Tag Archives: death

Primal Soul

One simple way of reinstating an absolute form of morality (as opposed to a relative, risk-reward kind) is to postulate continuity beyond death. The notion of a “soul,” as proposed in almost all religions, serves this purpose. Soul is also the substantive (albeit ethereal) representation of the otherwise elusive consciousness of ours, which is an entity that has no right to exist or be real because it fails all possible tests for real existence, yet is supremely real to each one of us. In fact, consciousness is more than real, it is the arena in which our reality plays out its act. It is so fundamental to our experience and existence that we have a hard time accepting its ephemerality.

I, for one, believe logically that when I die, everything I will have known and experienced till then will just disappear. I believe that death is like an eternal dreamless sleep. Logically. But logic has very little to do with what I can feel and accept, emotionally. I don’t like to drag in the concept of “emotion” here; I am thinking of what I can accept at a gut-level. “Primally” would perhaps be a better word to use, but I am not sure. Any way, once we have conscious awareness, and develop a sense of temporal continuity about things and experiences around us, we cannot help assigning continuity to the backdrop of it all — our consciousness. Continuity of selfhood is encoded into our mind. Primally — yes, that would be the right word.

Logic and rationality, which come after the primal plumbing of the mind, consciousness, selfhood etc. (which may all ultimately mean the same thing) is already in place, can influence our thinking only to a limited extent. Mind grasps at anything that offers a semblance of eternal continuity. Enter religions.

All conventional religions have some notion of a “soul,” which comes in different forms and with a multitude of meanings and contexts, although, logically, it can only mean our consciousness, or an entity holding our consciousness and pretty much nothing else. Thanks to our primal need to search and find continuity, we readily buy into whatever notion of soul our parents’ religion happens to uphold, ignoring the gaping holes in logic associated with it. From the perspective of religions (speaking of religions as organizational entities with intentions and purposes), the notion of continuity implied in the concept of a soul has a great benefit — it completely alters the risk-reward analysis at the root of morality. And it takes out death (or at least, greatly diminishes its significance) in the analysis. For death is only the beginning, as the horror-comedy taught us.

If the wages of sin are eternal third-degree burns, not some material comfort followed by thirty-to-life in a federal facility till death sets you free, you do think twice before doing the crime. The “time” that you may have to do could well be an eternity. Other religions offer other kinds of divine carrots and sticks. For instance, if you are a Hindu engaged in a particularly unsavory Karma, you will reincarnate as somebody (or something) on the receiving end of the stick, roughly neutralizing your risk-reward equation. On the other hand, if you are willing to take it on your chin with some amount of fortitude, you will be upgraded to business class in your next life.

In all notions of spiritual continuity of consciousness, and/or soul, there is something I find logically wanting. It is the lack of continuity of memory. Death is still a point of phase transition where all the existing memory is erased. If we think of soul as the eternal manifestation of mind and consciousness, erasing its memory is as good or as bad as killing it, is it not?

What I find interesting in this Hindu notion is that the ultimate reward for presumably the best possible Karma is not an eternal life of comfort in heaven, but a release from the cycle of reincarnations, which, in my view, is similar to an eternal dreamless sleep — which is the only logical notion of death we can scientifically entertain. So, in the Hindu notion of the reward for ultimate good is, in some sense, the ultimate death. Makes me wonder…

From Here to Eternity

The temporal aspect of punishment extends beyond the span between the crime and its punishment. The severity of the punishment is also measured in terms of its duration. And death puts a definitive end to all man-made durations. This interference of death in our temporal horizons messes up what we mean by proportional punishment, which is the reason behind the general lack of gratification on Madoff’s long sentence. If a heinous crime like a senseless murder brings about only a life-sentence, and if you know that “life” means only a couple of months or so, then the punishment in and of itself is incapable of deterring the crime. And when the crime is not as senseless, but prompted by careful material considerations, it is a deliberate risk-reward analysis that determines its commission. A comprehensive risk-reward analysis would involve, I imagine, a consideration of the probability of detection, the intensity and duration of the potential punishment, and the time one has to enjoy the spoils and/or suffer the punishment. There may be other factors to consider, of course. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t actually done such analyses. Not yet.

The smallpox story I mentioned earlier brings these considerations to the foreground, along with how the relatively high probability of death from the disease affects them. Knowing that there isn’t much time to enjoy life (or face the music), two older gentlemen of the story decide to go and feast themselves on a local prostitute of the village whom they have been eying for a while. It is not that the consequences (spousal anger, bad diseases etc.) of their action have changed. Just that their potential duration has decreased drastically because of the outbreak of smallpox. Knowledge of our death has a dramatic effect on our moral inhibitions born out of risk-reward analyses.

It is in this light that we have to examine clichéd statements like, “Live in the present moment,” or “Live everyday as though it is your last.” What do these statements really mean? The second one is especially interesting because it makes a direct reference to death. Is it asking us to shed our inhibitions vis-à-vis all our actions? If so, it may not be such a positive invitation (which, of course, is a statement of value-judgment emanating form a sense of a morality of unknown origins). Or it could be a simple exhortation not to procrastinate — a positive thing by the same uncertain morality.

“Living in the present” is even more puzzling. I guess it comes from the Zen notion of “here” and “now.” I can kind of understand the Zen notion in terms of cognitive neuroscience, although that is the sort of thing that Zen would ask us not to do — understanding one thing in terms of something else. According to the Zen school, an experience has to be assimilated before the intellect has a chance to color it in terms of preconceived notions and filters. In the absolute stillness of a mind, presumably brought about by years of introspection and intense mediation, experiences take on perceptually accurate and intellectually uncolored forms, which they say is a good thing. If the statement “Live in the present moment” refers to this mode of experiencing life, fine, I can go with that, even though I cannot fully understand it because I am not a Zen master. And if I was, I probably wouldn’t worry too much about logically understanding stuff. Understanding is merely a misguided intellectual exercise in futility.

As a moral statement, however, this invitation to live in the present moment leaves much to be desired. Is it an invitation to ignore the consequences of your actions? You compartmentalize your timeline into a large past, a large future and tiny present. You ignore the past and the future, and live in the present. No regrets. No anxieties. What else could this slogan “Live in the present moment” mean?

Why Should I Be Good?

Knowledge of death is a sad thing. Not as a general piece of information, but in as applied to a particular individual. I remember only too vividly my own sense of helplessness and sadness towards the end of my father’s life, when it became clear to me that he had only a few weeks left. Until then, I could never really understand the grief associated with death of a loved one, given the absolute certainty and naturalness of death. In fact, I couldn’t understand my own grief and often wondered if I was romanticizing it, or feeling it because it was expected of me.

It is very difficult to know people, even ourselves. There are multiple obscuring levels of consciousness and existence in our inner selves. And we can penetrate only a limited number of them to see within ourselves. Therefore I find myself doubting my grief, despite its directly perceived realness and existence. Perhaps the grief arising from the loss of a loved one is so primal that we do not need to doubt it; but I cannot help doubting even the most obvious of feelings and sensations. After all, I am the dude who goes around insisting that reality is unreal!

The “loss” of a hated one, by virtue of its mathematical symmetry, should generate something like the opposite of grief. The opposite of grief is perhaps glee, although one is too civilized to let oneself feel it. But seriously, I once heard a stress reduction expert mention it. He said, “What if your boss stresses you out? Imagine, end of the day, he also will be dead!”

Yes, the fact that we will all die is a serious social and moral problem. How much of a problem it is is not fully appreciated due to the taboo nature of the subject. I once read a novel in Malayalam describing a village in the sixties ravaged by smallpox. Some parts of this novel illustrated the connection between death and morality. You see, morality is such a holy cow that we cannot examine it, much less question it, without being called all sorts of bad names. Being “good” is considered a “good” thing, and is taken to be beyond rationalization. I mean, we may ask questions like, “What is good?”, “What makes something good, something else bad?” etc. But we cannot realistically ask the question, “Why should I be good?” Being good is just good, and we are expected to ignore the circularity in this statement.

For a minute, let’s not assume that being good is good. I think the knowledge of imminent death would make us shed this assumption, but we will get to it later. For now, let’s think of morality as a logical risk-reward calculation, rather than a god-given axiom. If somebody proposes to you, “Why don’t you shoot to be a drug dealer? [Pun attempted] Good money there…,” your natural reaction would be, “Drugs kill people, killing people is bad, no way I am getting into it.” Now, that is a moral stance. If you were amoral, you may think, “Drug dealing involves violence. There is a good chance that I will get shot or caught. Thirty to life in a federal penitentiary is no walk in the park. No way I am getting into it.” This is a risk-reward analysis, but with the same end result.

I put it to you that the origin of most of our morality is this risk-reward analysis. If it wasn’t, why would we need the police and the criminal justice system? It is this risk-reward analysis that can get skewed because of an impending death, if we let ourselves notice it. You see, the concept of crime and punishment (or action and consequence, to be value-neutral) is not so simple, like most things in real life. To be a deterrent, the severity of punishment has to be proportional, not only to the foulness of the crime, but also to the probability of its detection. For instance, if you know that you will get caught every single time you speed, speeding tickets need not cost you thousands of dollars — a couple of dollars will do the trick of discouraging you from speeding. Such minuscule punishments do exist for little “crimes.” In public toilets, leaving the shower or sink faucet running would be a small crime because it wastes water, and the landlord’s funds. To fight this crime came spring-loaded faucets that shut themselves down after ten or 15 seconds. So you get “caught” every time you try to leave the water running, but the “punishment” is merely that you have to push the release button again. Now we have faucets with electronic sensors with even shorter temporal horizons for crime and punishment.

The severity of a pain is not merely its intensity, but its duration as well. Given that death puts a definitive end to our worldly durations, how does it affect our notion of punishment commensurate with crime? My third post on the philosophy of death will examine that aspect.

The Taboo Topic

Death is a taboo subject. We are not supposed talk about it, or even think about it. It is almost like if we did, death might take notice of us, and we can do without that kind of attention. If we want to be inconspicuous anywhere at all, it is in front of Death.

I have been watching Six Feet Under recently, which is probably behind these musings on death. I am curious though — why is the topic of death such a taboo, despite its natural inevitability? I don’t mean the superstitious kind of taboo (“No, no, no, you are not going to die any time soon, touchwood!”), but the intellectual kind. The kind of chill that comes about if you try holding a conversation about it over a beer or at a dinner table. Why is death such a taboo?

To say that we are just scared of death is a bit of an oversimplification. Sure we fear death, but we fear public speaking more, but we can still talk about the latter. We have to find the reason for the special tabooness of death elsewhere.

One thing special about death is that it is a great equalizer — a fact almost too obvious to appreciate. Everybody dies — regardless of whatever else they do in their lives. Perhaps this ultimate leveling of the field may be a bit distressing to the more competitive among us. However high we soar, or however low we sink, at the end of our days, the score is all reset and the slate is wiped clean.

This slate-wiping business also is troublesome for another reason. It is so damn permanent. Its permanence has an aspect never present in any other kind of pain and suffering we go through (including public speaking). One of my personal techniques to handle minor aches and pains (such as a root canal, or even deeper wounds like the loss of a loved one) is to make use of just this lack of permanence. I remind myself that it is going to pass, in time. (For some strange reason, I do this in French, “Ça va pas tarder,” although, to be correct, I think I should be telling myself, “Ça va pas durer.”) I even shared this technique with my son when he broke his arm and was in excruciating pain. I told him that the agony would soon abate. Well, I said it using different words, and I fancy the little fellow understood, although he kept screaming his head off.

We can handle any “normal” pain by just waiting it out, but not the pain of death, which lasts for ever. Ça va durer. Is this permanence behind our fear of it? Perhaps. With absolute permanence comes absolute imperviousness, as any Spiderman fan would appreciate. What lies beyond death is unknown. And unknowable. Despite all the religions of the world telling us various mystical things about what lies beyond (you know, like heaven and hell, Karma and reincarnation etc.), nobody really believes it. I know, I know, some may honestly insist that they really really do, but when push comes to shove, at an instinctive, gut level, nobody does. Not even the ones who are certain that they will end up in heaven. Why else would holy men have security details? In Of Human Bondage, Maugham caricatures this strange lack (or impossibility) of real faith vis-à-vis death in his portrayal of the last days of the Vicar of Blackstable.

To live with any sense of purpose, I think we have to ignore death. A finite span of existence is just absurd at multiple levels. It makes all our lofty goals and ideals absurd. It makes our sense of good and evil absurd. It makes whatever we think of as the purpose of life absurd. It even makes the modest purpose of life proposed in the DNA-based evolutionary explanation (that we just want to live a little longer) absurd, for any finite increment in our life span is essentially zero when compared to the infinity of time, as the nerdy ones among us would readily appreciate. In short, there is only one real problem with life, which is death. Since we cannot avoid dying and paying taxes, may be we can avoid thinking and talking about it — a plausible reason behind the taboo nature of the topic of death.

Candle that Burns Bright

A classmate of mine from IIT passed away a few days ago. When I heard the shocking news, I wanted to write something about him. What came to mind were a couple of disjointed memories, and I thought I would share them here. For fear of causing more pain to those close to him, I will keep all the identifying references to a bare minimum.

We used to call him PJ — an acronym for a mildly insulting expression, which probably had its origin in our academic envy. PJ was academically brilliant, and graduated at the top of a class filled with almost pathologically competitive and bright IITians. This intensity that he brought to bear on the less superhuman is part of my first memory.

Troubled by this intensity, we once formed a delegation to appeal to PJ’s better nature. I don’t remember who initiated it, or even who was there in the delegation. But it certainly feels like something that Lux or Rat would do; or Kutty, perhaps, if we could get him to do anything at all. Anyway, we approached PJ and requested that he take it easy. “What is the big deal, man? Slow and steady wins the race, you know.” PJ’s response was an eye-opener. “Sure,” he said, “but fast and steady is better!”

I’m sure this fast and furious pace of PJ’s brilliance brought him many well-deserved accolades later in a lifetime perhaps best measured in terms of its quality rather than quantity, impact rather than longevity. But PJ was never an all-work-and-no-play fellow. I remember once when the MardiGras girls came to the Mandak dining hall (“mess”) to eat. Studying them with that hapless fervor that only a fellow IITian can fully appreciate, we discussed this development with PJ. He said, “Yes, we want to mess with them!”

IIT happened to us at an age when friendships came easy and the bonds forged stayed strong. With PJ gone and the connections a bit weaker, I feel a bit of unraveling. And the melancholy words that ring in my mind remind me — ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

PJ was a brilliant man. I hope his brilliance would be source of strength and courage to those close to him. You know what they say, a candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. With one of our brightest candles flaming out, what I feel is a sense of some darkness descending somewhere far.

Photo by armin_vogel cc