I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
— Carl Sagan, "In the Valley of the Shadow," Parade, March 10, 1996
I think about death almost every day. I remember once as a small child, I asked my grandmother why they buried people in the ground after they died. "If you're under the ground," I asked, "how do you breathe?" She told me that people no longer breathe after they die, and I was dumbfounded. The idea just made no sense. I'd never experienced not breathing. How would it be possible to not breathe, forever? If dead people stopped breathing, they would... well, die! It seemed absurd to me then, and it seems absurd to me now. And yet it is literally the most natural thing in the world. Death is something that happens to all of us, yet it is completely outside our experience. What a paradox!
I came across this Scientific American article a little while ago, and it really articulated this phenomenon well, complete with scientific studies to support the idea that all of us tend to perceive our own consciousness as persisting beyond death, even if we believe otherwise. The article is well worth reading.
There were two specific ideas that particularly resonated with me. The first is that our own immortality is unfalsifiable from a first-person perspective. In other words, if I believe myself to be immortal, no experience of mine will ever disprove this to me. I'm reminded of the wise words of Stephen Wright, who said, "I intend to live forever. So far, so good." I cannot experience my own non-existence. It's simply not possible. And yet, as Shaun Nichols is quoted in the article, "When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there's an obstacle!"
The second thing that struck me was the idea that even those who do not believe in an afterlife tend to instinctively think of consciousness as persisting after death. I know I do it. To pick a random example, I know that Carl Sagan died over ten years ago, and his body is presently... shall we say, not in working order. And yet, when I wished him a happy birthday last week, it felt like I was really talking to someone who could perceive my words. Like a mystical Carl is floating around somewhere in the cosmos. Intellectually, I know that makes no sense. And yet, the idea seems so intuitively hardwired that it's very difficult to shake.
I had a similar experience last year after my grandfather died, fairly soon after I had begun coming to terms with my skepticism. At the viewing, everyone was milling about, talking with each other, exchanging stories, laughing, and catching up on each others' lives. It was so surreal, like everyone was at a social party, but no one seemed to notice or mention the fact that there was a dead guy at the front of the room. Not that there's anything wrong with that; different people and different cultures deal with death in different ways, and this is how we do it where I'm from. I heard several family members say something like "it's not really him in there" or "he's in a better place now". Obviously, this may help us feel better, to imagine that the person we love is not truly dead and gone, and that someday we will see him again. I would love to see my grandfather again. He was a hard-working, honest man who loved his family and made the world a better place. He was a good person. But I have to accept that it really was him in the casket, and I will never see him again.
This is why I think about death. Not because I find it fun or satisfying to consciously ponder unconsciousness or to imagine my own non-existence (although I admit, that can sort of be fun). Not because I have no imagination or no compassion or no desire for eternal life. I would love to be surprised by an afterlife. Seriously, that would be wicked cool. But as Dr. Sagan pointed out in the quote above, there does not seem to be any evidence that it is more than wishful thinking. I think about death because life is precious, and I know how short it is. We find ourselves in an amazing, almost impossibly improbable situation, alive and aware, floating through space on a chunk of rock with only each other to hang onto. It may not make sense to us. It may in fact be the height of absurdity. But we need to make the most of life while we have it, because this is the only one we get.