Only days before he died, Abraham Lincoln had a dream that seemingly foretold his own assassination. In his dream, he was upstairs in the White House when he heard subdued sobbing and “mournful sounds of distress” coming from downstairs. He made his way to the East Room, where he found a body lying in state, its face covered, with soldiers and a throng of mourners gathered around. "Who is dead in the White House?" Lincoln asked one of the soldiers. "The president," the soldier replied. ”He was killed by an assassin.”
Lincoln’s dream illustrates a point Sigmund Freud once made when he said that we can’t really imagine our own deaths. Sure, we can picture ourselves being dead, as Lincoln apparently did; however, his dream-self remained as a spectator to witness his own lying in state. Presumably if you are truly dead, there would be no hanging around afterward to witness the funeral proceedings. Freud, of course, was an atheist, and he didn’t believe there would be any hanging around anywhere, either in this world or in the next. You can’t imagine your own death because there is no way to picture total oblivion. Once you have faded to black, there shouldn’t even be any blackness.
Human beings come equipped with a higher cognitive faculty called “counterfactual thinking” that enables us to imagine things that don’t tangibly exist. For example, you are engaged in counterfactual thinking when you set your alarm before going to bed at night, knowing that you will have to get up and go to work the next morning. Your actions are determined not by what is happening right now but by what will be happening eight hours from now. Similarly, Wilbur and Orville Wright could picture themselves flying, even though they weren’t born with feathers and wings. Counterfactual thinking is why human beings can imagine different lives for themselves from their ancestors, whereas animals never can.
There are limits to counterfactual thinking, which is why we have so much difficulty imaging anything before the beginning or after our end. According to the biblical creation story, in the beginning “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” We can sort of picture that, but what about before that? What was there — or not there, as the case may be? Modern cosmologists say the whole universe began with a bang — a Big Bang — and before that there was nothing, not even time or space. How do you picture that?
Our ability to imagine the end of everything is less an issue than our own personal demise, which has some of the same limitations as trying to picture what went on before the beginning. When we no longer exist in this world, there is nothing for us, not even time and space. This means our powers of imagination no longer have anything to act upon. However, as long as we are still breathing and are still capable of counterfactual thinking, our imaginations will create something out of nothing — if not in this world, then in the next.
Virtually every human culture seems to have conjured up a place where people go after they die. Archeological excavations of Neanderthal gravesites dating back more than 70,000 years have found them to contain food, weapons and personal belongings, as if their occupants had been equipped for a journey. Similar artifacts have been found in prehistoric gravesites of our own ancestors. There were as yet no written records of their religious beliefs, but the archeological evidence suggests they did not regard death as the end.
The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe shared Freud’s view that one’s own death is literally unimaginable. However, from this starting point, Goethe concluded that we are destined for immortality. “It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life,” he is quoted as saying. “In this sense, everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.” Either that or he has merely reached the limits of imagination. Is it not in the nature of being to be, so why should we be surprised if we find it unthinkable to imagine that we are not?
Freudians might dismiss our intimations of immortality as nothing more than the ego throwing up defenses against its own extinction. The trouble is that nobody with firsthand experience of the next world is here to talk about it, assuming there is one. Of course, plenty of people from every culture claim to have had near-death experiences. But their descriptions of the next world tend to align with their previously held religious beliefs. My own view is that life is eternal, but I am less certain that the self survives death. I have no more direct experience of the next world than anyone else who is still breathing, not even a near-death experience. I am mindful of an exchange Henry Thoreau had with a Unitarian minister friend when Thoreau was dying of tuberculosis. “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you,” his friend told him. Thoreau curtly replied, “One world at a time.”