Thoughts On Death

I’ve had an interesting understanding of death all my life. I’ve always understood life and death in a materialistic sense. We are physical beings and when we die we no longer exist, but return to earth from which we came. Of course their was a spiritual side to it, but it was practical — even if it was Christian or just plain biblical. What is a spirit? It’s our breath. In most ancient literature “spirit” is synonymous with wind, air, or a driving force  — like wind filling a sail. In Greek it is πνεῦμα (pneuma)[1][2], where we get the root for the word “pneumatic”. In Hebrew, it’s וּחַ (ruach)[3]. In this context, what is death? It is what happens when someone stops breathing — their breath leaves them. To me, breath is spirit and breathing is living.

It’s interesting that this view of life, death, and spirituality came out of a Christian upbringing. I was Seventh-day Adventist and our faith was strong enough to not need a concept of the “Stuff Of Unending Life”[4] that transmigrates from one reality to another that is so darling to other ways of believing. For us, “God” would simply resurrect someone by recreating that person out of the ground and breathing life into them. This semi-materialistic view[5][6] shaped a lot of my beliefs — especially after I left my church and became an atheistic secular humanist. It also didn’t require a giant change in beliefs about spirits and souls.

A soul? What is a soul? To me, it’s a breathing, living being. One does not posses a soul, one is a soul. In Hebrew נֶ֣פֶשׁ  (nephesh)[7] is a being. That Hebrew word is used to refer to a being, a creature, and life. I really like the Hebrew word for it, even if the concept is muddied with other notions from Christianity (evidenced in the way most Bibles translate it). The Greeks also had word for it: ψυχή (psuche)[8]. Of course this word should look familiar, it’s the root of the word “psyche”. The greek word has more of the connotations of the English words “soul” and “spirit”, but it also means “life” and “self”.

Self, consciousness, is an emergent phenomena of our being continuously taking in energy from the environment and pushing itself out of equilibrium. It does an elaborate balancing act to keep itself in homeostasis. The end result is this amazingly intricate machine[9]. We’re alive as long as our complex organs and organ systems are working well and we’re breathing. But what makes someone special? It’s the embodied information of their genetics, interactions with their environment, their elaborate biochemistry, and labyrinthine neuronal connections. Our sense and experience of self is most likely so pronounced because we have several orders of magnitude more connections between neurons within the neurocortex than to neurons going to and from our senses. There’s an astounding amount of information in all of those connections. When we interact with someone each of us triggers different parts. Each of us experiences and interacts with others in a different way.

As long as a soul’s intricate inertial dance of life perpetuates itself, this amazing ability for us to connect with that unique being is possible. Our own physical being interacts with their systems in several intricate and deeply physical ways. I don’t believe the magic of a human being’s existence is diminished at all by this view. I believe it makes it more mind bogglingly unbelievable once we see the true complexity and wonder of what a human actually is. It also creates a physical basis for understanding death and what happens to someone once they die (and also how we connect on so many physical levels while they’re alive).

Before I share what I believe death entails, I must share a few prerequisites. Physics has led us to figure out a few things:

  • The law of conservation of energy; the law that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, just transformed from one form to another.
  • The equivalence principle; the law which states mass and energy can be converted from one form to the other.
  • The conservation of information at the quantum level[10]; transformations are unitary — this means that if you know the dynamics of the system you can recover the inputs from the outputted information.
  • The second law of thermodynamics; Entropy never decreases[11][12].

I would say that entropy has a relation to information like work has a relation to energy — except it’s more nuanced. If a physical process transforms one bit of information into another bit of information and the process is reversible then the entropy of the process is zero and it can spontaneously oscillate between those two states forever. If the physical process is irreversible (or takes energy to reverse it) then entropy increases. In a way entropy is like meta-information about a physical process containing the instructions of how it got to the current state[13] — like a knot being tied through space-time.

As far as the non-emergent properties of a person go, their body does indeed return to the earth. We are all made of the same stuff those who came before us were made of. We breathe the same air. Our matter continues to be a part of this world.

Every person who has ever lived lives on in the entropy[14] of the universe and their effect upon our intellect, affect, and physical being. This world would be a very different place if it weren’t for each and every person who lived and the pattern they weaved into the fabric of our reality. The world becomes a different place when each of us weaves our own patterns of entropy into the fabric of reality. When people die, this pattern is still there encoded in our universe’s entropy. Unfortunately for us, we can’t directly perceive these patterns; we only have our memories of a person and the effects they had on us. Fortunately, communities can come together and celebrate someone’s life. Each participant sharing more of a picture of the one being remembered and creating a more complete picture of that persons interactions and influences.

It is up to us to decide what happens to the memory of the deceased. Each of us has our role models and some of them are dead, but we allow ourselves to embody the behaviors and interactions of those who are dead. Unfortunately, sometimes the deceased is a counterexample of how to live. Whose effects are we enhancing?

Notes

  1. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0058%3Aentry%3Dpneu%3Dma>
  2. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dpneu%3Dma>
  3. See <http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/ruach_7307.htm> and related וְר֣וּחַ (veruach) waw-conjuctive form <http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/veruach_7307.htm> and <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefixes_in_Hebrew#Conjunctions>.
  4. Afterlife is a cute game where you get to play god and decide where souls go <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afterlife_(video_game)>.
  5. <http://ssnet.org/qrtrly/eng/99b/less04.html>
  6. <http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/books/27/27-07.htm>
  7. http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/nefesh_5315.htm
  8. See <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dyuxh%2F>. Coincidentally, it is the present subjunctive third person singular form of ψύχω <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dyu%2Fxw> (eg, ἐάν ψυχή, “if he breathes”).
  9. <http://jap.physiology.org/content/104/6/1844>
  10. <http://motls.blogspot.com/2005/07/hawking-and-unitarity.html>
  11. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_law_of_thermodynamics>
  12. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_production>
  13. In fact, I’m pretty sure one could derive this from Kolmogorov complexity and only using vector clocks or matrix clocks instead of local time and Lorentz transformations .
  14. Maybe there should be another term for this, since it’s the length of the algorithm (or sequence of operators) which can be use to calculate entropy and not pure entropy — but maybe they really are the same thing?

θάνατοι: In Memoriam

Name Date & Location Born Date & Location Deceased
Eni Korbeci March 19, 1980 Tirana, Albania January 12, 2002 Edmond, Oklahoma
Augustine “Auggie” Ariza March 2, 1925 June 28, 2005 Thousand Oaks, California
Brandon M. Fenton June 21, 1983 Grand Island, Nebraska June 25, 2009 Grand Island, Nebraska
Brandon Lee Glovatsky April 12, 1985 Grassy Butte, North Dakota June 9, 2010 Portland, Oregon
Eleanor Montané Ariza June 28, 1925 Santa Maria, Vera Cruz, Mexico January 5, 2011 Loma Linda, California
Joseph Paul Bingman November 21, 1948 Portland, Oregon April 3, 2011 Portland, Oregon
Tomás Pitagoras Gouverneur December 14, 1978 Berkeley, California March 13, 2011 Corvallis, Oregon
Kathleen Bosibori Sagini February 10, 1988 Lansing, Michigan July 26, 2012 Edmond, Oklahoma
Zachary Konowalchuk July 21, 1988 Florida October 8, 2012 Newport, Oregon
Kent Ryan Hall 1950 Fairbury, Nebraska February 20, 2013 Lincoln, Nebraska
Igal Koshevoy December 13, 1975 Moscow, USSR April 9, 2013 Portland, Oregon
Yan Forrest Hendersen January 29, 1958 January 22, 2014 Portland, Oregon
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One thought on “Thoughts On Death

  1. I like the connections you make between entropy and the lasting effect of each soul that passes through this universe. I’m not sure exactly how this would blend into your current philosophies, but this link is by far the most impactful text I’ve ever read about death: http://www.elijahwald.com/origin.html . It’s a 20-30 minute read. If you ever have time to get to it, I would love to hear how it affects your current thoughts, if at all.

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