Having spent several years of my life dealing on the frontline of death, it is no shock that the very nature of the end is one that I have often considered. As an atheist, the very idea carries perhaps more weight than for those lucky enough to hold beliefs in a second and eternal life.
But regardless of introspective journies, or indeed the hard moments where I have lost patients and family, there is some universality to the finale.
Beyond the Curtain
To consider the nature of death, one may begin with what we consider life. And although neurobiology may teach us many lessons about the beginnings of what we consider ‘consciousness’, it is clear that there is a difference between the passive actions of molecular machinery and the purposeful meanderings of creatures such as we.
DNA, the very building blocks of species innumerable and immemorable, has no memory beyond its structure, which within itself is only transient and ‘dies’ at the impromptu whim of little force. You would not call it alive in any real sense, any more than the bark of a tree or the ebb of a river. Motion does not mean life, only motion.
The next step up, the interaction between chains of organic molecules guided by chemical gates and gradients, is just as robotic and carries with it no semblance of intelligence. It is us that have defined agency in the evolutionarily derived actions of physics and chemistry. Once again you would not ask a melting lump of sugar how it feels.
So to jump to a creature that we consider alive we must allow for something different, the ability for an organism to not only respond to something outside of itself, (like simple molecules will,) but to manage its response over time.
It is within the structure of a third order neuron system that we begin to see feedback loops that form the basis of sentience, that is the binary form of what, as humans, we owe our special experience to. It is the macrocosmic version of these loops, interacting at incredible speeds, that give us the illusion of what we call ‘mind’
And regardless of our supposed consciousness, which until recently many believed signified some transcendental soul, we can reduce not just our minds, but our entire existence, free will included, to the non-sentient interactions of molecules carved into man-shape.
Considering this, the idea of death becomes one of both greater significance, and lesser all at once.
Before the Gates
So assuming that Science can provide explanations of how we have come to be, think and live, it is fair to demand that it provide an explanation for death. The biological model of death is quite simple; the cessation of an organism in all forms of modality except physical, which itself eventually passes with the sands of entropy. There is no room for a soul, which ceases as the machinery of the body grinds to a halt.
Whatever consciousness, thoughts or soul that once was disappears, a temporary illusion of apparent sentience maintained by the limited capacities of our brains, tempered and reminded of its presence by our nervous systems, intrinsically tied to the physical form in which it carries out it’s life. Simply put, the ‘soul’ is nothing more than a function of the soulless.
But as thinking creatures, who have achieved so much as to fly jets and write poetry, the very concept of death, beyond a question mark or ancient book, eludes us.
To ask what lies beyond, how it may ‘feel’ and what it ‘means’ is a question that Science itself has not answered beyond the retrospective analysis of those who have experienced near-death experiences. And even then, the ‘white light’ and ‘feelings of warmth’ so often attributed to a deity can be explained the death secretions of the brain in the form of DMT and other chemicals. Once again, we have applied agency and purpose to the banal.
To consider the true feeling of ‘non-being’ is simply beyond us. It is like asking what life felt like before you were born. I have no memory of the 13 or so billion years prior to my birth and will have no experience of the trillions after my death.
The experience, unless I am dramatically wrong in my atheism, will be very much the same; beyond comprehension, as there is no mechanism by which we may comprehend it. We are asking a rock to know itself.
As for purpose of life and death, there is likely none beyond which we choose. And if free will is an illusion, which many believe it to be, then the choice itself is mute. The purpose of life is simply existence but without agency or overriding design.
Freidrich Nietzsche may have come the closest in his estimations, in that purpose cannot be known as the universe itself is unknowable, and although science has taught us much about the universe, it has only shown us what and how, not ‘why.’
After the Fall.
To some, the idea of death is one of immense tribulation. I would agree myself, and no wager as simple as Pascal’s, or approach as defensive as agnosticism, changes that. The realisation of the mechanical nature of the human body and the illusory spirit is one that could, if we so let it, steal our significance in both the personal and cosmic sense. Such intellectual discussion means little to the lady dying of cancer, or the old man of kidney failure.
Such arbitrary ruminations are the gift of a far-off death, the distance of time or reality, the time to muse. But upon approaching it, either in hours, days or weeks, the intellectual arguments may provide no solace. In this sense, I very much understand why so much of the world holds on to the safety of heaven, because the reality of randomness and pointless may make life seem unfair.
Why live without purpose, why die at all?
However, even the most logical deductions about the nature of death and it’s purpose can reveal something truly astounding. And that is that if the universe is without agency or purpose, and we are nothing but illusory consciousness formed of asentient molecules, then our lives are incredibly worthwhile.
In the vast cosmos, we have sprung to life, and death is not some great messenger or test of faith, but simply the end of that cycle.
Death is neither bad nor good beyond human morality, but a cessation. The molecules in our bodies will not feel the end, or eulogise the passing of a ribosome. But those we leave behind will greave the loss of kin, another one so unlikely to have experienced life.
For me, as cynical as I am, there is a great beauty around the end of things. It teaches us, perhaps not all at once, that the true value of life is in its living.
We don’t require purpose, just the ability to define it. We don’t need free will, just the illusion of agency. We don’t need an eternal life, just the moments that make us forget about the inanity of it all.
And being a doctor and an atheist, death has taught me this; the end is common, constant and beyond knowledge, but a good life is not. So enjoy every moment, keep writing poems, keep flying jets, keep asking questions and, for as long as you can, breathe.
Image courtesy of Flickr.