Full version of extract published by mX, 2 April 2013
For someone who in terms of average life expectancy just hit the clubhouse before embarking the back nine, death crosses my mind too much for comfort. The days, the months, the years seem to be spinning by like a pokies machine.
Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote existence is ‘but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’. It’s the most potent thing I’ve ever read. Needless to say I can’t comprehend the attraction of extreme sports or perilous occupations, nor grown adults who waste their days watching Jersey Shore or playing Grand Theft Auto.
As the only species on Earth cognisant of their own mortality, beyond survival, humans deploy their intellect and imagination to all manner of coping mechanisms and seemingly important distractions. After all, endlessly contemplating the end credits just isn’t conducive to sanity, and like the universe, is too momentous and elusive to grasp anyway.
Unlike devout non-believer Richard Dawkins, I’m open to spiritual wisdom and actually envious of those harbouring religious faith in heaven or otherwise. Because it’s a darned sight less depressing than my projected rotten outcome. Even hell would at least be something!
So failing religious inclination, is there any shred of scientific hope for heathens like me, unable to accept the ‘eternity of darkness’ which lies ahead? What’s the point of a legacy or achieving anything, no matter how wondrous, when it represents just another grain in the sands of time?
Quantum science and ‘theories for everything’ such as Robert Lanza’s ‘biocentrism’ have my grey matter oozing out my ears, however fascinating discussions are emerging on whether consciousness resides in our brain, how reality is uniquely interpreted, and how we ‘see’ and call upon images stored in our memory.
That mind and body could reside independently of each other is an improbable game changer that gives rise to a human ‘soul’.
On another tangent, Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov harbours fantastic designs on accomplishing human-cybernetic immortality by 2045 (think Terminator/Avatar/RoboCop).
Nonetheless, we’re understandably dubious of anecdotal accounts of reincarnation, outlandish ideas or beliefs commonly associated with crackpot cults, or simply unable to buy into something so esoteric. Nb. a 2009 Nielson poll reported 56% of Australians believe in heaven, 38% in hell and 53% in an afterlife (80% in the US believe in a do-over). A CBS News survey also found roughly one in ten Americans claimed to remember a past life.
Perhaps reincarnation is picking up slack where aspects of the Bible, when literally interpreted, resemble little more than a fairy tale? Or have people merely succumbed to Hollywood fiction? Notwithstanding, wholehearted wishing or believing doesn’t make anything be true, be it a ‘happy every after’ or God.
Professor Julian Huxley also believed rebirth could find harmony with scientific thinking. Similarly, he drew some long bows on phenomena beyond our present imagination;
“There is nothing against a permanently surviving spirit-individuality being in some way given off at death, as a definite wireless message is given off by a sending apparatus…”
Given how television works still remains a mystery to me, I’d almost be prepared to grant Huxley’s far-fetched transmitter principle a dopey ‘ah-huh’, at least until the harsh light of logic renders the proposition more akin to a David Copperfield illusion.
Speaking of TV, with typical bluntness, Kerry Packer did as much to put the kybosh on such wishful notions of an afterlife as any learned scholar or atheist; “I’ve been on the other side and let me tell you, son, there’s f—ing nothing there.”
Interestingly, Lanza’s scientific reasoning that the physical world, our bodies and space-time exists in our consciousness demonstrates a convergence with spiritually informed thinking espoused by his progressively maligned supporter Deepak Chopra, and is central to Eastern religions where belief in reincarnation is a given. Swami Vivekananda, a principle disciple of 19th century Indian Holy Man Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, eloquently explained that according to Advaita philosophy this impermanent and ever-changing world is an unreal illusion called maya or samsara; and, that “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream”…
According to the Dalai Lama ‘we are born and reborn countless number of times, and it is possible that each being has been our parent at one time or another. Therefore, it is likely that all beings in this universe have familial connections.’
In terms of scientifically rigorous studies into reincarnation, none compare with Dr. Ian Stevenson’s work. Over 40 years he focused primarily on 3-5 year olds, often with notable birth marks or physical defects, who claimed to have memories of past lives and often violent deaths. Stevenson methodically documented around 2,500 cases from all over the world, but mostly from India and regions where reincarnation is a tenant of the prevalent religious beliefs. Whilst that alone calls into question the validity of his research, Stevenson rationalised to access a decent sample required parents who actually took such claims seriously, rather than dismissing them out of hand.
Many cases were readily refutable, when suggestive coercion appears to have been at play; others such as an Indian girl named Swarnlata were compelling. This was a rare instance where memories persisted until the subject was 10 years old, when independently she reportedly located and recognised her previous life’s husband and two children. Fantastic or fanciful? Stevenson went as far to surmise the average period between lives was about 15 months.
But it’s one thing to investigate the who, what and when – the ‘how’ remains the sticking point, let alone the ‘why’.
Reincarnation is a tantalising prospect though. Consider politicians, industry and general society acting more selflessly as their decisions impact on their own future selves as Earth possibly heads for a hot, watery grave. Or in the shorter term, envision the alleviation of pain and anguish for the terminally ill and their families, or those horribly bereaved by tragic loss.
One might alternately contend a more cavalier and reckless attitude would prevail, our bodies rendered as cheap and disposable as an iPhone 4.
But before you spend too much time contemplating your next run in the human race (or perhaps as a dog or a fish), Stephen Hawking’s brilliant mind emphatically dropped a wet blanket on the prospect;
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven of afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark”.
Gee, thanks Prof – not the ending I was looking for! Interestingly, Hawking has also opined more optimistically whilst referencing an Almighty;
“God not only plays dice with the universe, he frequently throws the dice where you will not find it.