Meditating on Death
I live in a rational universe. This rational universe is a universe that hums along nicely to a set of celestial gearworks. To help you understand it, I’ll repeat the old joke: Physics is applied math, chemistry is applied physics, biology is applied chemistry, sociology is applied biology and religion is applied sociology. That’s my universe, and although rational (Rational?), this isn’t to say that it is a particularly nice place: Stars explode, worlds collide, man kills man, and cats eats mice.
Our universe is driven by an implacable, literally inhuman, clockwork that drives that governs almost every iota of nature from the wind in the trees to the blazing Earth-sized furnace at the heart of our sun. One facet of this Rationality, evolution, has honed our species. It defines the climate we can live it, limits our senses, and begins and ends our lives through impersonal biological processes. Evolutionary pressures selectively increased our intelligence – after all, if you were were more intelligent you had to expend less energy in simply surviving, and instead turned it toward expanding your niche in the world. Evolution has forged us in to a cooperative species that has walked on other worlds and peered into the deepest dark of the ocean and space.
Sadly, evolution has left us in a state that is quite often only a few steps removed from animals in terms of the sheer brutality that we as a sentient species inflict upon one another: The Holocaust, and Rwandan and American genocides to pick three out of thin air. I could go on all day with example after horrible example on every kind of scale: From world wars to fathers who rape their children. When asked why, a pedophile will offer any number of elaborate justifications and excuses, but it all comes down to them shrugging their shoulders and saying “because”.
Because is why we do what we do. Because same good. Because different bad. Because fire warm. Because, because because!
It isn’t even always murder: The United States of America balances the Earth’s wealthiest and robust economy with an entrenched for-profit healthcare system that delivers abominably poor return on investment, and causes massive amounts of suffering even among mine own. Humanity proves daily that we are just as proficient at the proverbial rape of whole populations as we are at the literal kind.
Mystery and Consciousness
Balancing Rationality is Mystery. It is, I suppose, the mystery of consciousness. Without consciousness, we are just animate lumps of matter dancing like puppets on the strings of our biological impulses. I just argued that we do just that, daily. However, every genocide has required conscious forethought, planning and execution. Every senior banker in Ireland’s AIB who effectively embezzled billions of euro from the bank for their own betterment was conscious of the eventual fallout. These bankers acted consciously to create the circumstances that allowed them to steal money, and since the collapse of the bank they have likewise acted consciously to protect each other from persecution and prosecution.
Consciousness moderates the Rationality of math, to physics, to chemistry, to biology. Consciousness offers an override button to our base impulses as both individuals and a species. A conscious desire by both politicians the United States of America and the peoples of the shattered European countries to avoid a repetition of the Holocaust and recently ended Second World War eventually gave rise to the pan-cultural European Union. Say what you like about its flaws, because you will probably be correct. I will also add this: Almost five hundred million people live in peace under its flag. It isn’t a perfect peace; every country has its dissidents and terrors, and the breakup of the formerly-Soviet Balkans has seen some unfathomably violent acts as neighbor has turned on neighbor. On the other hand, no soldier has crossed a national frontier in Western Europe in anger since 1945. Sixty-six years is the longest period that Europe has seen peace since the Pax Romana.
Consciousness, at the end of the day, an exception to the normal ordering of affairs. It’s a solidly-formed, bolded-font, big-B Two tossed into the binary one and zero of our universe. After all, stars will be born and sparrows die without someone being around to appreciate the fact.
I am approaching the idea of Mystery tangentially, so I’ll try to be a bit more direct: It is the unknown and our interpretation of it. One man saw an apple fall from a tree and brought forth a tome, Principia Mathematica, that quite literally changed our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Lessons from the book are still being applied today, three hundred years earlier. There was Mystery in Isaac Newton’s inspiration, a conscious leap from an apple falling to the question of why?
All a planetary nebula is is the splayed corpse of a star that, after exhausting its hydrogen fuel (and to cut a long explanation short), blew up. Somewhere in the middle of this is the old cinder, in the form of a black hole or neutron star, lighting this ghastly thing up. This light crosses hundreds, thousand or millions of light years of space to impact the unblinking digital sensor of a telescope. Unfeeling computers process this ethereal light into an image that we can perceive and pops it up on a screen somewhere. And yet when we take it in, we think “wow”. We are amazed at the discordant beauty in the dead star. It inspires us to become physicists or astronomers. We make it our screensaver or wallpaper because it beautifies. We print the picture and frame it because it has the power to pep us up when we’re down.
That’s consciousness for you. Its a terrible, wonderful thing. A consciousness has the power to be changed by the universe on a moment-to-moment basis, and it has the power to shape the universe in return. A consciousness can appreciate the beauty on unthinking physical processes and its rational powers can lift our species out of squalid, blind Rationality.
Every consciousness is different, is completely unique: In the fourteen billion years of our universe’s existence, no consciousness has existed more than once, and only then for a brilliant, transient moment. In four point three billion years of life evolving on our planet, you will only live once. Rationality dictates that there is no afterlife, no magical hereafter that our loved ones go to. There are no angels, no demons, no miracles. When you die, your consciousness is snuffed out forever, everywhere, except for some momentary echoes in the memories of us that other people carry, in our writings, and in the legacy of our actions, if any.
I know that this blog has had its fair share of ruminations on death because of my depression. I also know that death sends me into place full of dark inspiration that makes me write pieces like this. So here I am. There been two shocking deaths in my life in the past few days, of Nico and Radek. They came completely (to me) out of the blue sky with no forewarning. I didn’t know either of you very well, or for a very long time, but you both still managed to make enough of an impression on me that I had to sit down and stare at a wall for a while. You will be missed. If you, Reader, have read this far and followed my twisty bit lecutre on Introduction to Ruminations on Infinity 101, then you will understand that in my mind, our universe has never seen their like before and it will never again see it. While they were here, they empirically changed our universe. It was born anew in their mind and their interpretation of it. When they died, it died with them.
Radek and Nico, you will be missed.
Radosław Panek 1982 – 2011
Nico Den Heeten 1946 – 2011