So you’re dying, what next?
Death is the one thing we all have in common and the most certain thing in life. Science can help us make it painless and maybe one day get rid of it altogether (but not be in control of when it happens, that’s taboo!). But the best tool against it is definitely philosophy. Since it keeps popping up on this blog I kinda wanted to summarize and index everything I have in this tag, trying to make it very succinct.
0. Accepting death
So there’s a bunch of approaches around “death is not sad it’s just part of life” or “why should you care about your little self in the face of the universe that’s egotistic bias” or even “if you like factorio you should enjoy death it’s the ultimate automation” etc etc… While perfectly valid approaches this is out of scope for the present article, which is not aimed at addressing feelings about death but rather assert its absurdity and non-existence, so as to conquer it once and for all.
1. If you think you’re your atoms…
Well you’re fine, they’re gonna go on to be stars on something, whatever.
2. Time doesn’t exist
First of all, time is a weird thingy. Even if you don’t subscribe to eternalism and determinism which are obviously true, it seems a bit arbitrary to assign different importance to different moments in time and completely devaluate the past. You will ever have been, and you were always going to have been. The content of a book on the shelf is the same as a book being read.
3. Time is so weird
It is said that when you die, your life flashed before your eyes. In that moment, do you also see your death? Do you then see your whole life? Is it a never ending meta-inclusion loop? Are you already in it? Do you see your life passing by including the moment of your death where you see your life passing by including the moment of your death where you see… It’s a kind of Zeno’s paradox of death!
Black Mirror or Rick and Morty (or this story) do a great job at showing that your brain can feel a lot of time in the span of a few seconds. My favorite japanese mythology story is about spending a whole life within a single dream. Not only may you already be in such a dreamt up life, but you also might have a huge number of them before you.
4. You exist outside of your life
Going further into time weirdness, note that your actions and communications can reach far into the future, which means you can still exist as an actor even far after your body expires. See that short story.
5. You can be resurrected
I don’t believe in cryogenics because I cant imagine any ethical framework that the people of the future would use where they would unfreeze arbitrary people from the past just because they were successful within capitalism, and even if there is one I think I’d rather not be revived in it if it’s the case. But you don’t need to have taken any kind of precautions for people from the future to reverse engineer you and resurrect you if they want. See Black Mirror or the best TV series of all time for details if you want.
6. Maybe we’re in a loop
There’s still a lot of mystery around the existence of the universe and why is there something rather than nothing. Nobody can even begin to comprehend what was “before” the Big Bang. It seems reasonable to assume some sort of loop structure of a universe eternally repeating, which would provide nice symmetry and solve the problem of the “before” the Big Bang in a nice way. This is all very speculative, but it could be that Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is actually true.
7. Something something simulation argument
If we’re in a simulation, all of the above is trivially true and it can be rerun/copied. Also if the simulation theory is true then there’s also an unbelievable number of simulations stacked and as many you-s.
8. Something something quantum physics
If there is anything like multiple timelines when a choice is made or whatever, it makes sense to believe that, by survivor bias, if you die in one of the branch, you’ll always feel like you’re in the other one (since there’s no you in the other). This kind of anthropic principle is called quantum immortality and has cause a lot of people to freak out, but I’m not giving it much weight because it defends you pretty poorly from old age, and relies on a very specific interpretation of quantum physics.
9. Maybe there’s a potential infinity of you
Talking more generally, there’s a lot of models of “multiverses” and or whatnot, most of which are gross fictional misunderstanding. But it’s reasonable to conceive that if the universe is infinite, everything that can happen, however small probability, will eventually have to happen. Including you coming back, in this form or another.
It seems there is actually significant proof behind the existence of pockets of “positive entropy” that can lead to spontaneous generation of pretty much anything through quantum fluctuations. I’m not yet able to understand all of this, but this seems to freak out a lot of people about the fact that you might be simulated in such fluctuation (Boltzmann Brain). It doesn’t freak me out too much, it’s pretty good news for your reproducibility.
The big red flag here is that infinite doesn’t mean infinitely generative (you can have an infinity of patterns of 1 and 2s and it will never feature a 3). But if you’re the hopeful kind of fellow, and if infinity is infinite enough, it doesn’t seem absurd to hope that this mean you’re existence will come around again.
10. There’s already backups of you
We’re all waiting for the day where you can be scanned and live forever in the cloud. Finally defeat death, right? You can make copies, use a nice versioning system, etc… But actually, whatever file represents you in the cloud as 1s and 0s probably already exists in all the configurations of matter around you, since infinity is really big. It comes down to the fact that you’re a finite configuration in an infinite universe (more here).
You might find this same 1s and 0s sequence literally somewhere else, like in this script I made or in the digits of a normal number. Or you could take pretty much anything and define a contrived mapping between the code of your copy and it. And everything in between. Describing you needs a lot of information, but there are a lot of atoms doing a lot of things. You already live in the walls.
There may indeed be traces of the thoughts you’re having now in your wall, and that’s fine. You can kinda sorta be your wall and the center of the sun and digital uploads all at once. Defining “you” is just poetry.https://reducing-suffering.org/interpret-physical-system-mind/#Functionalism_as_a_sliding_scale_among_physicalist_theories
11. You live in others
Let’s go full on Lion King. Or rather, Harry Potter. Let’s assume for this paragraph that you can be divided into smaller “you-bricks” and put back together. It seems like a fair assumption considering how changing we all are (cf Hume on the self). Let’s divide these bricks into smaller bricks, as elementary as we can make them. I strongly believe that you can find these bricks in many other humans. Someone else who doesn’t share your taste in clothes might experience the same feeling of joy you’re having eating this yoghurt. The assembled building of bricks that you are may disappear, but I find it plausible that the set of bricks may continue to exist in a disjointed way for a very long time. So I’m asking: is it really that important for all the pieces to be together in one place?
11b. No really, your neural patterns live in others brains
What is “you” even? Identity is hard, and my game “You doesn’t exist” is kinda about how little sense it makes. A simple ship of theseus argument tells us that what you call “you” is not your body since its cells come and go. It seems instead that “you” are in your brain, and more precisely you would be “what happens when the neuron patterns get executed”.
Well no need to look for an advanced brain upload technology, there’s a very good chance that those patterns are executed in other people’s brains. For the simplest example, take your best friend imagining what you would do in a given situation. Their brain is emulating yours.
12. You live in Amazon Cloud
If you want a more sturdy medium than a coincidental moment in a human brain, let me present the hypothesis that you are already at least partially uploaded to the cloud, since there are quite a few recommendation engines around the web purposefully design to simulate and emulate your behavior and the aforementioned patterns (further reading).
13. You already have plenty of practice
I briefly mentioned Hume on the self, his point being that you’re changing pretty much every moment. You’re never exactly the same, and in that sense your past you has already died countless times. Each second a new you is brought into existence and the old is destroyed.
And if you want something more concrete, just look at sleep and you’ll see that every time you practice literally killing your self, hoping that it’ll come back magically in the morning.
14. You could be a meme
So what is it you care about, among all these different versions of you? All the snapshots you’ve ever been? Why not throw in the mix all the versions of you in other people’s minds? Evangelion has a great depiction of this.
From the point of view of outside yourself, what you are is really the sum of all your interactions and influences with others and the world. This is a kind of functionalist representation of the self. Maybe what you are is whatever this shell feels.
One of the best representation of this is Perfect Blue, which perfectly illustrates the schizophrenic ambiguity between inner life and outer being-perceived persona. In this framework, “you” are a concept, a meme, and therefore your lifespan is very different from the one of your body.
What I like about this is that it accounts for the fact that your reach extends way beyond your body and your time (see point 3). As South Park pointed out, in a way, Jesus still exists and influences a lot of things today. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have the same superpower if you adopt functionalism and memetics.
15. You could be a thought
The previous point could be summarized as “you may lose a single point, but you’re not losing the set of all points, and maybe that’s what you care about”. We can go even more esoteric when it comes to supersets you are a part of.
You might think that you can find sentience in other informational network than neurons communicating through synapses, like in networks of brains communicating through language. Serial Experiments Lain has a bit that touches on that. Maybe you’re a “thought” in the megabrain of mankind.
In that case, after your body shuts down, you will be encompassed and referred to in the further life of the container. You’ve been digested and integrated. Who knows what mega-meme you’re actually a living cell of? Just be careful because it’s a slippery slope from there to collectivist mentalities we’ve seen in totalitarian states.
16. Also you might be the universe
Okay okay I’m hearing your skepticism but one notable thing about my beloved Berkeley’s idealism and its weird little cousins the solipsists conceptions of the universe is that they cannot even be disproved, so you could rationally believe in them kinda. If you’re all there ever is and/or will be, it makes little sense to consider the notion of “not you”. This related essay ties it back to the concept of meta.
17. [What you actually care about] isn’t dying
I know criminally little about Buddhism so I recommend you do your own research on this point. This talk is a great starting point. But an attempted summary goes like this: you’re not your flesh, since you’re using it. You’re not your thoughts/feelings, since you’re having them. Whatever “you” may be, this point of view, this consciousness, is something else, using/illuminating your body/brain. There’s no reason to believe that this transcendental observer will die with the body.
The best case and point is that some currents of Buddhism assert that this transcendental observer is actually shared between all humans. In layman’s term, your “youness” might be the same as everyone else’s. So you may lose your liking for chicken, but this essential youness would outlive your body. It may even be in everyone else already. A little bit like this tale.