PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 57 4th May 2003
I. 'Death, Free Will, Value' by Jurgen Lawrenz
II. 'Is the Fear of Death Irrational?' by Colin Amery
III. 'Death, Value and Fear for a Day' by James Martin
I. 'DEATH, FREE WILL, VALUE' BY JURGEN LAWRENZ
1. Death and Value
"To be or not to be..."
Where would we be without death to remind us of life?
There would be no more occasion for literature's heroes. Macbeth would not rail about life's "brief candle"; Dostoyevski's Kirillov, gun at his temples, would not be savouring the prospect of becoming one with God. Nor would Wagner's Tristan and Isolde swoon to their death in love; we would not crumble in grief before Michelangelo's Pieta; and Gilgamesh, in the 4000-year-old poem, would not be sailing into the Atlantic to seek rhyme or reason for his friend Enkidu being cut down in the prime of life.
How much of the world's great art and philosophy exists only because we must die? I think all of it, in every culture. And I think what art seeks is not the "meaning of life", as we tend to surmise rather too casually, but the meaning of death.
All great art is impregnated with the inviolability of life and therefore the meaning of death.
Art is not alone, of course. All our science is predicated on the notion that the world is intelligible, as death is not. Science, properly understood, is the second arm of our striving to come to terms with death. We peer into the dark heavens and probe the subnuclear realm to find the elusive ultimate particle, the one item which we hope will sit firm against all contamination with mutability. Forever we seek origins, eternity: and explanations of the paradox why mere matter is eternal and we, beings imbued with spirit, mortal.
And so, at our first probing, we recognise that death provokes in us a rebellion against the impassivity of our mere matter cocoon. We strive against its meaningless with creative rebellion, by putting up artefacts made of matter but with form that testifies to a mind which made it, and which can be revived as often as we desire -- deputies for an immortality which is not ours to have. Art and science comprise a documentation of our thirst for knowledge, understanding and light.
Death, looked at in cold blood, has no meaning at all. It is an impartial fact. But our creative response to it becomes meaningful by pitting the concept of meaning against its implacability. Thus death serves as the catalyst for something in life that is not an intrinsic property of life: the idea of value. Death is a context, a scaffolding on which we construct a value system that reflects our belief in the inalienable and non-negotiable worth of life itself.
2. Free Will
The debate, pro and con, persists. Between the surmise that we are ultimately just a collection of atoms and particles set in motion, which look the same to a physicist whether they build a nebula or a neuron, and the claim of special privilege and the uniqueness of human agency, yawns a gulf of seemingly utter incompatibility. But I shall try to put a perspective on this -- to highlight a crucial feature of the constitution of the universe and its components that may serve to undermine the first of these claims and furnish a contrapost all the more valuable in that it is sourced from within science itself. I shall propose that the universe (or rather what we understand by the concept of 'universe') comprises two partitions within the one system, namely first the quasi-homogeneous dead-matter state of reductionist determinism as promoted by Laplace (1821) and still binding on exact sciences, and second the biochemical domain, in which the laws applicable to the first are susceptible in surprising ways to manipulation.
Let me begin by stating what is an undisputed fact: that there is no life form so primitive as not have laid in its cradle a will to live and some means of preserving it against threats. Thus on the very bottom rung of the animate domain, we find a principle in operation that is not measurable or even detectable by objective assay, but only by 'analog' ('empathic') observation. When the most poorly endowed microbe, for example a pleuronoma, visibly strives to escape a chemically harmful environment, it gives expression to it -- that life itself is a non-negotiable value. The pleuronoma has no nerves or brain, but it represents survival from an era when life first began to stir on earth and thus serves to remind us that the free will in which we glory had its modest origins in an attribute that put its bearers into one of the two partitions I just referred to.
But to explain this 'partitioning'.
When you look into the sky on a clear night and see stars, galaxies, nebulae etc., you would not normally comment: "Incandescent matter burning itself to a cinder." It would seem quite unwarranted. Yet this is really the crux of the issue.
All that spectacle 'up there' is matter and energy interconverting on a slow path towards degradation. Cinders, debris are the toll paid by matter "acting" its part. When you burn a match, what's left is ash. A terminal state of exhausted matter. Science refers to the totality of exhausted matter in the universe as entropy. It is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics that the entropy in the universe is steadily increasing, irreversibly, every second of time.
With some justice, one could speak of the universe as a great thermodynamic morgue in the making.
To this grim scenario the pleuronoma (no less than we do) makes objection. Concede me some poetic licence and I'll express it in the thought that the autochthonic flagbearers of life, the so-called 'archebacteria', while still dripping with the plasma of primordial creation, hatched out a 'plot' to defeat this thermodynamic law. At the very instant of its creation, life segregated itself within the universe in its own partition by a functional alteration of its chemical dynamics. The technical terms for these are metabolism and homeostasis.
Now to a biochemist, metabolism is just an exchange of atoms between a biochemical system and the outside world. But this only half the story, and the lesser one at that. For metabolic activity gives evidence of an entity having 'solved' some important problems related to integrated work cycles, anentropy and autonomous agency -- quite a quiverful of accomplishments, worth spending a moment's discussion.
Although metabolism seems much the same as burning fuel (lighting a match, igniting petroleum to drive a car; in our case: burning up food to drive our heart and kidneys and brains), the intrinsic difference captured in the phrase 'integrated work cycle' points to a non-mechanical feature, specifically the ability to burn fuel without adding to entropy. This is intriguing, for it signifies an alienation of chemical norms which is altogether incapable of explanation without recourse to the notion of 'agency'; and its most significant aspect is the use of embers from other entropy producing processes, in this case the Sun's light, to drive the processes of life. As a result, our fuel, the debris from the sun's thermonuclear processes, is purchased free of charge. The entropy bill has already been paid!
The situation with homeostasis, or maintenance and self-repair, is analogous. Part of an organism's metabolic energy is devoted to repairing any damage that might occur to its integrity, and another part to the constant monitoring of the chemical balance between all the structures that make up living tissue, which again makes little sense unless the organism 'knows' about its self-integrity and acts 'knowingly'. So as not to read too much into this, I'll stop here and return to origins, so as to outline in brief what is scientifically tenable and philosophically meaningful.
If we are to take the term 'exact science' in its most stringent meaning, then neither metabolism nor homeostasis occur among scientific objects. Between material and biological entities a fundamental discrepancy prevails, met in the adjective 'exact': and this disparity is the crack into which a philosophical wedge can be driven. We leave science behind at the precise juncture where these processes reveal themselves not as results of chemical processes, but of the incipience of autonomy. This must be understood as the emergence of a foundational property that was and remains the unique prerogative of life forms; and the point to which science (biochemistry) has been able to penetrate suffices to indicate that carbonaceous polymers of an eligible species, en route to the state of supercriticality which determines on which side of the animate/ inanimate partition they land, faced a choice of futures from (to us) indiscernible alternatives: but when taken, it resulted in animate existence and became a critical element -- an inscribed resource -- of its new constitution. Consequently it is of the essence in any juxtaposition of organisms with inanimate polymers, to observe the utter incompatibility of chemical function even in almost identical specimens; and one of those differences represents a nascent 'free will' in the meaning of 'choice'. Accordingly, life is fundamentally characterised by free will from the moment of its inception. 
I might summarise the foregoing as saying that all things must have a beginning and that the question about free will alias 'choice' is an issue of capital importance to it. What I have suggested here may be understood as the resolution (if you like: high probability) of free will as one of an ensemble of features absolutely constitutive of life; and by tracing it to its origins to reaffirm that it must be, of necessity, alive in its immensely advanced manifestation among humans. It is therefore at once a foundational, constitutive and permanent resource. Thus, to be alive and to have free will is nothing less than an a priori condition of existence in the universe's 'bio' partition.
This is not to say that free will has only this one dimension. It is to say that all disputes about the exercise of choice are pseudo-problems; but also that, as we advance towards more complex organisms, via nervous systems and brains, that same resource is not likely to remain monodimensional as just the will to live and nothing else.
3. Consciousness and Creativity
I'm now going to take a leap across 2,000 million years and take the evolution of species up to man as read.
Humans have evolved into self-reflectively, self-referentially and self-consciously aware individuals. With the sheer number of endosymbiont cells that make up our brains (between 10-100 million of them) it stands to reason that something would happen with the characteristics mentioned above. However, biological acquirements are rarely additive; at a certain level of complexity, the 'runaway' phenomenon sets in, which in the case of the brain continued to keep running away from thingness and transform itself into a new type of entity, a brain with mind, which owing to our lack of an adequate vocabulary we call 'a process', though it would be just as apt to acknowledge a previously unknown ontological species.
Creativity in the human sense is one of its hallmarks, and so are values, which must be understood as the drive motor for self-assertion of our kind of life not only against other forms of life but against non-life. We pit those values we create against a universe of immense proportions, and we do it in the certain belief that our values are the only values contained in that whole universe. But this gives at length a cue to the question, 'What is value?'
In the first instance, a value is a judgment by an intelligent agent, who decides about good, bad or indifferent. But this is an issue of considerable breadth with a plethora of notions attached to it according to which department of thought or research applies it. I prefer metaphysical assertion, with the deliberate intention of anchoring the notion to a bedrock criterion of privilege. Value is initially an analogue of free will in the meaning of choice; but it confers novel and specific powers on mind-endowed creatures, that are tantamount to an act of liberation from the dead-matter condition described by physics. These powers involve a capacity for evaluating types of contexts that remain the sole prerogatives of humans, e.g. ethical standards, the notion of responsibility, the concept of mind as an active, contemplative as well as creative agency, and ideas of metaphysical truths and/ or transcendence, including notions of God and immortality, and finally such intangible concepts as justice, freedom, truth, beauty, love, soul, reason. Note that none of these are things and none susceptible to entropic degradation.
Values in the human sense may be regarded as creative tokens. Confucius taught that anything done for its own sake (other than from necessity or habit) is a free gift to mankind; and this profound little observation matches the idea exactly. For any such 'free gift' has a two-fold potential. Firstly, longevity; for in transcending necessity, it may become an item of value for more than one person, one community, one generation -- it is potentially 'everlasting'; and secondly, sensitisation; for values freely created harbour a potential for the enlargement of our perceptive and cognitive horizons.
With these principles, we can now tie a loop back to the 'entropy cheat', for plainly values are 'entropy free'. The products of art and creativity are offspring of a mind and engage other minds, and in this interaction the physical or material dimension is involved purely in the capacity of incidentally embodying these immaterial products; so that self-conscious awareness and the mind's activity figure centrally in the ascent from the matter /entropy state to that mastery of anentropy which is (thus far?) the supreme exemplification of the power of spirit to transcend those material conditions.
One might be tempted from these deliberations to wonder how it came about that we so easily succumbed to castigations of metaphysics as a disreputable brand of philosophy, when in plain fact the whole cosmos of human values has no other anchoring site. For it must also be said that reason is not our sole guide and companion in the ascent: for surely passion precedes reason and an argument may be put for reason to be nothing other than one of its offspring (this in fact is argued by Schopenhauer). For it is passion which drives inventiveness, exploration, creativity etc. Once again an interesting variation on the underlying theme here: passion, too, is 'entropy free'; a source of tremendous energy, but whatever it 'consumes' has no bearing on the material state!
This brings us face to face with an old philosophical standby. It is no secret that the idea of telos has been eroded from philosophical discourse. We have allowed ourselves to be bulldozed by science into believing there is no such thing. But this, I'm afraid, is just cowardly submission to 'political correctness'. For telos designates what an organism strives to become. It means: an acorn will grow to be an oak. Science frowns on this because it insinuates a plan, a purpose to life. However, teleology is an avenue toward understanding something basic about life and death, inter alia a way of looking at structures from the point of view of the structure. Let me put this into a little cameo of contrasts:
The method of science is to dismantle a structure and note on the way down the exact place occupied by each item, so as to facilitate precise reconstruction. A great deal of the real knowledge we possess has been acquired this way, so the method has proved efficacious. However, it cannot be denied that what is being laid bare by such reductive methodology is the dead-matter skeleton of the structure. A living thing can likewise be taken apart and the same atoms and molecules be noted down, so that the conclusion seems to stare us in the face that life and non-life are certainly ultimately made of matter. But the fly in the ointment of this neat little theory is that a body, dismantled, is a corpse. Whereas in virtue of technological accomplishment any dead-matter skeleton can easily be 'fleshed out' to replicate whatever structure is aimed at, a corpse cannot be revived. It has been one of the longest standing errors to believe the contrary, to believe that a living body should 'in principle' be constructible atom by atom from any normative model. That 'hope' is now terminally shattered; the simple truth having dawned at last that living things are not (somehow) made of matter, but use matter to essentially make themselves.
This is a story for another day; but it relates intimately to telos in a manner which I would at least tentatively sketch in for my final peroration. -- Consider a human being: initially it is but a single cell, but by the time it is full-grown, these have multiplied to the number of more than 6 billion. Each of these cells must have 'known' its place in the scheme of this structure. But an equivalent heap of bricks is not going to assemble Versailles, nor (to quote Hoyle) is a tornado rushing through a junk yard likely to build a ready-to-fly Boeing 707: palaces and planes have no telos. So the drip of water which builds a stalagmite, the wind lashing dunes, gravity churning matter into spiroform galaxies, have no purpose and hence no telos. But every thing alive, and everything that is of life, starts as an acorn.
In speculating on the telos of anentropic autonomy, it has to be conceded that our vision is restricted, so what this acorn may grow into is largely an unwritten leaf. Yet as we follow its growth passage, as we gaze on while it unfolds its kernel among the archebacteria of elementary discrimination from among a small range of choices; via the first tremblings of co-operativeness among the initial endosymbionts; to that astonishing exploitation of the principle of economy in data storage (DNA); then on to the first meagre conveyances of sentition (nerves); their complexification into systems of vastly interconnected domains of evaluation which culminates in the evolution of brains as quasi-standalone modules devoted to converting these already tremendously sophisticated and compartmentalised perceptions into overarching intuitions; we arrive at length at the supreme master module of cognition, the mind: bringer of self-awareness, of self-consciousness, of self-reflective mentality and of the psychological dimension where concepts of destiny and responsibility, justice and beauty take up residence, where the 'triumph of mind over matter' is accomplished in the anentropic command over autonomous creativity, which leaves us at length with a metaphysical partition of our own creation, of which the universe knows nothing and which, in any objective sense exists nowhere and nowhen except in the human mind.
All the more ironical, then, that the most advanced civilisation yet to arise one earth should be seeking its salvation in an unslakeable thirst for material power -- despite our full awareness of the cost of attaining and harnessing it. For the downside of this striving is that it effectively bows to the ineluctable exactions imposed by entropy; and there can be little doubt that the general disquiet, the corrosive doubt about the value of so much affluence and power, and worry about its destructive propensity, is an unconscious response to the danger of having voluntarily relinquished some of that infinitely precious gift of creativity, which is the legacy of our ascent from the entropical furnace.
Life and death are an anentropic 'partnership'. Death itself is a means of perpetuating the anentropic conditions in which life can unfold, by making us painfully aware of our fragile condition and mortality. But matter has no telos and in one important sense, no 'Dasein' (Heidegger). "To be" implies "to be present and accounted for to oneself" and ultimately (as exemplified by the mind) to participate in the conscious cosmos. In this enclave of anentropy, the human mind is ever aware of the challenge posed by death, indeed its invincibility: but while there is no bargaining with it, the calamity offers these possibilities to a conscious being.
The tale of Orpheus mirrors this and may suitably close proceedings. Cerberus, the implacable guardian of the Underworld, could not be cajoled by cries or tears, bribes or force: but the creative spirit of the artist overwhelmed him. When Orpheus sang, the beast was lulled to sleep. What does this myth say other than: that entropy-free values, products of mind power, have it in them to prevail against death. Death has only one, and always the same answer. But when you or I succumb, the next in line is already born, who will receive and in turn pass on, the torch.
1. Recommended reading on this subject includes the pioneering studies in biochemical complexity by Ilya Prigogine and Isabella Stenger, 'Order out of Chaos' and Stuart Kauffman, 'The Origins of Order'. In Prigogine and Stenger's discussion of strange attractor situations, they remember a famous Kantian phrase and write (I paraphrase), "chemical systems in equilibrium are blind, but far from equilibrium they begin to see"; by which a rationale is offered for my assertion of a 'choice taken'.
(c) Jurgen Lawrenz 2003, Sydney
II. 'IS THE FEAR OF DEATH IRRATIONAL?' BY COLIN AMERY
"It seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come" (Julius Caesar Act 2 Sc.2).
Do I fear death? -- it so happened this very question was put to me by a Californian therapist, while I sat upon her couch sipping tea. I had gone to see her privately not professionally after an exhausting day in court. Such a question would normally be disallowed in that particular precinct, where we are not allowed to ask a witness leading questions. In the fields of both therapy and philosophy no holds are barred. This basic question is not asked in polite society and yet the reality of death is one appointment no human being can avoid. Neither, normally, is one permitted to know either the hour or the day when it will come to pass. So, moving towards the end of this esoteric course on The Possible World Machine, I must try to answer the question, departing from the orderly parameters of my legal world to the unfathomable void of existential death, to face up to the fundamental question framed within this essay title.
The simple answer is I am not sure whether I do or not. I have recently been through a near death experience -- one that should theoretically assist me in providing some answers. This was a heart operation in which a stent was inserted into my right artery to push back the plaque that had collected there to a degree which had become life-threatening and made climbing hills positively dangerous. I came perilously close to death by putting off going to the doctor till the last possible moment. After a brief holiday when symptoms of breathlessness were manifesting on an almost daily basis, I returned to work at the Manukau District Court, an architectural monstrosity if ever there were one. I had barely reached the top of a very small flight of stairs when I collapsed with severe breathing difficulties. The doctor's surgery was mercifully nearby and I had immediate tests on my heart and blood was extracted to obtain further data. The same afternoon I was on my way to hospital -- the test having revealed that I had in the past two weeks experienced an angina attack. Within four days I was being trundled into the operating theatre at Green Lane Hospital for heart surgery with a fairly small possibility I might not survive. Was I fearful of death at this particular moment? If this answer were affirmative, was such a fear rational? Just in case things went wrong I made a small imprecation to my Indian master that he would help me through this particular crisis. I was given the most painful injection in the carotid artery I had ever experienced but this helped launch the balloon up to the right main artery where the stent was to take up permanent residence and so ensure that I would survive a few more good years yet.
All this may sound fairly clinical to recount with the benefit of hindsight. I lay there, watching my industrious heart pumping its way through it all, while a group of surgeons confabulated about how they should deal with my case. I was dead set against any by-pass operation and heard this possibility being bandied about. It was almost as if I were floating out of my body with no direct interest in the outcome of the proceedings. Then, the cabal took a decision and I had one further injection to put a dye through me from head to toe. I then relaxed -- if that is the right word -- into the surgery. I guess this was a defining moment in determining whether or not I had a rational fear of death. I took a fairly deterministic view of the proceedings -- there was no time to be rational about it. If some medical mischance took away my last breath, there was very little I could do about it, so I confidently placed my life in the surgeons' hands who knew what they were up to and would not take any unnecessary risks.
So this was my latest brush with brother death -- close enough not to leave much space for comfort. I have survived and relatively flourished since this latest joust which occurred on 1 November 2002. There had been other -- perhaps even closer shaves. In May l986 very shortly before I met my life partner, Yvonne, a crazed schizophrenic I once knew on Waiheke Island followed me to the mainland in what may have been one of the earliest stalking cases in New Zealand. She drew an extremely sharp kukri knife from her handbag at a bus stop in "K" Road and had every intention of stabbing me through the heart (please note same vehicle of my body was likewise under threat). I must have been thinking pretty quickly for I got my left hand and pushed down resolutely upon the blade before it could follow its path of execution. For those who like detective fiction please note I am left-handed. The weapon was diverted from its intended path and ended up entering my thigh an inch above the knee, causing a fairly deep wound that penetrated as far as the bone. I managed to walk about half a mile in the direction of my home in France Street where I shared a house since demolished to become a car park with a brace of poets -- among them David Eggleton, "the kiwi ranter".
I shared my single room with a cat called Plato. I had hoped to get first aid on arrival from my fellow poets. However, I collapsed somewhat theatrically on the very steps of the Mercury Theatre that was located next door to our swept-up rooms. A pint-sized pool of blood soon collected below my wound and an interested crowd of spectators quickly gathered including a couple of my closest friends who just happened to be passing by. I mention these details in a rather clinical way again, not because I was on the operating table this time, but I had a sense of being a spectator at these events, almost as if they had happened to some quite different person unconnected or disassociated from my own being. I felt both authentic in the Sartrean sense but detached. My friends called an ambulance and soon I was being rushed through the streets with bells clanging. I remember offering to read the tarot cards for the nurse attending me and giving me I think a quick transfusion. My fate had been to escape death yet again. I felt quite calm about it.
One more memory surfaced. The crazed Fijian who had wielded the knife continued to hold the knife in her hand, till a giant man of her own race appeared as if from nowhere and stretched out his hand for the weapon. She surrendered it like a docile rabbit and he hurled it onto a nearby roof well out of my assailant's reach. I could breathe again the heady air of freedom in my continued existence. Later in hospital, a tabloid newspaper reporter came to my bedside to inquire how a professional tarot reader had failed to foresee this threat to his own life. I spread the cards out on the counterpane for an instant reading and up came the 'Lightning Struck Tower' which was a rather belated warning of what had already come to pass. Was it rational to fear death in these particular circumstances? -- I think not.
From a philosophical point of view I guess both of these reasonably near death experiences might have caused me to entertain a rational fear of death, but there was hardly time for that. In the first situation I had time to analyse the risks of the operation and signed a piece of paper agreeing to undertake that risk. I was fairly sanguine about the situation and ran the small risk that death might occur from some small unpredictable possibilities inherent in the procedures. I weighed that on the scales of my personal destiny. I felt confident that I would survive, imprecating the help of my Indian master who I felt sure would intervene if the need arose. So the question of whether I entertained a rational fear of death seems to be in both cases a pretty subjective one. In the second situation I barely had time to sit down on the pavement and try to work out what Plato might have done in my particular situation (I mean here the philosopher -- not my cat). Essentially, there was a moment when my brain went into swift overdrive. This was presumably the right side -- the more logical hemisphere -- that would have directed my left bodily part to avoid the blow that if planted accurately would have extinguished my breath once and for all. I suppose what I am saying here in this reconstruction of a moment in time is that I simply acted, had no opportunity for analysis and so ensured quite a few more breaths were yet to come. Or to quote Nietzsche in another context from his egotistical 'Ecce Homo': I escaped "a yet undiscovered country whose boundaries none has ever seen."
The words of Epicurus -- to go back to the ancient Greek philosophers -- read a little like an Aesop fable but may have some relevance to this theme: "Where death is I am not; where I am death is not." The fear of death, he appears to be saying, is an irrational one, since it is something which nature precludes us from experiencing until we cross the border into that undiscovered country "from whose bourne", as Shakespeare once put it so eloquently," no traveller returns". In other words it's futile to fear something we can't experience with our conscious minds. The rational mind does not stray beyond this territory.
Death, "an indefinite but impending certainty possible at any moment" I once read somewhere and entered in my philosophical notebook for l999. In that year, marked down by the French seer Nostradamus for the occurrence of strange events, four deaths of close family members happened in the space of a mere two months. In the case of my mother she died in her sleep, so there was no possibility to assess what she was feeling at that particular moment. The loss of a loved one is one way of measuring our own particular fear of death. I have frequent dreams myself in which I have communication with both my mother and dead brother. We often converse in a kind of hinterland that seems rather like Virgil's picture of the underworld. To assist in the therapy of recovery I recently wrote an account of my father's funeral dating back to 1971. The emotions this exercise produced still moved me profoundly and I was able to recount the full details, still embedded in my deep subconscious self. I have no idea how far my father feared his own death since I only arrived -- by boat and train from Spain -- the day before he died from cancer after a long illness and by that time he had lost the power of speech. My elder brother who also died in Nostradamus' year after a long and debilitating illness had plenty of time to prepare himself for the event. In the final months he found a new faith and was able to face the unknown with equanimity. My own faith is based on existentialism which perhaps more than any other credo, if such it can be called, faces the void of the unknown with a certain degree of personal courage. Nietzsche's own self-explorations led him over the Zarathrustian precipice into that same country without boundaries -- described in Ecce Homo -- where he lost himself and so could not retrace his steps from a world without maps which was of his own creation.
Woody Allen did not describe his attitude to death quite so enigmatically as Epicurus, but perhaps with greater wit: "I don't mind the idea of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens". Whether he likes it or not his presence at this event will be more than essential. I suppose as an existentialist he does not need to be told this, assuming that his films reflect his own personal beliefs about life and death. I once wrote in an obituary for a favourite judge of my acquaintance that death is not an easy condition to deal with. I remember at his funeral they played some Albinoni I was always moved by and I wept salt tears for the death of a man I saw as a mentor and friend.
Thus does one survive, not knowing the hour or the day and there is no rationale to back up the fear of something whose time of ingress and egress we can never know.
"Cowards die many times before their deaths/ The valiant never taste of death but once" -- so spoke Shakespeare in facing squarely up to the theme of this essay.
The rest, as Wittgenstein dared to end his 'Tractatus' with, is silence.
(c) Colin Amery 2003
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III. 'DEATH, VALUE AND FEAR FOR A DAY' BY JAMES MARTIN
I am here now I've been told by somebody
who I forgot so long ago;
so who will tell me anything of value,
like where I go -- and how long I stay?
It doesn't matter anyways.
Time has fled beneath a single star; and I, its
only witness hang there till the morrow..
- James Martin
We are not alone in our private thoughts after all: We need only to listen to Jurgen Lawrenz, Sydney and Colin Amery, New Zealand speak to us of death and value, and the rationality of the fear of death -- from their Pathway essays.
I have been listening to the audio tape Socrates Cafe this week. It is about a young man who founded these little niche discussion-debate groups in bookstores, schools, prisons, senior citizen outposts -- and just about any place he could to find an audience for philosophical discussion.
Here is a man (Christopher Phillips) who really loves the questions -- 'the big questions in fact' -- the meaning of...life, friendship, love, death, age, and home. So far this is his 'calling' I would say. And he performs his duties with compassion and concern for philosophical inquiry.
I can't help that liking the 'questions' represents never-ending possibilities for self-wonder. Rolling from one profound theme to all others that link up. We all like the 'questions' I suppose. Yet some of these questions are not more answerable by even more questioning. Ceaseless questions must give way to practical applications in the moment. Sometimes. The big mysteries can only receive speculation: from which we can and whereto we belong after we are gone.
Lawrenz reminds us in his Death and Value piece that "Where would we be without death to remind us of life?" He argues that perhaps much of the world's great art and philosophy exists on because we must die. And then he says something quite unique: We are not seeking a meaning of life -- but of death.
Lawrenz looks at death at a distance -- and often draws his thoughts regarding its value based on the backdrop of natural processes occurring in the structural evolution of molecules and atoms. Science and nature's way, I think. And the idea of 'free will' may well be a delusion if ultimately we are but atoms and particles in motion. All heading toward exhaustion. The end. Just like us, because we are them.
Now comes Colin Amery who finds it quite strange to need to fear death, offering two of his near-death experiences to draw from. When he talks about his heart failure caught just in time -- and a near stabbing by a troubled woman (to say the least). Amery said something that drew me in: "the loss of a loved one is one way of measuring our own particular fear of death." His own faith is based on existentialism and offers this credo credit to face the unknown rather fearlessly. Perhaps as one can focus more on his and her own 'being' death is more acceptable. As it should be, no doubt. I don't think he is sure. Neither am I.
The time to be rational or irrational about a thing is transient at least. It seems tedious to pretend to fear something we can never consciously experience after our demise. It's like falling asleep before the big operation and never waking up. Oh well. What is death to do? It doesn't impose on us for sure. It just comes in many forms. At any time. Get ready. Duck your head. It's closer than we think.
(c) James Martin 2003
[See James Martin's article 'Is it Reasonable to Fear the Death of Life' in Philosophy Pathways Issue 48]