Quantum Afterlives

An article caught my eye on social feeds today, though it was published back on Christmas Day. Quantum Theory Proves That Consciousness Moves to Another Universe After Death is Awescience’s summary of a bit of recent chatter around a new book by a biologist named Robert Lanza. Other articles about Lanza’s book are titled things like:

The articles all follow basically the same pattern, especially repeating the quote “death cannot exist in any real sense”, and suggesting that when one dies, one simply “wakes up” in a parallel universe. Because… of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

A look at what Lanza has to say about it himself at least doesn’t quite say that. Rather, he says that because there’s an infinite number of possible worlds, if you die in one, you’re still alive in another. And then he likens that to watching different characters on TV shows on DVD.

That’s not an afterlife by any usual use of the word. I doubt many Daily Mail readers would actually be relieved by this quantum afterlife if they understood it clearly, any more than they would be outraged to learn that every day they’re not murdered in this universe is another day they’re murdered in another.

Lanza’s theory of “biocentrism“, which posits that we create the universe rather than the other way around, is a good strong argument for the teaching of philosophy in high schools – his great revelation appears to be basically his discovery of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. (A bit harsh. I’m sure there’s more to his book than rehashing Kant, and it actually sounds really interesting.)

I haven’t read his book. Maybe reading it would make his article “What is it like after you die?” seem less misconceived. But he seems to be making a mistake that is common to almost everyone on the planet: mistaking “consciousness” for a “thing”.

The “me” feeling is just energy operating in the brain. But energy never dies; it cannot be destroyed.

Consciousness is not a thing; it is an event, or a series of events. It doesn’t have to go anywhere; it just has to stop occurring – the universe just has to stop doing it. It is not “energy”, and saying that it “never dies” and “cannot be destroyed” is as meaningless as saying that a tune cannot be destroyed and has to go somewhere after the guitar has been put away in its case.

However, if I was to give Lanza the benefit of the doubt and assume that he understands this, his thinking would have some interesting connotations. For example, he says “death cannot exist”, which is true, but by the same token, life cannot exist either. Dying and then waking up in another universe may be one way of describing one’s particular pattern of consciousness being performed by a parallel universe, but by the same token waking up this morning in bed is precisely what it feels like to have died the night before in a parallel universe.

It’s almost as if there were no self persisting from moment to moment at all.

But if you’re interested in the idea of immortality through events of consciousness arising across the infinite possibilities of parallel universes, you could do a lot worse than reading Greg Egan’s brilliant science-fiction Permutation City.

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