Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why we can't imagine death

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
— Carl Sagan, "In the Valley of the Shadow," Parade, March 10, 1996

gravestoneI think about death almost every day. I remember once as a small child, I asked my grandmother why they buried people in the ground after they died. "If you're under the ground," I asked, "how do you breathe?" She told me that people no longer breathe after they die, and I was dumbfounded. The idea just made no sense. I'd never experienced not breathing. How would it be possible to not breathe, forever? If dead people stopped breathing, they would... well, die! It seemed absurd to me then, and it seems absurd to me now. And yet it is literally the most natural thing in the world. Death is something that happens to all of us, yet it is completely outside our experience. What a paradox!

I came across this Scientific American article a little while ago, and it really articulated this phenomenon well, complete with scientific studies to support the idea that all of us tend to perceive our own consciousness as persisting beyond death, even if we believe otherwise. The article is well worth reading.

There were two specific ideas that particularly resonated with me. The first is that our own immortality is unfalsifiable from a first-person perspective. In other words, if I believe myself to be immortal, no experience of mine will ever disprove this to me. I'm reminded of the wise words of Stephen Wright, who said, "I intend to live forever. So far, so good." I cannot experience my own non-existence. It's simply not possible. And yet, as Shaun Nichols is quoted in the article, "When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there's an obstacle!"

The second thing that struck me was the idea that even those who do not believe in an afterlife tend to instinctively think of consciousness as persisting after death. I know I do it. To pick a random example, I know that Carl Sagan died over ten years ago, and his body is presently... shall we say, not in working order. And yet, when I wished him a happy birthday last week, it felt like I was really talking to someone who could perceive my words. Like a mystical Carl is floating around somewhere in the cosmos. Intellectually, I know that makes no sense. And yet, the idea seems so intuitively hardwired that it's very difficult to shake.

I had a similar experience last year after my grandfather died, fairly soon after I had begun coming to terms with my skepticism. At the viewing, everyone was milling about, talking with each other, exchanging stories, laughing, and catching up on each others' lives. It was so surreal, like everyone was at a social party, but no one seemed to notice or mention the fact that there was a dead guy at the front of the room. Not that there's anything wrong with that; different people and different cultures deal with death in different ways, and this is how we do it where I'm from. I heard several family members say something like "it's not really him in there" or "he's in a better place now". Obviously, this may help us feel better, to imagine that the person we love is not truly dead and gone, and that someday we will see him again. I would love to see my grandfather again. He was a hard-working, honest man who loved his family and made the world a better place. He was a good person. But I have to accept that it really was him in the casket, and I will never see him again.

earth-and-moonThis is why I think about death. Not because I find it fun or satisfying to consciously ponder unconsciousness or to imagine my own non-existence (although I admit, that can sort of be fun). Not because I have no imagination or no compassion or no desire for eternal life. I would love to be surprised by an afterlife. Seriously, that would be wicked cool. But as Dr. Sagan pointed out in the quote above, there does not seem to be any evidence that it is more than wishful thinking. I think about death because life is precious, and I know how short it is. We find ourselves in an amazing, almost impossibly improbable situation, alive and aware, floating through space on a chunk of rock with only each other to hang onto. It may not make sense to us. It may in fact be the height of absurdity. But we need to make the most of life while we have it, because this is the only one we get.


Sabayon said...

One of my most fascinating University courses was Psychology of Death and Dying. It's interesting becuase while cultural attitudes towards death and dying are so varied, almost every culture has elaborate and highly impotant rituals for dealing with death, and in almost every case there is the idea of the person continuing on. Even in religion's that explicitly deny this idea, such as in Buddhism where those who achieve enlightenment are said to dissolve into nothingness, there is a sense of continuance. In the case of Buddhism, even though Buddha is supposed to not exist, most sects believe that something of his essence exists in all, and part of his (non-existent, technically) soul can even inhabit Buddha statues. I had never thought of this as a failure of imagination before, though, so thanks!

Saganist said...

That sounds like a class I'd be interested in!

Pam said...

Good article, and I like Carl's quote at beginning of your post. I also have been fascinating with the end of life, too. I can't imagine it being so and I love old folks with stories to tell, they usually have lived life to the fullest. I have taken a class on the subject doe death & dying and training on helping families, especially children deal with death. I do believe that cosmically we transcend beyond this life, but try to live like we don't as our time here is so short. I think like Deepak Chopra, our brains are hardwired to know God ---we are connected somehow with the divine or cosmic universe we are part of.

Paul said...
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Paul said...

I’m enjoying reading your blog entries, but what difference does it make just because you can’t imagine your own non-existence? What does that prove about there either being or not being life after life? I can’t image lots of things — things that reasonably could or could not happen to me, but that doesn’t prove these things, or the possibilities of whatever states or situations of anything does or does not exist, or ever could exist. I can’t imagine Christ’s resurrection let alone my own, but by some accounts He did resurrect from the dead, and that’s pretty darn close to having something to do with there being “life after death.” “Ah, but that’s not a direct, personal experience,” you might say, “That doesn’t count. And how can we be sure there even was a Jesus Christ… etc.” Well, why doesn’t that count? It’s like the old “I’ve never been to or seen China, but I still know that it exists because others have been there… etc.” There is nothing sophomoric or pedestrian about that analogy. It’s in whom and in what you want to place your trust as to what is believable. And that’s capital “B” believable as in “Faith” — evidence of things not seen.

My son died unexpectedly of natural causes just a month before his twentieth birthday. Does he cease to exist? No. How do I know this? Because I had two experiences, once with my wife present and once by me alone, that he is still “around.” Those experiences were enough for me to, at the very least, “believe” that he still exists, although it encroaches remarkably into the province of actually “knowing.” It’s not empirical evidence that you or anyone else can examine, but it happened none-the-less; we had the experience — both of us. It was a gift. Maybe like some of the medical “miracles” we read about from time-to-time, or things similar. Miracles (the seemingly unexplainable, irrational… etc.) do happen — like life after death.

Saganist said...

@Paul: As you correctly point out, the fact that we find it difficult to imagine our own nonexistence isn't really evidence of anything. If I were to try to make an argument for or against an afterlife, based only on the idea that I can't imagine it one way or the other, I would be committing the logical fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or argument from personal incredulity. Just because I can't imagine something being true (or false) doesn't necessarily mean that it is in fact false (or true).

This post isn't intended to be a logical argument against the idea of an afterlife. It is written from the perspective of someone who finds the idea of an afterlife to be improbable, but not for this reason. In this post, I intended to explore the fact that even though I find the idea of an afterlife to be improbable, I still have a strong tendency to imagine that an afterlife exists, and to think in terms of my own immortality. We all do. Or most of us, anyway.

I would not reject Jesus' resurrection out of hand just because I wasn't there to experience it personally. Obviously, the universe is far, far larger than I can personally experience. But there is evidence that can be examined, among which are the accounts you reference. For something as extraordinary as the resurrection is claimed to be, the evidence ought to be quite extraordinary as well. Having read quite a lot about this subject, I don't find the evidence for the resurrection to be compelling, so I don't tend to believe it happened.

I'm sorry about your son. That's just a horrible thing for any parent to have to endure. I'm glad that you have been able to find comfort in what you believe.