At the end of the last entry we drew an analogy between a Life, as the sum total of a person’s lifetime experiences and interactions with other living beings, and a life, an individual’s experience of conscious awareness during this time. We tried to suggest that not only does a Life continue its existence in some sense after the life has ended, but that this conception might form a basis for imagining afterlife and reincarnation. In this view, the Life itself can have its own conscious awareness, and moreover there is a link between it and that of the life that underlies it. In this and the next part will unpack these ideas a bit further, to try to flesh them out and so bring them a step beyond mere handwaving.
In order to understand how something large and complex like a Life could have consciousness and awareness in the first place, we can examine a few other cases of systems where we can see similar emergent phenomena more simply and clearly. For the first, consider playing a modern computer game in which you control a person moving through a simulated world, firing simulated weapons at simulated enemies. The experience feels “real” enough that we desire to engage in it, playing at “being” in this world. But what does it really consist of? Let us start from (closer to) the bottom.
There are electrical signals moving through circuits inside one or more “chips” inside the computer. These interact with one another according to the laws of physics. Through the techniques of digital circuit engineering, these interactions are equivalent to storing ones and zeroes in various places, and performing mathematical operations such as addition or multiplication on binary numbers represented by these ones and zeroes. Through the design of the system, these operations are equivalent to an agent executing “instructions” on contents held in memory. Engineers refer to these instructions as “machine language” at the operational level, or “assembly language” when written out in text. These instructions are quite elementary, like:
“Retrieve the value from location 453436 and add it to the one at 453437, storing the result in location 986743″
“If the value at 986743 is zero, jump to location 23332 and execute the instructions found there”
Again through the design of the system, this execution process is equivalent to higher level instructions expressed in a different language, like:
“Add speed_of_object_1 to -speed_of_object_2,”
“If the result is zero, execute the stopped_from_collision routine.”
There are usually one or two higher levels still, and then of course the translation by phosphor array to something we see as moving and interacting characters and world. The point to take home from this is that all of these descriptions are exactly equivalent to one another, each accurately describing sequences of events in the gaming system viewed through some particular lens. There is NO sense in which one is more “correct” than the other. And yet at one level we see moving objects familiar from our own experiences in the real world, and at another level there are electrical impulses (and very many of them) only understandable through complex calculations using the laws of physics.
And a second example, an electronic synthesizer such as used in modern musical performance. Again we have electrical impulses in circuits, but this time they are behaving in a cyclical fashion, turning on and off hundreds or even thousands of times per second. Another circuit amplifies these, and finally a speaker translates them. We hear simply a tone. A tone that will be higher or lower depending on how fast those electrical signals are switching on and off over time, but simply a tone nonetheless. But if we “listened” to that tone with a very sensitive microphone, we could again recover the time extended pattern of offs and ons.
In both of these cases, we see that we can interpret a situation involving many simple “low-level” events (electrical impulses) as one involving fewer rich, complex “high-level” entities. And in fact, we must admit that our own brains constitute a third example. We experience thoughts and awareness, and yet — as we are able to understand it — these are completely equivalent to electrical impulses flowing through millions of nerve fibers and junctions.
It is in this sense that we can see how a Life, made up of innumerable events over the course of a person’s existence at one level, could in theory be seen as a single, infinitely richer entity at a higher level.
* * *
At death, the physical body, including the brain and the mind it supports, ceases to function. But the transition for the Life is far less abrupt. The majority of a person’s influence on others at any given time is not through direct interaction, but rather through the lingering effects of earlier interactions, including indirect ones like books written, music recorded, and so on, on people’s memories and actions. This influence does not end on their death. On the contrary, sometimes it may even increase. The life fades into the background, leaving the space for the previously more subtle Life to come to the fore. It is possible that Awareness may make the jump from the brain, or the life, to the Life.
If this were to happen, then the transition at death is to a higher, slower life form. The primary elements interact more slowly, and themselves contain great richness. It is thus an elevation, aligning with the Buddhist idea of reincarnation to a higher realm, and as well with the Christian idea of heaven. But as we have seen, the richness of a pattern, that is, the amount and detail of its interactions with other patterns, can vary. Could it be that a less-richly interacting pattern in the lower realm corresponds to a simpler life form in the higher? And a more widely-interacting pattern, with its greater overall complexity, to a higher life form? The Buddhists say that some, who have led a life of greatest ignorance, will be reincarnated as lower life forms — such as non-human mammals, reptiles, or even insects — and from there have a much longer road to enlightenment. Because most other life forms interact less richly with each other than humans do, it stands to reason that they have a harder time progressing back up the chain. Whereas a Life that has touched upon many others in significant ways,will continue a rich and complex existence, perhaps taking the form of something akin to a human in the higher realm.
It is interesting to note in this context that the Life of a monk who chooses a life of solitary meditation, interacting only rarely with other human beings, is likely to reincarnate in a lower, simpler life form in this view. But in fact, Tibetan Buddhists see following this path as making an all-out make-or-break attempt at achieving full enlightenment in THIS lifetime. That is, the aim is explicitly NOT to set oneself up for a better reincarnation and another step forward on a longer journey, but to bring the game to its ultimate conclusion right here and now.
One final point. There is nothing in what we have described that precludes the process from occurring multiple times. That is, a Life gives rise to a life in the higher realm, which in turn lives a Life that itself gives rise to yet a higher life, and so on up the line. The Buddhists do speak of multiple reincarnations. But lest we let ourselves get carried away in thinking of this, we must remember that we already have as little conception of the next higher realm as a cell in our own bodies has of the human world. The first higher realm lies already beyond our imagination; we can hardly go further.