I’m interrupting my break from blogging to talk about a wonderful little book I’ve just read. It’s called Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by the neuroscientist David Eagleman:
In it, he imagines 40 possible afterlives – each an imaginative, witty and sometimes touching little thought experiment about how (and why) we might exist in the hereafter.
I thought I’d share some of my favourite of his afterlives.
Sum: The first hypothetical afterlife and the one that gives the book it’s name.
In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.
You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes… Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line…Two weeks wondering what happens when you die… One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name… Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak…
You get the idea. This afterlife sounds positively awful – which it is meant to. Luckily, you get:
Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.
This is a great strength of the book. By re-imagining our lives changed in some simple but radical way, it lets us appreciate, by way of contrast, how our lives actually are.
Circle of Friends: This afterlife is only peopled by the people you’ve actually met in life. It sounds great… no need to spend time with all those people you’d rather avoid. Those pesky foreigners who move here and take our jobs – or just as bad, stay at home and take our jobs because they only need to get paid a tenth of our wages and can work for long periods in horrible conditions without a break. Those whose political/religious/aesthetic views we can’t stand. Those who support the hated rival football team.
Only it palls after a while:
As you step into the street, you note there are no crowds, no buildings teeming with workers, no distant cities bustling… Very few foreigners.
You begin to consider all the things unfamiliar to you. You’ve never known, you realize, how to vulcanize rubber to make a tyre. And now those factories stand empty. You’ve never known how to fashion a silicon chip from beach sand, how to launch rockets… or lay railway tracks. And now those industries are shut down.
The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.
It’s a nice reminder how dependent we are on total strangers. Whatever device you’re reading this on probably uses different parts and software made by hundreds of different people in tens of different countries, most of whom have never spoken to one another or knew each other existed. The same goes for many things you use and own – from your car, to your TV, to the medicines you take. If we kept that fact in our mind, perhaps we’d think better of strangers, rather than hating or fearing them as humans are apt to do.
Prism: A question my Christian friends have sometimes asked is ‘What age are you in Heaven?’ Are you preserved at the age you die when, touch wood, you’re grey and wrinkly? Or do you come back in the prime of life? Do you see your Grandmother as you remember her, or as when your Grandad first fell in love with her?
In ‘Prism’ God has wondered the exact same thing…
God finally landed on an ingenious solution while watching light diffract through a prism. So when you arrive here, you are split into your multiple selves at all possible ages. The you that existed as a single identity is now all ages at once. These pieces of you no longer get older but remain ageless into perpetuity.
This takes some getting used to… Your seventy-six-year-old self may revisit his favourite creek and run into your eleven-year-old self. Your twenty-eight-year-old self may break up with a lover in a diner, and notice your thirty-five-year-old self visiting that spot, lingering on the air of regret hanging over the empty seat.
Subjunctive: One last afterlife, before I spoil the whole book and Mr. Eagleman angrily comes knocking on my door…
In the afterlife you are judged not against other people, but against yourself. Specifically, you are judged against what you could have been.
Many different possible you‘s exist; ranging from the highly successful – who worked harder, made better decisions and worked on their relationships – to the less successful – who skived off school and watch TV from their sofa. Naturally, the more successful you‘s fill you with envy and anger at what could have been.
And thus your punishment is cleverly and automatically regulated in the afterlife: the more you fall short of your potential, the more of these annoying selves you are forced to deal with.
All in all, it’s a thrilling read. As each of the 40 afterlives is only a couple of pages long, it is easily digestible too – the sort of book you can dip in and out of between doing other things.
I highly recommend it.