What If Nothing Happens After Death? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
What is the Eternal Oblivion Theory? Join us... and find out!

What if when we die, there's... nothing! In this video, we take a closer look at one of the major theories for what happens after we die. It's one of the biggest questions facing humanity, and one of the greatest unknowns in the universe... but have we finally solved it? What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

What If Nothing Happens After Death?

There are plenty of theories and beliefs about the existence of an afterlife. From reincarnation back into this reality, to angelic depictions of a literal Heaven complete with pearly gates. Or a literal Hell, complete with fire and brimstone. But not all versions of life after death are quite so… colourful.

This is Unveiled, and today we're answering the extraordinary question; What if nothing happens after death?

Eternal Oblivion Theory. That’s the topic for today’s video, and we can probably all agree that it appears at first to be quite an ominous turn of phrase. But interesting, nonetheless. And, according to some, it’s integral to understanding our place in the universe. Broadly speaking, it’s the conceptual idea that our consciousness ends completely at the point of brain death. While many religions and worldviews promote ideas to support the transportation of our current consciousness to another plane of existence after we pass, Eternal Oblivion Theory says that no such thing happens. While the afterlife serves as a cornerstone to various Faiths, and as a source of comfort for millions of followers… here, it’s unapologetically denied. So, what’s going on instead?

In 2017, the humanist writer David Niose posted an article on Psychology Today titled, “Oblivion Isn’t Really So Bad”. In it, he expands on the Eternal Oblivion Theory… presenting it as something not to be feared, but to be reasoned with. An alternate end-of-life story that he feels stands up to scrutiny. Niose compares the supposed nonexistence post-death to the similarly oblivious state we were all in pre-birth - something he says he “didn’t find at all dissatisfying”. And this is a common argument among all Eternal Oblivion theorists. We came from nothing, we go to nothing, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Thanks in part to our growing scientific grasp of what happens after we die, Eternal Oblivion is now increasingly pondered by a variety of people. Perhaps unsurprisingly by atheists and agnostics, yes, but also by some theists - by those with some degree of religious or spiritual belief. The idea of the mind and consciousness being dependent on the working brain, for example, has more advocates now than ever before. Science is increasingly confident that consciousness can’t exist in the long-term without a brain to house it… so, what happens after brain death? Or, more precisely for today’s question, what could we ever realise was happening? For Eternal Oblivion theorists, the answer is nothing. And the nothingness is so complete that even the concept of eternity doesn’t register.

It’s a dark theory (in more ways than one!) but it also isn’t a new one. So, let’s scale back. The famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, was a religious sceptic who mused about the Eternal Oblivion Theory, more than 2,400 years ago! Many of his philosophical positions weren’t exactly welcomed at the time of his living… and, ultimately, he was sentenced to death for impiety and for corrupting Greek minds in the year 399 BC. His ideas on death, however, were specifically captured by his friend Plato, and eventually published in Plato's "Apology”, wherein it’s recorded that Socrates wondered what might happen to him after his death sentence was carried out. He’s said to have surmised two main options. The first being that his soul would move from one plane to another, to a place where he might discuss philosophy with some of Greece's past heroes. An afterlife, if you will. The alternative, though, was essentially Eternal Oblivion, which Socrates pictured as a deep and dreamless sleep with a complete lack of awareness.

Importantly, in Plato’s account, that second possibility doesn't seem to have bothered Socrates too much. True, he would be missing the opportunity to talk to his heroes, but he’d never have a chance to feel bad about that. Socrates, it seemed, generally thought that the prospect of a dreamless sleep should be held as a comforting thing for us while we’re alive. That it amounts to a place where the mind ceases to exist, but also where there isn’t any sort of recognition of that fate… or suffering because of it. And that’s an idea that has remained through the ages.

The Naturalist Tom Clark also wrote about the Eternal Oblivion Theory in a 1994 article titled, "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity". In it, Clark presents the idea of oblivion as being totally in-experienceable from our point of view. A stance not too far removed from Socrates, thousands of years beforehand. Clark suggests that this non-experience (from our point of view) should mean that we needn’t subject ourselves to the fear or worry that the seeming eternity of death creates. He further muses that even the term “nothingness”, that we so often apply to the time after death, is problematic, because it imbues nothing with a quality… which then makes it something. Which then implies that our consciousness would have to in some way endure it, when really it never will.

For another example of the problem, this time from pop culture, there’s a moment in the 1984 fantasy movie, "The NeverEnding Story", when the characters are trying to describe an evil force called “The Nothing”, when one suggests it is a hole, prompting another to remark that, "a hole would be something. This is Nothing”. “The NeverEnding Story” wasn’t necessarily entirely concerned with Eternal Oblivion… but we can see some crossover. And we can see how, even if we’re not acutely aware of it, there’s a sense of existential dread that continually plays on the human mind. Because, in our brains, through our consciousness, we tend to align nothingness with suffering. But that’s not the conclusion of the Eternal Oblivion Theory. Instead, it seeks to make real the concept of nothing. To take away the mystique, and to give meaning to something that's otherwise very abstract and difficult for us to understand.

David Niose’s comparison to a pre-birth state is one way to look at things, but more generally it’s argued that the chief reason humans fear nothingness is because we’re incapable of processing it apart from our present minds and consciousness. It’s extremely hard for us to consider what happens after we die and not to feel anxiety, loss, or the ultimate feeling of missing out on something. But, with eternal oblivion, we don’t miss out on anything and we don’t suffer… because, well, it’s more than impossible for us to do that. The conditions for any of that to happen just… aren’t there.

Other scientists and public figures to have spoken in favour of the Eternal Oblivion Theory include the physicist Sean Carroll and the psychologist Steven Pinker, both of whom have highlighted the lack of scientific evidence that life or awareness can continue after death. In this way, death might feasibly be re-phrased as being a total unconsciousness. As something final from which we, all of us, will never return. Except, again, with Eternal Oblivion, we couldn’t describe death as being “something”, because it’s not something. We just are, and then we aren’t. Crucially, life (and consciousness) goes on from the point of view of anybody that isn’t (or wasn’t) ourselves, after we’ve died. This is something that Tom Clark in particular points out, in his paper. But personal life after death is something that no Eternal Oblivion theorist would ever subscribe to.

And, for most advocates of this way of thinking, that’s no bad thing. They’d typically critique all other afterlife suggestions as being empty, unsubstantiated promises. And, to go even further, many question whether the concept of bliss in the afterlife is even possible when it implies that we still possess consciousness there? An Eternal Oblivion theorist might say, for example, that if there isn’t oblivion, and paradise does exist, then how would we feel if one of our loved ones wasn’t there? In that scenario, we’d have pain and worry and suffering even if the afterlife is real! Why would we want that? And how could it ever be a paradise? It's something of an existential Catch 22.

Ultimately, it’s an unfortunate trait of the human condition that most of us are scared to die. And, for many of us, much of the fear is about what is (or isn’t) waiting for us at the end. According to various terror management theories, most of what we do in this life is in some way linked to a continual need to find comfort against the thought of death. And, really, even the Eternal Oblivion Theory amounts to exactly that. A bid to process the un-processable. To describe the indescribable. And to predict the seemingly unpredictable.

A favourite quote among humanists, and particularly eternal Oblivion theorists, comes from another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who was born around forty years after Socrates died. He, too, didn’t shy away from contemplating death, most famously saying; "If I am, then death is not. And if death is, then I am not”.

It’s perhaps the simplest way of approaching Eternal Oblivion. It’s not a mode of thought that everyone will like or believe in… but it does encourage us all to appreciate the present. To value the life that we’re living right now. Because, when death comes, the ultimate transformation is at hand. You are, and then you are not. And that’s what could happen if nothing happens after death.