Tuesday, May 08, 2012

When does a person die? We know a person as a living organism, but when they die, their body is still alive, full of bacteria. The bacteria keeps going. Or when somebody is in a coma. The body keeps going. Of course it sounds like a silly question, because we know when a person is dead, and when a person is alive. But how? How do we know this? The medical definition is when a heart stops beating, yet that is not death either, as people come back from that condition all the time. And if they come back, where is it that they come back to?

When my dad was first sent to a care facility, for some reason at that moment it occurred to me that his condition is definitive proof that there is no heaven and by default, no afterlife at all. How could any creature, divine or otherwise, be able to make a distinction between optimal states of one's being? If I lose my hand in real life, does it come back to me in heaven? Or if I lose my marbles, does the afterlife put them back in? Of course not, as no divine force would work on a scale of human aesthetics. There is no way to separate the inner workings of a disease such as Pick's, and the expanse of one's personality. There is no dividing line. Biologist's mapped the entire brain of the incredibly simple roundworm, and found that even in a creature this stupid there is actually not one brain, but three brains in one, a network constantly modifying, responding to, and changing the neurons and synapses of the other two. Now imagine how complex our brains must be. How could anything know where to draw the line on a thing that never stop changing, and say, "Here. Here is where this creature was most perfect and from here they will live on."

Questions like these, questions that have no answers, point to problems not with divinity, but with how we think about ourselves. Specifically, that we are entities, distinct from each other and from the world around us. That we are special because we have a unique ability to articulate, observe, and control our surroundings in ways that are light years ahead of anything else on the planet. We are different from other creatures, and not only that, we are different from each other. It's a real skill and helps us divide the screws from the nuts so we can spend our lives putting together airplanes instead of searching for food. We are special because we exist on a plane once removed from the world of animals.We dwell in reason and abstraction, and because of this, we are different than cats or plants.

We don't know how or why the universe got started but we can trace it back to a single point. We can know how old the universe is by measuring the distance that light travels. We assume that life arose out of a primordial sludge. That this substance and that substance, carbon and water and maybe something else, banged against each other, randomly, and somehow, something came to life. In some pool, or pond, or crater or boulder, a microscopic spark leapt between two inanimate objects. Perhaps this happened on our planet, perhaps it happened somewhere else, and was delivered to our planet. We don't know. But we assume that we are made of the same things that stones are made of, though arranged differently.

That said, as far as we know, life comes from life. That's the only way we've gotten to it. As much as we've accomplished in the realm of science, we haven't come up with a way to create a living cell out of something that was not already alive. What's so mysterious to me about even the simplest (compared to us) organism, such as a tree, is the impulse to grow. If it really is a biochemical reaction of proteins triggering DNA triggering proteins triggering growth, why aren't we able to replicate this? Even if we are complex machines, built out of matter, what is this strange will to be alive that everything living thing has? Is it just the result of a chemical equation playing itself out? An algorithm to gather nutrients? To say nothing of our experience of being (which is more of a philosophical question), more so than reason, I feel like this "will to live" is something I have in common with everything that is also alive. We want to be here. Perhaps this is the most fundamental thing we can know about who we are.

Counter intuitive as it might seem, it makes more sense to think of ourselves as blips in a river a consciousness rather than blips in the void of space. That we appear and disappear not from nothing, but from something that is already there. It's a Buddhist idea, and most definitely something that I cannot speak to with any kind of authority. However it answers questions like what happens after death and where did we come from and what is our purpose by short circuiting the logic: we never die. I mean, we die yes, our individual consciousnesses die, but parts of us live on. The sperm and the zygote growing up and replicating times a zillion billion. And even when the last human disappears, life continues. We only die if "we" are what we think, our intellect and personality and reason. A cat pays as close attention to the world as we do, as does a single celled organism. It's just that they pay attention to different things. 

What is this thing called attention and what is the will that keeps us afloat? I've quoted it before, George Oppen and the poem "World, World--": "The self is no mystery, the mystery is/ That there is something for us to stand on." Yeah. How strange it is to be anything at all (to quote Jeff Magnum). And so ideas of the soul and the self, ridiculous as they sound now to our cynical and scientific ears, a glowing ball leaving one's body and haunting a closet or finding it's way into a new born, seem completely couched in dead end ideas of who and what we are. I'd venture to say that much of western science comes from the presumption that things, including ourselves, are distinct and separate from each other. A worldview that is wonderful for sorting and working methodically, but is not so helpful when it comes to being with other living things. Instead of stars punched out of nothingness, alone in the night sky, what if the night sky is just another way for the stars to be? What if the answers to our questions have been with us the entire time?