Is Life After Death Possible? | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
Millions of people believed in the afterlife, but is it true? Join us... and find out!
Life after death is a difficult thing to prove. Nobody alive today can say they've ever been there... so why are so many people so sure that it exists? In this video, Unveiled looks at the scientific and technological arguments for (and against) life after death. What do you think? What do you believe?
Is Life After Death Possible?
Everything lives, everything dies, and the world keeps on turning. That’s the general idea, anyway, right? Well, yes, except that we humans have an innate and ancient tendency to imagine that this life isn’t all there is. That there’s something else beyond this mortal coil… some other place to which we’re all headed.
So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; is life after death possible?
The concept of life after death can be debated from three main angles: Faith, science and technology. In terms of Faith and theology, some refer to heaven and hell, everlasting paradise, or reincarnation. Then, there are various more scientific and academic approaches pertaining to the preservation of consciousness. And finally, there are the more technological answers, imagining a future time when life can be saved and digitalized via machine.
Through the lens of Faith, today’s question is really an irrelevant one. Of course life after death is possible, if you believe strongly enough. With science and technology, though, the answer isn’t quite so straightforward.
The tricky matter of consciousness is key. It’s something which has long puzzled the world’s foremost thinkers, philosophers and scientists. What is it? Where’s it located? And what happens to it when our physical bodies are no more? René Descartes is usually billed as the flagbearer for the modern debate, thanks to his belief that our consciousness is the only thing we can actually be truly certain of - the basis of his often-quoted, seventeenth century mantra; I think, therefore I am.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, however, and the debate is still in full swing. In 2015, Oliver Burkeman (writing for the Guardian) asked why the world’s greatest minds still couldn’t solve the mystery of consciousness? In his article, he referred back to a mid-90s science conference when one David Chalmers referred to the issue of consciousness as “the Hard Problem” - a term which eventually inspired a 2015 play by Sir Tom Stoppard.
For Chalmers, when it comes to the brain, there are many easy problems and one hard one. The easy problems are things like how do our senses work? and how do we remember stuff? In reality, these questions actually aren’t at all simple to answer… but they’re still a breeze compared to the hard problem which, for Chalmers, is… how do all of those other problems amount to experience? How is it that, yes, we see colours, feel pain, hear the waves crashing on the rocks at night… but, crucially, are left with a sense of being irrespective of all of that?
But what does this scientific-philosophical quandary have to do with the question at the top of today’s video; is life after death possible? Well, for as long as science cannot absolutely align consciousness with a physical, material thing - with a specific part of the brain, for example - there’s an argument that it doesn’t need our bodies (or brains) to carry on. And then, there are any number of things it could do post-body and post-brain… all of which amount to some form of afterlife.
This is just one interpretation, though. For many, the expectation is that we will one day be able to definitely say that consciousness is the product of the human body, and probably of the human brain. We will one day be able to solve Chalmers’ Hard Problem. At which point we might try to encapsulate consciousness, prolong it or create an artificial version of it to potentially live forever - more on that shortly! But, at that hypothetical, future stage, we could very confidently claim that life after death is possible.
What’s interesting, though, is that according to one study, we might have already measured it. In 2014, the AWARE study - an acronym for “Awareness During Resuscitation” - was published by a team from Southampton University in the UK. It charted the apparently conscious experiences had by those who had survived a cardiac arrest… in between the time of clinical death and their heart restarting (a period when their consciousness should’ve shut down). For almost half of the heart attack survivors, results suggested that there was some level of awareness post death. They could see or hear what was going on around them, or they built memories of it… or even suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, linked to it. In all cases, to some degree, it could be said that the patients were alive after dying.
But, still, the widely held expectation is that even if death is like this - even if there is a between-time when a dying person is conscious of their fate - then it should only last for a few minutes. At which point the Hard Problem of consciousness regains its mysterious hold, and the apparent afterlife ends. It’s this window between life and death, then, that science and technology most wants to open up. If there is any moment at which a person’s essence of life remains even when their physical body does not, then growing numbers of people want to bottle that moment up.
It may sound like a sci-fi writer’s dream dystopia, but in the modern world we are trying to relocate consciousness out of organic bodies and into more reliable, less perishable ones. But, before we do this, we need a watertight understanding of what it is we’re trying to move. The race is on to map the human brain!
So far, we’ve made big steps in the right direction. In July 2019, news broke that scientists had managed to complete the connectome of a tiny species of worm. A connectome is essentially a brain map. It details every single neural connection inside a brain. And the 2019 news represented the first time we’d fully completed the connectome of any organism. Now, the structure of worm brains is something we can confidently say we know about. And it’s something that we could potentially recreate over and over again.
The jump from worm to human brains is, clearly, a considerable one. But these early successes prove that it will, one day, be possible. And, at a future time when we can map not only the human brain in general, but also specific brains from person to person… we could end up with effective blueprints for every human being. The personalities, individual traits, and even consciousnesses of everyone… translated into data.
But where would we go from here? It’s one thing to have the maps and diagrams of a brain to pore over and work from, but it’s another thing to go ahead and build it! And even if we could… would this ever truly constitute as life after death? Is, say, a recreation of your brain and consciousness inside an android of the future really the same thing as your brain (as it is) right now? If science heads in this direction, then very quickly these will be the sorts of ethical questions that the world would be facing.
Thankfully, before all of those future problems arise, however, our quest to preserve life even after death is likely to yield a number of other positive discoveries. The Human Connectome Project is arguably one of the most forward-thinking and ambitious initiatives on the planet today, as it represents the biggest effort we’ve made so far to map the human brain. It’s a joint project linking a number of the world’s best universities and hospitals, and its primary goal actually isn’t life after death. It’s just that understanding the potential for life after death could be an offshoot of the study. In the meantime, it aims to get to grips with all manner of neurological conditions and brain disorders - ranging from depression to psychosis to Alzheimer’s disease. The general idea is that once we’ve gotten to grips with our brains, it’s possible that the entire human race could benefit.
So, the answer is three-fold. The afterlives we’re told about via various religions and alternate worldviews rely on Faith, and for as long as you have Faith then whichever afterlife you subscribe to is deemed possible. Many scientists among us are more interested in the nature of consciousness, though… and in deciphering once and for all why - in some cases - it appears to extend until after we die, creating to some degree a life after death, once more.
But finally, for the technologists in our midst, life after death will surely be possible in the future. All we need to do is successfully map the human brain, tweak our connectomes so that they can apply to everyone, and then design some sort of digital, android world in which to house them all. Which camp do you fall into? Do you view the afterlife as a concept to believe in, a science to master, or a tech breakthrough waiting to happen? Because that’s why life after death is possible.