Immortality and the Soul

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

What happens when you die? Do you disappear forever, along with your body? Is your soul chosen for eternal paradise or damnation? Does it reincarnate into another person, or possibly even an animal?

The problem with that question is that it leaves its key terms undefined: "soul," "eternal," and most importantly, "you."

People get very annoyed when I give that answer. "I know what I mean by 'me' and I know what I mean by 'live forever' and I want to, dammit." My goal in this essay is to argue that you don't know those things, and that this creates real problems in framing the original question. As usual, I am not going to build a logical argument step by step, but just present a series of semi-related thought experiments.

Let's say a scientist "tags" a particular bird in New York, by putting a metal band around its foot. A month later, he catches up with the tagged bird in Mexico, and thus accumulates data about migration patterns.

But then he starts to wonder: is it possible that the metal band slipped off the bird's leg, and onto the leg of another bird? OK, it seems highly improbable, but still, it would cast doubt on his research conclusions.

He can avoid worrying about that question if he assumes that the metal band itself defines the identity of the bird. The bird he found is the original bird, by definition, because it has the right tag! But I think most of us find that notion absurd. The band is just a way of keeping track of the bird: either this is the bird he tagged, or it isn't.

So then, what defines the identity of that bird?

One obvious answer is physical characteristics. It is a female bird, a bird with a bent blue feather, a bird with a distinctive marking on its head. Since none of these is guaranteed unique, we might get more sophisticated and look for the exact pattern of its DNA. But this is still insufficient if the birds happens to have an identical twin. (Note for the picky: this is rare but possible.) Even in this case, "Did I get the right bird?" seems like a meaningful question to ask.

So we might move to the bird's memories. Does this bird remember being tagged, or even being in New York? Well, I don't know what birds do and don't remember, but it isn't too far-fetched to assume that they forget a lot. We can easily imagine that the entire flock at this point has basically the same set of memories—mostly about their long flight—and that none of them has distinctive memories of New York, or of being tagged. And yet, we persist in believing that one of these birds really is the tagged bird.

I think the ultimate definition we would resort to is a physical history. Suppose our scientist had carefully videotaped every minute of the flock migration. He could then have watched the bird swerve this way and that, land here to sleep and take off again in the morning, and ultimately arrive in Mexico. And the point is, even if he didn't videotape the whole thing, the bird in his hand has a history that goes all the way back to tagging-day in New York, or else it doesn't. The physical history of the bird gives it identity.

You go to a psychic, who tells you that you were Cleopatra in a previous life. Instead of celebrating or asking for proof, you lean over the table and say: "What do you mean?"

So the psychic hypnotizes you: suddenly you can speak a little Egyptian, or describe the details of Cleopatra's carriage. But does that mean you really were Cleopatra, or just that you yourself are a psychic who can peer into the past? Whether you believe in such abilities is irrelevant: my point is, once again, to ask whether the question is meaningful at all. Is there a difference between saying "I was Cleopatra" and saying "I can peek into her mind and see the past from her perspective?" If so, what does the first statement mean?

None of the tests from the bird case apply at all here. Your hands, your DNA, all your physical characteristics have nothing to do with Cleopatra. Memory is not a good test, as I've just discussed. Your personality probably isn't much like Cleopatra's. And there is no physical history linking you to Cleopatra: if her soul transmigrated into your mother's womb, it presumably did not do so by moving through regular old physical space and time.

So what is a "soul" in this case? What links you to Cleopatra?

One of my Jewish students told me the following story: every night, while you are sleeping, your soul goes up to heaven and studies Torah with God. That way, when you die, your soul is prepared for eternity.

My student didn't particularly believe this story, but it does paint a striking picture. The soul, in this conception, has a different knowledge base than you have. It has different memories. It has different plans, and acts independently of you. Its personality seems to be quite different from yours.

Wouldn't it be more appropriate, then, to call it a guardian angel? In what sense is that thing you? How comforting is it to know that, when you are gone, it will continue?

Are you the same person that you were when you were a baby?

You don't remember being that baby. Your body is quite different from that baby's: not only has the shape and size changed, but the cells themselves have all been replaced. Your personality has changed: the baby's favorite game was peek-a-boo, you prefer Canasta. Your DNA is the same: but again, I'm going to reject that because if you have an identical twin, each one of you maps to one of the babies you used to be.

There is, of course, a physical history, as in the case of the bird. But more importantly, the things that happened to that baby affect you. If that baby got a smallpox vaccine, you still have a mark on your arm. If that baby was malnourished, your brain is improperly developed. Step by step, that baby became you. If that baby is not you, then you-now is a completely different person from you-yesterday. Which is, by the way, a possibility worth seriously considering.

Let's forget reincarnation and focus on a more Western view of immortality. Your personality and memories stay intact—forever. If we're all afraid of death, then presumably this is what we want. A hundred billion billion years from now, I still want there to be a Kenny. Whether it is through religious means (I die and go to heaven) or scientific (we find a way to engineer immortality), I still want to be Kenny.

So what exactly am I trying to preserve?

As always, I think the obvious answer is memory. I want that guy, a hundred billion billion years from now, to remember typing this essay. OK, I probably won't remember that in six months. Well, I want him to remember visiting Nana and Papa's apartment in Queens every summer when I was a kid, and when you turned on the light in their bathroom the radio came on.

But what if I do forget that radio? What if I forget the entire calendar year 2008? (There are already entire years that I can't remember anything from.) Wouldn't I still be me?

Or, let's spin it the other way: suppose I die, but my memories are preserved. God puts them into a jar, or a scientist reads them from my brain into a computer. They are accessible to anyone who wants to take the trouble to read them. They may even be downloaded into someone else's brain at some point, and he will be able to retrieve them at will. None of that gives me the immortality I really want.

My personality, then. I want that to go on forever. But what part of it? Of course, I don't want it to be static...I want it to change and grow. I want to develop new interests, change my opinions about some things, and meet new friends.

But a lot of my opinions seem to be stuck pretty fast by now. When I grew up, men did not wear earrings; women wore only one in each ear. To this day, when I see a man with earrings, I feel like he's making a rebellious statement; when I see a girl with many earrings in one ear, I think it looks hideous. When I'm 70 years old and the President has piercings in his lips, I will still feel like he's a punk kid who ought to straighten up. Fashion may evolve, but I'm not going with it.

When I hear new music on the radio, I tend to judge it based on whether it sounds like old music.

I have made some wonderful friends in the past twenty years, but I don't feel as close to them as to the friends I made in high school and college. I have heard many other people say the same thing.

Someone pointed out to me recently that, as adults, we almost never develop a new skill. We may try to get better at knitting or snowboarding or chess, but we very rarely take up knitting or snowboarding or chess if we've never done it before. I certainly haven't. I also don't know that I've ever seen an adult (say, 30 years or older) significantly change his core political opinions, in either direction.

Do I really want to be me in a thousand years, or a million? Am I destined to never know what it feels like to be a girl, or to be drunk, or to appreciate Greek pottery? How long do I want to carry around the biases, opinions, grudges and hang-ups that seem to have clung to me like so many pieces of flypaper?

Douglas Adams paints a terrifying picture of immortality. In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy we meet a man who has lived through the entire history of the universe several times, and is destined to keep doing so forever. He has done everything there is to do, and he is terribly, terribly bored. He spends his time watching movies that he has "only" seen a few thousand times.

Adams was a master of painful, ugly honesty in a veil of humor. I have heard even very devout Christians and Jews worry that heaven will be boring.

I can imagine hell easily enough: put a bunch of people into a fiery lake and they will be miserable forever. But heaven is much more difficult. What situation could possibly be blissful forever? If you select only the best of the best people, and put them in the best of the best situations, I still can't see how to prevent petty human jealousies, competitiveness, selfishness, and ultimately boredom, from ruining the whole thing.

Through this whole essay, I've been doing what I do best, which is raising ideas only to knock them down. It's easier than articulating my own ideas.

My own ideas come down to consciousness. It's a tricky subject to define, and I've written a whole essay trying to say what it is, and I'm not sure even that was very effective.

But when I strip away all the not-me detritus—all the physical attributes and personality quirks that, it seems, I would still be me without—I am left with a field of aware presence. I perceive my body: I am not that body. I perceive my thoughts and emotions: I am not those thoughts and emotions. The body, the thoughts, and the emotions come and go, but I remain. So far, at least, I am a lot more immortal than they are.

It seems that this provides an easy answer, then. I want my consciousness to continue after my body dies. But "my" consciousness in this sense is completely indistinguishable from "your" consciousness. Ironically, when I try to cut down to the essence of who I am, I find that it is no different from anyone else. The tag is the bird.

That leaves me in an intellectual position of "It's OK if I die, as long as other conscious beings continue." But of course, I don't really feel that way. I have a biological imperative to survive just like anyone else. I think I'm a pretty neat guy. I would love to see what the next few centuries will bring, and it would be a darn shame if I miss it all. I have the deep sense that I do have a self, and it has provided my point of view for as long as I can remember, and even if it feels like a prison sometimes, I would hate to see it wiped out as if it had never been.

But I don't find comfort in any of the traditional immortality beliefs any more. If I haven't been able to think myself out of fearing mortality, I have definitely been able to think myself out of wanting to reincarnate into someone who is nothing like me, doesn't remember me, and might get told by a psychic that he used to be named "something like Fielder." I have definitely been able to think myself out of wanting to go on forever, with my personality stuck more or less as it formed in the 1970s.

So I am led, as always, to the humility of the mystic: the ultimate answer is something that my limited mind simply cannot understand. Eternity is the present moment, not an infinite imagined future. The self is something enormous, possibly infinite, that laughs at my tiny intellect's attempts to circumscribe it.

This view has the remarkable virtue that, not only does it provide the most comfort I can find, but it also makes more sense than anything else I can find. But it does leave you, in the end, grasping at air.

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