Black and white photo with some words underneath it.

Woke up this morning
Put on my slippers
Walked in the kitchen and died.”

-John Prine

I think I’m about as ok with dying as a person not immediately facing it can be. I’m definitely ok with the prospect of dying when I’m old. I love my life, it’s been uncannily good for the most part, but I imagine in 50 years the prospect of the long nap won’t both me much at all.

The euphemisms for death should go though, including the one I just used. Death is not sleep, no matter how much we might like to believe it’s so. The most current pedagogy regarding death is that one should never conflate the two concepts in the minds of young children, as they seem to less find comfort in the idea of dying as sleep than find terror in the idea of sleep as death. There is another issue to this analogy of course, it attempts to rob death of its status as something completely unknowable. We know what sleep is, but we can’t even imagine being dead.

I talk to my class about different theories of the origin of the universe. In regards to one version of the Big Bang the universe comes into existence through a perturbation of nothing. I ask them to try and imagine nothing, and how nothing is not the same as empty or blank. I ask them to imagine no color, no direction, no space, no beingness whatsoever. It comes to light that it’s not really possible. We’ve never experienced anything outside of space and time, where the origin of the universe takes place, and so we can’t reconstruct it in our minds. So it is with death, it is defined by the absence of experience, and nothing we’ve experienced is that. We’ve had gaps in our experiences, but they seem to not exist at all, and are defined solely by the experiences they occur between.

We can’t imagine death then, because we can’t experience it, but that’s strange because we’ve all been not alive before. By ‘we’ I mean ‘everything alive at the moment’ of course. There’s nothing alive that has been alive since the beginning of the universe, which means all living things were not alive for at least some amount of time. Me personally, at my age, given that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, have been not alive for roughly 13.7 billion years. Makes my alive years seem kind of irrelevant to be honest, I’m way more experienced at being not alive.

Mark Twain spoke to all of this in his autobiography, his words were, “Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together.”

There does seem to be a difference between dead and not alive though. A rock is not alive, but it is not dead. Science has words for this distinction, which is fortunate. Biotic things are things that are or have been alive or exclusively part of a living system. So a stick is biotic, hair and blood is biotic, a koala is biotic. Abiotic things have never been alive, even if they have been part of a living system. So the sun is abiotic, water and air are abiotic, rocks are abiotic. Biotic things depend on abiotic things, water and air in particular, but abiotic things don’t depend, period. They just are.

The interesting thing about biotic and abiotic categorization is that all biotic things are made, ultimately, of atoms, which themselves are abiotic things. So if you took any biotic thing, like, for example, your grandmother, and took her apart atom by atom, you’d have a pile of tiny little things that are not themselves alive nor had ever been alive.

So, μέν, we cannot imagine death because life is defined by experience and death by the permanent cessation of it, yet, δέ, we are long practiced at being not alive, and in fact, are in some fundamental sense, not even currently alive. So much for being worried about being dead, that’s pretty much our permanent state of being!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m missing the point. The scariness of death is the part where we are having conscious experiences and then stop having them. If you believe in the basic materialistic appearance of the universe, in which matter and energy act according to certain laws which seem to prohibit the existence of supernatural phenomena such as migrating souls, extra dimensional resort villages, or fiery pits eternal despair, then you stop having them permanently.

I’m just saying, it’s been a fairly relaxed way to coast through the last 13.7 billion years, doesn’t seem like the worst option.

If you are not convinced the universe operates exactly as it seems to, and perhaps is a stage on which to audition for future lives, then you’re just off to some other kind of conscious experiences I guess, which seems pretty good. Kind of the whole sales pitch on those belief systems isn’t it? Eternal consciousness on various planes of existence? What is interesting is that the materialistic argument against this kind of supernatural reincarnation is an argument for the possibility of an actual reincarnation. So actually that forever above is qualified.

The argument, taking as a subject Eva, goes like this:

  1. Material reincarnation exists is someone can die and then later become alive again.
  2. Eva is alive if she is having conscious experiences.
  3. Eva dies when she stops having conscious experiences and her body then decays.
  4. Eva can die and then later become alive again.
  5. Eva is someone.
  6. Therefore material reincarnation exists.

Premise 4 of this argument rests on the belief that your consciousness is a product of your brain. The state that Eva’s brain is in causes it to experience the world in a way that Eva, and the rest of us, identify as consciousness. Eva remembers things, considers alternatives to reality, makes predictions based in prior experience, all sorts of neat things, and collectively those things constitute Eva’s consciousness. The state Eva’s brain is in changes over time, but Eva’s consciousness is a standard output during the duration of its life. If it is the case that Eva’s consciousness is the result of her brain’s structure then if she were to die, all that would have to happen for her to be reincarnated is that material in the universe would have to once again take on that structure. A materialist ought to agree that if Eva’s brain is producing Eva’s consciousness at t1 then, given that it has an identical structure, Eva’s brain will also be producing her consciousness at t2, even if there is another 13.7 billion years between t1 and t2.

So, the point is, we can never fully understand death, we are dead and always have been, and we will never die forever. Time for lunch.


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