The Problem of Death, Anesthesia, and Teleportation

(Friday, April 4, 2007, 2:09 a.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

A recent talk by Douglas Hofstadter, class discussion on consciousness, the reading of some fantasy fiction involving characters who pass through reincarnations, and a few months ago going under general anesthesia for wisdom tooth surgery, have brought an age-old philosophical question forward in my mind, probably one everybody asks at some point in their lives. What happens to my first-person awareness, my consciousness, after I die?

This question is one of the reasons (among several) why religions exist. The atheist answer, of course, is that consciousness dies with the brain, so my first person perspective must cease to exist. The difficulty that everybody has with this answer, and myself included, is that consciousness, is by definition aware, and can't imagine not being aware. What is the 'experience' like of not being aware? Because we can't imagine this, there is a tendency to believe that consciousness must go somewhere else and continue to exist. Consciousness simply can't imagine ceasing to exist (though maybe some Hindus and Buddhists can come close through meditations on emptiness).

The only experience I've had that can begin to answer this question for me is that of being under general anesthesia. What was that like? So far as my memory is true—and you have to ask in cases of drugs whether it is really consciousness that is disrupted, or memory of past consciousness—I was basically fully aware of my surroundings at one moment, then I had a dim, and slowly returning awareness of my trip home from the oral surgeon's office. Parts of my life and awareness, so far as I can tell, were simply gone without a trace, as if I'd been dead, non-existent in those minutes.

So, now what I have to ask myself is: what would it be like to go under anesthesia and never wake up? I still can't quite imagine this because every time I've ever been under anesthesia, my awareness has come back.

Now, let's imagine we have a Star Trek teleportation device that disintegrates my original body, and builds a new identical one at a remote location. What would the experience of going through one of those be like? Would there be a continuity of my consciousness that jumped the distance from one body to the next? Or would I be like the poor fellow who goes under anesthesia and never wakes up, and the guy on the other end would be a clone of me that inherited all of my memories, personality, etc.? It's true that neurons are constantly dying off and the molecules in our brains are constantly being turned over, though the overall structure is the same, and we experience nonetheless a continuity of self and consciousness. But would this still hold true under the teleportation situation? And what if two or three copies were made of me instead of one? Is my consciousness continuous with all of theirs, or only one them, or none of them? (These are problems science fiction has been wrestling with for awhile.)

What seems clear to me (as an atheist and a functionalist materialist) is that consciousness is tied to the physical stuff that does the information processing that causes us to interact with our environments. Disrupt the material mechanisms of information processing and the consciousness must be disrupted. But the teleporter thought experiment still raises questions because the material organization is still being preserved, but its location is being discontinuously displaced.

In the end, I guess I'm no less in the dark than anybody else in trying to answer these questions. Regarding the teleportation problem, I really am not sure what to think. There are reasons to believe teleportation would mean death and reasons to believe it would not. It depends on whether some physical continuity is required for identity of consciousness. I'm not sure if such a question can be answered empirically.

Regarding the big problem, death, I have my tentative answer, but it doesn't rest easily in me. My answer is that death is like going under anesthesia without waking up. To die then is to no longer be aware of anything. All discussions about afterlife, reincarnation, etc., seem forlorn. There can be no waking up again once the brain that was the medium of awareness is no more.

And yet, it is still tempting and easy to imagine that after death, the anesthetic hiatus is broken by my awareness 'waking up' in another being, maybe another person or animal, or maybe an awareness that is manifested at a higher level of physical organization (the sentience of the universe as a whole, if such a thing might exist). If we were reborn in some way, we couldn't be expected to remember our previous incarnations because our new brains would only build memories of our current lives. We would all drink the draught of Lethe (the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology) between incarnations, if reincarnation was in fact reality.

That I've never experienced a time in which my consciousness has failed to return lends a strange kind of empirical plausibility to the notion that my consciousness must continue is some way after death, albeit maybe after some hiatus of time. And yet, reason seems to dictate that my consciousness must end utterly, once my brain no longer is there to be conscious. As some writer/thinker has noted (maybe Marvin Minsky or Dan Dennett or even C.S. Lewis, I can't remember who) either way is not so terrible. If our consciousness continues in some way, we have something to look forward to, maybe another chance to live. If our consciousness ceases, then we have nothing to worry about because there will be no pain and suffering in the afterdeath.

So, there is a contradiction yet unresolved in my own mind: between the conclusions of my reason and my experience. My reason tells me that death must be the end. My experience, such as it were, however, suggests that there is no end: consciousness has always returned to me much as the sun has always risen again after setting. But reason replies again that, of course, my experience would tell me that consciousness must continue because if it didn't, I would be dead and able to experience nothing. My reason is willing to grant that it is possible that someone were to copy my brain exactly, my consciousness might be able to transfer to the new brain, but it (my reason) is unable to conclude one way or the other with confidence because of the paradoxes of the teleportation thought experiment.

I imagine that when my time comes to die—hopefully in the much-distant future—provided I have my current level of awareness and capacity for reflection, I will probably still be asking the 'whither to' question, despite what my reason tells me (which is 'nowhere'). Death has been described my countless poets as a dark river across which no-one can see the other shore (or even if there is another shore, though the poets usually speak of a river rather than an ocean which implies there is another shore). It is perfectly natural for any thinking/feeling being to harbor this perhaps unanswerable question and to wish a definitive answer could be given for it (because any being with a capacity for foresight and planning wants to be able to prepare for a situation as best as they can). Perhaps the best answer is just to put forth your own best guess to settle the matter tentatively, and then move on with your life until such a time as death looms on the horizon. When this happens, it seems to me, it is probably best to devote oneself to what one intends to leave behind, one's legacy, though it may be that it is too late by the time one really knows the end is near. Or one may want to try to grab those last few experiences, those pleasures that have so far eluded them in life.

I would probably try for a combination of the two if I knew I had a year or so left to me, but my focus would probably be in trying to pass along the products of my thinking and my creativity to the larger body of humanity in general, and to bid farewell to those few souls I've connected with in life. The fundamental 'whither to' mystery would be constantly at the forefront of my mind, and this might not be bad thing. It would be a little like preparing for a voyage by sailing ship to some foreign land you've only heard legends about. The would-be sailor has no idea if the ship won't go down in a storm, but they're still a little excited about the possibility, however dim or unlikely, of landing on another shore. That might blunt my tendency to despair in knowing I had not long in this world. My general belief also that Hell is a story made up to frighten people into being good also would blunt any tendency I might have to be afraid of death. I think (along with other more theologically inclined people) that any Hell that there is to be had is right here on this earth. I don't (for example, like Buddhists seeking nirvana, i.e. escape from the Wheel of Incarnation) look forward exactly to the idea of non-existence because I suspect that what Heaven there is to be had is also on this earth. But neither do I particularly fear the void. I figure that the hardest part about death is the process of dying, which is to say the pain of experiencing one's own decline, illness, the physical pain perhaps, and the grief of those who you must leave behind soon. What is there to fear in death itself?

Return to Blog Index.