Who was the first person to have an afterlife?

Click through for full sized version and the red button caption.

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

The idea that only humans have an afterlife has always been one that I find interesting.  If only humans have them, at what point in our evolutionary history did we obtain them?  Did Neanderthals have them?  What about Homo-erectus?  If we started having an afterlife at some point, wouldn’t that mean that the first person to be eligible for one couldn’t expect to have their parents there?

I know that many religious believers think animals do have an afterlife.  But that just seems to move the line of difficulty.  How far back on the evolutionary chain do we have to go before an afterlife doesn’t come into the equation?  Is it just animals?  Or do plants have them as well?  Is the spinach I had on my Subway  sandwich at lunch today in spinach heaven?  If only animals, what about animal-plant hybrids like green sea slugs?

I personally think it’s unlikely that we have an afterlife waiting for us, but I could see humans conceivably creating one someday.  Which raises an interesting question.  Suppose we developed technology that would allow us to somehow put the minds of long dead relatives into a technological afterlife*.  No doubt those relatives would also want to see their long dead relatives in that afterlife.

How far back would we allow it to go?  Would we stop after anatomically modern humans, or continue until whoever was being resurrected wasn’t intelligent enough to care about their parents?  Or at some other point?

* No, I don’t know of any laws of physics that would allow this, but some transhumanists have speculated about it.

25 thoughts on “Who was the first person to have an afterlife?

          1. Loved it, on several levels! He handled AI intelligently, and the whole blurring of lines between simulation and reality was exceptionally well done. I’m really impressed with Brin. It’s been a while since I read his work. It looks like that needs to change.

            Thanks again for recommending it!


  1. There does at least *seem* to be a difference between our sentience an those of (say) other mammals. I’m not sure the difficulty of finding the place to draw a line is a compelling argument that there is no line. I think it was Sam Harris (in a secular moral argument) who made the analogy that the difficulty of defining what “health” is doesn’t keep us from having doctors.

    I kind of hope that there will be some happy consciousness after I die, but as a recent deconvert from Christianity, I see no reason to think that’s the case, so I don’t think it’s helpful to focus on or add expectation to that hope.

    Of course, it’s easier to hold those types of beliefs when you reject evolution wholesale…


    1. Certainly there’s a difference in capacities. Our large brain is our evolutionary niche. But every time someone identifies a qualitative difference, someone else seems to eventually find an animal with that quality, albeit often to a much lesser degree.

      You sound like you’re in a pretty good place, but just in case, the first few months after giving up on religion, particularly on the afterlife aspects, can be hard. It gets much easier with time. You might know about it already, but I found Epicurean views on death comforting.


      1. Thanks for the link.

        Funny… I thought I had a half decent handle on it, but reading your descriptions of what the experience (or lack) of consciousness would or would not be like actually *created* an anxiety in me. …Maybe I don’t have as good of a handle on it as I thought.


          1. Actually, after I posted that last reply, I recalled my feelings reading another blogger’s post on this subject shortly after I had concluded there was no afterlife and, now that I think of it, that post created anxiety in me back then. It may be that talking too much about this subject is the wrong approach, that it is a subject best handled very briefly, Or it may be that what one person finds comforting on this may simply not be what everyone finds comforting.


        1. Ratamacue0: What is it about complete lack of consciousness that gives you anxiety? I can see how not knowing whether that actually happens or not could create fear (fear of the unknown), but for myself if I knew that my state would return to how I was before I was born I would have no anxiety about that. My lack of consciousness never bothered me before I was born. 😉


          1. I don’t know exactly. It seems that “I was dead before birth” meme brings comfort to many. For me? Sometimes, maybe, kinda.

            Somehow I’m not too keen on the concept of the cessation of my existence. Maybe if I were old and happier with certain aspects of my life situation… IDK.


          2. Ratamacue0: I can think of a couple of drawbacks to complete non-existence:

            – I am curious to see what things will be like in the future.
            – I miss some relatives who have passed on and would like to think I might see them again.

            Can you think of others?

            While those things above may cause me to have some desire to have an afterlife (as long as it isn’t a painful one), they don’t cause me to have anxiety about non-existence. As I said before, I do admit to some anxiety due to fear of the unknown (i.e. not knowing if afterlife could be an existence with sadness). I’m just curious to understand others’ perspectives because afterlife ideas have always interested me.


          3. I guess basically that you don’t get to live, love, or accomplish anything anymore. And there’s no take-backs.

            I’m not sure I’ve gotten to the root of things, though.


          4. I’m not sure the anxiety can ever be completely removed. It’s part of our evolved survival programming, which is not something we necessarily have the ability to reason away. All most of us can really do is mitigate it with that reason. I do find that it helps to remember that I won’t experience any drawbacks of not being alive.


  2. Excellent post SAP. That cartoon totally cracked me up.

    I’ve never understood why the ability to think more rationally, ask why questions, and form language should end up creating the ability for the consciousness that we have to be able to survive the death of the body. I think those are the 3 main things that distinguish humans from other mammals, but as you mentioned I think some studies may be indicating that some of the more advanced animals (perhaps chimpanzees, dolphins, crows as some examples) possibly exhibit these traits although to a much lesser degree. But even still, what is it about the addition of those traits that would then create a reason that the self survives after death? I can’t really think of any reason to for that.

    Now I can however imagine that the actual feeling of being conscious and experiencing the feeling of self is something a bit more special and even a bit mysterious. It does seem that many animals have this (e.g. I have a hard time thinking that my dog doesn’t have some kind internal sense of consciousness or “existing”). It also seems that this sense is likely tied to the brain given neuroscience research. But this attribute also seems very easily manipulated in so many different ways, and even turned off, by physical changes to our brain. Also, as mentioned in that post you linked to Ratamacue0, I and the vast majority of others have no memories of any consciousness before our brains existed, and those who say they do can’t seem to come up with verifiable and trustworthy information of previous events. While I don’t rule it out completely, I just think the evidence leans toward the self/mind ending once the body dies.


    1. Thanks Howie, and well said. Myself, if there were some indication that the universe was designed to produce conscious patterns, then I might see a case for those patterns being preserved somewhere, but I can’t see any such indication. (I’m personally open to learning of any such indications, but can’t find any of the standard claims for them plausible.)


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