Death

UnknownNone of my 300+ past blog posts directly tackled the biggest fact of human existence: that it ends.

First let’s be clear: death is death. There’s nothing afterward, desperately though we crave a different answer. Not even most religious believers quite succeed in deluding themselves; if they did, they’d welcome their deaths, as would their loved ones. Few do.

How to live in the face of death is the one great philosophical question each of us must confront, consciously or unconsciously. Happy endings are only temporary. Every life finally ends in tragedy, because you lose everything.

True; but you do get to enjoy it for a while, and that itself is something of a miracle, a fantastic gift vouchsafed by an uncaring cosmos. (Actually an accident, a fluke.) No law of nature says you had to exist at all. Let alone with a mind capable of appreciating it. That the atoms in a brain, each utterly lifeless, somehow come together to enable us to see, to think, to feel, to love, to be, and to know it, is another virtual miracle.

And you’re pissed you weren’t given immortality besides? Come on.

imagesYet nonexistence is terrifying; we can’t even wrap our minds around what it means. And it doesn’t assuage the loss to say I was also nonexistent for the eternity before my birth, or that being dead, I similarly won’t be aware of it. But sandwiched between those black abysses of nothingness is this brilliant little spark of light that I live. So I keep my focus on the light and not the dark.

You play the cards you’re dealt; no use wishing they were different; or for cards not even in the deck. images-1But play them to the hilt, knowing you’ll get no others. And the game is not for points, or money, but feeling. As I’ve stressed, the only source of meaning in Creation is the feelings of beings who can feel. Maximizing positive feelings is everything. That’s not amoral; acting morally is part of feeling good.

Living thusly in the face of death has always been the human condition. But it won’t be forever.

Ultimately, death is a medical problem. A very tough problem, yes, but don’t forget our species’ motto: The difficult we do at once, the impossible takes a little longer. The fight against death is our greatest battle, and we shall prevail.

Unknown-1We’ve already made considerable headway. One thing we’ve learned, for example, is the role of little structures called telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. With every cell division and replacement, telomeres shrink. And when you’re out of telomeres – you’re out. Can this be cured? Well, why not?

I don’t expect it soon enough to save me, I’m 65. But my daughter is 20, and on present form she should reach 100, and if she does, then I’ll bet she’s home free.

images-2This will change human existence in ways far beyond anyone’s ability to foresee. Some of course would see nothing but bad, and there would indeed be problems. Like overpopulation (but would we even continue having kids?); and if you worry about inequality now, just wait till immortality becomes available – probably with a pricetag many can’t afford.

But all this really just concerns a transitory stage of human evolution, with our existences still tied to corporeal bodies. Surely that won’t last.

Now how’s that for optimism?

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19 Responses to “Death”

  1. njmolinari Says:

    Frank, you seem so uncharacteristically pessimistic when it comes to spiritual issues!

    I personally think that atheists suffer from the same problem as religious fanatics- they think they can know things that are so far beyond human comprehension. Maybe there is nothing after death (although the notion of “nothing” opens a whole bag of worms) or maybe it’s all rainbows and unicorns, but to claim one is certain about such issues, to me, goes way too far.

    Question: are you a strict materialist (like Daniel Dennett-type materialism)?

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Njmolinari (Nick) — See my previous post about spirituality: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/the-spirituality-of-reality/
    Pessimistic? No. Realist? Yes. “Strict materialist”? Yes, I believe there is nothing other than reality. And, yes, I am certain about that.

  3. Gregg Millett Says:

    So now even Humanists can have their heaven or quite possibly their hell.

  4. njmolinari Says:

    I posted a comment on the other page, but I’ll ask another here if you don’t mind: How are you so certain that reality is composed of material stuff? The quantum theorists aren’t, as you acknowledge. Is this something you can demonstrate, or is it just what you believe?

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    To say that quantum theorists aren’t sure reality is composed of “material stuff” is a gross oversimplification. I do not claim to understand quantum mechanics, but it is, at bottom, an explanation of reality. At a quantum (submicroscopic) level, that reality may be very strange; but there is nothing supernatural. It is just what reality is.
    As to God, everything I observe is consistent with the proposition that there is no god, and there’s nothing I observe that is consistent with the proposition that there is one. It’s frankly just self-evident that the idea of a god is a purely human construct, by people who wish it were so. And if there actually were a god, there’s no way any human could know that; so it’s all just moonshine. You can twist yourself into logical contortions to justify this belief, if you like; I prefer the simple obvious answer.

  6. njmolinari Says:

    Thanks for the explanation, Frank. I suppose I am oversimplifying quantum mechanics, which I won’t pretend to really understand (but I personally don’t think anybody does). And to be clear, I should say that they (the “scientists”) are operating from a perspective that the world is composed of material stuff, and verifiable facts are eluding them as a result.

    I agree that if there were a God we couldn’t know he exists (if by “knowing” we mean demonstrable fact). However, unlike you, I choose the opposite viewpoint and assume he must exist, because to me that is self-evident and the simple obvious answer. For me, everything I observe is evidence of this fact. That’s pretty funny how two reasonably reasonable people can have totally opposite views of the same issue.

    I’m always so surprised when I hear intelligent, well respected people claim they are atheists because to me the idea is so silly (I’m sure the opposite is true for you).

    In any event, thanks for the thought-provoking blog!

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Well, yes, the opposite IS true for me. I do understand that people holding beliefs I might consider “silly” are just as confident they’re right as I am. I’ve expressed this in a previous post — https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/idiot-america/

  8. Joel Says:

    Hi Frank,

    It occurred to me that old age is only one cause of death. Assuming medical science can halt the aging process, next on the list will likely be disease. It is reasonable to assume disease can also be eliminated.

    After that, things get a lot tougher. Accidental deaths from workplace injuries, auto accidents, etc. can possibly be reduced, but I doubt these can be eliminated.

    Finally, assuming human nature remains relatively constant, we will still have death by war and murder. In fact, given a finite probability of death by war or murder, and an otherwise infinite lifespan, we will be guaranteed to die by these causes! So it’s not unreasonable to believe that a necessary result of an indefinitely extended lifespan is a violent death.

    What the hell, sign me up anyway.

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    Joel: auto accidents (a leading cause of accidental death) will be pretty much eliminated by self-driving cars. As for war and other forms of violence, see my post on Steven Pinker’s book on the decline of violence: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/steven-pinker-and-the-decline-of-violence/
    All in all — lookin’ good!

  10. Wolfgang Kurth Says:

    Years ago, working as a contractor in NYC, my partner and I were up against a deadline. Our client needed the work completed by the morning of a certain day and we ran into some snags that delayed the job.
    However, it still HAD to be completed on time. So we worked through the night before that deadline, taking short “cat-naps”, one at a time, continuing somewhat refreshed after being awakened by the other. We finished the job late that morning and then grabbed our gear and took the hour-long subway ride home.
    Exhausted and hungry, I stood in the kitchen/dining area, trying to decide if I wanted to eat first, or just sleep. I decided on a quick snack and stood, barely able to think, in front of the fridge. Shaking myself awake, I found a pot of noodles I could heat up. I placed them on the stove, glanced at the clock, and fuzzed out again. Realizing I was just too tired, I figured I had better take another cat-nap first, or I would surely fall asleep while the food was re-heating, possibly causing a fire. I glanced at the clock and sat down at the table, cradling my head on my arms and immediately went to sleep.
    I awoke with a start, seemingly about 15 seconds later. I looked around, thought that it had been just too short a nap and put my head back down. But I could not immediately go back to sleep, so I headed for the range to heat those noodles. I looked at the clock fore a gauge of how long they might cook and was taken aback! I cannot remember exactly how much time had past, ( this was about 30 years ago) but I had actually slept many hours. Though I had arrived home just after noon, it was now almost time for me to cook dinner (my wife was away on a trip). I looked out the window and saw that the sun had already turned the sky over the neighboring house much yellower than when I had arrived home. This meant the “few seconds” I had rested my head on my arms, had actually been several hours in “real time”. (Apparently similar to today’s “computer time”?)
    I can only assume that what had actually occurred is that my frontal lobe (hippocampus?) desperately needed to shut down for lack of sleep, so it did just that. My autonomic nervous system, however, kept operating since I was essentially a healthy young man just desperately in need of sleep.
    The most interesting aspect of that experience came to me only a few years later, when it dawned on me that if I had suffered a blood clot to the other part of the brain, that is, the one that controlled my chest expansion or my heart muscle, say 30 minutes after I had put my head down, I would have perished without ever having known the difference! So, it dawned on me that during the hours that I was conked out, I had actually experienced mental death! Just as we do every night when we enter the period of sleep when that part of the brain shuts down. The difference was that since I never entered what is known as REM- sleep, where I would slowly wind down mental activity and start dreaming before slipping ever deeper into the NREM phase. I just went from awake (well, sort of, considering my tiredness) to NREM sleep almost immediately and then, perhaps due to some internal anxiety about wanting to just take a short nap, woke up out of this stage without slipping back into REM sleep before awakening. This allowed me to get a clear “image” of the total shut down of the brain’s self-awareness.
    Though I obviously could not remember anything from that period of a few hours, it left behind this impression of absolute nothingness. It is not disturbing and certainly nothing to be afraid of. As a matter of fact, I found it (and still do) rather comforting since it gave me a much deeper understanding of the dying process!

  11. Kiyomi Says:

    Death is death. We just return to where we came: That is earth. No heaven and no hell. Death comes upon everyone. Death is the ultimate goal of life and end of the suffering.

  12. rationaloptimist Says:

    Also the end of pleasure. And we can diminish suffering in other ways than dying. The ultimate goal of life is to increase pleasure and reduce suffering.

  13. Didius Julianus Says:

    I remember reading a few months ago articles about physicists concluding that the universe appeared designed. Probably taken out of the research paper context. Anyone have more info?

  14. rationaloptimist Says:

    And who designed the designer? Where’d HE come from? Believe it if you like.

  15. Didius Julianus Says:

    Regarding science unraveling the secrets to a much longer life or even immortality. I think is could happen. This will be controlled by a select few (relatively speaking), as most the rest of humanity lives shorter and less aware lives (for a couple examples: Research into the negative affects of GMOs on humans and the environment and the general trend of the education the most people receive.

  16. rationaloptimist Says:

    Negative effects of GMOs? Well, if you believe the universe was “designed,” you can believe anything. See this prior blog post: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/denialism/

  17. Bumba Says:

    Interesting post. The idea of an all-powerful being is universal. Can 50 million frenchmen all be wrong? Yes. Look at France.
    It’s quite a lucky circumstance that we are alive, however, so here’s to your good health!

  18. Didius Julianus Says:

    Yep, that’s me, believer of anything! 🙂 My comment was in reference to this:

    http://www.washington.edu/news/2012/12/10/do-we-live-in-a-computer-simulation-uw-researchers-say-idea-can-be-tested/

    Excelsior!

  19. rationaloptimist Says:

    Very interesting, Didius. Or not. Actually — complete rubbish in my opinion.

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