The question of what happens to all that we have learned and experienced when we die depends upon what consciousness is and how it functions. And science knows essentially nothing about consciousness. As Nick Herbert provocatively said,
Science’s biggest mystery is the nature of consciousness. It is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness; we simply have no such theories at all. About all that we know about consciousness is that has something to do with the head, rather than the foot.
I like to describe there being two main models of consciousness: the “computer model” and the “radio model”. In the computer model, the brain is a essentially a computer made of meat which runs complex software which has, somehow (about which we have no idea) become self-aware and able to introspect and model its own operation and behaviour. Like any computer, when it is physically destroyed, it ceases to operate and loses all of the information it has stored.
In the “radio model” the brain is a sense organ which receives a consciousness field that exists outside itself, just as a radio picks up waves from the electromagnetic field. If you look inside a radio, there are not tiny little musicians, but rather just circuits sensitive to fluctuations in this external field. If the radio is destroyed, the field is unaffected, information in it is preserved, and others can pick it up.
Since we live in an age in which computers are the hot technology, we tend to model everything as a computer and dismiss other models, but I think it’s safe to say as many, if not more people over history and maybe today believe the radio model is more accurate.
As I wrote in my review of Roger Nelson’s Connected:
Over millennia, many esoteric traditions have held that “all is one”—that all humans and, in some systems of belief, all living things or all of nature are connected in some way and can interact in ways other than physical (ultimately mediated by the electromagnetic force). A common aspect of these philosophies and religions is that individual consciousness is independent of the physical being and may in some way be part of a larger, shared consciousness which we may be able to access through techniques such as meditation and prayer. In this view, consciousness may be thought of as a kind of “field” with the brain acting as a receiver in the same sense that a radio is a receiver of structured information transmitted via the electromagnetic field. Belief in reincarnation, for example, is often based upon the view that death of the brain (the receiver) does not destroy the coherent information in the consciousness field which may later be instantiated in another living brain which may, under some circumstances, access memories and information from previous hosts.
Such beliefs have been common over much of human history and in a wide variety of very diverse cultures around the globe, but in recent centuries these beliefs have been displaced by the view of mechanistic, reductionist science, which argues that the brain is just a kind of (phenomenally complicated) biological computer and that consciousness can be thought of as an emergent phenomenon which arises when the brain computer’s software becomes sufficiently complex to be able to examine its own operation. From this perspective, consciousness is confined within the brain, cannot affect the outside world or the consciousness of others except by physical interactions initiated by motor neurons, and perceives the world only through sensory neurons. There is no “consciousness field”, and individual consciousness dies when the brain does.
But while this view is more in tune with the scientific outlook which spawned the technological revolution that has transformed the world and continues to accelerate, it has, so far, made essentially zero progress in understanding consciousness. Although we have built electronic computers which can perform mathematical calculations trillions of times faster than the human brain, and are on track to equal the storage capacity of that brain some time in the next decade or so, we still don’t have the slightest idea how to program a computer to be conscious: to be self-aware and act out of a sense of free will (if free will, however defined, actually exists). So, if we adopt a properly scientific and sceptical view, we must conclude that the jury is still out on the question of consciousness. If we don’t understand enough about it to program it into a computer, then we can’t be entirely confident that it is something we could program into a computer, or that it is just some kind of software running on our brain-computer.
I don’t think we know enough about consciousness at this point to begin to say what it is or how it functions, and therefore whether or not it may, in some fashion, outlive the brain with which it is associated.