Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Quality of Afterlife


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Quality of Afterlife

To nobody's surprise, I am aging, and it sucks. This has been a difficult winter. I got sick twice, and have have my usual winter dry cough that has lasted months and months. I have had tooth issues: one tooth is abscessed and will cost a lot of money to replace, then another filling failed and had to be replaced. My knees got injured and don't seem to be healing up (which is terrifying given that I depend on my knees for transportation). Knock on wood, none of these have been major health problems, but the trend does not look good. My hypochondria is in overdrive. Diabetes is the most realistic fear, and I expect it will be paying me a visit within a few years. But its hoodlum friends Cancer and Arthritis and Dementia lurk around too, hiding behind corners and waiting for me to walk by so they can mug me and steal my wallet.

Even putting aside health anxieties, I think it is fair to say that daily existence is becoming more painful. I also think it is fair to think about thresholds. How much chronic pain is too much? Is living with diabetes (and the many many health problems and life restrictions associated with it) even worth the trouble?

My life does not seem particularly fulfilling. If I am being honest with myself, I have to admit that the things that make me feel content are uniformly shallow: certain music, good comedy, masturbation, sometimes sleep. Listening to Buddhist podcasts has done a good job of diminishing even these pleasures, because in addition to being shallow Buddhism has illustrated that these pleasures are fleeting and undependable.

Lately I feel that the replacements Buddhism offers for fleeting pleasures -- mindfulness, equanimity -- are booby prizes. Buddhism does not promise any avoidance of illness, aging, or death. Buddhism's approach to dealing with chronic pain is to face it directly, and to stop spinning stories about what the pain means. That's helpful, I guess, but the "liberation" that the Buddhist teachers talk about is more about tolerating the discomforts of existence than about making life feel worthwhile.

Existence is both awful and a precious gift. I do not know whether the rules of the universe are cruel or just profoundly amoral, but they clearly do not correspond to the rules of morality I would like to believe in. Existence is not kind. Existence is not just. Existence does not place any value in the preservation of life, even as living things strive desperately to stay alive.

Every time we poop we are discarding the corpses of millions upon millions (or is it billions? I do not even know the correct order of magnitude) of microrganisms. Each of those microorganisms was a life that was extinguished so that we could prolong our lives. That is not kindness. That is not justice.

Ecological niches are not kind. Mosquitoes cause us suffering in order to get blood meals from us, but they are just living the lives they were given. Bunny rabbits are a prey species; most of them die in terrible ways so that other organisms can live.

Maybe that would be okay, except for the issue of consciousness. The problem of consciousness terrifies me these days. As if worrying about going to Hell in an afterlife has not been bad enough, these days I am worrying about reincarnation.

Life is both awful and a precious gift. In my case the gift was especially precious; I basically won the existence lottery. I was born a human being: a member of one of the dominant species on the planet. Unlike almost all other life I do not struggle much in order to survive, thanks to technology and cheap, abundant energy. I live in comfort. I have more than enough food. I do not live in fear of being eaten by predators.

Even by human standards I am ridiculously well off. I have been blessed with three decades of good physical health. I live in one of the richest countries in the world. I may have to pay for dental care, but I get health care for free. For much of my life I found learning and schooling easy, and was oblivious to the challenges so many other people have in gaining credentials. I have access to entertainment and leisure. I have no dependents, and few serious addictions. My expenses are rising, but I am still making more money than I spend each month. I do not know this for sure, but I bet billions and billions of people would gladly trade places with me despite my tooth abcesses and aching knees and hypochondria. I am ridiculously well off, and as far as I know I have done nothing to deserve it. I just won a lottery.

Although I try to be grateful about my good fortune, I am not content. I do not like pain. I do not like drudgery. I do not like the ways in which existence does not match up to my ideals, and I do not like the ways I behave in order to continue my existence. And I do not see much point in my continued existence. I do not conduct my life as if I am going to live for a long time. I abuse my body; I do not save for retirement; I do little to ward off the health challenges (diabetes, cancer) that will make my life much much worse. And although life has its temporary fleeting pleasures, it does not feel worthwhile. Life feels absurd; we go through a bunch of motions and struggle to survive for no reasons at all.

It appears that I have won the existence lottery. The next time I will probably not be so lucky. But how big is the pool? What are the chances that upon my death I will be selected again to live out another life? These are the kinds of questions that are fun to explore in philosophy class and/or when stoned, but lately they have been weighing heavily on my mind even when I am stone cold sober. I worry about Hell sometimes. I even worry about blinking out of existence. But I have never taken reincarnation seriously, and I have never seriously worried about it until now.

One problem, of course, is the nature of consciousness. I do not know why I have consciousness, or how I got it, or under which circumstances I might get it again. I feel a sense of self awareness. I draw a boundary between the collection of matter I think of as "me" and the collection of matter that makes up everything else in existence. As an extraordinarily selfish being, I only care about what happens to the "me" inside the boundary; if mosquitoes have consciousness and suffer awfully, but I will be spared the horror of living such a life, then what do I care? (See also: my response to the horrors of global warming.)

The boundary that makes up "me" is not well defined, of course. For example, I still have some hair on my head. If you take a match and light that hair on fire, I will feel that you have crossed the "me" boundary and whine that you have set me on fire. But if I cut my hair and give you the clippings, and then you take a match and light the clippings on fire, I do not think that you have set me on fire. You have just burned some of my hair clippings. I do not feel that those clippings have my consciousness embedded in them.

You might argue that hair is not that important to my sense of self because it is not alive, but I feel the same way about living components of my body. When I donate blood and the nurses pack that blood into a cardboard box, I do not feel that they have packed me into that box, even though it is full of living cells that used to be part of my body.

The fuzzy boundaries get weirder; the book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee documents some fun experiments you can do to extend your sense of self to fake arms and even tables. (See pages 59-61). Our senses of self can extend well beyond our physical bodies.

Materialistically speaking, our current hypothesis is that consciousness has something to do with the brain. The reason that I am me and I have a sense of self is because a particular set of atoms configured themselves in a particular way. The set of atoms that make up my brain is not constant. It changes continually, and yet (as far as I know) the sense of "me" remains.

This is a problem, because I do not know under what set of circumstances a sense of "me" could arise. Does this particular set of atoms have to come together in a particular way for "me" to exist? If not, then there might well be another "me" in existence right now. The Milky Way alone contains hundreds of billions of stars, and as scientists discover more and more exoplanets it seems plausible that there are plenty of planets in the universe, and decreasingly plausible that ours is the only planet in the universe that supports sentient life. It seems ridiculous to think that my consciousness -- resulting as an artifact of some collection of atoms in a particular configuration on Earth -- somehow could spontaneously appear on some other planet after I am dead, but is somehow prohibited from being "me" while I am alive on this world. Such a property would be akin to a soul, which could only inhabit one body at once. Maybe this is the case, but I do not know of any (non-supernatural) mechanism by which this could be true, and I do not have any evidence that this could be the case.

For the moment, let's presume that my consciousness can only exist on Earth, because the collection of atoms that makes up my brain only exists on Earth. This is still a problem. I do not believe that the lottery of conscious existence is limited to human beings. This is where the prospect of reincarnation gets truly terrifying. What else has consciousness? Presumably if my consciousness arises again in a non-human form, I will not enjoy all of the comforts I enjoy having won the existence lottery.

We like to think that human beings are the only conscious beings on the planet. But there is lots of evidence to suggest that this is false. There is a test of self-awareness called the mirror test, which is used to determine whether non-human animals possess self-awareness. From what I remember, the test goes as follows: an animal is marked with a splotch of paint in a way that the animal cannot see (or presumably feel, touch, or smell) the presence of the paint on its body directly. Then the animal is placed in front of a mirror. If the animal sees its reflection, notices the splotch of paint, and reacts to it (perhaps by touching it or trying to rub it off) then we have evidence that the animal has self-awareness: it recognises that the image in the mirror is itself. (Contrast this to animals which will attack their reflections as rivals to their resources.) Several different animals have passed the mirror test. The book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll presents the following list: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, elephants, bottle-nosed dolphins, orcas, and European magpies. (p. 48) We do not know whether these animals have consciousness in exactly the same way we do, but the level of self-awareness they do exhibit suggests that they are aware of their pain and suffering, and are thus candidates for the sentient existence lottery.

We pretend that non-humans lack consciousness, but we do not behave as if this is true. We treat our pets as if they are conscious. We believe they have personalities and likes and dislikes. We believe they have good and bad experiences. We believe they suffer pain and enjoy pleasure; we give them treats and take them to the vet to be put to sleep when they become old or sick or inconvenient. It is true that other animals lack brain regions that are highly developed in humans, but just because they do not have developed frontal or temporal lobes does not mean that they are precluded from all abilities to sense time or plans. We know that other animals remember things. We know that all live struggles to survive, and that pain is a mechanism to signal danger, and that animals avoid pain when possible.

I do not think I would want to be born as an elephant or orangutan. They live difficult lives at the best of times, and these are not the best of times thanks to habitat destruction. I worry that not only do these creatures live unpleasant lives, but that they are aware of this unpleasantness in a way that a mosquito might not.

When killing animals for our own convenience, we like to argue that they do not feel pain in the same way we do. Even if this is true, it does not mean that their suffering is trivial or unimportant, and that they do not feel it as acutely as I do. And because I do not know what consciousness is, I do not know what combination of matter is necessary in order for my self to be reassembled somehow in a different animal. Currently the collection of atoms that make up my brain are being used by me, but when I am dead they could be reassembled in some other form. This is what makes this scenario different from the idea of my consciousness reforming on some other planet; all the atoms necessary to reconstitute this brain will continue to exist on Earth, being incorporated into other life forms.

Some people believe that they will never die. Sometimes this immortality takes the form of Heaven. Sometimes it takes the form of the Singularity, where techno-nerds upload their consciousnesses to computers (that somehow work forever) or medical science cures the problem of aging. I am neither religious nor a technological optimist. I will not escape death, and I am not sure that I want to.

I will also not escape suffering. As I age, the physical discomforts of daily life also increase, and without some other motivating reason to stay alive I question how much longer the benefit is worth the cost. Moreover, if reincarnation is real then it is out of my conscious control. Eliminating my map now rather than living out the remaining decades of physically uncomfortable, emotionally unfulfilling life I have left might make a difference as to whether my consciousness arises again or not. But I have no way of telling which option would be less likely to result in rebirth.

Don't get me wrong. Even though being snuffed out into nonconscious nonexistence seems preferable to eternity in Hell or being reincarnated as a mosquito, it still causes me a great deal of anxiety. But there are no good options here. Life might be tolerable now, but I can guarantee that it will not remain tolerable forever. At this point I have some ability to influence how and when I die. By the time I cross the threshold where the pain of existence makes life no longer worth living, I may well lose that ability.

It makes me upset that we cannot talk about these issues openly. We make the presumption that life is always worth living under all circumstances (but we do not extend that presumption to our pets, which we will have "put to sleep" at our whims). Maybe it is borderline acceptable to speculate about reincarnation, to gripe about the pains of aging, to worry about death. But planning out a "good death" -- one in which I would die quickly and in little pain, one in which my organs might be harvested and given to people who appreciate their lives much more than I appreciate mine -- is completely taboo, even though it would be better for all parties involved. That would be a form of reincarnation too.