This is a short story I wrote in 2012 as I was trying to come to terms with the oblivion after death. I never finished it, but I was thinking about it recently in relation to an ethical question I’ve been thinking about.
Can consciousness have value independent of suffering and pleasure?
As a total hedonic utilitarian, I’m of the persuasion that only suffering and pleasure can matter. Everything else, including conscious thoughts, only matter so far as they produce suffering and pleasure.
Suppose someone becomes unable to feel any pleasure or suffering at all, is still conscious, but their consciousness is isolated forever (use whatever science or spooky explanation for this you need). Would anything they do or think have ethical value? Would it be good, bad or neutral to press a button eliminating their consciousness?
I want to write about this soon, but for now, please enjoy this short story. You’ll see how the question and story are related fairly quickly.
Karl had always been a dreamer. A lot of people like to think of themselves as big thinkers, but Karl knew he was different. Sometimes he wished that weren’t so. Maybe if he didn’t think so much, he could actually enjoy life for what it was; a fleeting moment that you can never truly capture. But there was one thing that bothered him beyond all imagining. Not life, he got that. It was death.
Karl was never what one might call depressed. He had a loving girlfriend, a fantastic group of friends, and a caring family. Some might say his life was perfect. But this was not the problem. Karl was seriously bothered by the potential pointlessness of it all. What if there wasn’t an afterlife? Karl couldn’t bear to think about it. His heart rate rose and his breathing quickened as he helplessly pondered it. Nothingness. “Nooo!” Karl ran from room to room in his house, before collapsing to the floor; a nervous wreck. Thankfully, once again, no one was home to hear it. He wasn’t sure how he would go about explaining such a phobia. It wasn’t exactly a commonly discussed subject.
But as much as he tried, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. That would be his ‘big thinker’ characteristic back to bite him. What if there was nothing after death, nothing at all? Karl had always called himself a Christian, after having gone to a Catholic school, but now that he thought about it, none of it really made sense. None of this would matter then would it? If he ceased to exist… panic rose up once more. He was able to distract himself just in time. Videogames, TV, food, anything.
This worked for a while. For some time, Karl carried out his life, trying his hardest to avoid thinking about the inevitable. But one day, he simply couldn’t take it anymore. He had to know. And if he was disappointed, well, he would never know anyway. How could he be disappointed, when his consciousness ended? Besides, if he was going to die eventually anyway, it wouldn’t matter how long his life was, regardless of what came next. Karl had thought about the possibility of humans being able to live forever one day, but it didn’t seem like a possibility in his lifetime.
Would it be like going to sleep? He wondered, as he loaded his father’s hunting rifle. He stopped himself as he went to load the second bullet. Wouldn’t need that one. The rifle had never been taken out of the box it was kept in, since he bought it for his father 3 years ago after he had complained about rodents. Would it be ironic that Karl would be the first one to use it? He wasn’t sure, he never fully understood what ironic meant.
In the back of his mind, Karl was glad of this minor distraction as he rested his head on the top of the barrel, reached down with one hand, then pulled the trigger down.
Then nothing. Did it misfire? Karl tried to open his eyes to look down at the firearm, but he found that he couldn’t. In a moment of panic, he tried to move his hand to his face, but he found that he was unable to do that as well. Was he dead? No, he couldn’t be, he could still feel the cold metal of the rifle in his hands, and see the light from the fluorescent bulb through his eyelids. Could he really be having a panic attack so bad that he couldn’t move? That might make sense, this was easily the most serious, irreversible thing he’d done in his life. If the rifle misfired, after being so sure of what he was going to do…
But then Karl realised he wasn’t breathing. He tried to breathe in, but found that he couldn’t. But something wasn’t quite right. Unlike when Karl held his breath, he didn’t feel the need to breathe in. How long had it been since he pulled the trigger now? Thirty seconds? Sixty? It could have even been two minutes by now, Karl had momentarily lost track of time when he found he couldn’t open his eyes.
What did this mean?
What if this was death? Karl doubted it, but he couldn’t move and didn’t need to breathe, so anything seemed possible. If this was an afterlife, it was nothing like the one depicted in church. It obviously wasn’t nothingness though. The fact that he was thinking about it was proof enough of that. I think therefore I am; Karl remembered one of the more cliché statements from his philosophy class.
What if this was in between life and death? Karl had heard about something like that once. Limbo? Purgatory? Karl wondered if it was odd that he seemed to forget the meanings of so many words. If he was stuck like this, however, that wouldn’t matter, would it? Forever. Karl pre-emptively prepared for a panic attack. But it didn’t come. In fact, Karl’s heart rate didn’t increase at all. Then he realised that his heart hadn’t been beating to begin with. At least, not that he could feel. Interesting. Did this mean that time had stopped? Maybe this was death. Maybe, when people died, their consciousness was stuck in limbo, with nowhere to go, and they were forced to spend the rest of their lives contemplating what they had chosen. But then, not everyone chose death. Maybe this only happened to people who tried to kill themselves? Or maybe Karl was just dreaming.
If time had stopped, it would at least explain why he could still see the light through his eyelids. Or would it? Karl had learnt enough physics to know that light travelled as photons of energy, and had to reach someone’s eyes for them to see the light. If time had stopped, shouldn’t that mean that the photons would stop also? Or maybe relativity was at play here. He figured he might have even learnt about it if he had gone to university that day, instead of staying home to off himself. Now that would be irony, surely.
Karl decided to face the possibility that he really would be stuck here forever. Forever. Karl found that it didn’t panic him this time. At least he would never die. At that moment, he realised the gravity of the situation. All Karl had ever wanted in life was now his. Immortality. He could spend as much time as he wanted thinking about the problems of physics, maths, philosophy, even the world’s problems. But he would never be able to share them with anyone. It was a little bit depressing, but not as depressing as the thought of nothingness.
Karl settled into what he was now a part of, but after sometime, a thought occurred to him. He couldn’t sleep. He would have no respite from his perpetual thoughts. Would he go insane? Would he grow tired of his own company? Maybe he would come to regret what he had left behind. His girlfriend was the first thing that came to mind. She was perfect, mentally and physically. Her incredible body had kept him awake more than once. The more Karl thought about her, the more he began to lust for her. But relieving his sexual frustration was now an impossibility, at least, physically anyway. The best he could do was to fantasise about her, but that quickly became tiresome.
What has he done?
Would he forget about his first life someday? Maybe he would get used to not being able to not being able to do what he could before. Maybe time hadn’t actually stopped; maybe it was only going much, slower. That would at least explain why he could still see; photons of light travelled at a speed that wasn’t even comparable to that of sound or bullets. What was happening to him? Just minutes ago he was relishing in the fact that he might never die, that he would be conscious forever. Now he was hoping that there was a way out.
No, this existence would be far greater than nothingness. Anything would be better than nothingness. But had it been minutes? There was no way to measure how much time had passed, or at least, how much time had passed for him. Karl thought briefly about the conundrum of his thought. If time was frozen or even passing slower than usual, how was he thinking? Shouldn’t the neurons in his brain stop moving? Shouldn’t the nerve endings stop transmitting information? Useless to think about it. He was thinking, and there was no point trying to discuss why.
Discuss. Now there was a word that he would quickly forget the meaning of. Karl began to remember all the conversations he’d had in his short life. Not just the meaningful ones, but even polite exchanges, like asking someone how things were at work, how the family was, or even the greatest cliché, talking about the weather. He quickly came to realise that he missed even the useless, petty talk. Karl wondered if he could one day train his mind to create a new world, a place to escape to within his mind, with people to talk to. Now there was some wishful thinking. How would he even go about starting? Perhaps he could try imagining a room, and hold the room and all of its detail in his mind at once.
Karl picked the obvious choice, his bedroom. He’d lived in it for over ten years, if he couldn’t even picture that, there would be no hope. But he seemed to struggle with even that. He wasn’t even entirely sure what colour his walls had been. How long had he been in limbo for? Karl tried thinking of everything he had done in that room. Playing video games with friends, reading books late at night with the lamp on, discovering his manhood as he became an adolescent, spending passionate nights with his girlfriend. All of that was gone. Forever. He would now only have memories of those things, and for how long? How long until he had no recollection of anything outside of limbo, until he forgot there was even anything before?
It was at this point that Karl felt a strange longing. Almost like a soft whispering; as if someone was calling him to come home. He was being drawn to what felt like the emptiest corners of his mind. Towards sweet, peaceful… Nothingness.
Karl withdrew back to his self. Was that the way out? Could he really opt out into the deepness of timelessness? It scared Karl that that may be an option. What if he lost his sanity and unwittingly ended it all?
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. I’m never going to make that choice. I’ll train myself to forget that that is even a possibility. I wonder what nothingness is really like? I guess it would be a lot like what came before my life. But what was that like? It’s not like I remember it. It wouldn’t be so bad I guess, it’s not like I’ll hate it. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. But there won’t be life after that. I’ll never be able to think about it. Ever.
Funny, how different panic felt when your body couldn’t register it. Is this the same way people who were paralysed felt when they panicked?
But Karl found himself drawn back to his last thought. What if there could be a life after death? Not necessarily an afterlife in the religious sense, but if the universe was really infinite, and it continued to exist for an infinite amount of time, surely eventually he would exist again? Everything happens eventually in an infinite setting, in theory anyway. Karl couldn’t quite relate this to an existing theory, but it sounded about right. Perhaps someone would discover a way to revive everyone who had died. If only.
This provoked another thought, that of the nature of individual consciousnesses, for lack of a better word. So many potential lives and consciousnesses were never brought into being simply due to circumstances. A completely different person would have been born in Karl’s place if a different sperm had made it to his mother’s egg. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. If his dad had never existed, or his mother had simply picked a different man to be the father of her children, or even if she never had children at all. Where did a consciousness come from? Was there a line of consciousnesses somewhere waiting to be placed into bodies, and if so, did that apply only for humans? Or would it apply for all living things. Where would you even draw the line, would an amoeba be given a consciousness, one that could have been given to a human had circumstances been slightly different?
Karl was amused by the thought that he may have found evidence for religion, or at least something larger than this universe. He was pleased by the fact that he was actually getting around to working on some of the larger philosophical issues that he had thought about. He might even win a Nobel Prize for it.
His thoughts stopped.
For some time, he thought about nothing, stunned that he had so carelessly thought of something from his previous life. Something he could never return to, never again experience. Karl wondered if perhaps he could somehow return to his life. Was there some way to atone for what he had done? Or maybe there was some conclusion he was supposed to reach in limbo for him to return to his world, some enlightenment to attain. The meaning of life, perhaps? If such a thing existed. Although, if he were able to return, what would return to? A bullet to his head. There really was no going back.
Karl found his thoughts again drifting back to things he would miss. But maybe he was going about this the wrong way; what about the things he wouldn’t miss? One particular example came to mind quite readily. One night, when he was out partying with some friends, he saw his ex-girlfriend. Now they had broken up on quite amiable terms, and when they spoke, albeit briefly, the conversation was kept cheerful and light-hearted. However, later that night, when he saw her dancing, he almost lost control. It took all of his willpower just to not burst into tears. Seeing someone who used to care for him so much, in such a special way, who no longer cared for him at all; it was heart wrenching. All he could think about for the rest of the night was going home so he could cry in privacy. It made Karl furious that someone could have such an effect on him, without even trying. Although Karl no longer felt emotions in his body as he did before, he was glad that he would not have to deal with such pitiful things again.
Nothing would ever come as a surprise for the rest of his existence.
But was that a good thing? What did Karl even have to look forward to other than his own thoughts progressing. And how much would they progress without outside stimulation or input. Could he become stuck in a perpetual loop of the same series of thoughts? Would such an existence even be better than none?
What if his life was a perpetual loop? He had heard somewhere once about a theory that there was only one day in everyone’s lives, and they lived it over and over again, without realising. Everyday people would forget about the previous day and wake up and live the same day over again. It sounded ridiculous at the time, but then, so did a realm of perpetual thought. Karl sometimes thought to himself that, after opening his eyes from blinking, it was possible that none of his memories before he opened his eyes were real, and that he had only just started to exist mere moments ago. How could he prove himself wrong? Even before he blinked, he would take note of his surroundings and thoughts, knowing that at that moment he existed. Then he would blink, and he wouldn’t be able to prove even to himself that he had existed before, even though he had a clear memory of existing.
He never really believed any of it, but what such an existence be better than death itself? Would an infinite loop of the same day, or even the same moment, be better than nothing? How could he ever know.
If his theory about limbo was correct, and this was what happened to people just before they died, what happened to people who were unconscious or asleep at their time of death? Would they still go to limbo? If the body and mind stayed in the same state, would their experience of limbo be the same as his? Or would their immortality be comparable to a vegetable state; alive, but unconscious, forever. And what about Alzheimer’s patients? Their thoughts, their confusion. People with memory loss, every hour, they would forget where they were, and how they got there. How could that be better than death?
The void was looking more and more peaceful, more blissful, more…
Nothingness is unknown. Nothingness is eternal. If he made that choice he could never unmake it.
Something didn’t make sense though. He had been alive when people had died. If limbo was eternal until you ended it, then how did time continue after someone had died? Did that mean that everyone had eventually made the choice to end? Karl wanted to shudder. Eternity was a long time, no matter how long you put something off, eventually it will happen. Maybe that wasn’t the case though, maybe time continued for everyone else after a person fell to limbo.
Fell. That’s a strange choice of word for the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.
And with that , Karl was content with his existence. More content than he had been in a long time. He had a thought somewhere in the back of his mind. Perhaps he was just kidding himself, maybe he was really wasn’t content. Could he lie to himself like that? And about such a big issue?
It was a pointless thought. If he was lying to himself at such an intrinsic level he would never know anyway. Even just focusing on the positives of this existence would be a far better use of time.
Disappointment. So much in life relied on other people, all of whom could so easily let you down, not even just due to selfish reasons. Unexpected circumstances would always arise, which was understandable, but even when someone meant nothing sinister by an action, it could still hurt so much.
Regret. Now there was something. Karl had wasted so much time regretting a past action, when there was nothing he could do to reverse it, and instead of trying to either fix it or move on; he dwelled on what could have happened if he had made a slightly different choice.
Some time passed before Karl came up with another coherent thought. He recalled a particular event from his past life. He was about to mow the lawn, when he saw a large rodent of some sort in the middle of the yard. He had frozen. Was it alive? Was it dead? After taken a hesitant step closer, he was pretty sure it was dead. Karl thought about that. There was a useless lump of matter, that had once housed a conscience. Perhaps not a conscience of the same intelligence level of a human, but a conscience none the less. And now it was gone. In the past, Karl had gone to get one of his parents to do the dirty deed of taking care of the body, but this time he was alone.
After getting the shovel, he stood over the deceased animal. It looked almost peaceful, despite the fact its eyes were still wide open. Karl went to scoop it up onto the shovel, but as the blade touched the soft, maybe even still warm body, he retched. He couldn’t do it. This used the be a living thing, and now he was going to so unceremoniously throw it in the bin. How come humans get a funeral, and rite of passage? Shouldn’t every living creature have recognition? He gathered himself, calmed his thoughts, and tried again. This time, he accidentally turned it body over instead of getting it on the shovel, and out spilled the animal’s innards.
Karl had known he didn’t have the strongest gut since he had to excuse himself from science class when he was asked to dissect a frog, but he didn’t expect this. All he could do was try to stop himself from throwing up. Blood had pooled underneath the rodent, some of which had been absorbed into the ground. Ants, maggots, and other insects Karl had never seen were inside the animal, moving around like a single wriggling, writhing entity. Organs were outside the creature, hanging on by little more than a thread of flesh. How could one side be so peaceful, and one side so terrifying?
Karl doesn’t remember much after that, just putting the animal in the bin and then sitting inside, shaking a little. Thinking back on it, Karl wondered if animals could also be submitted to Limbo. Who said humans were the only species that could end up here? But then, where was the cut-off point? Did all life end up here? What about cockroaches, who didn’t have a brain, and just lived purely out of instinct. What about plant life? There could be so many Limbos existing right now, separate to his, but with no way of communication between them, how could he ever know.
Again, he was dwelling on things that he could not change, and could not possibly have an answer to. What if he spent his time doing something useful? Karl had always wanted to live forever, but not like this. He wanted his eternity to be with friends and family, doing the things he loved. Perhaps creating an entire world within his head was the answer after all. How would he even begin? He had already tried and failed to hold a familiar place in his mind. What if he created a new one? A large white room, mostly empty, a simple wooden desk and chair in one corner, with his custom computer for playing video games, a phone by his side, and a bed. In a world without food, that’s all he would need to be happy. Karl imagined turning on his computer and sitting at the desk. As he waited for the computer to boot up, he realised with a chuckle that he had forgotten to turn the screen on. A short few minutes later, he had opened up his internet browser and loaded up the voice communication software he used to talk to his friends. Everyone was online. With a sudden start, Karl realised he couldn’t remember their voices.
How long had he been here?
In where? Replied Karl from the white room. Never matter, he could create new friends, new voices.