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Excerpted from Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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We often think of our identity in terms of our physical body, but is it just something that we – as only a consciousness – simply use as a vehicle? This is an interesting idea, and has been with us throughout human history, largely built into the religious beliefs of cultures around the world. But we should be careful of falling into the trap of thinking about an afterlife existence based simply on the religious or cultural models we have been brought up with. Most people who were exposed to some sort of religion in their upbringing are imprinted with the fairly simplistic idea that surviving death means a transparent, ethereal version of you floats ‘up’ to a heaven of fluffy clouds, and lives there for eternity in happiness. Who knows, perhaps elements of this are correct – some of near-death experiences and other visions of an afterlife actually do correlate in some respects with these ideas. But perhaps also these experiences are filtered through an overlay of our own expectations and cultural beliefs, and the ‘true’ experience could be fundamentally different. It’s fun to consider some of these possibilities.

The way our view of an external realm ‘beyond reality’ can change is illustrated well by the science fiction blockbuster The Matrix, with Neo taking the red pill and ‘waking up’ into the ‘real’ world, despite having thought until that point that the computer-generated Matrix was the real world. Before the age of computers the idea that we might be inside some sort of virtual reality, with the ‘real us’ residing in another realm, was barely known. Certainly, versions of this idea existed before the computer age, notably in discussions of the strange world of dreams. For example, the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once remarked on the difficulty of distinguishing where ‘reality’ lies with the following words: “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man”.

The influential 17th century philosopher René Descartes also wondered how we could actually know what reality is, given that our senses can be so unreliable, and yet it is only through these senses (and then subsequent interpretation by the brain) that we comprehend the world ‘out there’. Descartes deduced that all we can be sure of about ‘reality’ is just one thing – that if we think, then we must in some way exist, at the very least as just a mind. He summarized this view with his well-known maxim ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). Beyond that, for all we know, we could just be a ‘brain in a vat’ – a piece of meat hooked up to sensors that trick our mind into thinking it is undergoing experiences in a virtual world. The Matrix took all these older ideas and made them new again by making them the centerpiece of a movie about a false reality (spoiler warning for the young kids out there):

The fact that all of our sensorial experience of ‘reality’ must necessarily be filtered subjectively through the brain – and thus isn’t ‘reality’ at all (for example, we apprehend the world very differently to an infrared-sensing rattlesnake) – was enunciated in Hindu culture via the term maya (illusion): the idea that we can never identify or comprehend the actual truth or reality of the world, only (at best) a fragment of it.

But in the 21st century, the ‘simulation argument’ – the suggestion that all of what we think of as ‘reality’ is actually a simulation, and that until now we have been unaware of the fact – has gone mainstream. Not only through the popularity of The Matrix, but through first-hand experience: many computer gamers now spend several hours a day immersed in the virtual worlds of first-person shooters. As an example of how things are progressing in the world of virtual reality immersion, see this recent demonstration:

Given the speed of technological development, it no longer seems impossible that one day a computer might be able to be hooked up directly to our brain, and be able to ‘trick’ us into thinking we are in another world.

In fact Nick Bostrom, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, has said that he feels there is about “a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation”.1 Meanwhile, physicist Frank Tipler believes that, through extrapolation of the laws of physics, it is inevitable that the sentient beings of the far distant future will be virtually omnipotent, given the likely scale of information processing at that time. This ‘Omega Point’, as Tipler terms it, will be a time in which such beings will be able to ‘see’ the future, as well as all of history up until that point, which will allow them to ‘resurrect’, within a virtual universe, every being that has lived.2 Certainly a different type of ‘heaven’ than we normally contemplate…

The small selection of ideas outlined above range all the way from ‘plausible’ to ‘what the hell were they smoking?’. My point in mentioning them, however, is to show that our everyday assumptions about the world – as per the current orthodox scientific and religious views – may be only part of the picture, or perhaps even largely wrong. At any point in history until now, our assumptions about both ourselves, and the cosmos, have often been incorrect. For example, for thousands of years up until the 16th century, most people believed our Sun, the planets and the heavenly sphere rotated around the Earth – and though it now seems silly, it was actually common-sense based on their observations and the knowledge they had available to them at that time; from the human frame of reference, we do indeed appear to remain still, while the heavenly bodies rotate around us across the sky. We should therefore be careful in assuming that any of our current views are correct – from a belief in a God that will resurrect us once dead, through to thinking that we’re simply meat puppets of little to no significance in the greater cosmos.

What cannot be denied, however, is the power of science in leading us to better ideas. Science should not be discarded just because we don’t like what it is telling us. In the last few centuries we have discovered an enormous amount through the use of rational thinking and the scientific method (although as the eminent American physicist John Archibald Wheeler once remarked, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance”). But we should also be careful of the dangerous assumption that what we know now is the limit of knowledge, or at least that we have most things correct and only need to finesse the details from here. Such assumptions have resulted in some genuine scientists becoming outcasts simply due to the ‘fringe’ topics that they research, even though they believe in the efficacy of science and that it is the correct tool for the job. Dr. Sam Parnia is unequivocal in his opinion on the role science can play in exploring the question of what happens to consciousness at the time of death. “I see no reason why a priest should tell us about death,” he states, “when we have all this technology available”.3

However, we should also be careful not to get so carried away with our desire for undeniable evidence that we diminish people’s personal opinion or worldview. We all make our best guess at how the world works from the evidence we have at hand – truly, none of us know the ultimate truth. And if there is a ‘next world’, it may well be that our science applies to it as much as it might apply to the ‘true world’ beyond a virtual reality. All we can do is use science to its limits in order to present ourselves with the best models of reality that we can construct – although perhaps we should be a little more open to integrating that science with the testimony of those that claim to have caught a glimpse of a world beyond the veil of death.

But you shouldn’t need me to tell you this. Some two and a half thousand years ago, the great Greek philosopher Plato illustrated the issue perfectly with his Allegory of the Cave, a fictional dialogue between his mentor Socrates and his brother Glaucon. The former asks the latter to consider the scenario of a group of prisoners held within a cave since childhood, chained so that they cannot move even their heads; they face away from the cave’s entrance and can see only a wall before them. Behind them at a distance a fire blazes, and between them and the fire is a raised walkway over which passes a parade of various figures. As such, the prisoners can see only their own shadows and the shadows of those that pass over the walkway behind them; any sounds they hear echo off the wall, and thus appear to come from the shadow of the figure making the sound. “To them”, says Socrates, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images”.

Then Socrates ask Glaucon to consider the scenario where one of the prisoners was released: “At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision”. Though the objects he now sees are the ‘real objects’, and not a shadow illusion, Socrates notes that the prisoner might well instead think that what he sees before him is an hallucination, given that they are beyond anything he has previously witnessed.

Led up and out of the cave into the open world beyond, Socrates then notes that though the emancipated prisoner would be initially blinded by the light, he would eventually grow accustomed to the ‘upper world’, and at some point would witness his own true body and realize he is more than a shadow. He would likely also, says Socrates, now understand that the ‘wisdom’ of the cave prisoners was clearly flawed and pitiable, and have great disdain for any among them who seemed to be the best at observing and making predictions about the shadows, given their illusory quality.

And if a prisoner were to return to the cave, Socrates notes, his vision would no longer be suited to the land of shadows – so much so that the prisoners still there might mock him: “Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death”.

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter light, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light.

Compare Plato’s allegory with the near-death experience – NDErs are taken out of ‘the cave’, shown things that make no sense to their usual perceptions (consider the many reports of 360° vision for example), and upon their return are unable to communicate what they’ve seen to others in the shadow language of the cave world (the ineffable nature of the experience). All they can say is they know what they saw was ‘real’…more real than the shadows at least. In the cave, however, they are regarded as “bewildered”, and laughed at. I’m sure many near-death experiencers would relate well to this allegory.

In short, the message we should take from Plato’s allegorical tale is simple: while we should employ science and critical thinking to get as close as we can to understanding what ‘reality’ is, we should also always keep in mind that we may still, even in the 21st century, have the barest comprehension of the truth. For as J.B.S. Haldane once remarked, “my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”.

For extended discussion of this topic, and the scientific evidence suggesting that consciousness might survive death, grab the ebook or paperback editions of Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/14/science/14tier.html
[2] Tipler, Frank J. The physics of immortality: modern cosmology, God and the resurrection of the dead. Random House Digital, Inc., 1994.
[3] Appleyard, Bryan. “The Living Dead”, in The Times Online (December 14, 2008).