The night before last, I dreamt that I had a cancerous brain tumour and had been given six months to live.
Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve dreamt of impending death, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, so I’m not particularly disturbed by the dream itself. As I’ve written elsewhere, in the past I’ve even dreamt of being executed, once by lethal injection, and another time by decapitation, and seeing my skull and neck vertebrae on display afterwards, and this was small potatoes compared to that. But it did open up an avenue or two of thought.
Before I go any further, let me get one thing out of the way: I’m a monist as well as an atheist; which means I have no belief in any kind of non-biological life after death. However, for the purposes of this article, I'll try and put that aside as much as I can.
What I was reminded of is that, scientifically speaking, death is an ongoing process. Even as you’re reading this, millions of your red corpuscles are being filtered out of your bloodstream by your spleen, taken out of circulation and effectively destroyed. The cells lining your mouth and intestine are flaking away, being shed and replaced by new cells growing from underneath. When you have an abscess somewhere, it’s filled with pus which comprises cells of your body broken down by your immune system and digested. Look at your hair and nails – they’re comprised of tissue which was once alive, and now manifestly isn’t. Your body is constantly dying around you.
Even my dream tumour would only be among thousands of cancers my body will be developing over the course of my lifetime, runaway cells of my own substance, which will mostly be snuffed out by my body’s own defence mechanism. Only if the body fails to kill its own material, the tumour cells, will I develop the cancer.
Now this is an interesting thing, because to most people, death is a final and complete end, characterised by the stoppage of the heart and/or the cessation of activity of the brain. But then this too is a process. That the body doesn’t die instantly when the heart stops is fairly well known; most people are aware that if the supply of blood to the brain can be maintained or resumed within three minutes, there needn’t be any long term deleterious effects. But if the blood flow is interrupted for longer than that, what happens?
Well, the brain cells start to die, of course, since the brain is the most oxygen- and nutrient-hungry organ in the human body. But even that die-off takes time, as the cells run out of oxygen to energise their molecular factories and nutrients to burn as fuel, and as they begin to drown in their own waste products. And even after the brain cells die, less energy-hungry cells in the body – like in the nail beds, for instance, or the dermis – keep functioning for a while, since they aren’t as gluttonous and can carry on longer for less. Of course, even they will die in the end – but it will take time.
[A note here: Those pulp horror tales which claim the nails and hair keep growing after death aren’t completely wrong. The hair and nails do keep growing briefly after the cessation of cardiac activity, but the growth would be measured in minute fractions of a millimetre. Sorry, guys.]
Conversely, it isn’t necessary for the body as a whole to die for a part of it to do so. Back in physiology lab in medical college we had to pith frogs. This involved destroying their brains with a needle inserted along the line of the spinal cord. After this was done, the frogs would still be alive, though they no longer had a functioning brain. If food was put in the back of their mouths, they’d reflexively swallow, and they’d breathe and carry on other functions not requiring higher mental control. The body was alive though the brain was dead.
Anyone who’s had an appendix removed, for instance, or a limb amputated (or, as in my case, has been circumcised) has had a portion of his or her body cut away, which has then died; but the main body has continued, in more or less functioning order, to survive. And there’s the obverse, where parts of the body die while remaining attached to the main body, at least for a time. We call it dry gangrene.
Therefore, death is a process, a rather long-drawn-out process at that, which begins while we’re still in the uterus and continues after our hearts stop beating and brains give up ticking over. And even then it isn’t the end.
In an earlier article I’ve written that we are, essentially, vast conglomerations of organisms, from the bacteria in our intestines to the minute arthropods which crawl in the follicles of our eyelashes. As we die, many of these creatures immediately begin breaking down our tissues and converting them into nutrients, which they assimilate and return to nature, to be cycled back through the sequence of continuing death and rebirth.
All this may seem somewhat obvious if one’s accustomed to thinking from the standpoint of science, of course. To someone thinking along these lines, death and life are part of one great machine, turning constantly and irreversibly, and one’s personal death is neither to be particularly feared or welcomed. It’s just part of the scheme of things.
And this is where we find a great parting of the ways. To many people – I’d even say the majority of people – the thought that death is just one of those things is inconceivable, almost repugnant. If death is merely part of an ongoing process, then it’s not of great significance, and if it’s not of special significance, it throws into doubt the very basis of virtually all of spirituality and religion – that there’s a hereafter, and that life has meaning because it affects the hereafter. If you’re dying since before you’re born, what’s the big deal about death?
I mentioned this, basically, because it’s such a wonderful illustration of the schism between what JBS Haldane called the scientific point of view, and what I’ll call the intuitive viewpoint. The intuitive viewpoint is what seems to be “common sense”. How flawed this “common sense” is can be understood when you consider something that was raised to the stature of Divine Writ: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, therefore the sun goes round the earth. If, like Giordano Bruno, you challenged it, you might be burned at the stake. The scientific point of view is concerned only with evidence and testable hypotheses; it has no place for fantasies. An intuitive viewpoint can make up whatever it wants.
To an intuitive viewpoint, life has to have a reason to exist. As the (non-religious but spiritualist) author Richard Bach wrote in one of his books, “Here’s a simple test to see if your mission on earth is over. If you’re alive, it isn’t.” Personally, I have vast contempt for Bach’s inveterate solipsism, but I shall put it aside for the moment and see what this “mission” might be from the scientific point of view.
There’s a saying I love to quote whenever I find anyone talking about their “purpose in life”: a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. Biologically your mission on earth is to reproduce a recombinant version of your genes. You are, basically, a means to an end – the creation of another copy of your genetic code. Biologically, that’s all you are, and that’s all that matters. Nothing else.
Again, this isn’t something the intuitive point of view can accept. It’s frightening, the idea that we’re only the expression of gene sequences, and are hardwired to recreate those sequences, like biological robots. It’s the same attitude which recoiled in horror from the idea that the earth was not only not the centre of the universe, but was a minor planet revolving around a small star on an outer spiral arm of an unremarkable galaxy. Yet that is what we are.
Where life and death are concerned, the scientific point of view will concern itself, like on every other subject, only with facts – facts which can either be directly detected, or can be inferred from observations and then tested for. Recently science finally located the Higgs Boson particle, which gives mass to everything in the universe, without which matter couldn’t exist. Yet the existence of this particle had been inferred for a long time from observations, and experiments were set up to detect it. It wasn’t quite found serendipitously. If, on the other hand, it had been discovered by accident, then the scientific viewpoint would have tested it to find out what it was and what its position was in the scheme of things.
Yes, I’m aware that a lot of people find science “cold” and hence frightening. But science isn’t cold or warm; it’s only concerned with reality, as far as that term can be interpreted. If tomorrow someone could make a case for a “soul” which survived death, which did not have to be taken on faith but could actually be detected by instruments, its properties predicted from observations, and the validity of the predictions checked by independent observers, then science would be duty-bound to investigate that “soul” and research into the “hereafter”. But unless and until someone comes up with such a case, science has better things to do.
There’s one argument I keep coming across, used almost exclusively by theists: “Can you prove a god doesn’t exist?” The inference, of course, is that if one can’t prove a god doesn’t exist, then ipso facto it exists by default. That might make sense in a courtroom where the existence of god is the defendant, and it’s considered innocent unless proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt (except, of course, that to theists there can never be “reasonable” doubt, since faith is automatically unreasonable, even quite proudly anti-reason; anyone who doubts me on that might want to read through the writings of St Augustine sometime). But it doesn’t make sense to science.
To science, the burden of proof is on the “accused”, or to be more precise on the person advancing a hypothesis. To talk about a “hereafter” to a scientist is equivalent to talking of the existence of invisible flying unicorns. Just as because the scientist cannot disprove the existence of invisible flying unicorns doesn’t magically bring them into existence (uh...wait...story idea right there...down, damn it, this is not the time), the hereafter doesn’t exist only because science can’t prove it doesn’t. If the person hypothesising invisible flying unicorns, however, can lay out a case for their existence, and predictions can be made on how they can be detected and will be found to behave, and subsequent observational data bears out these predictions, why, then, these horned horses become subject to the scientific point of view. But until and unless they do, they’re just pie in the sky.
Seen objectively, the scientific point of view is not only the reasonable one, but the only viable one from the standpoint of any kind of morality. It doesn’t even have to do with science. Let’s just look at the current fascination with “liberal wars”, or as they call it, “humanitarian intervention”. In its usual form, it takes the shape of demonising a small and defenceless country, accusing its leaders of being freedom-hating dictatorial monsters who are keeping their people from democracy, and proclaiming that what the nation needs is "regime change". And it is usually true that these nations are not ruled by what the “humanitarian interventionists” would call a democracy, though it’s even more true that in most cases these “dictators” have broad popular support, and that one can accurately predict that “humanitarian intervention” will bring about general social collapse and civil war.
No matter; today, war is sold as a consumer product, with a full range of advertising pitched entirely at the emotional level, with transparently ludicrous propaganda passed off as “fact”. Thought of from the scientific viewpoint, lies about babies being torn out of incubators or London being “45 minutes from destruction” are easily dismissed as lies, and anyone trained to think scientifically will dismiss them with contempt. But to a mass of people who not only think intuitively, but who are actively frightened by science, atrocity stories aren’t fiction unless proof is provided; they believe it because they can’t think objectively, and they do not want to. And they can be stampeded into doing whatever manipulative political and religious leaders want them to do, cheer on any invasion, swallow any lie, however outrageous; not because they are stupid (though that is often the case) but because scientific, logical thinking is as alien to them as the far side of the moon.
To a scientist, then, the "humanitarian intervention" is a cynical ploy which will end in disaster. To the intuitist, it's a holy and righteous mission; and it will stay that way, until the body bags start coming home, at which time the intuitist will shout that he was betrayed.
To get back to the question of life and death, then. To the scientific point of view, since the afterlife is nonexistent by any objective point of view, this is all we have, and it’s incumbent on us to make the best use we have of it. Shivering in fear of divine post-mortem punishment is as much a waste of time as is blowing oneself up in order to get 72 virgins in paradise.
It really shouldn’t be necessary for me to mention at this point that just as the scientific point of view seeks out hard knowledge and revels in it, the intuitive viewpoint shies away from knowledge and fact. Knowledge is antithetical to intuition. If not, it wouldn’t be intuition, it would be science.
I’ll close this article with a bit of entertaining invective directed at me back in my days on Orkut, which illustrates not only how intuitists think, but how wilfully ignorant they are. I was arguing with someone or other and had put forward the advantages of viewing the universe with the eyes of science.
“You believe in science?” the other person spluttered, indignantly. “What are you, a Scientologist?”
I rest my case.