For centuries, science and religion have jealously fought to control territory on the map of the human heart. Each claims dominion over the other, and their opposing forces regularly clash over one troubling question: What happens when we die?
Religion owns the general consensus. Most people believe in an afterlife administered by some form of deity, though exactly which afterlife and which deity is anyone’s guess.
Science owns the facts. It accurately details the processes of mortality, but its rigors offer little comfort or hope in the face of death.
Each side is loud and proud and shouts a lot, and all the noise can make it difficult to form a personal opinion. Over the course of the next two columns, we will attempt to turn down the volume and objectively assess the positions science and religion have staked out with respect to death. This month’s column deals with scientific perspectives; the Dec. 1 column will address religion and spirituality.
Science comes first because it is often the first place people turn when confronted with mortal threats. The sick seek out doctors, experts in human biology, to diagnose and treat their infirmities in the hope of extending life.
Americans on average get about 28,000 days to frolic in the sun. On each of those days we die a little, and not just because time continues to pass.
The human body is not a static thing; it moves, changes, consumes and is replenished. Every day, as the body perpetually works to renew itself, billions of the tens of trillions of cells in the body die and are replaced. In time, the body meets with forces that prevent it from rejuvenating (disease, injury, the elements, general human ignorance), its many interwoven processes begin to fail and it dies.
Back in the 1970s, the American Medical Association collaborated with the American Bar Association to set down legal parameters for what it means to be dead. The resulting model legislation, the Uniform Determination of Death Act, lays out two scenarios for pronouncing death: 1) If your heart stops beating and your lungs stop inflating, you’re dead; and 2) If your whole brain, including the brain stem, stops working and will never work again, you’re dead.
From a medical point of view, the end of the body is the end of you. There is nothing tangibly spiritual about the end of life. Coroners check for heartbeats, not souls. In gross anatomy class, the future doctors of the world aren’t digging around in their cadavers, pushing aside spleen and liver in search of evidence of immortality.
Pat Shipman, a biological anthropologist and retired Penn State University professor, used to teach those gross anatomy classes, and the stark physical reality of the coursework regularly troubled her students.
“One of the things that predictably happens is that students end up in your office crying because of what they’re doing,” Shipman says. “I mean, it feels just grotesquely invasive and disrespectful. … You’re cutting up another person.”
Shipman herself has become inured to the spectacle of death. An internationally recognized expert in taphonomy — the study of how living things decay and fossilize — and a storyteller at heart, Shipman studies the remains of living things to reconstruct their history.
Taphonomy intersects with several fields of study, including biology, archaeology, zoology, geology, paleontology and ecology, and Shipman’s career spans a half-century of interdisciplinary investigations. She is a consummate scientist.
No surprise, then, that she toes the line set down by the scientific community with respect to death. The notion of eternal life doesn’t make much sense to her. There’s no proof.
“Could you prove it scientifically? I don’t know how,” she says. “There are people who spend their lives trying to work that out. You could say at some level, ‘Well, all of these however-many billion people believe in some kind of higher being or afterlife or purpose, so surely it’s true.’ Commonness of belief, for me, isn’t really a relevant measure. It’s too variable and too intangible.”
She makes a valid point. Apart from personal testimony, no hard evidence exists to support the existence of an immortal soul. It is entirely possible that human beings will know and experience in the infinite ocean of time that follows death exactly what they knew and experienced in the infinite ocean of time that preceded birth, which is exactly nothing.
But the mass of humanity rejects that conclusion. It’s just not acceptable. What good is science if it serves only to strip away the quintessentially human desire to be immortal? Where’s the hope in that?
Shelly Kagan may not see hope in the view that life just stops, but he nonetheless thinks it’s a good thing.
A philosophy professor at Yale University, Kagan literally wrote the book on death, or at least one of them. (His is intuitively titled “Death.”) He teaches Philosophy 176: Death, a course that proved so popular that Yale videotaped his lectures and put the course online for anyone in the world to study free of charge.
“Most people don’t take the notion of ‘forever’ sufficiently seriously,” says Kagan, who adheres to an admittedly curmudgeonly view of immortality.
Kagan invites his students to participate in a thought experiment: Create for yourself an afterlife that you would find sustaining, meaningful and worth engaging in. Then imagine that afterlife going on forever. How would it seem after 1,000 years? A million? A billion? And you’re just getting started.
Kagan believes eternity would become cumbersome and boring.
The problem, Kagan says, is not the scientific assessment of death, but rather the nature of death itself. The problem is not that death is the end, but that the end comes too soon. We want more time.
At 65, Kagan certainly does. If he were master of the universe, Kagan would first get rid of all of the horrible ways people die, and then he would give us more time to learn, explore and satiate this overwhelming appetite for life.
“It is good that we die, full stop. Nonetheless, it’s bad that we die when we do.”
Matters of Life and Death is a monthly column that examines issues associated with death and dying. It runs the first Sunday of the month in the Living section. Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP. Email your stories, comments and suggestions to email@example.com.