What is the difference, to consciousness, between being dead and being not yet born, or more exactly, being not yet even conceived? Are they equivalent states of consciousness?
After you die, your individual consciousness ceases to exist. Religion generally denies this, but that is wishful thinking. The main purpose of religion, after all, is to deny death. For believers, who are alive, not dead, this is a comforting, though delusional idea that has no basis in evidence or logic.
So let us agree, for purpose of this essay, that individual consciousness ceases to exist when, or sometime very soon after, all the systems of the physical body cease to function.
Now, how is that different in principle, to an individual’s state of consciousness prior to being conceived? In that condition (or non-condition), there is no physical body to define the boundary of an individual, and with no body, no individual consciousness. Functionally then, being unborn (unconceived) is equivalent to being dead. In both cases there is no individual consciousness because the functioning, individual embodiment to support it does not exist. Individual consciousness depends on individual embodiment – which is not to say that consciousness is caused by embodiment; there is no evidence for that. There is simply a dependency, of an unknown kind, between embodiment and consciousness.
It is only during a brief segment of less than 100 years, while we have a functioning body, that we have a functioning individual consciousness. Prior to the beginning of my tiny moment of individualism, the world extended backward in time beyond history and took place entirely without my presence (difficult though that is to imagine). And after my flicker of time is over, the world will continue on, in some form or other, without me (difficult though that is to imagine). Beyond the boundaries of my particular individual life, my consciousness simply does not exist in the universe. Why then, do we so carefully distinguish between being dead, and being not yet born?
An easy, and wrong, answer, is that the unborn are full of “potential” while the dead are not. This is a linguistic confusion, for “the unborn” do not exist. What the expression means is that some hypothetical individual who might be conceived and born at a future date, would have the potential to have experience, and to cause things to happen in the world. But that is a fact about someone who hypothetically will be alive, not an entity actually unconceived and unborn at this time. That entity does not literally exist yet. Something that does not exist has no potential for anything.
A person might take a God’s-eye view of human life and declare from that omniscient mountaintop that new individuals will be born, and when they are, will have “potential” for life whereas the dead never will again (assuming that dead is forever). But there is no God’s-eye view. We are humans, not gods, and we only have a human point of view, which is not omniscient. To take a God’s eye view is either imagination or self-delusion. If you’re going to pretend you have a God’s eye view of life and death, you might as well imagine reincarnation, or zombies and vampires if you like, because it is unconstrained fabrication anyway.
From actual human, not presumptive divine, knowledge, we can again only conclude that there is no functional difference between the state of (non-) consciousness prior to conception and after death. That conclusion is an inference based on evidence available to living humans.
However, there is a psychological difference that matters to living humans. I have memory of personal experience that seems to extend backward in time before my birth. This is possible through the magic of history. By contrast, except for religious stories, I do not imagine any personal experience beyond my death, since, unlike for history, there is no human evidence that any experience continues beyond death.
Of the uncountable billions and billions of people who have died on this planet, and among the millions who die every day, not a single person has ever “come back” to the living and reported any experience beyond death, or even communicated with us “from the other side” about what postmortem experience is like. In this assertion, I rule out fictional stories, religious fabrications, fraudulent reports, and tales from the mentally abnormal. By comparison, with history, we have written records, fossils, geology, astronomy, genetics and so forth, which give us verifiable, scientific evidence of what happened or probably happened before my individual experience began.
World War II ended before I was born, which seems odd to me, because I feel like I remember it, but that’s because of having studied history. My father fought in WWII and he actually remembers it (or would, if he were not dead). But what would he remember? He would remember his naval experience, his buddies, the situations he was in. He would not remember the entire war, though, because nobody could, because nobody experienced the entire war. People can only literally remember their own experience, not somebody else’s. And yet, after a lifetime of reading about the war, and watching uncountable movies and newsreels covering all aspects of it, I feel I have a personal memory of it, although that is not literally possible because I wasn’t yet born when the war ended. Still, that quasi-memory, a function of internalized history, extends my memory of collective human experience back in time beyond the moment of my conception.
There is a complementary, if not parallel, kind of quasi-experience after death. After a person dies, their memory continues in the collective experience of those who knew that person. In cultures that emphasize ancestor worship, this mnemonic persistence can last quite a long time. Eventually, and inevitably, it fades from the collective memory. Even if a family has an extensive, documented genealogy, we can be confident there is little, if any, collective memory of individuals who lived thousands of years ago, or who lived before history. Some individuals who are deemed noteworthy by a cultural tradition may be remembered less intimately for much longer than average. We collectively remember Albert Einstein, Thomas Aquinas, Jesus Christ, Socrates, and a collection of Egyptian Pharaohs. As more time elapses since a person’s death, the less detailed is the historical record of them and the dimmer the collective memory.
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which an individual’s experience persists beyond death in the collective consciousness of the community in which that individual lived. The dead individual has no personal consciousness or memory, but as long as the community persists, there is yet a persistent psychological trace of that individual’s experience.
To the extent that an individual, while living, defines himself or herself as a member of that community, psychologically constituted of it, then the individual can anticipate being remembered in the collective consciousness after death. That is, in a sense, another form of quasi-memory, an imagined future memory in the minds of the community. That is why some people are so extremely motivated to “leave a mark,” “make a difference,” “leave a legacy,” or otherwise make a noteworthy impression on their community so that their imagined, future, collective memory will persist longer than average.
The quasi-memory after death is actually an imagination of the community’s future rememberance, not a literal individual postmortem memory, but it can be conceived as a hybrid form of postmortem consciousness. In comparison, the quasi-memory of experience before birth feels like an individual form of consciousness, but it is derived from the collective experience of historians, scientists, and the like, and so is also a hybrid of personal and collective consciousness. The two kinds of hybrid quasi-experience have different qualitative feels.
Thus, there is, after all, a difference in consciousness between being dead and not yet having been conceived. While there are hybrid forms of quasi-personal consciousness before birth and after death, they are strangely different, and complementary rather than parallel or equivalent.