What happens to my consciousness when I die?

Clearly, given the resolutely slippery notion of consciousness combined with science’s resolutely reductionist view of human existence, the rational response is: My consciousness dies when I die.

But I didn’t always believe that, and lately I’m coming to think I might be better off with more comforting beliefs about The Afterlife.

As a young adult, I believed in some kind of reincarnation, orchestrated and overseen by benevolent higher beings who, if I asked really politely, would answer all of my unanswered questions about the mysteries of the universe. Etc.

Over the last several years, though, I’ve lost not only that belief but also its attendant comforts. Lately I’ve been thinking that when one dies, one is just dead; end of consciousness, end of story. All of one’s accumulated information, feeling, memory is just gone.

So, I’ve been depressed — and, more alarmingly, anxious. Am I living this precious life to the fullest? Is each moment living up to its potential? Rather than motivating me to seize the day, I’m immobilized by the anxiety that I’m not doing a good enough job of seizing the day.

But then a few months ago I was out with some friends and one of them put forward the idea that if the universe is as vast as we think it is and the development of life as unlikely as it seems, then our sheer existence as who we are, where we are is sort of like winning the evolutionary lottery.

For him, the mere thought of it inspires an almost giddy ecstasy — I imagine it as the way one feels when one manages, after having knocked it off the mantle, to catch the glass vase a second before it hits the floor. Or, even more mundanely, when mass transit forces align to make my typically 45-min commute to work last only 20 minutes.

While this idea offers some relief from the void science has left in my heart, it’s a rather dangerous idea. In the next sentence after explaining the idea, my friend also used it to justify why he had decided to have biological children — something I at the very least feel very conflicted about. His argument here is that if life is an ecstatic exercise in the unlikely, why not invite as many people to the party as possible?

But what if the party isn’t always fun for everyone? I’m talking here, of course, about all the suffering in life making it seem a fate worse than death — war, torture, crippling disease, etc. My friend’s response was that even moments of pain are ecstatic plumes of experience — consciously experiencing pain is better than no feeling at all.

And therein lies the danger. In a philosophy like that, there’s very little basis for acting to end violence, poverty, disease — any suffering, really. One is left, it seems, with little more than a blend of hedonism and social darwinism.

Could there be a balance, though? Since it seems the only viable pathway for me out of my currently bleak and debilitating attitude, I’m eager to find a way this perspective could be easily married to ideas of social justice and charity. If this life is ecstatic at its core, why not seek to make it the most ecstatic experience possible for the most people? This, of course, doesn’t answer the question of whether or not to have children — how does one weigh the addition of a life of ecstatic experience versus increasing the ecstasy of an existing life? — but the idea is distracting me temporarily from the gnawing despair and indecision of nihilism.

What happens to my consciousness when I die?