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What dreams may come

Where should we assign the burden of proof for ideas about the afterlife?
By Doug Muder
Summer 2010 5.15.10

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hand and flowers on coffin (Dariusz Buczynski/iStockphoto)

(Dariusz Buczynski/iStockphoto)

As people who value both cold, hard facts and the freedom of an unfettered imagination, Unitarian Universalists sometimes walk a narrow path between reductionism and wishful thinking. Confining ourselves to whatever current science can quantify seems too limiting, but how much speculation can we indulge before we become what we swear we are not: a religion in which people believe whatever they want?

Take death, for example, and what may (or may not) come after. Everyone can observe that corpses rot. If bodies are all we are or were or ever will be, then death is the final period at the end of our sentence. But we have countless motives to hope for something beyond that period: the simple pleasure of continued existence, our unwillingness to bid a final good-bye to loved ones, the injustice of lives that end without either the consolations or punishments they deserve, the challenge of finding meaning in a life that will someday come to nothing, and many more.

Where should we assign the burden of proof: To those who reach beyond the immediately observable? Or to those who would have us surrender our hopes?

Whichever side shoulders that burden will come up short because the evidence is slim. Death, says Hamlet, is “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” That lack of travelers’ testimony cuts both ways: As we postulate an afterlife, we have little to work with—but also little to restrain our imaginations.

Why, then, do so many discussions of the afterlife show so little imagination, as if the only possibilities were angels-with-harps or oblivion? David Eagleman’s new book Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives lifts us out of that rut. The plural afterlives in the title is intentional: He has written forty independent thought experiments, not forty points-of-view inside a unified theory of life-after-death. And he has written them as tales, each two or three pages long. They do not assemble evidence or make arguments, but begin with simple assertions: “In the afterlife . . . ”

Sum does not come with instructions. No Introduction tells us why Eagleman assembled these tales or what he intends for us to do with them. (Perhaps that would restrain our imaginations too much.) Many share a spirit of simple playfulness: What if the Dead become the bit players in the dreams of the Living? What if the only people in your afterlife are the ones you can remember from your life? What if a technologically generated virtual immortality competed with the religious kind?

But taken as a whole, Eagleman’s airy little stories map out a critique of most currently popular views of death and the afterlife. How many afterlife theories are just reactions to the life we have now? In “Descent of Species” you are allowed to choose your next life. Feeling stressed, you choose a simple life as, say, a horse. Only after the transformation has begun do you realize that (lacking the context of your human memories) horse-you will be unable to appreciate (or even grasp) the simplicity human-you sought. In “Angst” the meaninglessness of your earthly life is the whole point: It is a vacation from your regular job, in which you keep a poorly made Universe from falling apart.

Other tales puncture the self-importance of our visions. In “Microbe” humans are unintended side effects in a universe created by a bacterium-sized God. It is microbes, not us, who were made in God’s image and are granted an afterlife. “Giantess” asserts that we are the microbes in the body of a universe-sized Goddess; we are beneath notice, except perhaps to provoke an immune reaction.

Humanistic visions that replace a literal afterlife also come into question. “Metamorphosis” finds no comfort in surviving through the memories of the Living because “we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.” Should we seek satisfaction in the continuing consequences of our actions? “Will-o’-the-wisp” imagines the Dead obsessively monitoring the world of the Living for positive signs of their influence. But the truly blessed are the ones kicked out of the monitoring room: They are insulated from a future that inevitably turns out nothing like they imagined it.

None of the forty tales recommends itself as the basis of a belief system. But reading Sum may shake loose some new ideas, or at the very least help you understand exactly what you are hoping for after death, if anything.

Julian Barnes can also imagine a great many possibilities after death, he just can’t believe in them. A 60ish novelist who rejected his family’s half-hearted Anglicanism many decades ago, Barnes has written a challenging meditation on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of.

The title is ironic; Barnes is in fact quite frightened of death and the nothingness of it is exactly what frightens him. The old Christian vision of Heaven seems childish to him, but

We grow up; we trade in our old sense of wonder for a new one . . . We do all this, and do we get any better at dying? . . . [If we have lived well], then looking back on life will be more bearable. But that’s a different matter from looking forwards to what is immediately ahead: total extinction. Are we going to get any better at that?

Nothing to Be Frightened Of becomes an autobiography of sorts, the history of Barnes’s lifelong relationship with death. We meet his parents and grandparents, and learn about their respective deaths, each unenviable in its own particular way. These stories are intertwined with discussions of Barnes’ literary ancestors, the authors he identifies with. They had much to say about death and what “a good death” might be. But their actual deaths—Barnes makes a project out of finding their graves—bear little resemblance to their hopes, and none give him a hero to emulate.

The book’s second major character is Barnes’s brother-the-philosopher, still living, who represents a more rational, less sensitive point of view. The contrast between the two is a constant subject of speculation. Is the brother’s relative equanimity about death (“I don’t exactly welcome it, but it doesn’t worry me either”) due to his superior answers, his shallower grasp of the questions, or just a genetic difference of temperament?

The relics of dead religion are seldom far from the spotlight. “I don’t believe in God,” says Barnes’s opening line, “but I miss Him.” (The brother finds that sentiment “soppy.”) Barnes examines various versions of Pascal’s wager, including Wittgenstein’s admonition “Go on, believe! It does no harm.” But wishing to believe or deciding to believe are not the same as actually believing, and one of the few things Barnes finds more unbelievable than God is a God who would be satisfied by such a “weak tea” faith. His attempt to self-induce faith in the Christian plan of salvation goes like this:

If it were true, it would be beautiful; and because it was beautiful, it would be the more true; and the more true, the more beautiful; and so on. Yes but it’s not true you idiot, I hear my brother interject.

He turns his skepticism equally on secular consolations for death: If Barnes’s DNA survives in his brother’s children, well, good for it—but he will be dead all the same. How can he take satisfaction in what future generations will remember of him, when his memories of past generations are so paltry, and so made over by his own needs? And besides, someday the last person who remembers him will die. Someday his grave will have its last visitor. This very book will have a last reader. (That bastard! Why didn’t he recommend it to someone else?)

Intellectually, Barnes grasps the argument that earthly life becomes more serious when it is not just a rehearsal for eternity, and yet:

[D]o I really think that my death-denying (or religious) friends appreciate that bunch of flowers/ work of art/glass of wine less than I do? No.

He is likewise skeptical of the wonder that the scientific mind finds in the workings of a godless universe:

Should we not be a little more suspicious of it? A dung beetle might well have a primitive sense of awe at the size of the mighty dung ball it is rolling. Is this wonder of ours merely a posher version?

He is left in the end with his fear of death intact, no consolation beyond his satisfaction at not having fooled himself, and the vague sense that he could have made a better deal.

Carole A. Travis-Henikoff has also written the history of her relationship with death, but her book and Barnes’s seem to come from different universes. Passings: Death, Dying, and Unexplained Phenomena is full of visions, unseen presences, pre-cognitive dreams, and other indications that the dead are doing just fine.

Many of the experiences are her own, beginning with a classic near-death experience at age 11. During a particularly tragic three and a half years in middle age, she lost her husband (leukemia), father (kidney failure), mother (suicide), grandmother (age), and daughter (complications from a fall), followed a few years later by a daughter-in-law (rare blood disease). Each death was accompanied, either before or after, with an out-of-the-ordinary experience: someone’s warning dream, a relative’s instantaneous knowledge of death, a vision of light, or a sense of departing presence.

Or perhaps such experiences are more ordinary than we commonly think. Travis-Henikoff comes to believe that they are. She finds them recorded similarly in many cultures and eras. And once people realize she is open to such stories, almost everybody seems to have one—including rationalists who attribute their experiences to coincidence or stress.

Passings is strikingly devoid of theology. Travis-Henikoff does not profess to know where the dead go, how they get there, or who set this system up. She is, in her own way, an empiricist. She knows what she has seen, and she trusts what her friends, relatives, and clients (she becomes a grief counselor at a Chicago hospital) tell her. Because the repeated motifs in such accounts make them recognizable, if not yet reproducible or testable, she argues that scientists should not dismiss them out of hand. To point out the difficulties she faces in establishing the scientific reality of what she has seen, she issues this challenge: “You know that the last two minutes of your life happened. Prove it.”

It is not hard to guess what Julian Barnes would think of Carole Travis-Henikoff’s testimony. He would envy her experience, her conviction, and most of all her sense of peace in the face of death. But his skepticism would be equal to the task: The mind is tricky, memory is unreliable, and the fulfillment of prophecies often depends on subtle reinterpretation after the fact.

Travis-Henikoff would be similarly unmoved by Barnes’s critique. William James observed a century ago: “As a matter of psychological fact, mystical states of a well-pronounced and emphatic sort are usually authoritative over those who have them. They have been ‘there’ and know. It is vain for rationalism to grumble about this.”

So where is the path between reductionism and wishful thinking? The contrast between Barnes and Travis-Henikoff is just an extreme example of one that is repeated in UU congregations around the country, and points out a truth that has nothing to do with death: The path is not the same for everyone.

Neither author believes what he or she wants to believe. Each has come to the only conclusions that make sense given the unique experiences and intuitions that life has made available. They believe what they can believe, not what they want to. Forcing more skepticism on Travis-Henikoff or more faith on Barnes (whether they forced themselves or felt forced by their communities) would be life-negating, not life-affirming.

In the end, the right question is not how to find the capital-T Truth about death. That looks to be impossible; the objective, commonly available evidence is not there. A better question is how to affirm—and help each other affirm—the unique life that each of us has been given and is making.

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