Death liberates

Richard Dawkins in ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

I am not very moved by this, perhaps because I believe my existence was at least partly determined at more than a few stages of life. That I exist was not solely determined by genes in isolation, but environment as well. To claim that my existence is just a matter of gene probabilities is not only blindingly reductionist, but bad science. Indeed, it is just the kind of wacky metaphysical narrative that Dawkins criticises whence coming from religious people.  Dicky’s analogies and figurative language are lacking in originality and imagination. However, I do like “we are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones”, but from a different perspective to that of Dawkins’.

We are lucky that we are going to die, because death, or rather the realisation that we are going to die, makes us truly free to live. With realisation of my impending death I recognise that the negative judgements I have of myself and the world are not for eternity and are not absolute. I know I won’t lament the loss of positive judgements when I die because I can’t (because I’m dead!). I can choose at any moment how I will see myself and the world knowing that when all these moments are over, it won’t matter a bit. Now that’s freedom!

If I lived forever I would struggle contemplating the weight of my existence. I would be conscious that my moments would always matter for my future existence, absolutely. This would be an intolerable burden to action and a veritable prison, as my freedom would always be constrained by consequence. With the near certainty of death my freedom is constrained by nothing. Death is nothing.

Death liberates us from consequence. The serious, intense realisation that we are going to die gives us the freedom to act without ultimate* consequence. No matter how bad I think something is, I know it won’t last forever. No matter how good I think something is, I know I can embrace it wholeheartedly, knowing that any negative consequences are not for eternity.

I think that those of us who reject religious notions of afterlife know all this intellectually, but I don’t think we fully realise it in our will. Although we say we don’t believe an afterlife, we do not believe in the absolute freedom that comes with the nothing of death, the nothing of ultimate consequence. The belief in an afterlife may be deeply engrained in the human psyche.

*Give attention to the adjective ultimate – I’m not trying to impel you walk in front of a bus thinking it won’t hurt you. There are still consequences for your life, but not ultimate ones. Ethically, I’m obliged not to encourage you to do something stupid.

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