Imagining mortality

Scientific American has recently published a provocative article explaining humans’ seemingly universal inability to imagine a lack of consciousness and, thus, an end to consciousness at death. In short, the conscious imagination never experiences non-consciousness. When we’re not conscious, we’re not aware and thus can’t remember what it was like. At most, we can remember regaining consciousness. This inherent quality may be a key part of the explanation for the widespread belief in some sort of afterlife.

But the article does not address at least one important dimension of this issue: imagining that other beings – human or otherwise – have the same kind of consciousness. It is a categorical leap to apply insights about one’s own experience to that of others. The ability to do so – empathy – is also a nearly universal capacity among humans and, at least, many other primates.

However, humans do not employ this capacity in universal ways. Historically, some people have imagined that only some other peoples had immortal consciousness, categorizing the remaining humans as wholly mortal animals. Conversely, quite a few people around the world have held that other animals, plants, and/or geological formations have immortal consciousnesses equivalent to that of humans. Ancient Greek myths provide a handy compendium of examples.

In short, I cannot imagine being dead, but I can imagine the death of your consciousness – or, for that matter, its non-existence – without much strain. I can imagine its immortality, too. Given this flexibility, the historical paths by which humans have developed such a wide variety of beliefs about others’ immortality awaits a fuller explanation.

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