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   Author  Topic: Why We Should Be Dying to Live Rather than Living to Die  (Read 2949 times)
LenKen
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Why We Should Be Dying to Live Rather than Living to Die
« on: 2005-12-03 02:49:13 »
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Quote:
Death twitches my ear.  “Live,” he says; “I am coming.”
—Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), Minor Poems, “Copa,” line 38

To die is poignantly bitter, but the idea of having to die without having lived is unbearable.
—Erich Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics

I’ll tell you this: No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.
—The Doors, “The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” from the album L.A. Woman


If you’re like me, you see death as somewhat of an inconvenience.  But if you’re like me, you accept the probability that—contrary to popular superstition—after you die you’re actually dead.  And the acknowledgment of your own mortality motivates you to enjoy your one and only life to the fullest.
    Unfortunately, most people try to deal with their fear of dying by simply denying the reality of death.  They do everything in their power to try to convince themselves that they possess an eternal soul, which will somehow survive the death and decay of their corporeal body.  (Christian Scientists even go so far as to define death as “the lie of life in matter; that which is unreal and untrue; illusion.”)  And they conveniently neglect to ask themselves any questions that could cause them to challenge their cherished belief in an afterlife—for example: If a person’s personality can’t even survive Alzheimer’s disease, how can it possibly survive death?
    But I have a sneaking suspicion that—deep down inside—most people intuitively understand that they do really die when they die.  After all, when people think they are just about to die, they tend to instinctively bristle with fear.  Now, why should the thought of going to heaven scare the hell out of them?


A Comforting Superstition
In 1995, due to a genetic abnormality, I suffered what’s called a spontaneous pneumothorax, in which my left lung collapsed because a bleb—a blister on the surface of the lung—burst, causing air to seep into the pleural space between the lung and the chest cavity.
    That first time my lung collapsed, all the doctor had to do was insert a tube into my chest cavity and suck the air out of it, thereby reinflating the lung.  But in 1999, my lung collapsed again, necessitating surgery to prevent it from happening yet again.  And this second collapsed lung was far more serious than the first—it was what’s called a tension pneumothorax: The pressure from my chest cavity filling up with air was forcing my heart up into my rib cage, and if I hadn’t gotten to the emergency room as quickly as I did, I undoubtedly would have died.
    One of the many things that went through my mind when I was in the hospital was that I’d never get to meet my father, who had left when I was one and a half years old.  For years, I had been planning to look him up, since he only lived a short drive away, but I kept putting it off, always thinking I had plenty of time.
    It wasn’t long after my little brush with death, however, that my father died of bone cancer.  (We Kennedys aren’t exactly known for our longevity.)
    Now, it would have been nice if I could have consoled myself with the belief that my procrastination didn’t really matter, because I’d eventually meet him in heaven—just as it would have been nice if I could have reassured myself that had I died from my collapsed lung, all would not have been lost, since this life is merely a brief prelude to our eternal afterlife.
    After all, it was rather comforting, when I was about thirteen years old, to believe that after my grandmother died, her soul lived on to watch over my family and me.  (It wasn’t long, however, before that belief became a bit disconcerting, since, as a teenager going through puberty, there were times when I preferred not to have an audience, ghostly or otherwise—while I was masturbating, for example.)


Do We Die When We Die?
One of the most annoying truths we humans have to come to terms with is that we are obviously animals: We need to consume food and water to survive; we need to breathe oxygen to stay alive; we urinate, we defecate, we copulate to procreate—we live, we feel pleasure and pain, and then we die . . . just like any other animal.
    Although no reasonable person denies that Homo sapiens are animals, many still deny that we’re only animals.  They insist that, unlike lower animals, we humans have an immortal soul.
    It’s no secret, however, that one of the key findings of cognitive neuroscience is that the brain and the mind are inextricably intertwined.  Without the brain, there is no mind.  The mind is an epiphenomenon, an emergent property, of the brain—it’s what the brain does.  And when people speak of the “soul,” that’s usually what they’re referring to—the mind, or consciousness.  But anything that affects the brain inevitably affects consciousness:

  • Synthetic drugs—such as LSD, heroin, and cocaine—alter neurochemistry, thereby altering consciousness.
  • Powerful emotions—such as love, hatred, and fear—are largely the result of natural neurochemicals, which alter consciousness.
  • When the brain is damaged—by a blow to the head, a stroke, or a degenerative disease (such as Alzheimer’s)—consciousness is damaged as well.
Simply put: When the brain is altered, consciousness is altered; when the brain is damaged, consciousness is damaged; so it’s only logical to assume that when the brain is destroyed, so too is consciousness.
    As Arthur Schopenhauer said in his essay “On the Indestructibility of Our Essential Being by Death,” “After your death you will be what you were before your birth.”


Live, Dammit, Live!
In a sense, our self can continue on long after its biodegradable container has been recycled back into the environment.  Although our body and mind must inevitably die, the products that our body and mind create—our genes and memes—can live on.
    Unfortunately, however, even if our species doesn’t bring about its own extinction through overpopulation, environmental devastation, or nuclear annihilation—and even if we develop interstellar travel and find another planet suitable for human habitation before our sun swells into a red giant and swallows up Mercury, Venus, and probably Earth in approximately 5 billion years—we’ll still perish long before the eventual heat death of the universe through entropy (if the universe keeps expanding, as it probably will) or, somewhat less likely (if the mass of all the matter-energy in the universe turns out to be sufficient to cause it to collapse back in on itself), the universe will end not with a whimper but with a bang in what’s called the “Big Crunch” . . . in a few trillion years.
    So, considering the ultimate futility of all accomplishments and all striving, propagating our genes and memes seems rather trivial.  It’s not as important to revel in our accomplishments as it is to enjoy the striving toward those accomplishments.  The products we leave behind when we die aren’t nearly as important as simply enjoying the process of living while we’re alive.


Memento Mori
Perhaps the most insidious side effect of clinging to the belief in an immortal soul is that when we believe in an afterlife, that tends to devalue this life.  On the other hand, when we admit to ourselves that after we die we’re actually dead, only then do we fully appreciate just how meaningful and valuable this life truly is.
    I think everyone should have some sort of reminder of his or her eventual extinction, whether it be something tangible (like using a human skull for a paperweight) or something intangible (such as simply reminding ourselves on a regular basis that we will someday cease to be).  That’s what a memento mori is: a reminder of one’s mortality, such as a death’s-head (a human skull, or a depiction of a human skull, that symbolizes death); in Latin, it literally means “remember you must die.”
    But there’s nothing morbid about reminding ourselves of our own mortality.  On the contrary, we can use that realization—that we all have an expiration date—to spur ourselves into savoring life by truly living . . . by doing whatever it is that makes us feel the most alive.  Tempus fugit, ergo carpe diem: Time flies, so seize the day.
    As the preacher says in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
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Blunderov
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Re:Why We Should Be Dying to Live Rather than Living to Die
« Reply #1 on: 2005-12-03 04:10:51 »
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[Blunderov] Thank you Lenken for this thoughtful essay. Like drinking in clear light; I agree with every word.
Best Regards.

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Re:Why We Should Be Dying to Live Rather than Living to Die
« Reply #2 on: 2005-12-03 15:57:30 »
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Quote:
Did you have a good life
before you died?

Enough to base a movie on? -J. D. Morrison
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Insight?
David Lucifer
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Re:Why We Should Be Dying to Live Rather than Living to Die
« Reply #3 on: 2005-12-04 16:23:00 »
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LenKen, great essay and thanks for providing a justification for my skull collection. 
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Pabreetzio
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Re:Why We Should Be Dying to Live Rather than Living to Die
« Reply #4 on: 2005-12-14 00:42:23 »
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LenKen, Nice essay, I agree with what you say for the most part.

One thing though, although it seems important to point out the ultimate futility of everything we do, as you did in the second paragraph of "live damnit live!," I disagree with the conclusions you reach in the third paragraph. You say
Quote:
So, considering the ultimate futility of all accomplishments and all striving, propagating our genes and memes seems rather trivial.  It’s not as important to revel in our accomplishments as it is to enjoy the striving toward those accomplishments.  The products we leave behind when we die aren’t nearly as important as simply enjoying the process of living while we’re alive.
Assuming ultimate futility of everything means that not only reveling in accomplishments is futile, but enjoying them is also equally futile.

Everyone, I submit that the reason LenKen stated that it was more important to enjoy accomplishments rather than to actually accomplish anything starts with the fact that he was still searching for purpose. The observation of our ultimate futility defeats any and every purpose. The light of futility merely defeated his purpose oriented superego while leaving his id intact. It is the superego that leads us to do things that are not immediately enjoyable for some future reward. The light of futility starves the future reward seeking superego of ultimate future rewards, and leaves LenKen with a reliance on his id. The id tells him to enjoy living, since that offers the most immediate rewards. LenKen, trying to state his purpose, explains that it is to enjoy living.

My explanation for LenKen’s conclusion is that the light of futility causes the victory to go to the id side of the battle between his competing purpose memes. The light of futility’s unfair bias towards preying on the superego side of the purpose meme battle should not be allowed to go unnoticed! Futility applies to ALL purpose, equally and fairly- don’t let the shadows of its light deceive you. Since futility applies to everything fairly and regularly, you should eliminate it from all calculations of purpose.

ps... I would like to go on to speak more on purpose, but I think ill save that for another post. You may notice that I say all purpose is defeated, but expect you to calculate purpose. This may seem hypocritical, but lets assume purpose can not be defeated in a functioning human because we all wear futilitytm sunglasses. We know its bright outside without removing our glasses. I could say more but doing so here would get things confused with the point I am making. my apologies to LenKen if I interpreted you wrong, I just felt this was a valid example to post my criticism of the illusions created by the shadows of the light of futility.
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LenKen
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Re:Why We Should Be Dying to Live Rather than Living to Die
« Reply #5 on: 2005-12-15 01:49:53 »
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All I really mean when I say

Quote:
It’s not as important to revel in our accomplishments as it is to enjoy the striving toward those accomplishments.  The products we leave behind when we die aren’t nearly as important as simply enjoying the process of living while we’re alive.

is pretty much what Albert Camus says in his Myth of Sisyphus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart”—and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: Rather than focusing on the extrinsic rewards of our activities (e.g., money, fame, cheese), we should simply enjoy them for their own sake.

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