Thursday, August 27, 2009

Concerning Intuitions of Immortality

On the face of it, dead is dead. Yet many people, perhaps a majority both now and in the past, don't believe it. Why?

The obvious explanation for the belief in life after death is wishful thinking. I don't want to believe I am going to die. I don't want to believe that those dear to me are going to die. I don't want to believe that those dear to me who have died are really dead. With enough effort, and help from those around me, I can convince myself not to.

While this may be part of the explanation, I don’t think it is the whole story.

My main reason is introspection, most recently of my feelings about my mother, who died just over a week ago. She was in her late nineties. Her one serious complaint about her life was that, after more than sixty years of a happy marriage, she had not died when my father did. I miss her, and for my sake I would rather she were still alive. But not for her sake.

It is easy for me to believe that she died. It is not so easy to believe that she is dead, that a person I have known all my life no longer exists anywhere in the world, that if I knock at the back door of the apartment where she spent her last few years she will not be there to let me in. Ever. I feel much the same way about other people I have known who are no longer alive. A dream where my father's death did not happen, was somehow a mistake, feels in some sense more believable than the real world where it did happen.

The explanation of my feelings, I think, lies in an important feature of the human mind. In order to function in the world, we need a model, a picture of what surrounds us. Deducing such a picture on the basis of sensory data alone is surprisingly hard, as A.I. researchers discovered when they tried to create machines that could do it. The data coming in from my retina is a pattern of colored dots; no part of it is labelled "cup sitting on my desk," "bunch of keys," or "mouse." To get from that to a model of the world around me requires a lot of image processing and a lot of additional information.

Some of that information comes from past sensory data. But much of it, I believe, is hard wired, the product of many millions of years of evolution. The image processing software built into my brain knows quite a lot about the characteristics of the world I am looking at. That knowledge lets it eliminate most of the conceivable explanations of what appears in my visual field, leaving, usually, the explanation that describes what I am seeing more or less correctly.

One of the things it knows is continuity, persistence. If an object is sitting on my desk, the odds are overwhelmingly high that, a second later, the same object, or at least a very similar object, will be in the same place or very close. I don't need to reanalyze the visual data on every scan. That is why soap bubbles seem magical, counterintuitive. They break the rules.

Other human beings are among the most important features of the our world. Also among the most distinctive. It is easy to confuse one cup for another, one house for another, one tree for another. It is hard to imagine knowing someone well, encountering him, talking with him, and not recognizing him, or misidentifying one person you know well as another.

Applying the rule that works for almost everything else to this salient class of distinct objects, it is obvious that a human being I have once known cannot vanish, hence that, while personality may change over time and inessential features such as clothing or body may change or even disappear, the person himself must still exist. Somewhere.

It is not an argument, still less a proof. My best guess is that dead really is dead, that the person is software running on the hardware of the brain and when the hardware stops functioning the person ceases to exists. It is, however, an explanation of why I find it hard to entirely believe in death.

And, perhaps, of why so many other people feel the same way.


BobW said...

My condolences on the death of your mother. Mine died the Saturday after last Thanksgiving.

I still feel as though I should start Skype, in case she is online.

Vijay said...

My condolences to the Friedman family.

Michael F. Martin said...

My condolences to you and your family. Your meditation called to mind some words from Freeman Dyson, which I read not long ago:

"I often ask myself why the simple words of the song seem to resonate with some deep level of unconscious memory, as if the souls of the departed are speaking through Morelli’s music. And now unexpectedly in Manin’s book I find an answer to my question... The words of MacOrlan and the voice of Morelli seem to be bringing to life a dream from our
collective unconscious, a dream of an old soldier wandering through a dead city. The concept of the collective unconscious may be as mythical as the concept of the dead city. Manin’s chapter describes the subtle light that these two possibly mythical concepts throw upon each other. He describes the collective unconscious as an irrational force that powerfully pulls us toward death and destruction. The archetype of the dead city is a distillation of the agonies of hundreds of real cities that have
been destroyed since cities and marauding armies were invented. Our only way of escape from the
insanity of the collective unconscious is a collective consciousness of sanity, based upon hope and reason. The great task that faces our contemporary
civilization is to create such a collective consciousness."

Anonymous said...

Condolences, my mother died about a week and a half ago as well.

Donald Pretari said...

I tend to believe in life after death, for the reasons articulated by Raymond Smullyan in the first part of his book "Who Knows?".

I am very sorry for your loss. My condolences. I wish I was capable of providing something more eloquent and comforting.

Dick White said...

Neither "life's a bitch and then you die," nor its corollary, "life's a hoot and then you die," is a satisfactory worldview to me. While it is true as Richard John Neuhaus said so eloquently, "We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already under way,” I prefer his conclusion that "...all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be."

I have no doubt that for Rose Director Friedman "what is to be" no longer includes the law of diminishing marginal utility.

John Kindley said...

Perhaps we should trust our senses, moreso than what we think we know, or can infer from all the evidence we've gotten secondhand, about evolution and how it is has hardwired our brains. Perhaps one of the most fundamental senses we should, must, trust is the sense that life makes sense. If everything we know will ultimately pass into oblivion, will eventually disintegrate into nothing but mindless space dust, then life makes no sense. Then there would be no point in doing anything, including talking or thinking about anything. But all of our science and all of our thinking and all of our doing is premised on our sense (the sense of all senses) that life makes sense.

I have my doubts about personal immortality in the way it's generally conceived. But it's enough that God, in whom we live and move and have our being, and who is more authentically us than we are ourselves, exists. In him no one and nothing is lost, including whatever charm and value we experience from being separate and individual souls during our fleeting time in this world.

chofland said...

I think the issue may be more on the other side, that the confusion we feel in the death of another is more from their persistence than their "goneness".

Our personalities become a kind of life of their own. Beyond that, the care that one person bestows upon a loved one embeds itself in the other person in a profound and mysterious way. Then, they become part of what we pass to all the people *we* care for.

The persistence you perceive is real. Your parents are not gone, but they are still dead. How weird is that?

For my part, I picture my dear departed in the most childish conception of heaven -- not quite harps and wings, but just about. I mean, a heaven that is just the thing I would want for them.

I know this is not literally true, but I think the metaphor of it is closer to that mysterious truth -- that they are still here and yet somehow never around -- than trying to force upon my brain that they're gone, period.

Philosophizing aside, I am sorry for your loss.

William H. Stoddard said...

(1) Please accept my sympathies for your loss.

(2) I don't seem to have that intuition. I have no idea why not. On the other hand, though I have not experienced the death of any person I was close to, a few years ago our older cat died, and I experienced something akin to what you're describing at a very concrete level: When I glanced at a dark corner, or under the furniture, I would have a moment when I seemed to see him there. This did not give me any cognitive conviction of his survival, but it did make his absence a kind of felt presence for several months.

(3) I quite understand you mother's comment about your father. My girlfriend and I have long cherished the Greek myth about the virtuous couple who hospitably entertained some strangers who turned out to be gods, were granted one wish, and wished that they might die at the same instant. The worst thing about human mortality is that almost always, one person in a couple dies and the other must go on alone.

Arthur B. said...

My condolences to you and your family.

"It is easy to confuse one cup for another, one house for another, one tree for another. It is hard to imagine knowing someone well, encountering him, talking with him, and not recognizing him, or misidentifying one person you know well as another."

Hard to imagine but not too uncommon. Evidence that this skill is hardwired is it can disappear with brain damage.

PlanetaryJim said...

My condolences on the loss of your mother, and the earlier loss of your father.

One possible explanation for our not having developed AI even with very fast processors is that consciousness is not only thought processing but also detection of quantum interference. If neurons are antennae picking up information from parallel narratives, then the development of AI depends on making more counterfactual parallel universe information available through quantum computing.

Similarly, your perception that somewhere your mother does come to the door may be information arriving from a parallel narrative where she has not died. As time goes on, fewer of those narratives where she is still present exist.

Dreams and waking visions may be communications across these narrative lines. If, as David Deutsch suggested, light spectra represent quantum interference between narratives, then the separation from one to another world line is very thin, even tenuous.

Could wishful thinking be the perception of other narratives on other world lines where quantum events took different results? Possibly.

But it is no substitute for nanotechnology to restore your actual body after death.

Gary McGath said...

My sympathy on the loss of your mother. She was an exceptional woman.

Perhaps it's the combination persistence in our minds and the desire to believe we won't come to an end that reinforce each other, making people think personal immortality is possible.

If I may, I offer you this song as an expression of the kind of immortality which is possible.

Kim Mosley said...

I don’t think many believe that the body lives forever. You seem to avoid the difficult question of “what are we?” Are we a bag of bones and flesh? That is questionable, given that “our” molecules come and go (alive or dead). Which leaves our permanent essence to be a structure, one that it is impermanent at best—perhaps even the structure itself doesn’t exist as a physical “thing.” Rose (as we knew her) is now part of the ocean. Before that, she answered the door when you knocked (and that she can no longer do that is the sorrowful part of her change). And before that, she was something else, and someone else would have answered that door. You are treating the issue as a Newtonian, yet you understand from modern physics that existence is far more complex than we used to believe.

David Friedman said...

William writes:

"My girlfriend and I have long cherished the Greek myth about the virtuous couple who hospitably entertained some strangers who turned out to be gods, were granted one wish, and wished that they might die at the same instant."

As it happens, that was one of the stories that was told by someone in the bardic circle I run at Pennsic, a week or so before Mother died.

Beastin said...

My condolences.

Jonathan said...

I'm sorry that your mother has gone (wherever). Thanks for your thoughts on the subject; an interesting and plausible way of looking at it.

My father died in 1978, in Africa, at the age of 47. From time to time over the years, I've had dreams in which his death had evidently been reported in error, because he reappeared. It seems an example of the brain struggling for persistence.

Unlike John above, I don't believe there's any reason why life has to make sense. There's a common human desire for it to do so; but I don't think the universe is listening.

Anonymous said...

My condolences to you and your family.
After my mother died I surprised myself from time to time thinking "I will talk about this with Mother.", "I will tell Mother" and then I remembered.
It lasted some months ; maybe over a year, fading slowly away.
It helped.

Garg Unzola said...

My condolences to the Friedman family.

RKN said...

"My girlfriend and I have long cherished the Greek myth about the virtuous couple who hospitably entertained some strangers who turned out to be gods, were granted one wish, and wished that they might die at the same instant."

On the wall of our (wife & I) bedroom:

"If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you."
   - Winnie the Pooh

Peace to your family Friedmans.

Steve Buckstein said...

David, thank you for starting this fascinating discussion. I knew both of your parents, but of course not nearly as well as you did.

Condolences on their passing. They had a tremendous impact on countless individuals beyond your immediate family, and through that impact they will continue to exist long into the future.

Eric Kriss said...

David, both of your parents exerted a powerful and positive influence on my life that will be with me always. It is a debt I try to repay often. My sincere condolences.

neil craig said...

There are a small but significant number of cases of recovered past life memories which look completely inexpicable if they are not genuine. Granted there are a far greater number which are historically inaccurate & some which are explicable if one assumes a perfect subconsious recall of books read once, or languages heard a few times many years ago.

I think it would be worthwhile for the human race to invest 1% as much money on this as we do on the CERN collider.

I would very much like there to be some truth to it but that does not prove there isn't.

Alex Perrone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Well, the problem with life after death is verifying the same. While we think we could find testable proof, the actual proof may be beyond our technology. What we find hard to believe may only be our ignorance of what is apparant.

My condolences. We've all been blessed with the efforts of your parents and the knowledge you share.

Alex Perrone said...

I'm not sure about the connection with our perception. The persistency of objects doesn't lead us to believe that when a mosquito or oak tree dies that it keeps on living somewhere. We can just accept the fact that it is dead.

We cannot accept the fact that a loved one is dead because of all of our habitual thoughts about the person. The feature of the human mind is our construction of the person, such as their having the property of "being able to go to her apartment/call her on the phone." All of these properties have to be re-worked, and that is a painful process. This explanation also explains why it is painful, while a perceptual one does not. Why would our perception cause us pain? Visual illusions or other visual tricks are never painful...

Unknown said...

We each exist in our own universe, touched by others, but not quite the same place.

Yet I am nonetheless saddened to learn of your Mother's "passing" as I was of your Father's a few years ago.

I never met either of them, but they had an effect on me - they "made a difference" in a way few that set out to, in fact do.

They live on, because of what they did and said.

Wirkman Virkkala said...

A world without my mother seems wrong, somehow. But a world without my late nephew, now dead for seven years, seems even more wrong. An imbalance. (It seems a greater imbalance, to me, for a young person to die. I'm that indoctrinated by the normal expectations of life's duration.)

I suffered their deaths like one suffers vertigo. I'm sorry that you are going through something similar.

I was interested, though, in your reference to soap bubbles. Water bubbles, in a stream's eddy, have been my favored metaphor for human life since I was a teenager. A bubble is a system. It is a product of normal operations in the stream of time. They are distinct. They do not last long. Their continuity from moment to moment lasts as long as they last, as they move downstream. They start small, get bigger, and then either burst or diminish before bursting.

I think your general insight is correct. My "bubbles" metaphor was a means to correct for that common illusion of permanence.

Gray Woodland said...

All my condolences, David. When my father died late last year, he did not believe he was going anywhere - but he is still a large and vivid presence in our lives who knew him. It doesn't dull the edges of the places where he is not, though.

As to survival... No, I don’t look for anything beyond my own death either, and I don’t think it is like going into the next room. I think it is more like going where the light goes when it goes out. But even for a candle, that is not annihilation - not when there are minds alive in whom it is burning still.

And it seems to me that the memory of a lively and beloved person is still a real character, and doing far more important and interesting things within its host minds than flickering and burning. That is persistence and then some, for we should be a sorry gang of apes without our ghosts. Slender comfort, if that is truly all there is - but even so much is more than enough to justify the common intuition, by me.

Sympathies to you and fair harbour to your mother: may her good name, and that which lies behind the name, flourish long.

Anonymous said...


My condolences for your mother. I have never experienced that kind of loss.

I was pretty surprised to see this discussion. I and a 31 year old man who thinks about his empty existence nearly every second of every day; even as I prepare for the CPA exam and have a lovely 3 year old son I can not see life as anything but despair; not as a comic book existentialist but truly hellish terror.

If you're dealing with reality than me, my congratulations.

montestruc said...

Very sad to hear of the passing of her. My condolences to you and your family.

Mike Gogulski said...

Condolences, David, to you and your family.

Thomas Lindgren said...

My condolences.

Stevo Darkly said...

My belated condolences to David and to the Friedman family.

This is something I've never told anyone before:

My mom passed away in 1997. This past Mothers Day I experienced a string of unlikely coincidences that makes it very difficult for me not to believe that the dead survive somehow after death, and that they are able to communicate with the living in some extraordinary ways.

I will spare you the details; it would be a lengthy and convoluted story. But it is the very fact that such a string of unlikely events just happened to occur at a certain specific moment (within a window of less than three minutes) is what convinces me that it was more than merely coincidence.

Of course, I know that even extremely unlikely coincidences just happen sometimes. At the same time, it strikes me as stupid to deny the possibility of cause and effect when the alternative seems so unlikely. When a Rube Goldberg machine rolls up to your door and hits you in the face with a two-by-four at a particularly meaningful moment, then "it was entirely random chance that all the parts of the machine happened to be there and smacked you at that particular time" might not be the most rational conclusion.

Stevo Darkly said...

I just read what "Anonymous" said at 8:54 PM, September 04, 2009.

Good God, man -- it can't be as bleak as that.

You are learning, you are striving to grow. You have a 3-year-old son whose life would be much poorer if you weren't around. Yes it would.

If you are stuck in despair, talk to someone. Get counseling. If you have an employer, use your employee assistance program (EAP); lots of companies have one. Otherwise, talk to a clergyman, if you're a church member to any extent. Or look up "counseling" in your phone directory.

Life is a gift. It is beautiful. Yes it is. Sometimes it is also hard, and it often seems hopeless. But that doesn't last forever. People can live through it. If you need someone to help you see that, get help.