There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
So you wait in this lobby until the third death. There are long tables with coffee, tea, and cookies – you can help yourself. There are people here from all around the world, and you can try to strike up a conversation with whomever you'd like. Just be aware that your conversation may be interrupted at any moment by the Callers, who call out your conversations partner's name to indicate there will never again be another remembrance of him by anyone on the Earth. Your partner slumps out, face like a shattered and re-glued plate, saddened even though he's kindly told by the Callers that he’s off to a better place. No one knows where that better place is, or what it offers, because no one exiting through that door has returned to tell us. Tragically, many people leave just as their loved ones arrive, since the loved ones were the only ones doing the remembering. We all wag our heads at that typical timing.
The whole place looks like an infinite airport waiting area, but the company is terrific. There are many famous people from history books here. If you get bored, you can strike out in any given direction, past aisles and aisles of seats. After many days of walking, you'll start to notice that people look different, and you'll hear the tones of foreign languages. People congregate amongst their own kind, and what one sees is the spontaneous emergence of territories that mirrors the way they were set up on the surface of the planet. With the exception of the oceans, you’re traversing a map of the Earth. Along with no oceans, there are no time zones either. No one sleeps here, even though they mostly wish they could. The place is evenly lit by fluorescent lights.
Not everyone is sad when the Callers shout out their names, when they call as though announcing the next flight departure. On the contrary, some people beg and plead when the Callers enter. They prostrate themselves at the Callers’ feet as the next names are read out. These are generally the folks who have been here a long time, too long, and especially those who are remembered for unfair reasons. For example, take the farmer over there, who drowned in a small river 200 years ago. Now his farm is the site of a small college, and the tour guides each week tell his story. So he’s stuck and he’s miserable. For the more his story is told, the more it drifts. He is utterly alienated from his name; it is no longer identical with him, but continues to bind. The cheerless woman across the way is praised as a saint, even though the roads in her heart were convoluted. The gray haired man at the vending machine was lionized as a warhero, then demonized as a warlord, and finally canonized as a necessary firebrand between two moments in history. He waits with aching heart for his statues to fall. And that is the curse of this room: since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.
Sum is a work of literary fiction composed of forty mutually exclusive stories. Each story offers a different reason for our existence and the meaning of life and death. These are not serious proposals; they're satirical and thought provoking lenses through which to see our lives at new angles.
Can you give us some examples?
In different stories, God is a married couple, God is a committee, God is a species of dimwitted creatures, or God is the size of a bacterium. In other stories there is no God at all and people in the afterlife battle over stories of His non-existence. In other stories we are mobile rovers built by planetary cartographers, or we are ten-dimensional creatures taking a vacation in three-dimensional bodies, or our life runs backwards after the expansion of the universe reverses and you get to see all the details you mis-remembered.
How long did it take you to write Sum?
Seven years. I wrote over 75 stories, but only included those in the book that created the right combination.
Tell us about the title.
I chose Sum for three reasons. First, it's Latin for 'I am', as in cogito ergo sum. Second, it's related to the Latin term for the highest, as in summa cum laude, or the English word summit. Third, the point of this book is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As you read the stories, it becomes clear that they are mutually exclusive and that there's something bigger emerging from adding them all together.
What is that something bigger?
It's the appreciation that there are a lot of possibilities available for what's going on out there. I'm often surprised by the number of people who seem to have total certainty about the religious stories they were raised on. They have no doubt about the absolute truth of their story, even though every other adherent in every other religion shares that same certainty and knows that all other religions are patently untrue. I'm dismayed at how little we explore the giant number of other possibilities. There are ideas far beyond the things you'll find in anyone's bible, and there's too little dialog about this. So I don't think the important thing should be to commit to a particular story when there's no evidence supporting any one over the others. The important thing should be to explore and celebrate the vast possibilities. The mutual exclusivity of the stories in Sum are designed to allow this. The aim of this book is to swing a flashlight around the possibility space.
So do you believe any of the stories in Sum could be true?
None are meant to be serious proposals. The only serious proposal is the emergent message of the book: that there are many possibilities, and we should be discussing the size of that space instead of battling over the details of the pitifully few stories that our ancestors entertained.
But do you consider any of the stories in Sum more probable than any others?
They are all equally improbable.
Do you believe in anything?
I believe in possibility.
Is that compatible with your scientific career?
It is the heart of a scientific career. Real science always operates by holding lots of interesting possibilities in mind and working to see which one is most supported by the data. Sometimes it's difficult or impossible to gather data that weighs in--and in those cases you simply hold the possibilities. You don't commit to a particular version of the story when there is no reason to privilege one over the others.
But as a scientist, do you think we may be able to someday answer these questions about life's meaning?
Yes, maybe someday. I am not a mysterian, who believes that science will never be able to shed light on the deep questions. But I certainly don't think we'll answer these in my brief twinkling of a 21st century lifetime. I've devoted my life so far to scientific pursuit, because if you want to figure out what's going on this world, there is no better way than to directly study the blueprints. And science over the past 400 years has been tremendously successful. We reached the moon and eradicated smallpox and built the Net and tripled life spans--and we've increasingly tapped into those mind-blowing blueprints, and they're deeper and more beautiful than anyone could have guessed. But in the end, when you reach the end of the pier of everything we know in science, you find that it has taken us only part way, and beyond that all you see is uncharted water. Beyond the end of the pier lies all the rest, all the mystery about our deeply strange existence. The equivalence of mass and energy, dark matter, multiple spatial dimensions, how to build consciousness from pieces and parts, what live and death are about, and so on. I have no doubt that we will continue to build the pier out, several new slats in each generation, but we have no guarantee how far we'll get. And that ocean is pretty big. There may be some domains that are beyond the tools of science--perhaps temporarily, perhaps always.
Does your book belong to the group of recent books by the "new athiests"?
I don't really see it that way. The recent books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and others are brilliant and insightful, but they also feed a common misconception that scientists don't have the capacity to gambol around beyond the available data. The truth is that good scientists are among the most open-minded people. Science is nothing but careful thinking, and careful thinking encourages an appreciation of the complexity of the world, and this complexity encourages us to maintain several possibilities in our head at once. In a single lifetime, we may have no way to disambiguate these possibilities. And that's okay. A scientist may tend to favor one story over the others, but will always be careful to concede uncertainty and maintain a willingness to change the balance with new, incoming information. As an example, there are two very different interpretations about the reality underlying quantum physics. It is possible that there will be no way to ever know which is correct, or if instead some entirely new theory is correct. And that ambiguity is accepted as part of the enormity of the mysteries we face. Those are often the terms of the agreement we have with Mother Nature.
Are you personally an atheist?
It depends what you mean by that. As a teenager I was an atheist. I realize now that my drive to talk with people about atheism was nothing more than a desire to get them to admit that something else could be possible other than the view that they absorbed from their parents or their community or their culture. It is not difficult to recognize that if you're born in Saudi Arabia, your nervous system is likely to absorb a belief in Islam; if you're born in India, you love Hinduism; most Americans soak up Christianity, and so on. Brains in different locations are exposed to different contexts, and they come to believe the local stories with equal passion and fervor. After childhood indoctrination people will vigorously defend their story against all the other stories, which seem to them fundamentally ridiculous. For many people, this connection to the numinous is an important part of their lives. But to be members of a larger community, I think it's an important exercise to stretch ourselves mentally to consider all the things we do not really know.
Do you think some form of religion is possible?
I think most scientists are, in some sense, religious. But not in the traditional way. As the philosophers Russell and Whitehead pointed out, spiritual impulses should be built upon the bedrock of what we already know. We know quite a bit about the size of the cosmos at this point, and quite a bit about the biological algorithms in our bodies, and the strange quantum behavior of atoms, and so on. So the idea is to use this knowledge as a springboard for any reasonable religion, instead of books written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, extra-solar planets, bacterial infection, information theory, electricity, the Big Bang and Big Crunch, or even other cultures or literatures or landscapes. Many traditional stories are beautiful, and they often crystallize hard-won wisdom. But in my opinion, the traditional religions are likely to be too small-thinking to possibly be correct. We know so much more now. So, yes, I think it's possible and even desirable to have a deep awe for the mysteries around us, and one can call this a form of religion.
So would you call yourself an agnostic?
No. As it is commonly used, I find the term agnostic weak. It is usually used to mean "I'm not really certain whether the guy with the long beard on the clouds exists or does not exist." But there are more exciting directions to pursue--namely, seeking entirely new frameworks we haven't yet considered.
"Eagleman is a true original. Read Sum and be amazed. Reread it and be reamazed." - Time Magazine
"SUM is terrific. The inventiveness, the clarity and wit of the prose, the calm air of moral understanding that pervades the whole thing, add up to something completely original." - Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass
"This delightful, thought-provoking little collection belongs to that category of strange, unclassifiable books that will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned. It is full of tangential insights into the human condition and poetic thought experiments.... It is also full of touching moments and glorious wit of the sort one only hopes will be in copious supply on the other side." - Alexander McCall Smith, New York Times Book Review
"This little book is teeming, writhing with imagination." - Los Angeles Times
"As rigorous and imaginative as the writings of Italo Calvino and Alan Lightman, each vignette is a glimpse into an expansive topic such as time, faith or memory" - Nature
"David Eagleman's SUM envisions a multiplicity of afterlives: pasts relived in shuffle mode, cast in the dreams of others, and dictated by our credit card reports" - Vanity Fair
"Reading this beautiful book is like pulling back the fabric of reality and peeping behind -- life and death will never seem the same again." - New Scientist
"Imaginative and inventive." - Wall Street Journal
"Reading John Updike you may feel utterly incapable of coming up with such wonderful stuff yourself but, by a process of envious extrapolation, you still have a sense of how he managed to do it. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, that must have helped, but Sum has the unaccountable, jaw-dropping quality of genius." - Geoff Dyer, The Observer
"With both a childlike sense of wonder and a trenchant flair for irony, the Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist generously offers forty variations on the theme of God and the afterlife, imagining what each of us might find when we shuffle off this mortal coil.... Sum is great fun--sort of a brainy parlor game in print--and a modest satire aimed at zealots who define heaven and God to serve their own ends." -Texas Monthly
"Wow." - The New York Observer
"Bracing, provocative, fun... it challenges and teases as it spins out different parables of possibility." - Houston Chronicle
"Creatively conceived and deftly described. Each tale imagines an unexpected reality that might await us, possible worlds that illuminate life with colors rarely encountered." - Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe
"It takes someone ridiculously smart to write something as deceptively simple as SUM." - Denver Daily News
"A small gem of a book.... Who'd have thought that a young neuroscientist would have so much story in him?" - The Globe and Mail
"A disarming, splendid little book.... Eagleman packs in an afterlife's worth of possibilities, all intriguing and extraordinarily well-written, and most tinged with a beguiling gentleness, humor and optimism.... It made my heart light" - Dallas Morning News
"Witty, bright, sharp and unexpected... as surprising a book as I've read for years." - Brian Eno
"The new God plot that's seduced top pop, literary and science figures" - The Big Issue magazine
"In Sum, Texas neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman takes the subject head on, conjuring up 40 possible versions of the afterlife.... This is a scientist and exceptionally talented writer using the idea of the afterlife to reflect on our innermost fears and desires and also as a way of dissecting how we live." - Tampa Tribune
"Imaginative riffs that are simultaneously improvisational and well-considered.... [Eagleman] doesn't intend his suggestions to be serious, but merely wants to challenge you to leave well-traveled paths of belief and think in bold, new ways." - Arizona Republic
"A neuroscientist translates lofty concepts of infinity and death into accessible human terms.... Eagleman's turned out a well-executed and thought-provoking book." - Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Eagleman has called himself a possibilian, and while he acknowledges that each of his tales is equally improbable, this act of imagination is so rich -- funny, touching, revelatory -- that life and death both seem wondrous." - Manhattan Users Guide
"These images of the Great Beyond are more complex, sometimes whimsical, always veering off in an unexpected direction. In total they present a realm where you are certain to learn something about the life you just left behind." -Deseret News
"SUM is an imaginative and provocative book that gives new perspectives on how to view ourselves and our place in the world." - Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams
This work of fiction is an international bestseller published in 27 languages. It has been turned into musical performances at the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Opera House in London. Learn more about it.
In February 2011, I spent an evening speaking at the Rubin Museum in NYC with punk rock legend, writer, and spoken word artist Henry Rollins. We discussed the origin, meaning, neuroscience, and bizarreness of dreams.