Born again

Andrew Sullivan alerts us to a fascinating conversation going on at Positive Liberty. The post is titled “Atheism, Reincarnation, and Immortality,” and the claim that gets the ball rolling is this:

If time is infinite on both ends, then we have infinite rolls of the dice of probability. That means, however infinitesimally small the probabilities that brought “you” into existence, with enough rolls of dice, “you” will come into existence again, and again and again forever. And if time is infinite in reverse, “now” isn’t the only time “you” existed.

Accordingly, “you” have always existed and always will.

The debate soon settles into the familiar (if still stimulating) “why God does/doesn’t exist” groove, but it was the idea of reincarnation as a mathematical probability that caught me.

I’d thought about this myself a few years ago, scribbling half-nonsensical thoughts into my notebook. The idea I was grasping after isn’t exactly the same one above — of the probability of an exact copy of me coming into existence again and again, given infinite time — but something a little different. Okay, maybe a lot different.

Let me quote myself at length; this may get weird.

What if all consciousness were one consciousness? What if there were no afterlife, but — since consciousness, after death, would simply cease to be — what if an awareness that winks out simply becomes, by default, a different awareness, occupying another body, elsewhere and, perhaps, elsewhen?

What if after death one simply became — without even realizing it — someone else? Perhaps even an animal, or a plant — surely plants have some rudimentary, cellular awareness? — or, wildly, a being on a different world, around a different sun? What if with every death, we wink into existence once more as creatures of different stars, living proof of the extraterrestrial life that human minds have labored so long to find?

A multifaceted, roaming Awareness shimmering in and out of being throughout the universe, an Awareness as multitudinous as the stars themselves.


Suppose Joe dies. Whatever awareness resided in Joe’s body dissipates. What then? Joe is no longer Joe, and cannot even feel himself to be no longer Joe — he simply isn’t. Yet — other people are, who are still living. If one “I” vanishes, another “I” — a different “I,” in another body, with other memories and experiences limited to that body — persists. Thus, intuitively, this question: if “I” die, will I then become a different “I”? That is, not literally transform into someone else, but simply be a different awareness, looking out through different eyes? I’m struggling to explain: the default condition of consciousness is itself. If it is snuffed out, it cannot perceive itself as snuffed out — hence, perception then defaults to those beings that can still perceive.

Perhaps nonexistence is simply… unimaginable. How can I perceive nonexistence when my every thought, mood, and emotion is due to my existence? And when I die… will there thus simply be a different “I,” a different first-person narrative, wholly unaware of the “I” that has passed on, and forging its own path in this world (or another)?


And is this the intuitive basis for the belief in reincarnation? The impossibility of imagining the perception of one’s own death, and, accordingly, the perception of life that persists as the default condition?

What happens, then, when the last living thing in the Universe dies?

Sheesh. What a melodramatic ham.

Nevertheless, despite all my intellectual flailing, I think I was onto something. The Wikipedia article on reincarnation — I guess people throughout history and from all traditions really, really wanted to stay alive — includes a link to the article “Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity” by the philosopher Thomas Clark, the founder of the Center for Naturalism. (Naturalism again? How is this different from Humanism? Must investigate further.)

Clark points out that the mistake we make in imagining death is that we would, after death, be capable of imagining it. The error, he says, is “to reify nothingness — make it a positive condition or quality (e.g., of ‘blackness’) — and then to place the individual in it after death, so that we somehow fall into nothingness, to remain there eternally. It is to illicitly project the subject that died into a situation following death, a situation of no experiences, of what might be called ‘positive nothingness.’ Epicurus deftly refuted this mistake millennia ago, saying ‘When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not,’ but regrettably his pearl of wisdom has been largely overlooked or forgotten.”

He then explores many aspects of our conception of death and the nature of subjective experience, but here, to me, are the salient points:

As I tried to make clear above, subjectivities — centers of awareness — don’t have beginnings and endings for themselves, rather they simply find themselves in the world. From their perspective, it’s as if they have always been present, always here; as if the various worlds evoked by consciousness were always “in place.” Of course we know that they are not always in place from an objective standpoint, but their own non-being is never an experienced actuality for them. This fact, along with the fact that other subjectivities succeed us after we die, suggests an alternative to the intuition of impending nothingness in the face of death. […] Instead of anticipating nothingness at death, I propose that we should anticipate the subjective sense of always having been present, experienced within a different context, the context provided by those subjectivities which exist or come into being.

In proposing this I don’t mean to suggest that there exist some supernatural, death-defying connections between consciousnesses which could somehow preserve elements of memory or personality. This is not at all what I have in mind, since material evidence suggests that everything a person consists of — a living body, awareness, personality, memories, preferences, expectations, etc. — is erased at death. Personal subjective continuity as I defined it above requires that experiences be those of a particular person; hence, this sort of continuity is bounded by death. So when I say that you should look forward, at death, to the “subjective sense of always having been present,” I am speaking rather loosely, for it is not you — not this set of personal characteristics — that will experience “being present.” Rather, it will be another set of characteristics (in fact, countless sets) with the capacity, perhaps, for completely different sorts of experience. But, despite these (perhaps radical) differences, it will share the qualitatively very same sense of always having been here, and, like you, will never experience its cessation.

I confess I’m getting excited as I type this; Clark is explaining pretty much the same idea I was grasping for when I wrote my notes! It feels nice to arrive independently — albeit with less intellectual rigor — at the same idea as a professional philosopher. (And apparently more than one; Clark mentions an independent work by Wayne Stewart along the same lines.) What’s more, he also briefly mentions the idea of a meta-Awareness that I speculated about, a sort of (unprovable?) connection between individual awarenesses, a tissue of consciousness that binds all life in the universe. (“Emerson’s Oversoul?” I scribbled in my notes.) Clark emphasizes that he doesn’t go that far — the notion strays too much (and I agree) into the realm of pseudoscience, or mysticism:

To identify ourselves with generic subjectivity is perhaps as far as the naturalistic materialist can go towards accepting some sort of immortality. It isn’t conventional immortality (not even as good as living in others’ memory, some might think), since there is no “one” who survives, just the persistence of subjectivity for itself. It might be objected that in countering the myth of positive nothingness I go too far in claiming some sort of positive connection between subjectivities, albeit a connection that doesn’t preserve the individual. I might be construed as saying, to borrow the language of a different tradition, that an eternal Subject exists, ever-present in all contexts of experience. I wouldn’t endorse such a construal since it posits an entity above and beyond specific consciousnesses for which there is no evidence; nevertheless such language captures something of the feel for subjectivity and death I want to convey.

It is possible that this view may make it easier to cope with the prospect of personal extinction, since, if we accept it, we can no longer anticipate being hurled into oblivion, to face the eternal blackness […] ([that], I suspect, secretly bedevils many atheists and agnostics). We may wear our personalities more lightly, seeing ourselves as simply variations on a theme of subjectivity which is in no danger of being extinguished by our passing. Of course we cannot completely put aside our biologically given aversion to the prospect of death, but we can ask, at its approach, why we are so attached to this context of consciousness. Why, if experience continues anyway, is it so terribly important that it continue within this set of personal characteristics, memories, and body? If we are no longer haunted by nothingness, then dying may seem more like the radical refreshment of subjectivity than its extinction.

As long as life exists in the universe, subjectivity — awareness, consciousness — persists. What a concept! Carl Sagan said: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Perhaps this is truer than we know.

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