If we can believe Socrates, all life is a preparation for death. What can he have been thinking? Death is nothing, oblivion. This life is everything. It is all we have and all we can know.
But religious traditions from Buddhism to Christianity are with Socrates. Intimate familiarity with death is a royal path to happiness.
If there’s any wisdom at all in this, we in the 21st Century Western world have missed the boat completely. We have banished death from our thoughts and our experience.
Let us put our toes back in the water of the river Styx. Can we know what it is like to die? The best way is to ask people who have done it. Peter Fenwick is a neuroscientist, not a mystic. He has studied both the physiology of the brain and firsthand experiences of people who routinely attend to the dying. He ties this in with reports of thousands of people who have literally returned from the dead. What did they experience while there was no neural activity in their brains?
Is consciousness a product of the brain, or is there a transcendent reality that is filtered by the brain and rectified to materiality? Wilder Penfield devoted his life to developing a science of the brain by probing the brain with electrodes, and he concluded in the end that the “energy of mind” is a different dimension altogether from neural signaling. The brain is enormously important, but it can’t explain consciousness.
Monica Renz has interviewed hundreds of dying cancer patients and their caregivers, and she reports commonalities in their experience, including
- visits from intimate relatives who have predeceased the patient, who come and sit on his bed
- sojourns to a spirit world and back, conversations with non-corporeal beings who may visit and abide just outside the window
- light emanating from the room of the dying person, visible to visitors and attendants
Attachment is the source of all the pain in dying. Those who die need to let go of everything—of their possessions, their projects, their loved ones, and indeed everything to which they have devoted themselves while alive. This is the most difficult challenge of dying, and those who are able to let go make a smooth transition to an existence that is far lighter and happier than the one we are used to.
You’ve seen these in the gift shop of the science museum. Inside an evacuated bulb is a 4-vane windmill, each vane black on one side and white on the other. Shine light on it, and it spins.
Imagine a tiny pea-shooter aimed at the vane. If the pea sticks to the wall, it gives all its momentum to the wall, pushing it forward. But if the pea bounces off the wall, it gives twice its momentum, because the momentum of the pea is reversed on the way out. Photons of light have only a tiny momentum, but the principle is the same. The light that is absorbed on the black vanes gives its momentum to the vane, while the light reflected from the white vanes imparts a double push, because the light coming in and the light leaving have equal and opposite momentum.
This is the explanation for the motion of the vane that I imagined. It was proposed by Sir William Crooke when he sent in the results of his experiment to the science journal of the Royal Society in 1973. The person assigned to review the submission was none other than James Clerk Maxwell, who had explained the electromagnetic nature of light with the 4 equations that are now associated with his name. Maxwell noticed that the vane spins in the wrong direction, as though the push on the black side were stronger than on the white side.
The real explanation, and the rest of the story
What he doesn’t say is that sociology looks at the averages, and there is a great deal of individual variation around the averages. Gilbert is fun and entertaining, but perhaps more useful is Haidt.
It’s about being in relationship and feeling you can make a difference in the lives of others.
Self-analysis is notoriously difficult. We lie about ourselves, to ourselves, and we believe our own lies.
Here’s a trick that can help with insight into yourself: Use the 3rd person in your diaries , in talking about your emotions and dreams and history. Two hundred years ago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge dubbed it illeism.
Training for Wisdom: The Illeist Diary Method
Aeon article by David Robson
Journal article preprint by Igor Grossmann
Through history until the 18th Century, various peoples of various regions of the world had various ideas about the purpose that breathed life into our lives, giving substance and significance to the decisions we make.
Newton’s idea of a clockwork universe supplanted all that. There was no room for God, and also no room for beauty or virtue or any human value in a world that conists only in particles bouncing off one another according to deterministic physical laws. This world-view gelled in the 19th Century as a philosophy with the implicity backing of Science. Nietzsche told us, “God is dead,” and Darwin told us, “Humans are an accident.”
Quantum mechanics in the 20th Century changed that. There is room in the interstices of physics for meaning, judgments, free choice, and human virtues. But art and culture were slow to respond. Our philosophy, the fundamental attitude which we bring to the world, is stuck in the 19th Century. The existentialism of Sartre, the suicide of Camus, the cynicism of the Dadaists, the rage of the Punk Rockers, the self-defeating selfishness of the New Right, the accountant’s mindset of the Liberal establishment are all products of this window on life rooted in 19th Century science.
If it is ever translated into a coherent view of the world (or a mystical view of the world), Quantum Mechanics can be liberating. QM is inherently holistic. Every particle knows what is happening to every other particle, everywhere in the universe, and quantum probabilities. There is room within QM for mind and intention. The future is open and does not unfold like clockwork from the past. It’s safe to be passionate again without betraying your commitment to logic or empiricism. This can be very liberating, indeed.
Listen to David Bohm talk about Parts of a Whole.
Read Jason Josephson Storm’s article on restoring enchantment to our outlook.
…To answer that question, we must start our journey at the MIT Media Lab, in an aptly named research group: Scalable Cooperation. This group studies how technologies—social media, the Internet, artificial intelligence—can empower cooperative human networks. The group’s heritage includes the scientists who solved DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge in 2008, in which the United States government scattered 10 red weather balloons across the continental U.S., and instructed teams of researchers to locate them as fast as possible. The winning MIT team found all 10 balloons in just under nine hours using the virality of social media and an incentive structure that motivated people to recruit their friends. This result was a resounding success for crowdsourcing and the Internet at large, demonstrating that a collective of individuals, connected through technology, could together solve large-scale problems that no individual could solve alone.
Read more at Nautilus
Ten Principles of Burning Man
The culture and institutions of science have provided an answer: “Yes, of course. Let’s move on to the business of scientific discovery and stop fooling around with mystical mumbo-jumbo.”
Actual scientific investigation provides a different answer, however: “The objective, material view of reality is a very good approximation for some things, and the basis of a robust technology, but it is not the whole story.” The empirical evidence for this comes from tens of thousands of rigorous experiments on parapsychology that have yielded positive results. Also from millions of anecdotes, less rigorous but more dramatic, about ESP, precognition, NDEs, reincarnation, and other topics. The theoretical evidence comes from quantum physics, which implies that reality is co-created by the wave function “out there” and the consciousness that observes it.
Establishing the need for a new paradigm has been the subject of a vast collaboration over more than a century. The project is ongoing. But there is already more than sufficient motivation to take the next step. Only a few of our greatest thinkers have risen to the challenge of reformulating the rules of science and our fundamental conceptions of reality and what we can know about it.
This is the most interesting and fertile intellectual opportunity of our age.
Abandoning all pretext of modesty, I will propose a framework for this project. The challenge is to preserve all that mainstream science has discovered and verified, while accommodating unconventional science that on its face appears at odds with the scientific worldview. In quantum theory, half the information that projects the present into the future is in the wave function; the other half is missing, and postulated to be purely random. There is direct experimental evidence, compiled by Robert Jahn, Dean Radin, and others that the random half is not random, and can be influenced by conscious intent. This effect seems to be insensitive to distance and can propagate backward as well as forward in time. I propose that integrating this evidence with quantum biology and the inverse quantum Zeno effect is a fruitful place to begin.