “nothing” which has no manifestation in experiential reality. There was never an experience of “the void” itself. Like the child and stick analogy, there was a time before the stick was in your hands, but as there was no sight, you never saw empty hands.
2. NREM sleep
Our scientific understanding of sleep has developed much in the past few decades. One thing we now have clearly mapped out is the stages of and depth of sleep.
In the book Why We Sleep from Matthew Walker a diagram shows us the stages of NREM and REM sleep.
REM sleep means Rapid Eye Movement sleep, it’s a shallower sleep that corresponds with dreaming. NREM sleep (“Not REM” sleep) corresponds with a deeper form of sleep that is more predominant in the earlier stages of the night. Brain waves during REM sleep roughly correspond to how they look when you’re awake with some small differences, but brain waves during NREM sleep are completely different from wakeful brain waves.
NREM sleep corresponds with no consciousness. When we have NREM sleep, we are unconscious, almost coma-like. During these hours of deep NREM sleep, there is no you and there is no consciousness. The stick is out of your hands, but your eyes are not open to see that. It is only upon waking up that you see the stick again in your hands, you can reason and argue about the time before you woke up, but you didn’t actually see the empty hands.
3. General anaesthetic
When I was 16 I went under general anesthetic for a surgery. It was very peculiar. Simply because – all I remember was counting to ten as the anesthetic was being administered, and then an instant later being told that the surgery was over. There was a time when the stick wasn’t in my hands (for several hours), but I didn’t see anything.
I argue that if we were to ever truly resurrect the dead by bringing them back to life, they would experience it much like general anesthetic, no matter how much time had passed, all they’d ever see is an instant later the stick is still in their hands.
You will never experience death. You will only ever experience life. Because experience itself is a thing of life – when you look, you will only ever see the stick of life in your hands.
The closest thing to death you might experience is the dying itself, but even this experience is still aliveness, because it is an experience.
You will never taste of death, as taste itself is a thing of life.
You will never “be dead”, because being itself is a thing of life.