I've been thinking about death. And, on the opposite extreme, about downloading.
Death isn't normally something I spend much time thinking about, except in the aftermath of someone else's passing. I am in good health and leading a vital life, physically and intellectually and emotionally. As a general rule, it doesn't come up.
This Christmas, though, I got well and truly sick. And while I was in no real danger of dying thanks to modern medicine, I was a great deal sicker than I realized at the time.
That's because my illness didn't hurt, much, and didn't pass my "time to go to the hospital now" litmus test. It was
bad enough that I saw the doctor, partly hoping to save my family holiday plans (no such luck), and he gave me a prescription for antibiotics and a choice whether to fill it or not, because it was anybody's guess whether I had "just a virus." Like, say, the influenza virus.
I did fill that prescription. Then, having seen the doctor like a good boy, I stopped worrying.
My rule of thumb is pretty simple: if I'm eating and drinking and I can keep my fever below 102F or so without doing anything stupid and dangerous, I should just chill out and get better. Actually, my usual habit is to just keep trucking, and this winter that got me in trouble, as the moment my fever broke and I felt a little better I tried to jump up and have a normal day. Which was a big mistake and led straight to a relapse of the flu.
So anyway, there I am with a moderately impressive fever and, as it turned out later, a lovely bout of asthma developing. So I'm short of oxygen and I'm hallucinating a bit. In low light, every corner of the room is inhabited by fairies and all manner of creatures. I am a community, not a person. It's all very interesting but I have no energy to do more than gabble at Roberta about it. Time is passing quickly and I am well out of it.
Eventually my fever breaks again and I still feel lousy. Walking up the stairs is a serious challenge; I'm short of breath. I remember reading somewhere that shortness of breath turns out to be the most important telltale that you should go to the damn hospital, or at least the doctor.
So I go back to my painstakingly noninvasive doc, an osteopath. I like osteopaths because they don't think medical technology is the solution to everything but they still have to pass their damn boards and recognize the symptoms of gonnakillyouifwedon'ttreatititis, which I feel is quite important.
He listens to my lungs and surprises me by saying that no, they don't sound good at all. I have asthma. With one possible exception, I haven't experienced asthma since I was about ten years old.
He gives me prescriptions for two different inhalers, one chronic, the other acute. I stick to the chronic inhaler, and also go back on claritin. After a few weeks I feel much better and taper off and start spending serious time jogging and cycling. Before long I'm back in rude health. Downright inconsiderate health, even. But something about the experience stays with me.
Here is that thing: death doesn't suck. But don't get me wrong: many significant things closely associated with death suck a whole lot.
Selfish things: you will never see Thailand, you will never dance again, you will never marry the lady or see your child graduate. Unselfish things: you will not be there for your child! You will not be there for your family and your community! Spiritual things: you're worried sick about what comes next. These are big problems and they are no good at all.
Pain, also, sucks really quite a lot, and is unfortunately often riding shotgun with death, making the whole thing especially terrifying and unpleasant and hard to disentangle from its circumstances.
But death itself is not so bad. When you start dying, just a little bit– and I am talking about the really important bit, where your brain begins to shut down, not the painful and undignified business of the body falling apart– when you start to die a little, this is what happens: things get a little surreal, and your thoughts slow down, and your personality starts to unravel a little. None of these things are terrible. People often risk arrest to experience them.
And if I had been much, much sicker– if instead of a wee problem with my oxygen supply, my lungs had stopped filling altogether– what would that have been like? It doesn't feel like a big existential mystery anymore. It frankly seems pretty obvious. It would be more, or rather less, of the same. My thoughts would slow down more. Things would get weirder. And I would thoroughly unravel, like a man giving in to sleep.
None of that is so terrible. As long as you're not consumed with regret, or pain, or guilt, all of which are commonplace but not intrinsic to death. Not if you've lived a long and full life.
Being a lot sicker than I realized at the time (*) gave me a chance to experience what the end of life might feel like, if I weren't consumed with worry and regret and pain and fear. It was just another new experience, welcome in its own way. Had I really been dying, or thought myself in any serious danger of dying, I would have been deeply concerned about my family and a hundred other things for excellent reasons. But as it was, I just got a tiny peek through the fence without paying admission. And having watched someone close to me die, it's a comfort to have a better idea what they experienced.
On the opposite extreme, I never used to think about the notion of "downloading" into an artificial intelligence. Not from a personal standpoint. When I was young I secretly assumed I would simply live forever, as most people do. Later I figured I was going to die in a birthday dance circle surrounded by distraught salseras at the age of 97 (which is still fairly likely). Giving up my body never seemed even remotely appealing.
But let's say I've lived that long and full life, and pretty much experienced what homo sapiens sapiens has to offer, body-wise. By then there are nine, maybe ten billion people clamoring for their turn on this planet. And there are other kinds of experience.
Let's say there are three or four billion of us by then in the over-ninety crowd, and the planet doesn't have room for us all to run around in vat-grown 18 year old bodies (if it had the technology, which I suspect it won't for quite a while longer, assuming things go well enough that such things happen at all). Well, what might the alternative be? How about downloading your personality into the cloud?
We might have to timeshare limited resources; we might have to slow our perceptions quite a bit. Okay.
This is subjective time we're talking about; experiencing entire art movements in a week from my perspective might be nice for a change. To say nothing of getting to see the planets of Alpha Centauri.
It doesn't make sense to send pretty bags of mostly water through a death-dealing sea of cosmic radiation for thousands of years. So send me. I don't mind; I can pace myself. (**)
(*) I should reassure you: I am one seriously healthy 41-year-old. It was just a seriously shitty case of the flu with a perfectly timed bout of asthma attached. Which is to say, pretty darn bad, but when you're over it you're over it.
(**) Mark-Jason Dominus points out that downloading doesn't save you, it copies you, and then your copy has more fun than you.
More charitably put, it's a form of reproduction. But downloading at the end of human life feels like something closer to a transition, if you feel (as I do) that the death of the brain and body is final. Knowing that "I" will pass on momentarily but that "I" am also continuing in a very real sense is not much different from knowing that "I" feel like pure bloody hell today because I'm having my appendix out, but "I" will feel ever so much better in a week. It's not like I get to be me-next-week right this instant; I still have to believe in continuity with that later self to overcome my present pain. Still, I might feel differently about this if the downloading were performed early enough to be socially awkward in the way MJD describes.