Relation of Immortality to CONSCIOUSNESS

      During sleep everyone is aware that at times he or she dreams, and we accept that others do likewise. We even detect dreaming in our pets. We, the self-aware, also recognize that during the dream we are the same consciousness we are in a waking state—in dreams, we are who we are.

      We think this and at the same time acknowledge that the consciousness of the dream does not exist during non-dreaming sleep, and that consciousness of the dream is also completely walled off from the world of our waking consciousness.

      This recognition of being conscious during these different states is the great logical pillar of two somewhat disjointed conclusions. One, our consciousness has continuity, and two, that it is somehow eternal.

      While asleep, when we dream we are aware of our consciousness—and its continuity. Though we lack awareness when we are not dreaming, we have learned that the same consciousness will surface in the next dream. Since death seems to share so much in common with unconscious sleep, we assume that when we take The Big Sleep our consciousness will continue just as it has for all those previous nights.

      As a result, we make the leap from this given of the continual existence of our consciousness—its continuity even through the periods of unconscious sleep—to the eternal human soul. For what is our concept of a soul other than our continuity, the continuity of a consciousness disembodied from the real world, just as it is in sleep.

      This is a very natural conclusion for a being that knows little more about the functioning of its consciousness than this one basic fact, as our prehistoric ancestors must have known for many tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years. Why then should we be surprised that a belief in the soul persists? Or the natural extension of that belief is the universal desire for immortality? (The belief in an afterlife is only one option for continuing our consciousness.)

      We feel the seamlessness of our consciousness so deeply that we are compelled to believe in its continuity. This belief is so powerful that humans have long believed in the permanence of that consciousness in the form of a soul. Therefore, I suggest the meme of immortality is intrinsic to consciousness.

      Since the continuity of our consciousness is a construct, it should be easy to grasp the fact that it's being constructed from moment to moment and accordingly no end can be inferred. The manner in which consciousness functions mandates the meme of immortality. The meme of immortality is simply the manifestation of the belief in an eternal soul—in exactly the same way that we believe in the continuity of our consciousness.

      This belief in continuity is so strong that we are unable to process information to the contrary. This belief in the integrated self is necessary to the illusion of continuity. The illusion is confirmed by the oft-repeated story of the innocuous neighbor, the good family man, who turns out to be not only a killer of persons but their mutilator as well. Our reaction to such a discovery is often denial; denial that this killer could be an integrated self like ourselves. No, we say, this cannot be; this is no ordinary man who also happens to kill, this person must be insane. This is our defense, the required logic to maintain and protect the fiction of our own integrated selves.

      Consciousness provides that interpretation, an integration part and parcel of, and indistinguishable from, the illusion of continuity. For how can we have continuity without unity? Without the fiction of the single, unified self, continuity is meaningless. With consciousness comes the continuous unending self, and with it the meme of immortality.

A short argument to support the integration of consciousness, continuity, and self.

      The common view of consciousness is that it enables awareness of the self. It does this in waking and in dreams. This self exists, somehow, within or underneath this consciousness (or its nighttime variant), that is, separate from consciousness. The self interprets the events consciousness is aware of; the self provides the fiction of continuity. (Fiction, because consciousness is demonstrably discontinuous.)

      The alternative argument is that consciousness is the self. The gaps in consciousness appear filled in just as naturally as those in our visual field appear to be. More accurately, the gaps simply do not appear. This lack of gaps is another way of saying consciousness mandates continuity—of vision, of events, of time. And of self.

      The common view results in an endless regression of homunculi. The alternative says there is no self other than a fiction created by consciousness in the same simple way that there are no gaps in our visual field (easily refuted by experiment), that our successive visual fields appear in full detail like a movie (also contrary to evidence). In just the same way, we assume a similar, fully us version of our consciousness (which is also easily disproved).

      Self does not exist apart from consciousness. It is consciousness' mechanism for a necessary continuity. There can be no consciousness without continuity, and no continuity without self. To state this another way: consciousness, continuity, and self are completely integrated, an organic trinity.

      The continuous self, part and parcel with the necessary fiction of consciousness, gives us access to the continuum of past, present, and future—allowing us to use the past to understand the present and to try and predict, and possibly control, the future. To do this we must be aware of our self in the past, present, and future. Consciousness of self is also continuity of self. One and the same, indivisible.

      Now for a defining practical question: How do self-changing drugs, like Halcyon, work? Do they somehow wall off this self that lurks beneath our consciousness, or do they inhibit the ability of consciousness to maintain its continuity of self? If the latter, then we can easily see the similarity with other mind-altering drugs, in the way they interfere with the normal perceptual process. If the former, then it is all part of the same singular deeply recursive mystery.

      Thus if the common view is true, then that self is akin to the mysterious soul that has developed historically. If that is so, then what people experience as a mental breakdown is an attack (as it feels it is) on the very essence of their selves. However, if the alternative view is true, then all is far more fragile than we realize—but also far more flexible! If we can just distance ourselves from the idea of the eternal, immutable self (as soul), then we might better handle these disruptions to our consciousness.

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Last updated 3/17/02
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