A Natural After-Life

As people like to post crackpot theories that are congenial to them, I thought I’d plop this down here.

I was thinking about how dreams can seem (from the point of view of the dreamer) to go on for very long periods of time, even if the dream, from the point of view of an external observer, might only last a couple of minutes. And I noted that it might be the case that as we lose executive function in geezerhood and become more and more a batch of autonomous, unconscious functions, our dream experiences get phenomenologically longer and longer. [If I knew something more about relativity theory maybe I could analogize this with the difference between falling into a black hole from the vantage of an outside observer and the vantage of the falling person, but alas….]

Anyhow, it seemed conceivable to me that one’s unconscious (where Freud said “time does not exist”) dream experiences might increasingly “stretch” until, at the moment of death, they becomes “endless” (or eternal or something like that).

If this were the case, everyone would have his or her own personal eternal afterlife, and the characteristics of each of these states would have the nice feature of being to some extent a function of how well we had “worked through” things in our lives. “Redemption” would kind of be in play, since, presumably, those who feel guilty about things they’ve done and haven’t “karma-cleaned” as it were, would be likely to have a less pleasant after-life. You’d also get to “interact” with all your loved ones, and your memories of them would be in some sense better than what you can consciously access–because, again, the unconscious has no “history,” so everything’s in there in tip-top shape.  Finally, I liked the connection with the William James excerpt from “Varieties of Religious Experience” that I’d recently posted here:

Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the “more” with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life. Starting thus with a recognized psychological fact as our basis, we seem to preserve a contact with “science” which the ordinary theologian lacks. At the same time the theologian’s contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the [pg 513] subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control. In the religious life the control is felt as “higher”; but since on our hypothesis it is primarily the higher faculties of our own hidden mind which are controlling, the sense of union with the power beyond us is a sense of something, not merely apparently, but literally true.

The idea here is that “God” is really us, but that should be OK, at least from a personal standpoint, because the autonomous functions of the brain are about as “Other” as any spaghetti monster might be. We have no control over them: they completely run the show. Thus, those portions of our “minds” of which we are not conscious ought to be seen as being extremely potent and sufficiently “outside,” just like any father-figure ought to be.

Anyhow, when I mused about this stuff, I figured that I couldn’t have been the first to do so, and googled “dreams after-life.” One of the first things that came up was this piece by Bryon Ehlmann, a retired Ph.D. in computer science.

Ehlmann’s piece there isn’t very detailed, but he links a recent publication of his in the “Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research” (which can be seen on his academia.edu page). And he has a more recent–and more technical–article, still in draft on his academia page–in which he offers what he takes to be a proof of this theory.

I haven’t read this latter paper yet, and I’m skeptical about “proofs” generally. But I can imagine empirical dream studies of older and/or cognitively impaired individuals to find out if this “stretching” is actually going on. I’m doubtful even of the likelihood of strong empirical support, tbh. I mean it’s obviously a woo-drenched theory, something that can make the fearful naturalistic type a bit less anxious. I recognize that this is no more than a theory that is congenial to me….but I can’t deny that it really is comforting. And there’s nothing supernatural about it–except maybe the inferences.

ETA: I corrected the name of the Journal in which Dr. Ehlmann’s paper appeared.

162 thoughts on “A Natural After-Life

  1. keiths: The time in between is not experienced at all.

    That depends on the anesthesia. I had surgery under ether in 1955, and still vividly recall the hallucination dreams. When ether was discovered, it became a recreational drug.

    Nowadays a drug is added to prevent memory formation. It’s a different product from the anesthesia.

  2. petrushka:

    That depends on the anesthesia.

    True, and on the dosage as well. However, my point only depends on the fact that anesthesia can eliminate consciousness, not that it invariably does so.

    Also, with regard to your ether experience, keep in mind that those hallucinatory dreams may have occurred on the way to or from full unconsciousness. Anesthesia isn’t instantaneous.

    Even if it somehow turned out that consciousness never entirely vanishes under anesthesia (or in dreamless sleep, or in a coma, etc.), Bryon seems to accept that dead brains are no longer capable of consciousness. Otherwise, his theory would not be a naturalistic one.

    He wants to argue that a person subjectively experiences an eternity of consciousness, of one final moment before death, even though to an outside observer it’s clear that the brain has died and the person is no longer aware. The only way I can see to reconcile these perspectives is to argue that the experience of an eternity is an illusion that is somehow telescoped into the finite amount of real time before brain death.

    But even if the perception of time were infinitely elastic relative to the actual passage of time, that wouldn’t solve Bryon’s problem, because as I explained earlier, there’s no reason for the final moment of consciousness to be perceived as anything other than momentary. And that is explained perfectly well by the standard physicalist view. Bryon’s theory thus appears to be neither needed nor correct.

  3. I chatted with, my surgeon during cataract surgery.

    Eye surgery under local anesthesia is terrifying to contemplate, and a piece of cake while it’s being done.

    Outstanding drugs. Pretty much have no effect on awareness, but completely obliterate fear. An interesting line of evidence for physically.

  4. petrushka:

    Outstanding drugs. Pretty much have no effect on awareness, but completely obliterate fear. An interesting line of evidence for physically.

    Another issue for Erik to address in the context of his beliefs about the soul.

  5. The accounts that give me the willies are from people who wake up enough during an operation to experience excruciating pain, but cannot signal this to the surgeon or anesthesiologist due to anesthetic-induced paralysis.


  6. Flint: Now, if you wish to impart some meaning to the word the dictionary is not conscious of (heh), fine. Present your definition. Do not castigate others for using the correct definition, or failing to intuit what you mean but didn’t say.

    Dictionary is off topic. No point in castigating me for being on topic. I will suppose that you brought up dictionary because you have nothing to say about the topic.

  7. Erik: Dictionary is off topic.

    Not when we’re debating the meaning of words.

    No point in castigating me for being on topic. I will suppose that you brought up dictionary because you have nothing to say about the topic.

    No, I brought it up because your readers misunderstood your meaning, confusing it with the actual meaning. Perhaps you could spare the time to explain what you meant?

  8. Flint: Not when we’re debating the meaning of words.

    The word in question is “conscious”. You suggested “aware” instead.

    Guess what, thesaurus says that “conscious” and “aware” are closest synonyms https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/conscious

    So, if we are debating meanings of words, then you evidently do not know the meanings of the words you are debating.

    But no, we are not debating meanings of words. The word I used conveyed the meaning just fine.

    Here’s what we were actually debating:

    keiths: We can’t be conscious and unconscious at the same time.

    Wrong. You can’t be dead and alive at the same time, but you can be e.g. blue and red at the same time: blue in some places and red in others. Similarly when we are conscious of one thing, we are unconscious of another.

    Now go ahead debating the dictionary and continue missing the point.

  9. Erik,

    I corrected you already:

    The sentence “We can’t be conscious and unconscious at the same time” is not identical in meaning to “We can’t be conscious of X and unconscious of Y at the same time.”

    When we say “Erik is conscious”, with no qualifier, we mean that Erik is having a subjective experience of something, without specifying what that something is. When we say “Erik is unconscious”, with no qualifier, we mean that Erik is not having any subjective experience at all, of anything. You can’t be having a subjective experience and not having any subjective experience at the same time.

    This isn’t difficult. I suspect that you grasp it, but are simply looking for a reason, however contrived, to disagree with me. Try to come up with something more plausible.

    It’s a given that you won’t acknowledge your error, but the error couldn’t be more obvious.

  10. Also, don’t forget to address this:

    Meanwhile, I’d be interested in hearing your response to Bryon’s ideas. You believe, to the best of my knowledge, in a soul that survives bodily death and remains capable of consciousness. If you’re right, then Bryon’s concept of a naturalistic afterlife is superfluous since we already have a supernatural afterlife.

    However, Bryon’s ideas might still apply within your worldview in situations where we temporarily lose consciousness, as when we are administered a general anesthetic. Bryon maintains that in such circumstances we remain conscious of the final experience we have before the anesthesia kicks in, and that this final experience persists in consciousness until a new experience arrives to supplant it, which happens when we come out from under the influence of the anesthetic. In a sense, then, we never actually lose consciousness. It’s just that our consciousness ceases to progress until the new experience arrives.

    Do you find that plausible? Or do you, like me, believe that awareness ceases altogether while we are anesthetized? Some other view?

    Also, if the soul is capable of consciousness after death, independent of the brain, why do we lose consciousness under general anesthesia? Why does the soul’s consciousness just happen to vanish at the same time that the brain’s activity is altered?

    To me, the answer is obvious. There is no soul, and so consciousness cannot be sustained independent of the brain. When brain activity is disrupted by the anesthetic, consciousness therefore ceases. It makes perfect sense.

    How do you explain the effects of general anesthesia in the context of your beliefs regarding the existence of the soul?

  11. keiths:

    It’s a given that you won’t acknowledge your error, but the error couldn’t be more obvious.

    You mean, as obvious as that an approximation is NOT exact to an infinite number of decimal places? Yes, it’s a given you won’t acknowledge your error, but the irony is nonetheless quite delightful.

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