Anyone who's ever met me will tell you that I'm a fairly cut and dry person. When it comes to my attitude toward the physical world and science, I tend to keep a nihilistic, black-and-white point of view.
But the beginning of this year has been a different story. It's been a wormhole into the possibility of the existence of a "spiritual" world, but a completely different one than I believed in growing up.
Losing My Religion
I was raised Christian, and with the type of personality I had, I tried to take it seriously even when people around me didn't. However, there were some aspects of Christianity and religion in general that never felt right to me. They festered and evolved over time.
First I had an issue with denominations. Then with the attitudes of religious advisors and "hardcore" Christians. Then with all of the judgement from a religion that claims it's freeing you from judgment. Then with the taboo surrounding sex. And so on.
On my last week studying abroad in New Zealand (November 2014), I distinctly remember hitting my breaking point. I felt that it was the first time I'd begun to understand the world for what it is, and I couldn't hold onto my old ideas any longer.
I removed religion like a fresh scab from my body: quickly and painlessly, but not without mild repercussions.
No More Invincibility
Once you lose the safe, mental blockade of religion, you've got massive open-ended questions in front of you.
My first realization that I won't exist forever didn't hit me until I was 20, but it hit me like a subway train. I was living in my senior dorm at Bucknell trying to sleep when all of the existential questions hit one after another.
As an atheist, I've believed that when I die, I'll no longer be. And that's a scary thought for anyone who loves themself and life.
Since then, I've had a handful of these episodes, all just as uncomfortable.
Turning the Tide
One evening in the beginning of January, I was talking with my girlfriend about vegetarianism. She said that she'd like to be one because she empathizes with the animals, but that it's too difficult.
I chime in with the old "nothing matters in the end" argument to rationalize the suffering that animals bred for food go through. Everything dies, even me, so my choices are justified and don't matter.
She didn't care for my opinion (it didn't bother me), but it got me wondering if we're actually more than we can see. I took to Google later that night to find out.
What I found is solid evidence of the plausibility of the existence of a persistent "soul".
Peer-Reviewed Reincarnation Studies
My first Google rabbit-hole led me to the psychiatry department of the University of Virginia. There, a group of professors regularly investigate the cases of children who claim to have lived past lives.
Since the program began in the 60s, they've accrued over 2,500 cases of children from all parts of the world who are seemingly born with fading memories from a past life.
Because they use purely scientific methods, they cannot conclude that reincarnation is real, but many of the more well-known cases demonstrate high plausibility through probability.
Here's some more info about these cases:
- Children discuss past lives between 2-6 years of age. The memories fade after that time.
- ~70% of these children claim to be people who died unusual deaths at an early age. They may have phobias surrounding their previous cause of death.
- Often times, children's claims about their former lives can be verified. Many of these details are obscure and could not be known without extensive research.
- Most children report the existence of an in-between and imply some sort of agency during that period.
- If the previous person died of some type of injury, the new child is usually born with a birthmark at the location of the wound.
- There are many reported cases where souls stay in the same family.
There are entire websites dedicated the topic of reincarnation, so I won't discuss it at length here, but if you're interested in some weird cases, look up James Leininger and Ryan Hammons. Dr. Tucker's book "Return to Life" is also worth a read.
Unexplainable Quantum Effects
There's something very human about exploring unsolved mysteries in an attempt to solve others, so I turned to the largest mysteries in science that we can't explain: fundamental aspects of quantum mechanics.
One mystery is called wave function collapse.
At the sub-atomic level, particles exists in multiple places at the same time and can even pass through barriers.
Take a minute to process how strange that is.
Even stranger, particles only exist in multiple places until they are measured. The wave function of probabilities randomly collapses into a single state during measurement.
What isn't fully understood is how measurement causes the collapse.
It must be a force that we can't measure or observe in the physical world.
Another quantum mystery is known as entanglement. Suppose two associated electrons are fired from the same source in opposite directions. Even if they are lightyears apart, measuring the spin of one affects the spin of the other instantaneously.
We have no way to explain this within the physical laws of the universe. No information should be able to travel faster than the speed of light.
There must be a part of the world that we cannot see or another world entirely.
Rejecting the Consciousness from Computation Theory
As a programmer, I have strong opinions surrounding the idea of "the singularity", the theoretical moment when a computer's processing power reaches human capacity, or "becomes conscious".
The widely-accepted theory is built on the notion that a brain is essentially a large neural computer and its "operating system" is our perception of consciousness. By this logic, creating an artificial consciousness only requires an extremely powerful computer, advanced AI, and time for the consciousness to generate.
No one has enough concrete evidence to prove or disprove the theory, but I think it's unlikely.
Computer scientists have proven that there is a collection of problems that cannot be solved by computers. One example is the halting problem: it's impossible to write a program that proves whether another program will stop running or will run forever. This was proven by Alan Turning in 1936.
However, humans can conclusively solve this problem by carefully reading and reasoning through a program's code. It's as though we operate on a level above algorithmic computation.
Similarly, in 1931, mathematician Kurt Gödel proved that all systems of mathematics lack the means to fully prove themselves.
If we can't even boil our mathematics down to a complete set of axioms and procedures that are fully proven and consistent, how could we even come close to understanding or replicating the system of consciousness with an algorithmic device?
As a side note, proponents of this theory also believe that since the brain is a computer, we could upload the contents to a supercomputer to live forever. If that's the case, is your copy of your brain still you? Or just a simulated copy of your brain? I would assume the latter.
Your essence may live forever but with the caveat that your existing body still dies. Seems like the worst of both worlds to me.
The Brain as a Quantum Computer
Another theory claims that consciousness may arise from quantum processes within neurons rather than at the neuron level itself, effectively making the brain a quantum computer.
The theory is known as orchestrated objective reduction, and it's better explained by other sources, but it connects quantum effects with the experience of consciousness.
It also opens the possibility that quantum information can exist outside the body entangled in space-time, effectively giving us each an everlasting soul that has existed since the big bang.
It's definitely worth a deep dive if you've got some time. Look up videos with the theory's creators, Professor Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose.
A Defense Mechanism?
I'm willing to accept the fact that all of this research and speculation may just be my natural reaction to the bleak reality of death. Who actually wants to die?
But if you look at these ideas together, it seems probable that we live again.
Matter and energy are never created or destroyed. Why would we be?