J. Robert King


The Ultimate Question

As author of Angel of Death, I am often asked the Ultimate Question: “What will it be like after I die?”

My answer is simple: “What was it like before you were born?” This response invariably leads to quizzical looks, so I press on with another question. “When were you born?” 

“In 1966.”

“What was it like in 1965?”

“I don’t know,” the person replies. “I wasn’t born yet!”

“Imagine that you died in 2066. What will it be like in 2067?” I ask, and when the person throws out his or her hands in frustration, I say, “It’ll be just like 1965.”

The simple fact is that each of us is a consciousness. We weren’t conscious until we had a body to create our consciousness. We weren’t even  conscious for the first two or so years of life, which is why we don’t remember them at all. We were little bodies, little beings, but we weren’t conscious.

And that’s the whole point. We in the Western world are used to thinking of ourselves as immortal souls that existed before our bodies and will exist after our bodies.

Why, then, do we have no memories before we were born? Why, then, do we not even have memories from the first two years after we were born? It’s because we weren’t conscious yet.

When most of us talk about a soul, what we mean is ourselves–our identities, our personalities, our unique experiences. But each of these is just our consciousness–something created by our developing bodies.

The consciousness is really who we are, but it comes into and goes out of existence every day. When we go to sleep, our consciousness ceases, and when we awaken, it returns.

So when people ask what it will be like to die, I say, “It’ll be like going to sleep and never waking up.”

Our consciousnesses are products of our bodies and brains–our biology.  When we get drunk or high, our consciousnesses are altered. When we are starved or dehydrated, our consciousnesses are altered. When our bodies die, our consciousnesses cease to be created by them.

It’s such a simple realization, and yet it is so fraught with terror for most Westerners. But, to them, I ask, “Was it so terrible the year before you were born?”

Does this mean that an individual human life has no worth? Of course not! Every consciousness is unique. Every mind will exist exactly one time in the universe and will not recur.

Our very culture spends thirteen years voluntarily educating every consciousness. At $4,000 per student per year, that’s $62,000 per person that we invest in consciousnesses. Then, for a college education, parents shell out another $100,000. That, plus the cost of feeding and clothing that person for 22 years means that we, as a society, place at least half a million dollars on every consciousness.

But it doesn’t come down to dollars. We all have lost some irreplacable someone. It feels like half the universe has vanished. Why? Because, for one consciousness, there is nothing as precious as another consciousness. These are two miracles. Here are two impossibilities of nature communing.

My view may be deeply unsettling for many people, but it lets us be who we are–miraculous consciousnesses–without being what we are not–immortal beings that do not need a body.

It is a lie. And if you think it is not a destructive lie, think of your typical suicide bomber.

June 2nd, 2010
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7 Responses to “The Ultimate Question”

  1. Curtis Says:

    All this time I thought he was my grandfather. I miss him.

  2. Rob King Says:

    My grandfather died twenty years ago, and I still miss him. I can hear his laugh, see him shake his head, hear his stories. In a way, part of his consciousness is preserved in my own–as an echo.

  3. Jarrod Says:

    Interesting notion Rob – you mentioned that death may be like going to sleep and not waking up. Do you suspect there will be some version of a ‘dream’ afterwards, a-la “What Dreams May Come”, where our ‘afterlife’ may be shaped by our conscious and sub-conscious, but some thread of ‘us’ remains?

  4. Rob King Says:

    Nice point, Jarrod!

    Somehow, Shakespeare constantly surfaces with this particular issue–“what dreams may come.”

    Or I think of “To die, to sleep, perchance to dream–ah, there’s the rub.” When Hamlet says these words, he is contemplating suicide and is equating dying with sleeping–loss of consciousness. But then, what Hamlet fears is “perchance to dream.” There’s the rub. What if his actions on earth will haunt him throughout eternity?

    At this point, I don’t think that what we do haunts us or rewards us throughout eternity. What we do haunts or rewards the people we leave behind. That’s an even greater responsibility. Our virtues and our sins reward or punish not one person but hundreds or thousands.

    If the suicide bombers understood this, they would not be thinking of their seventy-two virgins. They would be wondering whether they were leaving Islam in a better state than they found it.

    My great grandfather abandoned my grandfather when he was three. My grandfather was rasied by his maternal grandmother. He, then, married a dominant wife, and his son did, and I did–which means that what my great grandfather did in 1905 is still resonating to the third or fourth generation. His sin–abandoning his family–was not paid out by Satan in hell. It was paid out and continues to be paid out in the flesh and consciousness of all the creatures that have descended from him.

    There’s a moment in Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Sam are marching into Mordor, facing certain death, and they console themselves thinking of the songs and stories that others will create to commemorate them. They are thinking of the other consciousnesses that will remember them and carry them onward. That’s what we need to think–not whether God will welcome us as good and faithful servants, but whether other human consciousnesses that follow will say, “Thank God he lived.”

  5. Jarrod Says:

    All good points Rob, and the thought that “what we do haunts or rewards the people we leave behind” certainly rings true regardless of whatever afterlife may await us. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. Don One World Says:

    I may differ with you on how much a miracle consciousness is Rob. I think it is an emergent quality of life and like intelligence, it varies by degree. The problem is that the degree of consciousness between various forms of life differs by orders of magnitude. We are used to thinking of things being 2 times or 3 times that of something else, but like quantum to cosmic scales, we need to think orders of magnitude when we think of consciousness which is correlated to what we perceive as intelligence. I have noticed that even a squirrel seems very aware of itself in relation to other squirrels — but perhaps it is not thinking about how it could loose some weight and be more attractive if it could only eat less nuts. Self-consciousness may be a higher form of consciousness, but perhaps there even higher forms which we have yet to attain. For me, consciousness is a miracle only in that it is an attribute of life which does seem miraculous.

  7. Rob King Says:

    Great points, Don.

    Yes, the difference in consciousness and intelligence are degrees of magnitude, as you say. As a longtime pet owner of everything from barely sentient salamanders to quite intelligent dogs, I know what you mean. I definitely get the sense that there is a self-aware creature looking back at me when I look in a dog’s eyes.

    Perhaps I am using the word “miracle” too frivolously. Perhaps the word “marvel” fits better. Consciousness is at least marvelous, if not miraculous.

    And, as you suggest, perhaps the true miracles of consciousness await as we develop higher forms of it, maybe not in ourselves but in our machines.

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