Saturday, December 19, 2009

Awe & Dread

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.

His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.

It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that's something else.

Sartre has called man a "useless passion" because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies. As Ortega so well put it in the epigraph we have used for this chapter, man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality. This is a serious game, the defense of one's existence—how take it away from people and leave them joyous?

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic "ideas" [the characterological lie about reality] and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels him­self lost. And this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost —he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

Ernest Becker Fragments

"Humans erected cultural symbols which do not decay to quiet their fear of their ultimate end. Wanting nothing less than eternal prosperity, man from the very beginning could not live with the prospect of death...Everything cultural is fabricated and given meaning by the human mind, a meaning that was not given by physical nature."

"When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the power­lessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view?" --Ernest Becker

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. "
Soren Kierkegaard

[T]he analysis of disgust and shame...shows us that human beings typically have a problematic relationship to their mortality and animality, and that this problematic relationship causes not just inner tension, but also aggression toward others. If ideals of respect and reciprocity are to have a chance of prevailing, they must contend against the forces of narcissism and misanthropy that these emotions so frequently involve.

-Hiding from Humanity by Martha Nussbaum

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Look at that dot

photo from the Cassini spacecraft shows the mighty planet Saturn, and if you look very closely between its wing-like rings, a faint pinprick of light. That tiny dot is Earth bustling with life as we know it. The image is the second ever taken of our world from deep space. The first, captured by the Voyager spacecraft in 1990, stunned many people, including the famous astronomer Carl Sagan who called our seemingly miniscule planet a "pale blue dot" and "the only home we've ever known."

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

-Carl Sagan

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Blue Planet of Life & Death

Life is beautiful and brutal. It is awe and dread. A mixture? A complexity that is not easy for the human ego to digest. Amazing to some and horrific to others. Life from many angles can be overwhelming. Some draw dogmatic lines of certainty to combat awe and dread others seek to be numb through various ways of distraction.
Different realities all existing at the same time. One is born, one dies. One is enjoying food- another starves. One is enjoying pleasure and another suffers in pain. Energy consumed-Energy released.

All happening on such a grand scale of geological time that the human mind is not capable of staying there for too long. Moment of focus vanishes to the necessity of taking care of ones immediate surroundings. Existence is beyond the human box of dogma-life is. Living In Finite Existence. Amazing and Horrific. Cultural distraction or religious identity becomes the stage for some. For others the abyss is something to face. To paraphrase- if a better way there be it involves looking at the worst and the best of life. Some choose dogmatic lines to define life. But life does not fit into human boxes. It does not consider the human ambition to be certain and in control. Laughter and tears-comedy and tragedy on the same face. To deny the beauty would be cynical to deny the suffering would be dishonest and a lack of awareness.

The uncertainty of life and the certainty of death unite all of us who come to this existence on this blue planet. Experiences vary but death reaches us all. Perhaps there can be solidarity in this knowledge. Being aware of our fragile existence can drive us to a more gentler and kinder humanity. The wisdom that comes from "the curriculum of misfortune."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Richard Dawkins

People frequently ask Richard Dawkins: "Why do you bother getting up in the morning if the meaning of life boils down to such a cruel pitiless fact, that we exist merely to help replicate a string of molecules?" As he puts it: "They say to me, how can you bear to be alive if everything is so cold and empty and pointless? Well, at an academic level I think it is - but that doesn't mean you can live your life like that. One answer is that I feel privileged to be allowed to understand why the world exists, and why I exist, and I want to share it with other people."

"It's about why I think science is one of the supreme things that makes life worth living," he says. "We are fantastically privileged to exist at all, but then we also have the privilege of understanding this beautiful world in which we find ourselves. that should make us all the more eager to soak up as much as we possibly can of understanding our world and our place in it before we die." Or, as the book puts it: "Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Quite the contrary: the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle... " He brilliantly berates those of us (all of us, probably) who succumb to the "anaesthetic of familiarity," by which he means allowing yourself to stop noticing that the world around you is coruscating with wonder: "Just think," he enthuses, "instead of reading the football results you can read about distant galaxies!"

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The End of the World-The fate of the Universe

The End of the World

Remember the young Woody Allen's cosmic angst in the film Annie Hall? Having just read that the universe is expanding, the boy is so worried that he can't do his homework. "Someday it will break apart," he tells his shrink, "and that will be the end of everything." But, his mother snaps, "you're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"

Maybe not, but Woody was on to something. Long before the universe finally fades out, his nightmare will come true—though not as he imagined. Now about halfway through its estimated 10 billion-year lifetime, our sun is slowly brightening. In about 1 billion years, its energy output will have increased at least 10%, turning Earth into a Venusian hothouse where plants wither, carbon dioxide levels plummet and the oceans boil off.

Even so, we would still have to quit the sun's neighborhood before it begins its final death throes. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, the fiery orb will collapse upon itself like a giant souffl├ę, only to see its internal furnace briefly restoked in several last gasps. These will swell the sun's outer layers so they engulf all the inner planets, including Earth, turning it into what astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson calls "a red-hot charred ember." The sun's red-giant phase will be brief, however. Shedding its heat and gases, it will become a cold, compact cadaver no bigger than Earth, a white dwarf lost in space.

Let's assume that humans—or some higher life-form—are still around to witness these cataclysms—an iffy supposition since we've been on Earth for only a fraction of the dinosaurs' time (2.5 million vs. 160 million years) yet already have the power to destroy ourselves. If we're still around, we will have to seek out homes on other planets orbiting other warming stars. That will take some giant leaps. Even the speediest galactic ark would have to travel hundreds of years, during which multiple generations would live and die on board, before reaching even a nearby star like Proxima Centauri, 4.3 light-years away. And in the end, not even such a sanctuary would save our descendants, or any other life-forms still inhabiting the universe, from its last, dying gasp.



That means that the 100 billion or so galaxies we can now see though our telescopes will zip out of range, one by one. Tens of billions of years from now, the Milky Way will be the only galaxy we're directly aware of (other nearby galaxies, including the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Andromeda galaxy, will have drifted into, and merged with, the Milky Way).

By then the sun will have shrunk to a white dwarf, giving little light and even less heat to whatever is left of Earth, and entered a long, lingering death that could last 100 trillion years—or a thousand times longer than the cosmos has existed to date. The same will happen to most other stars, although a few will end their lives as blazing supernovas. Finally, though, all that will be left in the cosmos will be black holes, the burnt-out cinders of stars and the dead husks of planets. The universe will be cold and black.

But that's not the end, according to University of Michigan astrophysicist Fred Adams. An expert on the fate of the cosmos and co-author with Greg Laughlin of The Five Ages of the Universe (Touchstone Books; 2000), Adams predicts that all this dead matter will eventually collapse into black holes. By the time the universe is 1 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years old, the black holes themselves will disintegrate into stray particles, which will bind loosely to form individual "atoms" larger than the size of today's universe. Eventually, even these will decay, leaving a featureless, infinitely large void.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ernest Becker & The Denial of Death

The human ability to give meaning to colors, flags, stories, and symbols has often led to two or more movements to battle in a bloody conflict for hegemony. Becker wrote,
"The last thing man can admit to himself is that his life-ways are arbitrary: this is one of the reasons that people often show derisive glee and scorn over the strange customs of other lands—it is a defense against the awareness that his own way of life may be just as fundamentally contrived as any other. One culture is always a potential menace to another because it is a living example that life can go on heroically without a value framework totally alien to ones own."

The transference of life and meaning to objects and symbols is a human trait that makes conflict more probable. It is no longer a piece of land, cloth, stone or building but my very life and existence. Two heroic systems that are born from this escape from oblivion and this will to significance, cannot stand to co-exist with one another because their mere existence points to the fallacy of their absolute superiority. Thus genocide is even justified--kill the people to keep the ideology alive. Humans have often sacrificed real life for imaginary life. Becker quotes Jose Ortega Gasset,
"Life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it up with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ideas are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality."

Everything is clear in the symbolic realm. In the symbolic arena there are no Tsunamis, earthquakes, oblivion, disease, and death. There is immortality in the symbolic arena and everlasting fame. We humans have given meaning to a world that has not given a second thought to whether an earthquake kills a cat, dog, cockroach or human. Becker noted,
"In the world of ritual there arent any accidents, and accidents, as we know, are the things that make life most precarious and meaninglessif life can be so subject to chance, it mustnt have too much meaning."
Despite human narcissism it is clear that whether a chicken gets its head chopped off or a human the world does not miss a beat. This knowledge leads one to the edge of the abyss of nihilism.
Camus reacted to the indifference of the universe with a euphoric pathos that reminds one of what Becker would state as agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same. Brush your teeth, feed your stomach, go to sleep, go Humans have an amazing organ called the brain with a base organ called the stomach. Our religions, arts, and culture are maybe just grand diversions from the reality of death? The legal definition of insanity is defined as a disassociation from reality. Is culture and society an insane reaction to a ridiculous position? To keep sane we become insane? Becker writes,
Existence is simply too much of a burden; object-embeddedness and bodily decay are universally the fate of men. Without some kind of ideology of justification people naturally bog down and fail.
Or as Freud would put it they demand illusions and constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.
Becker makes an important point about the limitations of the enlightenment and modernity. He states,
Modern man is the victim of his own disillusionment; he has been disinherited by his own analytic strength.

Professor Michael Polanyi wrote,
"The meanings—the coherent entities—which we know as Michelangelos Moses, Beethovens ninth Symphony, the virtue of justice, and the Christian God are not only intangibles.they seem, possibly, to have no existence or being at all in the absence of manthey may appear to be great and worthy of respect. But what if we suppose they are only adventitious results of lower motivations or, eventually, of the reactions of atoms?"