The Minds of the Dead

Everyone speculates about what the dead are doing. Are they hanging out near God’s throne, condemned to sing hymns for all eternity in reward for the good lives they lived? Are they agonizing in a different hell, one made of physical pain? Are they recycled, like a tin can or a newspaper, condemned again to the agony of helpless infancy? Perhaps a better fate befalls a human when he shuffles off his mortal coil. Maybe he does not put on another. Could he be dead?


We always hear that we won’t really know where we go when we die until it happens. I have never been convinced that the dead are all that knowledgeable, but I am coming to believe that we cannot philosophize the real answer out of hiding.

As a youth, I assumed that our brain was our mind. When it died, our mind died. I was quite certain.

Later, I thought our mind was akin to electricity. When our brain stops carrying the current, the mind is simply shut off. I asked myself what the mind is doing when the anesthesiologist puts it to sleep. So far as I know, he chemically shuts it off; he simulates death. If you can manipulate processes in the body to deactivate the mind, then when those processes cease naturally, the mind will no longer function. I was really sure I had the right answer this time. There was not a doubt in my ephemeral mind.

Then, a little later, I had less certainty. My opinion changed for no discernible reason. I decided that something does not suddenly become nothing, so the mind’s current, whatever it is, never ceases to exist. I thought the mind was probably more like atoms that were useful to a human while in their assembled state, but useless when they returned to the mental pool to be used as ingredients for the minds of other people. The mind, I believed, was not a real entity. It was a temporary assembly.

Today I am certain of only one thing. Embracing certainty is the quickest way to ensure we settle on the wrong answer; and all my other assumptions were the product of arrogance. It is erroneous thinking to decide what the truth is in the absence of necessary data. Even if I guess correctly, my logic is wrong; my thinking is wrong. The best I could hope to be is a wrong fellow who stumbles upon the right answer and erroneously calls it truth, as it is an error to label something as true, unless we know it to be true.

So, what is the truth? The brain could be the mind, though it seems unlikely now. The mind as we know it could be a current that is suddenly shut off when our body ceases its processes. The mind could be an assembly of spiritual matter that is recycled and remade in the minds of others, for all eternity; or it could be something I never considered, and never could consider, with my own limited intellect.

I no longer presume to know what the mind is or where it is. Therefore, I cannot know what happens to it when it dies. I have no way to detect when it is born, where it comes from, or where it goes when it departs, if it departs. This puzzle isn’t simple, and for all I know, I have been trying to piece it together for thousands of years.



Many thanks to Vincent for inspiring Bryan to inspire me to comment on this topic.

32 comments:

  1. Our current understanding of physics says that energy is conserved, neither created nor destroyed, just transformed. If the mind is energy, when you died your mind does not die with you. It is simply transformed to something else.

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  2. Jerry,

    That was my most recent theory, thus the one I presented last. I have argued this for years, and as recently as last year. However, it makes the assumption that the mind is energy, something I no longer consider a given. The "mind," the think that actually knows and is aware, may be accompanied by energy and mass, but may not be truly detectable by science. I don't know what the mind is.

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  3. As long as all dogs go to heaven, I’m cool with anything. “If virtue was required for admission to heaven, we’d all be in line after dogs”. My dentist said that. I like him.

    We may fairly safely say there are some things we will never know. We are barely learning what life is, let alone death. Life is not death and death is not life. That’s about it.

    Yet in nature, the death of some life forms nurtures life in others. There are lessons in the cycle of life and death.

    That is the beauty, the challenge, and the mystery of our existence. Mystery provides a powerful driving force in itself. Perhaps we really need it.

    Is there some spiritual transcendence across the divide? Could we say it would be better for us if we knew?

    We already know how insufferable those who think they have all the answers can be. There are too many who believe it’s ok to do terrible things to others and still be rewarded in heaven.

    Mind, soul, and even emotion are the mysteries that confine and define our perspective. It is the essence of being human.

    Mystery is part of the deal when we became humans. Life is a process of mystery, discovery, experience and more mystery. I accept the terms of existence.

    There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in our philosophies.

    Thank God. That’s where the fun is.

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  4. I notice that you are talking about the mind and not life. Do you think they are two separate things, or do you use them interchangeably?

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  5. The mind isn't a "thing", it's a set of processes that the brain performs, like programs running on a computer. If you destroy a computer, the programs that were running on it don't go anywhere, they just stop. The fact that the energy involved is conserved is irrelevant. If that energy stops being used in the highly specific and complex ways that the brain/computer uses it, the mind/programs are no longer running and no longer, in any practical sense, exist.

    We know from observation that if the part of a brain which performs a particular function is destroyed, the person loses that function. The function doesn't "go" somewhere else, it just stops. (It can sometimes be partially recovered because other parts of the brain start doing what the damaged part used to do.) The logical conclusion is that if the entire brain stops working, all mental functions cease -- that is, the mind stops.

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  6. Ah, a more agnostic approach. I agree that it's probably hopeless to think of arriving at solid answers on this matter. We don't know, and me might not even "know" when we die, because as you point out, the case may be that we won't know anything.

    Your reader's have some interesting thoughts. Jerry "Golum" Critter seems to be thinking along the same lines as me, but I have to admit that the Infidel might have a point. And yet, consciousness seems to me to be more that programs running on a computer. There is an element of awareness that the programs don't possess. That's not a conclusive argument, I know, but that awareness IS a bit of a mystery, is it not? You can pick the brain apart and see how it runs it's "programs" like a computer, but yet where do you pinpoint the fact that we have awareness, while the computer does not? Is it because our brains are more complex and sophisticated? Could a more sophisticated computer gain consciousness?

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  7. "The logical conclusion is that if the entire brain stops working, all mental functions cease..."

    That may be the logical conclusion based on what we now know. Will it still be the logical conclusion when we know more? There have been many logical conclusions in the past that have been proven wrong as more information is acquired.

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  8. Dave,

    We may fairly safely say there are some things we will never know. We are barely learning what life is, let alone death. Life is not death and death is not life. That’s about it.

    This is the crux of the biscuit.

    Jerry,

    I notice that you are talking about the mind and not life. Do you think they are two separate things, or do you use them interchangeably?

    I assume they are two different things, but when people speak of what happens after death, they are generally concerned the mechanism that perceives. .

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  9. Infidel,

    The mind isn't a "thing", it's a set of processes that the brain performs, like programs running on a computer.

    I used to think that also. I still think it is possible. There is something that perceives. That something, one could argue, is not a set of perceiving processes, nor is it a mechanical brain. The mind does not work like computers. Computers do not, and arguably cannot, perceive.

    If you destroy a computer, the programs that were running on it don't go anywhere, they just stop.

    I used an electrical current as my example, back when I thought this was fact.

    We know from observation that if the part of a brain which performs a particular function is destroyed, the person loses that function. I agree with this up to a point. I used to argue that we can alter the brain and thus alter the mind, such as was the case with Phineas Gage, whose personality changed after a railroad spike went through his head and he “became someone else.” I considered this proof of the truth I owned. However, it fails to explain perception. My truth had something missing. It proved that you can alter the brain and thus alter the thoughts it hosts. It does nothing to prove the true substance of those thoughts. I can alter the way a computer program works also, even though I don’t understand how computers actually work at a fundamental level.

    To use my former example, the fact that an anesthesiologist can “shut the mind off,” used to convince me that the mind is the brain. It does not prove that. Are we suggesting that there is no mind, the thing that perceives, and then suddenly perception blinks into existence, and then forever blinks back out when we turn the brain off? How do we know that the perceiving thing is unique to a specific mechanism? How do we know that the constituent parts are not reused for other perceptions? To know, we would have to know what it is, and we don’t. To say it is a product of the mechanism implies that it is an object, something that we experience. However, it is the experiencing thing, not something that is only experienced. We have no concept of mechanical thing that experiences unless we make one up to explain a mystery we don’t understand.

    Perception is not explained by the brain. We see that we can track activity that happens when we perceive and that we can stop the perception in various ways, and yet, we don’t know how perception happens. It is inconceivable to us. If we don’t know what it is or what it’s made of, we don’t know what happens to it when we block it. I don’t technically comprehend how babies form, how sentience is spawned from intercourse. I can control it. I can make it happen, but I have no idea how it happens. Science has learned enough about enough things to know that intercourse joins a sperm with an egg and a soon a fetus forms. Science still thinks of this process as mysterious. It can control it, but it cannot understand it. The same is true with shutting off the mind.

    [This comment exceeded the blogger word limit. Hmm… To be continued … ]

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  10. [Conclusion]

    The logical conclusion is that if the entire brain stops working, all mental functions cease -- that is, the mind stops.? I used to argue that this was the only logical conclusion as well. I argued this for more than a decade, I think , and as recently as last year. I now consider the argument a very rational proposal, still the most likely answer, but it is not a logical conclusion. It is illogical to automatically assume that sentience and life can evolve in the absence of sentience: sentience ex nihilo. (Note, Dave, I have no interest in getting into a long battle about the science of evolution vs. the philosophy of evolution, but this is a similar thing).

    Science understands enough to manipulate things it does not understand. Science does not know what the things it is manipulating are. Science has yet to penetrate the mystery that is the miracle of life and the greater mystery that is the miracle of sentience; and until it does, it will be nowhere close to saying what happens to the mind when the body dies. I believe all of the theories I have had in the past are possible and the more recent ones are more likely.

    For most of my life I took as axiomatic that the mind was simply a reference to a function of biological forces. I slowly came to realize that this is not an axiomatic truth. Usually, when we consider a thing to be an axiom, it is because we have an intuitive understanding of it, not because we are completely baffled by how it could possibly be what it is. Axioms are not made of mysteries.

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  11. Bryan,

    That's not a conclusive argument, I know, but that awareness IS a bit of a mystery, is it not? You can pick the brain apart and see how it runs it's "programs" like a computer, but yet where do you pinpoint the fact that we have awareness, while the computer does not? Is it because our brains are more complex and sophisticated? Could a more sophisticated computer gain consciousness?

    I have read purportedly scientific articles that say computers can and will be become sentient. I found them to be illogical. I am not suggesting that they will or will not. I only suggest that the authors did not support their thesis very well.

    Their arguments showed that it is theoretically possible to make a computer work just like a brain in its actions. I don’t deny that. I accept their “proof” on faith. However, that does not prove sentience. Firstly, I don’t think science has clue how to bio-mechanically create sentience and secondly, I don’t think science could produce a way to test and prove that they had succeeded, even if they did produce sentience.

    In other words, even if science can produce sentience in a laboratory, they would have not logical way to test the success or failure of their work.

    I think they will have to learn what sentience is before they can do that. They are trying to make it without understanding it. I suspect even if they did understand it, the task would be challenging enough.

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  12. Funny you should mention a "test." I had a dream a few weeks back about a consciousness test, something akin to the Turing Test. Since then, I've been trying to think of what would be involved. It's a tricky notion. You could conceivably making an extremely sophisticated A.I that mimics human behavior in an almost indistinguishable way, but how could you tell, from the outside, whether it was truly self aware? In fact, in the dream, I was remembering that scent in the movie A.I. where the kid is pleading for them not to burn him, and then the crowd turns on the proprietors of the "flesh fair." The point the guy makes in return is a legitimate one, though. How can we be sure that the robot wasn't simply responding according to a preprogrammed simulation of a child's fear, rather than out of genuine fear? Hard to say, isn't it?

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  13. Bryan,

    Not only hard to say, but impossible to say. There was a episode of Star Trek the Next Generation about this, Measure of Man from season one, one of the few episodes from Season One worth watching.

    I think it is safe to say that were are going to have to understand what sentience is before we can understand how to know when we have reproduced it.

    The solipsism in me makes me barely convinced that you are exist.

    I am pretty sure I exist, though:

    cogito ergo sum.

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  14. For various reasons I have to believe that the mind/soul has to survive our physical death but I have no idea of how this afterlife will be structured. I greatly upset most fundamentalist Christians I talk with since they believe completely that Heaven will be a really super duper version of an earthly paradise. Atheists get mad at me that I even believe in an afterlife.

    As for the question of computers being sentient. A computer programmer who I was talking with once down in Florida while on vacation made the suggestion that computer sentient might be a misnomer because if processing speed and memory continue to grow a computer could pass a Turing test just by those factors. The best I could understand he was saying that it could fake its way through the required conversation.

    The next thing this guy said blew me away, he then suggested that humans may be doing the same thing. That to a certain extent, that we are not truly sentient ourselves, that as a species we are faking our way through life.

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  15. This is a very well written piece, and the interaction between the commentators makes it even better. I think even Lavender would have to be impressed! Okay, maybe not.

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  16. Beach,

    Firstly, let me define the Turing test:

    A test devised by the English mathematician Alan M. Turing to determine whether or not a computer can be said to think like a human brain. In an attempt to cut through the philosophical debate about how to define "thinking," Turing devised a subjective test to answer the question, "Can machines think?" and reasoned that if a computer acts, reacts and interacts like a sentient being, then call it sentient. The test is simple: a human interrogator is isolated and given the task of distinguishing between a human and a computer based on their replies to questions that the interrogator poses. After a series of tests are performed, the interrogator attempts to determine which subject is human and which is an artificial intelligence. The computer's success at thinking can be quantified by its probability of being misidentified as the human subject.

    The test itself makes the false assumption that if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

    The next thing this guy said blew me away, he then suggested that humans may be doing the same thing. That to a certain extent, that we are not truly sentient ourselves, that as a species we are faking our way through life.

    That was a good point to ponder for a few minutes. Descartes already pondered it for me and concluded: “I think; therefore I am.”

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  17. @Beach Bum: People like that computer programmer really bother me. It's one thing to say, as John does, that there is always that thin shred of solipsistic doubt about the sentience of others. It's one thing to say, as the Infidel does, that the mind exists entirely through the brain and dies with the body. But to suggest that sentience is a delusion altogether and refusing to acknowledge it even in one's self...well, that's kind of perverse in a way. To even be able to pose such a possibly to yourself requires self-awareness. As John points out with his reference to "cogito ergo sum", sentience is one of the most fundamental parts of our basic experience. For someone to deny that, as your computer programmer does, means that they have some twisted interest in the notion that people are programmed pieces of meat. There have been others with suggested similar things along different lines. I steer clear of the whole lot of them. They give me the creeps.

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  18. Do you take it for granted, John, that you (your sense of "I") and your mind are one and the same? Do you take it for granted that your mind is separable from your body, as a computer program is separable from a computer?

    I ask because I find both of these very dubious assumptions, which would have to be settled in one's mind with a sense of certainty and a mapping of detailed mechanism before moving forward to consider what if anything can survive after death.

    I surprise myself saying this because normally I am sympathetic to traditional beliefs. The sympathy is there still--the need for comfort, the fear of death etc. I would not take the crutch away from anyone for the sake of "the truth". We need crutches, we may even need prosthetic limbs.

    Being a new disciple of David Abram's ideas as he expresses them in Becoming Animal, I think of the mind as an individual copy (perhaps akin to a pirated DVD) of part of the complexity that's out there in the Earth. We interact with the atmosphere in every breath, and hold it temporarily in our lungs. The mind is different because as it appropriates more and more, from memory, experience, reading, interaction, it gets richer and more wonderful.

    But you know, it's just like a close relative who dies, leaving behind some extraordinary collections of clothes, shoes, books, exotic plants or whatever you like to imagine. For a while you want to keep it as a kind of shrine or museum, but that's sentiment. In the end, you recycle it all.

    Being dead can't possibly match up to being alive. Everything stored in our mind, whatever mind is and wherever it is stored, gets there because we have a body, and can be enjoyed because we have a body and live in the world. This also answers the question about computers being alive, or being able to think as we think.

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  19. Vincent,

    Do you take it for granted, John, that you (your sense of "I") and your mind are one and the same?

    That is a very deep question. You cannot stuff a big article like that in my shallow head and expect it fit, no matter how diligent you are in your effort to tamp it into place.

    Do you take it for granted that your mind is separable from your body, as a computer program is separable from a computer?

    Absolutely not. Some of the examples I mentioned in the article, some of the perspectives I have had back when I “knew” the truth, assumed quite the opposite. Currently, I don’t know what the mind is, or where it is, or if it is, in the sense that we think of it today. I replaced a sense of rational knowledge with a sense of mystery.

    I ask because I find both of these very dubious assumptions As assumption, both are dubious, yes.

    The mind is different because as it appropriates more and more, from memory, experience, reading, interaction, it gets richer and more wonderful. It sucks the atmosphere in and doesn’t let it back out, and oddly enough, this action creates more atmosphere, rather than taking some of it away.

    But you know, it's just like a close relative who dies, leaving behind some extraordinary collections of clothes, shoes, books, exotic plants or whatever you like to imagine. A small fortune I did not know about. Now continue.

    For a while you want to keep it as a kind of shrine or museum, but that's sentiment. In the end, you recycle it all.

    How depressing. My “last” conclusion in my metamorphosis from one who knows to one who does not know was that “spiritual matter,” living nature, perhaps, is perpetually reused in the making of other “minds,” and is not an entity unto itself, but an assembly, and arrangement of spiritual matter with a temporary purpose.

    Being dead can't possibly match up to being alive. Everything stored in our mind, whatever mind is and wherever it is stored, gets there because we have a body, and can be enjoyed because we have a body and live in the world.

    That is a very sound theory, a most logical possibility. I agree that data gets to the mind in this world and I often assume that it stays with the world as our remains decay. I would have to know what the mind is to be sure. This has always been my number one theory and it still is. I just don’t know it anymore.

    This also answers the question about computers being alive, or being able to think as we think. It told you the answer, but not me. To me it is obvious that computers cannot think. They have no mind. Whatever one of those is.

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  20. The Turing test assumes that humans are sentient, or maybe defines sentient as the way humans think. At best, it proves that computers "think" like humans. At worst, it shows that the interrogator is incompetent.

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  21. Perhaps we are a high intelligences computers.

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  22. "In the end, you recycle it all."

    We recycle only the physical stuff. Our memory lives on in other peoples minds. They remember us, our words, our smells, and our deeds.

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  23. Jerry,

    Our words, as they understood them, as what we communicated, but not what we intended to communicate, as that was a private thought that we could not fully share; our deeds, as they perceive them them. Some of us are heroes and some of us are villains. Actually, most of us are heroes and most of us are villains: two words to describe a single person, and the legacy he leaves behind.

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  24. Hero and villain can not only be the same person but can describe the same action.

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  25. Warning: Mixed metaphors ahead. I guess the one thing that really bothers me is in not knowing how the story will end. Once you pull the plug on the microprocessor, memory and consciousness go poof, a drama with no final outcome.

    Does the girl win her man; does the bully get his comeuppance; does the bad guy get caught?

    The show always goes on – less one couch potato, less one lover, less one adventurer or provocateur, less one invisible person at the checkout counter. In generations from now, perhaps all that is left of this life is a symbol on the genealogy flowchart of a stranger to me - assuming the stranger is interested enough to bother.

    Merely a link in the chain of past and future integers wrapped inside a double helix. The speculation imagination is the part I will miss the most.

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  26. Make that "speculative" imagination. Sorry.

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  27. Interesting post and subject to a lot of speculation. Too bad no one has come back from the dead to let us know what really happens; Jesus doesn't count. All i know is that too many metaphors have been taken too literally and have screwed with peoples minds for a long time.

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  28. I agree that learning the limits of our understanding are critically important. But I am also OK with acting without having certainty. But on the issue of the fate of the mind, it is unnecessary, as the Buddha reportedly stated, to take a position on this before choosing to change the mind.

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  29. Sabio,

    I agree that learning the limits of our understanding are critically important. But I am also OK with acting without having certainty.

    "Acting" in what sense, sir.

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  30. Dear sir Myste
    Well, I wasn't trying to be too heavy. What I meant was actually boringly simple:

    Examples:
    (1) I am uncertain that "love" is anything more than an illusion of the brain to control my sexual reproductive success, but I will act differently.

    (2) I am uncertain about my economic positions, but I will chose what seems the most reasonable to me (even if mistaken) and act on it.

    (3) I am uncertain if working on the mind is really of important value, but I chose to act on it.

    I think we all act on uncertain things -- thus we have faith in our lives.

    See, not to insightful.

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  31. It's as if you are reading my mind -- ;).

    There is an old saying, I read, and forced to remember when I was young, from the book called the "Bible"; "for the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten."

    If this was the case, how does one know what the "dead" knows or does not know?

    Of course this whole concept of not knowing confused me, because when my Mother died I remembered her, so did it mean that she was still alive as long as I remembered? To this day I still don't know the answer and is forever speculating on "universal truths vs. my truth from experiences".

    As such, I have come to a "personal" conclusion that the "Dictionary" is more powerful than the "Bible" because it dictates how I understand what i read, and shapes all my perceptions based on the meaning of words created by others outside of myself. Does that mean that the so called "Gods" of mankind are the ones that gave meaning to "words" that govern the action and inaction of humanity? No wonder my prayers were never answered. Oh well, might have gotten of subject, but isn't that what the truth could be, individually, that is, the mind creates speculations until one can no longer speculate.

    Today, I believe in "Everything and Nothing" ... it keeps me open and teaches me acceptance. This is all I know.

    OK ... yes, where was I. John, it seems like you were reading my mind -- :).

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