If I can only take my knowledge with me, then can I take Google?

Normally, I’m not one for speculating about the afterlife. Clearly, how we think about it informs the decisions we make here – in fact, what we think about the afterlife most likely reflects what principles we most value – but I often find discussions about it a little futile. However, I find one phrase frequently repeated and agreed upon: “You can’t take your property with you, only your knowledge and talents.”

On the face of things, this statement seems straightforward. But, I feel that we increasingly live in an age in which the line between my knowledge, not to mention my very human identity, and the objects I own or the systems I function within is blurry. For example, I outsource a lot of my memory to my computer, just as my husband does to his Palm Pilot. Rather than teaching my students to memorize facts, I teach them the process through which they can research information. Or, interestingly, conversations with friends about my last blog post revealed that while many of us expect our pets in heaven, we are not so sure about wild, un-charismatic animals (despite the fact that 90% of the cells in our bodies are bacteria). In other words, we expect in heaven those things we have made extensions of ourselves and thus part human.

Rather than filling myself with facts and memories, I tend to function more like a search engine that knows how to retrieve facts that I have stored in other places. This point might seem a bit simplistic, but the technologies that we live with fundamentally change how we process and conceive of knowledge. Consequently, it seems to me worth speculating about what conception of knowledge the idea of an afterlife might demand. Could it be that one reason we place so much emphasis on redeeming everyone is that we would need the entire network of people on the earth to really be able to transport our knowledge to a hereafter? And, would our “knowledge” equip us to function in whatever world we expect?


  1. Natalie, I can’t pretend to understand knowledge in the afterlife, but what works for me is to view it much like the statement in Alma 34:34 (found quickly online at lds.org) that says, “that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.” I also look at the parable of the talents.

    I view it as the condition of your mind and spirit being of utmost importance. Did you do all you could to understand and live all you could – regardless of what that means in practical terms to different people? I don’t see it as saying that I will be rewarded more than my father simply because I have studied things he hasn’t. Rather, I see it as saying that He will take our sincere efforts to learn all that we can and magnify them to provide, at some point in the eternities, whatever “training” and further knowledge we need in that phase of our existence – just as He promises to do in this one.

  2. Perhaps a slightly different take on the same conception makes better sense for a society with today’s technology. I happened to read this yesterday:

    “You are going to die; and when you do, you will take nothing with you but your state of mind.”

    (from No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Boddhisatva, by Pema Chodron, p. 43, Shambhala Press: Boston, 2005, quoting the Sixteenth Karmapa)

  3. This post makes me laugh because I was just thinking along the same lines a few days prior. When I read a book I always underline important/interesting facts or well written sentences. So when I know I need to discuss something I just pull the book off the shelf read what’s highlighted and I’m prepped for a good conversation about it.

    Problem is that after a few weeks I forget most of what I read and only remember big broad ideas. So I jokingly thought, “when I die I’d better take my books with me.”

    But I don’t really see this a reason for saving everyone. If it were true then we’d really only need to save the rainman’s and prominent leaders of their field. Or it would be a much better ROI to have a heavenly version of Google.

    Perhaps I’m being too literal but I’ve always taken it that we’d want to redeem everyone because of love and charity and less out of necessity. And the knowledge thing is important is that we’re placed here to better ourselves. But one can’t help but wonder what good is knowing the court practices of twelth-century china will do me in heaven.

  4. On a related note, a quote from a blog I once read

    “Knowledge is declining as well. Nobody needs to remember anything because they can Google it. Heck, even my references for this article were Googled.”

  5. Just think of Google as your Urim and Thummim. Wait a minute, a Urim and Thummim is actually cooler!!

  6. Interesting. I think that there is need for both (and it would seem that Urim and Thummim lore appears technological or Google-like). As a chemist, I don’t need to memorize the various bond energies or boiling points of all possible compounds. That is what indices are for. However, I do need to understand, fundamentally, how atoms behave and interact generally. For example, I knew, long before my experiments demonstrated it, that that a certain reaction should work. It was only after the fact that I looked up the encyclopedic details. Even if the experiment didn’t work, I would have learned something about the system.

    This pattern has seemed applicable in many fields.

  7. Mark IV says:

    Great post, Natalie.

    As far as Google after death, I think we need to make some further distinctions. If I find myself using Google in Internet Explorer or Windows, I’ll know I’m in hell.

  8. Elouise says:

    What about the idea that the Universe is a hologram, and that all light and knowledge is available in every least particle of that Universal hologram, which of course includes us?
    And the corollary that events which we call astonishing intuition or amazing precognition, etc.,are momentary accessing of information (past, present or future, as we use the words) which is actually stored in the every fiber of all that is. In other words, Google is us.

    I lack the scientific acumen for discussing this concept in a meaningful way, but two books have been useful to me on this topic: The Holographic Universe, by Michael Talbot, and The Holotropic Mind, by Grof & Bennett. And D&C 88, of course.

  9. Larry Page says:

    Folks – I’ve had my calling and election made sure. Trust me when I say that judgmentday.google.com is already in Beta.

  10. Sergey Brin says:

    Larry – you nitwit! The lawyers said not to tell anyone that! We’re only in Alpha – *CHINA* is in Beta…

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Fascinating thought, Natalie. I think of myself as reasonably smart, but upon reflecting on your post, I realize that a big part of that is simply being adept at accessing information. I don’t really keep it all in my head.

    I had never thought about that in this connection before; very thought provoking.

  12. I have always been taught that we only use 3% of our brains as it is. Who knows what we will be like if we use all 100%. Perhaps google will be superfluous at that point?

  13. Well said, Carl. Anyone else see an interesting correlation between wireless technology and this discussion – especially when you look at how our grandparents would have talked about knowledge and accessing information when they were our age?

  14. I’ve wondered at times about our current computer technology and the Adamic language. I’ve imagined that we will learn to use our minds to get information from a system much greater than the technology we now have.
    (Were computers created spiritually before they were created physically?)

    I have had experiences at times where I was spiritually taught and comforted. I didn’t have to speak words out loud. I would have a thought and I would receive an answer. I have even had a thought, wondered why I would have such a thought and in a short time needed the information that I had received. These were at times where I was seeking spiritual strength to get through challenges with family members. Times when I needed the knowledge and comfort.

    We have available to us all the knowledge that our Heavenly Father has if we learn to use our spiritual technology…line upon line.

  15. Mark IV says:

    I remain intrigued by your suggestion of our need for one another’s knowledge as a justification for our connectedness.

    On this very site, I have seen someone pose a question about some arcane bit of trivia. Within an hour or so, answers begin to appear which are, to me, astonishing in their depth and insight, and often with footnotes and documentation. This is all just a way of saying that the heavenly version of Google is probably named Justin Butterfield.

    Perhaps if Paul were writing today, he would not describe us as different members of the same body which all have need one of another, but rather as a vast peer to peer network, like a celestial Napster. Except if it’s celestial, it would be free.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, the interconnectedness idea is an interesting one. Eliott Butler wrote an essay published in BYU Studies once entitled something like “We’re All Ignorant, Just in Different Subjects.” So maybe we really do need each other in the hereafter to maintain the web of knowledge.

  17. Mark IV says:

    I wonder if it will be anything like the Vulcan mind meld.

  18. Natalie says:

    I was just thinking that another aspect of our knowledge formation that intrigues me in our current era is the increasing irrelevance of the knowledge that we gain from our past, especially the knowledge we gain from our elders. Of course, there are some moral notions we pass down that are still very important today, but we now live in a time in which the rate of change is so rapid that knowledge goes out of date very quickly. We generally don’t learn our father’s trade, and even if we do, the job demands are different. Generation gaps are so much more significant now.

  19. I think of the knowledge for the afterlife emphasis in early Mormonism more as an expression of metaphysics/perfectionism than of accumulated data (which is so hopelessly consumerist). In that sense it is the “enlightenment” that travels with you, not the facts, which can be left with something like google. I’m aware that later Mormons and Mormon authorities have taken the consumerist approach to knowledge, but this is a case where I think the original approach makes more sense.

  20. Some people have a hard time believing that God knows everything. If there is an infinite universe and he has presumably finite physical brain, how can he hold it all in there?

    I don’t believe that he does. I suspect that he has a mechanism we don’t yet comprehend where he can look up (or “Google” as Ronito says) the information any time he needs it. This allows him to “know” everything without actually keeping it in his head at any moment. This celestial lookup seems to solve a lot of the problems entailed in dealing with infinities.

  21. (re #21, I really can’t be trusted with a mouse that seems to click on its own.)

    In response to Bradley Ross (#20), the line of thought that you articulate is one that suggests to me that if God exists within time and space, there is a yet greater ordinate than that God: the fabric of existence that composes God. Isn’t it only that fabric alone that comprehends all that it is?

  22. So which one of you is Keanu Reeves and which one is Lawrence Fishburn? :-)

  23. Carl (#12) the opinion that used to be a factoid that people only use a small percentage of their brains actually meant scientists didn’t know what the rest was for. Since they had no idea how the brain worked at all, that wasn’t surprising. Now the consensus seems to be that it’s all useful to us, we just don’t know in great detail how we’re using it, and how the system as a whole works. We are learning more all the time, and it’s amazing the details we know in certain areas like the visual cortex. But that particular factoid doesn’t have currency nowadays. :) Whether that’s because it’s actually untrue is not certain, but it does stand to reason that we wouldn’t maintain large amounts of metabolically expensive organ tissue unless it was good for something. Evolution would tend to favor those who had less.

    As for the topic in general, I hope Wikipedia is part of what we get to take with us! Google without wikipedia would be a far poorer thing than it is. =)

  24. Greenfrog: I wouldn’t argue that the “fabric…comprehends all that is” any more than I would argue that the internet “comprehends” anything. I’m just arguing (very speculatively) that there is a heavenly telescope through which God can peer to comprehend events at any distance through time and space. The telescope is just a tool in the hands of an omnipotent being that grants him omniscience.

    Natalie’s original question about WHERE the knowledge is stored is a very interesting one; I think her theory might have merit. I’m trying (in my fumbling way) to make a related argument that I think acts as a supporting corollary to her argument.

  25. Mariano MARINI says:

    Sorry in advance for my bad english (I’m italian).
    ‘Where the knowledge is stored’?
    Well, we can say that it’s stored in our spirit as the material event are stored in material body.
    Let me try to explain better.
    Let looks at the material world. If I crash with my car against a wall, that event is stored in the contorted body sheet of my car.
    In the same way, I thought, knowledge structure my spirit.
    It’s funny to note that we can erase some knowledge in the same way we can do it with car (repairing).
    I give different meaning to the words ‘remember’ and ‘know’ and you?

  26. Thank you, Mariano. That is a very interesting way to express it.