The idea of a soul, of a force within us which continues after our bodies have given up the fight and lie rotting in the grave, has been followed by some of the greatest minds known to man, since man began to consider the possibility of there being more than just life on this planet. It is, I believe, a discussion which will never end, and which will be accompanied by actions which cause more pain and bloodshed than relief and understanding. The question of whether there is a life, as we know it, after death cannot be answered, simply because there is no one – and I count all these myths and tales incorporated into established religions in this – who has come back from the other side, from an afterlife, from a land of milk and honey to give us the glad tidings. And, to be honest, if there is an afterlife where all is good and what was man can live in peace and harmony with all other life forms, why would any spirit wish to come back here anyway? They would already know that the news of an eternal life, in whatever form, would be accepted by a few, argued over by the multitude, and ignored by the rest while, taking their superiority for a given, some would begin the task of controlling this information, controlling those who wish to be considered for this mythical afterlife through the payment of earthly goods and riches. Far better, I believe, to let each individual follow their own heart, their own belief, than to have the definite knowledge of something on the other side.

Or, of course, of nothing on the other side: of a complete end to life as we know it when we die. This, I suspect, is what scares people more than anything else: they cannot come to terms with the idea that this life, here on Earth, might be all that there is; absolutely pointless, limited and then finished. We each look out at the world we see and appreciate it, and place ourselves within that world, often at the centre, and believe, to a certain extent, that the world revolves around us. How, then, to accept that there is nothing? How to accept that all our efforts to live a good and fulfilling life here will just be wiped out in a millisecond between existence and non-existence? Or, perhaps, thinking about it, if we knew that there is nothing else, would we be better people as a result? Would we accept that this is the only chance to help those less fortunate to us, to leave the world with a good memory of our brief time here, and work for the common good of all mankind? Eternal life, then, would be the memory of our existence in those we leave behind which, perhaps, has more value than anything else on offer.

And if there is an afterlife, with some form of god at the head, governing over everything through angels or whatever, why has that not convinced people to work for their salvation? Why have so many taken different routes, for what is essentially the same destination, and decided that all other paths to eternal life, to the kingdom of heaven, are false, and violence, oppression and force are the only ways to bring people to believe? If there is, then why do all these individuals not follow the teachings they have been offered, some of which they must have accepted, and work for that salvation, regardless of what other people believe? Surely the best good, the only way to ensure salvation of the soul, if that is what you believe in, is to ensure that the destination is right for all, regardless of the path they choose to tread.

It is very difficult to discuss, debate, or argue with anyone who follows a dogmatic religious belief, one which tells them exactly how they are to believe, and what they are to believe in regardless of what their heart and mind tells them. To say that something is not right because it does not match an article of faith is just as bad as saying something is not right because science has not proven it yet. There are countless things we do not yet know, do not yet understand, which cannot yet be explained by science, and cannot be matched up to any ideal of faith. Are all of these things wrong as a result? It is much easier to debate with someone who follows a belief without having it all written down, without having to follow a rigid code which tells them when to genuflect, when to use three fingers or two, what the symbols of an almighty god are. People who have faith without the dogma tend to be more open, more accessible, and far more likely to have thought about their belief than anyone else.

And the idea that established religion has moved more into line with society is, sadly, a myth. I just need to take a quick glance down a very long list of highly qualified theologians – Ute Ranke-Heinemann in Germany, for example – who have opened religion up for debate, and been punished as a result. I mention her because she is one who disagreed with the physical possibility of a part of the religious teaching she studied, but agreed with the mythical possibility and, as a result, was removed from her church-sponsored chair in the University of Essen in 1987. A few months later the university awarded her an equally position non-church chair to continue her teaching and studies. There are countless others, of course, and this was merely one example of how it can work out to the best, in the end, when someone, somewhere, has a little bit of sense! At least, as in earlier times, she and many others of later date, was not condemned to death for her beliefs and burned at the stake.

Spirituality is, of course, another matter entirely, so long as it remains that way. As soon as one person begins to write down what they believe in with the idea of converting others, it loses all value. Spirituality is individual belief, an individual path towards whatever is on the other side, be it a heaven, a god, a paradise or nothing at all. It works in a way which allows us to do the best we can for our own soul – if this form of spirituality accepts a soul; it could just as easily be a life force or some force without a name – and for other people without the need to drag them into our way of thinking, our way of living. If they decide to follow us of their own free will, if they care to learn what we believe and expand upon that belief for themselves voluntarily, that is another matter entirely.

And when there is no eternal life, conscious life, on the other side of this life as we know it? We, as in our particles and being if not our thoughts, memories and inner life, are an eternal part of what exists, as are all of our ancestors, every single living, animate or inanimate object that has ever existed. We quite literally return to that from which we came, to the Earth, and become, over millennia, a part of what follows. The future has us within it, in a physical sense, as we have the past within us. Which means there is a good chance we have something of the Neanderthals within is, perhaps even a touch of dinosaur.

Déjà vu is one of those things no one has been able to explain, although there have been many attempts. We happen to be somewhere, and all of a sudden everything happening seems as if it has happened before, or we know exactly what is going to happen next. It could be from a dream, or some other form of experience, or perhaps just something left over from a conversation, whatever. Some say that it is evidence of a higher power giving us a sign, others that we are living two lives in parallel universes at the same time, and we just crossed briefly between them. Perhaps, as in the original Matrix film, where the cat crosses an open doorway in an abandoned building twice in the same direction, we are being controlled from elsewhere, a great console in the sky, and there was a glitch or a reboot. Or perhaps it is that we take our dreams and sensibilities over specific situations – and I do mean the dreams we have at night – and they lead us on towards a set outcome in any give situation, which is why, when it happens, it is as if we have seen it all before. Our dream time, when we sleep, is the time when our brains keep on working and work through many different situations in our lives, imagined or real, with or without strangers, and sometimes give us solutions to our problems. Not for nothing the wise saying that we should sleep on a problem.

As to the question of whether Neanderthals were intelligent or not: I think they must have been in their own way, or they would not have survived long enough to be of note today. There were, back then, six different kinds of humanoid, with the Homo Sapiens being the survivor, if you will, and the other five either disappearing or being integrated. Sadly I cannot comment more on this wonderful subject at the moment, as it has always been just outside of my interest range. However, now that I have finished working on the history of the Silk Road, am coming to the end of a course on Shakespeare’s Shylock and beginning to work my way through a new period of emotional discovery, I have a little time on my hands and, luckily, the two books by Yuval Noah Harari come at exactly the right time. The first is called Sapiens and apparently covers the six different humanoid life forms from which we are descended, and the second, which has already been delivered but I cannot read because the first is not yet here, is Homo Deus, an exploration of the future. Delivery date is next week (which will probably be last week by the time you read this, even last year!), and by then I hope to have completed my Shakespeare course, read up on A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind and be open for new experiences.

Life is only a lie if you only follow what other people tell you, do not question what you see, and do not look to see what you can question. If you follow one set path, mapped out for you at birth, without deviation, then you have lost. Then you have wasted your time on this planet. That is my firm belief, and one I have held since before I left school which, as you can imagine, brought me many problems with the school authorities in my last years there. I began questioning the teachings we were given at the age of fourteen when, one summer, I disappeared from home for a fortnight and explored Paris. I was meant to be on a walking tour, from one youth hostel to another, somewhere in the north of England, so no one missed me. Instead I caught a ferry, travelled on a train, and walked the streets of Paris for a while, before having a most enjoyable time with a slightly older woman. In our defence I have to say that I looked much older than my years then, and certainly did not let her know that I was underage.

Regardless: this fortnight opened my eyes to many things which were other than what I (we) had been taught, and impressed the need, as much as the delight, in me to always question, to look and to learn for myself. And, above all, not to take one person’s opinion or experiences as being exact and correct, but to form my own through my own experiences, or through the opinions of many divergent sources, even those I know I will not agree with. When you can find people who will discuss, who are not necessarily going to change their own opinion, but are prepared to talk to you about your thoughts and beliefs without criticism, without trying to convert, then you have the right friends. And, it goes without saying, you should also be such a person: how else can we learn but by listening to all sides of an argument?