Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Death, where is thy sting?

It's later than you think. In the regrettably sexist, but still magnificent, words of the Book of Common Prayer:
MAN, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
But is time really short? What if, as Bob Berman and Robert Lanza argue, all those fleeting moments are, in fact, eternal?
Of course, as you’re reading this, you’re experiencing a ‘now’. But consider: from your great-grandmother’s perspective, your nows exist in her future and her great-grandmother’s nows exist in her past. The words ‘past’ and ‘future’ are just ideas relative to each individual observer.

So what happened to your great-grandmother after she died? To start with – since time doesn’t exist – there is no ‘after death’, except the death of her physical body in your now. Since everything is just nows, there is no absolute space/time matrix for her energy to dissipate – it’s simply impossible for her to have ‘gone’ anywhere.

Think of it like one of those old phonographs. The information on the record is turned into a three-dimensional reality that we can experience a moment at a time. All the other information on the record exists as potential. Any causal history leading up to the ‘now’ being experienced can be thought of as the ‘past’ (ie, the songs that played before wherever the needle is), and any events that follow occur in the ‘future’; these parallel nows are said to be in superposition. Likewise, the before-death state, including your current life with its memories, goes back into superposition, into the part of the record that represents just information.

In short, death does not actually exist. 
It's a startling theory - or rather it would be to anybody who's never read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes." 
That was science fiction, not science, and there are plenty of physicists who'd argue with Berman and Lanza's view of the nature of time and reality, but it's an interesting idea. Even if it is true, I wouldn't necessarily go along with Berman and Lanza's cheery assertion that their view of time and mortality is less troubling than the idea of past time just disappearing and oblivion being real:
...let’s recap the scientific view of death: essentially, you drop dead and that’s the end of everything. This is the view favoured by intellectuals who pride themselves on being stoic and realistic enough to avoid cowardly refuge in Karl Marx’s spiritual ‘opium’ – the belief in an afterlife. This modern view is not a cheerful one. 
But the fact that moments are eternal might be irrelevant if it's only the ordering of events by the passage of time that makes us conscious that anything's happening at all. The moments might be eternal, but our consciousness might only exist in time, leaving us as unaware of the "eternal" moments of our lives as if we'd been snuffed out. And even if events are permanent in some way that makes a difference to us, it might still take a lot of stoicism to face the fact that every moment of our lives is eternal - the worst moment of your life as much as the best, and every point in between. Eternal joy and eternal suffering.

When it comes down to the most fundamental level of reality, nobody (yet) knows what's true. And, since there's no particular reason to expect the Universe to be constructed in accordance with our fondest wishes, that might be just as well. But, whatever the truth, reality is whatever it is, so you might as well roll with it. Or, to quote another Sci Fi classic "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so" and, more importantly, "DON'T PANIC!"