Monday, November 9, 2009

Dealing with Death

XKCD is one of my favorite webcomics, and the comic up on Friday stirred up a lot of thoughts and feelings for me this weekend.  Here's the comic:

Hemant at Friendly Atheist already wrote about the virtues of being an organ donor, and I won't repeat them here. Hemant did say something that resonated with me, and something I thought about when I first saw the comic as well:

The latest XKCD offers a beautiful explanation of why most atheists don’t fear death — we know that it’s possible for us to make a difference even after we die.

While I feel good about my decision to be an organ donor, it still didn't help me feel better about the fact that I will die someday.  Being an atheist and a scientist is humbling, considering the vastness of our universe, and how insignificant a part each of us plays in it, but I haven't completely lost my ego.  Considering the idea of not existing anymore was difficult to deal with.   

The idea presented at the beginning of the comic, that the essence of something is not the things it is made of, but the arrangement, the pattern, of those things, brought me back to what originally strengthened my convictions about being an atheist.  I was fortunate enough to be free enough to consider atheism at a young age.  When most atheists I know were questioning their religious beliefs, I was questioning whether my atheistic views were based on a solid foundation.  One of the last problems I had with my position was that I couldn't explain where my consciousness is, and where it came from.  It seemed so magical, so unexplainable, that there was part of me that couldn't accept that a materialistic world-view was justifiable given it.

Luckily, I found Douglas Hofstadter's books: del, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, The Mind's I (co-edited by Daniel Dennett), and I Am A Strange Loop, which introduced me to this idea that the patterns of activity in our brain is what's fundamental to us.  When these patterns became complex enough, they became able to represent self-referential thought (thinking about myself), in what Hofstadter calls "strange loops."  He argues that these strange loops are where consciousness comes from.  This may not have answered all my questions**, but it did convince me that materialism was a better foundation for consciousness than another theory.

So what does this have to do with dealing with the fear of dying?  While reading I Am A Strange Loop on my commute home one afternoon, the book took a turn that surprised and shook me, when Hofstadter discusses his wife's untimely illness and death.  It was a very moving account.  I had trouble fighting back tears while reading it, which doesn't usually happen to me while reading.  It did make it somewhat awkward sitting next to total strangers on a commuter rail train.    During this time, he talks about what it means to be close to someone, to love someone:

...the idea I am proposing here is that since a normal adult human brain is a representationally universal "machine", and since humans are social beings, an adult brain is the locus not only of one strange loop constituting the identity of the primary person associated with that brain, but of many strange-loop patterns that are coarse-grained copies of the primary strange loops housed in other brains.  Thus, brain 1 contains strange loops 1, 2, 3, and so forth, each with its own level of detail.  But since this notion is true of any brain, not just of brain 1, it entails the following flip side:  Every normal human soul is housed in many brains at varying degrees of fidelity, and therefore every human consciousness or "I" lives at once in a collection of different brains, to different extents.

Hofstadter defends his view throughout most of the book, and I definitely couldn't do him justice in a short blog post, so I must highly recommend the book if this is intriguing to you, rather than try to explain it all here.  The point is, although the main pattern may disappear when someone dies, part of that person's consciousness lives on.  It lives on in their family, friends and loved ones.  I'm under no illusions that I will live on forever in the standard sense of being fully aware of myself, my "I", in my own brain, or some surrogate.  But knowing that I am a part of the people I love, and I can have an effect on this world even after I'm gone, not just my physical pieces, but my self, my "I", has given me a sense of peace about my mortality. 

Hofstadter concludes one of the chapters in I Am A Strange Loop with his insights on what happens to these distributed versions of a consciousness over time, and what funerals accomplish in terms of these strange loops.  This passage has given me comfort in the past; it's something that I'd like read at my funeral when the time comes:

Halos, Afterglows, Coronas
In the wake of a human being's death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And then those people in turn pass on, the afterglow become extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.
The slow process of extinction I've just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has once and for all gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being--truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig--is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.
It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and this solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word "love" cannot, thus, be separated from the word "I"; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

In fact in some ways, I think my views are more optimistic than Hofstadter's.  I think he's wrong that those afterglows eventually have to go out.  Even though, as generations go by, less and less people will know me by name, those who they do know may have been affected by me.  I know that I would be a much different person if it wasn't for my family members and friends, who have also been affected by their parents and friends.  And I will in turn affect the next generation, who have the potential to affect future generations, which can go on to infinity.

I know that some may not feel much better about the fact that they will eventually pass on after hearing this, but I hope that some can find solace as I have.  And if not, keep learning, reading and absorbing.  You never know when some new way of thinking will hit you, and change your outlook for the better.

**As an example, I still think there is a boot-strapping problem with Hofstadter's explanation, although I can't figure out exactly where it comes from. This suggests to me that it has more to do with my conscious-thinker-centric ego, and this entrenched idea that consciousness should be more complicated, than it being a real problem.


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