What Do Dead People Know?

First, as an instructor, I would always remind the class, “There are no silly questions, there are just questions.”

I just watched a rented Google movie, “Emily, @ the Edge of Chaos”. It was a remarkable movie, perhaps touching at the edges of the most important parts of the known universe. How’s that for a recommendation? It introduced me to Emily Levine.

And quite appropriately, as this is the source of the title for this rant. I’m sorry to say that if this movie is the first you have known about Emily Levine, then you will be sad to know that within a few short years, she died of cancer. There is a hint of her lack of the fear of death in this movie, and in a TedTalk video, she announced her Stage Four prognosis, which came to the conclusion within a year.

So, the question still is, how much do dead people know? The answer is blunt, and perhaps obvious. How much did they know when they were alive? The secondary qualifier is, what was the measuring technology of his/her life?

Did they live in a small tribal community that was mostly preliterate, primarily oral? In that case, the dead person’s knowledge lasted as long as the collective survivor’s memory. The accuracy of that knowledge is highly subjective.

Did the dead person write things down, or did someone with personal knowledge write things down for them? In that case the knowledge is passed through the decades, as long as the transmission medium survives, or is copied for another cycle. The accuracy is again subjective, but can be more accurate with multiple copies to use as comparison.

What about Emily Levine’s knowledge? We have her books, blogs, and videos. And we have her film. The knowledge is fixed, her death stops any new knowledge that can be fixed to her life. But knowledge that is based upon ideas that she proposed… well! , that might fall in the joint ownership category. The Great Shared Knowledge of the universe. That place is filled with the knowledge of dead people. Unfortunately all of it is dependent upon some sort of successful storage medium. I do not mistrust oral history as a medium, although there is a difference depending upon decades. Older appears to be more accurate than newer. And of course copies can be edited. Video and film can also be modified but it is much more difficult. Talk to any professional editor of film and you will find out that context can still be changed dramatically.

Emily Levine died, she reminded us that we shall also die. How can we live with death? Because life is death, Emily said this. I think she was/is right. I few years ago I had a significant heart attack. I learned a few things. I did not have pain in my right arm. It turns out that women do not generally have a right arm pain either.

I had a golf ball knot in my back, like a pulled muscle. Good to know, I could sit or sleep wrong, or I could be having a heart attack. I could clean the garage, and later feel muscle tension, or I could be hours from major heart failure. I love the dilemma.

It does generate some thought to some sort of existence after death. On a spiritual level I’m pretty good, on a worldly level I ponder how it works out. I’m not famous, nor am I widely published. I have some parts of my existence saved in the digital world, and less recorded on canvas or paper. How much will be seen or read? Will there be knowledge shared? Will someone, at sometime, find anything important in my participation of “shared knowledge”?

I’m not even sure that I will know about it, even if my existence changes in the future. Clearly I’m investing in the possibility that I might contribute, less clearly that it matters. I will say this, I’m very glad that Emily Levine took the time to save bits of herself on a medium that I could access. I an better for it.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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