Ineffable by David Eagleman

Vladimir Nabokov percieved numbers as colors. He had synethesia, a mixture of the senses. David Eagleman has his Ph.D in neuroscience and wrote a book about it. In his spare time Eagleman writes fiction. He recently published Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlife, which is 40 vignettes about the afterlife. It’s an amazing book. Imaginative and powerful.

In one story God is a married couple who fight and then make up. In another, people created their consciousness in computers so that they could make their afterlife whatever they wanted it to be. In another, a man chooses to become a horse in his next life and then realizes when he dies again as a horse he won’t be smart enough to change into something other than a horse. In one, those who die wait in a waiting room and don’t move on until their name is completely forgotten and uttered for the last time.

I first heard him talking about some of his ideas on Radio Lab’s podcast.

I was so struck by one of the vignettes I reproduced it here. Of course I don’t believe in this version of the afterlife (they aren’t meant to be believed, they’re intended to make us reflect on the life we have now), but the metaphor struck me and I wanted to share it. It’s titled, “Ineffable”.

When soldiers part ways at war’s end, the breakup of the platoon triggers the same emotion as the death of a person–it is the final bloodless death of the war. This same mood haunts actors on the drop of the final curtain: after months of working together, something greater than themselves has just died. After a store closes its doors on its final evening, or a congress wraps its final session, the participants amble away, feeling that they were part of something larger than themselves, something they intuit had a life even though they can’t quite put a finger on it.

In this way, death is not only for humans but for everything that existed.

And it turns out that anything which enjoys life enjoys an afterlife. Platoons and plays and stores and congresses do not end–they simply move on to a different dimension. They are things that were created and existed for a time, and therefore by the cosmic rules they continue to exist in a different realm.

Although it is difficult for us to imagine how these beings interact, they enjoy a delicious afterlife together, exchanging stories of their adventures. They laugh about good times and often, just like humans, lament the brevity of life. The people who constituted them are not included in their stories. In truth, they have as little understanding of you as you have of them; they generally have no idea you existed.

It may seem mysterious to you that these organizations can live on without the people who composed them. but the underlying principle is simple: the afterlife is made of spirits. After all, you do not bring your kidney and liver and heart to the afterlife with you–instead, you gain independence from the pieces that make you up.

A consequence of this cosmic scheme may surprise you: when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed. They hung together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen. With your death they do not die. Instead, they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on.


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