Monday, 17 October 2016

Pushing Sisyphus' boulder


I’m reading Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus again. Camus was something of a precursor to the existentialists, he predates postmodern thought.

In Sisyphus, Camus grapples with the absurdity of life - how can anything we do have meaning when in the end we all die? At one point, he says something like “if the world were clear, there would be no art." Art is a creative act, an act of engaging the world and the human condition. If all would be saved by bringing clarity to the world, then we would only be saved by destroying that which is fundamental to the human condition.

So the quote is something of a philosophical cry of rebellion against life - curse these 'walls', curse my humanity, just give me understanding of one thing. But of course understanding can never come - there is no hope we will ever be more than we are. Yet we still want both clarity and our humanity. Camus says (a) you can't have both, (b) you definitely can't have clarity, because everything we know is a product of our perceptions, and (c) stop asking for this duality to be resolved (he knows we won't because the revolt against the absurdity is part of the human condition).

At the turn of the century, philosophy was colliding headlong with psychology, psychoanalysis and theology, or I should say they started to overlap. The fundamental problem in all of these disciplines was death. What is death? What does it mean? How does death re-frame the context of life?

For psychoanalysis, the inevitable nothingness is a source of neuroses - attempts to escape the inevitable. People who build their worlds don’t seem to appreciate the importance of Freud, but his conclusions viewed metaphorically are a staggering insight - neuroses are the attempt to refocus the mind on the present and away from the void every person will eventually reach no matter what they do or believe. Religion at this time was also struggling. The growing middle class and the advancing modern world focused everyone on the present and not on the afterlife, or the mystery of God, which is where religion draws its strength.

Into this environment, Camus arrives to point out people are so imperfect it renders life absurd, and there's no escaping this, so we should engage the absurdity head on even though you know it will get you nowhere. But Camus is focusing on death because he's engaging the insurmountable inevitability - recall that Sisyphus is condemned to his fate in the afterlife for all eternity - but you aren't. You are only condemned to life until you die.

Then Paul Tillich in the 1960's writes a book called “The Eternal Now” in which he recasts god as beyond existence, and calls on the "faithful" to abandon religion, psychoanalysis and philosophy to engage the ultimate mystery directly - What is Death? You cannot know god/death but you must struggle to know him because the struggle is what makes you human (but not what brings you closer to god, because you can't get closer, again there's no hope, like Camus says over and over. Hope is an opiate, respite from the struggle).


The point of religion is to reconcile the fact of death with the fact of life. The mind seeks an answer, just like it sought an answer to why things fall to the ground and why the sun rises and sets. The building block of the brain is pattern recognition. It is precisely because science and philosophy continue to be completely incapable of addressing death, and because the condition of death is totally unknowable, that people seek to ascribe some meaning to death by way of ascribing some greater meaning to life. The fundamental question of human existence is: if one can cease to be, what does it mean to have been?

Atheism, at least the revolting and stunningly childish variant practised on the internet and in non-serious media, is totally silent on this issue. The reason is because dumb people confuse religion with rituals and rules, and confuse the roles of science and philosophy in framing the human condition. Atheism does not provide its own answer to the question of death. Saying "there is no afterlife" not only fails to answer the question, it reveals that you didn't even understand the question, and there’s a good chance you lack the ability to ever understand it.

There is no great tension between religion and science when religion is understood to be entirely for the purpose of addressing the death question, and science is not. There is no way to collect evidence about death. Religion is not creationism or biblical fundamentalism. Small minded atheism needs creationism because it is only in opposition to this worldview that atheism can define itself. No serious theologian takes the creation or Bible stories literally.

Here’s a thought exercise. Our perception of time is fluid and affected by our mental state. It is possible that much like an object falling into a black hole appears to a distant observer to spend eternity at the event horizon, our perception of time at the moment of death is frozen such that it feels to the dying mind that time has ceased and is taking forever to die. That's just speculation of course, but we have no idea what the death experience is first hand, and once you do, there is no communicating it to anyone else.

In other words, everything we know about the world we know from our ability to perceive the world. There is no capacity for perceiving death. We literally can't collect any evidence about it in a way that distinguishes the death of a human mind from the death of a chicken's mind (if they have one) in the same way we distinguish a living human mind from a chicken's.


I'm not arguing against the statement that there is no afterlife. I'm arguing against the silly notion that because there is no god (if you believe that), then there is no point to religion and it is a silly thing to turn to for answers. My argument also has nothing at all to do with grieving, or whether people believe in god. It is simply to make the point that not believing in god does not help a person deal with the existential questions that religion deals with quite well.

I don't ask about the purpose of life. I ask what it means to be. We are all going to die. Think about that. Think about what it feels like to be living, and then try to imagine transitioning to the antithesis of that. You exist. You die. Your body still exists. But you?

Every single philosophy that has ever existed has tried to address the meaning, in a philosophical sense, of death. I don't have the answer. Neither did all the world's great minds. But they grappled with it. That's the point. To acknowledge the mystery and contemplate it, and in the process come to some better understanding of what you are.

I appreciate there are people who are both not stupid and do believe in god, or the divine, or the whatever, because they are faced with fundamental questions neither science nor philosophers have addressed to anyone's satisfaction. Here's the thing: nobody's died and later said: "Hey, this is how it is." Nobody has any information about the afterlife. Anybody who says "Hey, the afterlife is like this", or even "Hey, there is some kind of survival after death" is just wrong, but they aren’t lying. They are a normal person who thinks the idea of nothingness is so abhorrent compared with being alive that they hope and believe there is something else. No-one lies about this with malicious intent.

The atheist perspective is always the same. Because everyone agrees (or dissent is stifled), the central argument or thought never gets refined or improved, even when it has obvious holes. The theism debate becomes an echo chamber.

An atheist’s comments are generally anger with religion, believers, church, etc. Not annoyance, or irritation, or frustration. Anger. They argue believing in Heaven is "not harmless". They ascribe malevolence to religious belief. They keep talking about believers lying in a totally nonsensical context given the dictionary definition of 'lie.' This is not my opinion, this is what they write. Anger is usually a reaction to some personal involvement with the thing. Anger is a defence. The anger is directed almost exclusively at Christianity, not at Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or any other religion which also have a lot to say about death.

I think these people are actually obsessed with the existential crisis of death and have given up asking. It fascinates them, but they sublimate it into other things (fantasy, gaming, politics, etc) instead of dealing with it head on. Facebook is flooded with almost as many zombie posts as atheism posts. The most popular books and films for kids and teenagers are about magic and immortal beings (vampires, wizards, elves). Not only is there nothing wrong with this, it is to be expected. The existential crisis is a real thing. The difference between fantasy and religion is that fantasy implicitly denies the crisis by depicting a world where there is no death (immortals, zombies, ghosts, resurrection). But religion tackles it by explaining how people will never understand the mystery until they die.


What is amazing to me is that atheists don't realise their denial/sublimation. It's positively Freudian. Denial is one of the many ways people deal with death and therapy is an imperfect answer to the question: "Help me navigate my crisis of meaning." But therapy is an excellent answer to: "Help me overcome my fear of fearful things." Therapy is for problems, or for when you're stuck in a phase a person should move beyond but can't. It's for when thoughts or feelings are holding a person back as in the second question.

The first question is one all normal people should ask themselves at some point in their life. To come to terms on an initial level with the finiteness of life. It's going to end, you are promised an end, and the ending begs the question of what it all meant. Everyone should be reaching this stage. I don’t think it’s a problem to be fixed or something to get over.

These questions are better suited for old priests with considerable experience advising people on questions about life outside and inside religion. Because of their age and experience, they are wise and jaded enough not to give glib answers about "finding god." Also, priests have been by the side of more than their share of deathbeds, and are likely to have a great deal of firsthand knowledge of things people say they regret in the final moments. That is a kind of insight most therapists do not, and probably won’t ever, have.

Dealing with death is tough, but consider that we perceive the existence of others, even those who are still living, through our memory. You do not interact with everyone you know, every second. What makes death sad is the understanding no new memories will be formed of the departed. But you still have the current memories and can interact with memory in a way that isn’t like a photograph or a movie. You also have a strange combination of imagination and memory allowing the voices of others to be heard as if they’re still here.

These are all capacities of the mind. But it’s possible the mind is processing and reprocessing experiences, thoughts and feelings in a way the conscious self is not overtly aware. You should let it happen. Let the questions come and relish them. Wonder about the death experience and contemplate your own. The questions will, at times, comfort but at other times torment, and that is how it should be. It's okay not to know the answer. It is not okay to stop thinking about the question.

Ultimately, no one has the answer to existential questions. What does it mean to be remembered, even when it is not possible to make new memories?

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