Three Reasons “You” Won’t Return After This Life

The idea that "you" persist after death does not hold up to the current understanding of memory and identity.

Many people are deeply invested in what happens when they die. Entire religions are constructed around theories of the afterlife. Christianity and Islam promise special places to go to while Buddhism prescribes breaking free from the hamster wheel of existence to leave the cycle of death and birth. Is any of this actually possible? 

Stephen Batchelor is skeptical. In Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist the former monk points out that the Buddha avoided discussing body-mind dualism, which the notion of rebirth relies on, while refusing to speculate on metaphysics. The religion that formed after his death injected this rebirth problem into its theology despite the Buddha’s insistence that it is not a meaningful question. 

Batchelor cites many Buddhist thinkers that make rebirth the foundation of Buddhism. For example, the sixth/seventh century Indian philosopher Dharmakīrti was a dualist who insisted the mind is immaterial and nothing material, such as a body, could give rise to cognition. When Batchelor expressed his skepticism—Dharmakīrti never mentions the brain because he had no access to fMRI technology—his teacher promised that the student would realize truth through meditation. 

Thus the “proof” of rebirth rested on a subjective experience of a non-physical entity in a non-ordinary state of awareness. If you lack such an experience yourself, then you have to trust the word of meditators more accomplished than oneself. 

Which is the same reason the Buddha left his two yoga teachers; he would not take their word for what he had to figure out for himself. When he did come to a conclusion it had nothing to do with the afterlife and everything with recognizing illusions we suffer during this lifetime. Batchelor compares this sort of blind faith with Christians mystics “knowing” God and people claiming to have been abducted by aliens. There’s no way to test their claims. 

Anecdotes run into trouble because today we can measure consciousness. While we might not have discovered a mechanism that turns consciousness on (most consider it an emergent phenomenon) we do know it shuts off when the body dies. No body, no mind—no dualism. 

Which is the topic of Michael Shermer’s forthcoming book, Heavens to Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia. In a recent column the Skeptic magazine founder lists three reasons “you” won’t survive past death. 

Your memory cannot be restored

Transmigration relies on the notion that “you” are a collection of memories that survives intact. But that’s not how memory works. Every time you recall a memory it has changed from the original experience. Whatever has happened since has influenced your retelling of that moment. We are not static animals; we’re fluid processes continually remembering the past differently dependent upon the situation. You feel like the same person that woke up yesterday, but from a neurological perspective it’s not quite you. The continuum of identity is likely a survival trait that enables us to function within societies, but as the Buddha knew, identity is an illusion. A highly elaborate one that persists for decades (or even a century), but a ruse nonetheless.

Duplication doesn’t work

Therefore there’s no exact replica of “you” that survives beyond death. A twin brother or sister might be a copy of you, but it’s not you. Therefore making a copy of your brain’s connectome, which Shermer writes is a “diagram of its neural connections,” and putting it into another body flies in the face of basic biology. As Shermer concludes, “Neither duplication nor resurrection can instantiate you in another plane of existence.”

You’re more than your memories

Shermer notes that some researchers speculate that we each have a memory self and a point of view self. If you upload your memories (MEMself) into a computer your point of view (POVself) returns intact. But memory is not only dependent upon the experience itself, but also your current environment. We constantly change our point of view dependent upon audience. We recall differently depending on who’s around and where we are. The notion that your entire point of view would survive intact is impossible. “Death,” he writes, “is a permanent break in continuity.”

Buddhist rebirth relies on karma, which is often treated as “you get what you pay for.” Yet this is disproven when good people needlessly suffer and criminals achieve lucrative positions in government and business. I’ve heard it expressed that “they must have done good deeds in a previous life” or “they’ll suffer in the future.” Such are the ridiculous lengths people go in trying to reason why someone suffers or succeeds due to this misguided idealization of karma.

Instead let’s consider a seemingly benign example. In Los Angeles I often observe people stop two or three car lengths behind other cars at red lights because they’re consumed with whatever is on their phone. They often don’t realize when the light changes because they’re not paying attention to the light or for the welfare of anyone else. 

Karma is not going to “get them,” but their actions do have consequences, which is the intended meaning of the word karma. First off, cars stuck behind are left to wait until another light because that first car remained a few car lengths behind. Factor in the additional time that it takes for the texter to reorient to their surroundings and you have a perfect working definition of karma: your actions have consequences. Your inability to pay attention to your surroundings affects others negatively in this case. You might have made someone later for an important appointment, or you simply annoyed a line of people behind you because you had to know how well your latest selfie performed on Instagram.

Your actions and personality are truly what gets “left behind.” These are passed down from life to life: ideas, biases, diseases, religions, money. Just because you’re not remembered later does not mean you didn't influence others; just because everyone remembers your name does not mean you benefited this planet. Your actions always have consequences, many of which you’ll never realize. That’s karma. It's nothing magical. Just put down your phone to look around and you'll see it everywhere.

In her book, How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett writes that it takes many brains to make a mind. This is true in a social species. I offload pieces of memory to my wife, who handles certain tasks in our marriage, just as she offloads to me. That’s why when a longtime partner dies the other half tends to feel a piece of them has perished. That might seem sad, but it’s quite beautiful to have such a strong connection to another. The residue of your life sticks to others and their consciousness. 

Which is why the metaphysical idea of reincarnation is unnecessary and even distracting from what matters in life. Shermer concludes that some find his skepticism dispiriting, but he believes it to be the opposite. 

Awareness of our mortality is uplifting because it means that every moment, every day and every relationship matters. Engaging deeply with the world and with other sentient beings brings meaning and purpose.


Derek's latest book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, is out now. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.