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From the viewpoint of an atheist, when you die, you cease to exist. Your brain has grown old, and can no longer sustain the trillions of electrical signals that constituted who you once were. Similarly, before you were born, this same series of electrical connections did not exist yet, and not much different from a state of post-death, you were completely unaware of anything at all. You did not exist.

I don't precisely know why, but this seems spooky to me. There was a point when all of us had been in this state of complete blackness. Non-existence. But, now we're here. You could say it was nature that brought us into existence. A combination of our parents' DNA mixed in with some environmental circumstances to format the neural connections that make you, you. In this case, it seems up to random forces that determine whether an individual will exist or not.

But who is to say that this materialization into existence cannot happen multiple times? Perhaps death is not an ending, but rather a time frame of non-existence, until probabilistic forces are able to construct a similar set of neural pathways. Maybe this question is out of the scope of this site, but I am curious to see a philosophical approach to the concept.

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    "There was a point when all of us experienced this complete blackness." - how can you experience something if you don't exist (yet)? – user132181 Apr 20 '14 at 10:56
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    Atheists LOVE logic and yet they kill it. If you are real atheist you DON'T know what is beyond. Since atheist does not know what is before or beyond he has no logical footing to talk about it. – Asphir Dom Apr 20 '14 at 16:47
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    @AsphirDom - An atheist generally wouldn't think the idea of "the beyond" is a particularly sensible thing--why invent some mystical event when some particular configurations of matter stop having that configuration, just because we are so fond of our consciousness? (The Australian Aboriginal idea of the Dreamtime seems equally plausible, for instance.) – Rex Kerr Apr 21 '14 at 4:17
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    Something which Mark Twain may or may not have said resonates with me: "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." – mhwombat Apr 22 '14 at 15:38

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Under some assumptions about cosmology, you will exist an infinite number of times in the future as a Boltzmann brain. Indeed you could right now be a Boltzmann brain. This requires that the probability that you will exist spontaneously from random wavefunction collapse is greater than zero, will remain greater than zero, and time is infinite. This also requires a definition of you that doesn't give special credence to the atoms that, by happenstance, constitute you right now.

Although even if you wished to adopt this definition, under some further assumptions about cosmology you may exist infinitely many times in the future. It is also likely that such a definition is one that you do not hold, since the atoms that constituted your child body are different to the ones that constitute your adult body, yet you do not say that you as a child was not "you".1

But also note that even if the probability is zero, you still may arise spontaneously. This is since the probability may be zero in an almost surely sense, just as drawing number x from the reals has probability zero but is still easy/possible.

Note that if particles can assume positions in continuous spacetime (taking the Copenhagen interpretation but easily extensible to other interpretations), the almost surely caveat is necessary since the probability that the state that you are in right now will randomly exist again in the future is zero in this almost surely sense.

1 A good test of whether you sympathise with this definition of self is to ask yourself whether you would willingly get into a 'teleporter' that required you to be disintegrated at departure and re-assembled with different particles at arrival.

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    A lot of great answers on here, but this one is my favorite. – St Vincent Apr 21 '14 at 20:32
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From a physical perspective, your particular neural impulses are so wildly improbable that when you're dead, there won't be another "you" in any meaningful sense, unless the universe happens to be infinite (in which case every possible thing will happen an infinite number of times).

From a philosophical (or psychological!) perspective, you get into tricky questions about why you would call this other thing with similar neural pathways "you". For example, if there were two clones with very similar neural pathways, you would not call them one person; one of them would be one of them, and the other would be the other. One wouldn't say, "Oh, that's me also."

So I'm afraid that we are left with feeling spooked. Such a feeling is not a particularly good indicator of the veracity of something, you know. One might feel equally spooked to realize that you're blind when you blink and you don't even notice. Heck, you're blind when you move your eyes, and you neither normally notice you're moving them or that you're blind while doing so. And then there's sleeping. Being a human is weird.

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    A clone would have identical DNA, but the neural connections would be much different. I guess we will have to wait until AI researchers can effectively replicate consciousness within a computerized system. Perhaps once the functions of the human brain are completely understood, we can begin to observe how self-awareness emerges. After all, the human brain is still not completely understood. Classic Xkcd. – St Vincent Apr 21 '14 at 5:43
  • Imagine a matter cloning machine which made an exact copy of you as you currently are (like a Star Trek transporter, but without destroying the original). After that, there would be two copies of the same brain state (which, however, would quickly show minor differences due to having different perceptions, as they are at different positions in the room). Would (either of) you then point to that other human and say "that's me"? – celtschk May 4 '14 at 21:08
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A friend of mine just asked me a similar question. What if we have existed like this before?

My answer was it does not matter.

Because for it to be like now it would have to be independent from now. And if it is independent from now it does not matter since there is no correlation or causation. Just coincidence.

  • It is funny, I ask this same question myself and I argue with myself that "Maybe I am looking at myself now..." or "There is another me in parallel universe, that does not know about me". I consider myself as atheist but yet, I believe in "sort of" after life. – Kyslik Apr 22 '14 at 21:49
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Well, we can only speculate, but we'll never know until we die, and if death is the end then we'll never know. Period. But neither will we care that we do not know of course. But you bring up a very important point:

"There was a point when all of us experienced this complete blackness. Non-existence."

. . an important point precisely because it is obviously not true. Non existence excludes the possibility of experience. We can only experience existence; not non-existence. Therefore there is a case for turning the orthodox rationalist view of reality (that is typically the atheist view of reality) where the inanimate 3D or 4D material universe is perceived as the baseline for all existence, on its head. So - since non existence cannot be experienced doesn't it make more sense to regard conscious experience as the baseline of all existence? And the 3 - 4 or 5 or 6 dimensional material universe as a contingent phenomenon subsumed under consciousness of existence? If the physical existence is not an ultimate reality then death need be seen neither as an ending nor a temporary phase of non-existence. In this case death is but the shedding of one frame of conscious reference and (presumably) the adoption of a new one. Merely some form of transition.

  • Very true that we cannot truly "experience" non-existence, otherwise there would be some recollection of what that would be like. Poor phrasing on my part. I guess what I was trying to point out is that we have all been in an initial state similar to death prior to our births, a state of non-existence. – St Vincent Apr 21 '14 at 21:15
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    @StVincent Your last sentence opens a philosophical Pandora's box: the very beginning of Western ontology was kicked off by Parmenides with the premise that "what is, is, and what is not, is not". Philosophy freshmen will initially shrug their shoulders about this seemingly tautological expression, but you can see that this implies that a "state of non-existence" cannot exist - contrary to what seem to propose. (You're welcome to ask a further question if you find this of interest.) – DBK Apr 23 '14 at 14:14
  • You make the assumption that something that cannot be experienced does not exist. Which is just that: An assumption. – celtschk May 4 '14 at 21:17
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According to Eastern philosophy, the brain is an organ and suffers death just like the rest of your body. What carries over into a next life is 'impressions' - karma so to speak which happens until your soul escapes the cycles. Buddhists would say that the inertial force of a previous wave carries over into the next manifested wave.

From a cosmological viewpoint, the universe is another wave that has it's ebb and tide. After the ebb cycle, a new universe starts. But the sequence of events in each new universe is like throwing a pair of dice. You throw them and get a sequence of 3,7,11 for example. After many more throws you get the same sequence. Maybe 1 time you have to throw 100 times to get the sequence, another time 560 times before the sequence reappears. But it eventually repeats the sequence. Same with events in a universe. Maybe after 5,560,431,280 universes (each lasting tens of billions of years, and maybe some of those universes had different physical laws so they were pretty messed up), the same sequence of events appears as now. Your physical body is reborn and goes through the same events. But, according to Eastern philosophy, another soul is now occupying your body [too long to explain this]. But to your body there is no sense of time between each, all those other universes never existed for it. So in a sense your body is eternal also.

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The point of course is that the experience of non-existence is a logical impossibility. If you experience something - anything - then you only do so as a consequence of the fact that you exist - in some form or other. As Descartes said "Cogito ergo sum". Even if the universe itself ceased to exist if you can still think/experience then that is proof enough that at least your consciousness exists.

Any other than an extremely broadminded atheist would of course pooh pooh this idea since most atheism is bound to the dogma that the only reality ultimately is the physical universe we can perceive through our five senses, and therefore any notion that some sort of amorphous detached consciousness could obtain any sort of being in the absence of a physical universe to support it is just fanciful nonsense. Personally I find this blind faith in this dogma as questionable as any blind faith in any religious idea.

For what after all is metaphyics? Just that - meta + physics. The idea that the physical universe after all is not the last word in reality, but instead embraced by and dependent upon another, greater and presumably non physical more fundamental reality. People will say "Show us this reality, prove it" and expect the same kind of proofs used to illuminate the familiar physical reality. But if this meta reality exists and if it has a nature completely different to the physical then obviously the physical proofs are not going to show anything.

But to answer your question you are going to have to ask yourself if it could be possible that existence can have some sort of being "outside" and "beyond" the known framework of the physical universe. That is to say precisely "outside" of the time frame you are speaking of. Because who can say what time is? The atheist can no more objectively prove the existence of time than the metaphysicist can prove the existence of some spiritual dimension or whatever, yet without our subjective sense of time we would not be able to perceive the physical universe, and anybody who came along and postulated that it in fact exists, we would denounce as irrational. So it's all down to what you subjectively can sense. What/who we were before we were born or conceived, what we might become after death, may well be whatever we always have and will be in the spaces between time and the physical world. And perhaps the essence of our being, our pure sense, draws its real life energy not from the world of physical matter but from the roots it has in this "other world".

And then again perhaps not. This is the agnostic viewpoint. We do not and cannot know, but what we do know is that existence triumphs over non existence, that non-existence is itself non-existent. And we know this not because we objectively can prove it but because we are beings of sense and sensibility, and therefore have no choice but to know it.

  • Nice answer. I'd only want to question the idea that we cannot know. Some folks say they do, and they tend to share the same view. So a little optimism is allowed. . . – PeterJ Apr 9 at 10:44
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But who is to say that this materialization into existence cannot happen multiple times? Perhaps death is not an ending, but rather a time frame of non-existence, until probabilistic forces are able to construct a similar set of neural pathways. Maybe this question is out of the scope of this site, but I am curious to see a philosophical approach to the concept.

From point of view of Bhagavad Gita :

We have always and will always exists. Before we are born we are in unmanifested form, energy at rest.

A creative force brings into existance the entire Universe.

Then this creative force has brought is into existance as a living being, i.e. an plant, animal, human being, etc.

Our actions create our Karma, so when we die, our Karma determines whether we take rebirth, and more good our Karma is, more comfortable our next life will be.

But once we can break free from Karma, i.e. we no longer have debts to pay for our actions, in our next life we become unmanifested form once again, energy at rest, no sorrow, no pain.

At the very end, in about 4,320,000 years our entire Universe goes back to unmanifest form for another 4,320,000 years ...... only to repeat the same cycle again and again.

  • Why does this have upvotes? – user2763361 Apr 21 '14 at 15:40
  • Why not? Lot of people liked this explanation, now the votes just disappeared? – Glowie Apr 21 '14 at 18:49
  • @Glowie - An equal number of people didn't like it. I didn't downvote it, but I was thinking about it since it is an answer based on a particular religious belief. It's neither evidence-based nor philosophy, particularly, which doesn't make it a very good answer for a philosophy Q&A site. (Whether the question is a good one is also somewhat debatable, but there are philosophical aspects regarding the nature of identity and the logic of infinity, among others.) – Rex Kerr Apr 21 '14 at 21:13
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    Gita does not say all of this. There is a lot of extrapolation here and a lot of bad extrapolation. – Swami Vishwananda Apr 22 '14 at 14:43
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    I'd agree that this is not quite what the Gita says but it is an approximation, and at least the Gita is mentioned, so I upvoted. . . – PeterJ Apr 9 at 10:48
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Your question seems to presuppose that there is some kind of "you" within your material make-up. Although our folk-psychological intuition tells us this is so, it is by no means the final say on the topic.

Eliminative materialists, amongst others, do not believe that there is any such thing as a "you" inside your head. What you perceive to be "you" is nothing but a fleeting illusion that mother nature is presenting to help you survive. In the arena of the physical world, this illusion helps your particular configuration of matter to stay coherent for longer than some other configuration of matter. "You" do not have real existence.

Instead, what you perceive to be "you" is a temporal collection of matter. The electrons in your brain moves around continuously, effectively killing the previous "you" and replacing it with a new "you". This happens so often that we can forget about any coherent concept of "you". One minute from now, "you" won't be "you" anymore.

In this view, there is no death, just a rearrangement of matter. There is no life, simply a configuration of matter that, by virtue of its physical properties, move around in a coherent fashion for a period of time, and at some point it will stop. Questions about what happened "before life" or "after death" is meaningless, as the concepts of life and death are meaningless.

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are you the body or do you believe you are a soul preexistent to the appearance of the body? in my view the self is built out of the brain activity, memories, stories, thoughts, emotions which are referenced to a centre which was taught to you by your parents and society in general, you are an illusion, a concept so when the body dies you die with it, you can and must die psychologically when the body is alive for comprehension of life to be. there is a fundamental base for bodies to be born and die, that universal base is never born and never dies.

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In fact, "WHO IS TO SAY this materialization into existence (...)". Really, that is a question nobody can really answer. Science didn't yet find an answer, therefore, any answer will be given from personal findings, religious or philosophical convictions. But I would suggest that your question is also based on some convictions, mainly the idea of a separate self which is born and will die.

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May I just say, in the simplest way possible, that one may ask: where does it go?

  1. Are we asking, as you seem to be, about some substance "consciousness", and what it could embody / be embodied as or by?

  2. Or, are we asking about the experience of matter and space by and through consciousness?

The simple and philosophical answer would surely be that it doesn't "go" anywhere, it just ceases to exist. Whether or not that answer is satisfactory depends upon whether past experiences (cf your "time-frame of inexistence") still have a "place", or only metaphorically so. So, whether the past (our birth, graduation, marriage, etc.) still exist in space, somewhere, perhaps as a Boltzmann brain or extra-terrestrial double. If they do, then the moment of dying goes there too, right? Or is continuity and identity not that easy?

Anyway, just trying to invert the question for another, hopefully not off topic, perspective.

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