This is by no means a scientific piece, rather, it is a piece dealing with the feeling I have long had regarding the nature of death. To put it simply I believe that life is permanent and death is temporary. To my mind, life is the ever existing background against which birth, conscious existence, death, and unconsciousness, are played out. I believe all these states except life are temporary.
We know that all self-replicating life forms are composed of cells—from single-celled bacteria to elephants, with their trillions of cells. Most cells are microscopic. It is at the cell level that many of the basic functions of organisms are carried out: protein synthesis, extraction of energy from nutrients, replication, and so forth. Every living thing has cells, and those cells perform basically the same functions whether they’re in a human, a horse, or a hyacinth.*
The Law of Conservation of Mass or Matter says that the mass of a closed system, in this case, our universe, will remain constant, regardless of the processes acting inside the system. Mass cannot be created or destroyed, although it may be rearranged in space, and changed into different types of particles. Matter is everything around us that has a mass. It is atoms and molecules, and also liquids, gases, and plasma. Over long spans of time, matter and energy are transformed among living things, and between them and the physical environment. In these grand-scale cycles, the total amount of matter and energy remains constant, even though their form and location undergo continual change. The earth’s present-day life forms appear to have evolved from common ancestors reaching back to the simplest one-cell organisms almost four billion years ago.
Atoms make up molecules, molecules make up cells, and cells make up living things. I am talking about atoms disassembling and reassembling into various other forms of matter, including human beings, over millennia…and also disassembling and reassembling into various forms of animal, plant, liquid, and gas. We are each of us, plant, animal, and human, made up of the very atoms that were a part of the big bang which science believes took place about fourteen billion years ago. We are talking about the very same atoms that once made up long dead stars. We are made up of what constitutes the evolution of the universe.
You and I are made up of seven followed by twenty seven zeros of these atoms. Every person we know, or have ever seen, or has ever existed, is, and has been, made up of this same number of atoms. I’m not even going to get deeply into the fact that all of these atoms that make up our bodies, and trees, and the desk I’m sitting at, are vibrating, colliding, and moving at all times. I simply mention this to point up how very little of what we perceive in this dimension in which we exist is as it appears to be.
If you’ve ever been put under an anesthesia on an operating table you’ve experienced being aware of the cold operating theater, the harsh lights, the voices around you, and then the next thing you are aware of is that you are awake, and in the recovery room. You could have been unconscious for a half-hour, an entire afternoon, or, for all you know, you could have been unconscious for twenty years – or a million. There was no awareness of the passage of time – none. You could have been dead – the difference being that when you awake you are still you, with your consciousness. What I am hypothesizing is that when our physical body loses it’s energy and dies, the atoms which made it be alive disperse back into the universe, either into the ground, in ashes scattered at sea, or blown upon the wind, to be ultimately spread among millions of forms of life, but the consciousness that was housed in the body that those atoms made, that consciousness that was uniquely you, is forever gone. And then, in what is always a blink of an eye to the universe, a second, a minute, five minutes, or five thousand years later, it’s relatively all the same, someone new is born. Some of the atoms that once made up people who lived before might be part of what makes that new person. They won’t have your consciousness, but they will have their own. And it will be a consciousness unique to them.
I first had this notion that death was a temporary state of life back in 1970. It suddenly popped into my head one sunny early March afternoon while sitting on a rock ledge above a natural well which was in the woods near where I lived in West Shokan in upstate New York. The well that had been iced over was just beginning to thaw. I was looking at the icicles that had formed over the winter and were hanging down from the ledge opposite where I was sitting. They were slowly dripping…melting…I watched, and, as I watched I thought; “It’s all coming back to life again. It was all dead, and now it’s all going to be alive again, the flowers, the leaves on the trees, the solid ice turning back to liquid again”. What I was watching was the return of the carbon atoms which were once part of the cells of other dead plants and leaves. They had long ago dispersed into humus, or else had become carbon dioxide gas, which had returned to the atmosphere. Now they were returning, and were combining with other atoms from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form the new glucose molecules to make up new plants and tree leaves. Where the plants and foliage were all gone, now they were in the process of all returning…every winter the same death, every spring the same re-birth. And then I started thinking; “but will it be exactly as it was? Not really. It will look the same…but it really won’t be the same. And will it remember that it was here before? Maybe on some unconscious cellular level that will govern behavior it will remember, maybe in the will to propagate that all living things share, but will it actually be aware it was here in what would appear to the human eye to be almost exactly this form before?” Some form of this monologue was taking place in my mind. And I thought that all this must apply to human life as well, which brings me back to that idea that when our body dies its atoms disburse to go into making other life forms, but our unique consciousness dies.
Let’s say that you and I are sitting in a room somewhere. We are in the same time, in the same dimension, and just a few feet separate us. We each have conscious thoughts, and have empathy for one another though we can’t really feel what the other person is feeling, nor can we know the conscious experience the other has had. We can guess, but we can not actually know. And we certainly don’t have the other person’s memories. Now, let us jump one hundred years into the past, or one hundred years into the future, where in another room two people are sitting and talking, just as we are now. Just as we exist, they exist. Just as we don’t know each others consciousness, they don’t either. Just as we are conscious, they are conscious. We can’t have the consciousness of the person we are each sitting opposite from, but we can have the consciousness of someone in another time. Of course, it really wouldn’t be us us, not the “us” with our personality, our memories, our experiences. It would be them. But since we can’t know, or remember, any consciousness but our own, not even if it’s sitting right next to us, we surely couldn’t know a consciousness that has existed, or will exist in another time.
It gives me great comfort to know that other consciousness exists, has existed, will exist, and to know that leaves die, and come back to life, looking the same, but with different atoms in their make-up, and to know we can experience complete loss of our consciousness under anesthesia, as if we are dead, then wake up conscious again. Remember, I said this was not a scientific piece…so whether this is the way it is or not, it is the way I feel it is. And from this feeling I have to conclude that life is permanent and death is merely temporary.
* Excerpted from Science for All Americans Online