from The Psychology of Liberty
An Issue Of Mortality
Contemplation of lifes brevity can help us appreciate the meaning of every day and year that passes. It can also put the meaning of our political situation into sharp focus. Too often, in vain attempts to deny the finality of our life, we may see political issues as mere differences of opinion and really not paramountnot ultimately matters of life or death (financially, intellectually, and psychologically). But we know that to stall the effort of thought and action will not ameliorate the situation of our life. Such a passive strategy only negates the essentials and promotes the nonessentials. Yet somewhere in the midst of these mental contortions, always remains the fact of our mortalitythe fact that, literally, we will someday become nothing. On account of our current cultural condition and, of course, our very existence, we must explore this preeminent metaphysical fact. (Of course, the following exploration is not intended to be morbid. Instead, it is intended to clarify an often evaded or misunderstood topicand hence to assist us in accurately understanding it and its serious implications.)
The phrase Someday we will become nothing, may sound simple, but it implies a lot of observations and quite a bit of logical reasoning. In essence it means that once we die, we will be no more, identical to any other living thing that perishes. In other words, death is the total obliteration of a living being. As in any truth-finding task, we have to understand the definite meanings of the terms.
The concept nothing can only be grasped indirectly through the absence of the perception of something. One sees or imagines something disappear, disintegrate, or decompose completely, and one concludes that it is now nothing or no longer in existence. (A related example of the idea of nothingness is deep meditation, which can allow us to experience a blank mind or empty consciousness, a state of relaxed concentration of just being.)
We have all witnessed what happens during a night of dreamless sleep (or of no dream recollection): the time span between consciousness, unconsciousness, and back to consciousness seems like nothing. Though brain activity was present, which indicates one is alive, for all practical purposes one experienced nothing (i.e., a total blank). Barring near death experiences, this is the closest we ever come to the experience of nothingnessthat of our inevitable obliteration.
Essentially, we end in the same state in which we started: We did not exist before we were born, and we will not exist after we die. Clearly, this observation does not agree with the widespread belief that one will live (in some form or fashion) after one dies. The belief that humans (irrespective of other animals) do not totally die after perishing mainly relies on the belief that life (of some sort) will continue in spite of physical death.
For living creatures, there are two primary absolutesreality and nothing (or existence and nonexistence). Living organisms are intricate compositions of matter capable of replication and self-maintenance. When they die, all the properties that distinguished them from nonliving matter disintegrate and decompose, so that eventually no trace of life can be noted. Of course, this is a readily observable event throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. We witness numerous organisms live and die during our own lifetimepets, ranch or farm animals, wild creatures on television or from hunting and fishing experiences, insects, weeds, and so on.
Accordingly, we observe multitudes of creatures perish that have various perceptual capabilities and degrees of consciousness. In the process, death can be a directly detectable physical event, but not so tangible mental event. We can see an animal die and its body decompose, but the question may arise about what happened to its consciousness. Since inner consciousness is not a directly observable attribute (for others, that is), the finality of its death can sometimes be hard to grasp.
This issue potentially involves the deaths of other animals as well as humans. It involves all those that possess consciousness, but especially those with complex nervous systems and high levels of awareness. Death of consciousness has particular emotional import with creatures we value or cherish. For instance, the loss of a pet that was a wonderful companion is often accompanied by much grief. Naturally, we feel sadness about the loss of emotionally valued living things.
But the death of a fellow human being has special significance. Oftentimes when a person, particularly a loved-one, leaves existence we are nothing short of devastated. We may feel that the loss is beyond our capacity to articulate. The infinite value and complexity encompassed in a person contribute to the immense sense of loss. If the decomposition of the body is tragic, then the disintegration of consciousness is catastrophic. Human consciousness, with all its characteristics and personality, really creates a person. It also plays a great role in making the body so valuable and esthetically attractive; the mind animates the body and gives it meaning.
Inevitably, though, reality confronts everyone. We are a part of nature, and it will have its way with us. While we can understand natures laws and use them to our advantage, we are never exempt from them. Despite our feelings in these matters, we are not allowed logically to conclude that the mind is omnipotent and capable of out-living the body. The essential fact of the matter is this: Without the brain and body, no mind could ever exist; the two are inseparable. If the brain is destroyed, consciousness is destroyed.
A human being is a complex integration of mind and body. On account of its physical constituency, the body necessarily has a consciousness. Even though the mind is invisible, it definitely is not detached from the body (which was a belief strongly held in primitive timese.g., spirits and ghosts). The age-old myth of the soul/body dichotomy still lingers in our culture. It contends that the body is material and thus mortal, and the spirit or soul is immaterial and thus immortal. Many hold dear to the fallacy that mind and body are not biologically integrated aspects of an organism.
Volumes of psychological studies show that lesions to the brain (as well as administration of certain drugs) systematically subtract, destroy, or alter mental structures and processes. Various areas and types of memory and judgment change or disappear, for example. One plainly cannot have mind or consciousness or awareness without the matter that creates these attributes. Thus, reports of the paranormal (for instance, out-of-body experiences, channeling, and life-after-death experiences) are scientifically untenable, regardless of how personally compelling they may seem. And as discussed earlier, such alleged phenomena are overt denials of the metaphysical laws.
Science continues to accumulate information about the brain. The physiological explanation of the mind is still a work in progress, and some interesting theories have been offered.71 The myriad cellular, biochemical, and bioelectrical processes that generate mental events are exceptionally difficult to untangle. Yet apart from all the questions arising from this fascinating task, we can be certain that death for an organism entails death of consciousness. Beliefs divorced from facts never will amend basic scientific truths.
To differentiate a belief from a fact is important. A fact is an observable and verifiable aspect of reality, and a belief is an idea (or set of ideas) that an individual contends, feels, or trusts is factual. A belief, then, may or may not be consistent with the facts of reality, which depend solely on proof and evidence (i.e., demonstration). For a belief to be true (or have some truth to it), it has to be based on fact.
Since a rational organisms capacity for conceptualization includes imagination, it necessarily can generate beliefs that do not correspond to facts. All the novel and strange things we can imagine consist mostly of alterations or distortions of our experiences with reality. To imagine things in service of ones life and well-being, and to dismiss or erase things that are not, are tasks for a volitional consciousness. Obviously, our imagination can be a heroically useful tool for creativity and productiveness. It can also be a tool for avoidance of reality and denial of experiences (usually only for various emotional reasons).
If no minimum scientific hypothesis or speculation formulated from proof or evidence exists for a belief (which entails observation of objectively plausible phenomena), then it is necessarily arbitrary; it is not grounded in reason or reality. The importance of this point is mainly this: If something is believed to exist but in fact does not, the belief may directly undercut ones ability to differentiate knowledge from arbitrary anti-knowledge. As we have seen throughout this book, many beliefsespecially on the philosophical levelare not based on facts; some even oppose universally known facts.
Knowledge is the fuel that sustains and improves life. Knowledge is the factor that is necessary for human survival (and consequently for survival of our biosphere). We have seen that concepts are presupposed in human knowledge. Concepts convey identifications that should accurately depict reality, either natural or man-made. Thus, for a person to have knowledge, he or she has to understand and integrate concepts. When individuals communicate either a fact or a belief, they are relying on an enormous amount of concepts.
The logic of any discussion, culminating in the proposed fact or belief, depends on the validity, order, and use of the concepts involved. As previously noted, in order for any concept to be graspable and valid (i.e., a logical identification), the concept must have a specific definition. Words and definitions serve as labels to distinguish concepts. Without an accurate definitiona fundamental differentiation from all other concepts (with the particular measurements omitted)a concept could not be isolated properly.
Life is defined by the occurrence of organisms and their maintenance processes. Death is defined by the discontinuance of these processes, and thus of those organisms. Only synonyms can be used interchangeably, and the words life and death are certainly not synonymousin fact, they are the greatest antonyms possible.
Reality is defined by all that exists; it is everything. In contrast the term supernatural, for instance, has no distinguishing traits by which it can be defined. The idea relies solely on conjectures about unknown, indemonstrable forces outside of naturea super-reality, if you will. However, because nothing is outside of existence (quite literally), any alleged dimensions must be part of existence.
Every idea a human being can possibly formulate takes place in reality; every conceivable observation or identification human beings can form presupposes reality, in which they perform it. Consequently, the postulation of a realm or dimension that is not in reality is plainly contradictory. If we were to contest this conclusion, we would have to do so in reality; the absolutism of it cannot be escaped.
To acquire knowledge of something beyond the basis of knowledge is impossible. We cannot acquire facts not connected withor further, in defiance ofthe facts we do know. Theories can be devised, to be sure. But absent any proof or evidencei.e., absent any basis for validationthey are just products of a potentially overzealous imagination. Ideas from a book of prescientific writing, or from the contentions of ones religious contemporaries, or from ones personal psychological experiences, or even from a scientific journal, simply cannot begin to qualify as objective knowledge until they are related to facts. In terms of logical knowledge, sound facts are indispensable.
Arbitrary postulates, such as supernatural, cannot be comprehended even indirectly like the relational concept nothing. Such terms have neither referents in reality nor coherent definitions, so they are invalid. Invalid concepts cannot be understood and integrated like factually valid concepts. They mainly are isolated and kept intact by the imagination and embellished with feelings, which gives rise to a variety of vague meanings. Invalid concepts, no matter how acceptable they may appear, act just as insidiously as viruses do; they tend to undermine the minds distinctive faculty of survival (reason) and its products (concepts).
Necessarily, such terms as God, heaven, Satan, hell, other realityessentially anything supernaturalare invalid. Of course, people interpret the idea of God in many ways. A few meanings are even similar to the definition of the universefor example, God is everything. The term then becomes somewhat superfluous. Needless to say, the essential epistemological issue tends to blur amidst the usually strong feelings about a Creator. Our feelings (as well as the feelings of significant others) about such terms may affect whether logic remains our avenue of credibility and strength.
In order to presume that God created the universe and was the cause of everything, we basically have to deny the metaphysical and epistemological rules of the universe. The Law of Causality states that the universe is its own causemeaning that it has always existed and will always exist. The universe is the eternal constant (existence). Interpretations of the Big Bang theory that contend a literal beginning of time, or birth of the universe, are merely secular counterparts to the Great Creation myth. Matter and energy can never be created or destroyed (the first law of thermodynamics). The configuration of the universe may change, but it can never be created or destroyedsince it is all matter and energy. Naturally, the only alternative to existence is nothingand nothing can only have meaning in contrast to existence.81
If God is not considered to be just another name for the universe, then it becomes an impossible concept. Nonetheless, any alleged God would have to exist within the universe; God would have to be an existent, or being (of some sort). Yet any being that exists must be finite, no matter how large or powerful. If a being were infinite, it would necessarily be everything (the universe in total); actually, it would have to be endlessly more than everything, because it would be infinitewhich of course is impossible; it would have no distinguishable properties.
A finite being obviously cannot create everything (which would have to include itself)for this would be the invalid concept of omnipotence. The creation of things requires matter and energy (which, again, have always existed). Upon inspection, any imaginary omnipotent being would have no need to create anything. Organisms must fulfill needs in order to ensure their lives; death is the result of continuously unmet needs. Obviously, death is of no concern to an omnipotent being. Ultimately, because such a being is conceptually invalid, any speculations about its needs, actions, or motives are logically pointless.
As we study Darwins theory of evolution, we discover that it is more than a theory. Indeed, evolution is the supreme fact of organismic nature. One could call it a law in this sense, although many of the tremendously complex processes (especially at the genetic level) have yet to be explained and understood. Still, DNA replication and natural selection are solidly established processes.
The evolutionary process, being the scientific explanation for the existence of living creatures, is as stable as the states of matter, the force of gravity, and the events of life and death. Simply put, there are no logical metaphysical alternatives to our existence. Reality is what it is; A is A. To contend otherwise is to advocate a philosophical (and therefore a scientific) contradictionthat things are not what they are.
A popular belief, however, is that some things in the universe (e.g., a supernatural being or place) are unknowable; they are ineffable, mysterious, and mystical. This requires some clarification.
The word known describes what has already been grasped and integrated. Unknowable describes something impossible to acquire mentally, given the known characteristics of the things involved. A couple examples of unknowable phenomena include knowing with certainty what someone else is thinking without any form of communication, and predicting with certainty the exact outcome of an overwhelmingly complex event.
Only reason enables us to acquire knowledge that something is unknowable. Clearly, to declare that something about which we have no knowledge is unknowable defies logic; the declaration has no conceptual or factual basis. When a postulate has no basis in present knowledge, it has no basis in reason. Only reason can differentiate the knowable from the unknowable by identifying and integrating the nature of the phenomena involved.
If something exists, it necessarily has identity. With identity, it can be graspedno matter how indirectlyby a conceptual consciousness (which is in the business of identification). Many, many thingsa gargantuan, untold amountare not known presently about the universe. But this should not imply that any of them are unknowable in principle, at any point in time and from any vantage point. Given the fact that the capacity to conceptualize is basically boundless, the acquisition of knowledge is basically boundless.
Science ultimately seeks knowledge of the fundamental nature of matter, energy, entities, and their complex relationships. We can never logically get more basic than dealing with what exists. Otherwise we end up discussing, literally, nothing.
Thus the question What can we discover about ourselves and all other existents? opens our world to exploration. Scientist Carl Sagan appreciated the profundity of this discovery process:
Whose heart would not race with such knowledge? Elucidation of a topic that is fundamental and crucial to our existencemetaphysicsenables us to see new possibilities. The achievement of metaphysical certainty can be an important element in our outlook on life. And our outlook on life can affect whether we ask the enduring question How do we create a society that is aligned with existencewith the nature of ourselves and the facts of reality?
Emotional numbness tends to develop when we disregard the implications of our existence. The complete joy in being alive (that ought to be everyones birthright) tends to become degraded or perverted. Comprehension of a fully real reality definitely involves the search for spirituality and enlightenment (or even so-called mystical experiences). But this must be done with our tool of knowledge, reason. By relying on rational comprehension of intuition and feelings, we can minimize potential distortions in our search. By choosing to reason deeply, we become able to deal adaptively with the ordinary as well as major concerns in our life.
Grasping the essentials of existence also energizes us. We begin to get the most out of lifefor it is, on the grand scale of nature, quite short. By envisioning the interminable contrast between life and death, we encourage ourselves to venture fully into lifes possibilities. Nothing less than this is asked of us when we solemnly reflect on our mortality.
Ultimately, our happiness in being alive is the maximum defiance of our eventual annihilation. An ecstatic state of consciousness is an end in itself. A reverence for life and an appreciation of nature is another end. Higher planes of understanding are always ours to reach, and joyful feelings are always ours to experience.
Yet, we live in an age in which the vast majority of people embrace the belief that consciousness is omnipotentthat death of consciousness is not final in certain ambiguous respects. It would be difficult to find an age in which most people believed otherwise. The extensive, complex myths and rituals found in humanitys dialects and voluminous religious texts assist in solidifying visions of the supernatural, as well as maintaining a particular meaning to life and values.29
Human beings, in trying to understand the world, have been seduced frequently by the idea that an alternative reality is awaiting them. This seduction can have many sources, of course. The limits that reality sets are typically of little concern in the realm of strong hopes and wishes. People may just wish for more life, especially with loved-ones, albeit detached from biology. Or, they may wish for something different than present life. As one passes away, one supposedly enters the supernatural realm of heaven (or hell, for those less fortunate). This transition may concern notions such as: being able to proceed to heaven through the atonement for humanitys sins and salvation by a universal savior or messiah; Godly compensation for the ills of earthly life; and, of course, the universal theme of entering into a place of everlasting bliss.8
A societal environment containing a sizable amount of immoral and irrational behavior and beliefs certainly makes life more difficult. Bad events and wrong behavior (perhaps attributed to sin and religious notions of evil) tend to take an emotional toll. An unperceivable other realityone that is sane, pleasant, and beautifulcan be an extremely appealing option to a somewhat hellish existence (or even a mediocre one).
A malevolent view of the world and the human race can lead to an expectation of perpetual depravity and problems. People may conclude that treachery, murder, and destruction between human beings are inexorable; the forces of good and evil will always clash, and sin and injustice will always thrive in society. (Witness the violent conflicts portrayed even in futuristic, science fiction books and movies.)
Certainly, we cannot deny what is strewn throughout the pages of history books and in todays newsprint. But the meaning we ascribe to reality as well as to human nature has a bearing on what future history books will reveal. If a person believes that death is not final and in most cases will bring about a better situation, what is the real point in the concepts of justice and human rights? How seriously will they be taken? The popular notion of supernatural justice, in which final judgment and penalties for evil actions occur after death, plainly does not satisfy the demands of individual rights.
If Earth is just a passing point, a temporary stop on the journey to greater heavens, what does life on Earth mean? Further, what meaning should be assigned to death? Many religions preach that we are here to receive an education that will prepare us for everlasting bliss after death. Regardless of what they consider education to be, think of the implication this has for life: life becomes a means to some higher end, not the sacred end in itself. And death becomes merely an unfortunate, albeit mournful, episode here on Earth, which signifies that the dead person can now live in heaven. Think also of the effects this can have on the concepts of human rights and justice.
Most cultures have always sought a degree of comfort in the belief that there is more to life than simply life. In a supernatural world, death does not seem so tragic or so final. After all, the deceased person (or disembodied consciousness) goes to a place where he or she can rest in peace and be eternally happy. In such a world, who would not want to join him or her someday? So, when ones time to go has arrived, uncontrollable fate must not be rebuffed; the supernatural world will provide new life.
Joined to the belief in supernatural justice is the idea that, without God and an afterlife, life would be meaningless and people would be immoral (or amoral). Promises of rewards and threats of punishments in an afterlife provide the main incentives to live and be moral. In other words, without these incentives most people would deceive, assault, or kill each other, and/or be mindlessly hedonistic. So, a life of happiness with enlightened psychologies and objective laws is either impossible or unreal. Actual and final death does not make life the ultimate standard of value (and thus worth living). For many centuries, notions such as these have remained a prominent theme in the worlds cultures.
When we become aware of the finality of death, we acknowledge that A is Athat the laws of Identity and Causality are absolutes. The only rational metaphysics is objective reality, in which facts are facts regardless of anyones contentions, admonishments, wishes, reservations, feelings, and hopesin which firm and knowable reality exists independently of any consciousness.
By aligning with reality, life can be realized and understood for what it is and should be. However easy it might be in daily life, we should not lose sight of an objective metaphysics. Thought and actions are put into better perspective when we relate them to the essentials of existence, which inform us of the significance of our own mortality. Naturally, focus, reflection, and objectivity are crucial. Most childhoods have frightening and painful events involving issues such as death. Adults need the words and actions that could make the world more comprehensible for children.
In addition, observation tells us that we can advocate logical ideas, but not fully integrate what they imply for our behavior. We can keep our thoughts in an unactualized state by failing to internalize them. We can also compartmentalize our thinking, which entails limiting our conceptual connections and only relating some ideas to behavior in certain respects.
Again, we see the chief volitional task: to constantly strive for a life that works for ones individual well-being and joy, rather than against one in deficient or even destructive ways. This is where aspects of the subconscious may need to be transformed to bring about congruent functioning between thoughts, feelings, and behaviorwhich results in a new self-concept. Unquestionably, appropriate self-assertion and psychotherapeutic techniques are the primary methods for becoming more congruent.
As explained earlier, reflecting on the absolute wonder of life can be the most enriching and energizing process for growth and self-actualization. At times, lifes preciousness can entrance us. When it does, reality becomes stripped of arbitrary social conventions. Myriad experiences invite this kind of clarity: the cold brightness of the stars and moon on a clear night; a beautiful landscape of austere openness where the warm, fragrant wind can almost be seen; rising mountains with creeks and stark canyons that seem almost too real; a vista overlooking the vast ocean with the magnified red sun setting on its distant tides; the joyous expressions and heartfelt words of a loved one. Contrasting such experiences with the most remarkable fact that they will all be gone one dayor more precisely, we will be gone from themcan evoke a variety of strong feelings.
The realization that the spark of human consciousness will someday be extinguished in each of us should summon the best within us. We might be reminded of phrases we hear on occasion: You only go around once, so give it your best shot or Carpe diem. In order to do these things, we have to do more than live day-to-day or season-to-season like other animals. We have to see the whole scope of our limited time in existence and calibrate our thoughts and actions accordingly. We have to advocate ideas that are in our best interestsand, thus, in the best interests of societyand quite possibly could even extend our time on Earth.
Progress in the medical sciences is hampered by an enormous regulatory bureaucracy that results in high costs and a relative paucity of funds. Although great discoveries and innovations have been madeand are being madein spite of these political problems, a capitalistic market would release latent ingenuity. As the shackles and chains of government are discarded, the medical field will have the freedom and wealth necessary to further extend human longevity, not to mention improve health (e.g., regarding blindness, paralysis, and debilitating chronic diseases). Since life is the ultimate standard of value, few goals are as profound as these.
Writers and poets throughout the ages have written eloquently about the world and our experiences. A longing for answers to lifes deepest questions is sometimes the tone in their words. Our knowledge of the universe is small in comparison to what future generations will know. We are, as a unique species, beginning to awaken. Often, we have been in a state of sleepwalking through our existence. We can perform our daily routines and never make the effort to see what is in store for uswhat our life is adding up to. The image of an ostrich trying to escape doom by burying its head in the sand may seem apropos.
We can delude ourselves about the significance of our mortality by thinking that we will become immortal somehow. The ways a person can play this game are many. Branden outlined some of these practices and motivations for them:
Haplessly, games of this sort are easy to start, and the rules are simple to follow. They let life pass us by. And then the rationalizations follow. As in most games, however, the score has to be tallied. At the end of our years, what would we really have wanted to do with our life? This question needs a genuine answer. So let us be different than the ostrich whose fate is most likely sealed. The challenge for us will always be to live up to our potential by broadening horizons, seeing new dreams, and then actualizing them.
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