What happens when you die?
As a species, we’ve been wrestling with this question ever since we could think.
This question preoccupies us so much, we’ve built countless religions to help explain what might exist “on the other side”. In fact, the central pillar of all religions is providing an answer as to whether there is life after death.
That being said, religion isn’t the only source of answers for what comes after death. Philosophy and, recently science, also provide possible solutions.
Unfortunately, while there are multiple possible solutions, none of them are certain and it’s impossible to tell exactly what is the true answer.
We have a soul that exists on after death
Central idea: Human consciousness is caused by a metaphysical soul. The body may die, but the soul is eternal.
For centuries, scientists and philosophers have tried to understand the nature of consciousness. What exactly is consciousness? How does it work? What causes it? Why do we have it?
The debate still rages, and there is no 100% proven explanation. However, two possible theories stand out trough the strength of their arguments and popularity.
- Physicalism – consciousness exists through biological processes.
- Cartesian Dualism – consciousness is caused by the soul.
Physicalism states that consciousness is entirely produced by the brain, through internal biological processes such as nervous signals, chemical releases, hormones, instincts such as desire for food, reproduction, companionship etc.
According to physicalism, you are simply a very complex meat robot, with an operating system built on biological and genetic coding. Your sense of independent thinking is only an illusion and you obey the Laws of Nature.
Cartesian dualism on the other hand, argues that consciousness is caused mostly by the soul.
According to Descartes, the soul is a substance that exists on a higher plane of existence than the reality we live in.
Souls do not experience time, weight, location, smell or any other physical property. A soul simply exists.
How long does a soul exist? Forever. According to most definitions, your soul already existed at the time of the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, and will continue to exist for an eternity more after your death, and the death of the Universe.
That being, Cartesian dualism does allow for some aspects of consciousness to have a biological cause, such as hunger, finding patterns, focusing attention, etc.
So what are the arguments in favor of Cartesian dualism?
The strongest argument in favor of dualism is tightly connected to why we experience qualia (and is occasionally called the hard problem of consciousness)
Qualia is a philosophical term that describes how we naturally seem to understand how objects look, feel, smell or sound like.
For instance, think of the color red.
You’ve probably already imagined the exact shade of red, an object that is colored red, a memory or feeling that you closely associate with red etc, perhaps you even associate red with a smell, such as strawberries or bell peppers.
This mental image you have formed for the color red is a qualia.
So why is this sensation, or qualia, of the color red a proof that souls might exist?
To understand why, try to imagine yourself explaining the color red to a blind person.
You will likely go through some, or all, of the following points:
- Red is the color of passion.
- Red is the color of heat.
- Red is a certain wavelength of light.
Even if you provide the blind person all the information about the physical properties of the color red, they will still not be able to understand it, because they do not have the “experience of the color red”.
This means that not all information is physical in nature, and that a lot of the information that we perceive exists “outside of nature”, and on a different plane of existence than your physical body.
Thus, if there is a separate plane of existence for such information, perhaps the soul might exist there as well.
When you die, you instantly reincarnate
Central idea: After death comes a form of reincarnation. Time perception does not exist while dead, so reincarnation can seem to happen right after you die even if a billion years passes in between.
What if the moment you close your eyes for the last time, you are immediately reincarnated into a different living being?
Consider this: the Universe is only 13.7 billion years old. According to calculations, new stars (thus, new possibilities of life) will continue to be produced for around 100 trillion years.
To put this into perspective, a 100 trillion years Universe has the age of an 80 year old human, while a 13.7 billion year Universe is a 4 day infant.
During this time, you have already been born once. Who can say for sure that over the course of 100 trillion years, you won’t be born again?
And even if you won’t be born again in this Universe, there is a chance you will be in the next Universe.
According to the Cyclic Universe theory, the Universe undergoes a constant repetitive cycle, where each new Universe starts with a Big Bang and ends with a Big Crunch.
If this theory is correct, the Universe has already had an infinite number of cycles, and will likely continue to have an infinite number of cycles in the future.
And it’s possible that each new repetition of the cycle contains a different version of you.
What’s more, the transition from one life to another will most likely feel instantaneous. Just as you don’t perceive time when you’re sleeping, so too you will not perceive time in between lives.
The problems with this theory: The main issue with the Cyclic Universe is that it relies on physics theories that have yet to be proven, and may not be for some time, if at all.
The second problem opens up another philosophical can of worms.
If this theory is true, you’ve likely already been reincarnated multiple times by now, but have no memory whatsoever of your past lives. If this is the case, are you even the same person you were in the lives before?
The Egg by Andy Weir
The Egg is a (very) short story by Andy Weir, where a man dies in a car accident and then goes on to meet God, who reveals the true nature of human life.
If you just want to know what the main idea is, continue reading. If you’d like to read the short story first, you can do so here.
Central idea: In The Egg, the dead man learns that he is in fact every human who has ever lived, and ever will live. He is both Jesus, and every one of his Apostles. Abraham Lincoln, and his killer, John Wilkes Booth.
The short story doesn’t use the word “soul”, but the idea is close to it. Instead of each human having their own soul, we all share the same one, except that it’s reincarnated in billions of versions from the past, present and future.
When you die, it’s only your body that reaches the end. The soul we all share – the soul of humanity – lives on, and will reincarnate a different shell each and every time.
Friedrich Nietzche’s Eternal Return
Central idea: You have already lived the exact same life an infinite number of times in the past, and will continue to live the exact same life an infinite number of times in the future.
The eternal return theory originated in India and Ancient Egypt but Nietzsche further developed and popularized it in the West.
The central argument is that time itself is infinite, but the number of combinations matter can have is finite. After sufficiently long periods of time, the exact same combinations begin repeating themselves.
The easiest way to wrap your head around the argument, is to visualize a game of tic tac toe with only 2 squares. This version of the game only has 2 possible combinations. No matter how many times you play, these two combinations will repeat themselves for all eternity.
By comparison, a regular game of tic tac toe with 9 squares has 255168 possible combinations. This may seem like a lot, but if you play tic tac toe an infinite number of times, all of the 255168 possible combinations will repeat themselves endlessly.
Now apply this thinking to all possible atom combinations in the Universe. The amount of possible combinations is unimaginably big (think 10, followed by a few trillion trillion zeroes).
However, the amount of possible atom combinations is still a finite number. But if time is infinite, then the exact combination of atoms that produced our Universe and your life will continue to repeat itself infinitely.
Thus, you will relive the same life you have had so far, with the same joys, tears, actions, and tragedies an infinite number of times because this Universe will repeat itself endlessly.
In Nietzsche’s philosophy, the concept of eternal return is closely tied to the notion of amor fati, meaning to “love one’s fate”. After all, if your life will repeat itself in the exact same way infinitely, the only thing you can possibly do to is learn to love your life as it is, not as you wish it would be.
Depending on your beliefs, this theory may instantly click with you, or you will be very skeptical of it.
On a critical note, this theory does have it’s drawbacks. As with the “instant reincarnation” theory, our current understanding of science does not support the concept of a cyclical Universe since it would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
While there are some workaround theories, these are only experimental and have very little (if any) sort of proof behind them.
However, our understanding of the Universe is incomplete at best, thus there is a possibility that the eternal return will yet prove to be viable at some point in the future.
The Universe is a simulation (and it’s big, big problem)
Central idea: You don’t actually exist, and the Universe is most likely a computer simulated environment, created by a higher power or advanced species.
An idea popularized by the Matrix series of movies, and recently even the SpaceX and Tesla founder, Elon Musk.
If the Universe is indeed a simulation, it’s hard to say what would happen to your consciousness after death. Depending on how the simulated Universe was programmed, you could either be recycled into another being, erased and forgotten or stored in some memory hard drive.
There is however one major problem with the simulated Universe theory: what if the species that simulates us, also lives in a simulation?
For instance, you could end up with the following chain:
- Humans live in a simulation created by Species A.
- Species A lives in a simulation created by Species B.
- Species B lives in a simulation created by Species C.
From a logical perspective, there’s nothing stopping this chain from continuing for infinity.
When you die, you transform from something, into everything
Central idea: Death releases your consciousness from the limitations of the human body, and allows it to rejoin the universal consciousness.
This consciousness of ours is what makes us special, and we are afraid that death will take it all away. We believe death disconnects us from all sensations, thoughts and emotions. Everything simply becomes an eternity of nothingness.
However, what if the human body is a cage that separates our consciousness from a greater, universal consciousness?
Thus, the moment you die, your consciousness fragment returns to its source: the universal consciousness.
Like most theories on this list, this one also breaks with scientific convention. But panpsychism and pantheism can be compatible with some of our current, proven scientific theories and observations.
Two potential observations stand out that might support this theory:
- The measurement problem in quantum physics.
- The anthropic principle.
The measurement problem in quantum physics describes how a quantum object exists in multiple states simultaneously (called superposition).
However, once you make a measurement of the quantum object, it then collapses all of the possible states into a single one.
What makes the measurement problem, a problem, is that you need an observer to see the result of the measurement in order for the superposition of multiple states to actually collapse into a single state.
If that observer must be a human, you essentially claim that human consciousness creates a reality in which the quantum object has a particular state. And since the Universe is built by quantum objects, you essentially claim that human consciousness causes the Universe itself to exist.
“I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.”
The other possibility is that the Universe itself is somehow the observer.
Thus, the Universe “looks” at the result of the measurement and creates a reality where the quantum object has a particular state. In other words, the Universe somehow “observes” reality. However, this argument has major issues.
The vast majority of physicists do not believe that consciousness (human or universal) causes collapse theories are actually viable.
Most physicists believe the measurement problem has one, or more, solutions such as:
- Many Worlds Interpretation.
- Pilot wave theory.
- Objective collapse theories.
The second argument for a Universal consciousness is the anthropic principle, a philosophical observation that the Universe seems built in such a way that it allows conscious life to exist.
On one hand, this could simply be a coincidence. On the other, it’s possible the Universe configured itself (or even, it was configured by someone else) to be suitable for conscious life.
Unfortunately, both the measurement problem and the anthropic principle are ambiguous and not fully understood. In other words, they can mean anything.
You will continue to exist in an infinite amount of other, parallel Universes
Central idea: There are an infinite number of parallel Universes. You may die in this Universe, but can be immortal in many other of these parallel Universes.
The scientific foundation of “parallel Universes” is the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics.
According the Many Worlds Interpretation, measurement doesn’t actually collapse the superposition of a quantum particle.
Instead, each possible state a quantum object can take simply becomes a completely separate Universe.
In other words, if the quantum object exists in a superposition where it is simultaneously a square, triangle, circle or rectangle, then 4 new parallel Universes split up, where each of these are realized.
Thus, you’ll end up with:
- 1 Universe in which the quantum object is a square.
- 1 Universe in which the quantum object is a triangle.
- 1 Universe in which the quantum object is a circle.
- 1 Universe in which the quantum object is a rectangle.
Thus, a single particle can generate multiple, parallel and completely separate Universes.
However, there is a vast number of particles in the Universe, and each of these particles can also generate a completely separate Universe.
Not only that, but the parallel Universes themselves also create other Universes too.
So what you essentially end up with, is an infinite amount of Universes, where all possibilities are realized.
This means, that out all the parallel Universes out there, there’s at least one where you continue to exist, and might even be immortal.
After death comes eternal nothingness
Central idea: After death, all conscious experience ceases. The only thing that exists is complete and utter oblivion, nothingness.
Most likely the scariest and most depressing after death scenario. The thought that this life is the only thing that exists, and that after it comes an eternity of darkness can be terrifying.
For someone who is scientifically and logically inclined, this “death means eternal darkness” approach is the most plausible conclusion.
When compared to other alternatives such as instant reincarnation or universal consciousness, it has the fewest moving parts and is straightforward to understand.
In short, it stays true to Occam’s Razor, the problem solving principle that states: “the simplest solution is most likely the right one”.
However, even this theory puts forward a very difficult and unresolved problem, that we do not have a clear answer to (and likely never will):
What exactly is “nothing”? Is the concept of “nothing” even logically possible?
For example, is a hole in a donut something or nothing?
A similar logic applies to shadows. Are shadows something or nothing?
It is impossible to answer these questions clearly one way or another.
However, even if holes and shadows are nothing, they seem to have a strange connection to something. It is impossible to imagine the donut hole without the actual donut. Likewise, it’s impossible to imagine a shadow without the object that projects it.
Perhaps what “exists” after death is just as connected to existence, as shadows are to an object. But what does that even mean?
Maybe it means that even when dead, you are not quite separate from existence and this world. In this sense, death doesn’t mean that you don’t exist, but that you simply transform into something else.
What is that something else? Chances are it’s something impossible to describe, and must instead be experienced.
The second problem about the “death is nothingness” approach, is that we assume it is completely opposite to the sensation of being alive.
Below is a description of how we believe death must be like, when compared to being alive.
- Alive: You can see, hear, smell, touch, taste.
- Dead: You can’t see, hear, smell, touch, talk, taste.
- Alive: You can perceive time passing.
- Dead: You can’t perceive time passing.
- Alive: You can think.
- Dead: You can’t think.
- Alive: You can move.
- Dead: You can’t move (hopefully?).
Overall, it’s logical to assume this is what death must be like. But how can you be sure that’s really what death is like?
Ultimately, the belief that death is like a permanent state of sleep is just a human guess.
Perhaps death is a completely different sensation than our intuitive guess of complete and utter nothingness.
Thus, death could be something so weird, unusual and spectacular, that it defies human understanding and our ability to describe it.
None of these theories aren’t proven. However, that is not the point. The point of this article is to show that our current understanding of what happens after we die is extremely limited.
As of now, science can at most make an educated guess, but it cannot explain definitively what will happen.
According to science, the best guess we have is that once you die, you simply become one with the void. This however is only an educated guess, and is the most commonly accepted theory simply because it is the simplest one, and has the fewest moving parts. In short, it doesn’t violate Occam’s Razor.
But just because it is a simple theory does not mean it is correct.
Over the course of time, many, many scientific theories have been proven wrong. It may yet happen again, and this time it may finally answer what happens after death.