Musing on Death

My sister died very abruptly about a month and a half ago, and since then my mind has been directed to answering the question of what has happened to her. Did her soul, the animation inside her limbs, the fire that burned within her wild cackling laughter, her memory and personality—did her soul die with her body, or does it still exist somewhere in a form that is invisible to us?

Just yesterday I read something Stephen Hawking said in the news, that heaven is a fairy tale and a person’s soul is no more immortal than a computer’s. When a computer’s parts are worn out, Hawking argues, the computer itself is finished; it’s the same, he says, with human beings. At first this disheartened me (because I am admittedly biased in wanting to believe that my sister still exists, and Hawking is an Authority, and therefore Hawking Must Know) but I realized within a few minutes that Hawking had indulged in an unfortunate logical fallacy (beyond his weak attempt to prove a negative with a mere throwaway opinion, a mere metaphor; absence of evidence not necessarily being evidence of absence).

But, on the other hand, as a scientist he is absolutely right in saying that the soul does not exist, because we have found no empirical proof of such a thing (no scientist has ever been able to communicate with one in a laboratory), no proof yet, at least; but as a philosopher I think he committed a serious error, namely discussing what is beyond us, a no-no we can trace all the way from William of Occam to Ludwig Wittgenstein. “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent”—in the absence of concrete proof, everything we say about a given issue is opinion. In other words, who the hell knows, maybe computers do have souls—and as they behave more and more like human beings and animals, in the future, the question will certainly come up. They, undoubtedly, will bring it up.

Nonetheless, I have little choice but to indulge in the same fallacies as Mr. Hawking.

We know that usually, if you stand on a reasonably large planet, and hold a ball, and let it go, the ball will drop to the ground. Everywhere we try this it happens the same way; it makes logical sense and the idea has mountains of proof to back it up. But we have no idea what happened to my sister, to my grandmother, to my pet dog, to all the animals I have eaten in my life, and to the millions of animate and inanimate things that preceded my own existence. We drop the ball but we cannot see what happens after. Their memories and personalities (nonexistent to begin with, according to Borges), their souls, seem to have vanished; nonetheless we want to believe that they still exist; we want to believe that when we drop a ball on the surface of a reasonably large planet, it actually floats in place, or flies upward.

These souls, or lifeforms, may have simply transformed into other things. To continue with Hawking’s metaphor, a computer’s parts are never really dead, or useless—they will always become something else, and perhaps even a part of someone’s body. In that sense, then, the computer never dies, but it was also never a computer to begin with, just an assembly of matter that came together and then fell apart to join together with other pieces of matter. This comes back to Platonic Idealism, which dominated Western thought for centuries.

But perhaps Hawking is right, and humans are no different from machines. Our physical bodies, at least, become other things; I witnessed my sister turn into a small box full of ash, and watched her float away on the wind like a ghost; I wiped her from my fingers. I’ve read recently that a new Terence Malick flick, Tree of Life, deals with this issue, this question—why did the history of the entire universe lead up to someone we love, who then committed suicide? What sense is there in that? It must serve some purpose we cannot see, otherwise it never would have happened…

Whether some forms of matter are imbued with immortal souls, and whether these souls migrate to a new form of existence after these forms of matter change into something else, is a question we cannot scientifically answer at this time. But logically I think we can make some inroads. When science cannot answer our questions we have little choice but to turn to opinions and speculations. Seeking simplicity here does not help either, because both possible answers—that Gwen no longer exists, or that Gwen is invisible to us (and practically does not exist)—are both equally simple.

I do know that numerous people and most if not all world cultures believe in an afterlife, but also that belief is not proof; I also know that everyone who knew Gwen reacted to her death with a feeling of great devastation, as if we had lost something infinite and also irretrievable, but at the same time emotion is not proof. I want to believe she is still somehow alive (I even suspected, during the hardest first days, that she had somehow faked her own death), and I still feel her presence, I still sense, despite the devastation of her death and the fact that I can no longer communicate with her, that she is around, although I have no idea where she is. These are the ideas of an agnostic. I cannot make any statement without instantly questioning its veracity. I also feel trapped by the limitations of my perceptions and the ideas I have been nurtured on since I was born; I just read yesterday about how even the greatest Medieval intellectuals were basically physically unable to think scientifically (and thus trapped within their Platonic museum!).

I can at least look forward to my own death, now, since it will give me a chance, however seemingly remote, of seeing her again—it will also put all of these speculations to rest.

I did stumble upon a logical consolation, for us, the living, as I sought to prove to myself over the last few weeks that Gwen still somehow is. There is no need of any kind in our universe for sentience, self-awareness, or even any life at all. Everything could be inanimate rocks, fire, and dust. Nothing says anywhere that sometimes this so-called star stuff has to make people. But people exist. The universe, also, exists—for the universe there is also no need of any kind for it to be. Nothingness is seemingly worse and less preferable than somethingness. Because of these facts, it would make little sense to create all of these things, and then to destroy them forever. No artist wants his creations to disappear, and if god exists, he is certainly the most magnificent artist of all—life exists for a reason we cannot see, but because life is (and also because it is not nonexistent), there is no sense in destroying it after it has been created (why make it at all, then?—especially if, in the mind of god, all eternity has elapsed in an instant), so it must always be. We do not understand where it comes from or where it goes, but it is still always there.

I fall into the same trap as Hawking, and because I cannot comprehend what I’m trying to consider alone, by itself, I’m forced to make comparisons—god as artist, while Hawking compares humans to machines. Lesser or greater minds could make mincemeat of these words, and all discussion is fruitless anyway, because we cannot bring Gwen back, which is of course the only thing we really want to do. I would go back in time and wreck the entire universe just to see her again.

In struggling to put these ideas together I feel like I should have adhered more to Wittgenstein’s advice, but under the circumstances I really can’t help myself. For the moment, at least, it’s good enough for me; empirically I can’t prove that Gwen is around, I haven’t talked with her since she died, but logically (at least with my own logic) I’ve deduced that she is still laughing, still making sculptures, and partying, and listening to Bjork, somewhere. To me it makes more sense for her to still exist. But the agnostic cannot fully embrace any opinion.

As a sort of postscript to this unsatisfying piece I want to write that at some point I’ll make an attempt, with my wife, to contact Gwen’s spirit through a Korean shaman–which should hopefully be a little bit more respectable than going to see a warty old woman with a crystal ball. When this happens (and it won’t be for several months at least, even though my wife’s grandmother is a traditional spiritual medium), I’ll make sure to report it here, so stay tuned.

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3 thoughts on “Musing on Death

  1. Frank Schwartz says:

    Great post Oddly enough I went through an almost identical thought process as I rode up Cadillac this evening, prior to reading this.

    The first sun in I don’t know how long, and the light glittering off the lakes and the ocean and finally some green and life and I’m thinking, as I do constantly, about Gwen, and I feel her presence, with what Hawking said in the background. As I came down the mountain faster than I ever have before (but in far more control than ever before) I caught myself unintentionally laughing and shouting at the overwhelming beauty of it all, and I realized it doesn’t matter that much what a scientist or a preacher or a mystic says about life and death or the great beyond.

    We don’t have clue about what, if anything happens after we die, but here on this earth we know we have a soul, and I’m reasonably certain no mechanical device, computer or otherwise does. I have nothing but respect for what Hawking says about the physical universe, but he knows no more about the great beyond than the Pope, or any other anointed religious figurehead, or any slug for that matter. For that very reason, I’m going with what I feel, it’s as valid as anything else.

    • Valerie Haskins says:

      Beautiful, Frank! What an amazing bike ride that indeed must have been. Gwen was with you all the way, I bet.

  2. Jessabelle says:

    I feel Gwen’s presence all the time. She is as much a part of me and a driving force in my life as she ever was. She will always be amazing. So I guess I feel that her soul entered our hearts and is there to stay. Then our souls will enter the hearts of those who love us, and so on, and that’s what I believe is eternal.

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