Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Death, thou shalt die

Two recent (quasi-)religious rituals: the funeral for my stepmother Frances in Chicago over Thanksgiving, and this rationalist/secular solstice celebration that took place recently in Oakland (which I was tempted towards, but ended up missing). These two events seem like opposites on a variety of spiritual dimensions. Aside from the most obvious one (mourning of death vs celebration of life) there is the matter of choice. Anyone at a solstice celebration in 2014 is there out of their own individual will, they have reasoned their way there, but nobody is at a funeral by choice or calculation. And the Jewishness of the funeral was also not a choice: unlike many religions Judaism is something you are stuck with, not something you find your way to (the nature of that stuckness may deserve its own post). Funeral customs are some of the oldest rituals of humanity, while trying to create rituals for atheistic rationalism is pretty new (relatively speaking). Whereas a funeral is an ancient method of dealing with the concrete facts of an individual death, the people behind the solstice celebration aim to conquer death in toto. So despite their dissimilarities, death is at the core of both, and perhaps everything having to do with the sacred.

Pascal Boyer has theorized that the origin of religion lies in the very basic facts of death and the practical and cognitive necessities imposed on the surviving members of a family or community where a death has occurred. Where there recently was a person, with all that implies, now there is only what is basically trash, an unclean lump of matter that needs to be disposed of. But because traces of personhood linger on, you can՚t just throw the trash away blithely, but have to do it in an elaborate ritual. Dead bodies are a challenge to the coordination of various mental subsystems; we keep making inferences about the person even in the face of an inanimate corpse (similar discoordinations between systems are thought to responsible for such exotic psychopathologies as Capgras Syndrome). Realigning these subsystems so as to re-establish the normal structures of social cleanliness is the aim of death rituals.

I don՚t know if I believe Boyer՚s origin story but there is no question that dealing with death has the feeling of activating some very old built-in psychosocial machinery. A death is a great disruption in the normal functioning of human affairs. All of what we think of as normal routine is set aside and you enter a different zone of being for a while. The Jewish funeral customs, informed as they are by a certain practicality that has kept the culture going for millenia, are designed to acknowledge this reality by giving people some time and space to process the reality of it before going back to their normal lives.

How well it works, I can՚t really say – compared to what? I felt far more shaken up by Fran՚s death than I had expected to be. and in truth I՚m still processing it. it՚s much too personal an encounter with death than I am used to – normally death is either an abstraction that applies universally to everybody (so what՚s the big deal), or it՚s my own personal death which never bothered me that much, seeing as I axiomatically would not be around to remember experiencing it.

This was not the first death of someone I was close to, and Fran was 88 years old and had a good life and as good a departure as you might want, surrounded by family and friends, retaining her wits until the very end. Those factors would seem to mitigate the impact, but they didn't really. They made it less tragic than some other deaths in my experience -- I know far too many people who died young -- but no less terrible in its finality.

Death is heavy, and so the solstice thing seems inescapably light in comparison – but I mean that in a mostly good way. Why shouldn՚t people attempt lightness, rather than being dragged inexorably down to earth by human biology? The solstice celebration appeared to have been an occasion devoted to light, the light of the sun that all the winter rituals are devoted to preserving, and the light of reason and knowledge. Death makes an appearance only as an enemy to be conquered as we have overcome so much of the other miseries of the human condition. The goal is to escape death through reason and science, which is just taking what we do ordinarily with medicine to its logical endpoint.

The closing speech by Nate Soares I found very moving. He՚s making a passionate case for real humanism, for the use of the mind to better the human condition.
Look around you. We are warm, well-fed, and finely clothed. None of us fears for our ability to make it through the winter. This dark season, which posed a terrible trial to our ancestors every single year, is now instead an excuse to come together with friends and family to enjoy our great wealth.

How did humanity come so far? By the ingenuity of our ancestors, who ferreted out the secrets of this world one tiny, cloudy insight at a time. Humans had no words in their thoughts, when they invented language. Societies had no letters, when they invented writing. Humanity cracked the secret of the lever and the wheel. We studied and grew, discerning the mechanisms behind germs and viruses, behind architecture and electricity, behind fire and iron and the stars.
But of course I find myself gravitating to the parts of it that I am less comfortable with, the part where he asserts we are here to conquer death:
Some of us have glimpsed the full magnitude of suffering around the world. Some of us have looked to the horizon and seen challenges that threaten the very existence of our species. Some of us must simply protect a loved one, a child, their family. And some of us have taken on death itself as our enemy. This room is filled with people who saw important problems and took them seriously.
Something in me rebels at that, it just seems wrong on an elemental level. A great many myths and stories warn us of the spiritual dangers of desiring or acquiring immortality, and I՚m inclined to trust them. I don՚t have any great faith in my own stance here, in fact, it seems almost indefensibly conservative and boring. And I don՚t want to be pro-death, so why should I be opposed to the people who are trying to do something about it? If “we are the light”, as their song has it, than do I really want to find myself allied to darkness?

Yet I find myself taking a basically irrational stance, which is to say, I trust my gut reactions far more than I do any kind of argument. My gut says: Death is such an important part of human nature and human culture that it can՚t just be eliminated by science and technology and reason as if it was some kind of mere nuisance. Or rather, it shouldn՚t, because such efforts, while marketed under the term “transhumanism”, are actually anti-human, the violate something basic to what it means to be human.

I am somewhat bemused by my own reaction. I am not repelled by other modern twists on humanity (such as gender reassignment surgery or eating ice cream cones in the street) so why does this cause such strong emotions? I think it has something to do with sacrality, although that is not much of an explanation and even less of a justification. Death is a point where in which normal life touches on the eternal, the realm between worlds is parted, a happening shrouded in mystery, terror, significance, and spiritual risk, and hence highly charged and sacred. My minimal attitude towards the sacred is basically “don՚t mess with it”. Freezing a corpse in the hopes of reviving its animating software is messing with the sacred in a big way.

That՚s a pretty weak argument. And in truth I don՚t want to make any arguments; I mostly don՚t care if other people want to make a bid for immortality, it's really their business and none of mine. And I really want to avoid the temptation to come up with spurious psychological critiques. One other consequence of the sacrality of death means that people need to be free to address it on their own terms and not be subject to third-party kibitzing.

Death rites are designed to enable letting go. That sounds too schmaltzy perhaps. How about this: they are a public acknowledgement of the fact of a death, firmly acknowledging it as a social reality, regardless of what individuals may be feeling about it, demonstrating that the world continues on in its normal way even as it assumes a different configuration. They wrap death up in a package, surround it with food and friends and the small comforts of engaging in an activity as old as humanity. At some level they are about soothing (or repressing) our own terrors, our feelings of overwhelming loss, the knowledge that time will do to us what it has just done to another, that is, eventually grind us away and reduce us to an absence as well, a notice in the paper and a shadow life in the collective memory.

Death then is a rather forceful and brutal way to learn the spiritual lesson of non-attachment, the same sort of thing that meditation techniques teach in a much gentler way. One should be able to let go of things, clutching at grasping at life leads to suffering.

But I hardly feel qualified to give anybody else spiritual advice, and my recent encounter with death may have scrubbed away some residual intellectual romanticism about it. The more elementally simple view that it's a bad thing and should be fought has a lot of force. And who knows, all my ingrained suspicion of the drive towards immortality may be wrong, one of those inherited neolithic aspects of human nature that we should be glad to get rid of. Just because immortality was traditionally reserved to the gods, with punishments for humans who dared aspire to it, doesn't mean we have to avoid it now that the gods themselves are dead.


Hal Morris said...

I'm very sorry for your loss. So far I've been spared the death of parents. She must have done well by you.

The way you summarize Boyer's approach to religion, it sounds like an explanation that's been around for a long time.

I'm more inclined to think preliterate explanations of the world are the result of highly exuberant meaning/map/story generators; the most primitive peoples explain and spin meanings around far more than is necessary for survival -- I think they naturally fill up the space -- to be "Theories of Everything" w.r.t. what meets the senses; but to come anywhere near explaining all the apparent drama of the world without more sentient beings than we can see required many centuries of collaboration across generations via writing by some critical mass of thinking people.

In hunter gatherer times, world views were necessarily half-baked and pragmatic; they were what a few dozen people could preserve in a somewhat coherent form and modify from time to time. The need to preserve gave us the tendency to orthodoxy; the need to adapt gave us rebels and prophets from time to time.

Death is one of the hardest things to deal with. I've read a few accounts of chimpanzees and bonobos being traumatized by it and being unwilling to relinquish the corpse, so of course death would be a part of the "theory of everything".

Literacy came along and old explanations got written down. A good reason for a backward looking orientation -- for rounding up ancient stories handed down over generations would be that up to the point of literacy (or esp. up to the time of settled living), human cultures needed to hold onto every possibly useful scrap of quasi-knowledge.

And it seems that a written down world view, and one reinforced by written (hence unchanging) ritual, and a priesthood with a rule book, is incredibly sticky given something about our natures -- something about how we chose whether to preserve or adapt.

Hal Morris said...

P.S. I really don't desire to live forever. Somehow I've gotten to a point of accepting living in the present, and that is is no more of a tragedy that we don't live forever than it is that we're not coextensive with the universe.

I think your rebellion against the cryogenic transhumanists is warranted. If we don't first produce a world at peace with itself we'd be with no real plan jumping into a new world of indomitable AI/nano-enhanced .0001%-ers even more afraid of the rest and driven to dominate (or to achieve total "freedom"/lack of constraint - same thing) than today's Movement Conservative/libertarian billionaires.

Darcey Riley said...

I have a strong visceral reaction against the people who want to end death. Or at least to some of them. When people say "death is terrible and causes so much suffering, and I'm afraid of it, so let's get rid of it", then I rebel. When people say "life is so wonderful that I want as much of it as I can get", then I have no real objection.

What you wrote here perfectly describes my objection to the people who want to end death:

"Death then is a rather forceful and brutal way to learn the spiritual lesson of non-attachment, the same sort of thing that meditation techniques teach in a much gentler way. One should be able to let go of things, clutching at grasping at life leads to suffering."

Regardless of whether we conquer death, what's important to me is acceptance of death.

I have often wondered whether the increase in immortalist transhumanists comes from the fact that people are increasingly sheltered these days. Children are shielded from anything that might cause them to suffer, and so today's youth has trouble accepting the brutal realities of existence. They think all suffering can be eliminated, and should be fought against, instead of recognizing and accepting that suffering is just part of life.

But then, I have never lost anyone close to me. So maybe it's my own sheltered perspective that makes me so insistent on accepting death, since I have never felt at a visceral level how terrible it is. I don't know.

Anyway, I am just commenting to say: you are not alone in your suspicion of the desire to end death.