Life and Death: How Absurd!

We are born, we live and breathe for various lengths of time, then we die. Seems rather pointless, really. For as long as we know, and from all the historical records that we have unearthed or discovered one way or another, we can only conclude that humans have not ever been terribly enamoured with this situation.

Of course, most animals are averse to death, or at least to dying. Death itself isn’t particularly scary, it’s the getting there that we have a problem with. Even an ant feeling attacked will flee or fight. Of course, once it’s dead there is no issue. Not all animals face dying in the same way. Without being too anthropomorphic, some are stoic, some are frantic. In humans, some are even self-destructive but I’m not sure that death is what suicides want. Relief from pain and suffering is probably the goal more often than not, but in many cases, death seems the only respite, the only place where there may be peace. Of course, that’s silly because there is no ‘place’ after death. Death cannot be a respite from pain and suffering because we have no way of experiencing relief from pain in death. Death is the absence of sensation, of thought, or feeling; it’s the absolute negation of consciousness. Death is no thing. Before we are conceived we are also nothing, no thing. Life as we think of it as sentience, feeling, consciousness, starts sometime in our development. It’s hard to know when. In a way, death puts an end to the whole story.  Historically and linguistically, we have wanted to contrast living with dying, but they are not opposites. Death is the only way life can happen. So, why, generally, is it so hard for us to let go of life? Well, like all other animals we have a survival instinct, or an instinct for self-preservation. With rare exceptions, there seems to be an inherent drive in all animals to continue to live. I don’t think any species would get very far without it. It does present a problem for us, however. It means we go to great lengths using our big, unfortunate brains to deny death using whatever means we can, and boy do we have lots of means! Our cat is afraid of death. She skulks around wary of a stray cat in our neighbourhood we call Mean Gene because he beats up on our Princess Pretty Paws. Still, she hasn’t managed to institutionalize death denial. She just can’t take it that one step beyond immediate, visceral run-like-hell action. And when Mean Gene is no longer in sight, Princess is just fine. She is not anxious and preoccupied with dying. She’s still interested in her food bowl, however. 

What it gets right down to is the fact that as animals we reproduce sexually and engender offspring who are themselves immediately on a trajectory to death. Living and dying are the same process. Stop dying and you’re dead. Now that seems completely unfair. We are built to die! What the hell! Well, that just can’t be, damn it!

Over the millennia, we’ve created any number of ways to convince ourselves that we don’t really die, that although our bodies may perish, our ‘souls’ do not, and that makes us immortal in a god-like way, really. For us to be immortal we must be gods and by our earthly deaths experience apotheosis. Millennia ago, when we were still in our infancy as a species, we were awed by the powers of nature and our extreme vulnerability in the face of them. We decided that there must be some sentient power that controlled the forces of nature, the floods, volcanos, fires, landslides, and other deadly phenomena. Not only were there powerful natural forces, but they were capricious and unpredictable as well as uncontrollable.

In our silly wisdom, we figured out that maybe, just maybe, we could barter with the gods so that they would leave us alone. If we presented the gods with gifts, even living gifts (as in virgins thrown into a volcano), maybe we could obviate the damage the gods inflicted on us. It was fine to kill all the people in the next village, but leave us alone, please. Well, that didn’t always work according to plan, so an explanation was necessary. So, if our village was ravaged by a fire even though we had been really good and had made lots of sacrifices to the gods, maybe those sacrifices just weren’t enough. We just had to kick up the giving a notch or two. Sadly, we are still very much controlled by this narrative. 

A parting thought: Try not to think of life and death as experienced by individuals. What if the life and death individuals experience is no more than the experience of a mushroom growing out of the underground mycelium. The mycelium is the important, continuing force. We, as individuals, are just fleeting and temporary expressions of the mycelium (in our case, the DNA) that is the source of our lives and deaths. We are just expressions of a process whether we like it or not, whether we think about it or not, and whether we fear it or not. The mycelium itself is not immune from death although it can live on year after year, decade after decade, through the lives of countless mushrooms. Eventually it too will die. As Brian Cox, the famous British physicist put it, the universe itself lives and dies in a moment. Individual organisms come and go in an instant. The passage of time is an illusion that allows us to cope with the need to die. One human life lived over a period of eighty years is no more fleeting than the life of the universe itself. 


The Trip (at 12,130 meters).

Flying often makes me wistful and pensive. There’s something about being strapped in a 737 flying over varied prairie and mountainous landscapes at 12,130 meters that brings it on. Well, flying in a much smaller Bombardier turbojet between Edmonton and Calgary also got me musing, especially about the place of humans in the world and about time.

We had flown from Comox on Vancouver Island directly to Edmonton in central Alberta a few days earlier to visit my sister-in-law who lives in the Dickensfield care home in Edmonton and to see my brother who has recently moved from Regina to Edmonton. The day before yesterday my niece drove us to the Edmonton International Airport for the start of our trip home. At this time of year Edmonton is covered in dirty snow and when it thaws a bit and then freezes again, the side roads can get treacherous, but the highways were clear and the traffic was light. It was 6:30 AM and the temperature in Edmonton was -8 ˚C and steadily dropping. I took the picture below with my iPhone somewhere between Edmonton and Calgary. I don’t know at what altitude we were flying but it couldn’t have been more than 3,000 meters. The patterns created by carving up the prairie into quarter sections is clearly visible in the photograph I took from the cabin. The snow helps delineate the quarter sections. The other photograph is a screenshot of the Alberta township system map that you can find here. Every square inch of the land is marked by human intervention. The symmetry evident in both photographs is superimposed on the landscape and is obviously not natural. Still, the grid is plain to see in the photograph from 3,000 meters up. Fences and tree breaks attest to the surveyor’s work and our penchant to delineate land to own, clearly separate and distinct from our neighbour’s land, forces us to recognize our pretence of dominance over the land. The scars are real.

Where is there room for burrowing owls, bison, prairie dogs? In patently very few places it seems. That’s plain to see. Humans have been transforming this landscape for centuries, millennia even, but nothing on the scale of the past 100 years. Alberta is the playground of humans for now at least. Wildlife (freelife) must find pockets of compatible space in the interstices of human culture to build homes and forage for food. In another 10,000 years, the scars that are evident from 3,000 meters up will likely be erased. ‘Alberta’ as a political entity will be no longer. Burrowing owls will likely be extinct. In a hundred million years new species may roam the land. In a half a billion years, the prairies may be lake bottom or the Rockies may migrate further east. The continents as we know them will be undone and redone. I don’t know how the future will unfold in detail. Geomorphologists know about these things, about plate tectonics and the like. All I know for certain is that everything will change radically over time.

Regardless, the way we think of time is conceptually extremely limited. Brian Edward Cox OBE, FRS, English physicist who serves as professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester and BBC documentary commentator argues that the universe is finite and will come and go in the blink of an eye. Our human lifespans are infinitesimal yet we live them as though they are forever. The Prairies and the Rocky Mountains seem forever but they are not. They will ‘die’. The speed at which they will die is extremely slow, of course, from our perspective, but there are other perspectives which have alternative assessments of the passing of time. Cox, for example, argues for a different conception of time than the one that rules our lives. For him time on a universal scale is vastly different than how we perceive of time at the human scale. However, for him, that matters little. All time happens in the blink of an eye.

My grandparents are dead. My parents are dead. I’m next in line. My children and grandchildren will follow me into the void. My life has passed in the blink of an eye. It really does seem that way to me. On a planetary scale, the Rocky Mountains will be gone in the blink of an eye as will the scars that crisscross the Alberta prairie.

Flying over the Rocky Mountains, then the central valleys of British Columbia and finally over the Coastal Mountain Range at 12,130 meters, before descending over the waters of the Salish Sea to the airport in Comox, it was evident that the landscape was not conducive to carving up the way Alberta has been into quarter sections. Mountainous terrain is hard to do anything with from a human point of view. Agriculture is sparse. Of course there’s always mining, logging and skiing, but only in limited areas. Many of the mountain ranges are inaccessible, the peaks are sharp and the mountain sides are stratified attesting to the fact that these peaks were once pushed up from deep inside the core of the continental plates. The Burgess Shale, close to Field, BC, in the Rockies contains innumerable fossils. From the Burgess Shale website:

The locality reveals the presence of creatures originating from the Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary burst of animal origins dating 545 to 525 million years ago. During this period, life was restricted to the world’s oceans. The land was barren, uninhabited, and subject to erosion; these geologic conditions led to mudslides, where sediment periodically rolled into the seas and buried marine organisms. At the Burgess locality, sediment was deposited in a deep-water basin adjacent to an enormous algal reef with a vertical escarpment several hundred meters high.

From ocean floor to mountain peak in a few million years. In fact, when the Burgess Shale was created, the planet looked entirely different than it does today. This map from the same website noted above shows that the continents were not yet formed as we know them.

British Columbia has been carved up for the needs of humans, and some of those carvings are visible at 12,130 meters, but not in the same way as Alberta. BC has nowhere near the absolute symmetry of Alberta’s political-economic divisions. Mountains and prairies offer very different options for human interference. In a million years that human interference will not likely be evident at all.

So, things come and go. People, mountains, plains, continents, planets, even universes. We are all finite. We all have our turn to get transmogrified with every atom of our bodies converted to other uses for other organisms. From that perspective, mountain ranges and prairies are no different from each of us as individuals.

That’s life. Flying gets me thinking about these things.

Nothing lasts forever.

I have pernicious anemia and I have been bad about taking my B12 vitamin which I have to inject into my thigh. I don’t have any problems doing that and don’t ask me why I didn’t carry on with my injections, but I stopped doing them at least a year ago. Consequently, I have lived in an anemic fog including cognitive impairment, vertigo, tingling in my hands and feet, severe itching and other symptoms for the last few months along with full body pain and overarching fatigue. For some reason I didn’t connect the fact that I had ceased injecting B12 with my ongoing debilitating symptoms. After having admitted to being a great cautionary tale, I am now resuming my injections and I hope the fog lifts soon. I seem to be improving a bit so we’ll see how things go. At the very least, I hope that the fog dissipates sufficiently so that I can put together a decent post here.

Pernicious anemia can be deadly if not treated but for some reason I was in denial of that fact. I know I’m mortal, of course. If pernicious anemia doesn’t kill me something else will  and I’m okay with that.  As my  title above says, nothing lasts forever. My personal mortality is assured. Fact is, the universe paved the way for it a very long time ago.

We watched a program on television last night called Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox that explained the arrow of time and the fact that the universe will eventually die out to nothing. That certainly had not been my understanding of how things would turn out.* Cox argues that life depends on the arrow of time and would not be possible without it. Death is the inevitable consequence of life. In fact life and death are not opposites at all but integral elements in the process of time. Cox also argue that this time in the course of the universe is the only time life will be possible. By ‘this time’ he includes billions of years along the staggeringly long life of the universe which started thirteen billions years ago according to scientific calculations. Our sun will die in a billion years or so and will explode in six billion. You won’t have to cover your head and hide under your desk when it ends though because by then, life on earth will be completely obliterated.The universe itself will die in several trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of years.  So, life is meaningless and insignificant in the vastness of space and time. Sorry to have to remind you of that.

That said, we humans have decidedly taken sides on this issue and we favour life over death. To hell with the arrow of time! Well, sort of. We pay lip service to life, but we love to kill each other it seems (or just stand by as others kill each other)  and we kill other animals with glee, piling up their corpses on our dinner plates. So death has a certain attraction for us, but only if it happens to someone else. I know that some people take death in their stride and don’t feel any sympathy for animals they see squashed by a truck on the highway or on an assembly line waiting to give up their lives so that the trucker can have his chicken wings at the next bar down the road. They couldn’t care less either about hundreds of thousand of Rwandans massacred in the mid 1990s internecine war or the countless others who die daily in skirmishes in many parts of the planet. Conversely, they may just feel that death is necessary for life and they don’t sweat it. They may understand that we all have to eat dead things and for that to happen whether it’s animal or mineral, something has to die so that they will continue to live for a while longer. Whether or not they think about it in these terms or not, for some of them, killing an animal themselves is a more honest way of doing what has to be done than having a surrogate do the killing for them in an abattoir or other kind of killing factory. I eat animal flesh on occasion but I don’t kill the animals myself that I eat. I leave that up to someone else, someone in a factory out there somewhere by people I don’t know. Honestly, I sometimes feel guilty about that. I realize that isn’t a rational sentiment, but rationality has little to do with life and death.

How we feel about life and death, especially of domestic animals, depends largely on how inclusive we think about community belonging. We share many traits with other animals yet we deny any affinity with them. On the CBC News last evening Peter Mansbridge introduced a segment on chimera. Chimera are animals that have cells from other animals implanted in them. In his introduction, Mansbridge, with obvious horror, noted that pigs, animals that is,  were being implanted with human cells in order to make transplant organs for humans in the process. He spoke as if there are humans and then there are animals. He separated animals from humans in a way that would suggest that humans are not animals. Of course, that’s preposterous, but it’s a  widespread perspective. In separating us from other species we ‘other’ them and make it easier for us to kill them for whatever reason, often for food. But, as you read above, nothing lasts forever and who is to say what a good death is? Is animal extinction a bad thing? Not according to the arrow of time, by which measure everything goes extinct.

Have you ever watched another animal (human or other) die? Have you ever been  a witness to their light being extinguished permanently, the sentience that was there no longer existent? I have a number of times and every time, it gives me pause. I think this sensation of unease with the extinction of the momentous thing called life is inescapable for the majority of us.  I think that it is deep seated and relates to our instinct of self-preservation. So, are we doomed? Of course we are. The arrow of time proves it. Does that make us any more accepting of our fate? I don’t think so.


*I have a book by Stephen Jay Gould called Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time published in 1987. I’ve had it for years. I will begin to re-read it this evening to see what I can make of Cox’s argument in light of it.