Some Thoughts About Life After Life

By Jin-yeong Yi

Illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

“Please don’t think that when you die / You’ll spend eternity up high / When what you really ought to know / Is just how far your life will go”

—Atheist, “Piece of Time”

I desire an afterlife not so much because I fear death (I probably fear pain more than I fear extinction), but because I love life and would like more of it, especially if it can be lived with more freedom and more beauty.

Yesterday I finished reading Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who contracted an extremely rare and extremely deadly form of bacterial meningitis and lived to tell the tale, after spending a week in a coma—and, supposedly, paradise.

Prior to reading the book, I’d read part of Dr. Sam Harris’s critique of it[1], and had thought that it would be an interesting exercise to compare my observations with his. I think Dr. Harris and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks make persuasive points, but since I’m not a neuroscientist, I think it will take me a long time—perhaps the rest of my life—to draw anything resembling a comprehensive conclusion regarding the nature of NDEs, and the dualism-monism debate as a whole. So for now I shall limit myself to imaginative speculation.

While I’m not convinced that Dr. Alexander’s account constitutes “proof of Heaven,” I found it to be remarkably well-written, engaging, instructive, and even awe-inspiring. Even if his experience took place entirely within his mind, it was nonetheless an amazing and unforgettable experience that would be entirely natural to cherish forever.

In his own critique of the book[2], Mark Martin wraps up by writing:

“What I can say is that Dr. Alexander’s heaven offers no comfort to me. A posthumous future where ‘You have nothing to fear’ and ‘There is nothing you can do wrong’ sounds like infinite boredom — inhuman and alienating in its contentment.”

After quoting a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, Mr. Martin continues:

“‘Proof of Heaven’ sullies the subtle, exquisite, personal and easily forgotten possessions of this sublunary world. Dr. Alexander’s pink fluffy clouds and divine orgasmatrons are a cosmic vulgarity. Thinking so, why would I commit the giant act of condescension required to imagine this vision good enough for others?”

What I got out of Mr. Martin’s critique was mainly further confirmation of the simple notion that we humans will never agree on what is good, what is beautiful, or what is desirable, whether in life or in death. That’s why I think the closest thing to a utopia we could have on Earth is a personal virtual reality simulation for each and every individual.

“I don’t think Hell exists,” says retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. “I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment.”[3]

It wouldn’t make much sense to me if it did. The notion that this life is some kind of moral test is quite preposterous to me, given the fact that 1) so many people are prevented from taking this “test” in the first place and 2) individuals cannot ultimately be held responsible for their actions, since they did not determine the genetic and environmental factors that account for much of their tendencies and choices from the cradle to the grave.

If there is a divine Being controlling this universe from the “outside” (wherever that is), I would imagine that He/She/It is more concerned with imparting experience rather than conducting some kind of cosmic eugenics program (i.e., separating the wheat from the chaff). It would certainly explain the scientific data better.

Remember the short-lived TV series Dead Like Me? I rather like the idea that there is a custom-made afterlife for each individual, specially tailored to his or her deepest desires and dreams that were not realized during life, and I can’t help but hope that that is precisely what we will find when it is time to depart this world.

Notes

[1] “Science on the Brink of Death” by Sam Harris 

[2] “Dr. Eben Alexander’s so-called afterlife” by Mark Martin

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc

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If Conflict Did Not Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent It

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and of all life.”

—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Be happy, but never satisfied.”

—Bruce Lee

“Actual happiness looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamor of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

—Aldous Huxley

Conflict, it seems to me, is one of the key ingredients of life.  I am not speaking of petty, trivial, soul-killing, and never-ending “conflict” such as financial problems or familial dysfunction; but something I find much more meaningful: the kind of conflict found in stories in which the risks of life-threatening danger are balanced by the thrill of adventure and opportunities for heroism and glory–the stuff of myths and legends. The kind of conflict found in a struggle against misfortune and tragedy–the stuff of poetry. If conflict did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It hardly needs to be pointed out that conflict is one of the pillars of narrative structure, and that a story could not exist without it. That’s probably why many fairy tales traditionally end with something along the lines of “And they lived happily ever after,” because once all problems are resolved there is little left to talk about. No conflict, no story.

It seems to me that we seek conflict all the time. Real adventures with real perils (and prizes) are out of the question for most of us, so we settle for the virtual and the vicarious: novels, movies, plays, soap operas, video games, professional sports. We turn to these to satisfy our natural craving for adventure, thrills, and glory, or simply the juxtaposition between different colors.

Many of us tend not to seek conflict within our own lives not only because it’s inconvenient, but also because we know that, unlike a video game, life is unforgiving. Injuries heal slowly, what is lost is regained with difficulty (if regained at all), and if we get a Game Over, that’s that. No wonder we tend to aim for cushy lives of convenience and comfort.

Nevertheless, the desire for conflict never fades because it is, arguably, in the midst of conflict that we feel most alive. And for some of us, feeling alive is more important than feeling happy.

The Matrix and Virtual Reality Transhumanism

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world…without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

—Neo, The Matrix

These famous last lines of The Matrix imply that Neo’s goal is freeing other minds not only from the Matrix, but from the real world as well. Both the Matrix and the real world have “rules and controls” and “borders and boundaries.” The real world, as any of us can attest, is emphatically not a place where “anything is possible.” We can change our world by manipulating the natural laws it is governed by, but we have no reason to think that we can change the natural laws themselves. As such, we have every reason to assume that no matter how technologically advanced human civilization becomes, some things will always be impossible—in the real world, that is. So the world that Neo speaks of cannot be the real world. I suspect that what he has in mind is the virtual world. Not the Matrix, but something incomparably superior—the Neo-Matrix, a world that is not controlled by anything but our own wills, a world in which the possibilities extend beyond the sky and the stars and into infinity itself. Exiting the Matrix, it turns out, was only the first step. The next step is to exit the real world.