One of my favorite books is Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, in which Lightman, an MIT physicist, imagines Einstein considering multiple modes of experiencing time. Time moves backwards, in endless repetition, in varying cycles of stunning strangeness. Einstein’s Dreams is an elegant, vastly imaginative look at one of life’s deepest mysteries. David Eagleman’s SUM: Forty Tales from The Afterlives attempts the same sort of imaginative leap, only this time, the subject is what happens after we die.
Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, has created a religious take on the world he calls “Possibilianism.” Possibilianism, at first glance (and that’s all I’ve really taken at this point) is an attempt to stake out a middle position between a God-believing religious faith and the strict non-faith of an atheist. Eagleman doesn’t like agnosticism either, so he posits the idea that “possibility” is a better orientation toward our vast ignorance than doubt. With that in mind, SUM is a chronicle of Eagleman’s imagination at work creating “possible” afterlives.
One of the interesting things in SUM is that in virtually all of these 40 stories, there is a God-figure. They may be multiple gods, forgotten gods, pipsqueak gods, gods with various dysfunctions and psychological problems, absent gods, and trickster gods. So Eagleman is riffing on the notion that if you have no reliable information on the nature of origin, beginning, destiny, God, original mover, or whatever, then you really have to come up with some other kind of story, and the possibilities are pretty endless.
It’s a fun read in some ways. There are even some profound ideas, the best of which are not really about the afterlife, but that call us into deeper understanding of our life right now.
A few of my favorite moments:
- The notion that our final death is not when our body ceases to breath, etc., but is when our name is said for the last time on earth. We’re stuck waiting in a purgatorial realm until that moment, and after that, some mysterious, unknown afterlife begins. The funny thing is that the famous ones never get to leave because they are never forgotten, and they get Purgatory forever.
- The idea that any created entity that was “ineffable”, like plays or businesses or platoons, have afterlives as well, but the “bodies” that made them come into being, are not really part of that afterlife. In the same way that we do not bring our spleen and arteries into the afterlife (Eagleman assumes), the afterlife of plays will not include actors or lines.
- The graveyard where the vast pantheon of old gods from all the world’s religions hang out. It’s an impressive gathering of misguided gods.
- The realization that we are all actually colossal giants who’s true life consists of holding up the various parts of the universe, and that when it comes to vacation time, we opt for human lives on earth. When we die, we have to go back to work.
- And then there’s an idea that keeps popping up that always has appeal to me. What age will we be in the afterlife? Eagleman ponders the notion of all of our ages being alive at once, incarnated in differing forms all at the same time, so that all the “yous” have the possibility of meeting up as you move through the afterlife. Jeff at 25 could meet Jeff at 44, and they could play catch with Jeff at 8. I especially like the idea of all your yous getting together at once, in a reunion sort of way, the life family of all the Jeffs I’ve been and will be.
What’s the sum of SUM? I’ve always said that if God doesn’t speak to us by some means, then human beings are stuck with coming up with something that explains the nature of things. Eagleman’s SUM is as inventive an attempt as any to set up some possibilities. Within the Biblical framework, none of it makes much sense because in Eagleman’s mind, God’s nature and character is up for complete reinvention. While there are mysteries and complexities in the Bible’s portrait of God, there’s nothing that would lead to anything close to what Eagleman’s doing. And perhaps his Possibilianism is attractive (you’d be surprised how much traction its getting) because faith in “whatever” demands little.
On the back of the book, it’s specifically classified as fiction.
Honest and appropriate…