Monday, December 14, 2009

The Terrible Asymmetry of Death

There's a big farmer's market every Sunday in a town not too far away, starting at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. or thereabouts, though in winter people tend to arrive later than that. But in summer at that time in Queensland it's bright daylight, and by 7 a.m. you can get seriously fired by the rising sun. One gets to know people at the market, some of them anyway. There are stalls you return to for your fruit, vegies and things you intend to plant in the garden, like herbs, flowers, trees, fruit-trees, aquatic growths like water lilys, and so on. If you're that way disposed, you talk to people at those stands, especially those who run these stands basically by themselves. And you get to know them, in a way, and as far as they're prepared to let you know of them; what with you being a stranger, someone who just drops by their stall a for a few minutes on an early Sunday morning.

There's a guy I buy lettuce from, plus occasionally, when he has them, free-range eggs. In his 60s somewhere, I'd say, judging from appearances—which can be deceptive, of course—and the fact that his oldest offspring is in his 30s. The guy reminds of your archetypal Santa Claus, and would fit into that role in a mall, with kiddies on his knee and "ho ho" and everything and sundry.

And then, yesterday he told me that he'd just had a car accident, the car was scrap, his lettuces are scrawny because of the heat and dry weather, he had more back problems than you could shake a stick at, with some of them dating back to his youth, and basically, as he told me, he would not be indisposed toward putting a gun to his head to end his dull, boring and basically pointless existence—if it weren't for the fact that he didn't want to inflict this on his wife and three children. Otherwise, what was the point of continuing this anyway? Nothing's there before you are born and nothing's there after you die. So what?

It's been a while since I heard the extinctionist† case put forward so pithily. And I actually believe that he meant it.

People die everyday: this is a fact. We're all going to die someday: this is another fact. Even if we manage to postpone that day for a long, long time—as some of us intend to!—it'll come. 'Living forever' merely means that today and every day after today isn't that day. Living forever therefore means living in eternal vigilance, such as there has never existed before, to make sure that this situation will prevail.

Of course the non-religiously-inclined ones might argue, as did my buddy at the market, that we should stop making such a big deal of death, since it's pretty much the same 'state', if you will, that someone found themselves in before they were conceived. A 'state' that isn't a 'state' at all, but the non-existence of any kind of 'state'. The religious folk will, of course, dispute this version, but that's unsurprising.

While I think the religiously-inclined are speaking from a point of view of very little evidence, so, of course, do the extinctionists, who are in a position not unlike that of those on either side of the current Global Warming debate; seeing and hearing only what they want or expect to see or hear.

Thing is, of course, that, even if one accepts extinctionism as one's basic death-paradigm, that it still means that the extinction at the end (death) is something completely different to the non-existence before the beginning (birth). This is so because of the asymmetry of time and its arrow. Before the birth—or conception, or somewhere in between; draw the line wherever it pleases you—of an individual there was no individual, and no universe that contained said individual. There were possible universes, each of them different from the other, but none of them existed as such.

After the point of 'birth', wherever it is placed, there definitely existed one universe, which by itself gave potential rise to a gazillion possible branches, in which the individual in question did exist. In that universe—whether there also can be said to have existed others is entirely a matter of speculation—said individual had the thoughts and feelings it had, and performed the actions it did, each time, by virtue of its existence; shaping the universe in some, albeit small way; thus determining, again even if only in a tiny way, which branch of the possible universal history was being taken. You should really treat yourself to Continuity Slip. Download is free—for the time being anyway.

By this simple existential expedient, post-death extinction is not the same as pre-birth nonexistence. It doesn't matter—again assuming that the extinctionist view is correct—that the individual, extinct as it is after death, will never 'know' that it is dead or what 'death' actually is 'like'. The question may indeed be in principio meaningless.

And there is another difference, a very important one. Because pre-death-extinction the individual is capable of thought and action, and of reflecting on, for example, the nature of post-death extinction. It was, however, never able to reflect on this, or life, before it was born. The individual may also, indeed it probably will, find that it does not want to be made extinct; and there will be a profound cognitive, judgmental and, insofar as these feelings are involved, emotional asymmetry in the individual's attitude toward its non-existence prior to birth and after death.

Therefore the atheist same-after-as-before argument is existentially null and void, in a very 'cosmic' way, if you will. And that, by the way, is also what makes contraception and killing two very different things, while abortion and killing are not; thus making a nonsense of the conflation of the two (contraception and abortion, that is). If I had a dollar for every time a conflation of un-conflatable concepts is performed in arguments about just about anything that qualifies as moderately important, I'd be rich. That and category mistakes, of course.

† This is not, just in case you feel inclined to 'google' or 'wikipedia' the term, the kind of extinctionism you might find in the venerable game of NetHack. Rather it refers to a philosophical position towards death, which states that with the cessation of neurological function everything having to do with awareness, cognition and 'mind' ceases to exist completely. There is nothing left. Not a trace. Might as well never have been born, as fas as the dead person is concerned. Actually, 'dead person' is an oxymoron. A person is only a 'person' when they're alive. When they are dead, there's just a corpse.

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