Does Existence End?

Posted Aug 16, 2007
Last Updated Jun 21, 2012

  “I think, therefore I am”, wrote Rene Descartes nearly 300 years ago. It’s the most basic question: How do we know that we exist? Descartes’ answer is not derived by rational deduction or empirical induction, but assumes existence a priori. He argues that thinkers may doubt the existence of everything else around them but cannot doubt their own existence because something that doesn’t exist cannot be wrong or right. Therefore, even by doubting our own existence, beings that think must exist.

This however does not logically prove existence; it only suggests that being is self-evident. So claiming that, “I am” becomes a basic assumption, accepted without proof. This means that we can only know existence intuitively. Before we can even start thinking rationally, this leap of faith must be made. Thinking, writing and communicating thoughts to other beings all presuppose our existence.

The writer of Exodus (3:14) in the Bible was smart to name God “I am” (Ahayah). Since human existence is an irrational and unproven assumption, universal existence is also logically unassailable. Of course, Descartes attempts to prove that nothing exists but the self and doubts everything else, especially God, but the circular logic of his argument unintentionally opens the door to the world of metaphysics.

Just as I may converse with you, I have always talked to myself. They say this is crazy, but it is basic to my nature: I wouldn’t know how to think without this inter-personal dialog. In fact, most of my thoughts are vigorously debated in my head and arrived at by consensus. Since self-awareness first dawned in me as a child, the discovery of this other self inside (also provisionally called “me”), he has always seemed like a preexistent being, like I was being introduced to myself for the first time. This is a feeling, not a proof, and any argument in support of it is totally illogical, but belief in the irrational is not necessarily crazy.

Once attained, I would argue that this self-awareness, this inter-personal conversation called “thinking” has no end. (At least the being inside that I talk to seems to be endless.) I’ll admit that life ends, but what about existence? Since we have no rational proof for existence in the first place, how can we hope to prove its eventual nonexistence? My claim is uncertain, but so must be any claim that existence dies. I have only an uncanny feeling that “I am” can’t be shut down even if it wants to end. However, all of us are aware that our minds are housed in bodies that will terminate at some future point and no longer be considered “alive”. We can easily prove that life ends, but what of existence?

When our bodies are gone, what happens to our inter-personal dialog? Will the thinking that goes on inside us end when the body dies? The answer is not as obvious as we first assume. Why should the mind disrobed of the flesh stop talking to itself? Thinking is not a physical activity. Even with no mouth to speak with, eyes to see with, hands to write with, brain to manage with, or any other means by which to communicate our existence to others, why should thought come to an end?

Some believe that it does; they insist that both existence and thinking come to an end when we die. Most of those who believe this call themselves scientists. They cannot imagine how the mind shall survive the death of the body. They argue that we are finite beings with no mind before we were born, and that no mind will survive our death. They have seen others beings die, and it sure looks like the spark that animates both the body and the mind is extinguished when life ends. Surely, they argue, the corpse is finished thinking. If the mind existed separately from the body, where does it go when the body dies? The thinking being that was formerly alive can’t tell us because it has been divested of the equipment needed to communicate its thoughts. They find it more likely that existence ends with death, that all the thoughts that humans have during their lifetimes are suddenly and permanently silenced by the death of an organ in the head called the brain.

It is true that Albert Einstein can’t write any more scientific papers, but has he stopped thinking? As if they concur with the old proverb attributed to pirates, that “Dead men tell no tales”, these skeptics see the severance of communication with the living as proof of non-existence. How very materialist, how very dull and rational is the reductive physicalism of those that believe this! For them, physics, logic and skepticism stand in for God, but they cannot prove that nothing exists beyond physics. Their champion, Descartes, couldn’t even prove existence logically, and Heisenberg betrays them further. They must affirm the inviolability of physics as an article of faith, making atheism their religion. To me it seems that such dismissal of other possibilities reveals a lack of imagination. Things that move me cannot move them. What message do they get from art, music and poetry? Do they only see colors, hear notes, read words? Of course, these components are what art is made of when analyzed and dissected to bits, but art is about construction. Are they not more than the sum of their parts? Have these logical people ever wondered what motivates artists to produce these useless creations? I don’t think so. They live in a rational world where human beings are no more than thinking insects, specimens to dissect, to be stepped on and squashed out of existence. They delight in disproving miracles and turning faith to doubt. I ask them: Is there no love beyond sex? Is there no truth beyond fact? Is there no thought beyond the brain? They would answer, “no”.

Of course, in a strictly rational sense, their conclusions are right. Within their domain of knowledge, their authority is incontrovertible. Of course Australopithecus is our ancestor and Adam and Eve is just a fable. Of course most miraculous visions and cures are hoaxes and self-delusion. Certainly, science is not wrong; we need the clarity of its fact-based investigations lest we share the fate of Icarus. I support science wholeheartedly, and usually side with it against the baseless and superstitious claims of most religions. Yet I know that science and logic are limited, they can only provide answers based on facts. As such, science is at a loss to explain even as basic an ethical concept as altruism.

Yet some see science as an authority on everything. They accept its findings as proven truths. However, as Descartes showed so long ago, existence itself cannot be proven, only assumed and inferred. Then how can we prove that this unproven existence shall definitively end? Science has found a way and their consensus stands for certainty. It is accomplished by redefining the existence of the mind as a physical thing called “the brain”. Science expects us to believe that the seat of our self, our very existence, resides in an organ inside the head, and argue that our minds and souls cannot exist without its continued electrical activity. Starved of oxygen when we stop breathing, the brain tissue shuts down and dies, the electrical synapses stop firing and so, they believe, our thoughts and memories will also shut down, vanish into nothingness, and be forever lost.

They have no proof, but to them it seems logical. When you think about it, how nearly laughable is logic! How simplistic are all answers based upon Ockham’s razor! But what if the answer is more complex; shall science forbid its conclusion? Logic is a useful tool but it’s not the only kind of thought. It should only be considered a first step in any investigation, but when its answer contradicts intuition, it’s time to probe deeper. Logic falls short where real understanding begins. Time to throw out its proofs and remember our dreams. When we sleep we experience a little death. But during sleep, don’t we sense that our other self is always awake? Maybe the other person that we’re talking to is Jung’s Collective Unconscious, and maybe it is also Moses’ God, “I am”. After death, maybe our personal selves move through the “body” of this vast Universal Being, or maybe our individual identities become one with his Universal Consciousness - but such premonitions are dreams - merely hopeful dreams. Maybe only the Universal Being is eternal. Less likely is what the scientists assert, that human existence comes to an end and the Universe has no consciousness. If that were the case, how did human consciousness come into existence in the first place without a preexistent awareness to converse with? Who first realized that “I am me” and, “you are not me”? Who was the first to ask himself, “ If a quasar blows up billions of light-years back in space and time, and no beings exist to see it, does it still shed light?”

Does anybody know what happens after death definitively? No. None of us do. Only the dead know, and their “lips are sealed”. Those claiming that there is no life after death could be right, but there is an equal chance that they could be wrong. So place your bets and be ready to be wrong! I am. Even while holding fast to the conviction that being survives, I’m prepared to face eternal nothingness - but then, are all the atheists prepared to face God if they’re wrong? Sure, I have doubt, and like Descartes, I will never stop thinking and doubting, but I also have hope and faith that - just like the atheist - I’ve picked the winning answer. We will all continue to wonder about what is going to happen when we die for the rest of our lives and only find out who wins the bet when we stop breathing.

Yet - how could they be right? If I say that I am, I should always be, like the God who claims that as his name. No being can claim existence in the past tense: “I was”. My non-existence would make me a liar when claiming that I am. How can existence end? After I’m dead, I imagine myself calling out, “Where are you?” and keenly listening for myself to reply - as I have always done in life. But then, even if I never again get an answer from myself, and am greeted only with silence echoing throughout the vastness of space and time, who’s the one doing the asking?


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