By Theodore Bolha
I’d like to start with a simple thought experiment. Imagine that you’re all alone in the universe and there is only your experience. It is the only experience there is that’s happening. Then you somehow die. You cease to exist. A few billion years later an organism in a completely different galaxy somehow comes to exist, and this organism has an experience; there is something that it is like to be this organism. Now it’s experience is the only experience in the entire universe. It’s experience is the only experience there is. That new experience is what came after your death. That gap of a few billion years in between your experience and the new experience was skipped over in the same way unconsciousness is skipped over when you’re put under with anesthesia. Unconsciousness is a proverbial time machine.
Now let us apply this thought experiment to reality. There were billions of deaths just before your life started. You are one life that came to happen after those billions of deaths. You are what is happening after they are no longer what is happening. The same will happen after you die and your body no longer produces experience (If that is indeed the case). Your end will be followed by some other organism’s beginning. Your death will be followed by yet another experience, via a new organism; you'll no longer be around anymore to stop that from being the case. Too bad for those of us who look forward to death as the complete end of experience - at least your dislike of experience will also end when you do.
This new organism will have no prior memories, for the same exact reasons you didn’t have any prior memories upon your own birth. Clearly, the new organism would have been born whether or not you died. It's birth was not dependent on your death. That would imply soul migration - which I find absurd.
I do not believe we are souls in biological bodies, and I do not believe in any supernatural afterlives. The idea of supernatural souls that inhabit biological bodies, like a person in a spacesuit, falls on its face when we remember that brain damage does indeed cause changes to people's personalities and cognitive abilities. If the soul is immune to the complete and utter destruction of the biological body (in order to travel to Heaven or Hell), then it shouldn’t be impacted by mere brain damage.
Having said all of that, there still remains the possibility that I am wrong, and that brains do not cause experience, and that we do indeed have souls. If that is the case, then we can still be sure that death will indeed be followed by something rather than “nothing”. This is because “nothing” is only a word and not anything more. For if you imagine anything when you hear the word “nothing”, you’re not understanding “nothing”. The word shouldn’t even exist.
The truth is that only something is capable of being or happening – whether or not it is a continuation of you via a soul, or waking up from a simulation, or some form of panpsychist melding of your consciousness into the fundamental consciousness of the universe - no matter what, only experience is experienced and so as long as there’s an experience, it will be what is happening.
Many atheists and others have been misled by the sentiment that “there is nothing after we die.'' Although most atheists simply use that phrase as a metaphor for “lack of experience” - And even if it is meant as a metaphor, it doesn't really add anything. Since you no longer exist, we cannot speak of experience or lack thereof in the context of you. Also, many people imagine that “there’s nothing after death” to mean there will be a black void awaiting us after death. This often causes a lot of people* intense anxiety. I used to be one of them.
The view that I am proposing - that the experience of an organism that happens to be born after you've ceased to exist will be the experience that comes after yours - does not offer any comfort. The experience that comes after your death could be that of an animal locked up in a tiny cage in a factory farm, or of a dolphin born into an ocean full of hungry predators, or of an alien born into a highly advanced civilization that knows only peace.
This view has been around for a while now. Alan Watts was a major proponent of it in his time. Tom W. Clark of naturalism.org wrote an essay on it called "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity", where he coined the term Generic Subjective Continuity.
Whether or not this view is profound is a matter of opinion. For me, it is the most likely thing that will happen and is both a source of melancholy and speculation. I view it as a logical conclusion, and do not find it to be all that mind blowing. It should also be mentioned that it is not a continuation of the one who died, nor is it reincarnation. It is mere chronological continuity. There is nothing woo, new age, or supernatural about this conclusion.
*Here are some examples of people that understand “nothing after death” as meaning there will be an experience of a black void, or some variation of a black void – some call it “darkness” after death:
I would like to thank Michael Looseman for his help in reviewing and editing this article.
By Theodore Bolha
@TheodoreBolha on Twitter