Death and Spreadsheets

It has been too long since my last entry in this blog. This is not a result of ill health or other problems (in spite of the title of this posting), but comes from the very happy fact that I have finally started work on a long-planned novel. After finishing six chapters, I find myself wrestling with some structural issues in the plot, and thought it might be helpful to step back from the project for a Sunday afternoon, and share some other thoughts that have been on my mind.

I am retired, and fortunate enough to enjoy a pension from my former employer as well as Social Security (which I have paid for and expect my government to honor, Mr. Boehner). Still, I do depend upon my investment portfolio for a significant portion of my income. Being a computer scientist, I have constructed a number of spreadsheets using risk analysis, Monte Carlo Modeling, and other techniques to determine if I will outlive my money (certainly a blessing, but like many blessings, it is one that would create some degree of inconvenience).

death-and-the-miser
Death and the Miser, Jan Provoost (1465-1529)

 

I have done this for a few years now, and was happy to see that each year, the probability of my money lasting seemed to improve. At least I was happy until I realized the reason this was so. Each year I live means I have fewer years to pay for. Death, it would seem, has become a major factor in my financial planning.

This discovery had three effects on me. The first was that I had a really bad day, although after a nice dinner with my wife, a couple glasses of wine, and a good night’s sleep, that passed. The second effect had me go into my spreadsheets and delete the column that had my age at each year in my calculations. Since I do need some indication of whether I am remaining solvent a sufficient length of time, I colored the rows for my expected lifespan (85) and my maximum lifespan (100) a soothing, soft blue. This is much better than looking at my expected age. The third effect was to get me thinking about death and my feelings about seeing it define my financial planning horizon.

Spreadsheet
Spreadsheet with soothing blue rows

I am not religious. In the interest of logical rigor, I tell people I am an agnostic, since I cannot prove the non-existence of God any more than I can prove he exists. However, the fact that God does not return my calls, combined with organized religion’s history of attacking science, repressing sexuality, supporting jingoistic wars, rejecting people who follow other religions, and requiring followers to accept the most ridiculous nonsense in the name of spiritual authority has led me to view atheism as a simpler, more honest, more pragmatic way of living. Nonetheless, I have come to realize that deep down inside, although I am not eager to die (I will miss the many lovely things life offers, including dinner and wine with my wife), I find no reason to fear it.

Ironically, my reasons for this come from two things we typically associate with religion: Doubt and Faith.

Doubt

I was trained as a computer scientist, and my research interests spanned Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, and human-computer interaction. I also dabbled in Anthropology as a tool for studying how people behave and interact in their social, professional, and family lives, and used these insights to design better software. When I look at developments in these sciences, along with neuroscience, neural imaging, and related fields, I am thrilled to see the progress we are making toward understanding the mind-brain – this astonishingly complex structure that is so important to defining who we are. It is an incredible challenge, but I see no reason to doubt that in a few generations we will essentially understand how the mind-brain-body system actually functions as we go about our lives in the world. However, there is one aspect of our minds that I doubt current research methods will be able to explain

This doubt means I cannot be sure if I understand even the nature of death, let alone have cause to either fear or accept it.

The basis of my doubt is the question of how we are able to feel things as we go about our lives; why all the cognitive functions we are coming to understand actually come with an experience of being, a feeling of things like pain, taste, the colors of a sunset, the beauty of a musical performance or a perfect painting, or the warmth and comfort of a loved one’s touch. All of the scientific approaches I have studied of necessity focus on objectively observable aspects of mental performance. We look at brain structures, patterns of neural activity, physiological responses to stimuli, human and animal behavior, and other factors we can measure objectively. Cognitive Science has given us a way to test hypotheses about how we reason by letting us implement our theories in computer programs and seeing if they match actual human performance. In spite of the power and success of these methods in explaining how our minds work, they still do not explain why it feels as it does to experience those mental activities. The reason for this difficulty is that these feelings are fundamentally subjective: an individual’s experience of being (at least at this point in our knowledge) cannot be objectively detected, let alone measured.

What is the qualia of red?
What is the qualia of red?

Philosophers call this the problem of qualia, and it refers to the quality of living experience. Why does hearing a C-major-7 chord, or seeing a particularly bright shade of the color red, or tasting a rich marinara sauce give us feelings we experience? Another way to think of it is in terms of the question “What does it feel like to be . . .?” If we ask this of humans and other apes, as well as cats, dogs, pigs, and other higher animals, anyone would recognize this as a difficult, but nonetheless meaningful question. In contrast, if we ask “what does it feel like to be” a stone, or a toaster, or even an artificially intelligent computer, the answer is “It doesn’t feel like anything.”

Great_Moments_with_Mr._Lincoln
Animatronic Lincoln, from Disney’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”

To understand why this is a problem, I would propose a thought experiment. Imagine a world that is exactly like ours, but in which people and animals are merely automata, like an animatronic dinosaur, or a mechanical statue of Abe Lincoln reciting one of his speeches. In this imagined world, people and animals would feel nothing, even though their behaviors, physiological responses, and neural activity would match ours exactly. They would complement chefs on a well-prepared meal, or they would send back sauces that were too salty, but in neither case would they experience the tastes involved. The chemical reactions in their taste buds would match ours, and would lead to the same observable neural activity and physiological responses we manifest, causing the same behaviors we exhibit, but these things would all happen without the attendant experiences we enjoy. In this imagined world, people would enact the same behaviors we do when enjoying a hot bath, making love, listening to music, and experiencing other delights, but the people in this world would feel nothing. This imagined universe would be identical to ours in every way, except there would be no experience, no feelings, no qualia to define the inhabitants’ inner lives.

The point of this imaginary exercise is that, by definition, science could not tell the difference between this imaginary world and our own, and, what is more important, science can neither tell us what is missing in this imaginary world, or give a reason why it could or could not actually exist. This implies that there must be something about our world that enables certain configurations of matter (namely us) to have feelings, but we don’t as yet know what it is.

It is this lack of knowledge, this doubt that keeps me from assuming that death is necessarily something to fear.

As I have said, I am not religious. Neither am I a dualist who believes that the qualities of experience come from some non-physical soul that wears our bodies like an old suit of clothes, and remains immune to the effects of death. But, I do believe that there must be something in the nature of physical reality that makes the experience of qualia, the feelings that go with mental states possible. I do not know if this is some as yet unknown sub-atomic particle waiting to be discovered, or some unexplained phenomenon that emerges from currently understood aspects of the physical world like fields, charges, particles, and chemicals when they are placed in certain arrangements, such as the complex networks and unique biochemical soup of the animal brain. Someday, I hope we will find the answers to these questions, but I am fairly certain this will not happen in my lifetime.

It is this doubt, this realization that there is something in the physical world that accounts for the deepest, most personal aspects of my being that we have not even started to understand that helps me not to fear death. Perhaps experience does stop abruptly when my nerves stop firing. That isn’t so scary. As an amateur musician, I have learned that silence is as much a part of music as sound, that the silence between notes gives them meaning within a composition.

Or, perhaps this physical basis of experience leaves the pattern of my consciousness imprinted in some vast network of entangled quantum particles, some ghostly me that will hum for the life of the universe.

Or, perhaps death sends my consciousness spreading out into the universe like ripples in a pond, to be finally experienced as an expanding embrace of all that exists, an embrace that lets me shed my petty self without loss or regret.

Whatever will happen, this uncertainty leads me to one question: If I do not know what will happen to my experiencing self when I die, what is there to fear? The only answer to this question is fear of the unknown.

That brings me to the second component of my little meditation: faith.

Faith

As I have said earlier, I am not religious. However, this does not mean I cannot feel faith that my life – and my death – are unfolding in ways that give me nothing to fear.

I, like all the other creatures on this planet, am the product of billions of years of natural evolution. Starting with the most basic proteins floating in the primal muck, hardly alive but still able to replicate and change; leading up through single celled creatures; continuing on to the vast parade of complex organisms that have walked the Earth since life started, evolution has shaped us to thrive on this planet. Everything that has happened over this long history of life has led to one end: it has made my fellow creatures and me perfectly suited to live on the Earth.

Home (NASA Image)
Home (NASA Image)

My biochemistry is perfectly harmonized with the air, water, chemical compounds, and energy sources that surround me. My senses are tuned precisely to the light, the sounds, the smells, the temperatures, and the rhythms of my body, the sky, the oceans, the seasons, and the land I inhabit. My anatomy has been shaped by billions of years of evolution to let me walk on the surface of this world, to touch the plant and animal life with which I have co-evolved, to eat when I am hungry, rest when I am tired, and to return my own body chemicals to this wonderful cycle of life when I finally die.

My senses and mind have evolved to give me delight at a passing conversation with a pretty girl, and to let me feel love for the woman with whom I have chosen to share my life. My mind has evolved to let me enjoy the companionship of men, woman, and children in the community that sustains us. It has evolved to let me take delight in the sight of wild animals, or industrious insects, or patient plant life on my walks in the foothills near my home. It has let me find a deep meaning in the stories passed down to us from Homer, from Jesus, from Shakespeare, and from all the poets and storytellers who have walked the earth. It has given me the curiosity to ask questions about the world in which I live, and the creativity to answer those questions through science, through philosophy, through literature, art, and music.

All in all, evolution, however blindly, however impersonally has shaped my fellow creatures and me in ways that make us perfectly suited to live on this planet, to live on our home. Is it too much, then, to have faith that death, this inevitable component of evolution, the essential clearing away of the old to allow for the new, is anything worse than a benign phase of the natural cycle?

Whether my natural ending is the start of a perfect silence, or somehow sends my consciousness rippling across the entire Universe, shouldn’t I have faith that it is just another part of life on this wonderful planet?

On making an end, I will certainly miss the wonders that the evolution of life and the development of my feeling, experiencing mind have brought me, but I cannot see it as something to fear. I can only feel a touch of sadness for the things I will lose, tempered by gratitude for the essential cycles of life and death that gave those things to me in the first place.

 

In ending this little meditation on experience and death, I would like to return to the experience that started it all: recognizing that death has become an essential part of my financial planning.

There is an old joke about a dying actor, whose dearest friend comes to visit him on his deathbed. The friend takes his hand, and asks gently: “Is it hard, my friend?” The actor looks up, and with his dying breathe answers: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

So, to paraphrase the old joke, dying really isn’t so scary after all. I just wish I could figure out the stock market.

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