The Human Condition:

Death is Nothing – April 28, 2013

If I’ve been stooping or bending over and suddenly stand up, I’ll get a sudden drop in blood pressure in my head—called “orthostatic hypotension”—and the room will suddenly spin; fireworks go off in front of my eyes; and coherent thought becomes impossible.1 I can still stand erect—that is, I don’t collapse in a heap—but that’s more a matter of prior intent and muscle tension than present determination and action. At that moment of blankness, I am simply caught up in the effect. The ever-present me, the person who has intentions, desires, needs, plans, goals, purpose, responsibilities, and will power has, for these two or three seconds, simply left the premises.

When it happened again this morning,2 it occurred to me that this is what the approach of death must be like. I did not pass through a tunnel, see a white light, or gaze on the face of God. But what struck me was this utter dissociation from the body, combined with the fleeting realization that not only could I do nothing about it, but I couldn’t even care that I could do nothing.

Upon reflection—which is the reason for this posting—I decided this attitude of care-less-ness, in the exact meaning of that word, was a comforting thought. Death comes for us all eventually. And if, in that moment, we are taken out of our bodies by another and greater force—in this case, the brief draining of blood from the braincase—so that we don’t continue in our own little squirrel-wheel round of hopes and fears and plans, with no possibility of despairing of our dreams and vanished opportunities, repenting of our sins and hurtful actions, screaming for our lost loves, worrying about the responsibilities we will be shirking, or otherwise continuing to push at the outer surface of the membrane, or the leading edge of the wave, or the next temporal probability nexus, which we collectively call “life” … isn’t that a good thing? As we hurtle into the void, wouldn’t it be a comfort not to care too much about what is passing and disappearing?

Every religion has some view about the “afterlife.”3 For Christians, it’s heaven for the faithful and hell for the unfaithful. For Muslims, it’s much the same, except with different terms, tenets, obligations, rewards, and celestial or abysmal scenery. For Hindus and many other cultures, it’s some kind of return of the spirit to the actual world, through rebirth or reincarnation, with future status to be determined by present intentions and actions. For Buddhists, whose religion grew up as a protest against Hinduism and its eternal, endless rebirth under the pendulum of karma, the goal is to climb out of the cycle and reach Nirvana. But rather than any kind of clouds, harps, and angel-choir heaven, Nirvana is more a state of blessed stillness. They say that the Buddha, who was the first to achieve this state, simply went out, like a candle.

If my little orthostatic-hypotension trance is any indication, then I think the answer to what comes next lies closer to the Buddhist interpretation than any other. We simply go out. Where do we go? Not important—place, space, and celestial coordinates do not exist outside of human reference. When do we get there? Not meaningful—time is a human construct, and we go beyond time. How long do we stay? Well, forever, but review the preceding lesson about the nature of time. The only difference between my rendition of death and the Buddhist variant is that Buddha and his followers must struggle against karma and the endless cycles of rebirth, trying to perfect their natures so that they can go to that quiet place.4 In my view, we all get there on the first try.

This is, of course, an unsentimental and mechanistic view of human life. In it, the mystery of identity resolves itself into layer upon layer of complexity—and complexity for its own sake. We are simply an overlay of sensations and memories, positive and negative responses, likes and dislikes, that buds in the womb, opens its eyes on a cold, bright world, and continues growing and learning and digesting and deciding from that point onward. Like an onion, the human mind has no secret at the center, just one last tiny green shoot, a fragile membrane around a nothingness, no more important or meaningful than the last thought or fact or understanding or epiphany or doubt that was added in the most recent ten seconds—or in that final instant when the care-less-ness descends.

In this view, death is simply the off switch, the deprivation of blood and oxygen to the brain that harbors the circuits that record these overlaid sensations, memories, responses, and choices in electro-chemical form. One minute we are pushing against the next layer of membrane, or wave of insight, or temporal probability nexus … and then we’re not. The candle has gone out. Stillness.

And where in all this is the ego, the I, the thing that learns and chooses, the soul? Well, it’s an illusion, actually. Where is the focus of a sunbeam after it passes through a glass lens and becomes a bright, white-hot spot? Does it exist apart from the light rays that come together or the lens that focuses them? Consider that the light rays are the events of everyday life, the sensations, conundrums, choices, experiences, and outcomes, spread out over time, that will be written into memory at the next sleep cycle. Consider that the lens is the accretion of past sensations, experiences, and understandings that bend our focus toward this choice, that attraction, this action, that aversion.

Why does the soul have to be one thing? Why unified? Why a single entity?

We are all collections in retrospect: having various names, titles, positions, relationships, and aims throughout our lives. The goals and desires we have at age six are not those of age twelve, twenty-four, forty-eight, or even ninety-six. If we could meet ourselves in the flesh, active and separate, from twenty or forty years ago, we would hardly feel any spark of recognition. We would certainly recognize the then-current name. We might recognize some of the then-current circumstances. We might remember the face from a memory seen in the mirror.5 But it would be a different person. We might feel some affection or affinity for that person for the sake of auld lang syne but, depending on the choices and experiences that have occurred over the intervening years, we might also feel pity or even disgust and loathing.

Why does the soul have to be a single, unified entity even at the present moment, given that we all have three brains?

The medulla oblongata, the brain stem at the top of the spinal chord, controls the autonomic functions of the body, activities of which we are hardly aware: breathing—unless we take conscious control of it—heart rate, blood pressure, and all the other little housekeeping functions. The brain stem also includes the reticular activating system, which controls the focus of our attention and its arousal in the sense of cycling from mental activity into the blankness of sleep and back again to wakefulness. So the brain stem could be said to be the center of our awareness—but it’s an undifferentiated, thoughtless, up-or-down process. Not really thinking. Any creature that has a spinal chord, from fish up through primates, has this kind of awareness.

The hind brain, or cerebellum, processes inputs from the spinal chord—that is, everything going on in the rest of the body at a sensory and motor level—and integrates them with functions in the rest of the brain. The cerebellum lets us exercise our will as concerted action: to open and close our hands, move our feet, shift our weight, all in a smoothly timed sequence. The cerebellum lets us play basketball. Any creature that grows more of a brain than a bump on the spinal chord grows a cerebellum first.

The two lobes of the cortex, or cerebrum, sit atop the rest of the brain and control our understanding and volition. Various parts of the cortex assemble sensory input from the skin, eyes, ears, taste buds, and nasal passages6 into our view of the outside world. Other parts sample this “sensorium,” as well as our reactions to and ideas about it, and determine what fraction of that awareness will go into short- or long-term memory. Other parts assemble images such as lines and branchings in the visual cortex into writing, or sounds from the aural centers into language, or interpret our ongoing stream of thoughts into written and spoken words and sentences. Other parts do the same interpretation and assembly for mathematics, music, and the visual arts. And still other parts of the cortex sense the passage of time and assemble projections about what will come next in terms of what has come before.

Any of these pieces and parts may be supremely, or indifferently, or poorly capable of interpreting the multitude of experiences in daily life and initiating the tasks required in response. Any of these parts might give results that are true and insightful or false and nonsensical. And so any creature with this much potential for truth and falsehood in interpreting and reacting to any part of the sensorium will become a unique being. Perhaps good at hearing and creating music. Perhaps good at assembling thoughts into words. Perhaps good at seeing and creating visual art. Perhaps good at assembling past experience into future patterns. … And perhaps dull or defective in any of these tasks.

Couple this vast mix of abilities with the variations of experience that probability throws at us during the course of a life, and you have a binding web of complexity. We cannot know what our first thought, our first sensation, our first act of will or desire was or where it came from—any more than we can identify the first cell of our embryo that divided to create a second, fourth, eighth, sixteenth … billionth … trillionth cell in our current body.7

Is this a mechanistic view of life, of humans, of the soul? Oh, yes! And is that a reason to despair or to despise the nature of humans? Oh, no!

We are not clockwork. We are not machines of simple cause and effect, stimulus and response, as the Skinnerian behaviorists would have you believe.8 It’s only clockwork if you can trace out all the gears and their relationships, count the cycles, and predict the next step in the operation of the machine. The human brain, in any of its three main parts, is far too complex for a human mind to do any such accounting. Even when we understand the nature of the human mind better than we do now, even when we can trace the evolution of human life and function on a molecular level down to the last protein and DNA base pair, the sum of the parts will still be far too intricate, complicated, dependent on timing and probability, and subject to random events for confident predictions—or any predictions at all. The equation will always have multiple solutions based on multiple inputs. And stepping them down, freezing them in time, and counting the possibilities will always be several orders of magnitude beyond the capability of the mind itself.

The interplay of stars within galaxies, of galaxies within the universe, the binding and release of gravity surges, light pressures, shock waves, and molecular attractions—these are child’s play, clockwork, simple equations compared to the branching complexity of the human nervous system. Start two babies, twins, from the same DNA in the same womb, raised in the same household, experiencing the same parenting and schooling, binding to each other emotionally—and you will still end up with two different beings, alike in only some ways, different in many others. And by age fifty they won’t even look much like each other.

Life is complex beyond understanding. Life may not be unique in the universe, but it is different on this planet from the life to be found anywhere else. And the most complex, eventful, randomly activated, even willful form of life is a human being. We are the highest expression of the evolutionary experience within a couple of parsecs of this place—until something better comes along.

But we are still physical beings. Our memories of experiences, sensations, decisions, goals, and responsibilities are still written in electro-chemical patterns contained within the action of proteins suspended in water inside a lipid sheath. And when blood and oxygen cease to nourish the cells connecting those neural pathways, the cycle of activity stops: the room suddenly spins; fireworks go off in front of the eyes; and coherent thought becomes impossible. The state of continuing—and caring about that continuation—goes away.

Death is not a transition, not a doorway, not an entry or an exit point. Death is not a place and has no time, because those are constructs of the human experience and imagination. Death is nothing. But that’s nothing to fear, either. We were all in that same no-place before our fathers met our mothers, and we will return to that no-place eventually. Besides, it’s not what happens there that matters—but everything we do in the meantime.

1. Before anyone tells me to rush to the emergency room, know that I’m six foot six inches tall, have relatively low blood pressure, and have been experiencing this kind of spatially induced dizziness since I was a teenager. And if these passing spells are a sign of anything serious … well, you’ve got to die of something, right?

2. Truth to tell, I had been bending over while picking up after our little white dog. She’s a dear thing, but she does sometimes choose the garden rather than the woods beyond the fence for her business.

3. Except, apparently, for the Jews. Judaism, as I understand it, does not see death as necessarily the end of personal existence, but the teaching doesn’t get dogmatic about what comes next, preferring that followers focus on their obligations and responsibilities in this life. That’s a pleasant kind of agnosticism. It also reminds me of a gentle teacher who refocuses the student on the problem at hand, rather than daydreaming about what’s going on outside the window—or in that abstract and hypothetical land called “tomorrow.”

4. It’s always struck me as curious that the Hindu vision of rebirth is supposed to be a comforting thought, as are most visions of the afterlife. “There, there, don’t worry. You’re not disappearing forever and ever. And if you have been a good person, even though this life has been harsh and degrading, your next life will be better. And if others around you have been born into wealth and pleasure but abused their privileges, they will be degraded in the next life. The universe is just and fair. … Now go to sleep.” But the Buddhists found this endless return oppressive: climb the ladder, fall off the ladder, climb the ladder again—until any thinking creature has to go just plumb, bat-guano crazy with the pointlessness of it all. And the only release is to work at stilling the pendulum, being neither excessively good nor excessively evil, until you can just disappear forever and ever. Ain’t the human mind a wonderful thing?

5. And maybe not: we only see a reverse image in the mirror, not our real face. We are usually strangers to our physical selves and our effect on others.

6. These are the classic “five senses” of touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. To these I would add monitoring the bit of fluid in our inner ears that reacts to gravity and gives us our sense of balance and inertia—which is as valid a sense as any other.

7. And no more can we know exactly which cubic centimeter of the space we define as “the universe” contained that infinitesimal spark of mass that exploded in the Big Bang. The center of it all, the first place, the original space has expanded and changed until anywhere you look and lay your hand might as well be that center—just as the green shoot at the center of an onion is no more complicated or important or worthy of notice than the outer layer that the plant added as part of its growth cycle just before the farmer uprooted it and sent it to market.

8. By the way, I hate Skinnerian behaviorists. They look at a human being and see a nematode, a fruit fly, or a mouse writ large—and then they ignore all of the differences that scale and complexity require. These people are just stupid!