I believe we're all immortal — you, me, and that attractive person on the other side of the counter who recently sold you a book. All of us. I'm not talking about an afterlife or the traditional eternity of punishment or reward; sorry, I don't believe in that. But I do think there's more going on after the last breath has left the body. I've come to this position as a result of my own journey through life, as a cognitive psychologist, a hypnotherapist, and a science fiction author. And it's going to take the tools of all three to make my argument, so bear with me.
Let's start by stipulating that we're all starstuff. You might think that's a pretty exciting idea to a science fiction author, except that everything is starstuff, and ubiquity cheapens the thrill. It's hard to feel special when you're special in the same way as every other special thing in the universe. And even our particular startsuff doesn't stay ours. The specific assortment of matter comprising the cells that currently form your body is no more you than the different collection of those things was you when you walked around in them a decade ago.
Fortunately, this is where psychology enters the picture.
The thing that separates everyone from the other aggregates of starstuff, that makes each of us unique as opposed to merely special, is information. Forget mere physicality; that's just the wrapper we wear during life. But by the time we shuffle off this mortal coil, we've each amassed a vast collection and organization of data. We are defined by knowledge and experience, the things we've learned and forgotten, everything we've imagined and misunderstood, feared and desired and dreamed. From an information perspective, we aren't the sum of our experiences, we're the product of them (pun intended) because every datum we apprehend has the potential to become — and some cognitive scientists would argue automatically is — associated with every other, in a vast semantic network that is yours and yours alone. Seen in this light, there are no non sequiturs; though the entirety of the associative chain that gets you from point A to point B may be lost to your awareness, it nonetheless resides somewhere in that mostly submerged iceberg of memory and knowledge.
What does this have to do with immortality? Simply everything!
To understand this, let me direct your attention to another example of a form of information that keeps on giving. I'm talking about light. You know the light from the stars you see in the night sky is old news. The photons from the most distant star that you might see with your naked eye have traveled more than 16,000 years just to give you a peek. Despite that span, the signal they contain, the image of that star, is still around.
|“I speculate the information that living beings amass is not unlike light, that even after it's left its source behind (i.e., your physical body) the inherent organization of that information lives on.”
Let's apply that as a metaphor to the information that represents your life. As a hypnotherapist, I mediate between a person's unconscious and conscious minds, helping both sides of my client to understand what the other knows. I mention this for the same reason I invoked the image of a cognitive iceberg earlier. It applies to that ginormous informational array that makes us who we are, not just what we know that we know, but also the larger collection of unconscious knowledge we've gathered and created during our lives.
This is where the science fiction writer comes back into the narrative. I speculate the information that living beings amass is not unlike light, that even after it's left its source behind (i.e., your physical body) the inherent organization of that information lives on. And while we might not presently have the technology or means to tap into it, like the stars overhead it exists whether or not someone is looking.
I've touched on this idea in some of my previous fiction, but I took it in a more specific direction when I wrote Barsk. Using the metaphor of light, I invented a new branch of physics — or at least a new subatomic particle. Specifically a subatomic particle of personality. I called it a nefshon.
Imagine if you will that every instant of your life, your body is generating these nefshons. They're the physical correlate of your experiences. Each particle is a marker of a part of your life, a fragment of a thought or reaction or experience that you've had. Together, they define you; these particles are you.
But more, what if the means by which we remember one another is the sharing of these physical bits of ourselves?
Remember that attractive clerk who sold you the book? Maybe it was a straightforward business transaction; maybe you flirted a bit. Either way, you had an interaction. According to my theory of nefshons, your memory and the clerk's memory of that encounter are a function of you swapping some of these subatomic particles of personality with one another. If you tell someone else about the encounter, you're sharing your nefshons with that third person, but they're not the same particles as those that formed the original event; they're different nefshons that have been informed by that earlier experience. Seen in this way, all of our person-to-person memories — what cognitive psychologists refer to as episodic memories — are collections of the nefshons generated during the event. Other forms of memory of a more encyclopedic type — what those same psychologists would call semantic memories — don't require the sharing of nefshons because living beings aren't involved. So the fact that Portland is a city in Oregon is objective information and doesn't create any subatomic particles. Your visit to that city, though, is personal; it happened to you, and as such produced nefshons galore.
Your particles of personality have no end. Those that you haven't shared with someone else will cling to your physical body, bound by the ongoing creation of new nefshons — each of which is potentially being influenced by all your life's data that has come before — until the day you die. But when your life ends, so does that binding, and the information of your individual history is set free, diffusing and dispersing through the universe, spreading the bits and pieces that are uniquely you far and wide forever.
In Barsk I took this a step further. Because if nefshons exist, then it follows that there might be some way to act upon them, to manipulate these particles. And so I imagined a drug that provides the ability not only to perceive nefshons, but to direct them. This pharmaceutical invention would let you draw and gather the subatomic particles of some deceased friend or relative known to you, taking advantage of your having shared some of their particles in life. And when you'd summoned enough of them, when a sufficient collection of the nearly infinite bits of that decedent had been brought together, you could cause them to coalesce and render a simulacrum — a nefshon hologram, if you will — that contained the memories and personality of the once-living person.
Or to put it another way, there are characters in Barsk who can impose their will upon the universe and access the remnants of information each of us created with our very lives, concentrate a quantity of them in one place, and speak to the resulting construct as easily as you spoke with that attractive clerk earlier. It doesn't matter that the person is dead. The unique amalgam of them exists forever, waiting to be called together and interacted with.
And of course, when you do talk with a nefshon construct, you'd be once again sharing some of your own nefshons with it. Which means if you chat with your long-dead Uncle Bob, the next time you do it he'll remember that you've summoned him before.
And why shouldn't he? Just because he's dead doesn't change the fact that he's immortal. As are we all.
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Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He's also one of the world's foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He's been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia.