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'Afterlives': 40 Stories Of What Follows Death

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'Afterlives': 40 Stories Of What Follows Death

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'Afterlives': 40 Stories Of What Follows Death

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Those of us who grew up in religious households were probably taught a fixed idea of the afterlife: Heaven as a place of eternal comfort and happiness, while Hell is full of suffering and misery. But when David Eagleman thinks about the afterlife, the possibilities are endless. Maybe God is the size of bacteria and doesn't even know we exist, or maybe the afterlife is run not by God but by some bureaucratic committee. Eagleman is a professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and has invented 40 different scenarios of the hereafter in his new book, "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives." He joins us now. Good to have you with us, David.

Dr. DAVID EAGLEMAN (Neuroscience, Baylor College of Medicine; Author, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives): Good to be here, Lynn, thanks.

NEARY: And we're going to bring our listeners into this conversation in a moment, but first, we want to hear excerpts from some of your stories, David, and I'd like you to read those excerpts. Let's begin with the title story, "Sum," and this really begins the book. If you'd like to begin, go ahead, David.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: (Reading) In the afterlife, you relive all your experiences, but this time, with the events reshuffled into a new order. All the moments that share a quality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house; seven months having sex. You sleep for 30 years without opening your eyes. For five month straight, you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all 27 intense hours of it: bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Now, I have to ask you first, where does this concept of the afterlife lead to in this story? We don't get to the end of the story, and all these stories are about a page or two long, not very long, but we just wanted you to read an excerpt. So, where does this one lead eventually?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, it breaks down your life into its little segments. So, you spend six days clipping nails and 15 months looking for lost items and so on. And at the end of the story, you have a few minutes where you get to think about your life if it were reshuffled in the order of events that you lived in on the Earth. And in this bit of the afterlife, it's blissful, because you're remembering your life where episodes are split into tiny, swallow-able pieces, where moments don't endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

NEARY: Now, what made you think of that as a possible afterlife?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, none of the stories in this book are actually meant as serious proposals for the afterlife. There are all stories about human nature. They are lenses onto our own life. And one thing that - a concept that I felt was interesting is that, with our lives, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and if you rearrange the parts, then it's intolerable.

NEARY: Yeah. It's interesting to me that in a lot of these stories, it's really not clear whether the afterlife you're writing about is a version of Heaven or a version of Hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah, that's true, and I think part of my motivation for this is, you know, we all come to this world, and we're offered a few religious stories to choose from, and they're all extremely basic and too simple to really be meaningful. And one of the concepts that pervades all these stories is that you're either good or bad, that there is Heaven or a Hell, and in fact, humans are much more complicated than that. And so, I think, if you can't tell which of these are Heaven or Hell, I think that's great; it means I've done my job correctly, because everything is somewhere between.

NEARY: All right. Well, the next story I want you to talk about is "Egalitaire." This is an afterlife where everyone is equal. And this one, I'd like you to read the end of that story. It's on page seven.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: OK, great. Just as a moment of introduction with that, it's that God comes to understand exactly this point I just made, that she can longer judge her humans as being good or bad because she realizes that people can simultaneously have many qualities of both. So, she decides to shut down...

NEARY: And this is the result. This is the result.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: This is the result. She shuts down Hell and brings everyone to Heaven. So, the last few lines are...

(Reading) The communists are baffled and irritated because they have finally achieved their perfect society where everyone is equal, but only by the help of a god in whom they don't want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they're stuck for eternity in an incentive-less system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage. The liberals have no downtrodden to promote. So, God sits on the edge of her bed and weeps at night because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they're all in Hell.

NEARY: So, in this one, we know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Equality equals Hell.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: OK...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yes.

NEARY: And that idea where did that idea come from? What were you thinking of when you came up with this concept for an afterlife?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: This concept came from that idea I was just mentioning, where the whole idea of having a binary categorization for humans is so silly, and in one of the scenes in this story, she's listening to the prayers from both sides in a war, and she decides she can't make a decision who's right or wrong.

NEARY: All right, let's read one more, and this one is "Microbe." Let's read the beginning of that. That's on page 54.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: OK.

(Reading) There is no afterlife for us. Our bodies decompose upon death, and then the teaming floods of microbes living inside us move on to better places. This may lead you to assume that God doesn't exist, but you'd be wrong; it's simply that he doesn't know we exist. He's unaware of us because we're at the wrong spatial scale. God is the size of a bacterium. He is not something outside and above us, but on the surface and in the cells of us.

NEARY: All right, then. What I wanted to ask you about that one is, you know, that seems to be - it seems to be working off a kind of religious concept. I mean, there are a lot of religions that will talked about that, that we're one with God, but it's not really religious - I mean, in your version, God doesn't even know we exist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Right, that's the left turn that this story takes, is since God doesn't know we exist, as we pass microbes from our fingertips to a salt shaker and so on, these are statistical fluctuations that he can't understand. He can't understand why some of his congregants are disappearing and ending up in other places, and He decides He has no control over parts of the universe.

NEARY: All right. Well, let me ask you, what got you started thinking about the afterlife and wanting to write about it like this in the first place?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: I've spent my life in science. I'm a scientist, and that's what I do. What's interesting to me is that the tools of science only extends so far, and then beyond that there are plenty of things we just don't know the answer to, and in our brief twinkling of a 21st-century lifetime, we probably won't know the answer to them. What's always struck me is strange is that people walk around with such religious certainty, and they feel like the story that their parents and their community has taught them is - has to be true and that everyone else's religion is patently untrue and false.

And I feel like what the scientific temperament teaches you is a certain tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in your head at the same time. And so, I've always liked the idea of saying, I have no idea what this is all about; I've no idea what's next. And the point of this book is really not to make any serious proposal about an afterlife, but to shine the flashlight around the possibility space and to say, you know, there are so many more stories about what's happening out there than anybody's talking about. and now that we know so much about DNA and biology and computers and quarks and black holes and everything else, why isn't this part of the lexicon that we're using when we talk about what we're doing here?

NEARY: All right, I want to get our listeners involved now. Do you have a fixed view of the afterlife, or do you think the afterlife could be anything? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 80-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, npr.org, and then click on Talk of the Nation. So, do any of these stories really have anything to do with religion?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: No. In some sense, they're all making fun of concepts that are embedded in religion, but I do want to say, it's not meant to be an anti-religious book. And so far, the religious groups that have read this have really loved it, and what they've said is, it stretches you mentally and spiritually, and I think that's sort of the best outcome I could have hoped for from this book, is just to allow people to think outside of the bounds where they normally are thinking.

NEARY: Yeah. And I was wondering, too, as a scientist, you know, many scientists don't believe in God at all. You know, there's a sort of a strong atheist movement going on right now, particularly strong among scientists. But you do not partake of that.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, it's an interesting - it depends on what we mean by that. So, I used to be an atheist when I was a teenager, probably like many teenagers. But I realized in retrospect, it was really - my drive for it was just getting people to try to think outside of what they had been taught. And what happened from spending a life in science is that I decided I couldn't exactly be an atheist anymore, just in the sense that what you learn is the vastness of your ignorance; you learn in the life of science, everything about what we don't know. And so, I sort of feel like you walk to the end of the pier of science and what lies beyond that is everything else. And so, what exists in that space beyond the pier is a lot of possibility, and what we do every day in science is we have multiple hypothesis that we hold in our heads at the same time, and that ambiguity is accepted as part of the enormity of the mysteries that we face, And these are the terms of the agreement we have with Mother Nature. So, in that sense, I call myself a possibilian(ph): I'm open to a lot of ideas that we don't have any way of testing right now.

NEARY: OK, what is a possibilian?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: A possibilian is somebody who is into the possibilities, who thinks that it's silly to commit to any particular story. And my colleagues, Dawkins and Dennett and Hitchens and Harris, have done a great job of going through and showing that it's pretty easy to poke holes in somebody's particular religious structure, and in fact, these are stories that were written by people thousands of years ago who didn't have access to DNA and biology and computers and didn't even have access to other cultures nearby. And so, it's sort of no surprise that those stories end up being a little bit small-thinking when you compare them to the - to everything we now know in science.

NEARY: Well, being a possibilian, is this a new kind of religion that you're creating for scientists who want to hold on to religion a little bit, maybe?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah, it's a new movement I'm starting, and it hasn't...

NEARY: Or hold onto God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: It has a membership of one person so far, and - but I'm hoping to get more...

NEARY: You're trying to start a movement.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah. I mean, the idea is it'll never catch on as a movement in actuality, right? Because what it seems a lot of people want is certainty. They want someone to tell them, this is the answer, and what "Sum" does is it writes 40 stories that are mutually exclusive. So, if you buy any one of them, you can't buy the others. And that's the - it's structured that way on purpose to illustrate the bigger point, and the bigger point is, we really have no idea what's going on and what we want to do is sort of celebrate the awe and the mystery of it all.

NEARY: All right, David, stay with us, and again, we're asking our listeners to join us. The number is 800-989-8255. What's your idea of an afterlife? David Eagleman is a professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and the author of "Sum: Forty Tales from the Alternatives." We'll talk more with David Eagleman in a moment. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking with David Eagleman about his book, "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives." Do you have a fixed view of the afterlife, or could it be anything? And does this idea of multiple afterlives appeal to you? Our phone number is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. And if you want to read a couple of David Eagleman's stories of life after death, we have an excerpt of the book on our Web site, npr.org, and you can click on Talk of the Nation. We're going to take a call now from Richard, and he's calling from Rochester, New York. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD (Caller): Hello. Good morning - I mean, good afternoon.

NEARY: Go ahead.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Good afternoon.

RICHARD: I think this book is a really - a good exercise for a lot of people, because I - me, for myself, I tend to be atheist, but I - in the end, I think the only reason that a religion or any belief is valid is because people believe it and that person believes it. And I think this is a way of telling - of helping people to realize, regardless of where you're at, that their belief is really not that much more valid than the others and that would go a long way at stopping the injustices based on religion, because I think it only happens because people think they're so right.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Richard. Is that a part of what you're trying to get across here?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yes, that's exactly right, and I really appreciate that comment. Dawkins points this out in his book, "The God Delusion;" he points out how funny it is that people will believe their own religion so strongly, and when they look at someone else's, they think, oh, well, that's patently absurd that somebody could believe that. So, he says, you already know what it's like to be an atheist, because - just think about how you look at other people's religions, and then, you know, see if you can include your own in that. And I think it's really important because people tend to be quite inflexible about their views, and the problem is, they're the ones voting and determining your children's education and so on, and if nothing else, it is a useful exercise for people to realize that they live in a community that has a varied set of religious beliefs.

NEARY: I'd like to ask you a little bit about the writing in this book because you have these different notions of what an afterlife is, and as you said, you don't really mean them to be that serious, but they're pretty interesting. In one, you know, God's not in charge of the afterlife; a committee is, a bureaucracy is. You know, in another, it's - you're in a dream, but you're in the background of the dream. So, where did you begin? Did you like - did you, like, think, OK, a dream, and then go from there? I mean, how did you even come up with these little conceptions you have?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Good question. There are 40 stories and each of them sort of had its own genesis that came about a different way, but I just wanted - sometimes it was a way of addressing a particular concern, for example, what I mentioned earlier, about how Heaven and Hell are sort of silly in their categorization. But in other ways, I was exploring from the point of view of a scientist ways that we just might be able to think about these things in a different way. So, for example, in one of the stories, God is a species of dimwitted creatures that builds us to be able to answer the questions that they couldn't. And in another one, we are mobile rovers that are built by a species of cartographers, planetary cartographers, and our job is to use our legs to walk around the planet and turn our compact lenses of our eyes onto things and suck up planetary data. And they're disappointed because all we do is clump together and look at each other, things like that. So, with all the stories, there are different ways of exploring ideas, ways of exploring how you might actually incorporate science into a religion. Again, I mean, all these stories are not meant to be taken as serious proposals, but what is serious is the exercise of looking at many different possibilities.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Michael. He's calling from Richmond, Indiana.

MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you all doing today?

NEARY: Doing very well.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Hello.

NEARY: Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL: Hey, I chanced on this discussion and was quite intrigued, wanted to posit a (unintelligible) - one of the foundations of all religions is that God is greater than our experience, and yet it seems like the author here is guilty of the position that he put in the story excerpted in "Microbe" of reducing this being greater than ourselves into something that we should understand, when most religions under - posit that God is beyond our understanding. So, I'm wondering how you would respond to that.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: It turns out that not all of the stories take on the point of view that He's less great. One of the stories is called "Giantess," and it turns out that we come to understand God as being essentially the cosmos, and there's a planet that tries to communicate with her by sending signals. We're essentially atoms in her body. And so, this planet tries to communicate with her by sending signals, and it takes millennia for those signals to reach her consciousness. And what happens is a shower or meteors rains down and destroys the planet, and nobody is sure whether that was just an immune-system response on her part or she was scratching an itch or she was unaware of it entirely. And what they realize is that meaning varies by spatial scale in that we don't have anything interesting that we could say to her because our spatial scales are so different. It would be like if you tried to read Shakespeare to a bacterium; it would have no meaning to it. So, not all of the stories have to do with God being lesser, some, they're greater, but it's all about the sort of unexplored possibilities of the consequences of that.

NEARY: Michael, I have to say, this is a book you've got to read to understand it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: I guess. I guess, I - my question is, taking that infinite concept and just putting it into concepts that humans have experience with seems to be a limiting factor in the discussion of God, and you know...

NEARY: All right, that's interesting. That's a good point. Thank you for - let me hear you respond to that. That's an interesting point he's making, which is that you're limiting the possibility of God. I mean, you, who are saying everything is possible, are limiting the possibility of what God is. Is that - it seems to me what Michael is saying.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, maybe I'll need to write 40 more stories. But I think there's no limitations in this book. The idea is - I actually wrote 76 stories, and I narrowed it down to the 40 that gave a mental stretch in all of the optimal directions, so that in the end, you've really expanded the landscape of how to think about God and the stories that you grew up on and what that would mean.

NEARY: And none of these should bear...

Dr. EAGLEMAN: And also...

NEARY: None of these bear much relation to the stories you've grown up on, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: I would have to say...

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, that's exactly - I mean, that's exactly the point, right? They're all - they take nuggets of what we grew up on and it stretches them in very different ways and explores, OK, well, what if that really did happen? What if you really did end up in Heaven with a toga and angels strumming harps? It would be awful. You'd be stuck there for eternity. And the people to your left are playing bridge, and there's nothing much to do and - so, the idea is to take these and expand then just a little bit further than we've thought about. The last thing I'll mention, by the way, in answer to that comment is most religions also do their best to try to personify a god, and so, there's nothing unique about, sort, of trying to understand it in human terms.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from John. He's calling from Wilmington, North Carolina. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hey, how is it going?

NEARY: Good, thanks.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Hi.

JOHN: Hey, I just wanted to say this is an amazing conversation. I feel like I'm at home here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: I have realized that - I'm kind of enlightened, I feel like - I realized that I'm a possibilian.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Great. It's a membership of two.

JOHN: I've had this feeling for a long time that it's very important to question your life and question things around you, not just take things for face value, and it's just really refreshing to hear this, and that's just pretty much what I wanted to say.

NEARY: All right. OK, so...

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Thank you, John.

NEARY: You are...

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Much appreciated.

NEARY: All right, David, you're starting a movement after all, it looks like.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah. It just doubled membership.

NEARY: OK. Let's go to Kelly. She's calling from Lake City, Florida. Hi, Kelly.

KELLY (Caller): Good afternoon.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Good afternoon.

KELLY: And you know, I'm really intrigued by this as well, and I appreciate - I really have to go out and get this book. But you know, I look at - and the afterlife for me as a Christian is - who is a little bit set up with religion nowadays - is that life is really a series of questions and how we answer those questions on why we're here and then, you know, the next question, of course, being what's our afterlife going to be. And I think, every - even Christians, if you really nailed them down, would tell you different versions of what they expect the afterlife to really be like for them. So, maybe this series of rooms, or maybe you're an artist or maybe, yeah, you carry on something you really love into another life, you know? And who we perceive God to be, I think if you ask each person, each Christian, what they expect God to be, they'd give you a whole different - they'd be painting a different picture. So, this is very intriguing, and yes, to me it's a possibility. So, whether you're atheist or Christian, I think everybody's got a multitude of answers.

NEARY: Yeah. Thanks so much for you call, Kelly.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah.

NEARY: Interesting point.

KELLY: Thank you.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah, that's right. I think if you surveyed all the Christians, you would get a varied size of the response. So, this tries to take it even further, much further than anything that could even fit into a traditional structure, but I really appreciate your call.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Jeri, and Jeri is calling from Chico, California. Hi, Jeri

JERI (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I was raised as a Catholic, and at some point, I was trying to prove to somebody that Jesus Christ was God; went on to study philosophy; I'm now an agnostic. And I think that the big thing is that when you're taught in religion, you're taught truth: This is the truth. And there's a big difference between truth and beliefs. And what his questions are - the things he's doing, he's showing us that these are beliefs. And when you - you have to really recognize the difference between truth and belief.

NEARY: Does that make sense to you, David?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: I'm totally onboard with that. I think that's the perfect description. Thank you, Jeri.

NEARY: All right. Thank you so much for calling. I appreciate it.

JERI: You're welcome. Thank you.

NEARY: And here is an email from Audrey from Arizona. She's saying, my question for the author is, while it's understandable to want to consider the different possible afterlives, isn't it important to have unity in life? Even if you are intellectually capable of thinking about the alternatives, should we choose one to believe in for the sake of giving our lives a purpose? And that's really what religion is about, I think, don't you think? I mean, organized religion, I mean, I think they would argue that you have to have a belief in one thing because it does help organize your life and it does give your life some kind of meaning and purpose.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, maybe that's true. There are a lot of motivations for organized religions beyond what would be best for the individual constituents, but I would say it sort of depends on the person whether you want to commit or not. As I said, spending a life in science teaches you a real comfort with being able to not commit to a particular story if there is no reason to privilege it over any other story. And so, when you look at the world's religions - I mean, I've talked to plenty of people who say, OK, well, if my religion, it turns out, is the best for the following three reasons - and several ones got their own stories they tell, but in fact, we don't have any evidence that weighs in to say which story is better than another. And when you really look at it, there are hundreds of thousands of new, better stories that you can make up on top of that. So, for my own temperament, I'm perfectly happy and comfortable to keep all the hypotheses in my head at the same time without committing to one.

NEARY: Well, what is the most surprising idea that you thought about - when you think about endless possibilities, what's the most surprising idea you yourself have ever come up with or thought about?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Hm, that's an interesting one. Let me look at the index of my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: I mean, essentially these are the 40 most interesting ideas that I have out of 76 that I wrote out...

NEARY: Do you have a favorite afterlife story?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Oh, that's interesting, um...

NEARY: You don't have to come up with that. We'll go - you know what? We're going to take a caller while you're thinking about that. And...

Dr. EAGLEMAN: I like "Descent of Species" and "Narcissist," which I can read in excerpt if you want, but OK...

NEARY: All right. And before we...

Dr. EAGLEMAN: I'll wait for the next call...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: OK. You're ready for the next call. We're talking with David Eagleman. He is a professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and author of "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives." And you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're going to take a call from Ayan(ph) calling from Oregon. Good to have with us.

AYAN (Caller): Hello?

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

AYAN: Well, it seems to me like religion on this planet is mostly based around the collection plate. And I was hoping that after I die that I'll be freed of the monetary system and the concept of money. I was wondering if you have any stories about the monetary - you know, if there's in the afterlife, if there is a monetary system where you have to have so much space dust to buy a spot in an upscale galaxy or some stupid thing like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Does that - thank you so much for that question. Does money figure in to any of these stories? I don't think it does. I don't remember money being...

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, not directly, but in one of them you find that the afterlife is essentially suburbia and you're living there and you have neighbors and you have a job, and you come to realize that all of the good people - all of the saints and Samaritans and so on - those people aren't there; only the sinners are there in the afterlife. And you start wondering why only the bad people are rewarded of life after death. And it turns out that God himself is - we're created in his image, and he is always trying to figure out how best to spend his time, and it turns out that time is drowning him because he's been around for eons. And so, those he dislikes, the sinners, are condemned to immortality. They're condemned to live with him throughout the time. And so, the answer to your question is if you're a sinner then you still have to deal with money.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take another call from Mike. He's calling from Fort Myers, Florida. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today?

NEARY: Good, thanks.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Hi.

MIKE: Hey, great show, great - you have a third possibilian, if you haven't picked up once since I last heard...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: I just wanted to say, I think that my take on this is that we're all agnostics, except we're either pessimistic or we're hopeful. Pessimism slides towards atheism and hopeful slides towards faith and whatever it is we've been raised into or have decided upon.

NEARY: That's interesting. And I guess, being a possibilian, I would say, is really being optimistic, wouldn't you think?

MIKE: Yeah, I would say I'm optimistic and - but nearly enough to have any of what I would consider to be true faith that I would defend as the truth.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah. I Would - thank you, Mike, for your phone call. I think that's a great comment. One thing I will say is I tend not to use the word "agnostic," only for the following - just for my own taste because - OK, so, we all know what atheist means and we all know on the other end of the scale what it means to commit to a particular religion. What people often mean when they agnostic is they mean, I don't really know whether the guy with the beard on the cloud exists or doesn't exist, and to me, that's sort of a milquetoast philosophical position. What I want to do with this book is say, forget about the guy with the beard on the cloud; let's go off in this other direction and look at the giant size of the possibility space out there. So, that's why I'm using possibilian instead of agnostic.

MIKE: I'm possibilistic(ph).

NEARY: Possibilistic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Pretty good.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call. And just one other thing, I was wondering why you chose the afterlife as the vehicle for all of this, why looking at the afterlife as the vehicle for what's possible.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: I don't know the answer to that. The book grew organically like a plant. and there I was writing stories about the afterlife. But it's just - it's a literary conceit that allows me to have a vehicle for telling these really interesting stories about human nature and what this is all about. I think part of the impulse is - the philosophers Russell and Whitehead said that if you want to have any sort of spirituality at all it has to be built on the bedrock of what we already know, and we know so much going on about the cosmos and the biological algorithms in our body and strange quantum behavior and so on. And the idea was, can I write a whole bunch of versions of things that can live on top of that bedrock?

NEARY: All right. Well, David, it's been great talking with you.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Thank you and you, too.

NEARY: David Eagleman is a professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine. He's the author of "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives." That's out on Pantheon Books this month, and he joined us from KPFT in Houston, Texas. Coming up, rethinking the ban on news coverage of military caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base; Newsweek's John Barry watched the ceremony and isn't sure it needs flashbulbs. He joins us next. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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