What’s it all about? Why are we here? Is what we call our life and our consciousness just an accident of nature?
The answers to these questions are likely unknowable in any scientific sense, but I am thinking about them more and more as my parents age. My mother in particular is having a tough time with heart disease right now. She has a hole in her heart that should be repaired. Open-heart surgery will require 4-6 weeks of recuperation, but the real problem is that pain medicine doesn’t work for her, so enduring all that agony for something that may not really extend her life makes doing nothing look like a viable alternative, even if the alternative is an earlier death. There is a chance that a more benign form of surgery might do the job. She will be evaluated for that within a few weeks. In any event she is 83 and the mortality statistics don’t favor her. She is the oldest surviving sibling in her family. Death is now a real possibility for her and I know it is very tough on her to face it. It is unnatural not to fear death, no matter how devout we call ourselves in the religion of our choice. I know she does.
I know I don’t want to think about my death either but here I am at mid life and I spend a lot more time than I would like obsessing over my eventual demise rather than enjoying the time I do have. Death is truly unavoidable so it makes all the sense in the world to suck the marrow of life out of each day given to us and to ignore our mortality. But most of us with IQs cannot do this. Our prefrontal cortex is too large. Some part of our consciousness is always seeing the clock ticking and fears the approach of death, which becomes less remote and more tangible as we age.
I would like to be like a devout Buddhist and always embrace the moment. When dealing with mortality, this is really the only philosophy that makes sense to me. I would like to embrace my mortality as some sort of gift, but so far I cannot find a way to feel that way.
I can understand that being immortal is probably not all it is cracked up to be. If nothing else a defined lifespan provides an appreciation for the temporal nature of everything we do and experience. I had such a moment last week at Yellowstone National Park when we stopped beside a pristine stream and put our naked, aching feet into the cool spring water. And yet as special as that was, on the hundredth, or thousandth repetition it would no longer be special, no matter how pure the stream nor how spectacular the scenery.
The argument that our life is accidental is a powerful one and one that I cannot dismiss. I want to believe I am here on this planet, in my body, on some sort of defined mission, but I don’t really have an inkling about what my mission is. The only thing I do know is that because my lifespan is limited I have an impetus to get up, move, and do the things I need or want to do. I can’t stay calm for long. Like a caged cheetah my life must continuously be in motion.
My aunt says that there is nothing to fear from death since it is painless. The only real pain associated with death is the fear that our consciousness is gone, i.e. we become extinct. If we knew for a fact that who we are would survive death, then death would be less a cause for acute anxiety and grief. But just as importantly it might change that which is within us that makes us change agents and forces us to evolve mentally.
The finiteness of life, therefore, is an evolutionary advantage to the species. In addition, if we are immortal creatures with souls, then it is a means by which we can evolve as spiritual creatures.
These are a lot of big ifs. If we truly have one life to live and there is no such thing as an afterlife then logically it makes sense to live a life of rampant selfishness. I have to wonder if this is what Hugh Hefner believes, because this is the lifestyle he chooses to lead. Most of the rest of us seem to get through life with the expectation that, even though many of us claim to be atheists, there just might well be something more after death for us.
I notice that my beliefs are changing with age. As a child growing up Catholic I had no reason to disbelieve what the Church and my parents taught me about sin, heaven and hell. As a rebellious teenager agnosticism offered a simple philosophical alternative: I sure didn’t know! Agnosticism wasn’t so much an answer as it was a shrugging of the shoulders and an admission that I viewed life as a scientist might: show me the proof! If you can’t show me the proof then I will dismiss your notions as fanciful at worst, and one possibility out of trillions at best.
In my thirties my outlook gradually changed, perhaps because I was aging, or perhaps because I was just doing a lot more reading. Books like “Life After Life” made me realize that the similarity in near death experiences was more than coincidental. At some point it became ridiculous to say, “Well, nearly everyone who undergoes oxygen starvation of the brain will see a bright tunnel and hear voices calling from the other side because it’s a genetically wired hallucination!” It failed the Occam’s Razor test. Now granted Occam’s Razor simply states that when given a number of solutions and none of them are provable, the simplest is the most likely to be correct. Occam’s Razor is in essence a philosophy saying you favor the simplest explanations when science fails. It could well be all our brains are hardwired that way. But this just doesn’t seem plausible to me since Occam’s Razor works so well in most circumstances. It’s a great general rule, but it is a general rule, not an absolute rule.
In my forties I lost a dear lady friend. As part of the grieving process I noticed a change in me. I knew she was dead and would not be coming back to life but I could not conceive of her personality vanishing altogether never to return. After a long time I started thinking about the laws of thermodynamics: we are told that matter and energy are essentially interchangeable and neither can ever really be destroyed, only changed. Was it really that implausible that the spirit of my friend still existed in some form somewhere? Was it ridiculous to assert that when I die my spirit will live on as a form of energy? Is death really nothing more than a transition of personality from one form of energy to another?
Water transforms into water vapor, which cannot be seen directly, yet is tangible enough. And what is a brain anyhow? It is not just brain matter, it is also the energy contained in the brain matter that is significant. A brain is a container, but for what? Who are we really? As a computer person, I already know the answer. We are really a complex form of software. That is not to say that we are programmed. The same input A will not always produce output B. But what is software? It is wholly virtual. It occupies no space and contains no matter. Yes, it resides somewhere, usually on magnetic medium. There is no difference in weight between a floppy disk that is unformatted and one with a program on it. And yet the latter is far more useful than the former. In both cases though to be useful this “software” must have a media on which to run. In reality software executes on a brain called a CPU, which through a nervous system we call a “bus” directs the feet, legs and hands of my computer, i.e. the display, the mouse, the keyboard, the modem, etc. Turn off the computer and the software is still there (in most cases) stored on magnetic media such as a hard disk. When electricity surges through the computer again the software becomes “alive” again too. In the medium of the human brain (our CPU) we become alive, at least to the extent that we can manipulate and control a human body. Our life might be the computer equivalent of telling the modem to send a message. Death might be nothing more than our CPU sending a different message to a different sort of entity.
Near death experiences suggest to me that it is more likely than not that our personalities survive death. I know this goes against conventional scientific reasoning and seems absurd, because the dead do not talk back to us. But perhaps the limitation is not the dead person’s, but the person who is still alive, who lacks the capacity to hear the departed on a new wavelength. (There are of course psychics who claim to have this ability. I haven’t had enough experience with them to have an opinion whether their abilities are genuine or snake oil.)
Our eyes can see only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Through mechanical means we can detect other forms of energy and utilize them to our advantage. Our minds by themselves are likely not very pliable and don’t seem to be able to pick up other forms of intelligence that fall outside the spectrum of our mind. It may well be that those intelligences that cannot be discerned by scientific means are what we call “spirits”.
A caveman is unlikely to understand a newspaper. We may be much like the caveman. We may not yet have the right stuff to see or appreciate the complexity of our universe in all its myriad details. Most likely our understanding of the way things are is extremely rudimentary. We most likely have the same understanding of the universe as an ant has of a human being.
It strikes me that it is not unreasonable to be skeptical of our own skepticism. We make vast leaps of faith to assume that science, as we know it today can provide a solid foundation for truly extrapolating that which we cannot know. As we continue to learn more about our universe, our understanding of it will continue to grow. Meanwhile, I have only my gut to go on. I cannot conceive of my dear friend not existing in any form. Maybe I am wearing a mental security blanket, maybe I am delusional, or maybe I am freeing myself from overly rigid science. The scientific method has its place but it is not a theology, it is a means to understand the physical world. That is the extent of its domain. She is out there. I often feel her presence from time to time in subtle ways. She is immortal. And I believe in some sense I am immortal too.