Thursday, March 18, 2004

how do you like your blueeyed boy

"For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after." That's how Ursula Leguin's protagonist explains the necessity of death in A Wizard of Earthsea.

My father thinks that people are religious because they're scared of death, and religion tells them that it's not real. He taught me to think that, as a child, but even as a young teenager I became dubious. It seemed to me that only quite stupid people would find eternity less scary than death. True, there are a number of quite stupid people about, but I didn't think there were so many as that.

Death might end your consciousness -- as in my father's world-view -- but it doesn't annihilate you. It doesn't make it as if you had never been. It crosses your name out, but your name is still on the page. But eternity does something far worse. It turns the whole page black. No silence, in which a word can be spoken. Just an unending tumble of white noise. (Yes, I am mixing black and white annihilation metaphors. The image I've really got in my mind is of white-out, or snow-blindness, but then I would have had to have a name written in white ink on a black page....)

It does that whether it's hell or paradise, though of course we'd all really choose to go to heaven and play harps than to be roasted over slow fires or frozen for centuries: I find those people who blither about how they'd go to hell because all the interesting people are there quite annoying. (People who are being roasted alive are not interesting. They're all pretty much alike. Ask anyone who's seen it done.)

I am as afraid of death as the next guy, of course. You shoot at me, I duck. But I find eternity scarier.

It's odd that people should think of believing in life after death as a leap of faith. Seems to me that believing in death as a full stop is the real leap of faith. We've experienced continuity; we know the experience of dream and waking, of the change of modes of awareness, of realizing that what we perceived was not real in the way we thought it was. What none of us has ever experienced is a full stop. None of us has ever experienced a transition that set us completely free, made us no longer subject to the consequences of our actions. Why should we believe such a thing ever happens? That's what I call a leap of faith -- firmly believing that we're going to experience something, even though we've never experienced anything like it before.

What a lovely thing a full-stop death would be! An end of all troubles, a cancelling of all debts, a lifting of all burdens! The concept reeks of wish-fulfillment. It sounds a bit too good to be true, to me.

Now of course it's in the nature of things that no one can experience a full stop, and come back to talk about it. I know that. And I'm inclined to think that in fact death is a full stop; that our consciousness simply winks out and that's that. But I don't feel I have any very compelling reasons to think so. No one has ever told me a convincing story of how self-aware consciousness could be produced by the brain on its own, so I don't have a lot of confidence that when my brain stops functioning my consciousness will stop too. It's a perfectly plausible notion, but it is, in my opinion, an untested hypothesis -- nothing so dignified as a scientific theory, let alone a demonstrated fact. That the brain and consciousness are interdependent is obvious. That scarcely means they're coterminous.

I have no interest whatever in talking anyone into or out of a belief in an afterlife. I do think that anyone who strongly believes that there is one or that there isn't one should take a little vacation and try holding the opposite view. Just for the sake of the thought-experiment. & If you find that the idea of holding the opposite view for a while evokes violent resistance in you, then I think it would be even more interesting to take a look at that resistance. What is that made of?

I've got to get off blogger and onto something that doesn't mindlessly delete leading space, because right here I would insert e.e. cumming's poem, except that without the space the poem loses half its force. (This is intimately related to the theme of the relationship between emptiness and annihilation, except that it would lead off into a Taoist tangent, and the mixing Taoist and Buddhist metaphors should never be done without the aid of hard liquor.)

and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
mr death

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