Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Fictional afterlives

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has written a collection of fantastic (in the literal sense) afterlife scenarios in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It looks great! Here are bits from a review from Nature:
Sum gathers 40 playful sketches of what an afterlife might hold for us, from expanding into a nine-dimensional cloud to working as an extra in other people's dreams. As rigorous and imaginative as the writings of Italo Calvino and Alan Lightman, each vignette is a glimpse into an expansive topic such as time, faith or memory. Together they illuminate an astounding range of possibilities for the meaning of human life.
Here are some examples:
The book includes, as one might expect, a round of fables that deflate Christian stereotypes of the hereafter. In some, paradise is vulnerable to the petty vices of men — holy war, bickering, bureaucracy, even communism — which makes these versions of heaven more like comic varieties of hell. In another, God is revealed to be an opportunistic tinkerer who doesn't understand His own creation.

Eagleman is at his sharpest when he envisions efforts to evade death using science. In one tale, a doctor rids the world of mortality only to be killed by rioters nostalgic for natural death. In another, the elderly pay a company to upload their minds into computers that would stimulate them with their own private afterlives for eternity — if only the machines worked. Death is an essential part of life.
There is also a strange story involving the universe itself. But here is one about our grieving atoms:
Hope returns when Eagleman trades in his telescope for a microscope. There is some comfort in the idea that "when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed".
What about beliefs of Eagleman himself? Well...that's where his "possibilianism" comes in:
The best stories in Sum remind us that it is natural to want to know our place in the scheme of things. The book is a scripture of sorts, but because each myth contradicts the last, it is not a dogmatic collection. Eagleman has said that he is neither a believer nor a non-believer in the conventional religious sense. Rather, he considers himself a "possibilian", which he defines as a creed for "those that celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses". These may indeed be the qualities of a good scientist — and a good storyteller.
It sounds fascinating. On a related note, here is Iggy Pop's Nice to be Dead from his intriguing new album Preliminaires:


Don said...

This is one entertaining post. Being an extra in other people's dreams sounds almost more like a superpower than anything else. And then, 'possibilian"? Awesome. Iggy Pop? Also awesome.

hedge said...

That looks really excellent!

Matthew said...

The Iggy Pop record sounds a little like a meditation on mortality. I wonder if it was put together before or after Ron Asheton passed away?

Excellent track.

Anonymous said...
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Salman Hameed said...


I don't know. Ron Asheton died earlier this year - so my guess is that the album may have been ready before that. But this is simply a guess.

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