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Can we assume that individual consciousness continues after death?


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C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters (Bollingen Series XCVII)

QUESTION 4: Since our consciousness is one of the contents of the self, can we assume that individual consciousness continues after death? Do you know any modern dream material which would corroborate such an assumption?

Does the concept of eternal life mean the preservation of individual consciousness, or that the human soul enters into other forms and configurations, thereby losing its individuality?

Carl Jung: You realize that this is very difficult to answer. To put it briefly, it’s a question of conscious immortality. This is a question our Lord Buddha was asked twice.

For his disciples it was naturally a matter of great concern whether the karma that passes from one genera- tion to another by metempsychosis is personal, and represents a personal continuity, or whether it is impersonal.

In the latter case it’s as though there were an unconscious karma suspended somewhere, which is seized upon in the act of birth and is reincarnated with no awareness of any personal continuity.

That is one aspect.

The other aspect is that this karma is by nature, conscious, having a subjective consciousness, and when this is reincarnated it becomes potentially possible to remember one’s previous births because of this karma’s transcen- dent self-awareness.

Both times Buddha evaded the question, he didn’t go into it, although he himself asserted that he was aware of his previous births, about 560 incarnations in all conceivable forms, plant, animal, and human.

So you see that in those times, when people were not exactly sparing with metaphysical assertions, there being as yet no theory of knowledge, Buddha rejected this question as useless.

He thought it much more useful to meditate on the nidana chain, the chain of cause and effect, consisting of old age, sickness, and death, than to speculate about immortality.

And in a sense such speculation is sterile, because we are never in a position to adduce any valid proofs in this respect.

If we could eventually adduce any proof it would be of a man, say, appearing as a ghost one year or two years or ten years or maybe even twenty years after his death.

But we still cannot prove that this ghost is identical with this dead man.

There is thus no possibility whatever of furnishing proofs, because even if the ghost of a dead man were to reveal something that only he had known in his lifetime and no one else—and there are such cases, well authenticated cases—the question would still remain as to how that was related to the absolute knowledge of the unconscious.

The unconscious has a kind of absolute knowledge, but we cannot prove it is an absolute knowledge, because the Absolute, the Eternal, is transcendental.

It is something we cannot grasp at all, for we are not yet eternal and consequently can say nothing whatever about eternity, our consciousness being what it is.

These are transcendental speculations, which may be so or may not be so.

Hence for epistemological reasons it is absolutely impossible to make out anything with certainty in this mat- ter.

On the other hand, the question of immortality is so urgent, of such immediacy, that one ought nevertheless to give some kind of answer.

So I say to myself, Well then, if I am up against a question I cannot answer and yet ought to answer for the peace of my soul, for my own well-being, I can be so disquieted by this question that an answer is
absolutely imperative.

At any rate I ought to try to form an opinion about it with the help of the unconscious, and the unconscious then obliges and produces dreams which point to a continuation of life after death.

There is no doubt of that, I have seen many examples of this kind.

Now of course you can say these are only fantasies, compensating fantasies which we cannot hinder, which are rooted in our nature—all life desires eternity—but they are far from being a proof.

On the other hand, we must tell ourselves that though this argument is all right as far as it goes, we have irrefutable evidence that at least parts of our psyche are not subject to the laws of space and time, otherwise perceptions outside space and time would be altogether impossible— yet they exist, they happen.

All cases of telepathic clairvoyance, predictions of the future—they exist.

I have been able to verify this from countless experiences, not to mention Rhine’s experiments, which can’t be refuted unless you stand the whole theory of probability on its head.

This has actually been proposed, a whole new probability theory should be invented, though how this could be done without violations of logic is completely beyond me.

At any rate we have at present no means of contesting Rhine’s results, quite apart from the numerous instances of prediction, nonspatial perception, and the like.

This offers the clearest and most incontrovertible proof that our conceptions of space and time, as seen from the causal, rationalistic standpoint, are incomplete.

To get a complete picture of the world we would have to add another dimension, or we could never explain the totality of the phenomena in a unified way.

That is why rationalists maintain through thick and thin that no such experiences as clairvoyance and the like exist, because the rationalistic view of the world stands or falls with the reality of these phenomena.

But if they do exist, our rationalistic view of the world is untenable.

You know that in modern physics the possibility that the universe has several dimensions is no longer denied.

We must reckon with the fact that this empirical world is in a sense appearance, that is to say it is related to another order of things below it or behind it, where “here” and “there” do not exist; where there is no extension in space, which means that space doesn’t exist, and no extension in time, which means that time doesn’t exist.

There are experiences where space is reduced by 20 per cent, or time by 90 per cent, so that the time con- cept is only ro per cent valid.

If that is so—and I see no possibility of disputing it—we must face the fact that something of our psychic existence is outside space and time, that is, beyond changeability, or one could also say, changeable only in infinite spaces of time.

These are ideas which for us are logical deductions, but are commonly held views in India. For instance, if you read the Buddha stories in the [Pali Canon], you will find many examples.

Here is one: When the Buddha was dwelling in the grove he suddenly heard that one of the highest Brahma gods had a wrong thought.

He at once betook himself to the highest Brahma world and found the Brahma god in a fort—actually the palace of the Rajah or the Maharajah—and in the spacious paradisal gardens of this fort, set on a high peak of the Himalayas, the Brahma god was enjoying himself with his court ladies.

They had climbed up a tree and were throwing flowers and fruit down and he found it delightful and said to the Buddha, This spectacle you see, this joy and this pleasure, will endure forever because I am immortal.

Then said the Buddha, There you make your mistake.

Your life will endure for kalpas, for cosmic ages, but sometime it will come to an end. The Brahma god wouldn’t believe it.

At this moment there was suddenly absolute silence.

No flowers and no fruit fell down any more, the laughter of the court ladies froze, and the Brahma god was very astonished and said, What’s up?

Then said the Buddha, At this very moment the karma of your court ladies is extinguished and they are no more—and so it will fare with you.

Then the Brahma god was converted to the Lord Buddha and vowed him true discipleship. That is the story. Life may endure for an infinity of kalpas but it is not eternal.

Of course that doesn’t bother us much.

But it does show that in India there was a realization of the relativity of time.

It is an intuition, naturally evolved and become second nature, of what is probably the actual state of our world.

We see a world of consciousness from which we can’t really draw any conclusions, but then we know from experience that there is a background which is absolutely necessary, otherwise we couldn’t explain the phenomena of this world.

In consequence, we are unable to explain a prediction of the future or a spatial extrasensory perception in terms of special radar facilities, for even the finest radar cannot predict an event taking place a fortnight hence.

We always use this radar comparison to explain seeing at a distance in space, but you get nowhere with it in explaining seeing at a distance in time.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Some years ago you once talked about the physicist’s concept of the time quantum, according to which there is not time in between two time quanta, so that what appears between them is a kind of timelessness. Would you elaborate on this?

Dr. Jung: That is really beside the point, it is only an analogy for making comprehensible how timelessness must be implicit in the time concept, as is necessary for logical reasons.

When you say “high” you also mean “low” without saying so.

When we speak of time we must also have the concept of nontime.

Just as we have the quantum concept in energy, so also, since time is a phenomenon of energy, we can speak [without any difference of a succession of such [time quanta], that is, of these gaps then produced.

The quantum theory is a theory of the discontinuity of events, and that is why Einstein tried to bridge over

the gaps.

It was a thorn in his eye that discontinuities exist; the perfect world-creator cannot afford discontinuities, everything should be rational, but it just isn’t.

We are not in a position to prove that anything of us is necessarily preserved for eternity. But we can assume with great probability that something of our psyche goes on existing. Whether this part is in itself conscious, we don’t know either.

There is also the consideration, based on experience, that any split-off part of the psyche, if it can manifest it- self at all, always does so in the form of a personality, as though it possessed a consciousness of itself.

That is why the voices heard by the insane are personal.

All split-off complexes speak in personal form whenever they express themselves.

You can, if you like, or if you feel the need, take this as an argument in favor of a continuity of consciousness.

In general one could say that since consciousness is an important psychic phenomenon, why shouldn’t it be just that part of the psyche which is not affected by space and time?

In other words, it goes on existing relatively outside space and time, which would by no means be a proof of immortality but rather of an existence for an indefinite time after or beyond death.

In support of this psychological hypothesis you can also adduce the experiential fact that in conditions which by all medical standards are profoundly unconscious, resulting from cerebral anemia or shock, the most complicated dreams can occur, presupposing a high degree of conscious activity as well as the presence of an individual con- sciousness, despite the fact that for sound commonsense any psychic activity is no longer possible.

So if I fall into an absolute coma and am totally unconscious of my coma, it is possible for a big dream to take place in this coma.

Well, who is doing that, and where?

It is explained that because of the lack of blood the brain is incapable of sustaining consciousness. But how then does it sustain a dream in which an individual consciousness is present?

Two German physiologists have published a very interesting work on subjective levitation phenomena follow- ing brain injuries.

Such cases have been observed fairly often, though these things are rather rare. For instance, a soldier is shot in the head in combat and lies there as if dead.

But, in his subjective consciousness, he rises up in the air in the position in which he is lying.

The noise of battle is completely extinguished, he sees the whole terrain, he sees the other people, but it is

all utterly soundless and still; then he hears his name, a comrade is calling to him and he comes to himself and is now really a wounded man.

But up to that point he is in a state of levitation, he is as though lifted out of this world, yet though it continues to exist and he has some perception of it, it no longer affects him.

By any human standard such a person is profoundly unconscious.

But in his unconsciousness he undergoes a subjective experience which is simply psychic, and which can be placed on entirely the same footing as consciousness.

It is observations like these that have to be considered here.

The concept of immortality tells us nothing about the related idea of rebirth or metempsychosis. Here again we have to depend on dreams that give us a few hints.

But it is worth bearing in mind that a highly civilized continent like India—that is, highly civilized in its spiritual culture—is absolutely convinced of the transmigration of souls, and that reincarnation is regarded as self-evident.

This is as much taken for granted as our assumption that God created the world or that some kind of spiritus rector exists—that would be a fitting comparison.

Educated Indians know that we don’t think as they do, but that doesn’t bother them in the least; they simply find it stupid that we don’t think that way.

When I was in India, a doctor gave me a whole dossier about a child of four, a little girl who remembered her previous life.

She had been reborn a few years after her death and knew what her name was previously, her husband’s name, what children she had and where she lived.

So when she was four years old—in India children are very precocious—her father went with her to that dis- tant city and let himself be shown round by the child.

She led him to her house, where she had been the mother, where her children still were, where her husband was, and she recognized everybody, even the grandmother—an Indian household always has a grandmother on top—she knew them all and was then accepted as the previous wife.

I have never heard of such a thing in Europe.

Certainly there are many people among us today who believe in reincarnation.

Maybe it is simply a sign of our [. . .] and barbarism that we don’t think like that and are only just beginning to take such thoughts seriously.

But in India, whose civilization is so much older than ours and where there is also a much greater inner cul- ture, these ideas were arrived at very early and the Indians have never got out of them.

They took them over from the age of primitives, for practically all primitives believe that there is a continuity

within the tribe.

Hence the amusing [custom] of certain Eskimos who put one of the grandfather’s lice on the head of the grandchild, so that the soul substance of the grandfather shall be passed on to him.

So you see, the matter is a bit complicated, but I hope you have understood what I mean.

[Two members of the audience then relate examples of the transmigration of souls.]

Individual instances like this certainly do exist but they are very uncommon.

There is also an interesting story that allegedly happened in England.

A house began to be haunted and the whole household was terribly frightened of the ghost.

Now there was a society lady who had no connection with this house but had longed for years to own a certain house which she claimed was hers.

She searched everywhere to find something answering to this description, saying she would buy it. Then she suddenly hit on this house, which was up for sale because it was haunted.

And when she came the housekeeper opened the door and ran off with a shriek, and it turned out that she herself was the ghost who had been haunting the house for a long time because she had seen it in her imagination.

So she got her house, or so the story goes.

But—si non e vero! Carl Jung, C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, Pages 375-391.