What happens when we die?

Being a materialist subscribing to the position that the mind is simply the product of the physical activity of the brain, I believe death is simply the end. Curiously, if this is true it would in some sense mean I will never be dead, because in order to ‘be,’ something must be subjectively experienced. But if death truly is the end of subjective experience then, by definition, it can never be something I can be aware of.

This belief was nicely summarised by Epicurus in 300 BC. “Death is nothing to us [because] while we are, death is not; when death is come we are not. Death is of thus no concern either to the living or to the dead. For it is not with the living and the dead do not exist”.

One might raise an objection at this point and say that, actually, death concerns us a great deal. After all, few people are indifferent to whether they live or die. Some say this is because it is impossible to imagine your own non-existence. The best you can do is imagine some eternal void in which your ‘self’ dwells forever, and that sounds pretty unpleasant.  But clearly death cannot be like that at all if the materialist view of the mind is correct. It is much more like Epicurus said.

But, maybe Epicurus and the materialist view of death both have it wrong? Perhaps death is no end at all? Some people have claimed to have had near-death experiences supposedly proving that a person’s ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ survives physical death and that our material world is but a shadow of the far more real spiritual universe.

Normally when I hear such tales I imagine having little difficulty reconciling them with the materialist view. After all, I have read about Michael Persinger’s ‘God Helmet’, a device which uses magnetic pulses in order to make the brain generate hallucinations with a distinctively religious flavour. I have heard about Buddhist monks volunteering to be scanned by fMRI, and the results showing correlations between increased or decreased activity in their brains and reported subjective experiences such as leaving the body and becoming one with the universe.

When it comes to Eben Alexander, though, I wonder if I could possibly argue a case that he has not already considered and found lacking in explanatory power?

Dr Alexander is the author of ‘Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into The Afterlife’. In his book, Dr Alexander talks about the time he contracted what is for adults an extremely rare form of disease: Bacterial meningitis. The story alternates between two perspectives. On one hand, we follow Dr Alexander’s family as what begins with the mother of all headaches deteriorates into ever-more dire situations as the disease takes hold and shuts down his cortex. Through his family’s eyes we see the horrible effects of a disease which, according to the best expert knowledge ,will either kill him or leave him profoundly mentally disabled.

On the other hand, we are treated to what Dr Alexander himself experienced while in this coma. At first he has no sense of identity or consciousness, and simply IS. He has the awareness of a worm, all sense and no sensation. But then, he undergoes an expansion of consciousness so dramatic his soul becomes able to take in the whole of the multiverse and glimpses the presence of an entity that he identifies with God.

Being as I am interested in the post-human condition I really liked Dr Alexander’s portrayal of a subjective journey towards first lesser than more-than-human states of awareness. There can be no doubt that Dr Alexander did experience something truly profound. The question is, was this just a very elaborate dream or did it objectively take place? Did his soul really depart from his body and slip between the cracks of the physical universe to glimpse God Almighty?

A downside of this book, for me, is that it is very much a personal story and not at all an academic study into the phenomenon of near-death experiences. At the end of the book there is an appendix in which Dr Alexander highlights all the neuroscientific explanations he considered but which he felt could not account for his experience. The reason why not is generally the same: The materialist position says that an active cortex is required in order to have the kinds of experiences Dr Alexander underwent, but the disease had damaged his cortex to the point at which to totally ceased to function. But equally, there is an enormous amount of evidence pointing to a direct correlation between brain activity and mental functions. Think for instance, about those unfortunate souls who damage a particular area of the brain and lose a particular mental or sense capability. Why is it, that damage to the visual cortex renders one blind, but the soul can apparently see perfectly well with no brain at all?

Also, how does this notion that our bodies are merely mobile vehicles which our souls can depart and go be with the presence of God reconcile with the abundance of evidence showing we are not fallen angels but the evolutionary descendents of organisms that probably resembled lumps of snot more than anything else?

The book posits no explanations for either of these questions.

Still, if you are not after an academic study of near-death experiences and instead are looking for a personal account, then Dr Alexander’s book, with its alternating perspectives of increasing hopelessness on his family’s behalf as the disease eats away his brain, and increasing rapture as his soul journeys toward God before going back to his body (well, he had to recover in order to write this book) makes for a terrific story.

Is it true, though? I do not know. And, as a digital person, I do not suppose I shall ever find out. But, one day, perhaps my primary will?

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  • You are not supposed to talk about this. It is all supposed to be a secret. Don’t worry, all shall be revealed and it isn’t scary or anything.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Of course the simplest explanation is that Alexander made everything up to sell the book. Another simple explanation is that he hallucinated these experiences after coming back to consciousness, and considers it real.

    The less simple explanations are more interesting. Assuming that a) his cortex had completely ceased to function, b) there can be no conscious experiences without a functioning cortex, and c) he had conscious experiences anyway, the only possibility is that under some conditions consciousness can happen without a physical brain.

    Well, we will find out, let’s hope not too soon.

  • The claim that all materialists don’t want to die because of some semi-metaphysical “fear of nonexistence” is just so silly. For the most part it is not because of unwillingness to achieve some unimaginable but otherwise real state of not-being-there but because of not wanting to be obliterated, because of not wanting all our goals, values and states of mind being irrevocably erased from existence.

  • Extropia DaSilva

    But all our goals, values and states of mind are NOT erased from existence when the indivdual dies, for these are (or have the potential to be) memes that can ‘live on’ in the minds of future generations.

    When I speak to people about death it does sound to me like they expect it to be some ‘unimaginable but otherwise real state of not-being-there’, and studies into people’s attitudes towards death point to the same conclusion, we imagine nonexistence as a state-of-being. My favourite example of this is the staunch atheist who was asked if people remain religious after death. His answer was ‘no because once you are dead, you can see there is no afterlife’.

  • Sean Byrne


    God and my soul are in heaven with my morality.

    Here I practice selfinterest for it is the material world.
    So I vote for business and let the poor starve and wage war on them.

  • dan green

    I recommend Oliver Sack’s discussion of this book and similar experiences in The Atlantic:

    This is my first time here. You say you’re a “digital person.” Can you direct me to a post in which you explain that? Are you saying that we live in simulation or in what way are you digital?

  • Extropia DaSilva

    Try this:

    I do not know who came up with the term ‘digital person’ to describe avatars that are fictional characters as opposed to representations of real-life people. It just seemed to be a term that arose in communities like Extropia Core in SL. I adopted the term to describe myself but I do not know in what sense roleplayed avatars are ‘digital’.

  • Amichai Reznik

    Maybe he got all this expriences just as his cortex were begging to be active again. Like when you wake up from a dream you can’t really tell when the dream started…

  • I know what I want in heaven it’s not butterflies