Reproduced with permission from Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York
What is it going to be like when I die? Will I be lonely and frightened, in pain and in anger? Will the grim reaper thrust me into darkness and terror against my will?
There are very few of us who have not thought about our own deaths, or pushed the thought steadfastly away. As young children we begin to think about dying. As we gain a strong sense of self and who we are the thought of death becomes more and more threatening. It is inconceivable that Mummy will ever be dead, let alone me.
It is no wonder that we like to deny death. Whole religions are based on that denial. Turn to religion and you may be assured of eternal life. You cannot die, you have a soul, a spirit, an everlasting inner being that will not succumb to the ravages of worms and putrefaction.
Of course, this comforting thought conflicts with science. Science tells us that death is the end and, as so often, finds itself opposing religion. Interestingly, the greatest conflict of all has been about our origins, not our end. Darwin’s The Origin of Species, first published in 1859, caused a controversy which is still not dead after a century and a half (44). He proposed that the simple process of natural selection could account for the evolution and diversity of living things.
The idea is, I believe, the simplest and most beautiful in all of science. Indeed, it is so simple and obvious that it is sometimes hard to remember how important it is to understanding ourselves. It is just this. You need a system for reproducing things that is not exact copying – it produces variation. And you need an environment in which there is not room for all the things that are made. Obviously some things survive and some do not. And the ones that survive pass on copies more similar to themselves than to the dead ones. That’s all. Out of that simple principle comes the whole of evolutionary theory and our understanding of our own origins.
The problem with evolution is, and has always been, that it leaves little room either for a grand purpose to life or for an individual soul. The environment moulds the progress of evolution and it in turn is part of that evolutionary process. In fact, the whole planet can be seen as an interdependent living system, as it is in the Gaia hypothesis (122). We are each just tiny parts of that living, evolving whole. As parts of the whole we are indispensable; as individuals each of us is eminently dispensable.
There is no future heaven towards which evolution progresses. And no ultimate purpose. It just goes along. Yet our minds have evolved to crave purposefulness and cling to the idea of a self because that will more efficiently keep alive the body and perpetuate its genes. In other words, our evolution makes it very hard for us to accept the idea of evolution and our own individual pointlessness.
It is perhaps not surprising that in the United States there are still powerful lobbies for equal time to be given to the theory of ‘creation’ in teaching biology in schools. The idea that God created us all for a special purpose is a lot more palatable than the idea that we just got here through the whims of ‘Chance and Necessity’, as the French biologist Jacques Monod (132) put it, even though it has no evidence to support it and provides no help in understanding the nature of the living world. And people will fight, and even die, for the ideas they like best.
Death is an idea they do not like. The self is an idea they do like; an everlasting self they like even better.
It is over a hundred and thirty years since science seriously tackled the nature of human origins. Is it ready to tackle the nature of human death? I think so. The past twenty years have seen great strides forward. The discovery and study of near-death experiences has taught us about the experience of nearly dying. Progress in medical science has increased our understanding of what happens when the brain begins to fail. Psychology is delving ever more deeply into the nature of that precious self. This book is an attempt to explore what psychology, biology and medicine have to say about death and dying. Are you ready to find out what it’s going to be like when you die?