Image: NASA Space Place
I've been contemplating mortality recently. Can't imagine why. And I've spotted a flaw (add it to the pile) in the way people traditionally think about souls, spirits and the like, which they sometimes decide are bound by the laws of physics (those who mistake Nigel Kneale's classic drama The Stone Tape for a serious documentary), but other times decide are exempt. Where do you draw the line?
It's the same fundamental flaw I spotted in time travel a while ago. I could have gone with either time travel or death for this fictionalised demonstration, but since the former would have turned into the latter pretty sharpish anyway, I plumped for the macabre option.
I hope this unsettles you as much as it does me. Winking out of existence is surely preferable to this horrific eternity you've created.
You are about to die.
You are not consciously aware of this – what you recognise as conscious thought has been absent for several days, assuming you still have the same grasp of the passing of time you once did (we're making a lot of assumptions). But you are still most certainly aware, albeit in some vague, ill-defined sense, as you always knew for certain you would be, albeit in some vague, ill-defined sense. Death is not the end.
Maybe you are surrounded by your loved ones, maybe you're twisted under wreckage at the scene of an accident, those details don't matter any more. Your arrival at the inevitable destination can be delayed no longer. But to lighten the tone, if these considerations still matter to you now, let's say you are in that hospital bed, surrounded by friends and family.
Your thoughts, however they are defined, are no longer bound by your brain, which sends its final pragmatic sparks. Your heart beats its final rhythm and your lungs exhale their final gasp. Your body has died, but still you go on, just as you always knew you would, liberated from this mortal coil.
You rise. Or fall. Maybe you go sideways. Ignore the symbolic meanings you've come to associate with these directions, it's a matter of probability. But as we're endeavouring to make this experience the least upsetting it can be, take comfort in the fact that it just so happens you rise out of your body, a free spirit.
Of course, it's more accurate to say that your body falls away from you, since you are not the one moving, and never will again. A supernatural entity, the laws of physics have no dominion over you. You are aware of your body falling beneath you, as you always knew it would, but you have no eyes to see. If you do have sight, why is there any longer a need to limit your perception to the visible spectrum? Maybe you can see the infra-red, the ultra-violet, radio waves, all part of the deeper understanding that you always knew awaited you, even if you and the universe are now and forever, irrevocably, disconnected.
You rise through the hospital floors (the hospital floors fall through you). If you pass through any living persons, there's a chance your soul, if we're calling you that, might have a final chance for communion with others of your kind, still temporarily constrained by flesh, bone and gravity. Would they recognise you? Unfortunately, you didn't have the chance to find out and now you never will as the roof falls beneath you.
The gravity of your situation now dawns on you, and is such a blow that you're not able to appreciate the irony of that sentence as you once would. Now you are no longer a slave to gravity, the Earth is leaving you behind. This is the last fleeting glimpse you will ever have of your home, as the spinning ground recedes at 30 kilometres per second. It almost makes you wish you'd fallen after all. If only your body had let you go when you were on the forward-facing side, you would have had more time to say your goodbyes as the interior of your planet passed through you on its spinning spiral around the Sun.
The Sun itself will also recede in time. Physics was never your strongest subject, but your GCSE knowledge has been refreshed by Brian Cox documentaries, so you can fast-forward the diagram in your vague, ill-defined mind. First you'll lose the Earth, then the Sun will follow. Eventually, even the colossal superstructure of the Milky Way and its galactic neighbours will complete their staggering journey into blackness.
You stand as a stalwart monument, one of countless souls similarly jettisoned in your planet's spinning, spiralling wake. Do animals have souls? What about plants? Bacteria? How small do you have to be before you cease to matter? How cluttered is the Earth's exhaust trail, tracing its path through the billennia, gradually expanding in sync with the universe that you are no longer part of?
With your enhanced eyes, will you witness the galaxies stretch before you as the atoms of the universe expand around you? Will this expansion ever cease? Will it reverse, aeons down the line, and collapse into a Big Crunch? Such trivial, physical matters won't affect you either way.
There will be plenty of time to dwell on such things. For now, try to put those troubling thoughts aside and cherish these final hours witnessing the Earth's departure. Who are your neighbours, invisible out there in the darkness even with your expanded awareness? The others who transitioned from that brief mortal life to this eternal existence and were deposited before and after you? You will never meet them.
Death is not the end.