Jul/Aug 2013 Salon

Death, Where Is thy Sting-a-ling

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

I'm sure I'm not the first to come up with this particular idea, but sometimes different notions that have been rattling around in my brain for some time come together, and it's as if a veil has been lifted, a curtain has gone up—pick your metaphor—on an old and perplexing mystery.

This latest revelation started with a Noam Chomsky lecture called "The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding" (you can view it on YouTube; much of what I'm about to say refers to or borrows from that lecture). In that talk Chomsky pointed out how Newton upset the apple cart of the new Scientific Revolution with his theory of gravity, i.e. the force of one object on another from a distance without direct contact. Gravity, Newton admitted, was an absurd idea, unintelligible, but thought perhaps it would be understood at some future point. Not only is it still not intelligible three and a half centuries later, but science has given up hope of ever understanding it, along with other absurd but verifiable phenomena such as quantum indeterminacy and curved space-time.

The gist of Chomsky's talk boils down to this: Our brains have evolved in specific circumstances—in the ordinary, experienced physical world so well-defined by Newton as well as by Galileo and others. What we know and, more importantly, all we can know in the sense of truly understanding is restricted to the "scope and limits" of the brains we have evolved (and which have not changed in the last 60,000 years, nor are likely to do so in the next 60,000 years).

Chomsky uses the rats-in-a-maze comparison as an example. Rats show remarkable ability to figure out how to negotiate a maze despite all sorts of problems they must overcome to do so. But if you construct a maze the successful passage through which requires an understanding of the concept of prime numbers, no rats will ever make it through. The reason is that the scope and limits of their brain power—i.e. the physical configuration of their gray matter—is not structured to deal with prime numbers, that concept having no application in the world rats inhabit.

Gravity is to the human brain what prime numbers are to rat brains. (What does this have to do with death? I'm coming to that, I promise.) Our brains have a scope and limits just as do the brains of every other species. Gravity—not the observable effects of gravity; we understand as well as any squirrel that if you drop something it will fall—gravity as a force that operates as surely as does the force of one billiard ball hitting another but acts by "attracting" an object rather than by striking or pulling it by direct contact is not something that ever came within the range, i.e. necessity, of our experience as a species, and consequently our evolutional development ignored its comprehension.

We are, by contrast, "hard-wired," innately configured, to understand the force that moves an object when it is directly struck by another object. Chomsky, who keeps up with research done on early childhood, even prenatal childhood, for his linguistic work, says that even a very young child who observes a ball rolling across the floor will look to see what object has struck it and will assume the existence of such an object even if none is in sight—that it must be hidden behind something.

We are stuck, then, with the brains we have, along with their specific scope and limits (one implies the other), which means we will never understand, find intelligible, or (my word this time) intuitively know anything beyond the constraints built into that brain. John Locke and David Hume realized this centuries ago and stated as much, along with affirming that consciousness and thought are entirely the product of the brain much as digestion is the product of the gastrointestinal system. Remarkably enough, scientists as recently as the 1990s were publishing papers announcing this "discovery," albeit in tones as if they were wary of causing a scandal.

If you're with me this far to the point of accepting that what we can find intelligible is defined by what our evolution as a species has allowed for (no one needed to know why the moon revolved around the earth, but we did need to know that if we didn't hurl a spear with enough force it would fall short of its target), I think we can expand this idea to other areas of our experience, or lack thereof.

Death, for instance (here we are at last). We have no understanding of death in much the same way that we have no understanding of gravity. We have no experience of death. We lose consciousness every night for several hours, but we always wake up. Not waking up is beyond our ken, beyond our understanding, unintelligible. We experience the effects of death in others—loss of vital signs, rigor mortis, decay. But death itself, death as oblivion, non-existence, makes no sense, although, unlike gravity, which we observe in action and can prove to our logical satisfaction, many of us insist on denying death, assuming, logically enough, that we will indeed, somehow, "wake up." If not sooner, then later.

What we are not willing to do is admit that we do not, and never will, understand death. We understand why things move—because they are pushed or pulled. We do not understand how objects can attract one another simply by their existence, but we accept this attraction as true, calculable, and even useful. We know living things die, but we can not and never will get our minds around the concept of oblivion. Oblivion is a negative idea, a word without content. We deal in such ideas all the time, but that doesn't mean they have applicability in the real world. A square circle is an idea, but it is also an impossibility.

That's the bad news: as far as our experience and idea of death goes, there is no there there.

The good news, though also beyond our conscious understanding and perhaps only glimpsed outside our ordinary experience, is that recognition of the biological constraints that place a limit on our comprehension can, paradoxically, allow us to at least suspect a reality that lies beyond those limits—unintelligible but observable phenomena like gravity and quantum mechanics, and, possibly, the ineffable glimpses behind the veil of ordinary reality that occur when we have deep experiences of art and those powerful instances of insight or realization we are all privy to at certain choice and unpredictable moments of our life.

To put it another way: by the very act of accepting our innate intellectual limits, we can allow for a reality, a truth, that lies beyond what is innately intelligible to us. We already do so in the case of those physical forces that make no immediate sense to us. If we refused to accept the existence of those forces, we would be stuck in a pre-Newtonian world that allowed only for mechanistic agency—the kind we experience directly and are hard-wired to expect and intuitively comprehend. But what about the forces, laws, mode of being that almost certainly are in play that we have no scientific apprehension of, but that we nevertheless experience in a way impossible to put into rational expression?

Surely, the earliest natural philosophers, the so-called pre-Socratics, must have had such insights, though they lacked the rational scaffolding with which to construct a well-reasoned, scientific expression for it. Pythagoras was apparently as much a mystic as a mathematician.

One mode of apprehension does not preclude the other. Quite the opposite. We may well be living in a reality full of other forces, phenomena, etc., as exotic as the theories of gravity or alternative universes—a reality that is at the very heart of who we are, but which we take for granted because we are so deeply embedded in it, like the proverbial fish in the sea. Bach, not Newton or Einstein, may turn out to be one of the better revelations of that world. Some of us think he already is.

After all, we only apprehend this "reality," the world we wake up to every day and live in, as a model constructed by our brains out of what we call sensory data: light waves, sound waves, inhaled molecules, etc. We have no direct apprehension of anything. Light in the form of photons enters our eye, strikes the retina, triggering a cascade of electrons that travel up the optical nerve and are there fashioned into images, or what we "see." The same is true for hearing, touch, taste, smell. Other organisms equipped with different kinds of brains and senses perceive a different reality, enhanced or diminished from the one we perceive—the platypus "sees" electrical currents generated by the flexing of a prey's muscle in muddy water. A reindeer "sees" in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum invisible to us. Birds perceive variations in the earth's gravitational field and use it to navigate. God knows what data other creatures are sensing and modeling so as to better negotiate their environment.

Time is also a model we construct in our brains, as do other creatures, each species in its own way. "Time," like "sight" or "sound," is not an apprehension of reality but a construction of our minds based upon our experience of all that other data we receive and model into a simulacrum or metaphor of reality. Our particular version of dealing with change and duration is probably hard-wired into our brains, just as language apparently is. We speak different languages, and we also have different notions of time, but we do so using the same mental configuration within a defined limit of possibilities—the scope-and-limits mentioned earlier.

Time, though, seems to me one step removed or one level above the modeling we do with sense data. It's a model based upon a model, a model that uses other models as if they were themselves reality, just as we assume that what we see is reality. Time is a way of coping with and organizing a dizzying amount of information that comes at us sequentially, non-stop, all our lives. And we have to model or make sense of that information in a way that works for us as much as does an amoeba or an ant.

To help us do so, we have evolved something we call memory—a very selective capacity to "store" some of the endless experience we start accumulating at conception. We retain only a tiny fraction of that experience, and for good reason: we have no need to do so otherwise, any more than a rat has a need to understand the concept of prime numbers. Having better, more comprehensive recall beyond a certain point actually puts us at a disadvantage. But this doesn't mean that that experience never happened. And, taken as a whole, it amounts to an unimaginable number of individual moments whose totality is beyond our ability to comprehend and which we might as well call infinite.

Even so, all those moments, all that experience, are still just models of something we call reality—in the case of time, a construct that gives us a working model of sequence, change, and duration. There is no such thing as time apart from our mind's model, any more than there is a dimensional reality or qualities of it such as roughness or smoothness.

It's not unreasonable, given all of the above, to say that "time," which we believe we know and experience as directly as we do any obvious physical phenomenon such as the motion caused by one object coming into contact with another, is in fact in the same category of "mysteries" with gravity, quantum indeterminacy, and death. "Duration," "sequence" and other similar concepts that can act as synonyms for "time" have no more content than "time" does. What we—what all living things do—is muddle through our existence with the use of the models we construct that we call the visible and otherwise sensible world, as well as the more abstract model we call time.

Thanks to the way memory purges itself quickly of all but the most skeletal remains of what we call the "past," we don't realize our existence is made up of, for all practical purposes, an infinite number of moments together so far beyond our ability to comprehend that we might as well call this all-but-forgotten experience "eternity." And this is as true for a very young child as for an octogenarian—maybe more so, since time for a two-year-old is so attenuated.

This isn't mere metaphor. We live in a wash of Something out of which we create sight, sound, and duration. It doesn't seem to me unreasonable to assume, since time is itself as much an illusion, a mental model, as all the rest of what we experience, that we may be "immortal" despite the oblivion of death. Since all our moments put together are something so extensive and so far beyond our ken as to constitute what we ordinarily think of as "forever," we may as well say that we live in eternity.

In this sense we die and we don't die, just as we see and we don't see, hear and not hear. Our minds are limited to making the models they do make. We cannot understand anything beyond them. But we can nevertheless at least recognize unintelligible realities beyond our intelligibility—gravity et al. Why not a reality beyond our intelligibility of the model we call time and the mystery we call death? We perceive living things pass into oblivion, but we each contain within us an eternity of life, one we perhaps unconsciously acknowledge when we celebrate the lives of the recently deceased. They are dead, and yet they are not, not even to themselves. They lived in eternity and died in eternity. They just didn't know it, or only glimpsed it, if they were lucky. The "afterlife," then, becomes a metaphor not for a de facto extension of this life, but for a recognition that all our lives take place in a state of unintelligible timelessness and incomprehensible longevity.

As one deeply rooted in the illusionary reality of this life, I dread death. I love these models my brain makes of sight and sound and everything else. But a part of me says I should not be greedy, that seven decades of life, even seven days of life, is more life than we can hold in the shallow vessel that is our minds. A fruit fly's two weeks are as full of life as a 200-year-old tortoise's.

As Chomsky says, Newton didn't throw a monkey wrench into the physical world with his theory of gravity. He destroyed it. And all attempts to restore it have faded and are now in fact abandoned. We should take our cue from science for our own personal experience—not in despair but in celebration of all that we know to exist, but that is and always will be beyond our understanding.


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