I have a theory.
It relies on the assumption that consciousness can exist in many different forms and is not unique to the human brain. We know that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, but we don’t quite understand how; we can hazard a good guess that it’s probably to do with the communication between our brains neurones, but at what point does communication between individual things become it’s own consciousness? Does consciousness always have to self identify with a host body, like we humans do, or can it be egoless? What would it feel like to be this consciousness floating around in space with no concept of ‘I’ or ‘me’?
I like to believe such a consciousness is possible; as if consciousness itself is a property of space time, that emerges from any form of communication between two things. Even two atoms bumping into each other sparks a primordial consciousness. The only reason we see ourselves as conscious beings, is because the sheer amount of communication happening inside our brains between all our neurones results in a highly condensed, self identifying bubble of consciousness.
Consciousness itself is the car, the object that simply exists, and our brains are the driver, just a highly evolved organ that has learned to pilot this car.
Anyway, when we die, what’s actually happening? Our brains just switch off, all the communication between our neurones ceases. But the car doesn’t disappear, it’s just that the driver has gotten out and left it there. So if our brain is the driver, and our consciousness is the car, which part is the thing we actually self identify with? In your mind, when you think of ‘I’ or ‘me’, are you referring to the brain or the consciousness?
I like to think it is the consciousness; the brain is the actual mechanism shifting the gears and pushing the buttons that evoke the question ‘who am I?’, but the consciousness is the thing that understands the question. Imagine the brain is a planet, and consciousness is like the cloud of atmosphere that surrounds it; the consciousness by itself is just an inanimate object that simply exists, but the brain is the mechanism that can provoke it and make it do things, like think and feel.
When we die, and our machine stops running, our atmosphere of consciousness is left as it is in the moment we die. It freezes like a snapshot of our last thoughts. But not only that, it’s a snapshot of who we are as a person. Over the course of our lives, our brain pokes and prods our consciousness over and over again, it gradually becomes moulded into the shape of our habitual thoughts. Like the brain is a potter, and our consciousness is a mound of clay, over the course of your life this clay get shaped into who you are. And at the moment of death, your mound of clay, which naturally takes the shape of who you are, is poked and sculpted one last time, adding the final detail of your final thought. That’s also why your life flashes before your eyes as you die, it’s your brains way of double checking that the sculpture is perfect and all the details are correct.
This is how we exist for a time after we die; we feel like a disembodied ego, stuck in a snapshot, a perpetual thought, that encapsulates who we were right up to the moment of death. No longer can our brains poke and prod our consciousness to make it conjure new thoughts, we are just a single thought that feels like an ‘I’.
This is how I interpret heaven and hell. Whatever our sculpture looks like at the end of our lives, that’s how we exist as after death. If you spend your life doing bad things, your sculpture will look ugly, you will be trapped in a perpetual thought that feels like guilt and shame and hatred. But if you spend your life being good and kind, you will die with peace in your heart, your final sculpture will feel like contentment and fulfilment, and you will go to heaven in the sense that you are trapped in this pleasant state of consciousness.
However, I don’t believe that it last for eternity. Like I say, if all consciousness is is the emergent result of communication between things, then the bubble of consciousness that your deceased mind exists as will eventually be re-moulded by all the other communication happening in the universe. Over time, you will begin to feel less and less like an ‘I’ as your cloud of consciousness dissipates into the universe. Like I said at the beginning, what would it feel like to be this egoless consciousness just drifting through the universe? I believe that that is eventually what we will become. Our final perpetual thought will start to feel less like the sort of thought created by a human brain, and more like a thought created by the universe, by atoms and gamma rays and photons. We eventually become nothing, and the whole universe at the same time.