Thursday, 29 September 2011

Is death a bad thing?

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The ancient (pagan/ non-monotheistic) view was that death was a bad thing because the soul survived it and the state of the surviving soul was miserable. Without the body, the soul was maimed.

Various ideas existed about what happened to the soul: a ghostly half existence, some kind of recycling of souls - reincarnation, progression towards the end of unconsciousness and extinction, some kind of eternal/ recurring version of aspects of life in this world...

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The orthodox Christian view is that death is a bad thing because the soul is unnaturally severed from the body - but that it may leads to a good thing when/ if the soul is purified and given a perfected new body (to dwell in a new place).

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The modern atheistic views are that either that death is a bad thing because the soul does not exist, therefore death is the end of everything for that person;

...or that death is a matter of indifference for exactly the same reason that death is the end of everything, so there is nothing to be afraid of - just like going to sleep and not waking.

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Another modern atheistic view is that religious people are wishful thinkers because they make-believe that death is not the end of everything, not extinction.

This leads on to the modern atheistic view that the survival of the soul would (obviously, they think) be a good thing - and that religious people believe this because they want it to be true (which - according to atheists - it isn't).

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My point is that ancient pagans believed death was a bad thing because the soul survived, while modern atheists believe death is a bad thing because the soul does not survive.

This is because traditionally the meaning of death was the end of the body and continuation of the soul; while in modernity the meaning of death is the end of both soul and body together.

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The idea that death is, or ought to be, a matter of indifference is - if genuine - an aspect of advanced nihilism - in that life is also, then, a matter of indifference: if death does not matter then this can only be because life has no meaning or purpose and human relationships are unimportant.

So, to fear death (end of the body) and regard it as a bad thing is the natural and spontaneous human attitude - it is the universal human problem for which Christianity offers a solution.

To try and alleviate the fear of the end of the body by trying also to believe in the end of the soul - to regard death as irreversible annihilation of individuality - is a different matter, and one so unnatural and unspontaneous to humans that we hardly know what to make of it, what conclusions to draw from it.

Does the annihilation of the individual by death invalidate everything, and render life an illusion; or is finite life thereby made more precious - and if so to whom is it precious?

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From the perspective of our own subjectivity, does the presumed annihilation of the soul with the body by death render consciousness and life more precious - in which case we should sleep as little as possible, and remain alert and aware of the preciousness of life and never dull our minds, and never be distracted or do trivial things, and always be doing meaningful, beautiful, virtuous things (all Mozart, no muzak)...

Or does the presumed annihilation of the soul with the body by death mean that - since everything is going to be swept away and nothing remain - then we should try not to think about it. We should, like a Zen aspirant, aim at indifference.

(The modern version of Zen is to attain a state of indifference by continual distraction - mostly technological. The mind is emptied by being continually filled with compelling-nothings.)

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Yet there an opposite snare: to value life beyond or after death (heaven) so much that this life becomes an irrelevance.

The idea that if this world is such an imperfect thing, if the world is such a sinful wasteland  then the sooner we are done with it the better: the attitude of let me die and go to heaven.

This state of belief is unusual, and is perhaps a snare only for the advanced religious - yet it cannot be right, it must be incomplete - or else life on earth is merely a waste of time, and why would it be part of the divine plan to waste our time?

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The true answer must account for the meaning and significance of life on earth before death of the body, recognizing that there can only be meaning in life if there is also meaning in death; and that the meaning of death include the meaning of life; and without meaning in death their can be no meaning in life.

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So most normal people (of whatever religion or non-religion) will rightly continue to fear the change of state brought about by death - and Christians will hope for something much better beyond that change.

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5 comments:

Daniel said...

"The modern version of Zen is to attain a state of indifference by continual distraction - mostly technological. The mind is emptied by being continually filled with compelling-nothings."

The whole post is well-said. But this particular line stands out for me. Often your parenthetical comments are the ones that carry the force of the "main content" home for me.

It is astonishing to me how convinced I used to be in the non-existence of the soul and how merely attempting to open my mind to the possibility of its existence led me to find it plausible, then compelling, then obvious, then basically irrefutable in a psychically-short amount of time. It was an act of will that kept my mind closed, like someone who tenses their facial muscles to keep their eyes shut as tight as possible. It's much more relaxing to just let them fall open! Ha ha ha!

The Crow said...

There's nothing indifferent about the zen-state.
Indifference, I suppose, is what those who are unable to experience it would call it. But the term could not be further from the truth.

The absence of distraction accompanies the sharp focus of awareness.
The emptier the mind becomes, the more is perceived.
It is not the mind that does the perceiving, either.
Sub-atomic vision without eyes to see it. A time machine without any machinery.
An absence of questions needing to be answered.
And most remarkably: freedom from emotion.

Maybe not everybody's cup of tea.

The Crow said...

I re-read this post, and was suddenly struck by the truly bizarre title:
"Is death a bad thing?"

Being an inevitable consequence of life, you might as well ask:
"Is life a good thing?"
Which led me to ponder what the word "good" might mean.

I spend a lot of time watching raccoons, going about their rather short lives. One thing I notice about them, is their complete involvement in life. They live it. And, unlike us poor humans, never once seem to wonder whether death will be either good, or bad.

Religions, of almost any type, seem to cater, more than anything, to the fears that people have. Distilled down, this may be best described as the fear of future events. And every moment spent dwelling on the future is a moment un-lived, in the present.

One thing raccoons have over humans is this: short as their lives may be, they do not waste a single moment of it.

Dale said...

It is part of our glory and burden, Crow, that we can indeed waste our lives. We can do this because we have a responsibility for our lives that animals don't have.

chebek said...

The idea that if this world is such an imperfect thing, if the world is such a sinful wasteland then the sooner we are done with it the better: the attitude of let me die and go to heaven.

I believe many commentators refer to this view as gnostic