Self and Afterlife

Self and Afterlife (an exercise in existential extension)

            While not all conceptions of the afterlife have as their outcome a continued existence of the same selfhood, nor do all boast that a new form of existence will be conferred upon it if it is conceived of as the same, all have as their essence the idea of the extension of life in some form. The afterlife is therefore an exercise in existential extension. When my book On the Afterlife (2012) was published, I realized that though I had provided a chronological and cross-cultural analysis of the structure of the afterlife itself, I had paid scant attention to the vehicle which was supposed to undergo these surrounding alterations in ontological space. I deferred to my title quite literally and thus overlooked the entire reason why such a concept should have taken its enduring place in the human imagination. With some sense of this, let me now make a brief attempt to further the relevant investigation.

            In the cosmology of the social contract, insofar as it can be known today, the soul’s immortality was cyclical, mirroring the concept of both time and seasonal nature. An indefinite number of corporeal lives had been lived, with the same stretched out ‘ahead’ of one, constituting the future. Intensely logical and even rational, the sense that since life itself exhibited no change over mortal memory and far beyond, pending upon how primordial this first concept of the afterlife was – we can only remind ourselves that the toolkit of Homo Erectus remained unchanged for approximately two million years – just so, the life of the soul should be an exercise in the eternal return of the same, in Eliade’s sense of course and not so much in Nietzsche’s. It was of especial moment when an elder passed just before an infant was born, as this was taken as a sign that the same soul had willed itself to return almost immediately. There was thus also inferred that the pool of souls was quite limited, because the population load in material life never seemed to grow beyond a certain amount; one that could, if not be known exactly, predicted most proximately. A moment of witty scripting in the indigenous Haida film Edge of the Knife (2018), has a youth asking after who were the past lives of so-and-so, and an adult relative replying with, ‘oh, you don’t want to know’.

            No doubt, one might suggest. And for perhaps ourselves as well, presuming that the ontological structure of life and death has not been further transformed by the appearance of history proper. This original idea, that of unevaluated return, must have animated the imagination of the vast majority of our species existence heretofore. But with changes to the population structure, the appearance of surplus, and thence the growth of communities, social hierarchies, and their alteration of subsistence strategies, the realm of ideals as well shifted. In the East, some twelve thousand years ago, the early emergence of agricultural sedentism propelled an alteration in the afterlife’s conception. The soul still returned, but this time, in its sojourn in the afterlife, it was evaluated. This is the basis for both reincarnation and the caste system. One’s ‘karma’ may not be sufficient to rise in the stratigraphy of life as a whole, nor yet in the social hierarchy of cultural life. The jape about one ‘coming back as a dog or a rat’ must have been well taken. But by the time sedentary settlements and agrarian subsistence patterns had fully emerged in the Near East some ten thousand years ago, the conception of the afterlife underwent further and even more major changes. No longer did the soul return at all and, after being evaluated, spent the remainder of its own indefinite existence either in the underworld or in a better, lighter space. The first agrarian conception, that of evaluated return, is most famously associated with Hinduism, while the second, that of evaluated continuation, with ancient Egypt.

            It was this second idea which, historically, became predominant, with the spread of Near Eastern irrigation civilizations and their associated and serial empires, and thus inspired a raft of variations on its basic theme. Who was to do the evaluation, the character of the rewards and punishments accruing to its outcome, the framing of the contrasting spaces adjoined in the afterlife, heaven versus hell, for instance, and so on, were all subject to a great deal of improvisation and alteration, given that all of these ideas were first to be found within still oral cultures. Only with the advent of written script, some seven to eight thousand years ago, did these notions begin to take on a more definite and detailed form and formulation. By the time we enter our own historical period, with the appearance of the three great second-age agrarian world systems, the conception of evaluated continuation becomes quite well known. The radical shift occurs in how one is evaluated, and not that one is or one is not, nor that one’s soul does not return in any case, with the appearance of forbearance as an ethical precept in the East and its Western equivalent, forgiveness. These kinds of ideas are, in a sense, reverberations of the primordial sentiment that whatever one was or did in this or that specific life, that one should begin again with a clean slate. The difference is that one does not return to an embodied state to start anew, the soul rather being ‘cleansed of its sins’ and entering a new form of extended existence elsewhere.

            The career of this most fascinating concept does not, however, end there. Even in modernity, our finite and godless cultural sensibility has taken the afterlife to yet another self-conception, that of unevaluated continuation. Not only does this fill in the final cell in the four-square model proposed and detailed in my 2012, it suggests that we are still willing to stake our claims to consciousness itself, at least in part, upon the idea that it somehow continues bereft of body and freed from the mind’s sole manufacture. Or perhaps this is after all the difference between brain and mind, and thus for this same reason they cannot be precisely ‘mapped’ onto one another. There is now no judgment of any kind, which also implies that the structure of the spaces of the afterlife has also been changed, collapsed into a single undifferentiated plenum where the ‘sky’s the limit’, as it were. The final line of script in what for many remains the best of science fiction fantasy entertainment speaks to this only half-rational and utterly unempirical sensibility, thereby contradicting, at least somewhat, the modernist ethics of the Star Trek franchise. That it is set in the context of the weekly upper decks poker game serves the contrasting reality that only within known existence can one attain one’s ideals, and that ‘fate is just the weight of circumstances’.

            Yet that weight itself must have been known as soon as our most antique ancestors, presumably perhaps even the Australopithecines and yet before, were able to consciously cognize the difference between the quick and the dead, and thence reflect upon its existential implications. In that we are not ontologically superior to those our first incarnations tells us of perhaps both elements summing each of our conceptions of the afterlife; that the this-life must end and yet life itself continues. If we are romantics at heart, we might somehow will ourselves to an active role in the next-life, and the next, or, if we are, as I imagine the species to ultimately be, not content with merely human form, we might by contrast will ourselves to become in fact something more than we have ever thought to be. It is by way of this more that humanity has evolved and progressed alike to both possessing a sense of the indefinite, the futural, as well as the infinite, the cosmic. Only by holding onto past conceptions of the afterlife do we continue to flirt with the apocalypse, for the unexpected fifth wheel in our house of existential extension is the one in which we are reduced to the star-stuff from which we originally came.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, religion, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

A Brief History of Real Time

A Brief History of Real Time (very brief, very real)

            Hawking’s well known A Brief History of Time provides for us a cosmology, through really, more a biography, than a history, of the career of the scientific understanding of temporality, time in the abstract and as an abstraction. It is astonishing that the human mind, historical through and through and with no conception of being without time in both senses – not having it as well as being outside of it – could conceptualize cosmic time in such an intimate fashion. Even so, it is of limited usefulness to mortal consciousness to be able to contemplate the infinite in any form or by any formula. Heidegger, in his much earlier History of the Concept of Time, the prolegomena to his masterwork, Being and Time, provides a more down to earth set of proposals. That which is closest to us, the history within which we are compelled by the happenstance of birth to live and in-dwell, is generally that which is least well known to us, in part, due to the drama of the cosmic, which science sets out to script in a comprehendible manner. The perhaps bastard child of religion, science seeks to take hold in the same territory as did its somewhat absent parent explain. This is its truer limit: that modernity accepts the fruits of science, its applied innovations, and rejects its methods, as Sagan aptly stated. In doing so, we find ourselves inhabiting a kind of divided time; one half shot through with superstition, the other shot up with technology.

            The evidence of this temporal schism is all around us. The creationist drives his SUV, the cybernetician attends church, the pilgrim hops on a commercial jet, the hermit is a virtual globetrotter, the atheist worships nature, the most avid of empirical religions. It is a challenge, in our day, to know what time actually is, hence the projection of cosmological narrative in an effort to overtake mere history, human and thus passing. While Hawking’s book was a best-seller – and who among us is a physicist, after all? – Heidegger’s book remained unpublished for many years after it being written in 1925. It is fair to say that no one reads philosophy either – who among us is a philosopher, after all – but there is more to it. In the effort to assuage our anxious doubt about the exact time in which we live, we have reconstructed temporality as a mere fact of nature; something to be observed and explained, rather than witnessed and understood.

            On the one hand, it is a case of ‘plus ca change’, as is said. Science is indeed new wine but its bottles are ancient. The life-blood of the redeemer is no longer poured from them, but something of the sort remains as an aftertaste, just as God Himself maintains an afterlife as we speak. Real time, that which humans in-dwell, begins only with history itself. Before this, time had no serious meaning. In the original human groups, the only division of labor was that of age and thus experience. The legend of the Fall contains the recognizance that man and woman are different, and we are ashamed of this fact, not because of the difference, but rather due to its self-discovery. For in social contract cultures, sex and gender were oddly irrelevant to social reproduction. The realization that the beginning of surplus altered the very fabric of what it meant to be a social animal is certainly a source of shame, and we bear that stigma to this day, and the more so. Men and women were distanciated from one another from this point onward, further dividing the human sense of time. As production gradually outgrew reproduction, these divisions only multiplied, if not exactly in the same sense as the edict given voice by the eviction.

            For we were not so much expelled from a place but rather from a time which was non-time, ahistorical and not even prehistory, for the latter term implies that history has already begun and thus we are able to recognize what came beforehand. This kind of timeless time is yet better thought of as non-historical, and thus also as non-human. The social contract is the real world expression of Eden, and so it was seen by the Enlightenment thinkers, though for moral reasons and not those temporal. In any case, temporality today consists of a dual flight from the shame of being so divided. On the one hand, we delude ourselves that we still have some connection with our origins in the primordial primavera of the garden, by prevaricating the mythos associated with non-history. In doing so, we ignore the that there exists an essential and qualitative break between our beings and the Being made choate in primordial non-time, preferring instead to imagine that Edenic life was simply present on the horizon of a remote antiquity, which is nevertheless somehow measurable. Biblical chronology is only the most literal example of this delusion. On the other hand, we demand of ourselves a Neuzeit, to borrow from Koselleck, which promotes a much too recent chasm, that associated with the revolutions of the eighteenth century.

            This divided temporal selfhood is experienced as subjection to the either/or of the vapid ‘culture’ wars, and the misuse, or rather, abuse, of terms such as ‘ideology, ‘value’, and ‘truth’. That one is ‘traditional’, that another is ‘contemporary’, that one is reactionary and another progressive, that one is conservative or liberal, fascist or anti-fascist, when in reality all exist in the insularity of their own self-imposed fascist reactions to all things which might offer an ounce of perspective. Yet if the divided temporality were not present as a phenomenological structure, as a foundation for schismosis of institutional and political life the both, such symptoms as ‘value’ conflict would be at most agues rather than the plagues they have become. In the effort to avoid living in our own time as it is, both the grand and the grandiose shift their process of self-validation onto the culture of our long-dead cousins or, those others who have not yet lived at all.

            Heidegger stressed the need to live in real time. The transition from Mythos to Logos, the most important process in the history of consciousness, could only be made itself real by experiencing life as an ongoingness, in its fullest presence, and called to conscience by that which is nearest to me. If mine ownmost death occupies such a salient rhetorical place in Heidegger, such is it that mine ownmost life, in the meanwhile, receives its most encouraging support from every less studied page of the great thinker’s works. Truly more of an ethics than an ontology, Being and Time recognizes the ‘andness’ of these two conceptions as essential humanity. Our very beings are historical, nothing more but also nothing less. Therefore, it is the Logos which is the fitting metaphysics for any historical being, and not the Mythos. That we remain so entertained by the latter is also a symptom of what he refers to as ‘entanglement’. Instead, I have reiterated that the new mythology is demythology, nothing more, but also nothing less. The Neuzeit actually begins some 2500+ years ago, and even if it has not quite yet come to its fullest expression, the process of demythology is as a force of nature, equally cosmic, but thus far wholly human and hence providing us with the only certain relevancy in our otherwise divided times.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 57 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.