Archive | January 2012

Death is not the Enemy

We humans instinctively fear death, driven to avoid it by our need for self-preservation, sometimes resorting to extreme measures to do this.

We sometimes wonder if this life is all there is, and speculate on the possibility of something after it, something “more” to it all to assuage our fears of personal extinction.

This is one of the main purposes of religion, not only to explain the world around us through mythological doctrines and scripture, but to serve the double goals of comfort and control by catering to our fears of death, our hopes for something beyond it, by telling us that conformance to religious beliefs, rules, and rites will allow us to achieve bliss, or rebirth as a higher being, and allow us to avoid pain or perhaps reincarnation as an amoeba or a cockroach.

Many religions, particularly Christianity, treat death as a sort of thing bad in and of itself, a great final enemy to be conquered, destroyed, or subdued on Judgment day, an aberration brought into the world through sin and folly, not a part of nature, not a necessary if unfortunate component of the cycles of life.

I think that this is wrongheaded, and I’ll say why…

I do not believe that death is either intrinsically good or bad, though the means of achieving it can be.

After my accident in 2007,(I’d been struck by a car at a crosswalk, obviously surviving the impact, but needing and luckily getting months of therapy to recover.) I had done much thinking on the topic, for I could well have been killed then — game over dude — and I discovered as I lay on the gurney that the fear of impending death really didn’t bother me that much.

Looking the Reaper in his bony eye-sockets, or maybe DC Comics’ more comely feminine version of Death, (I recommend Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series…) was thoroughly unscary, and that unscariness stuck with me.

“Not now. Maybe later dude (or dudette)…”

I realized that the loss coming from death can be tragic and saddening to those who survive the deceased, especially “before one’s time,” I came to recognize that it’s the events and acts that cause it that can truly be tragic and senseless, especially when they are unpleasant, degrading and even horrific, but not death itself.

When life becomes unbearable despite our attempts at bravery and perseverance, death can be a release.

In 2006 a gaming friend I’d known for years succumbed to a virulent cancer after battling it most of his later years in life. The nurses in his ward, not realizing the futility of keeping him alive with the suffering he was going through, tried to encourage…I’d say pestered him…to stay alive despite the obviously terminal nature of his condition — the cancer had long before metastasized — but he had given up. He had enough of life, and quietly, finally, released his hold on it. He just let go.

I’d venture to say that death didn’t bother him one iota, just those of us he left behind.

Life needs death to carry out its processes. A world of finite resources can only sustain a finite number of creatures, especially the Earth with a population of 7 billion+ human beings hugging its surface.

Everything living must feed, and even plants need resources, with some, like the Venus’ Flytrap actively digesting small creatures like insects while living in nutrient-poor soil. Animal life cannot live without eating, and cannot eat without killing, even the countless billions of embryonic grain plants killed to make flour for bread. Herbivores must eat plants, carnivores must hunt the herbivores, and carnivores themselves are eventually eaten by scavengers, other predators, and reducing organisms like fungi or bacteria.

Life as we know it absolutely depends on death to happen. This is neither good nor evil, neither right nor wrong, it is simply a fact about the world and things that populate it. We humans are dependent upon the deaths of countless plants, animals, and microbes, to feed ourselves and our children.

If death was not a part of nature, nothing would ever need to eat anything else, but that’s not what we see in nature. Living things do eat living things, and the act of eating, or preparation for eating, requires what is eaten to die.

So death to me is not some horrific thing that is wrong with the world, though I’m in no hurry to reach it. Life means a lot to me, despite what anti-atheists claim. As far as I have any reason to think, nothing but a deep, dreamless sleep from which there will be no awakening, and the final dissolution of my body’s elements into the fabric of the world from which I was born, awaits me when I die.

No heaven, no hell, and no karmic wheel of death and rebirth, just oblivion, which I never complained of before I was born, and won’t worry myself about upon and after my end.

Skepticism is hard — And your point is?..

Skepticism is hard work, and being a skeptic 24/7 is no bed of roses. This is because skepticism requires more effort than leaping to a quick shortcut by invoking the paranormal instead of conventional explanations for seemingly weird events.

It’s easy to believe in the supernatural, since it suffuses almost all cultures and is often uncritically promoted and reinforced by the media outlets we watch, listen to, and unfortunately, unthinkingly trust to reliably inform us on matters of fact.

It’s no stretch to say that claims of the supernatural are heavily advocated through childhood indoctrination by the world’s religious institutions, especially those with theistic doctrines, and most of those without as well.

Because of the ubiquity of such claims, drilled into many of us as we grow up, and because of the perfectly normal functioning of our magnificent brains, we find it a simple matter to use whatever first comes to mind when strange things happen, and dismiss all other alternatives as unnecessary or too complex, or too time-consuming, or perhaps as too counter-intuitive.

But reality IS complex, AND counter-intuitive, so understanding it more accurately takes time not all of us have, and more effort than we often find convenient.

That’s the availability heuristic at work, a particular rule of thumb our brains use, a, otherwise reliable shortcut for drawing inferences about our experiences, using what data is most easily at hand in our storehouses of knowledge and can be most easily recalled.

We are, even the smartest of us, cognitive misers if we aren’t careful.

During seemingly odd happenings this cognitive miserliness can lead us astray. Seriously astray, and sometimes dangerously so, when ignoring the possibility of a better explanation in favor of what we want to believe can get us poorer in the purse, sicker, injured, or killed.

Conventional explanations are different.

Few where supernatural beliefs are commonly held as part of the culture are well-acquainted with them, save the scientifically literate, and even they must take care in applying possible explanations and weighing them against each other and the world.

To those ordinarily accustomed to resorting to paranormal explanations, figuring out conventional explanations without having them at the front of one’s mind requires the skilled use of a remarkable trait humans possess: our imaginations, a trait often claimed by believers as exclusive to them.

It doesn’t necessarily require delusional mental illness or clueless gullibility to be fooled by strangeness and the lack of an immediate explanation, otherwise professional conjurors would have been out of a job long ago.

That’s why heuristics can be at once so useful, but when we are out of our depth so deceptive.

An active imagination is essential in explaining the world, especially in science, since one must spin as many different hypotheses as one can, compare them for testability, and then weigh them against that most harsh of taskmasters, reality, whether by experiment, observational comparison, or data convergence from many different fields all leading to the same conclusion.

And any idea that fails these tests should rightly be rejected, not considered ‘alternative knowledge.’

Science is the stasis, the fulcrum-point where imagination and skepticism meet: with skepticism used to winnow the golden ideas from the bullsh*t, the good ideas from the bad generated first by imagination, since most ideas conceived are ultimately unworkable.

Science is a method, not a position. Okay, I can grant that.

It is, however, a method for reaching a position, a tentative one, on the nature of reality.

There is a way things really are, and over time, scientific inquiry and similar approaches can get us closer to a serious understanding of those things.

Show me a better set of methods, and I’ll happily switch to that instead, hands down.

APW | Astronomy Pix of the Week [Belated]: January 22-28, 2012

APW is a weekly installment, normally published each Saturday between 7:31 and 8:30 am, with links to each daily entry on NASA’s website Astronomy Picture of the Day. I hope you enjoy looking at these often breathtaking images as much as I do.