Friday, January 11, 2013

Interesting ideas about life after death

Getting back to the fairy tale quote I brought up yesterday, here are some relevant and interesting articles about eternity.

Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife
Not to be confused with that Heaven is Real book with the kid on the cover. That one kind of bothers me.This is an article about a neurosurgeon with a religious background similar to mine. He wrote a book I really, really want to read.
My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

Eternity for Atheists
This article poses some really interesting ideas about an afterlife. This statement: "Curiously, the doctrine of immortality is more a pagan legacy than a religious one... In the Old Testament there is little mention of an afterlife; the rewards and punishments invoked by Moses were to take place in this world, not the next one." inspired me to do some more research on the Bible's treatment of hell (see the next link).

My favorite part was the paragraph below because it helps give me a more scientific framework for thinking about an afterlife (as opposed to the cartoonish image of a transparent "soul" growing wings and flying up to heaven in the clouds). Our body is like a radio and our soul, the radio waves. Our bodies might not work perfectly (great analogy for illnesses or injuries that impact your personality), and will one day not work at all, but the radio waves are still there whether you hear them on that radio or not.
"Where does this leave those who, while secular in outlook, still pine after immortality? A little more than a century ago, the American philosopher William James proposed an interesting way of keeping open the door to an afterlife. We know that the mind depends on the physical brain, James said. But that doesn't mean that our brain processes actually produce our mental life, as opposed to merely transmitting it. Perhaps, he conjectured, our brains allow our minds to filter through to this world from some transcendent “mother sea” of consciousness. Had James given his lecture a few decades later, he might have used the radio as a metaphor. When a radio is damaged, the music becomes distorted. When it is smashed, the music stops altogether. All the while, however, the signal is still out there, uncorrupted."

Questions and Answers About Hell
As someone whose church experience could be summarized in a few words: hell, the rapture, abstinence, and oh yeah, God. This was particularly interesting to me.
"The case against Hell: Did you know that there is a solid scriptural case to be made against the idea of Hell? Many non-Christians have rejected the concept of Hell, but it may come as a surprise to learn that there is a growing number of Bible-believing Christians who also reject the notion-not in spite of Scripture but because of it! This short study is meant only to raise some questions and provide brief answers. For further study, please refer to the links at the end of the article."

Thank God for Death
I like this because it is unapologetic about the "myth" aspect of an afterlife, and it explains how it is nonetheless necessary very beautifully. [stuff in brackets I added based on parts I removed]
"In order to answer that question [where is a friend, Emory, who died], I have to use both day language—the language of rational, everyday discourse—and night language—the language of dreams, myth, and poetry. Both languages are vital and necessary, just as both waking and dreaming states of consciousness are vital and necessary. Like all mammals, if we are deprived of a chance to dream, we die. Sleep is not enough; we must be permitted to dream...  
So in order to respond to your question... I have to answer in two ways. First, in the day language of common discourse [his physical body, his legacy, etc.]...But, you see, if I stop there—if that’s all I say—then I've told only half the story. In order to address the nonmaterial, meaningful dimensions of reality I must continue and say something like: “Emory is at the right hand of God the Father, worshiping and giving glory with all the saints.” Or I could say, “Emory is being held and nurtured by God the Mother.” Or I could use a Tibetan symbol system and say, “Emory has entered the bardo realm.” Any or all of these would also be truthful— [just like telling someone about a crazy dream you had is truthful. it sounds weird, but it is still very true] true within the accepted logic and understanding of mythic night language."

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to do with God
I like this because, afterlife or no, it is comforting. The author suggests stepping back from time, imagining the past, present, and future as a timeline. By doing that, you can think of time like you would a map. You're life's segment on the timeline doesn't disappear when you die, anymore than Austin disappears from a map when you fly to New York City. It makes me think that our primitive understanding of time is sort of comparable to a baby's understanding of object permanence. Just because you can't see the toy, doesn't mean it is gone.
"The time that you live in will always exist, even after you've passed out of it, just like Paris exists before you visit it, and continues to exist after you leave. And the fact that people in the 23rd century will probably never know you were alive... that doesn't make your life disappear, any more than Paris disappears if your cousin Ethel never sees it."

Speaking of time... Newsflash: Time May Not Exist and What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory are fascinating (especially in light of the previous article and the radio waves analogy). They are pretty science/physics heavy, but still interesting. I especially liked this little story:
"Einstein, for one, found solace in his revolutionary sense of time. In March 1955, when his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, he wrote a letter consoling Besso’s family: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”


  1. Even though I consider myself an atheist, what happens after we die fascinates me. In large part because there is no way we can actually know. Albus Dumbledore said it best, "It’s the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more." While I am pretty convinced that nothing much happens, I am always open to new ideas.

    I've also read recently that there is no scriptural basis for the notion of hell (I think I was reading up on Jehovah's Witnesses). Really interesting.

    1. Did you recognize that one article? I should have cited you as my source. But yeah, the sort of semi-corollary of there being no hell is, what else might there not be? you know? The unknown bit is true. Like whoever it was said, I didn't exist before I was born, and that wasn't so bad. I'd still strongly prefer something more meaningful/hopeful though, I guess.