Nearly each human dreams about an eternal life. And although physical evidence clearly proves the contrary, a kind of deep hope and inituitive certainty subsists. Here we will discuss some hypothesis about a possible Life after Death. After some supranatural and paranormal theories, that are not open for discussion, we will look to some more "scientific" hypotheses.
Immortality is the phenomenon by which a certain form of conscious existence persists after physical death.
The views about this phenomenon can be grouped into 3 sections: (1) The hypotheses of a supranatural soul. (2) The dignified acceptance of total extinction. (3) Some 'scientific' hypotheses about immortality.
The soul hypotheses
Our ancestors, confronted with physical death and decay, developed the hypothesis of immortal, unobservable soul to escape from everyday evidence. The variations on this hypothesis can be grouped into two kinds: (1) individual soul and (2) reincarnation.
(1) The individual soul hypothesis. Although we tend to identify this hypothesis with christianity, it was already elaborated in ancient Egypt, and probably passed to us by Judaic religion. The theory states that every human has one soul, that comes into his body at the moment of birth. Before, it is kept somewhere "behind God's mind". At the moment of death it leaves the 'material' body, provoking even the functional collapse of this body ('inanimated'). Then it goes straight to heaven or hell, depending of its State of Grace at the very moment of his death. Some suggest that it first spends some time in purgatory, not as cruel as the burning hell, but still comparable with it. At the end of time all resting corpses will resurrect and be reanimated, and then, after hearing God's judgment, depart towards their final destination, heaven or hell. The few raised unto heaven (the 'saints') will join the angels, already there, and dwell forever feeling happiness in the simple adoration of God's glory.
Nearly all cultures in the world had some kind of elaboated soul myth.
This theory or myth was not so universally accepted by theologians as is sometimes supposed. At the end of Medieval times --Renaissance had already begun-- there was still an ongoing discussion about the question if women and American Indians really had a soul. This theory is not without some annoying complications, including the question if really all myriads of people will resurrect, and the even more disturbing question whether we shall resurrect with the mind of a vigorous young intelligent person, or rather in the state of senility and perhaps (pre)dementia, existing at the moment of our death.
(2) The reincarnated soul hypothesis. Whilst western traditions rather foster an individualistic approach, eastern cultures feature ideas of continuity and collectivity. The eastern approach is more friendly for man: in fact you've got more than one chance to escape form this earthly prison: if it didn't succeed to enter the Nirwana this time, we get some more chances to detach ouselves from our needs and desires, and stop wanting.
Although this approach dramatically reduces the necessary number of souls per inhabited planet, the current increase of population on earth has since long exhausted the available number of ancestors to pass their souls to us. Of course, they can come from other living beings.
The dignified acceptance of extinction
For people who, apparently realistically, don't see any convincing logical or scientific evidence for any kind of subsistence after death, a dispassionate resignation that there is nothing more than this ephemeral experience full of infulfilled illusions is their only honourable attitude. They cultivate the stoical and humanistic ideals that there is nothing more, and that we should learn to feel no despair facing death, but try to make the best of life.
There are websites for helping people to die with dignity.
Although atheists and (secular) humanists are convinced that a beautiful and highly ethical and meaningful life is possible without the prospect of an aftermath, religious people are convinced that, without the perspective of eternal life, existence is senseless.
In ancient Roman culture there was a conviction that, although physically we completely disappear, we can enjoy a kind of immortality by fame. Only those who, heroically or artistically, succeed in gaining fame, could be preserved from oblivion and continue living in our memories.
Some 'scientific' approaches of immortality
Although actually immortality is out of the reach of science and technology, a (near?) future could perhaps change this.
(1) The aim of medicine. Medical research and practice can be defined in several ways, but one of the most typical is perhaps that it is an indefatigable struggle against suffering and death. One may hope that this science will never rest until this goal is achieved. One can already observe many results of this quest. The median length of life on earth is quadrupled since a century. A host of illnesses are succesfully treated, and no longer threaten life.
(2) Hibernation till the moment medicine finds an effective therapy. Some organizations offer now the possibility to freeze one's body, at the moment of death, till the period medicine will have developed an edaquate treatment for the illness one died from.
(3) Storing and/or transfering brain contents. It is clear that the impression of identity doesn't depend from a physical continuity, because after months or years, every tissue and probably every molecule in our body is replaced by another. Even the image of our body and its functioning are continuously changing. What counts for the feeling of identity seems to be rather the continuity of memory, i.e. brain contents.
It could be possible within a few years to electronically scan the brain contents, nerve cell by nerve cell, dendrite by dendrite, and to store it in a computer memory, from where it could be re-installed into another living being, e.g. a clone of the dead person, who could then resume his life at the point he left it.
If ever we could program a powerful computer with a kind of "psyche programme", this program, using the downloaded brain data of a certain person, will be able to "mimick" that real person.
As physical continuity is not a prerequisite to feel one's identity, but only the continuity in memory contents, the person (or device) with the transfered 'psychological data' will experience a sensation of awakening when the programme starts. Of course he will notice that something changed, as is the case with somebody awakening from a coma, or from surgery that removed or implanted some body part(s), but essentially he will feel himself.
(4) Recombining the brain contents of vanished persons. As we are capable to re-make disappeared biological species, either by interbreeding or by genetical manipulation, it could probably be feasible to recombine one day the "brain contents" of persons, dead since a longer time. Of course, a thorough knowledge of the natural "psyche programme" will be necessary, but as we were capable to unlock the genetical code of man, discovering such a 'psychical code' will be pose no fundamental problems. That means that we will probably be able to "resurrect", electronically or by cloning (or, by the way, by recombining their genetical code), a person who died before we could download his psychic data.
It is important to notice that such a person, on the moment of his reanimation, will have the same feeling of awakening we described for really downloaded brains. Although there was not any form of physical continuity, the congruence of psychic data between the historical person and his recombined psyche will provoke a genuine feeling of continuity, i.e. of the same identity.
(5) The Global Mind hypothesis. This hypothesis may not be confounded with the Global Brain hypothesis and the related Gaia hypothesis. These are "hardware" hypotheses, describing the ultimate integration of all human minds combined with powerful computers, forming together one hyper-brain, functioning on a higher level than each separate brain, like then human brain functions on a higher level than each separate nerve cell. As nerve cells don't get a global image of the brain activities, ultimately the individual human brains will no longer hold a global impression of the intellectual activities of the Global Brain. A comparison can be made with company employees (or soldiers, or spies), each working on some limited aspect of a big project, and just transmitting their results to a board of directors, who assemble the details and are the ones to oversee the whole operation.
The Global Mind Hypothesis, discussed in detail on another page, is a "software" hypothesis. It states that the individual psyches can be considered as variants of a more general psyche programme. We could compare it with a computer programme that can be personalized by each user, making macro's and adding higher definitions. Some creative people elaborate new "routines", that progressively are "copied" by other people, and become ultimately a part of the current culture. As happened with the host of totally different word processors that existed since the 80s and progressively converged to two or three programs with little or no differences, we can expect that the different psychological ways of functioning, by interaction and mutual inspiration during education and each form of social contact, will progressively converge to one polyvalent, but fundamentally identical "psychological software" used by all men, each adding some personal flavours and nuances.
The comparison with computers illustrates some other interesting aspects. When we replace an old computer by a new one, and transfer all our favourite programmes, we don't really have the impression to have changed something: the feeling of interacting with a particular software determines our experiences and emotions more than the machine does. While the device wears out, the programme seems to have an immortal life. This is a striking analogy with what we mean by the Global Mind Hypothesis: individual people die, but the Global Mind seems to be immortal. But as computer software never exists outside a computer (only as a "dead" printout or a file on a disk), and needs such a machine "to come into life", so does the Global Mind, the Psyche: it never exists ouside a human. When a human says "I think", he doesn't speak in the name of the Global Mind, he is the Global Mind. So, when a person says: "I am immortal", he is immortal, in the most real sense of the word. Other captivating aspects of this hypothesis, e.g. the illusionary boundaries between individual, personalized and collective, are discussed on another page.
An important aspect from this hypothesis is the fact that each individual consciousness keeps a global impression of what it is thinking about. Co-operating people --in the ideal case, so the army is a bad example-- never delegate the globality of their consciousness to a kind of higher brain, as the Global Brain hypothesis suggests. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stressed this aspect in his work The Phenomenon of Man.p. 261-264. The real "immortality" of man consists in the immortality of a Global Mind, that keeps all aspects of an individually functioning entity.
One could state that this hypothesis is at the same time an integration between the eastern and the western soul hypotheses: the collective aspect and the progressive evolution, stressed in the reincarnation hypothesis, is preserved, as well as the personalized aspects of the soul in western monotheistic religions. In the light of the Gliobal Mind hypothesis, bioh primitive soul hypotheses appear to be much less naive as the were at first glance.