Book Review: Sum

When I was a young child, I envisioned God to look like the white bearded Colonel Sanders who is depicted in Kentucky Fried Chicken’s iconic logo. I thought, when you died, that Colonel Sanders would be waiting for you at the pearly white gates and he’d either let you into heaven or send you on a train down to the netherworlds. Of course, I now get a good laugh when I think back on my silly childhood imagination, but I’ve never found an answer to one of life’s deepest and most important questions, i.e., what does happen when you die?

I first learned of David Eagleman, a renowned neuroscientist and author of the book Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives, after watching this video in which he describes Possibilianism, which is a philosophy that rejects both the fallacies embedded within traditional theism and the position of certainty that is preached by militant atheists. In short, Possibilianism accepts that we know some things, but don’t know everything with absolute certainty; therefore, it seems far wiser to accept a middle, exploratory ground. Possibilianism, in my humble opinion, is the position in which the philosopher should take.

Sum, in short, is a fascinating piece of eschatological fiction. In the book, Mr. Eagleman writes 40 vignettes about what the afterlife might hold. It is one of the best and most entertaining books I’ve read in 2011 thus far. These accounts of the afterlife are titillating to my thirsty soul which yearns to make meaning of a world in which there may be no larger meaning or narrative.

In one of these fictional accounts, Mr. Eagleman writes, “It’s not life that is a dream; it’s death that is a dream.” And the kicker, it’s not your dream. Our life, as we think we understand it, is spent as an imagined character in the dream of a being that is already dead. When you see an individual you can’t quite place, but that looks strangely familiar, she may in fact be merely a fellow cast member.

Or, in another hypothetical world, we die three separate times. Mr. Eagleman describes these three deaths as follows. “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.” Until you die for the third and final time, you wait in a cosmic room amongst others who have died only twice. Every so often “the Callers” enter this lobby and shout out the names of those whose names have been forever forgotten and, then, these individuals vanish forever. Some people, however, are trapped in this cosmic room who desperately want to leave, but, for whatever reason, their name seems to never be forgotten. I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that this so-called cosmic room we wait in after our second death is reminiscent of our supposed “real” life.

How about my personal favorite tale from the book? In this afterlife fantasy, you are judged solely against yourself. More importantly, you are judged against what you could have been. You meet more successful versions of yourself. You meet the “you” that studied a little bit harder and got into better schools. You meet the “you” that partied a little bit less and worked a little a bit harder at his potential as an athlete. You meet the “you” that wasn’t afraid to follow his dreams, despite constantly being put down by his critics. In short, you meet the “you” that explored his potential as a human-being. How did these more successful “you’s” get to where they are? According to Mr. Eagleman, “They made smarter choices, worked harder, invested the extra effort into pushing on closed doors…Such success cannot be explained away by a better genetic hand; instead, they played your cards better.” Eventually you get sick of hanging around your personal betters and become attracted to the lesser versions of “you”. You befriend them, get drunk with them, and bad mouth or make fun of the better versions of “you”. Sounds painfully familiar, right? In this afterlife, “The more you fall short of your potential,” Mr. Eagleman writes, “the more of these annoying selves you are forced to deal with.”

As for my childhood question, I fear I’ll never be able to answer it with certainty. That’s a bit unnerving because, as a book like Sum demonstrates, there is an enormous amount of possibility out there. In some situations, however, the best answer to a question is simply to reframe the question or to ask a different one. Alas, it dawned on me, all this time I had been asking the wrong question. What my inner child really wants to know is this: what happens when you live?

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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3 Comments on “Book Review: Sum”

  1. Charlie B says:

    Sounds like an interesting read! Isn’t Possibilianism really the same as agnosticism though?

    I would also recommend you check out Waking Life (movie). I think you would definitely appreciate it. And to have some help  finding how to live – take a look at spring, summer, fall, winter, and spring. 

    • Greg Linster says:

      @openid-102017:disqus Here’s how Mr. Eagleman describes Possibillianism “Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”

      Personally, I like how Kevin Kelly described the difference between Agnosticism and Possibillianism.

      “Agnostics end with the lack of an answer.
      Possibilians begin with the lack of an answer.Agnostics say, we can’t decide between this and that.
      Possibilians say, there are other choices than this or that.Agnostics say, I Don’t Know, it’s impossible to answer that question.
      Possibilians say, I Don’t Know, there must be better questions.Both start in humility, but agnosticism is bounded by our great ignorance, while possibilism is unbounded by our limited knowledge.”

      Thanks for the comment and movie recommendation.


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