Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why we assume we are immortal

David Friedman has a post on why we assume that after we die we will continue to exist, in a way, say as a ghost or disembodied soul. He thinks it has to do with our perception of the world in terms of individuated things and our perception of the preservation and perpetuation of individuated things (think the Theseus' Ship Problem). It's a very interesting discussion and worth reading.

I have a different theory. I think, first of all, it connects with our tendency to think that we've been visited by deceased loved ones, either in dreams or in hallucinations. For example, after Jesus dies, two of his disciples meet and talk with a person who says something insightful, then afterwards they both convince themselves that it was Jesus visiting them in another form (cf Luke 24:13-32 & Mark 16:12), or in Tennysons Poem In Memorium he has a vision in a dream of his deceased young friend A. H. Hallam, which leads him to believe that Hallam is in heaven. Hallucinations and dreams of the recently deceased are not uncommon. In fact, technologically primitive people tend to believe that the land of the dead is not far away, maybe a few days journey from them. The dead are close enough that they can drop by for a visit every once in a while. in Homer, the land of the dead is presumably somewhere on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Second of all, I think our believe in immortality is also the result of introspection. It's really hard to imagine, and in fact quite terrifying to think that I will be sense/experience/think/feel. I don't think of myself as just this body, but as something else in addition, an immaterial thing that looks out through my body's eyes and sees the world. It's easy to imagine my body ceaseing to be, but how do I imagine that immaterial part of me eliminated? How do I imagine what it would be like to feel/see/sense nothing? or to experience the absence of experience--for all eternity? How do I think about what it would be not to think, and until the end of time? Such thoughts are so mind-bending and terrifying that it's easier just to imagine that I'll continue on as some disembodied soul or ghost or be resurrected or something, anything rather than to just cease to be.

I'm young, I admit, so I have a long time to think about these things (I hope). I will eventually (unless I discover I'm an immortal or get bitten by a vampire or something) see how it comes out on the other side. But unfortunately I won't be able to tell anybody what it's like over there, which is quite frustrating.

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