My last three posts were easy to write. They explained humanity's zest for living as an evolutionary freak that made human beings cravers of life and sex and high-level reasoners and fantasizers. Evolution has hardwired us to love life, not death. Finding genuine solace for dying is hard.
Some think it's impossible. Dying is so contrary to what most people want that a vast majority of the earth's population denies, ignores, and euphemizes it. All the major religions preach some type of immortality. Most people who say they believe in a god without belonging to a church usually claim to believe in life after death, as do many agnostics and skeptics, among them the composer Brahms. Omitting direct reference to Christianity from his Requiem, Brahms nonetheless avows immortality throughout the work as humanity's only real compensation for dying.
The human wish to hide and soften death is equally understandable. From mashed and bloody roadkill seen through a car window to the stench of an unseen carcass in the woods hitting your nose like a fist, it can be ugly. Slaughterhouses aren't for the weak of heart or stomach. Nor are the institutions that process human remains -- morgues, mortuaries, medical schools, and the like. Little wonder dead animals in general and dead human beings in particular are so rarely seen. Seeing them can be shocking to those who don't handle them professionally or kill them for sport or a living. Euphemisms like"passed on" or "passed away" counteract our instinctive recoil from imagining ourselves as rotting cadavers or being eaten alive.
Such denials and evasions mirror a tragic contradiction at the heart of human existence. We're born with instincts that drive us toward life and away from death. We yearn to live, yet all our experience of the world teaches us we unfailingly die.
The contradiction is intractable. Though religionists claim to have found supernatural answers to it, they've in fact found only human fraudulence, self-deception, and craziness. Their so-called revelations and miracles never withstand scientific scrutiny, which tells us instead that sentient intelligence is nothing but a random offshoot of insentient and unintelligent natural processes.
These processes are, I believe, ultimately linked to an unpredictable and immeasurable substance or stuff at the core of reality. This stuff or substance is an infinite potentiality capable of becoming countless kinds of finite matter by somehow transforming its potential into the chaotic lawfulness we see around us in our own cosmos. In 6th century B.C.E. Greece, Heraclitus explained this chaotic lawfulness as the product of an endless flux of warring elements, an explanation that, while wonderfully insightful at the time, needs some updating. Heraclitus' hard-matter universe of flux is today better imagined as an infinite, meta-dimensional energy field or reservoir that somehow unpredictably morphs itself into countless subsidiary kinds of finite matter. It might be thought of as quantum uncertainty writ infinitely large.
So alien to life in general and human thought and feeling in particular is this basic energy that human existence seems altogether incidental and insignificant in relation to it. So far as we know, it in no way echoes or responds to human intelligence or emotion. If this isn't discouraging enough, its infinite particularity or singularity also alienates us from one another.
This is because all material reality is infinitely divisible. No matter how far you burrow into smallness or expand into bigness, you never reach an end. You never find a final, indivisible object. There is always an infinity of additional particulars and singularities awaiting you, and they always have an inimitable and unrepeatable uniqueness no other material objects ever have. They are all absolutely separate and different from each other, no matter where in the All they are and no matter what kind of dimensionality, compactness, diffuseness, monotonousness, or other feature they have. What unites them is the basic substance they're made of. And one of the key attributes of that substance, along with its infinite potentiality and unpredictability, is an infinite divisibility that entails uniqueness on every object it becomes.
I say "entails" because the separateness of material objects from each other that follows from the infinite divisibility of ultimate matter is in my opinion an inescapable fact of existence. Imagining the All, as I do, as a material stuff or substance whose potential to become subsidiary objects is infinite, yet which never itself objectifies, implies that every existing object is finally indefinable.
This in turn implies not only that all material objects are radically separate from and alien to each other but that finally what they're made of and where they come from can't be fixed or specified. All objects are totally alien to all other objects and have absolutely indeterminate origins.
I find little solace for dying in these convincing (to me) speculations. Unlike the All, human beings are instinctively affectionate. They're capable of strong emotional attachments to each other and to pets, homes, nature, and countless other things. Unlike inorganic objects, they can sense and comprehend the world around them, imagine fictional worlds, generate and reciprocate love. Compelled to try to understand the workings and origins of nature, they've repeatedly explained it as the handiwork of deities onto whom they project their own capacity to think and feel. While such explanations have been completely undermined by modern science, they're still at least partly believed in by most people and have an enormous impact on their notions of reality. Most people persist in believing that the universe personally cares about them and their well-being. They refuse to think of themselves as radically alienated objects in a material All made of some absolutely indefinable, uncaring stuff.
Those of us who do think of ourselves in this way find living and dying in such cosmic -- and metacosmic -- isolation cold comfort at best. I myself find it dubious luck to have been born, through no choice of my own, with a capacity to think and feel that I'll lose forever when I die. I get little solace from knowing that the beauty and vibrancy of living will completely end with my death. As Clint Eastwood puts it in The Unforgiven, when a man dies he loses "all he has and all he's ever going to have."
Materialists have always acknowledged the harshness of human mortality. Lucretius says he wrote De Rerum Natura in verse to help sweeten the bitterness of its doctrine of personal annihilation. Even religious skeptics like Kierkegaard prefer leaps of faith to what they see as the existential horror of the Lucretian viewpoint. Dostoevsky's rumination on the decapitated head that for an instant grasps what has happened to it before it dies has chilled everyone who's read it -- theists, agnostics, and atheists alike.
I've had two close encounters with the Grim Reaper myself. Since I narrate one of them at length in the "Wilderness" section of the May 19, 2011 post of this blog, I won't rehash it here except to say it's about the heart attack I had in 1995 hiking alone in the Sierra Nevadas.
The other happened in the summer of 1951 when I was driving through rural upstate New York with my brother. We were returning to school in New England from our first summer with our guardian aunt and uncle in San Diego after our mother's death the winter before. Though only fifteen, I was an experienced driver and realized I had to slow for a hill I'd just started down in a light rain. Touching the brakes, I felt the tires hydroplaning us into a long, horrible skid I couldn't control. As we spun halfway round and began hurtling backwards down the two-lane road, I thought, So this is how I'll die.
Along with fear, shock, and disbelief, I remember above all tensing for a huge, crushing blow. Nothing flashed before my eyes but what was flashing by outside the car: every nerve and muscle in me was too busy trying to protect itself from that pulverizing blow. When suddenly I realized the car had spun all the way round and was again heading frontwards down the road, I fought without success to control it. We bounced off the left shoulder down a steep bank onto somebody's back lawn, which the front bumper hit with a frame-springing jolt. We sat a moment, dazed but unhurt. The skid had slowed us almost to a stop before we went off the highway.
Both of these near-death experiences showed me how little I want to die. Like everything else in this post, they suggest how hard it is for most human beings to find much solace in their own destruction. It can be even harder when close friends or relatives die, especially if they're one's own children.
Yet I do think such solace is possible. In my next post I'll explain why.