Monday, December 15, 2008

Time Travel and Death (imported from Waiting on Seven)

One of my lab partners asked me this question the other day:

"Assume we could travel through time, and not change the past in doing so. So, if I could do that and go back to see a lost loved one, where does that leave death?"

Now, he's just suffered a serious personal loss, although not necessarily an earth-shattering one, so this question didn't exactly surprise me. But being the monist, materialistic atheist that I am, I took a very ... mechanical view of the question. My response went something like this:

"Well, your life is just the span of time you have, from the time you're born until you die. The same could be said for the ovens we use here in the lab. They work until they don't. When they break irreparably, they're broken. Nothing mysterious about that. Death is the same thing. It's the moment when the machine that is our body stops working. Death is a moment, not a state of being.

You also should think about this. There are only so many moments in time you can go back to in order to see someone who's passed away in your present. If you do it often enough, you're going to use up all those moments a second time and you come right back to the moment of death. Conceivably, you might have to experience the loss of the moment of death more than once."

He seemed to ponder that for a bit, and then my other lab partner jumped into the conversation. I don't want to put words in her mouth, mostly because I'm hoping she'll actually join this blog and start writing for it herself, but she spoke about the emotional side of what death actually is. Although she never actually said this (I think), this is the lesson I took from what she said:

You have an emotional attachment to a living being. That being can change, and so can your feelings toward it. Once death occurs, you have an emotional attachment to a memory of that person and for the most part, that memory doesn't change. If you could go back in time, that wouldn't be the case. It would violate the way we deal with the world.

I'm not sure I agree with all that, but then, I'm not sure that's really what she was getting at, either. I can, however, say with some surety that she views not in a mechanistic way, but in a very emotional one. Which is good, since death is such a huge part of everyone's life eventually. When my first partner asked me his question, I immediately started pondering the "deep ponderables" of the question. The "How" of the question, so to speak. But there is definitely an emotional aspect to that question that I completely missed. I'm glad she was there to call it to our attention.

This was in no way the first of my "Waiting On Seven" discussions, but it's the one that sparked the idea for this blog. Check back for the next one. It should be just as interesting.

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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain


Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu