HUMAN MORTALITY – CONCLUSIONS

“As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague possibilities.” – Charles Darwin

Our analysis of death and immortality has been quite revealing – taking us through the distinctions between life and existence, metaphysical and physicist conceptions of time, and being and nothingness. Literal biologic and personal spiritual immortality seem unreasonable and unwieldy. They appear to be the naïve thoughts or hopes of the childhood of our race, following our emergence via evolution to self-consciousness. We cannot prove our ancestors were wrong, but we can distill from our analysis more sophisticated formulations on life and death.

These conclusions include:

  1. Inevitable biologic death gives man a focal point for life, an impetus to accomplish something meaningful in a finite time frame, within one’s historicity.
  2. While alive man can have a transcendental form of eternity through infinite present moments and continuance within his phenomenal experience of being.
  3. Metaphorical immortality derives from offspring, effects on others, and works.
  4. Man’s perpetuity within the universe occurs via the recycling of his materiality, his mental energies, the chain of causation he initiates, and participation in space-time.
  5. If there is an afterlife it most likely takes the form of impersonal spiritual continuance within a greater being, but this cannot be demonstrated.
  6. Of known creatures, man uniquely participates in the two eternal aspects of the universe – by virtue of his material make-up of indestructible subatomic particles and through his knowledge of the eternity of the universe as a whole.
  7. Man also uniquely participates in the two poles of being – nothingness and ultimate being – and in this participation achieves the existential summit within the universe.

At the end of the day death does not truly justify the fear most of us naturally experience although only the most hardened fail to see it as a cause for regret. All of our reasoning converges on one conclusion; the best response to man’s mortality is for us to live fully and thoughtfully, to appreciate our apparent uniqueness in the cosmos, and to recognize that at a minimum our immortality is instantiated in having existed at all.

BEYOND DEATH – PART IV – THE EMBRACE OF BEING

“He whose preoccupation is with excellence longs fervently to find rest in perfection; and is not nothingness a form of perfection?” – Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.

We previously determined that the consequences of man’s understanding of his ultimate fate as a transient in an eternal universe include the desirability of preparing for death and embracing being while alive. In the last two blogs I reviewed one approach to the preparation for death, Seneca’s Stoic formulation. Today we will look at the embrace of being.  

When one reads philosophy, one finds unexpected essays within otherwise standard texts. One of the most poignant of these is the final chapter in Richard Taylor’s introductory Metaphysics.1 Taylor methodically reviews body and soul; freedom versus determinism; space, time, and eternity; causation; and God – essentially following academic arguments in all of these areas. But his concluding chapter appears to be speculative, existentialist, even spiritual or poetic. The path he takes us on is one of the most powerful I have encountered in all my reading; one I have read over and over.

He starts by reminding us that the approach of death and nothingness cannot be stayed. Nothingness is “immense, for in truth it is infinite in every way possible” and “the most total certainty.” Then he refutes the hope of the durable soul or ego as “already a part of the nothingness…as not even real to begin with.” But all is not lost; “that which is inexorable and infinite, that which we are, from which we came, and to which we assuredly go is not nothingness, but its very opposite, which is being.”

We find no dread in the extinction of other things even most people, no it is our own personal being, or self, whose extinction we dread. He asks then what is this self?  As we mentally separate the self from other things we move progressively inward from distant to closer things and finally to that which is inside us. But this inner self defies description and is “indistinguishable from nothingness.” Our inner ultimate reality is total, perfect, nothingness. Therein is the paradox, the nothingness of the self makes us fear nothingness.

He concludes with a suggestion: “Try this: instead of starting with the heavens and firmament, mountains and oceans and drifting clouds, with things, and peeling all these away in a vain search for something somehow more precious at their center, do the opposite. Instead of withdrawing inward, toward some imagined bit…try to proceed outward, and see heaven and earth, mountains and oceans, and drifting clouds, all you have been taught to regard as things, as others, as foreign and distant, see all these as they are. You will be astonished to find yourself and nature in one and the same; and far from dreading the nothingness, which now seems like sickness, and hardly worthy of anyone, which is how you began all this, your state of mind will be just the opposite. You will rejoice in being, in nature, in yourself, which will now have ceased to be any mystery, and you will finally understand without seeking further what Spinoza meant by the intellectual love of God.”

So what is the final lesson revealed in our search for immortality – perhaps we have been asking the wrong question all along. Man should seek not perpetuity, but perfection, and man alone in all of existence knows or will know the two perfect antipodes of reality – nothingness and ultimate being.

1Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, pages 121-126.

BEYOND DEATH – PART III – PREPARATION FOR DEATH (continued)

Seneca wants us to eliminate the propensity to regret our mortality, “Before I became old, I took care to live well; in old age, I take care to die well.”5 No life is long and a life is long enough once one attains wisdom. He tells Lucilius, “Make haste to live…and think each of your days to be an individual life. The man who accustoms himself to this way of thought, for whom life is complete each day, if free of worry…”6 This is the paradox Seneca teaches, preparation for death entails living life to its fullest!

Seneca also speaks frequently of death as liberation or freedom, although in his letters, he is often referring to suicide – and in fact he died by his own hand at the command of the Roman Emperor, Nero. The lesson for our time, where human afflictions are treatable and politics is less bloodthirsty, is that death after terminal illness or fraility of advanced age is release from suffering. And even in our century we control to some extent the final time of death depending on how we face disease.

Last Seneca finds solace in the knowledge that we share death with all men, in fact with all life. We then are part of a whole, “there are fixed seasons by which all things progress; they must be born, grow, and perish.”7 And “Nature has this one particular point among other instances of its justice: when the time arrives to leave this world, we’re all in the same condition.”8

Preparation for death by living fully and following Seneca’s five steps is one of the fundamental lessons of the investigation of human mortality. Next we will juxtapose being and nonbeing to uncover a second key truth.

1Seneca, How to Die, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2018. ISBN 978-0-691-17557-7, page ix-x.

2Ibid, page 2.

3Ibid, page 22.

4Ibid.

5Ibid, page 38.

6Ibid, page 56.

7Ibid, page 100.

8Ibid, page 109.

 

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.