One simple way of reinstating an absolute form of morality (as opposed to a relative, risk-reward kind) is to postulate continuity beyond death. The notion of a “soul,” as proposed in almost all religions, serves this purpose. Soul is also the substantive (albeit ethereal) representation of the otherwise elusive consciousness of ours, which is an entity that has no right to exist or be real because it fails all possible tests for real existence, yet is supremely real to each one of us. In fact, consciousness is more than real, it is the arena in which our reality plays out its act. It is so fundamental to our experience and existence that we have a hard time accepting its ephemerality.
I, for one, believe logically that when I die, everything I will have known and experienced till then will just disappear. I believe that death is like an eternal dreamless sleep. Logically. But logic has very little to do with what I can feel and accept, emotionally. I don’t like to drag in the concept of “emotion” here; I am thinking of what I can accept at a gut-level. “Primally” would perhaps be a better word to use, but I am not sure. Any way, once we have conscious awareness, and develop a sense of temporal continuity about things and experiences around us, we cannot help assigning continuity to the backdrop of it all — our consciousness. Continuity of selfhood is encoded into our mind. Primally — yes, that would be the right word.
Logic and rationality, which come after the primal plumbing of the mind, consciousness, selfhood etc. (which may all ultimately mean the same thing) is already in place, can influence our thinking only to a limited extent. Mind grasps at anything that offers a semblance of eternal continuity. Enter religions.
All conventional religions have some notion of a “soul,” which comes in different forms and with a multitude of meanings and contexts, although, logically, it can only mean our consciousness, or an entity holding our consciousness and pretty much nothing else. Thanks to our primal need to search and find continuity, we readily buy into whatever notion of soul our parents’ religion happens to uphold, ignoring the gaping holes in logic associated with it. From the perspective of religions (speaking of religions as organizational entities with intentions and purposes), the notion of continuity implied in the concept of a soul has a great benefit — it completely alters the risk-reward analysis at the root of morality. And it takes out death (or at least, greatly diminishes its significance) in the analysis. For death is only the beginning, as the horror-comedy taught us.
If the wages of sin are eternal third-degree burns, not some material comfort followed by thirty-to-life in a federal facility till death sets you free, you do think twice before doing the crime. The “time” that you may have to do could well be an eternity. Other religions offer other kinds of divine carrots and sticks. For instance, if you are a Hindu engaged in a particularly unsavory Karma, you will reincarnate as somebody (or something) on the receiving end of the stick, roughly neutralizing your risk-reward equation. On the other hand, if you are willing to take it on your chin with some amount of fortitude, you will be upgraded to business class in your next life.
In all notions of spiritual continuity of consciousness, and/or soul, there is something I find logically wanting. It is the lack of continuity of memory. Death is still a point of phase transition where all the existing memory is erased. If we think of soul as the eternal manifestation of mind and consciousness, erasing its memory is as good or as bad as killing it, is it not?
What I find interesting in this Hindu notion is that the ultimate reward for presumably the best possible Karma is not an eternal life of comfort in heaven, but a release from the cycle of reincarnations, which, in my view, is similar to an eternal dreamless sleep — which is the only logical notion of death we can scientifically entertain. So, in the Hindu notion of the reward for ultimate good is, in some sense, the ultimate death. Makes me wonder…