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Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives Paperback – January 12, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A clever little book by a neuroscientist translates lofty concepts of infinity and death into accessible human terms. What happens after we die? Eagleman wonders in each of these brief, evocative segments. Are we consigned to replay a lifetime's worth of accumulated acts, as he suggests in Sum, spending six days clipping your nails or six weeks waiting for a green light? Is heaven a bureaucracy, as in Reins, where God has lost control of the workload? Will we download our consciousnesses into a computer to live in a virtual world, as suggested in Great Expectations, where God exists after all and has gone through great trouble and expense to construct an afterlife for us? Or is God actually the size of a bacterium, battling good and evil on the battlefield of surface proteins, and thus unaware of humans, who are merely the nutritional substrate? Mostly, the author underscores in Will-'o-the-Wisp, humans desperately want to matter, and in afterlife search out the ripples left in our wake. Eagleman's turned out a well-executed and thought-provoking book. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
A slender volume of bite-size vignettes, Sum appears to be a whimsical novelty, amusing for idle perusal but quickly forgotten. In it, neuroscientist Eagleman offers 40 fates that may await us in the afterlife. A close reading of each carefully measured chapter provides an insight into human nature that is both poignant and sobering. In one afterlife, you relive all your experiences in carefully categorized groups: sleeping 30 years straight, sitting five months on the toilet, spending 200 days in the shower, and so forth. In another, you can be whatever you want, including a horse that forgets its original humanity. There are afterlives where you meet God, in one a God who endlessly reads Frankenstein, lamenting the tragic lot of creators; in another a God, female this time, in whose immense corpus earth is a mere cell. Eagleman’s engaging mixture of dark humor, witty quips, and unsettling observations about the human psyche should engage a readership extending from New Age buffs to amateur philosophers. --Carl Hays --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
It's difficult to write about this without giving too much away; if you want take the stories at their freshest, stop reading my review and read the book now. Come back when you've finished (in an hour or two) to compare your thoughts with mine.
In many of the chapters we can't communicate with God, or the creator(s), because there are such differences of scale or understanding. "Do you think it would have any meaning at all if you displayed one of your Shakespearean plays to a bacterium? Of course not. Meaning varies with spatial scale. So we have concluded that communicating with her is not impossible, but it is pointless." (P 16). Also: "She is the elephant described by the blind men; all partial descriptions with no understanding of the whole." (P 99)
This theme resonates with me; I first saw a form of this idea on the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan. Because God is beyond us we can't perfectly conceive of him (Sagan was talking about aliens not God). Consider a two dimensional universe; one with length and width but no height - thinner than a flattest, thinnest paper. Beings in this universe would develop math and philosophy based on their experiences. Then suppose a cube appears over the universe casting a varying shaped shadow as it revolves above this two dimensional universe. The two dimensional beings could see the shadow shape change but could not conceive of a three dimensional cube. We can only conceive of those things which meet our scale.
Other stories show the creator(s) were imperfect and even heaven is imperfect. "He is in the position of an amateur magician who performs for small children and suddenly has to play to skeptical adults." (P 93). Even then all is not lost: "He has recently faced his limitations, and this has brought Him closer to us." (P 94)
Still another recurring theme considers our physical, atomic structure of bacterium, molecules, atoms and quarks. "But it turns out your thousand trillion trillion atoms were not an accidental collection; each was labeled as composing you and continues to be so wherever it goes. So you're not gone, your'e simply taking on different forms." (P106).
My favorite story was the last: Reversal where we live our lives backward "The pleasures of a lifetime of intercourse are relived, culminating in kissed instead of sleep." (P109)
The most disturbing story was chapter four: Descent of Species. When given a chance to go back to earth as anything you want, pick wisely.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, not a theologian or a philosopher. This book is not for conservative religious, regardless of faith. But if you would like a small diversion to consider what might be ahead of us.