Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lose Weight, Know Death

Last fall I uploaded the video for my song “Constipation,” after being inactive on YouTube for several months, and a bunch of people commented, “You’ve gotten fat!” Turns out I had gained about ten pounds since I last weighed myself (and I wasn’t exactly skinny before). A check of the body mass index chart showed that for the first time in my life, I was in the “overweight” category. I immediately put myself on a weight-loss program. It’s been about four months, and although I am no longer crash-dieting, I’ve lost 27 pounds. It feels great, and it’s satisfying to pick up three gallon-jugs of water and realize that this is the amount of me that’s no longer “me.”

My body is now some 15% less of a body than it was when I started. I am still the same person; it’s just that about one-seventh of me has gone away. That one-seventh is now dead. It has transitioned from being a part of my living tissue, to being entirely nonliving. It is now like all ordinary matter — molecules and atoms freely wandering in the world, unconstrained by cell membranes and the processes of life, broadly scattered about the environment in the form of metabolic by-products and residual heat. This 27 pounds is not conscious; it is not experiencing anything whatsoever.

I realized that since the 15% of me is now dead, that means that when I as an individual die, I will be effectively losing 100% of my weight. Death is the simple transition of living matter to nonliving matter; this can happen equally effectively to cells, organs, or an entire person. So when I die, 100% of my body will undergo this transition, and that 100% of me will feel exactly the same as the departed 15% of me feels right now: nothing.

Of course, this is an imperfect analogy; I lost little or no weight from my brain, and molecular fat within fat cells does not participate in consciousness. But this doesn’t really matter, because pretty much the same thing would happen if I lost one-seventh of my brain in a grisly accident. A decomposing chunk of brain tissue doesn’t experience consciousness, either; the lost one-seventh portion would be exactly as unconscious as the 27 pounds of fat that I’ve lost. And if one-seventh of my brain died, I don’t think part of me would go to Heaven … would it?

This is an area where I feel that even moderate people of faith are living in pre-scientific times. There is no localized “seat” of consciousness, no specific location of the soul, in the body. We all know that if we lost one-seventh of our brain tissue, our consciousness would suffer — consciousness deteriorates readily just when we have a high fever. The many bizarre cases written about by Oliver Sacks are proof positive that our sense of the world (including the self) is tied to the physical condition of the brain. How does the idea of an eternal soul work with a person like Terri Schiavo? Do Christians feel that she was actually fully conscious in some manner as she lay in her waking but vegetative state? Or, when she died, did her healthy consciousness reconstitute itself before going to heaven? And which consciousness was that — as it was just before she suffered brain damage at age 26, or a younger, more naïve consciousness? Do persons born with severe developmental disabilities become normal after death? Do those with minor learning disabilities, or traumatic memories, lose them before they go to Heaven? Do sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder learn to chill out after they die? What if certain people’s disorders or flaws actually helped them to achieve great things on Earth?

I suppose if I were a believer, I’d say something like, everyone has a perfect soul or spirit which can be trapped inside a flawed body, but which becomes free upon death. To me, though, if a person’s soul in Heaven is different from his or her waking self on Earth, then it isn’t the same person — any more than someone is the same person after they’ve been given a lobotomy, or developed Alzheimer’s.

The problem is, the idea of an eternal soul is logically incompatible with the idea of an organic body that hosts consciousness organically. There could be no self-consistent “theory of the eternal soul” that explained how that soul relates to an individual’s personality, memories, and experience on Earth. Life after death is fine as a bedtime story, but when scrutinized with any logical rigor at all, none of it makes sense.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the remaining six-sevenths of me has a life to enjoy.


  1. Heh... I really liked this one! I need to loose some of the excess weight my self that I'm carrying around for years.. :(

    It's what I was always saying... you mentioned it also in an article... when you die it's over... you can't even feel the "nothingness" it's like before you where born... did you feel the billions of years that passed before the spark of consciousness? No!

  2. The Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, sums it up. "Where are you going to be when you die? The same place you were before you were born ... nowhere."

  3. A question? In almost 100 years humans have made incredible discoveries in Science. We are by nature egocentrics and most of us will not want
    to die. Do you think that in a 100 years from now
    probably humans will be working in making humans live longer by transplanting human brains into human bodies that were harvested without brain?

  4. Jorge -- I don't. Before we're able to do that, we'll find a way to arrest and/or reverse the aging process. It may also become possible to capture a person's identity and memories technologically -- basically, backing up your brain to a hard drive -- but that seems much more far off. I do think that technology will move in that direction, but it will produce a solution that's more elegant than the Frankenstein scenario of mindless zombies in vats getting brain transplants. Besides, the brain ages like everything else, so we'd need to solve that problem anyway in order for the immortality-by-transplant scenario to work.

    Future technology is typically envisioned as present technology greatly amplified, but that's not how progress always happens. If you told someone in 1900 about the Internet and asked them to predict how it would operate, they'd probably imagine a network of pneumatic tubes shooting paper messages all over the world, because pneumatic tubes were the big thing back then. In the end, the task of sending written messages quickly was achieved through a simpler, more elegant technology.

    1. Hopefully the Frankenstein option will also be available to those of us who prefer it.

  5. Edward - I agree that we can't comprehend future technology, but I think the analogy about 1900 is flawed.
    Maxwell's equations were published in 1862. Telegraphs circled the globe by 1902. Photography was huge in the 1800's. Light bulbs were also developed in the 1800's. Pneumatic tubes are perfect for a single building, but I think any smart person in the year 1900 would be able to comprehend that the Internet would be built on electricity.

  6. You're right. I've always liked the pneumatic-tube analogy -- some people thought that's how we would get around quickly in the future, and in Manhattan a prototype subway line was built based on the principle -- but in this case I didn't really think it through.