My non-theism is anything but static and settled. I don’t call myself an “atheist” because it coveys the notion of being against a supreme being. Since I, or anybody else for that matter, has no idea if there is a SB, or what it is like, I am not against the idea of a Supreme Being who could be a very nice being—sort of like moi, if you will forgive that little conceit.
You see, that idea coincides with my current “answer” to the question every theist, atheist, or non-theist, must address at some point: what happens to consciousness when we die? Why? Because it is our consciousness that must graduate to, ahem, the “afterlife” if we are going to be aware that that is where it is, and not stuck in some limbo in New Jersey. Those Rapture people are all hung up on the idea that at the “end Times” they are going “ascended” into heaven not only with their consciousness, but bad backs, hemorrhoids, erectile dysfunction and all. Basically, a rather stupid and unheavenly prospect, upon refection. Consciousness, I maintain, is the necessary and sufficient requirement for any notion of afterlife.
The purely materialist answer is that consciousness resides in the mind, which cannot exist without the physical brain. So when the brain dies, so does what’s on your hard drive, so to speak. But, hey, if something existed once, it can’t be made to not-exist any longer. When I drag this file to the “trash” and empty the trash, does it then un-exist? Or does it go to some digital landfill in, like, New Jersey, to “the cloud”? No matter, because the thought that created the document still exists somewhere in my consciousness. Unlike our computers (alas) there is no “un-do” key.
I’m not trying to contort myself into some epistemological pretzel here, but I mean to propose the notion that consciousness might not be all that easy to erase, in spite of how satisfying it is to contemplate a bullet eradicating that feculent glob that is Dick Cheney’s brain. I incline to the proposition that consciousness goes on after the rest of us—brains included—goes on to become worm fodder. I purpose the idea than the “substance” of our consciousness persists in a form of, for lack of a better term, energy. If I were a German philosopher I would of course call this phenomenon Geschmuftenstrudlenschaung [loosely, “the place where apple strudel goes when we die”]; but, nein, ich nicht bin ein Berliner.
OK, I have probably lost half of you, and the rest have returned to fiddling with your Facebook pages in disgust. But those of you who are staying with me are in for a big reward. Like I said at the outset, I have been spending some time ruminating the question of the consistency of non-theism and what might be called an afterlife. The standard argument the non-theist gets from the believers (“Creds,” I call them) is that non-theists are, if they are going anywhere, headed to Hell. The way they see it, God is going to be very pissed off that they didn’t believe in Him and they are going to burn for it. They can’t see any good reason for being a non-theist, when Creds are going to end up, body and soul, in the clouds deer hunting with Jesus into eternity.*
Well, that, of course, is a bunch of Medieval stuff that falls out of the back ends of bulls and was concocted by clerical frauds who are out to get the Cred’s money and bugger altarboys. But enough with the praise.
What I mean to propose is that Creds have mistakenly bought into the whole fairytale version of the heavenly afterlife (and Hell also)—which is so ridiculous that I cannot bring myself to the delusion to accept it. Does that mean that I must dispense completely with the notion that consciousness might indeed “go somewhere” after our physical deaths? Before I address that I want to make a point about imagination.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I play a little jazz piano (OK, I call it jazz piano). When one plays improvisationally (if that’s a word) one “hears”—imagines—the music in one’s head. The next part is the difficult part—getting it from your head out through the keyboard. That’s where whatever skill one has, or has acquired through encounter with the instrument (practice, practice, practice), comes in. The accomplished maestro has very little limitation between his imagination and its expression with his instrument. Oscar Peterson played piano that way; but, although I could imagine the notes in much the same manner Peterson did, I could never get them out on the piano with the skill and mastery that he expressed. This applies to all of the arts (and maybe sports) that are, or rely upon imagination. Imagination exceeds its expression. If you have ever—and I am sure that you have—had a dream, or an idea, or an emotion, for which you simply could not find words (or images, or music) to adequately express, then you know what I mean.
So I am not even sure I can adequately express the extension of this point. My first premise is that we humans are quite limited in our knowledge and comprehension of even the dimensions of life—Time and Space—that we have some familiarity with. That is probably why we see Heaven as “up there” in the bright blue sky and fluffy clouds, and Hell “down there” is some flaming place beneath the mantel of the earth. (Really, rather third-rate imagination, if you ask me.) But I want to go beyond that and posit that there well may be dimensions of existence of which we have no knowledge, dimensions totally beyond our ken that might contain states of existence that have something quite different than the dimensionality that we call “existence.”
So what if this dimension—I am imagining—is where our consciousness goes, and there it is in a place without the constraints of time and space as we know them, and without the substance life as we know it. Imagine, then, our consciousness going to a dimension in which we each are the inhabitants of our own universe of existence, a universe in which pure imagination is not only the creative force, but the actual expression—the form—of existence. In this dimension each individual consciousness becomes its own universe, created from our own consciousness. The only limit would be the limits of our imaginations. In the same way that we inhabit our imaginations alone, each universe would be our own creation. How we, so to speak, “live it out,”—wearing the best clothes, eating the foods we love and not getting fat, vanquishing our enemies, having great loves and adventures, living in different times and places, etc,. because, after all, our imaginations are where our fantasies reside—all of it is our reality, a reality without consequence upon anyone or anything, because it is an imagined reality, but it will be real only to our own consciousness.
Now, does that sound better than the answer that my first grade teacher, Sister Ignatius, gave met when I asked her “what Heaven would be like” and she told me that we would “spend eternity looking into the face of God.”? Talk about a “downer.”
Now, you probably noticed that my dimension of pure imagination doesn’t seem to have much to do with morality, like the dorky versions of Heaven and Hell. In fact, you are probably wondering, where the hell is Hell in all this metaphysical imagining? If people aren’t threatened with Hell, what’s going to make them behave, your wondering. OK, let’s deal with that, if perhaps not in the same judgmental terms we are used to employing. Well, I said that we, rather our consciousnesses (some might be inclined to use “soul, or “spirit” or even “qi,”) would go to this dimension of pure imagination. There each would create/inhabit his/her imagined reality. Real creeps like Hitler, Pol Pot, and Dick Cheney, would have the same experience—but, of course, with their own consciousness. And there, Hitler would imagine sending endless zillions of Jews to the gas chambers and ovens (don’t be repulsed, they are only figments of his imagination in his own private universe, or reich.) “The Dick” Cheney would snarl to his content waterboarding his imagined Al Qaeda victims that would endlessly telling him of plots to fly planes into government buildings. This might not be Hell as you have been taught about it my nuns and Breughel paintings, but endless repetition is the curse of an obsessed and fixated “imagination.” Sure, I imagined that, but it makes better sense to me that some devils toasting and torturing this reality’s bad guys. Better (I imagine) they be tortured with their own evil imaginations. Hell would be a place of their mower making.
So, it might be that non-theists will have a place to go in the afterlife. Not just that, but it would be a far better dimension (in my imagination) than that goofy place that Sister Ignatius talked about. Oh sure, I can hear the Creds, going on about “how can you just imagine some place like Heaven” when that’s exactly what they doing when they believe in Sister Ignatius’s afterlife. Well, I’ve got an answer for the Creds if they want to play that game:
Geschmuftenstrudlenschaung, you Creds. Bring it on. Because I have found my faith—in my own imagination.
Listen: Pure Imagination
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.28.2010)
*I’ve dealt with this matter previously in DCJ Archives: 21.4: Where Can You Find 72 Virgins These Days, and Other Questions?; 48. 5: Where’s Bob?; 2.21.2008; 50. 8: What About Todd? 6.15.200; and 53. 3: 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN, by Don Piper 2004 BR 11.7.2008