By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Can we avoid dying and live forever? The quest for immortality has been with humans ever since they saw death occurring and they realized they would die too some day. In ancient Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh saw his friend die and became apprehensive he too would soon have the same end. The legend says Gilgamesh traveled all over the world in search of a cure for death; he found it, but jealous immortal gods snatched it away from him before he could use it. Ponce de Leon also searched for the fountain of youth in wild Florida, but never found it. Yet, with modern science, we have a chance to cure aging and disease and to live indefinitely long lives, even to become immortal.
Most people want to live as long as possible to enjoy the pleasures of human existence or to avoid death out of fear. A few persons, however, in desperation or extreme pain, seek out death, an end to their troubles. “To be or not to be, that is the question; whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.” I say, how to live is the problem, not how to die.
First, to learn how to live, stretch your time on earth as long as possible, avoiding every conceivable way of dying. That is, life extension is the first step to a good life and possibly to immortality. Second, procreate, because much of you is in your genes, your body merely a host to the genes and a carrier to the future. Third, see to it that your best ideas and ideals are passed on to future generations, because we are what we think.
Genes and ideas are fine, but they’re not me as a person with my body, me as a conscious being, seeing flowers, thrilling to great music, making love. My brother-in-law, age 90, who had his share of illnesses and accidents, likes to say we should get rid of our bodies: our bodies are too much trouble, subject to failure, and we should move our memories to a computer, which can be repaired indefinitely with ease. I doubt that our consciousness is just memories; transferring our awareness to a machine does not seem feasible in the near future to help you or me.
Another idea my brother-in-law proposed was cryonic suspension, about which he read in Robert Ettinger’s best selling book “The Prospect of Immortality.” Ettinger also founded the Cryonic Institute after becoming acutely aware of his own mortality at age 42. If you are about to die from an incurable disease or accident, the Institute will freeze your body or just your brain in liquid hydrogen and maintain it in suspension until medical science has advanced sufficiently to revive and restore it to health. Unfortunately, freezing causes tremendous amount of damage to body cells. Future physicians would have to repair each individual cell; why should they go to that much trouble? Society can produce fresh human beings the old fashioned way for all its needs.
Hope of medical miracles is persistent in our society. Did we not cure smallpox, leprosy, poliomyelitis, and so many diseases and breakdowns of the body? A friend of mine, at 26, with a Ph.D. in science, professor at the California Institute of Technology, switched to medicine after his father died suddenly at 56. I was enrolled at Caltech myself in computers and bio-systems analysis, pursuing my own ideas for defeating death, the ultimate problem. I had grand plans for a life in search of vast knowledge, a life with a large family of my own making, and great riches, culminating in important contributions to the world. All those plans required longevity approaching immortality. I had read in 1966 I.J. Good’s forecast of the advent of super-intelligent computers that would solve nearly any problem we might pose to them, even the problem of immortality. I.J. Good probably influenced Arthur C. Clark, physicist and science fiction writer, when Clark wrote “2001, A Space Odyssey,” with HAL, an intelligent computer on board a spaceship bound for Jupiter. 2001 came and went, and we have not yet established colonies on the moon, or designed a computer of even average human intelligence, in spite of much progress in computers, communications, and rocket science.
I still think we can eventually build a computer far more intelligent that any human, through a process of evolving smarter and smarter machines, if we could only get to the first of the series. We are going to have to start by inventing machine pattern recognition, a human ability, not yet implemented in computers despite more than forty years of research going back to Rosenblatt’s “perceptrons.”
The cure of illness, accidental damage, and aging, will sooner come from tissue replacement with stem cells. Organs from our own body’s stem cells, not subject to rejection by the immune system, will replace damaged or aged parts of the body. The brain will have to be repaired with care, so that we don’t lose our consciousness and identity, injecting stem cells into the brain in measured numbers and arranging for their incorporation in the neural networks. This will be something like the immortality of the amoeba, replicating with mitosis and living indefinitely as long as available nutrients and environmental factors allow.
What if we can replace damaged tissues? We would live longer, but eventually death would overtake us through accident, murder, suicide, or war. We need to understand what death is, a difficult undertaking, because we don’t know what life is. Death is apparently like sleep: the eyes are closed, one doesn’t move much and is helpless– consciousness is lost. When my dad was near death because he stopped eating, I was trying to feed him myself and he kept saying: “I want to sleep. I’m tired; I want to sleep,” although he had been sleeping quite a lot.” He was tired of living and wanted to pass on. Poetically, we say loved ones are asleep in their graves; but we wake up from sleep rested, refreshed, and fully conscious. In death, people are in deep, deep sleep without an awakening. “To die: to sleep; to sleep? Perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…” No one really knows what dreams, if any, may come after death, and that’s the rub.
We know the signs of death: breathing stops, the heart stands still, the body does not move ever again by itself, the skin gets pale, even gray, coldness and rigor mortis stiffening sets in. The brain does not broadcast EEG waves and decomposition follows, the stench an aphrodisiac for flies which swarm over the carcass, laying their eggs for maggots to consume the flesh. In the last stage of living, nobody ever experiences death, we only feel the dying: the pain, the surgery, the frantic efforts of physicians and nurses, pre-operation and post-operation agony. This is the phenomenon of death; but what is the inner experience of death? Is it a blanking out of everything or a passage to another existence as the prophets declare and religious people believe?
We read stories about people who experienced floating out of their bodies and hovering over doctors and nurses at surgery, when these people nearly died or died for a moment or two; these stories are called near-death experiences and make interesting journalism. Some people near death also see a tunnel with an ineffable light at the end and sense a compassionate presence, presumably God. People under unaesthesia and near death don’t make reliable observers. Were they really at death’s door when they had these experiences?
To understand what death really is we must understand what life is, because death is the absence of life, like darkness is the absence of light, and evil is the absence of good. We say a dead body is lifeless and that is a circular definition. What then is life? Erwin Schrödinger, Nobel prize-winning physicist, defined life as the process of creating negative entropy, building order out of chaos. In thermodynamics, entropy is a physical quantity which measures the degree of disorder in a closed system. The second law of thermodynamics says that all closed systems tend towards greater disorder–but life counteracts this law. Many generations of coral built the Great Barrier Reef in the midst of churning seas north of Australia, just as humans built Chicago in the windy planes south of the Great Lakes. During life, the body, made of billions of cells or a single cell, creates negative entropy (negentropy as Schrödinger called it) while after death the body follows the natural law of entropy into decomposition.
Zombies are fictional characters; they violate the laws of nature and cannot exist. The life force moves living things in a purposeful way, in a way non-living things cannot move. Life is the fifth force of nature, after gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces, which bundle up energy in what we call physical mass. The zoticon particle mediates the life force, as the photon mediates electromagnetism and the graviton the force of gravity or gravitation. Physicists have not detected the graviton as yet but they are sure it exists because of the behavior of masses–and the zoticon exists because of the observed behavior of organisms.
Zoticon particles travel through space unseen at the speed of light; they enter any suitable structure of carbon, of silicon, or of any element that forms long chains of molecules, and animate that structure. Living things must be abundant in the universe in a vast variety of forms. When a bodily structure fails and decay sets in, the life force leaves that body and zoticons travel elsewhere to activate other structures. Sometimes, the life force leaves a body for no reason we can identify. I have seen identical plants or animals in the same area, fed the same, one sickening and dying as the spirit of life left, its sibling clinging on and growing, becoming more animated and strong; but eventually, age or injury takes all away.
Key features of living structures are that they absorb materials (feed), grow in size, and replicate their forms. The life force holds the parts of a living structure together as long as the organism can function sufficiently well. Decay and decomposition follows quickly after the organism fails to function properly to feed, grow, and replicate. Then the life field collapses and zoticons beam away in the form of particles carrying consciousness to other spheres.
We associate death with permanent loss of consciousness. If we lose consciousness outside of sleep or controlled unaesthesia, that’s an emergency. Our body may shut down completely, or we may have a serious accident. Clearly, our brain is the locus of consciousness, and consciousness is strongly affected by injury to the brain, toxins, viruses, or high fever with inflammation. LSD was said to expand consciousness, but usually the drug grossly distorted feelings and thoughts. It is an easy assumption to say that the destruction of the brain results in the total and permanent loss of awareness, but there is another possibility. Consciousness may not be an endogenous activity of the nervous system, but a transmission to it. The brain acts as a receiver, bringing consciousness and purposeful activity to the body. Sir John Eccles, the great neuroscientist, spent his life searching for the seat of the psyche in the brain, but neither he nor many others in neuroscience have located the neuronal center where the personality, soul or spirit is located.
Hindus believe spirit, consciousness, permeates the universe and resides in every living thing, the lowest form being a clod of dirt, with millions of micro-organisms, and the highest form being human. Buddhists stress deep meditation, communion with the divine source of consciousness, and kindness towards all sentient creatures. A sentient creature goes through innumerable lives, advancing to higher levels of awareness with good thoughts and behavior until the attainment of Nirvana, complete peace with God, a state achieved by the Buddha, which word in Sanskrit means the Awakened One.
If consciousness is a transmission, the Buddha had a true insight. With death, the signal is lost at the receiving brain, but since the source of consciousness in the cosmic sender is immortal, the message is safe and can be preserved or sent out again to another capable receiver.
The lion snaps her jaws at the zebra’s throat, cutting off the zebra’s carotid arteries; the zebra loses consciousness and collapses into a meal for the lion pride. Where did the zebra’s consciousness go? The lions are aware, enjoying their meal of flesh, the zebra’s body completely defenseless. Is this the work of a compassionate God?
We are able to keep the brain and consciousness going with nutrients in a liquid solution. Sever the carotid arteries and connect to a glucose pump; remove skull along natural fissures, also remove face, skin, etc. You end up with a consciousness in a jar but without sensations of any sort. Not a desirable way to continue consciousness, but it works.
Is there another way consciousness may continue after death and the brain’s dissolution? Life is like a candle string in space-time, and consciousness the flame beginning to burn along the string and eventually coming to the end of it or blowing out in a puff of wind. We know that the universe runs in opposite pairs, such as matter and anti-matter, or positive and negative magnetic poles, also it runs in cycles, like night following day and day following night. Death is paired with life, death following life and life following death. Eventually the universe will be gone and be created again with a Big Bang, the beginning of time. Your day of birth will come again; your personality and consciousness will return. Déjà vu.
Possibly, your personality and consciousness translates to another body, a transmigration of the soul. Or, God transmits your soul to a new body. Or, God salvages your spirit after your body has perished and preserves it in a special place, such as Heaven. Such are the possible ways of defeating death.
Yet, we grieve at the death of a loved one. Is the grief for the dead person, or for ourselves who remain on earth without the one we have lost? Some people go to funerals joyfully with jazz: “When the saints go marching in…” Others honor their dead ancestors at the dia de los muertos with sugar skulls and dressed skeletons with offerings of golden marigolds and foods.
A child asks, “What happened to my fish, mom; it’s floating upside-down. What’s the matter with it?” Mom says, “Your little fish is dead; it went to heaven, because it was a good little fish.” “Will I die too, mom?” “Yes; but not for a long, long time; you’re young, strong and smart, and careful about dangers.” “What is heaven, mom?”
Christianity teaches that Jesus defeated death and rose from the cenotaph to greet again his disciples and give them his last instructions before ascending to Heaven. Jesus gave us life beyond the grave, if we can believe in Him. So the priests promise to the faithful at funerals and comfort relatives of the dead. Be faithful; be obedient to the commands of God’s prophet and you shall never die, even as your body ages, falls apart, rots, and turns to dust onto dust. Thus religion gives us solace in the face of death, but religion is not about what is; it is about what we feel.
A children’s prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep
Pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I die before I wake
I pray for God my soul to take.
Ben Franklin wrote:
Fear not death; for the sooner we die, the longer shall we be immortal.
John Donne wrote:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so…
And in another of Donne’s meditations:
Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, thou must die; any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me die
And I laid me down with a will
This be the verse you gave me;
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter home from the hill.
St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:55:
O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
Walt Whitman in Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass:
Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it…
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know)
The two old, simple problems, ever intertwined, present, baffled, grappled,
By each successive age insolvable, pass’d on
To ours today and we pass on the same…
I know I am deathless…
I laugh at what you call dissolution
And I know the amplitude of time.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe…and am not contained between my hat and boots.
From the taps, played at military funerals:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
We light a candle to honor a saint or a departed loved one, because we associate the light of the candle with life. The Japanese put candles in little boats and let them drift in a stream as a remembrance of the spirits of the dead. As a child I had nightmares about my mother dying. She adored me and I her. In my dreams I would cry and shedding bitter tears, say over and over: “I will light a candle for you, mother. I will never forget you.” She died when she was 92 years old. I will never forget her, as long as I live. May she rest in eternal peace and joy in the arms of Mary, mother of God.
All the above are fine sentiments and speculations, but they don’t answer the fundamental question of how we can avoid death in the real world.
The probability of dying increases with each passing year of life after the age of ten. It is said that the life span of a human is three score and ten–the design life of a human body. After the age of seventy years, your survivability statistic comes to a precipice and from that you fall to your destruction after a few more years. At 78 I’m living on borrowed time. At my last Athens College prep school reunion in Greece at graduation, the oldest graduates walk down first the grand entrance stairway to the grounds, and the new graduates walk down last. It was a shock to me four years ago to see only a few old graduates ahead of me on the stairs. Death is as certain as that the sun will rise tomorrow. No living thing has an unlimited life span, not even olive and redwood, which may live for thousands of years.
Each biography has a year of birth and a year of death, unless a person is still living; then you get the year of birth and a dash, waiting to be filled in by historians. If the year or birth or death is not known, the writer places a question mark, but not that there is a question about whether the subject had a birth or a death. It is said that two things are certain in life: death and taxes. I say taxes you can avoid: join a tax-exempt religious commune. Or, pool your resources and buy a homestead in a place with no property tax; produce most of what you consume and barter for whatever else you need. As to attaining immortality, forget it, but you will be defeating death in a way, if you can overcome your fear of it, as I have done.
Francis Bacon again:
Certainly, the contemplation of death, as the wages of sin, and passage to another world is holy and religious; but the fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature is weak…It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other. He that dies in earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood; who, for the time scarce feels the hurt; and therefore a mind fixed and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the dolors of death.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and stoic philosopher, also proclaims death as a natural thing to be accepted with equanimity in his “Meditations.” Natural also is the poisonous fang of a snake. I will not accept something simply because it’s natural. Disease, poverty, cruelty, and war are natural too, but we are trying to cure these with all our might.
Let us, however, give death its due; without death there would be no evolution in living things and we would not exist today as humans, with all our marvelous faculties for reasoning, art, and creativity. Animals die to be replaced by more complex and adaptable species. New life forms replace the old as a newer generation of organisms replaces the old and tries new things and lifestyles. The soil itself that we prize for our crops was created by dying organisms. Without death we would have on earth living fossils piled high, instead of fossil fuels, fossils perpetually going through the same movements until the end of time. So death is natural and necessary.
When death becomes necessary for me, how should I behave? Facing death should I cry, panic, despair, quit doing what I usually do, such as my work, bow down, pray, wear a blinder and deny the moment? No, it’s best to go in style, with a smile, even laughter, because death should be laughed at; it’s easily the biggest practical joke nature pulls on us.
Laughing while dying, that’s a good death. A good death follows a good life, working well, adding something of value to the world, without regrets, without fear, leaving this world to make room for new people.
What about the pain, perhaps the agony that often accompanies dying? A hospice service will make you comfortable with morphine. I like to think that I may be able to stay fully aware and alert near death, putting my last moment to good use for my work or for my family.
Still, I hate death, because I love life and the world dearly. But I am not afraid of dying. I lost my fear of death when I became 68 years old, that was ten years ago, and when I lost my mother at 92, and my father at 100 years and 17 days. I saw how quick and simple death really is, nothing really about which to make a big fuss, if you can avoid the heroic actions of physicians trying to extend your life further than its natural span. After my parents died in my care (I had looked after them for their last twenty years), I delved into all the major religions and engaged in deep meditation. I even wrote and published a book, “The God Connection,” but I did not become a true believer of any particular faith. I did acquire, however, a measure of inner peace and stability, which survived subsequent upheavals and disappointments in my life. Moreover, I got rid of all the fears I had experienced in my previous life: fear of flying, of crowds, of heights, of failure, and of death.
Animals fear death–for a good reason. They would not survive for long without this fear at the approach of predators, becoming easy prey. They run away instinctively from danger with all the energy and speed they can muster. One exception is the occasional curious cat. Only humans often place other values above their personal survival: freedom, honor, loved ones, friends, country, or their particular faith in God.
In 1999 the Egyptian pilot who terrifically crashed the EgyptAir plane near the coast of Massachusetts with 217 people on board, kept calmly repeating (as he sent the plane into a nose dive): “Tawkalt: I rely on Allah.”
Jesus, according to Luke 23:46, said upon dying for his faith on the cross: “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit.”
Patrick Henry declared at the Virginia Convention 1775: “Is life so dear, a place so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
A soldier may throw himself on a grenade to save his buddies in a foxhole. Men and women have been known to fall in battle to do their duty and save their honor. A few soldiers, having misplaced their red badge of courage, turn their backs to the enemy and run. An old Greek poem says: “What an honor it is for a young man to die, first in the fire of battle for his country, sword in hand.
Is my own lack of any fears a danger to my life? I think not. I still have concerns about dangers: disease, accident, loss of life and limb, and I reason my way out of predicaments, as a human being should be doing. Recently I read in the news about a woman who had been fearful of many things, but after an injury to her brain, she lost all fear. I wondered if that’s what happened to me, but I have not suffered any brain injury or disease. I must have come to my fearlessness naturally, or through my philosophy.
Some people are loath to face death without fear, because their life’s work is not done. I have accomplished much of what I set out to do in my life. What remains is to get the original ideas and ideals in my writings better known in the world beyond my family and friends. I am not contained between my hat and boots. I am not my body, because, more than anything else, I am my ideas and ideals–and as long as these continue to be cherished by some of my fellow humans, I continue to live. My mind fixed and bent on something good, I avert the dolors of death.
On board the cruise ship Rotterdam