Thoughts on death

More on consciousness. I write about general AI so I do think about this stuff a lot. However, I’m not a neuroscientist, I haven’t spent decades in a cave in the Himalayas. I’m an ex-physicist, science fiction writer who knows nothing. Keep that in mind.

Let’s take as given that consciousness is a construct and all sensations, sounds, sights, emotions, feelings (if they are different, I don’t know), thoughts and awareness appear within it. There is nothing permanent there, even consciousness itself can be interrupted. There is no permanent self directing conscious activity. Everything simply appears within consciousness.

Now, some would suggest what we’re taking as given is contentious, subjective even. Maybe. Even consciousness could be subjective, perhaps. I doubt it, but I don’t know for certain. The practice and philosophy of mindfulness seems to show (prove, even?) those attributes of consciousness experience. But discussing that isn’t the point here and can safely be left for others, far more knowledgable than myself.

Consciousness seems to run uninterrupted. At least the personal experience of it does. For those of us who have had anaesthetic we know the experience of losing consciousness on the operating table to then have it reappear immediately in the recovery room. No subjective time has passed. We carry on as if our lives had not been interrupted by the medical procedure.

We can extend this into the realms of scientific fiction and the use of “sleepers”, where passengers on long space flights are put to sleep for the duration and are woken upon arrival. This may be decades or even centuries later. This is science fiction, remember? It’s a thought experiment.

I would assume the starship passenger would awaken and carry on being the person they had been before being put to sleep, as if no time had existed between beginning their journey and arriving. They would have the same pre-journey memories and they would have the same sense of self. That is the feeling of being the same person they were pre-journey as post-journey. This sense of self is dependent of the memories of experiences, thoughts, sensations, and emotions.

But what if all memories are removed (hypothetically, since it’s science fiction), just leaving the base human functions e.g. breathing, heart regulation, ambulation (maybe partially), etc? But no language, no cultural experiences, perhaps not even the use of food utensils and other relatively basic but learned functions.

What wakes up after the long sleep? There is no link to the “person” that went to sleep. The waker will not remember anything of their prior life, including people, places, and all experiences. There will be no remnant of their past remaining.

Even, say, physical appearance could be altered (even sex) so there is no possibility of researching the person the waker had been. Not that that makes any difference for this argument, since we’re talking about subjective experience of consciousness.

Both the pre-sleeper and the waker have conscious experience. I think we can safely assume that. It seems to be true, that is, we wake from anaesthetic and continue our conscious experiences and also our awareness (our sense of self) of that experience. But this case is different.

I contend these are two different instances of conscious experience. And even if, from the outside, we can trace a link, there is no possibility of that “person” thinking they have a previous life. Their “life” began anew when they woke. It didn’t continue. They don’t feel sadness for what they’ve lost. They have no concept of anything (personal) existing prior to them waking. They have been… “re-born”, or simply, born.

This sleeping is the same as death, I believe. As far as the waking goes, it makes no difference if the sleeper wakes or not (when comparing to death) because there is nothing (actually not even nothing, since nothing describes an absence and there isn’t even that) before they were woken from their sleep.

It seems to me that if there is nothing to remember, and the conscious experience always lasts only for the current moment (which effectively lasts/acts forever), then the pre-sleeper “died” and the waker was “born”.

And like we don’t fear (mostly) anaesthetic, we should not fear death.

Of course… the anxiety before our medical procedure, and the pain and discomfort leading up to death, is another matter entirely.