What Happens When You Die?

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There is a lovely little story I came across about two waves on the ocean having a chat. I don’t know where the story originated and yes, I do realise it sounds very odd but, as they say, suspend your disbelief for a moment or two and just go with it. It goes like this.

One day a perfectly formed little wave was travelling along the undulating surface of the ocean enjoying the pleasant breeze and warm sunshine when he became alarmed at someting he could see in the distance. One by one, all of the other waves were crashing onto the beach. In a moment, his life flashed before his eyes (yes, I know waves don’t have eyes, but hang in there). He became very anxious and unhappy at the thought of what was ultimately going to happen to him.

But, just then a bigger wave came right up behind him and asked why he seemed so upset. “Well, can’t you see?” he said, “We are all going to perish. We are all going to crash onto the beach just like those other waves that are in front of us.”

“No,” said the other wave, “you don’t understand. We are not waves really, we are all a part of the ocean.”

It is a great little story because I think that at some stage we all get to thinking about death. We see our grandparent’s generation perish, then our parent’s generation and eventually, we begin losing our friends. Just like that little wave, we can see that same fate is also going to befall us one day. We are all going to perish, and perhaps too, we may get worried and anxious about the prospect. But the truth is that we are all a part of the universe so, when the time comes, we will not cease to exist. Instead, we will be transformed into another state.

Of course, we all know what various religions teach, but we cannot possibly gain access to firsthand experience of this future state. Not even those who have had near-death experiences can reliably tell us anything about that state because there are very plausible explanations for why people tend to see a white light, a tunnel and their loved ones or religious characters.

What I wanted to point out was that this inability to comprehend or perceive such a state is not without parallel. When we consider dimensions of greater than three, for example, we face a very similar mental difficulty because we have absolutely no firsthand experience of physical dimensions other than height, depth and width – three dimensions of space.

Sure we can chuck in time as a fourth dimension if we wish, but then we are stumped, at least in terms of being able to visualise such an existence. However, we do have the necessary language and ability to work conceptually with dimensions of space that are greater than three. Mathematics has absolutely no difficulty whatsoever coping with as many dimensions as we wish.

The way to understand the higher dimensions is perhaps a little counterintuitive. It is best to think about what life would be like if we were living in two dimensional space i.e. if height, for example, did not exist. You could imagine being, let’s say, a living square drawn on a piece of paper that had length and width, but no height. Yes, it takes a bit of thinking about and yes, I know that paper has thickness, but in principle, you can do it with a bit of effort.

If you can put yourself mentally into that flat landscape and think about what it would be like, you are then ready to take the next step. Imagine what it would look like if a three dimensional object – let’s say a cube – were to visit your flatland. What would you see, bearing in mind that you cannot perceive height because it doesn’t exist there? Hopefully, you will realise that you would perceive the cube as a square. Similarly, you would perceive a sphere as a circle if it were to intersect the plane of your flatland.

Taking it a step further, if the sphere were to drop into your flatland from the height dimension that you cannot perceive. You would first see, a spot, then a small circle getting larger as the sphere continued its downward journey. It would then begin to get smaller once the equator had dropped through the flat plane. Finally it would become a spot and then it would disappear.

With a bit of mental effort, you can see all of that can’t you? Now just imagine the difficulty you would have trying to explain the dimension of height to a fellow square living in flatland who has no knowledge or experience of that dimension whatsoever. You would have a very tough time of it. By the way, I take no credit for this wonderful analogy. They may be my words, but the idea comes from one of my favourite books, Flatland by Edwin Abbot.

Now returning to our subject, anyone who did have experience of the state we will all enter after death would have exactly the same difficulty explaining what that dimension was like to us Earth-bound creatures who have no ability to comprehend such a dimension of existence. But, if you can understand the foregoing, you can at least begin to appreciate the possibility of higher dimensions and physical states that exist outside of our realm of Earthly experience.

In addition, I believe our best chance of understanding why there may well be a conscious life after our physical death comes via similar reasoning i.e. by looking backwards. Some wise person once said that they would find it no more remarkable if they were to find themselves turning up in a new life than it was turning up in this one. I think that’s a very profound comment indeed.

So, going right back to what the big wave said to the little wave, “we are not waves really, we are all a part of the ocean.”

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