Monday, July 27, 2009

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife (book review)

When I picked up "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife" by David Eagleman, I was doing what I always do - judge a book by it's cover. From the word "Afterlife" I expected a book where people were telling credible but non-verifiable beyond-death stories.

Instead, what we have here is 40 speculations about how our universe works and what we'll find out in the afterlife to confirm or contradict that speculation. Although it consists of pure, unadulterated, speculation (or "mysteries" as they used to tell my dad in Sunday School) I still found the book interesting . I can't remember now, but there is one branch of philosophy that predicts ALL our views will be confirmed in the afterlife. Thus, Mormons in the afterlife will be whisked away to their multi-staged heavenly kingdom and won't really think about where the others went. And those who haven't believed in an afterlife will simply sleep forever. In effect, he, too, will have his belief confirmed.

I digress. Sum's speculations go from the universes where the creator i s a whimsical fellow who "experiments" with various universal constants to another where the creator intended the human species to be little mapmakers.

Another intriguing scenario has "heaven" populated only by those people whom we knew ion Earth. The beter we knew someone or something, the more prominent part they played in our afterlife.

Another chapter and David Eagleman is describing a type of Indian Reincarnation where your progress is not based on moral purity or spiritual growth but on our intellectual growth and choices.

As a discussion stimulator, this book is good. But most people will find the speculations too unbelievable. But that's the point. A god who is bigger and more powerful than this universe and controls all tha goes on in it is also difficult to conceive. The question becomes which is the more unbelievable.


  1. Personally, I found the examples you read to me rather depressing. Neither being essentially stuck in your memories so you can only converse with those you knew well nor a heaven where so many people are in they all think it is hell sounds very appealing.

    My other critique is just that they all seemed very rooted in our mortal experience here. In the mormon view that heaven is a continuation of our relationships and progression makes sense in saying that it is essentially a continuation of here and should therefore be similar, but if we are going on pure speculation, why stay so rooted in our mortal world. Why not shift our consciousness to vast stretches of time and space where the entire history of the universe plays out, or let us see all points in time at once (like the aliens in slaughterhouse five, or the prophets in Deep-Space 9). How about putting our consciousness at distances where quantum mechanics is obvious, or simply having a totally different sense of consciousness space and time completely removed from our experience. Really, if you go to pure speculation, why tether it so much to the mundane.

  2. I suspect the link to mortal experience was at least partially my fault in writing the review in mortal terms. But to experience the creator as someone who tinkers with universal contants may require that we, in the afterlife, have a very different level of consciousness. On the other hand, the author wasn't writing to SF or Fantasy fans so he couldn't be as wild as you might prefer.

  3. I think that really makes my point. We only visualize heaven in terms of our own experience. Even my wild ideas were tied to concepts that I'm familiar with, but why would we expect the after life to bear so much resemblance to this life.