Propositions on Immortality

a fable

a fable


He talks with his hands but the timing is off and the motions are grotesque. It would be an undignified tic did it not appear so composed. I consider first that he’s punctuating a different speech, some previous lecture that stayed too long and makes its presence known in the extremities, the way ghosts haunt attics and basements. I then wonder whether it evidences something more ominous, some vestigial character trying to break free of his current intellect, hostile to it, pantomiming the man he never became. Last, I allow myself to picture a lamp behind him and a sheet before him, that these instruments discover a perfect shadow theater in his gestures, that the shadows illustrate what the naked hand doesn’t, that only our dim light conceals the hieroglyphs.

Right now there are no lights and there are no shadows. There is a weak sun, and whatever puppets it casts are swallowed by a monolithic black table before the professor. At the other end students watch his hands open and close and dart around his hair, digits trying to savage the content of his thought.

He says, “Matter’s nature is interaction. The decomposing body feeds other organisms, supernovas build planets, energy leaps from body to body. The world is continuous. Consciousness refuses to conform.”

He says, “It is isolated,” and his hands burst into frantic activity. He says, “Certainly, we talk about our inner states, we can relay them through speech acts, we can name them and categorize as desired. But that’s only sound, and each party experiences even the loudest sound differently. We can never penetrate the experience of another. We cannot communicate, we can only translate; the experience is neither given nor received.”

The hands are all wrong and he says, “Death is thought to resolve its own problems, but the living should worry. Without some grounds for interaction, it is not clear how we might even die.” One hand closes into a fist and the other opens its palm. He says:


(1)  – All is matter.

If consciousness is material, then it must change. We cannot communicate with others, but even an individual’s experience is not static. Recall the mental states in sickness and health. When sick, health feels more like a vanished dream. Afterwards, the convalescent watches the experience of illness fade away. We can use the words to remind ourselves of it – “I had a fever last week” – but those fail to communicate our earlier states to our later selves. Pain is the same: the sensation of a broken leg is impossible to recall precisely. Happiness, too, evaporates. A sick man has one consciousness, and a healthy man another.

Outer experience affects inner experience, but inner experience cannot change itself – it is a result, not a cause. It mutates based on inner and outer conditions which, collectively, give rise to completely new “consciousnesses”. We will call these “configurations”, and each configuration has its own distinct inner experience. One can imagine each configuration as a permutation of every factor that affects consciousness – thus, taking a factorial of these numbers should give us the nigh-infinite number of consciousnesses. Even if one assumes a kind of “behavioral” constant, then you simply divide by that behavior and result in the given number of configurations.

It is as though ‘consciousness’ were merely an eye, a vision without nerves, a particular kind of awareness of a particular configuration that melts away each second. Since the eye of consciousness has no memory of previous eyes, it is unsurprising that it fails to recognize its loss. It is also unsurprising that we are incapable of communicating experience to one another. The distance between our configurations and that of others is too great. Attempts to communicate will change the configuration, producing different experiences, moving us apart. In the extremely unlikely situation that configurations are identical for two people, then we should consider that to be one bilocated consciousness, not two similar ones. It is really the configuration that makes the consciousness, not the body it happens to be in.

(1.a) – Some ‘thing’ might overpower the plenitude of configurations, making a given configuration more likely to appear. This could be, for lack of better terms, an intellectual or accidental thing.

(1.a.i) – In the intellectual case, it would have to be some conscious state that all beings converge to. This might be called “truth” inasmuch as the convergence will be a process of successful thoughts/actions out-competing unsuccessful thoughts and actions. Over the length of time, then, this particular configuration will appear more than any other. Whatever consciousness accompanies it – God or enlightenment are common words – will be reborn with increasing frequency and find itself free of the vicious cycle of consciousness decay.

(1.a.ii) – In the accidental case, an exterior substance that produces some powerful, reliable effect which produces a specific (or perhaps class of) configurations. Perhaps the most obvious candidates are intoxicants, lending support to the conclusions of the Dionysus cult (among others). If it is not an intoxicant, though, then perhaps this implies the existence of some fountain of youth (albeit one of consciousness).

(1.b) – A person’s life is nothing more than a set order of configurations, and nothing overcomes this chaos. Still, if the laws of matter hold and we are granted infinite time, every iteration will repeat infinitely. Since consciousness is merely configuration, these configurations will repeat over and over. Moreover, not only does each consciousness arise in multiple locations, but each ordering of the same will recur. In other words, all of us are isolated and trapped in the eternal recurrence of our macro-configurations.

The Book of Luke determines that eternal life is deemed to be ‘here’ because it is: this life is eternal, and each moment is safely corralled back into existence by the fences of matter and infinity.

(2) – We accept a soul-premise, but it cannot communicate.

Since knowledge requires some interaction, and the atomic soul does not interact with the world, we must account for its experiences.

This soul might be atomic (i.e. one indivisible experience, one ‘self’), or it might be ‘composite’ (i.e. consisting of personality, etc.), but either way there is no mechanism for it to change.

(2.a) – One observes that a computer can ratiocinate perfectly well without a soul element (although observe that it will eventually attain consciousness under Proposition (1)). Imagine a ‘spark’ of consciousness in a computer: it would interact with the outer world in exactly the same way as before. We are merely adding self-reflective experience to it, perhaps, or some other definition of consciousness you prefer. We can deny that such a spark exists, but then we return to (1). So let us imagine it does. The soul would then be something like ‘pure consciousness’, but it would not waver in the way that consciousness does in (1). It would, rather, be complete and constant. At the moment of death, it would be returned to ‘pure consciousness’, whatever such a thing is, which is precisely where it was before birth. (Note that we have no explanation as to why it should be tied to a body in the first place.)

(2.b) – The soul is not merely “pure consciousness”, but includes memory, personality, etc. This cannot be generated by material, as the soul cannot communicate. We can use a Kantian formulation: all that it interacts with are phenomena and all the rest is noumena. In this or a similar idealist formulation, we must assume that what the soul experiences is somehow “pre-programmed”. This should not be hard to admit: it’s difficult to see how this form of the soul could be created by the birth of an organism, hence it must have existed previously, hence its faculties of judgment and experience should contain some underlying structure that predates the material person.

In this premise the soul retains memory, personality, being, etc.: what it experiences (as is required by our argument) are those pre-programmed forces playing out in time. It is easy to see why it should be connected to a body here, or at least the illusion of one: it is part of its pre-programming to think of itself as connected to a body, and not just to any body but precisely to the one with the characteristics, judgments, and morality in which it finds itself.

When the person dies, the soul will continue to exist. It is not tied to the transmutation of matter that is corporeal death. We have one of two options:

(2.b.i) – Part of its pre-programming is an experience after death that we cannot yet know.

(2.b.ii) – It will experience the same life over and over, resulting in a form of immortality similar to (1). Note that this proposition also creates a world identical to one without matter at all. Which is to say, it is functionally identical to true solipsism.

(3) – We accept a soul-proposition that cannot communicate with matter, but add a special condition that it can interact with other souls. Perhaps souls are a different substance, and they communicate through an ether-like medium; they communicate like matter, but not with matter.

Since communication in this world relies on material (soundwaves, etc.) then communication between souls and only between souls must take place in ways that don’t use a mterial medium. The first way is through dreams. The second is death.

(3.a) – Let us assume that the soul is the ‘spark’ of Proposition (2.a). Communication would not change this ‘spark’, but merely move it, just as a ball knocks another about. In other words, souls change place but not form.

(3.a.i) – If the soul-structure is tied to the world, then this is a mechanism for metempsychosis.

(3.a.ii) – If not, then the soul moves into some other location. This would then be a mechanism for an afterlife that is a ‘place’, i.e. Sheol, Hades, etc.

(3.b) – Imagine that the soul is of (2.b)’s pre-programmed model. Their interaction would, presumably, change it. Let us assume that while the components of the souls change, they do not get removed or replaced. Each soul keeps its own structures, and so all changes are internal. (We can imagine the pre-programmed aspects of the soul reconfiguring analogously to electron transitions within an atom.)

Since this soul includes memory, personality, etc, then any “change” must be changes to these parts of it. If one can better the soul, then this is a strong argument for the shamanic use of dreams in divination and healing rituals.

After death, we have two options:

(3.b.i) – If the soul is tied to earth, this provides another mechanism for reincarnation. It might be assumed, however, any given soul’s different ‘programming’ will result in a deterministic interaction with another soul (as they both were programmed similarly, perhaps), which provides an argument for something like the ‘moral’ dimension of reincarnation (i.e. a karmic cycle, etc.).

(3.b.ii) – If the soul is not tied to earth (or life, or matter), then one has a mechanism for an afterlife in which people retain memories and share experiences. If the souls are capable of sharing experiences and changing, and one further assumes that they better each other or some other moral force betters them, then one has an argument for something like the Orthodox Church’s view of the afterlife – the process of continuous perfection before God or the good. This might also account for hell: continuously growing distance of the person from God (or the good).

(3.c) – We allow that the soul is composite. Its components can be removed or added, that experience inheres to parts of it rather than the whole. If death is the point at which its energy is released, we should assume that it is being released into something, and that it changes into completely new forms there.

(3.c.i) – If souls are tied to the world, then they will return in new formations, composed of different people’s consciousnesses. All people will be the shared experiences of others, strange creatures made from the shards of earlier lives.

(3.c.ii) – If they are not tied to the world, then one assumes they interact and trade components. Assuming that these trades are not perfectly equal, over time several souls will become compounds of many others. Whether this is benign or predatory behavior is irrelevant. Over time these become massive complexes of soul-parts.

The afterlife, then, is a superstructure of all human experience concurrently (and maybe animal, depending on whom we provide with souls). Note that if there is a mechanism for separation post-death, there may be several mega-structures at the moment; over time they will converge, heaven and hell will marry, so on. At this point one does have to question predatory/benign nature of superstructure formation to determine which “faction” wins, i.e. Revelation includes the Euthryphro dilemma.

(4) – We admit the soul-concept, but claim that the soul has commerce with material.

As in (1) it must be noted that the experience of consciousness changes, that we construct ourselves based on memory, feeling, preferences, etc. which are all indebted to matter. Here we fall into using a composite model – the unchanging, atomic soul cannot survive this material interaction. The ‘spark’ cannot affect the the world, and the pre-programmed soul, by design, cannot even sense it.

We are then left with the dualist problem of interaction between spirit and world.

(4.a) – We might assume that the definition of matter is in fact the problem. Assume that things on the spiritual plane change one another, as in (3). Bu now assume that there is a spiritual substrate to all matter, and this overcomes our dilemma. These two media are interlayed. That is to say, pansychism.

Each soul, then, is a temporary configuration of soul-quanta inhering to all. Death dissolves the soul quanta into its components, which then reform into new souls or remain within the far larger “sphere” of souls. What we experience never fully terminates. It merely manifests as new phenomena, and each phenomenon bears the consciousness of those previous. The entire earth becomes conscious, as though each configuration from (1) were present at once, reforming into one another. In short, the world soul.

(4.b.) – We fail to resolve the issues with dualism, in which case little can be said beyond general remarks on the mysteries of life.

(5) – There is one final possibility: let us assume that (1) is true. We should have no problem affixing to this the ‘spark’ soul of (2a). A given being is then ‘conscious’ in two completely different ways at the same time. It is not necessary to draw out the obvious conclusions here, but one should say: it makes room for both the heresy of Apollonarianism as well as the standard Chalcedonian view.”


While lecturing a spider crawls toward him. Fearing poison, he hides his hands in his sleeves and grinds it into the black surface of the table.

He continues to speak. We watch in anticipation.

top image from Daybreak Express by Donn Alan Pennebaker


Author: Lou Keep

One thought on “Propositions on Immortality”

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