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Where does our mind go when we die?

October 26, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Answer by Craig Weinberg:

To approach these kinds of ultimate questions about the mind, we must resist the temptation to borrow technological metaphors from the present era to give us a complete picture of the mind. Without knowing the role that consciousness plays in nature, we cannot say for sure that consciousness is like anything else in the universe. We also cannot say whether in fact the mind is “in” the universe that it perceives, or whether what it perceives through the body, and then measured through other instruments is the appropriate context from which to consider the mind.

We cannot, for instance, compare the mind to a computer program, even though it seems like a compelling metaphor, since a computer program does not have any use for video displays, sound cards, fonts, alphabets, etc. Even geometry is superfluous and redundant to software, which is used to perform all computations using only binary digits. This is a critically important difference between information and the mind, as the mind is driven primarily by agendas which are emotional and aesthetic. Software works because it can do nothing else. Minds work because they want to feel better by improving the quality of life. We work so that we can rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Digital information is not literally composed of “ones and zeroes”, it is composed of the physically recorded dispositions of binary-configurable physical bodies, such as switches, valves, nanoscale transistors, etc. By contrast, the mind may not be “information” at all, but rather the capacity to inform and be informed through direct and indirect experience. While we can consider information and data the same thing, there is an important difference. Information implies a pre-established intent to receive and value data. The two terms can be used interchangeably, and even specifying ‘raw’ data still smuggles in an expectation of intelligibility that we should not take for granted when considering physics and metaphysics.

If we think of raw data in a more particular sense that does not include intelligibility or ‘pattern’, but only the physical substrate, then we can say that this ‘data’ is stored physically. If, however, we fail to separate out the physical facts of the data from the capacity to focus awareness on it in a meaningful way, then we have pulled the wool over our own eyes. When we attribute qualities of awareness (grouping, perspective, cause, effect etc) to physics which we have not justified in our theory of information, I would argue that our philosophy of mind succumbs to both the pathetic fallacy and petitio principii: It takes our affinity form applying mind-like metaphors to information processing literally, and lays claim to the principle of mind by using building blocks which are prematurely assumed to be mind-like in the first place. When we give elementary particles or bits the properties of mind, the we cannot say that mind emerges from some complex configuration of those properties. True “information” is not  literally stored anywhere except in the perspective and expectation of  one who values it intentionally.

The question then, of where does our mind ‘go’ when we die may have already assumed incorrectly that minds come or go anywhere. Indeed, all awareness may take place “here”. This leaves open the possibility that while death leaves the body that is “there” without any personal awareness, that may not preclude some residual presence which is eternal or absolute in some sense. This is of course a popular view in most every religion and mystical tradition in some form or another, ranging from an afterlife to a more generic reunion with the divine, but such speculation is probably impossible to separate from wishful thinking.

Contemporary or New Age versions of these concepts borrow from science more respectable beliefs like the zero point field, the law of conservation of energy, or the non-physicality of information, since they point to an indestructible firmament which could theoretically retain our minds. All that we know for sure is that if we ask ourselves if we live forever, we have historically answered yes, and if we ask our bodies, the answer that we get is no. To tip the scales one way or another, it may be helpful to study near death experiences, out of body experiences, reincarnation, and other paranormal claims. If primitive awareness is more fundamental than physics or information, then no amount of physical evidence would necessarily be adequate.

View Answer on Quora

  1. bg
    October 29, 2013 at 1:55 am

    Great response. I especially like this part:
    “We also cannot say whether in fact the mind is “in” the universe that it perceives, or whether what it perceives through the body, and then measured through other instruments is the appropriate context from which to consider the mind.”

    Since mind can only use mind concepts, can mind ever really be able to describe mind? It is like “a finger pointing at the moon.” Yet, something is perceived. There is something that we attempt to describe, but just cannot get quite right (and even the sense of right or wrong is there). There is this whole underlying current of “reality” that we all experience in unique and equally valid ways.

    Is the perception of that reality what forms the physical world? The underlying reality does not change. That is immovable, unable to be influenced. However, the superimposed perceptive layer made up of senses and thought and everything else mind, is fungible. If this is the case, then is there really only one physical world? Maybe per individual.

    So if there is death of one physical world, the others continue. This is continuous and never ending until perception ceases. That of course begs the question, “Who is the observer?” My money is on the moon.

    • October 29, 2013 at 2:55 am

      I think that how it might be is that the appearance of an immovable reality is true relative to *our* perception, but that does not mean that our fungible perceptual experience is not also immovable to some other kind of perception (as it might be on the neurochemical level as the article I posted suggests: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2013-10-neural-brain-harder-disrupt-aware.html )

      There could be some cosmological constants which are absolutely immobile, but that can still be a single moment which lasts longer than eternity on some inertial frame (the absolute inertial frame…like a clock that ticks so slowly, it will never even complete the first tick).

      In the end, I think that if anything could exist without sense, I think that nothing would have sense, since it would be redundant. Once we accept that, we should ask what we need with ‘existence’ if we can have sense that is so slow that it seems like furniture, and so fast that it vanishes.

      • bg
        October 29, 2013 at 3:30 am

        Maybe immovable was the wrong word. My finger was pointing at the true underlying reality not being able to be influenced by perception or sense. It moves. It dances. It changes. And perception and perceived reality moves along with it, but sits on top without influence to what is underneath. We have discussed free-will before, I won’t go into it here.

        Quantum theory posits that observation collapses the wave to a set state. Is it collapsed to that state only for the observer and it actually continues on in a wave? Does the act of observing really influence the observed? Whatever the case, it seems that this collapse defines perceived reality and the physical world. The physical/perceived reality is the finger and the true reality is the moon.

        Can anything exist without sense? If you mean existence in terms of the mind, then nothing can exist without being perceived.

      • October 29, 2013 at 12:57 pm

        You’re hitting very close to the issue that I’m trying to bring up, but still losing the most important part, which is that there is nothing that can be observed except another experience. There is no “exist” at all, except locally, relative to some subjective perspective. This doesn’t make the world that we study and live in less real, it makes reality itself a quality within sense. Sense is more than real and less than real. It is not metaphysical, it is meta-ontological. It can invent the circle and blue – not because it can or because it must, but because it is inventions. It is pre-tending and play. Tending and work are its reflection, its scaffolding that appear like optical illusions to fill in the gaps in the story.

        There is no true underlying reality. It doesn’t dance, move, or change. There is only experience turning, pulsing, and shining within its own last gasps of previous darkness. All of the universe is like a human life, except that it is not human, and not about human or Earthly stories. There is no observed and no observer, there is mutual participation and mixtures of truths and fictions emerging out of entropy. There is nothing that exists outside of sense, or else it would, by definition be incapable of ever being sensed by anything and would be indistinguishable from nothingness.

  2. October 29, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    I don’t think about where things go when I die. It is good though to see other’s opinions on this!

    • October 29, 2013 at 6:56 pm

      Yeah, sometimes the Quora questions help me get tuned into the kinds of questions others think about that I wouldn’t have thought of. I agree, for myself, it doesn’t much matter if there’s anything after or not. Either way the point seems to be that we are supposed to live here and now as if there were nothing after.

  3. Thomas Albert Fox
    November 14, 2013 at 9:23 am

    How still this garden where I sit
    In which to pose my days in peace
    As if I’ve found the perfect fit
    Through which my pulsing heart can cease

    How nice to find this open space
    And take my place with flowers and herbs
    As if my life had made its case
    While yet its ceasing heart disturbs

    For as each beat falls to its cell
    A tiny angel makes its call
    To place me here in heaven or hell
    Uncertain if I rise or fall

    So as I sit here in two minds
    Waiting on that next heart’s beat
    I seem suspended while my time unwinds
    In time to end between each beat

    So in this garden where I sit
    I only know my beaten beat
    No matter nothing but a broken bit
    Could come to rest upon this seat

    Here my muffled mind is undefined
    No longer getting its steady chime
    And all seems really misaligned
    Without a means to tell the time

    For all around the masts divine
    To find those birds with dulcet tones
    That sing and tell I’m way off line
    For all their tunes are mobile phones

    Whose subtle songs seem so unreal
    That in my ears they call a hush
    Whose perfect silence let me feel
    The pure deception of the thrush
    I know I’m pinned between their masts
    So they can fly in to my space
    This place where time no longer lasts
    Except upon each act of grace

    But let this garden keep its scents
    Not just the rose that fills the bowl
    For this image makes us tense
    Wherewith we sense a soul

    Suspended animation lies
    Its breathless eyes unseeing
    For as each crossing eyebeam dies
    There is less sense in being

    Here in this garden’s beaten heart
    It seemed my time stood still
    And all I knew was pulled apart
    With nothing left to will

    All for nothing my garden grew
    For nothing’s made to last
    Yet it was space that seemed quite true
    In which to breathe my last

    But could I get just one more dance
    In time that made some sense
    Perhaps there could be one more chance
    To stay in step with life’s events

    For though my beaten heart is broke
    I can’t stop wanting one last break
    Time to take just one more stroke
    To bide my time for pity’s sake

    But I’m in a race that must be run
    In which the rest of my life is done
    Though in the end what could be won
    When nothing and heaven are surely one.

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