Category Archives: Experience

On Dying. A Message From Scientific Thinking.

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.

 

 

 

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Feel Like You Are Blogging Into A Canyon? You Aren’t Alone. What It Really Feels Like To Begin A Blog.

So you have done the research. Found your niche. Decided that this is about ‘passion’ and not profit. Perhaps you have followed a few of the leaders in your field, emailed a few journals and gone as far as to decide a timetable. You have searched through web builders, domains and paid the fees. Now its time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard..) So what can you expect?

A damn roller coaster.

Prepare To Be Inspired

Wading into the #blogosphere can be intimidating. Giants like ‘The Minimalists‘ can make you feel very small, and its likely your first posts have garnered little attention. But actually, that’s quite inspiring. Some sites say don’t sweat the analytics too early, but I don’t agree. From day one you can begin to see what works and what doesn’t, who responds, what they think and how it feels.

My first post (well that’s a lie, but I restarted..) was ‘The Big 5 Questions that could re-invent democracy‘, something very well received. It was topical, touched on several interesting discussion points and received a fair amount of discussion. And that was fascinating. Even from the comments on Twitter, I gained new ideas for the next one. Not only did I gain feedback, I gained direction.

Even the least viewed articles can teach you something. First, you can examine your work, see if there was something that didn’t quite click. Was the narrative off, did you make the reader feel engaged? Was the subject interesting, or made interesting? Could you have used images? You now have a chance to try new things, play around and invent, and that’s pretty good fun.

Once in a while someone famous will comment, share or like what you write. And no matter how balanced you are, this is always awesome. This is a ‘win’, no doubt about it. And now you, and your blog, may have gained some serious attention.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, all you have to do is open your eyes and broaden your mind.

Prepare To Feel Frustrated

Sometimes you may hit a wall. What can I write next? Why isn’t this article being shared? Well the answers may not be obvious, and a lot of the time, it comes down to something you can change. I wondered why some of what I felt were my best received little attention, and the worst much more? Well that’s part of the experience, and frustration is a natural reaction. Its hard to put yourself out there.

They say the best thing to grow a blog is consistency. People like comfort, and develop habits. Perhaps you read the same blog week in week out, or are subscribed to the same Youtuber. You feel amiss when they miss an upload, and comforted when they have a new post. There is a scientific reason for this, called ‘dopamine.’ Its natures pleasure hormone, and once it reacts to a situation, it recognises it and does it again and again.

By being consistent, you can begin to develop a readership that trusts you, and also find pleasure in writing again and again.

Prepare To Feel Creative

In my first few posts I tried a few different things. Some articles were more scientific, others more polemic. One approached comedic (although I’m definitely not funny.) A blog allows you to flex your creative muscles. So why not try it? Write a poem, short story, an opinion piece or a news article. Mess around with the site itself, change its design, see what works for you and your readers.

‘Create, create, create. You never know what might be the key.’

Prepare To Feel Nervous

Putting yourself out there is nerve-wracking. As I talked about in my article on Anxiety, sometimes notoriety can be scary. These are your words, your opinions and your message. And people you have never met are going to be reading them, judging and commenting. Okay, you get the odd bad review, but remember there is no such thing as bad publicity. And its an opportunity to learn, improve, create and try new things.

Take the emotions in your stride, and keep moving forward.

This is just a little insight into what this whole crazy process feels like. But what do you think? What have you learned that you could teach others? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe, follow and share.

What Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article
  • Write a list of 10 possible #blog topics
  • Review your analytics!

The opinions above represent those of Dr Janaway alone and not necessarily those of his affiliates.  If you have any ideas for articles, or would like to write with me, let me know on Twitter or drop me an email. Image courtesy of Josh Henderson