Death is Confusing

Don’t fret, He’s got a softer side.

For the greater part of the last 30 years, I’ve had a general awareness of my own mortality. Perhaps “general awareness” would be an appropriate description from 8-13 years of age, but that would be an understatement for post 14 year-old Justin. On multiple occasions, I’ve tried to vividly imagine and come to terms with the fact that the animated limbs I control will eventually be lifeless and rot. I mean I’ve literally stared at the damn things and prodded and poked them imagining that someday the nerve endings that currently acknowledge the pressure and touch of my hand will eventually, inevitably no longer do so. I’ve looked deep into my own eyeballs and scrutinized the intricate details that came from the product of (depending how far back you want to go) billions of years of evolution. I have consistently been in sheer awe at the complexity of what I was witnessing. Imagining that the engine that runs this body would someday become old and dried out(if I made it that long), was a hard pill to swallow. And it was made even harder not exactly understanding why the time frame of about 75-90 years old was so damn short, or what variables were contributing to this decay. The hard fact that the elements that composed the flesh would be recycled back into the universe no matter what I did, never sat well with me. The age-old existential crisis dominated my thoughts whenever I had a still moment with no distractions. It still does, but now I think I’m a little more okay with the whole having an end to the movie thing. It’s just that I think I need the film to be more of a director’s cut.

Should we actually be rooting for death?

There were two thought exercises in particular that came up recently than helped me view death in a less daunting, and more relieving light. The first one was if I could hit a button to lock in living forever, would I do it? It became quickly obvious the answer to that was a hard “NO”. But, then the question became how long was the optimal time? Seemed like it would be hard to know exactly how long life would remain interesting – and not painful or boring in some way. So, the general solution seemed to be having a painless death button at your disposal for your journey. And perhaps, just being able to fast forward through the future and view it with On Demand functionality without having to experience it all in real-time, would supplant my desire to live for hundreds or thousands of years. To already have witnessed and know the story of your immediate family and friends and mankind might make it way less desirable to actually then go live through it all second by predictable second. So maybe it’s the knowledge of future events that would best help quell this need for eternal survival.

The other thought experiment was to imagine that once you died, you were immediately confronted by some kind of entity who gave you some seemingly fantastic news. You get to construct whatever kind of version of Heaven you want. You have one hour to give them the basic specifications for your new reality. And it won’t be a Midas/Genie situation where your wishes are deliberately misconstrued to teach you some sort of morality lesson. The spirit of what you desire is what you shall receive. What would you ask for? The typical religious concepts of Heaven where there is eternal life or eternal bliss, or really eternal anything seems like a bad idea when you really are pressed to lock it in. So, then what is the GTO strategy for speccing out your blueprint for heaven? It seems like you’re gonna need some good luck/bad luck uncertainty(not knowing the future) to make it interesting. It also seems like you’re going to want to have an ending to the experience. Or, at some point, it will cease to be pleasurable and become something more along the lines of a Twilight Zone episode nightmare. So, as we start spitballing, Heaven begins to look more and more like what normal life looks like. Well, the “normal” life of a healthy and well-loved individual with very low immediate stresses. Hmmm. Well that makes me feel a lot better about my own situation. I guess reframing one’s existence within the context of trying to imagine a more desirable circumstance makes death seem a lot less daunting.

Looking forward to this = )

Nature seems brutal and unforgiving – most other creatures seemingly only know pure survival. When human life is reduced to mere survival at all costs, life moves exponentially closer to a hellish existence. We get the joy of experiencing feelings of accomplishment and euphoria. If life wasn’t so fleeting, and never threw you curveballs, then these experiences would cease to be special. I guess happiness with your existence lies in the Goldilocks zone of life spans. I’m not sure what ideal is, but more than 100 years and less than 1,000 seems like a reasonable guess.

Try not to think about the future….. just enjoy the gorgeous view and live in the moment!

What makes life so special are the small joys we experience, especially when consumed within the backdrop of how rare they might be in the Universe. So, I choose to concentrate on accruing a vast collection of these moments. The only problem is that you can’t take these with you once your brain no longer functions. My happiness stems from my ability reflect on amazing experiences and sentimental memories, and my anticipation of more to come. When my consciousness ceases to be, I will no longer be able to conjure these memories, or anticipate making new ones. So, what is the point then? I’m just confused now.

Death begs the same questions that falling in love or having a child raise. We know the end game to these experiences is an overwhelming favorite not to be a painless conclusion. But, is the journey worth it? Maybe it’s cognitive dissonance talking, as I don’t have much choice at this point in my life, but I say it’s better to have loved and lost then to never have felt anything at all. Actually, that narrative is probably pure, uncut delusional bias at its finest, but I can’t officially know for sure….. soooo…. Let’s just assume life is perfect the way it is!

Long live death !

– JA

The Attractiveness of Simplicity

This is not directly related, I just enjoy it.

This is not directly related, I just enjoy it.

Human Beings have evolved over generations to become a species with an affinity for simplistic explanations and answers. Don’t conflate this biological shortcoming with Occam’s Razor (Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected). This might be more a useful guideline in the realm of mathematics, but it seems having a reductionist default setting for life’s more philosophical conundrums will ultimately lead to highly inefficient decision-making, and a gravitation toward general falsehoods. Or, to not put it in layman’s terms – Reducing life’s complexities to a crude and simple placeholder might provide you with a sense temporary gratification, but it will come at the expense of long-term fulfillment and societal progress.

People just love a good story. They love stories so much, they have served as our main form of entertainment since the dawn of language and communication, all the way up through our current fiction craving culture we exist in today. Even our “Reality” shows are scripted for our appeasement.

The legend of Princess Peyote

The legend of Princess Peyote

Unfortunately, these stories are so attractive to us, that we often delude ourselves into thinking they are part of true reality. Compared to hard scientific research and messy philosophical debates, stories are incredibly simple. They are an easy answer. They have helped us survive and reproduce over the generations. We wouldn’t be here without stories to distract us from some of the harsher science-based realities.

Here are some questions mankind has been asking ever since he was conscious enough to ask them :  What happens when we die? Do I have free will? Is there some higher power keeping track of my good and bad deeds? What is the point of life?

And historically, the most popular answers to those questions have been (in order) Life continues on after death in a really good way for people who follow given rules(and also continues on, but is painful for those who don’t) / We definitely have free will and our decisions are of great consequence to the Universe / There is most certainly a cosmic scoreboard and record of whether you are being naughty or nice /  We aren’t exactly sure about this one, but just to keep being “good” so you can go to “heaven” or be reincarnated as some higher form and basically your life exists to serve “God”.

Notice, it’s always the happy Hollywood ending that gets the green light. It never seems to be the answer of – “Life is intensely complicated and we actually have very little idea what’s happening to us, what the meaning of life is, or if there is even any meaning to anything at all”.

 That answer is scary and makes us feel like shit. So we say, “Fuck that, I want to see all my pets and relatives again someday in a big cloud castle and eat whatever I want without getting fat. Ahhh much better….”

Switzerland in the Summer + winged suitcases = Heaven

Switzerland in the Summer + winged suitcases = Heaven

The world is filled with stories. As humans, we are evolutionarily programmed to seek out patterns in chaos, and extract meaning from the most random of events. From constellations to car accidents – we are consistent authors of fiction, furiously writing a script that allows us to function optimistically and with false confidence in a world whose true nature could not be more of a mystery to us.

Historically, these false narratives have been quite useful to human migration and survival. Lying to ourselves and ego preservation have made the trait of self-delusion a natural selection must have. No one would explore that vast ocean if they weren’t unrealistically optimistic about their chances of survival/success. So, they don’t meticulously calculate their probability of success with astounding accuracy. Instead, they just say “Godspeed” and take some booze and bibles along for the ride. Few people would be motivated to accomplish anything if it were revealed to them that in fact, life was predetermined and they are merely groups of particles interacting and reacting to groups of other particles set in motions eons ago. No different in the “choices” they make than the fish in the sea, the clouds in the sky, or even the stars and planets in our galaxy. Not having free will is another messy, uncomfortable story we want NO part of.blind

If you want someone to risk their life in a War, or fly a plane into a building, or not have premarital sex, then you need a really good story to inspire them. And good stories are simple stories. Like this one : “If you blow yourself up and kill a bunch of people with a bomb, then there are 72 virgins waiting in heaven for you right after you’re done.” Now, you might say to me : “That story is so simple and dumb, I think that story sucks.” I would argue that you’re absolutely incorrect. In fact, that story is SO good that countless people actually commit the ultimate sacrifice and kill themselves and others because it’s so effective and simple.

Life, for better or worse, is muddy and complicated. At least, if we are asking science for answers. There is no nice, neat pill to swallow and make it all orgasm, all the time. But, I think that’s what makes life interesting. I like that things are complicated. I enjoy not knowing everything there is to know. If some God offered me the opportunity to have all of life’s mysteries revealed to me, I would decline because that would make life painfully boring. Even if I could all of sudden become immortal, I wouldn’t do it. While I’m not ready to die, and still might not be ready whenever that day comes, the idea of never being able to die is the most terrifying thing I can think of. It would be okay if I could choose when or if I die, but to float alone for billions of years/infinity out in the void of space long after all other life has ceased to exist, is perhaps the worst fate I can imagine.oversimplification

Maybe this is just my cognitive dissonance talking, but I like life the way it is. I enjoy the testing of hypotheses. I like living an existence where the introduction of valid new evidence can flip even our most fundamental perspectives about life upside down at any moment. I think we should all view our lives through the unflinching lens of science. Yes, it’s might be a bit scary at times. Yes, there is the risk of discovering new truths that might make you lose your will to get out of bed in the morning, or prevent you from finding happiness again. But, there is excitement in all that mystery. So, don’t drown yourself in stories and lies to make yourself feel better. Flush out your delusions and biases and vanquish them. There is a greater peace, empathy, and happiness that can be found just in having the desire to seek out truth. The journey into the unknown is more fulfilling and exciting to me than some pacifier fairy tale that has been handed down over the generations. Oversimplification (as a survival mechanism) has served us well in the past. But moving forward, we need to take off the blinders. Truth is indeed far stranger and more interesting than any story mankind could ever dream up. Going forward, let’s open our eyes and not blink at whatever pops into our field of vision – let’s refocus and stare instead.

 – JA

Found it.