Instant Eternity

The scene seemed to resound to a brass quartet, three trombones and a tuba, played ominously muted. Fog was clinging to the bare, dripping trees. More distant branches appeared wishy-washy and spectrally insubstantial, which made the overall effect very artistic indeed. The crucifixes and headstones, too, were floating in a milky mush. The Cemetery was positively overflowing with fog, making it hard to find the way among the graves.

He heard the scratching of metal on sand and the slapping sounds of heaving clay.

The Gravedigger stood in a pit he was excavating for the forthcoming funeral, hurling the yellow clay to one side of the grave-pit. On the opposite side lay a transparent plastic sheet he'd spread out. Just as the Onlooker arrived, there was a splat, and a long limb-bone, what you might call an extremity, fell onto the sheet.

It was a thighbone, or tibia, but the Onlooker didn't know this, belonging as he did to those Humanities scientists who aren't interested in such things and care for nothing short of the whole Being. Instead he felt indignant at the way human remains were being dispensed with, but on the other hand was strangely ashamed to admit to such outrage, since it was the fashion among intellectuals at this time to indulge in something like cynicism. Nevertheless, the Gravedigger, noticing he was not alone, throw out no more bones now, but gathered them up in one corner of the trench. Having built up a sizeable stockpile he then climbed out, with his arms full, and slowly put them down on the plastic sheeting. He rose to his full height, making a thorough inspection of the Onlooker, clearly unsure whether to ask him to leave.

The Gravedigger was a tall man with a flat-featured, Moravian-type face and deep-sunken blue eyes. His hair was an indeterminate shade of brown, fairly thin and slicked down into an insubstantial fringe. He wore an open-necked chequered shirt and a khaki-coloured padded waistcoat jacket, possibly imported. His unremarkable dirty trousers estuaried into his clay-sodden gumboots. He was saying nothing, he just kept looking. The Onlooker began to feel a little afraid of him. It occurred to him that there was not a living soul in the Cemetery, not to mention the viscous fog: if, for whatever reason, insanity even, the Gravedigger decided to whack him over the head with his spade or pickaxe and then buried him beneath the floor level of the freshly dug grave, no-one would think to look for him, or had any hope of finding him there. The floor is fresh-dug and squelchy as it is, soon they'll be lowering a coffin down and filling it back in. The Onlooker had no notion how deep down a sniffer dog could detect a corpse, but he concluded that even if it were theoretically possible, he'd surely be put off the scent by the stench of the corpse above the body in question, and not helped by the dear deceased in graves all around. That is, if a dog were even capable of it in the first place, which he might not be. The Onlooker mused whether anyone had already taken advantage of such a scheme to get rid of a body, because it seemed to him pretty foolproof.

But the Gravedigger, saying nothing, lowered his gaze and jumped back down into the pit. The bespectacled and well-to-do air of the Onlooker seemed to have brought to his mind the possibility that this could be some official inspection, something it behoves one not to aggravate.

Shortly he emerged again, holding a skull in his hands. By contrast with the anatomical specimens the Onlooker knew from school, from shops selling medical student accessories etc., the skull lacked a lower jaw and was tainted yellow-brown rather than white.

The Gravedigger stood before the Onlooker. A down-trodden ironic smile glanced across his face: "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well, Horatio," said the Gravedigger.

The fact that a Gravedigger had recited Shakespeare in the original was no great surprise to the Onlooker, and probably does not impress a contemporary Czech reader very much. For the sake of future readers, and foreigners, let us mention that an intellectual working as a labourer is a commonplace and banal phenomenon in the Czech Lands at this time. Apart from the odd sporadic individual cases, which are always present, there have been two main surges of class-destruction: After 'forty-eight, once the hyenas had grabbed control and could not get their fill of their new-found power, and once again following the unsuccessful cosmetic surgery of 'sixty-eight, when a handful of the very naive had tried to operate on the Predator's face to make it human.

It is this second assault wave which the reformed communists, and the world in its turn, pronounce, or even believe to be the only one ever, since the first swathe was carried out under Stalinism with much greater ferocity and those concerned were to have their lips much tighter, more hermetically sealed. The aforementioned reformed communists want nothing to do with it, largely because they took part in it themselves and are being nibbled-at by their consciences, so they keep it sublimated, out of their minds, or at least out of conversations with outsiders.

The Onlooker would not have reacted, as it is always preferable to keep one's distance from the "mighty-fallen", but the look on the Gravedigger's face indicated him to be sneering, provoking, construing out of self-pity and anger that the Onlooker is an ignoramus, standing over him there, lordly and indolent.

"That's got you gawping, you Bolshevik bonehead," the Gravedigger's deep-sunken eyes seemed to say, "they didn't teach you that at your apparatchik Sorbonne, did they?"

The Onlooker's self-pride did not withstand the onslaught:

"A fellow of infinite jest, of much excellent fancy," he said with irony equal to the Gravedigger's. In point of fact that was as far as he could remember how it went, but it seemed the Gravedigger knew no more either.

Nothwithstanding, a bond of mutuality suddenly grew between them.

For a while they just grimaced. The Onlooker wondered about asking the Gravedigger how he had come to be one, which the etiquette of the situation now seemed to expect. On the other hand he did not find it all that appropriate to ask:

It was more than likely due to some kind of political transgression, unsuitable for the Gravedigger to confess, openly and willingly, to a strange man whose cadre profile he didn't know. More than likely it was also something trite and banal, as ever - all the more irksome was the brutally obscene result, turning an English Literature Scholar into a Gravedigger.

"At least he's got it over with," said the Onlooker. "Suffering no more. Knowing nothing."

"I wouldn't be so sure," said the Gravedigger.

"Sure, - we can't be," said the Onlooker, "but it's far more likely so than otherwise."

"Until recently it could all be disputed, as I'm sure you know," the Onlooker said glancing timidly at the Gravedigger, lest he thought he was being lectured - "it could be argued for instance that if there is such a thing as abstract thought, conceptual thought, intangible mental content, then some intangible principle must be present in all things which grasps, appreciates - there was nothing to be done about it apart from denying the existence of the inner content, but that approach was unworthy and false, wasn't it, you know what I mean: I don't see a dog, I see Astor, Amina, Rek - the dog is something my mind's eye sees and so forth. But now, with the advent of computers this line of argument has suffered a bit of a deathblow. A concept is shown to be no longer some kind of projection, some physical or virtual image, but a logical function over a number of binary signs, or reduction to them - I mean," the Onlooker halted "in case you've ever come across this - those are of course technical terms and details - but in short: a concept seems to be nothing more than, as I said, a certain logical function. That's why it has no form, that's why it very often can't be shown as a particular picture but it's not that it has to be tied to some immaterial essence or something. No, such a function can be physically implemented - as a switching network, or a program - that would take me some time, but take my word for it - so there are only two mysteries left nowadays - namely how does the system decide which features are relevant for a given concept-formation from a given point-of-view - something I wouldn't see as a fundamental problem - though we aren't there yet it is not fair to say that we're at the limit of our understanding, that's a cheap get-out, because in some cut-down cases we can even do that now - but then there's the fact of subjective experience - now that does remain a fundamental issue. But to say that it necessarily requires one to postulate some cognisant entity which lives on after physical death - that quite honestly, quite honestly doesn't follow."

The Onlooker had got carried away, but immediately regretted it. Maybe the man is a grave digger precisely because of his religion or something - and you can't explain it all in a nutshell anyway and a lot of people don't understand it, it needs a certain kind of mathematically minded style of thinking and today's philosophers are mostly at the opposite end of the spectrum - literary types, wafflers.

The first ones failing to grasp it are the Marxists themselves; when so called cybernetics began it was the Comrades that denounced this sterling ally of materialism for long after as a plaything of capitalism - there's nothing to it, mind, it's much harder to grasp how to stitch together a shoe - but people are used to thinking in a different way. The Onlooker suddenly felt terribly alone, who knows what the grave digger will now resort to, he might become furiously violent and attack him with that shovel, like the Onlooker had feared earlier, at any rate it will be an awkward parting, why did he ever get involved in debate with him -

But, strangely enough, the Gravedigger seemed to understand the Onlooker.

"Well," he said slowly, perusing the skull in his hand, "why ever not - it's true enough that today's progress in computers and robotic systems seems to confront the idea of a thinking principle distinct from the brain - though it is far from conclusive in that regard - but life after death, or consciousness after death, or if you like the subjective experience of eternity is something that can be modelled without recourse to an immortal soul - that's the quirkiness and fun of it all!"

"How could it possibly?" asked the sceptical Onlooker.

"Well," said the Gravedigger, still turning the browned skull - "well, it's like this - you see ever since I've become a grave digger, I've had plenty of time to think - when I'm digging I do it absentmindedly, at a pace I can sustain, so nowadays I practically never get tired. I can't read while digging - so I contemplate. And - the nature of the job itself brings me onto these kinds of subjects. - Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming that that's the way it is, only that it could be, just so. So hear me out and I'll tell you my Materialistic Theory of the Immortality of the Soul, or Consciousness.

Firstly, we have to adopt as our hypothesis that consciousness derives from the state of the brain. If you're knocked unconscious, for example... That was apparent even to the Scholastics and so they drew up a notion that the Soul perceives, or comprehends only through percepts which are created for it in the so called common sense, sensus communis, to kainon aistheterion - if you follow. The Soul does not perceive except through images, anima non percipit nisi per phantasma. That created a problem, to explain how the Soul, separated from the body after death continues to be conscious when it has no senses to prepare the images for it, how, say, the Souls of the Blessed perceive God when out of the body - so they contrived that God creates a special-purpose light of creation for them, quoddam lumen creatum - well, even the Scholastics had some trouble with that one. In short, in essence, as further proposed by the Tomists, when the sensus communis, or as we now say the brain doesn't function, the Soul is not in the picture.

So, if we leave aside that purpose-built light we can, by applying Occam's razor, ignore the existence of the Soul, because it is a kind of constant in the equation - i.e. it wouldn't even have to be there for consciousness to be accounted for by the brain, under normal circumstances, i.e. before death, quite in keeping with the Scholastics.

Now pay close attention:

The argument itself is founded on the existence of subjective time, subjective temporal experience. As you well know, time passes at various speeds subjectively speaking, during the normal waking state. When you're busy doing something interesting, time passes quickly - hence the word pastime - contrariwise a tedious situation goes on and on.

Subjective time speed also increases with age - do you recall how school holidays seemed to last forever in your childhood? And they are, what, two months, which nowadays are gone before you know it! So! Our subjective time shortens more and more with age - as Vrchlický put it - forty gone, time, crazed, speeds on. And you know how time distorts during sleep: Well known cases, those: You get lengthy dreams drawing to some logical conclusion, only to discover that they were prompted by some external event - a long mountain ascent, say, ending in a fall, which in reality turns out to be falling out of bed, or a long saga ending in a gunshot, to which it has been inexorably drawn all along, but the gunshot is the tyre bursting outside the sleeper's bedroom window. So the whole long dream takes place between the percept causing it and the full-blown awakening - there are countless examples. So we see - the brain is able to experience a very long storyline in an instant. There are distortions in time perception in various drug-induced states of mind. So why not, during the process of dying, or even after clinical death, say due to some metabolic breakdown processes in the brain, why not the subjective sensation of Eternity! And if so, if the mind of the dying, or the already dead person was experiencing eternity, lasting forever, then it would mean that the perception would outlast the substrate, this substance producing or predisposing for this subjective experience, which would have rotted and disappeared in finite time. That's logical, is it not?

Now, there's no reasonable way of denying the very fact of subjective experience - if we acknowledge that it is produced by the selfsame brain, which is the obvious option - then we have here, I'd say, a very modern theory of subjective immortality on a materialistic basis, something I would suppose even a Marxist would have to countenance. I know - I know, you'll now say - actually what can you say?

Only that it doesn't seem right to you, somehow or other, or that as a believing Christian you have to acknowledge an immortal soul, e fide. And I could counter by saying that this is what is meant by the soul's immortality, exactly this. And what could you say to that. Only that it doesn't seem right to you somehow.

But let's see: There is, let's say, some process in the brain which creates the experience of a subjective time-interval which is much longer than the duration of the objective process which began with, say, the tyre blowing and ended with awakening, i.e. a short interval leading to the conscious experience of a dream lasting, subjectively, an hour or several hours. If we were to describe it such that the length of the process in the brain is the independent variable, or the argument of a function, and the duration of the subjective experience the dependent variable, or the function itself - then there are indeed functions where a sufficiently large argument generates a functional value out of all bounds - there are masses of such functions around, aren't there? So, maybe that kind of dependency exists between the duration of some brain process and the duration of a subjective sensation, or state of mind - that's in and of itself a perfectly logical and feasible possibility!

If such functions exist in the world, dare I say the purely physical world, why ever not in the psychological sphere, which is one we know precious little about, where everything is shrouded in mystery!

Look at nuclear physics, there are phenomena there which can be appreciated or grasped purely on the basis of suppositions which leave one gasping! Time can travel backwards, some particles can be in several places at once, what do I know - I'm a grave digger, I don't keep up with these things, I only pick up what I come across here and there.

But I do know that, for instance, modern-day physics postulates processes which arise in a time interval of zero length! Get it? Zero! In exactly the interval t2 - t1, where t2 - t1 = 0, something happens at a subatomic level! But in some next instant t3 , where t3 - t1 > 0 something altogether different takes place. Imagine something similar happening in a dying brain! Why not, when it can happen inside the atom! So in the interval t2 - t1 = 0 a certain state has occurred and this state continues because the next subjective moment t3 will never happen, time has stopped for this particular organism, for this particular brain, some oscillation process which was driving things has simply ended. And there you have it: The engine which did it all has long since decomposed - " (he tapped the skull he was holding in his hand) - "but the sensation is there still. But where? A kind of nowhere, the state is subjective - but everlasting! - on-and-on-and-ongoing. And now, no longer dependent on any substrate: Immaterial consciousness, outside of space and time! Isn't this a whole lot better than, not just more scientific than, but in its subtleness a more uplifting idea than some tacky little soul, quintessentially the image of a transparent humunculus? Of course, even that is quite tenable, by using the fairly primitive idea of multidimensional spaces, say - incidentally according to Thomas, as you probably know, even a free substantial form has its locus - if I recall it well - but the present model with its everlasting subjective consciousness, going on after its substrate has decomposed - I'd call that much smarter, more majestic, worthy of God if you like -

And we can go on to imagine that depending on the moral quality of the given consciousness, or this brain if you prefer, this final eternal subjective sensation might be the pinnacle of bliss, or sorrow. - There you have it, eternally blessed or eternally damned! And you can't do anything about it any more, because the substrate which produced it has ceased to function and ultimately vanished altogether! - Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio! Bingo! Over and out! That's perfectly consistent, isn't it? What about purgatory, I hear you say? Details, mere details - once again, deriving from the moral state of the conscious mind or its brain or rather what that brain has stored in its memory - there would be an initial unpleasant state, subjectively very long lasting say - well, not forever, because the dying brain is still working! - hm, and then the terminal, constant state of salvation! No problem!

And let me tell you, I personally find this the most logical solution, seeings how it reconciles materialism and spiritualism, or as they say, idealism. To my mind it seems in keeping with other oddly magical facts that science keeps discovering about the world. Like we see a star which is no longer there, the light has travelled to us for so long that meanwhile the star has quite possibly died away, but we won't know that for a long, long time, and maybe never - but for us, the star is quite clearly and physically there -"


"Joe, stop harassing the gentleman a start digging so you're done by nightfall!"

"Begging your pardon, sir" and the man in the official cap, some kind of Cemetery Coordinator it seems, gently leads the Onlooker away.

"That Joe would rather rabbit on all day and get nothing done. I hope he didn't pester you too much. He does his work all right provided one keeps an eye on him. He's a bit simple, poor fellow."