Saturday, March 6, 2010

Consciousness and Death

(Endeavoring to reply to a comment under my Faith and Reason post, I found myself becoming a bit more discursive than I had intended. And so, since the length of a comment is limited, I will post my reply here.)

I am inclined to think that consciousness in some form survives death but I have not yet decided what that form might be - that is, I have not yet reached a conclusion that makes sense to me.

I was thinking yesterday that the confluence of the animating force and the corporeal is rather like that between heat and ice. When heat comes into contact with ice, water is produced. In much the same way, when the animating force becomes corporeal, consciousness is produced.

But this would imply that consciousness cannot exist in the absence of either the animating force or the corporeal. In that sense, consciousness is a phenomenon unique to corporeal life. Absent the corporeal substrate, and in what form might consciousness exist?

I have been disinclined to think that the animating force itself is conscious, but it is possible. Recently I have been musing about this possibility. It may be that the animating force is pure consciousness, which is reflected in a shadow form in organic life. That would answer a number of questions, not the least of which is the meaning of life. Life then becomes an ongoing attempt to understand the nature of this pure consciousness and to bring corporeal consciousness into harmony with it. This is, of course, what many religions teach (in a bowdlerized form), and it may well be true (which is why I do not reject organized religion out of hand).

If there is a "cosmic consciousness" (so to speak), then it is likely that its existence represents what we look for as meaning in life, and life then becomes a process of growing closer to an understanding of this consciousness. Yet, with death, what becomes of individual consciousness?

The problem as I see it is not mind = brain (I don't think any serious person accepts this purely materialistic concept), so much as the idea that consciousness = personality. It is very difficult for me to believe that personality survives death. Yet this is the concept behind most conventional notions of heaven, which I, for one, find comically absurd. The idea that we will all be floating around in our clothes in some eternal cathedral communing with our ancestors is nonsense. Yet this is, apparently, what most people believe. But that is simply because they have not examined the question, and because religion has encouraged them not to.

Some years ago I read with great interest Myers' book, "Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death." His research makes a persuasive case for the idea that individual personality does survive death if it has become strong enough in life to do so. For Myers, death is a trauma like other traumas in life; some personalities survive and some do not, depending on their preparedness to meet the trauma. To me this means above all a practice of spiritual and mental exercise which strengthens the soul and integrates it more tightly with personality. Such a strengthened soul thus carries personality with it after the experience of death.

The idea has some merit, but I continue to believe that personality is more an artifact of existence than part of its essence. As I have said elsewhere, I am prepared to believe that individual personality, as a form of energy generated over decades of experience, may survive death briefly - perhaps a few hours or even days - but the idea of permanent survival makes no sense to me. I believe that personality is the flotsam and jetsam of life, and that it will be discarded shortly after death, if it survives at all.

Thus we have three levels of phenomena to consider: personality, consciousness, and spirit or soul. In my current thinking, personality is transient, spirit is eternal, and consciousness falls somewhere in between. I am inclined to believe that, in order to survive in some form, consciousness must undergo a change at death, drawing closer to the spirit which animated it, becoming more akin to it, melding with it, if you will. Yet where is the meaning in this? What meaning does life have if individual consciousness is simply absorbed by eternal consciousness after death?

The only conclusion I can come to is that this cosmic consciousness (for lack of a better term) is itself changed by the absorption of individual consciousness, and so, man's life has a cosmic destiny to the extent that it deepens or broadens or expands this cosmic consciousness. This is rather reminiscent of Kazantzakis' concept in his spiritual exercises that we humans are "the saviors of God." This is the idea that, instead of asserting that man could not exist without God, rather, we should understand that God could not exist without man. Without consciousness of God, the idea of God is empty. And so, man's consciousness "saves" or enables the existence of God.

Kazantzakis, of course, was a dramatist (and a wonderful one), and his concept is a bit melodramatic. But I am inclined to think he was on the right track. What would be the nature and purpose of a cosmic consciousness without individuated consciousnesses to reflect on it, give it presence, render it meaningful? And so, human life may give meaning to eternal consciousness, just as eternal consciousness enables human life to exist. There is, therefore, a symbiotic relationship between the corporeal and the eternal through which each enables and gives meaning to the other. Thus, we temporal beings are at one with the timeless just as the timeless is at one with the temporal. This very relationship would, in itself, represent a kind of meaning for life, which, in its nascent form would be passive, but which, as individual consciousness grows and deepens over time may become more active and self-affirming.

The goal of life, then, would be to develop individual consciousness to greater and greater strength and purity so that it becomes closer to and more reflective of eternal consciousness. And in doing so, I think at this point, may lie our hope for survival of death in some form.