BEYOND DEATH – PART III – PREPARATION FOR DEATH

“The whole life of philosophers…is simply a preparation for death.” – Cicero

 

Last time I proposed that on reflection existential anxiety is unfounded as, man as a physical being shares with all things greater than subatomic particles and less than the universe as a whole the quality of transience, but uniquely participates in eternity through human understanding.  One consequence of this is man unlike other creatures can prepare for his eventual nonexistence. Today we will look more closely at the preparation for death especially as transmitted to us through the letters of Seneca.

In his book How to Die, James S. Romm reconfigures relevant passages in Seneca’s letters into a manual of sorts describing the Stoic approach to death. I found quite revealing his introduction which alludes to a scientific study where patients administered hallucinogenic mushrooms reported they “stared directly at death…in a kind of dress rehearsal,” and found the experience not “morbid or terrifying but liberating and affirmative.” 1 This seems to confirm that existential anxiety is a ‘peak experience’ and even the entry point for the ultimate life experience and can be mollified by confronting it.

Romm’s reconstruction of Seneca’s thinking involves the following steps:

1.  Prepare yourself.

2.  Have no fear.

3.  Have no regrets.

4.  Set yourself free.

5.  Become a part of the whole.

He begins with Seneca quoting Epicurus: “Rehearse to die…it’s a great thing to learn how to die.”2 He tells his friend Lucilius that he has already experienced death – the time before he was born, and that death is no worse. Pity for the dead is as absurd as pity for the unborn. Fear of death not only makes dying more difficult, but life less noble. He scoffs at the fear and avoidance of death, “Whoever doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to live.”3 He even calls it madness, “..fear is for things we’re unsure of; certainties are merely awaited.”4

(continued next post)

Share this post:

BEYOND DEATH – PART II – A REVIEW

“…fearing death gentlemen is nothing other than thinking one is wise when one isn’t, since it’s thinking one knows what one doesn’t know. I mean no one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all goods for people.” – Socrates, in Plato’s Dialogue, Apology.

Last time I argued that the decision to ignore eventual death appears to be an unacceptable approach to death while existential anxiety is the summit of human experience of the force of life – making these the antipodes of human postures on death Today I wish to unpack the main points in the last 19 posts, and see if that anxiety actually makes sense.

We learned that biological mortality is nature’s price for evolution of complex organisms as it is both intrinsic to muticellularity and essential for the development of future species. Eternal existence is neither empirically demonstrable nor metaphysically possible for man, the latter because real and subjective existence are contingent rather than necessary. Traditional concepts of immortality and the afterlife are logically inconsistent, undesirable, or impersonal. Alternatively, mortality offers important benefits for the individual: release from suffering, a focal point for life, immense freedom, finite limits on duty, and a comfortable historicity. Death also serves humanity and the universe, particularly as the greatest value of any given living thing is its exhaustion in the propulsion of nature.

But the existentialist’s belief that nature and the universe are indifferent or hostile to man seems to me unwarranted. Of all living things of which we are aware, man seems to get the closest to immortality, if nothing else by participation in the eternal through the knowledge of cosmic time and necessary being. But we also saw that man achieves a variety of forms of immortality: (1) physical – the recycling of our material bodies; the enduring nature of mental energy, and the chain of causation which follow on our actions, (2) metaphorically – in our offspring, our impacts on other humans, and our enduring works, and (3) transcendentally – in infinite present moments, persistence within our frame of being, participation in space-time, and perhaps ‘eternal recurrence.’

It turns out that the only eternal manifestations of the universe are its subatomic building blocks interchangeable with energy, and the universe itself – the infinitesimal and the whole. No other subpart of the universe, not man, (not even a demiurge if there is one) can claim eternal individual existentence on a cosmic time scale; but man, at least, participates in both of these manifestations – as composed of the infinitesimal eternal parts and integral to the chain of causation, biology, and space-time that infuse the universe; combined with awareness of that participation.

To me, there are two implications of these ruminations:

1.    Death and the end of individual existence are unavoidable, so prepare for it. 2.   Universal being is eternal, so embrace it.

At least, two philosophers have looked at deeply at these implications, and we will see what they discovered in the next two blogs.

Share this post:

BEYOND DEATH – PART I – EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY

“There are those who think that life is valueless because it comes to an end. They fail to see that the opposite argument might also be proposed: that if there were no end to life, life would also have no value; that it is in part the ever present danger of losing it which helps to bring home to us the value of life.” – Karl Popper

Is there and ideal approach to mortality and what is it? The simplest answer is the common sense one: “Yes, just ignore it.” With some trepidation, I must admit I have spent a great deal of time trying to defend and refute that viewpoint in personal meditation. My eventual conclusion was that it not the ideal nor even an acceptable position.

I would ask you to remember back to when you first grasped your own mortality; not just that all men die, but that you yourself will actually die. I certainly remember: I was fifteen, walking by myself through my suburban neighborhood on a beautiful spring day. I am not sure where the thought of death came from, perhaps I was thinking about the dead frog I had thrown into a bowl of Chlorox to extract its skeleton for sophomore biology, or the death of an adolescent girl I knew in a motorcycle accident, or maybe it was just the mental incursions of my parents floundering marriage. I do not recall the trigger, but I do remember, as clear as if it was yesterday, the gripping realization that came from nowhere that I would die one day – go to sleep and never wake up – and then everything would be over, not just for a day, or a week, or a year, but forever. Everything that mattered to me would be no more.

I remember my heart beating out of my chest, the breathlessness, the feeling of dread, of terror, of inescapability. I remember stopping cold in my tracks. I had to wait until that awful feeling passed, and then…I resumed my walk and tried not to think about it. “I have plenty of time”, I thought, “Something so far in the future is no threat to me now. Death isn’t real, not like family problems, school, peer pressure. If I don’t think about it, that feeling will stay away.”

For the last 45 years I have gone back and forth, from fleeting periods of this existential anxiety (I hadn’t heard that word when I was 15) – Kierkegaard’s dread – to long lapses into Becker’s ‘denial of death’ sometimes for years at a time. Perhaps you too have experienced this. Only reading the great minds in history and personal meditations revealed to me that this ‘common sense’ approach to facing one’s mortality is a futile dodge, a ruse, a cheat. Life’s ultimate value is interwoven with the realization of one’s mortality. That feeling of existential anxiety is the supreme feeling of life itself. The next three blogs will take us deeper into that absolute truth.

Share this post:

HUMAN RESPONSES TO MORTALITY

“So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.” – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

 

So far our investigation has shown the untenability and negative aspects of traditional immortality, the benefits of death, and transcendental and metaphorical meanings of immortality. And yet despite these arguments, we still have an undeniable aversion to dying and the permanent end of our conscious self. This may be the self-preservation instinct, but more likely the problem is buried deep in the psychology of man – a visceral fear or the unknown and anxiety of irreversible nonexistence.

Ernest Becker and Paul Tillich seem to me to have delineated these two natural responses to mortality –fear and anxiety – most clearly. In The Denial of Death and The Birth and Death of Meaning, Becker focuses on the fear of death. His thesis is that we develop either healthy or unhealthy responses to this fear. Unhealthy responses included repression, self-deception, hedonism, and some forms of heroism. A discussion of this latter response represents the bulk of the first book. To some extent heroism, the attempt to recast one’s life as meaningful through ‘heroic’ actions in the world (i.e. self-importance), is essential to the mental stability of individuality–within-finitude. However misdirected heroism frequently leads one astray and extreme forms can lead to evil, an idea he develops at length in his third book, Escape From Evil. Becker’s teaching is clear – the healthy response is to face one’s mortality head on, live fully with the paradox of human existence, and find one’s particular authentic way to behave in the world consistent with true or cosmic heroism.

In The Courage to Be, Tillich’s proposes a complementary thesis; anxiety is the natural reaction to one’s mortality. This anxiety can take three directions: (1) neurosis [disease], (2) despair [vice] with its paradoxical risk of suicide, or (3) courage [virtue]. Tillich tells us the way to resist neurosis and despair is through self-affirmation which includes the character of ‘in spite of.’ – that is the affirmation of the self in spite of the sacrifices required, of our sin and guilt, and of our limitations . This is done by taking  the anxiety into oneself and the recognition that  “The ultimate power of self-affirmation can only be the power of being-itself.”1 and the ultimate test of courage as demonstrated by Socrates is the courage to die – to take nonbeing into oneself. Non-being, it turns out, like anxiety and finitude, is part of being-itself.

These great thinkers and many others such as Epicurus, Seneca, Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, and Kierkegaard come to the same conclusions: we fear or are anxious about the prospect of death, but this is unfounded. In fact the fear and anxiety are conquered by courage, acceptance, and preparation for death’s inevitability, and participation in life and ultimate reality to its fullest. We will pick up there next time.

1Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957, page 166.

Share this post:

METAPHORICAL UNDERSTANDING OF IMMORTALITY

“Immortality may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.” – G.H. Hardy.

 

In our analysis, up until now we have looked at immortality as perpetual life, existence, or transcendental experience of time. But of course, immortality can be viewed metaphorically in the following ways.

First is biologic; our life is extended or echoed in our progeny. Every one of us is the product of thousands of generations of ancestors, and it is at least possible that our descendants will continue for thousands of generations to come. More intriguing is the possibility that, should humans evolve into a new species, our genes will be components of that more highly advanced race. Perhaps we can imagine here Nietzsche’s uberman.

Second we can extend the influence of our lives through our works. This applies to all people as the effects of our actions on our fellow man are incalculable. For example, kindness and charity in our lifetime can be magnified by the later actions of the recipients of our altruism. Scientific and mathematical discoveries, inventions, political endeavors, and works of literature, art, and music are examples of more concrete, universal, or widespread impact on humanity. Protestant religions often deny that heavenly afterlife comes from good works, but metaphorical afterlife seems assured by them.

Third we expand the influence of our lifetime by participation in enduring structures – one’s family, social organizations or causes, one’s country or religion, even humanity itself. For that matter, the magnitude of one’s lifespan may be enlarged by involvement and identification with nature and the earth.

Metaphorical unlike literal immortality is undeniable and lacks negatives, at least as long as one’s actions are ethical. Here again we see how ethical behavior enhances the meaningful life in this case by enhancing metaphorical immortality. Of course this form of immortality is uncertain as one can never know the future of one’s offspring or one’s works, and while the temporality of our impact on the universe is elongated, it is unlikely that any human influence will last forever on the cosmic time frame. At best it feels like a diluted form of the immortality we desire.

This takes us to consideration of the proper approach to our eventual death given our analysis of im mortality which is the subject of the next blog.

Share this post:

TIME – PART IV – ETERNAL MAN

“He who participates in God, participates in eternity.” – Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be.

 

 

In the last post, we looked at the sempiternal elements of man; today we will consider views of the eternal for man.

Eternity is manifest for human beings within the metaphysical nature of time and the meaning of infinity. If reality follows the arrow of time, I was born at point A and will die at point B. If moments in time have no duration (time is continuous rather than discrete) and I live always in the present moment, then there are an infinite number of moments between points A and B. But an infinite number of moments can never be exhausted and thus I can never run out of metaphysical time. In other words, the duration of life consists of an infinite set of moments which defines our transcendental eternity.

This can be alternately reconfigured by considering being and non-being. If I know non-being only as that state before my existence and death simply as the return to that state, I know being as simply that which occurs between my birth and death. Therefore, I have been, am, and will exist at every moment of being…analogous to eternity for the number ‘2.’ If this argument fails because ultimate being existed before and will exist after my existence unlike the number ‘2’, we can introduce a corollary from Paul Tillich that my being participates in ultimate being and thereby partakes of eternity.

A final perspective is found in Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal recurrence. In infinite time, a finite number of particles will reconfigure themselves an infinite number of times into any state of reality and thus we have infinite identical lives. This once questionable cosmology has gained traction recently given physicist speculation of the multiverse as an infinite number of universes. Of course, identical copies or oneself in identical circumstances may not signify eternal existence.

In closing, these last two posts demonstrate that we are sempiternal as physical bodies via our elemental parts, emanations of energy, and chains of causation; and eternal by virtue of the infinite number of moments we live, our experience of being, nonbeing and participation in ultimate being, and perhaps by eternal recurrence. However none of these quite corresponds to an infinite number of years of life or consciousness.

Before we define the best approach to death, we still need to explore a few alternative conceptions of immortality which is the subject of the next post.

Share this post:

TIME – PART III – HUMAN SEMPITERNITY

“The ancient athanasias pharmakon, the medicine of immortality, is more profound and meaningful than we supposed.” – Carl Gustav Jung.

 

In the last blog we found two facets of time – the metaphysical notion of the present moment and the physicist theory of space-time with layers of past, present, and future. Within these we now seek an analytic interpretation of immortality for humans.

First we need to make a fundamental distinction between sempiternity which is the word many philosophers use for everlasting existence and eternity which they reserve for timelessness. The former allows the possibility of a beginning, but no end (or even an end, but no beginning), while the latter does not. The universe then is sempiternal (assuming the Big Bang theory is correct) whereas the number ‘2’ is eternal.

Most traditional concepts of immortality are in fact references to sempiternity. It seems we must concede that the living form of man is not sempiternal, however deeper scrutiny reveals the subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules that compose our bodies do meet the same standard as the universe in this regard. The chains of causation that follow our actions also leads to endless effects. Arguably our thoughts or mental energy are analogous to other forms of energy such as heat or electromagnetic radiation and are indestructible although transformable components of the universe. On the physicists view, our life spans occur within a continuum of events in the universe that make up an immeasurable slice of space-time.

Therefore, through the physical make-up of our bodies, the energy of our thoughts, the chain of causation of our actions, and our existence within a space-time slice, we are in fact sempiternal beings in spite of our limited life span.

In our next blog we will look at possible interpretations of human eternity.

Share this post:

TIME – PART II – THE METAPHYSICS OF TIME

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain time to one who asks, I know not.” – St. Augustine

Time is perhaps the most mysterious factor in reality, in fact, some philosophers such as J.M.E. McTaggart argue against its reality at all. Kant however seems convincing when he observes that we experience reality a priori as within space and time. Still it is perplexing that space seems so immanent while time is so conceptually elusive. Everything in any area of space is assumed to be real, but only things existing at present are thought to be real. Neither Napoleon nor my future grandson (should there be one) are considered part of reality.

Humans experience time as passing, but metaphysicians point out this is an illusion – in fact the only actual moment is the present one. Time does not progress rather things progress through time. The belief that only the present is real is called presentism1. This is the view of Eastern religions and was the opinion of Marcus Aurelius when he wrote in his Meditations “We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and never found.” It is also the foundation of Eckhart Tolle’s contemporary spiritual masterpiece – The Power of Now. The beauty of this belief is its simplicity and liberating effect.

Physicists however describe reality as existing across time. When the past, present, and future are seen as a seamless reality, it is called eternalism.2 Physicists see reality as ‘events’ which are described by four coordinates – the three dimensions of space and the additional dimension of the time of the event. Einstein expanded this view with his laws of relativity wherein space and time are recast as a fabric making up the universe. The fully developed theory redefines reality as a space-time continuum that can be seen almost like a loaf of bread with slices defining interconnected parts. Time then becomes one of four data points that define any physical event.

Physicists’ time has a forward direction – the arrow of time-  that is explained by the second theory of thermodynamics which states that all things in a closed system tend to disorder (increased entropy – think of shuffling a new deck of cards). At the scale of the universe then time progression is simply the increase in disorder of the system as a whole.

We cannot in this brief essay analyze additional features of time such as whether it had a beginning or is continuous. For our purposes, metaphysical time as the inviolable present moment serves well as our internal orientation to time, whereas the physicist’s concept of time defines our historicity within the universe. In our discussion of immortality we will next see if these concepts allow for a transcendental understanding of eternal existence.

1Carroll, Sean, What is Time? in Mysteries of Modern Physics, The Great Courses on YouTube.

2A third possibility is the growing block universe which accepts only the past and present as real.

Share this post:

TIME – PART I – REPHRASING THE QUEST FOR IMMORTALITY

 “I am not eternity, but a human being – a part of the whole, as an hour is part of the day. I must come like the hour, and like the hour I must pass.” – Epictetus

In the last four posts, we uncovered the dual paradoxes of the desire for immortality despite its negatives and the fear of death despite its positives. We can abstract from this inextricable conflict its basic truth – the fundamental premise behind the words mortality and immortality is subjective considerations about time. It may be that our quest is actually a wish to alter time’s supremacy over us. The three most likely scenarios here are: (1) a preference for a longer but still finite lifespan, (2) the wish to slow or stop the passage of time, or (3) the hope for time transcendence or existence outside of time. We will take these individually.

In the first case, the desire for immortality is symbolic of the longing for a longer life span in which to accomplish all of one’s desires and experience all of the desired experiences. In that alternative world, one would remain healthy and die only when one has done all one wishes to do or when one is weary of life. Immortality is recast as optimal life expectancy. It turns out that for some of us the average life expectancy in 21st century developed countries may already meet this condition, but most of us would seek a longer life span, though not necessarily eternal life. For now our only options are taking good care of our bodies, avoiding injury, and managing disease preferably through prevention. Technical advances may lead to a sustainable corporeal existence in the future or perhaps continued consciousness in a nonorganic structure although this risks metaphysical identity.

The second case would simply allow the slowing or cessation of the movement of time. This appears impossible although near light-speed travel would make time move slower relative to others, it would not change one’s sense of one’s own life span. In any case slowing or stopping time is clearly not desirable on deeper reflection. While this alternative might have some practical advantages in normal life, in reality, if time were to stop or slow, growth and progress would be attenuated or halted – a state hauntingly similar to death itself. Stagnation and inactivity is an unacceptable price to pay for only apparent immortality.

Last is the desire to exist outside of time altogether. We are familiar with timeless existence – geometric and mathematical figures, concepts like justice and love, creative works such as music, poetry, and fiction. These “immortal” things are not subject to the negatives of immortality. However it is difficult to see how living matter can be recast as timeless in the same fashion, and timeless existence is inactive and only the tool of contingent entities inside time.

Perhaps there is a different transcendental understanding of immortality within time itself, but to find that we will need to analyze the metaphysics of time which is the subject of our next blog.

Share this post:

ADVANTAGES OF DEATH – PART II – HUMANITY AND NATURE

“A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

 

In the last post we identified five advantages of a limited life span from the standpoint of the individual. Now we take up the advantages mortality serves for humanity, nature, and the universe. There are at least three to consider.

The first is the recycling of the matter of which we are composed. It is a basic tenet of the ecological cycle that living matter returns to more elemental forms to be reused for nature’s purposes. While humanity is only a small portion of all matter, our corporeal selves are inextricable participants in this cycle. Lao Tze states this beautifully:

“All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfil their function and make no claim. All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfilment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom.”1

The second is human vitality, which would likely diminish if we were immortal (consider the Elves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). Humanity’s brief life ensures it fertility. Each human life includes a proportionately large stage of productivity with the greatest typically in youth – consider examples of Bill Gates starting Microsoft at age 20, Isaac Newton inventing calculus at age 23, Albert Einstein discovering relativity at age 26, Mozart composing Don Giovanni at age 31, Dmitri Mendeleev creating the periodic table at age 35

Ernest Becker observes in Death and Human Meaning  that nature seems to gain most by men and women who use themselves up. In contrast our later years typically are less productive and offer limited value to our species and the universe. In the natural state, evolution supported short human lifespans with only a small fraction living to advanced age as sources of guidance, wisdom, and memory for the tribe. It is essential for cultural and technological development that youthful, engaged individuals appear regularly.

Last and most important is the role mortality plays in evolution which depends entirely on procreation and numerous generations. It is unlikely that homo sapiens is nature’s ultimate life form. Human immortality would make further evolution of our line impossible. There is something gratifying in realizing that our existence, procreation, and disappearance make up some of the innumerable steps in our evolutionary line.

In closing, our mortality appears to be best for nature, humanity, and ourselves while biologic immortality would be beset with problems and impede the natural course of the universe. Nonetheless it is undeniable that life feels too short, permanent cessation of consciousness feels tragic, and our will to survive is not diminished by any rational process. Perhaps we should seek a different significance of our distaste of mortality and desire for immortality. We will consider those alternatives in our next post.

1Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954. ISBN 0-671-54800-X,  Page 656-656.

Share this post: