It's the question beyond all questions, the central enigma, the unrelenting mystery. Beyond understanding the nature of matter or the origin of species, past the strangeness of quantum computing or the reality of a multiverse, it's there. Always.
I'm talking about death.
The arguments about what happens after we die are manifold. Some religions are quite explicit about what to expect after death. They provide us with visions of heaven or hell, depending on the choices made in this life. Many atheists are pretty explicit, too, about their expectations, or lack of them, for what lies beyond. As a scientist, however, I have always been unimpressed with both positions.
While I'm willing to put my bets down against an immortal soul ascending to heaven or descending to damnation, I'm simply agnostic about the fundamental nature of awareness as a phenomenon in the cosmos. Given how little we understand about the roots of consciousness, it simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me to make commitments one way or the other when it comes to questions of what exactly dies and how.
But no matter your (or my) beliefs and commitments, death is waiting. That means the real question before us today is not what happens after we die but, instead, how do we approach death now.
In that spirit, allow me to introduce you to Philip Gould.
Diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2008, Gould made it to 2011, when he was given just three months to live. It was at that point that filmmaker Adrian Steirn began documenting Gould's astonishing open-eyed journey into the "death-zone," as he called it. Watch it. I promise you it will be the most important nine minutes of your day.
Gould was a political strategist associated with the New Labour movement in Britain. As he came closer to death he began to see himself in a different light.
"In six weeks time I will be dead, I will face huge fear," Gould tells Steirn with gripping honestly. Then he turns that experience on its head. "But it is," he continues, "an extraordinary experience." Going further Gould says, "This is the most exciting and the most extraordinary journey of my life ... my only regret is it ends."
Gould seems able to hold that regret with a grace rooted in his awe for the entirety of life's journey.
"I saw my children born," he says, eyes closed, hands outstretched. "And I saw the incredible, massive potential of that moment. And when my father died and the air left his body it was as powerful as when the air entered the bodies of my daughters."
That sense of balance seems to animate Gould as he stands before his transition from life to death. Speaking of the time after his final diagnosis, he describes a commitment to love everyone in his life with a gentle intensity. "And my life became death," he says. "It gained a power and a quality it had never had before."
It is the authentic power of Gould's humanity that shines through in these interviews. The film never goes into his religious convictions or lack of them. I have purposely not Googled for the answer to the question because I don't care. It doesn't matter what Gould believes will happen after. What really matters is his profound curiosity about his life now, even as the focus of that life becomes its ending.
Curiosity. That is what makes Philip Gould's journey into the death zone so remarkable and what connects it, for me, to the authentic spirit of science. Curiosity trumps whatever position you may think "science" or "religion" tells you to hold about death.
We are here for such a short time, surrounded by questions both intimate and vast. For some questions we have definite answers. (Why do stars shine?) For some we don't really know what an answer should look like. (What is the meaning of life?) And for some questions we are just going to have to wait to find out. For now, at least, death is in this third category.
In the face of that inescapable truth, what else is there to do but remain true to ourselves and stay radically open and deliciously curious?
Through sorrow and joy, gain and loss, we can always keep asking that one question: What is it like to experience this life right here, right now?
Thank you, Philip Gould.