Monday, September 05, 2011

Consciousness Before Birth and After Death

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.


  1. You profess that you have no consciousness when brain dead, yet there is scientific evidence to refute this:

    1. 'But during "standstill", Pam's brain was found "dead" by all three clinical tests - her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain. Interestingly, while in this state, she encountered the "deepest" NDE of all Atlanta Study participants.'

      Exactly off your link and many other links. 0.0 :3 <3

    2. Actually, they didn't profess anything. It's all hypothetical.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    Actually, there is no scientific evidence at all for the existence of consciousness, even when we are in robust health. Consciousness is non-physical, and therefore beyond the reach of any possible scientific measurement. The only way we know that consciousness exists is by introspection.

    A personal report of having been conscious during an episode of medical brain death is a) anecdotal, b)a memory, not a real-time report of experience, c)about as reliable as a dream report, d)assumes that there is an exact medical definition of "death," which there isn't (there is a legal definition however).

  3. Every day I ask myself all these questions about consciousness. First of all, there is some continuity: everday, I wake up and I am still the same person, my consciousness point of view is always linked to the same body and does not shift to another body. It could be possible that when I die, this personal point of view comes back to the world, but it would be impossible to prove it since, as the brain dies, all memories die with it and you cannot remember that you were here before. Also, as you become the personal point of view of another being, you will not be at all the same person, as you might have different aptitutes and talents, different tastes, a different experience and "history". Unless there is some mysterious link between perosnality (ad tastes, etc..) and the consciosuness point of view. A question could also be, why doesnt' this personal point of view comes twice, simultaneously to at least two people in the world? The answer is then, either the personal point of view is a unique phenomena, so you never come back, or, the phenomena comes with some kind of mutual exclusivity we do not understand....Carlos T.

  4. The mutual exclusivity of consciousness is a consequence of physical embodiment, Carlos. Since no two physical objects can occupy the same space at the same time, having consciousness reside in a physical body guarantees psychological uniqueness, and that is a good thing, when you consider the alternatives. See my book, "The Purpose of the Body" for details. Follow this link for a sample chapter:
    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Thank you for your answer. Here is anonymous Carlos T again...We can discuss for hours about consciousness, as this is one of my favourite subjects. Another mystery to me: Imagine that in the near future you can store your memory in some kind of computer programme, and that at the same time, you can replicate a person with a machine that decodes the entire DNA of a person and then uses some kind of "human raw materials" like stem cells to make the exact body again. You can also put back the memory into the "virgin" brand new brain of the replicated body because you know how these memories translate into some kind of plasticity deformation of the brain. Now, you want to send a person to a distant planet, so you read the dna code, store the memory and send the code including the memory to the distant planet at the same time. So, no need to travel and spend a lot of energy with spaceships, just send the iformation at the speed of light. You destroy the original person and create the same person in the distant planet, with memory and everyhting. Will the original person's point of view and consciousness experience disapear as with death, the new person just carrying then a new consciousness experience and poitn of view, or will conscience follow? I definitively ahve no answer yet for this...Carlos T., writing from Paris

  6. I agree, it is a fascinating topic, Carlos.

    I like your method of space travel at the speed of light. Very handy for a sci-fi writer. In principle, you could dispense with the DNA code for the new body and use the presumably simpler specifications for a computer-robot, abstracting away less critical functions, such as digestion.

    There's nothing special about biological meat in guaranteeing the spatiotemporal uniqueness of each embodied consciousness. Only physicality is required.

    Unfortunately, you will still have to send at least one space ship. There must be a mechanism to reconstitute the encoded body in the remote location. You need to send some stem cells, a growth medium, a computer laboratory, and so on, to instantiate the electromagnetic code into a physical presence. So unfortunately, it will take quite a long time for a space ship to reach a hypothetical planet around the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, four light years away, traveling at sub-light speeds. You only have to send it once, wait 4+ years, then hope somebody remembers what to do.

    But let's say the transmission and reconstitution of the individual merely goes across town, not to a distant star, because the real point of the exercise is to decide whether the reconstituted person has self-awareness that is the same or different from the original.

    My reasoning about this is that the reconstituted body would not be self-conscious at all, because I don’t believe self-consciousness is a function or a product of physicality. Rather, I think it is a function of the structure of subjectivity, which is not material. (See my explanation of this argument in “The Three-In-One Mind,” ).

    There are two constraints that I can’t see how to overcome.

    1. It would violate the laws of physics for any nonphysical phenomenon (such as self-awareness) to be a product of a physical phenomenon. (E=MC2, the thermodynamic laws, and so forth). So no physical body or robot could ever become self-aware. That’s the Frankenstein constraint.

    2. The basic operations of pure subjectivity involve creative projection and motivated self-inhibition. We don’t have any clue of how it might be possible to construct a machine, biological or otherwise, that can perform these intrinsic functions (perform, not simulate).

    I think the Frankenstein question, how could consciousness arise from a perfect embodiment (biological or electro-mechanical) is misconceived. It simply can’t happen.

    Instead, we need to start from consciousness, which we know directly, positively, and certainly by self-awareness, and then think about how consciousness could possibly generate a physical body (or the illusion of one, which might be as good).

    Note: I removed an earlier version of this comment that had an error in it.


  7. With regards to consciousness after death, it's difficult to make a case for it, if one is of the opinion that it needs embodiment to exist, however by the same token it's easy to speculate for its existence prior to individual conception, as the living material that married together to facilitate the individual consciousness was first part of the embodiment of the individual parents ,of that which enabled their consciousness. If at some level the body is not only the facilitator of consciousness, but perhaps an integral part of it, then maybe one had an input not only to ones parents consciousness, but also been part of the consciousness of all ones ancestors, as a material part of you was once a part of them.
    It certainly would be a more plausible theory of past lives experiences than reincarnation. Born again yes, but each generation being born anew. It would make sense of the biblical concept of the sins of the father being visited on his children and even give some credence to the validity of the old testament by way of genetic memory. The similarities between the penalties at the so called banishment from the garden, i.e. earn the bread by the sweat of the brow, pain in childbirth, and the change in diet, can also be seen as consequences of evolution.
    Of course another possible consequence of influence on parents consciousness would be that one could no longer say that one didn't ask to be born, when one indeed may have been the instigator of the process.
    Not having had any personal previous lives experiences that I'm aware of, but then again perhaps all instinctive urges and behaviours have their origins there. While from a mechanistic viewpoint of genes a lot has been learned, if a holistic viewpoint could be inspired who knows what answers may be forthcoming
    While this theory of consciousness before conception is purely speculative ,the factual reality is that if a physical constituent of me now did not reside in my ancestors, then I could not exist.
    I stated at the beginning that it's difficult to make a case for consciousness after death if one is of the opinion that consciousness needs embodiment to exist. However I am of no such opinion, and knowing that opinions are of no real value including my own, and are but merely mostly false impressions that obscure reality, I will forego any speculation on consciousness after death. It is more than well speculated on already, and a lot of which admittedly resonates with me. Iamnotmyname

  8. Reason and material science will support absence of consciousness before birth and after death. But as a man of 79 years, I have different experiences that I have written in my book An Odyssey into other realms of thought available in Amazon. It is what I experienced.

  9. When you say the unborn have potential that the dead do not have, I disagree. Not all unborn will be born. Many exist as two cells in two different humans and they will only have that particular history if they are eventually born. Otherwise, they will be no different than the dead who in my opinion cease to exist in the present, past or future tense.