Is It Possible To Conquer Death?
What Death Is and How We See It, Is Changing
We try to understand death because life is dear to us. As the strongest of our urges is to hang on to life, we fail to realise that death is but a process connected to life and a culmination of it. Science is ardently on its path to understanding death and has already revealed a few prized insights. Philosophy has also been unfolding the meaning of death, the most recent addition to the genre being the best-selling book, 'Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow', written by Yuval Noah Harari. In this book, Harari argues that in the recent future, modern science would solve the question of immortality.
A person is considered dead when cardiac arrest happens and then the brain shuts down in a few seconds. This is usually the point of no return as far as we understand death. There is not always a sure connection between death and pain. Some people do not experience pain when they die, say, scientists.
The senses and sensations decline gradually for the dying person. There is a certain sequence to this process and first hunger is lost, then thirst, and then in diminishing order, speech, vision, hearing, and touch fade away. Interestingly, there is also a neurochemical activity happening inside the brain at the moment of death, which is equivalent to what happens during high-level cognitive mental activity.
As medical science progressed phenomenally, more and more deaths are slow deaths where the medical support systems prolong life as much as possible. Still, towards the end of life, there are invariably a few days when there happens what is called “active dying”, or a rapid progression towards death. During this period, doctors believe that most probably the person is unconscious and pain is not felt.
There is a point where science and philosophy meet to ponder the questions of life and death. For example, quantum physics asserts time and space are just our mental constructs and bound by the minds of those who perceive them. This has been proven correct for the micro-world of photons and electrons but what if that applies to our macro, day-to-day world? If we apply this argument to the logic of dying, it could be possible that death is just a shift in that mental construct, in the space-time continuum as we understand it, and there could be things beyond that point too.
Philosophy apart, one could see that recent scientific studies suggest the presence of some degree of consciousness even after death, or at least immediately after death. Popular literature on death consistently reported people undergoing near-death experiences, seeing a stream of bright light and feeling the out-of-the-body sensation at the point when they were perceived as ‘dead’. Also, there have been rare instances of Lazarus syndrome reported when a person’s heart stops, he/she is declared dead, but then the heart suddenly restarts without any explanation.
Death Rituals: Ancient Stone Etching
Perceptions of Death Through Civilizations
It is fascinating to understand how humans understood and made sense of death throughout the history of humanity. This may lead us to discover some common threads of thought that unite us with primitive humans, nomadic tribes, the people of the Middle Ages, the renaissance men, and so on, regarding death.
Renowned psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud observed that among the members of the tribe of the Asra, people voluntarily choose death when someone whom they love dies. In modern society also, we sometimes see this phenomenon. Freud is of the opinion that primitive humans killed enemies without guilt but feared one’s own death. Again, our society is no exception to that though the scale has come down.
The Vikings thought of death as a point when one enters another life in another mythical place. So they killed and died without much remorse. According to the Greeks, everyone who died, heroes and villains alike, went to the underworld of Hades, God of the land of the dead. Much later, there evolved the concept of an afterlife that is different in quality for each individual as determined by their good deeds and bad ones.
Then dawned the era of Christianity. This religion made people believe in judgment day and God judging everyone based on good deeds and bad ones after death. Hindu mythology on the other hand professed you will be reborn as a lower life form like a serpent or a fly if you indulge in evil acts. If you do good instead, the Hindu belief system says, you will escape the cycle of rebirths and become one with the ultimate energy source.
Literature, War, Ideology
Death representations in literature generally have been argued to be a kind of empowerment attempt by illustrating death as a “rounding off of an eventful life”. In literature, people die all the time as in life. While in real life, death is a moment when life around it freezes but in literature, every death gives new momentum to the narrative. Like real people, literary characters also struggle to escape death and cope with the impact of death.
The way we deal with death in real life is usually by simple and constant denial- a refusal to accept that one could actually die. Freud said, “it is indeed impossible to imagine our own death, and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.”
War, love, religious faith, human compassion and ideology (apart from suicide) are the instances when humans accept death as a real possibility and still dare it. Sometimes, it is through developing a sense of self-worth and a sense of the value of life that we cope with the reality of death. People can have both negative and positive reactions to the death of others. The prospect of one’s own death looms above all in varying degrees and while some people find comparative peace with it, most of us are perplexed and anguished by the thought. This is why finding a comforting view about death becomes important.
War Cemetery: Delhi, India
Death and Future
Bioquark, a biotech company in Philadelphia, is researching brain death in patients, who according to the US federal law can be declared clinically dead but for the purpose of research, are still on life support. The aim of the experiment, titled, ReAnima Project, is to find out if stem cell therapy could re-grow and repair at least some brain cells of these dead people so that the 'brain dead' stage can be reverted into a deep coma stage. Brain death as many of us know is the current legal parameter of death in most countries. Theoretically, the Bioquark experiment is viable to succeed but there are many subtle and complex practical limitations of modern science that make conquering death only a remote possibility. The whole project as of now is shrouded in mystery and controversy.
The question of what death really is will continue to haunt and fascinate us till science catches up with the minutiae of this biological phenomenon. However, the very same mystery will also continue to stir our creative imagination. Death is a constant and ancient companion who cannot yet be wished away. Science will continue to probe if consciousness or the body as a whole can survive death. If the theoretical projections of popular scientists are to be believed, there are multiple universes and many replicas of us in those universes. This is another notion that philosophy could use to argue that death is immaterial in a cosmic sense.
A Meaningful Life And A Meaningful Death
To live a life with the least of regrets is the best way to find peace with death. Our literature and history constantly point to that if we care to pay attention. When we try to live a meaningful life, try to create beauty from art, our relationships, and the community, try to be happy with what we have and learn to cherish every good moment in our lives, death will become the least of our concerns.
© 2018 Deepa