P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 57
4th May 2003
I. 'Death, Free Will, Value' by Jurgen Lawrenz
II. 'Is the Fear of Death Irrational?' by Colin Amery
III. 'Death, Value and Fear for a Day' by James Martin
I. 'DEATH, FREE WILL, VALUE' BY JURGEN LAWRENZ
1. Death and Value
"To be or not to be..."
Where would we be without death to remind us of life?
There would be no more occasion for literature's heroes. Macbeth would not rail
about life's "brief candle"; Dostoyevski's Kirillov, gun at his temples, would
not be savouring the prospect of becoming one with God. Nor would Wagner's
Tristan and Isolde swoon to their death in love; we would not crumble in grief
before Michelangelo's Pieta; and Gilgamesh, in the 4000-year-old poem, would
not be sailing into the Atlantic to seek rhyme or reason for his friend Enkidu
being cut down in the prime of life.
How much of the world's great art and philosophy exists only because we must
die? I think all of it, in every culture. And I think what art seeks is not the
"meaning of life", as we tend to surmise rather too casually, but the meaning of
All great art is impregnated with the inviolability of life and therefore the
meaning of death.
Art is not alone, of course. All our science is predicated on the notion that
the world is intelligible, as death is not. Science, properly understood, is
the second arm of our striving to come to terms with death. We peer into the
dark heavens and probe the subnuclear realm to find the elusive ultimate
particle, the one item which we hope will sit firm against all contamination
with mutability. Forever we seek origins, eternity: and explanations of the
paradox why mere matter is eternal and we, beings imbued with spirit, mortal.
And so, at our first probing, we recognise that death provokes in us a
rebellion against the impassivity of our mere matter cocoon. We strive against
its meaningless with creative rebellion, by putting up artefacts made of matter
but with form that testifies to a mind which made it, and which can be revived
as often as we desire -- deputies for an immortality which is not ours to have.
Art and science comprise a documentation of our thirst for knowledge,
understanding and light.
Death, looked at in cold blood, has no meaning at all. It is an impartial fact.
But our creative response to it becomes meaningful by pitting the concept of
meaning against its implacability. Thus death serves as the catalyst for
something in life that is not an intrinsic property of life: the idea of
value. Death is a context, a scaffolding on which we construct a value system
that reflects our belief in the inalienable and non-negotiable worth of life
2. Free Will
The debate, pro and con, persists. Between the surmise that we are ultimately
just a collection of atoms and particles set in motion, which look the same to
a physicist whether they build a nebula or a neuron, and the claim of special
privilege and the uniqueness of human agency, yawns a gulf of seemingly utter
incompatibility. But I shall try to put a perspective on this -- to highlight a
crucial feature of the constitution of the universe and its components that may
serve to undermine the first of these claims and furnish a contrapost all the
more valuable in that it is sourced from within science itself. I shall propose
that the universe (or rather what we understand by the concept of 'universe')
comprises two partitions within the one system, namely first the
quasi-homogeneous dead-matter state of reductionist determinism as promoted by
Laplace (1821) and still binding on exact sciences, and second the biochemical
domain, in which the laws applicable to the first are susceptible in surprising
ways to manipulation.
Let me begin by stating what is an undisputed fact: that there is no life form
so primitive as not have laid in its cradle a will to live and some means of
preserving it against threats. Thus on the very bottom rung of the animate
domain, we find a principle in operation that is not measurable or even
detectable by objective assay, but only by 'analog' ('empathic') observation.
When the most poorly endowed microbe, for example a pleuronoma, visibly strives
to escape a chemically harmful environment, it gives expression to it -- that
life itself is a non-negotiable value. The pleuronoma has no nerves or brain,
but it represents survival from an era when life first began to stir on earth
and thus serves to remind us that the free will in which we glory had its
modest origins in an attribute that put its bearers into one of the two
partitions I just referred to.
But to explain this 'partitioning'.
When you look into the sky on a clear night and see stars, galaxies, nebulae
etc., you would not normally comment: "Incandescent matter burning itself to a
cinder." It would seem quite unwarranted. Yet this is really the crux of the
All that spectacle 'up there' is matter and energy interconverting on a slow
path towards degradation. Cinders, debris are the toll paid by matter "acting"
its part. When you burn a match, what's left is ash. A terminal state of
exhausted matter. Science refers to the totality of exhausted matter in the
universe as entropy. It is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics
that the entropy in the universe is steadily increasing, irreversibly, every
second of time.
With some justice, one could speak of the universe as a great thermodynamic
morgue in the making.
To this grim scenario the pleuronoma (no less than we do) makes objection.
Concede me some poetic licence and I'll express it in the thought that the
autochthonic flagbearers of life, the so-called 'archebacteria', while still
dripping with the plasma of primordial creation, hatched out a 'plot' to defeat
this thermodynamic law. At the very instant of its creation, life segregated
itself within the universe in its own partition by a functional alteration of
its chemical dynamics. The technical terms for these are metabolism and
Now to a biochemist, metabolism is just an exchange of atoms between a
biochemical system and the outside world. But this only half the story, and the
lesser one at that. For metabolic activity gives evidence of an entity having
'solved' some important problems related to integrated work cycles, anentropy
and autonomous agency -- quite a quiverful of accomplishments, worth spending a
Although metabolism seems much the same as burning fuel (lighting a match,
igniting petroleum to drive a car; in our case: burning up food to drive our
heart and kidneys and brains), the intrinsic difference captured in the phrase
'integrated work cycle' points to a non-mechanical feature, specifically the
ability to burn fuel without adding to entropy. This is intriguing, for it
signifies an alienation of chemical norms which is altogether incapable of
explanation without recourse to the notion of 'agency'; and its most
significant aspect is the use of embers from other entropy producing processes,
in this case the Sun's light, to drive the processes of life. As a result, our
fuel, the debris from the sun's thermonuclear processes, is purchased free of
charge. The entropy bill has already been paid!
The situation with homeostasis, or maintenance and self-repair, is analogous.
Part of an organism's metabolic energy is devoted to repairing any damage that
might occur to its integrity, and another part to the constant monitoring of
the chemical balance between all the structures that make up living tissue,
which again makes little sense unless the organism 'knows' about its
self-integrity and acts 'knowingly'. So as not to read too much into this, I'll
stop here and return to origins, so as to outline in brief what is
scientifically tenable and philosophically meaningful.
If we are to take the term 'exact science' in its most stringent meaning, then
neither metabolism nor homeostasis occur among scientific objects. Between
material and biological entities a fundamental discrepancy prevails, met in the
adjective 'exact': and this disparity is the crack into which a philosophical
wedge can be driven. We leave science behind at the precise juncture where
these processes reveal themselves not as results of chemical processes, but of
the incipience of autonomy. This must be understood as the emergence of a
foundational property that was and remains the unique prerogative of life
forms; and the point to which science (biochemistry) has been able to penetrate
suffices to indicate that carbonaceous polymers of an eligible species, en route
to the state of supercriticality which determines on which side of the animate/
inanimate partition they land, faced a choice of futures from (to us)
indiscernible alternatives: but when taken, it resulted in animate existence
and became a critical element -- an inscribed resource -- of its new
constitution. Consequently it is of the essence in any juxtaposition of
organisms with inanimate polymers, to observe the utter incompatibility of
chemical function even in almost identical specimens; and one of those
differences represents a nascent 'free will' in the meaning of 'choice'.
Accordingly, life is fundamentally characterised by free will from the moment
of its inception. 
I might summarise the foregoing as saying that all things must have a beginning
and that the question about free will alias 'choice' is an issue of capital
importance to it. What I have suggested here may be understood as the
resolution (if you like: high probability) of free will as one of an ensemble
of features absolutely constitutive of life; and by tracing it to its origins
to reaffirm that it must be, of necessity, alive in its immensely advanced
manifestation among humans. It is therefore at once a foundational,
constitutive and permanent resource. Thus, to be alive and to have free will is
nothing less than an a priori condition of existence in the universe's 'bio'
This is not to say that free will has only this one dimension. It is to say
that all disputes about the exercise of choice are pseudo-problems; but also
that, as we advance towards more complex organisms, via nervous systems and
brains, that same resource is not likely to remain monodimensional as just the
will to live and nothing else.
3. Consciousness and Creativity
I'm now going to take a leap across 2,000 million years and take the evolution
of species up to man as read.
Humans have evolved into self-reflectively, self-referentially and
self-consciously aware individuals. With the sheer number of endosymbiont cells
that make up our brains (between 10-100 million of them) it stands to reason
that something would happen with the characteristics mentioned above. However,
biological acquirements are rarely additive; at a certain level of complexity,
the 'runaway' phenomenon sets in, which in the case of the brain continued to
keep running away from thingness and transform itself into a new type of
entity, a brain with mind, which owing to our lack of an adequate vocabulary we
call 'a process', though it would be just as apt to acknowledge a previously
unknown ontological species.
Creativity in the human sense is one of its hallmarks, and so are values, which
must be understood as the drive motor for self-assertion of our kind of life not
only against other forms of life but against non-life. We pit those values we
create against a universe of immense proportions, and we do it in the certain
belief that our values are the only values contained in that whole universe.
But this gives at length a cue to the question, 'What is value?'
In the first instance, a value is a judgment by an intelligent agent, who
decides about good, bad or indifferent. But this is an issue of considerable
breadth with a plethora of notions attached to it according to which department
of thought or research applies it. I prefer metaphysical assertion, with the
deliberate intention of anchoring the notion to a bedrock criterion of
privilege. Value is initially an analogue of free will in the meaning of
choice; but it confers novel and specific powers on mind-endowed creatures,
that are tantamount to an act of liberation from the dead-matter condition
described by physics. These powers involve a capacity for evaluating types of
contexts that remain the sole prerogatives of humans, e.g. ethical standards,
the notion of responsibility, the concept of mind as an active, contemplative
as well as creative agency, and ideas of metaphysical truths and/ or
transcendence, including notions of God and immortality, and finally such
intangible concepts as justice, freedom, truth, beauty, love, soul, reason.
Note that none of these are things and none susceptible to entropic degradation.
Values in the human sense may be regarded as creative tokens. Confucius
taught that anything done for its own sake (other than from necessity or habit)
is a free gift to mankind; and this profound little observation matches the idea
exactly. For any such 'free gift' has a two-fold potential. Firstly, longevity;
for in transcending necessity, it may become an item of value for more than one
person, one community, one generation -- it is potentially 'everlasting'; and
secondly, sensitisation; for values freely created harbour a potential for the
enlargement of our perceptive and cognitive horizons.
With these principles, we can now tie a loop back to the 'entropy cheat', for
plainly values are 'entropy free'. The products of art and creativity are
offspring of a mind and engage other minds, and in this interaction the
physical or material dimension is involved purely in the capacity of
incidentally embodying these immaterial products; so that self-conscious
awareness and the mind's activity figure centrally in the ascent from the
matter /entropy state to that mastery of anentropy which is (thus far?) the
supreme exemplification of the power of spirit to transcend those material
One might be tempted from these deliberations to wonder how it came about that
we so easily succumbed to castigations of metaphysics as a disreputable brand
of philosophy, when in plain fact the whole cosmos of human values has no other
anchoring site. For it must also be said that reason is not our sole guide and
companion in the ascent: for surely passion precedes reason and an argument may
be put for reason to be nothing other than one of its offspring (this in fact is
argued by Schopenhauer). For it is passion which drives inventiveness,
exploration, creativity etc. Once again an interesting variation on the
underlying theme here: passion, too, is 'entropy free'; a source of tremendous
energy, but whatever it 'consumes' has no bearing on the material state!
This brings us face to face with an old philosophical standby. It is no secret
that the idea of telos has been eroded from philosophical discourse. We have
allowed ourselves to be bulldozed by science into believing there is no such
thing. But this, I'm afraid, is just cowardly submission to 'political
correctness'. For telos designates what an organism strives to become. It
means: an acorn will grow to be an oak. Science frowns on this because it
insinuates a plan, a purpose to life. However, teleology is an avenue toward
understanding something basic about life and death, inter alia a way of looking
at structures from the point of view of the structure. Let me put this into a
little cameo of contrasts:
The method of science is to dismantle a structure and note on the way down the
exact place occupied by each item, so as to facilitate precise reconstruction.
A great deal of the real knowledge we possess has been acquired this way, so
the method has proved efficacious. However, it cannot be denied that what is
being laid bare by such reductive methodology is the dead-matter skeleton of
the structure. A living thing can likewise be taken apart and the same atoms
and molecules be noted down, so that the conclusion seems to stare us in the
face that life and non-life are certainly ultimately made of matter. But the
fly in the ointment of this neat little theory is that a body, dismantled, is a
corpse. Whereas in virtue of technological accomplishment any dead-matter
skeleton can easily be 'fleshed out' to replicate whatever structure is aimed
at, a corpse cannot be revived. It has been one of the longest standing errors
to believe the contrary, to believe that a living body should 'in principle' be
constructible atom by atom from any normative model. That 'hope' is now
terminally shattered; the simple truth having dawned at last that living things
are not (somehow) made of matter, but use matter to essentially make
This is a story for another day; but it relates intimately to telos in a manner
which I would at least tentatively sketch in for my final peroration. --
Consider a human being: initially it is but a single cell, but by the time it
is full-grown, these have multiplied to the number of more than 6 billion. Each
of these cells must have 'known' its place in the scheme of this structure. But
an equivalent heap of bricks is not going to assemble Versailles, nor (to quote
Hoyle) is a tornado rushing through a junk yard likely to build a ready-to-fly
Boeing 707: palaces and planes have no telos. So the drip of water which builds
a stalagmite, the wind lashing dunes, gravity churning matter into spiroform
galaxies, have no purpose and hence no telos. But every thing alive, and
everything that is of life, starts as an acorn.
In speculating on the telos of anentropic autonomy, it has to be conceded that
our vision is restricted, so what this acorn may grow into is largely an
unwritten leaf. Yet as we follow its growth passage, as we gaze on while it
unfolds its kernel among the archebacteria of elementary discrimination from
among a small range of choices; via the first tremblings of co-operativeness
among the initial endosymbionts; to that astonishing exploitation of the
principle of economy in data storage (DNA); then on to the first meagre
conveyances of sentition (nerves); their complexification into systems of
vastly interconnected domains of evaluation which culminates in the evolution
of brains as quasi-standalone modules devoted to converting these already
tremendously sophisticated and compartmentalised perceptions into overarching
intuitions; we arrive at length at the supreme master module of cognition,
the mind: bringer of self-awareness, of self-consciousness, of self-reflective
mentality and of the psychological dimension where concepts of destiny and
responsibility, justice and beauty take up residence, where the 'triumph of
mind over matter' is accomplished in the anentropic command over autonomous
creativity, which leaves us at length with a metaphysical partition of our
own creation, of which the universe knows nothing and which, in any objective
sense exists nowhere and nowhen except in the human mind.
All the more ironical, then, that the most advanced civilisation yet to arise
one earth should be seeking its salvation in an unslakeable thirst for material
power -- despite our full awareness of the cost of attaining and harnessing it.
For the downside of this striving is that it effectively bows to the
ineluctable exactions imposed by entropy; and there can be little doubt that
the general disquiet, the corrosive doubt about the value of so much affluence
and power, and worry about its destructive propensity, is an unconscious
response to the danger of having voluntarily relinquished some of that
infinitely precious gift of creativity, which is the legacy of our ascent from
the entropical furnace.
Life and death are an anentropic 'partnership'. Death itself is a means of
perpetuating the anentropic conditions in which life can unfold, by making us
painfully aware of our fragile condition and mortality. But matter has no telos
and in one important sense, no 'Dasein' (Heidegger). "To be" implies "to be
present and accounted for to oneself" and ultimately (as exemplified by the
mind) to participate in the conscious cosmos. In this enclave of anentropy, the
human mind is ever aware of the challenge posed by death, indeed its
invincibility: but while there is no bargaining with it, the calamity offers
these possibilities to a conscious being.
The tale of Orpheus mirrors this and may suitably close proceedings. Cerberus,
the implacable guardian of the Underworld, could not be cajoled by cries or
tears, bribes or force: but the creative spirit of the artist overwhelmed him.
When Orpheus sang, the beast was lulled to sleep. What does this myth say other
than: that entropy-free values, products of mind power, have it in them to
prevail against death. Death has only one, and always the same answer. But when
you or I succumb, the next in line is already born, who will receive and in turn
pass on, the torch.
1. Recommended reading on this subject includes the pioneering studies in
biochemical complexity by Ilya Prigogine and Isabella Stenger, 'Order out of
Chaos' and Stuart Kauffman, 'The Origins of Order'. In Prigogine and Stenger's
discussion of strange attractor situations, they remember a famous Kantian
phrase and write (I paraphrase), "chemical systems in equilibrium are blind,
but far from equilibrium they begin to see"; by which a rationale is offered
for my assertion of a 'choice taken'.
(c) Jurgen Lawrenz 2003, Sydney
II. 'IS THE FEAR OF DEATH IRRATIONAL?' BY COLIN AMERY
"It seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a
necessary end, will come when it will come" (Julius Caesar Act 2 Sc.2).
Do I fear death? -- it so happened this very question was put to me by a
Californian therapist, while I sat upon her couch sipping tea. I had gone to
see her privately not professionally after an exhausting day in court. Such a
question would normally be disallowed in that particular precinct, where we are
not allowed to ask a witness leading questions. In the fields of both therapy
and philosophy no holds are barred. This basic question is not asked in polite
society and yet the reality of death is one appointment no human being can
avoid. Neither, normally, is one permitted to know either the hour or the day
when it will come to pass. So, moving towards the end of this esoteric course
on The Possible World Machine, I must try to answer the question, departing
from the orderly parameters of my legal world to the unfathomable void of
existential death, to face up to the fundamental question framed within this
The simple answer is I am not sure whether I do or not. I have recently been
through a near death experience -- one that should theoretically assist me in
providing some answers. This was a heart operation in which a stent was
inserted into my right artery to push back the plaque that had collected there
to a degree which had become life-threatening and made climbing hills
positively dangerous. I came perilously close to death by putting off going to
the doctor till the last possible moment. After a brief holiday when symptoms
of breathlessness were manifesting on an almost daily basis, I returned to work
at the Manukau District Court, an architectural monstrosity if ever there were
one. I had barely reached the top of a very small flight of stairs when I
collapsed with severe breathing difficulties. The doctor's surgery was
mercifully nearby and I had immediate tests on my heart and blood was extracted
to obtain further data. The same afternoon I was on my way to hospital -- the
test having revealed that I had in the past two weeks experienced an angina
attack. Within four days I was being trundled into the operating theatre at
Green Lane Hospital for heart surgery with a fairly small possibility I might
not survive. Was I fearful of death at this particular moment? If this answer
were affirmative, was such a fear rational? Just in case things went wrong I
made a small imprecation to my Indian master that he would help me through this
particular crisis. I was given the most painful injection in the carotid artery
I had ever experienced but this helped launch the balloon up to the right main
artery where the stent was to take up permanent residence and so ensure that I
would survive a few more good years yet.
All this may sound fairly clinical to recount with the benefit of hindsight. I
lay there, watching my industrious heart pumping its way through it all, while
a group of surgeons confabulated about how they should deal with my case. I was
dead set against any by-pass operation and heard this possibility being bandied
about. It was almost as if I were floating out of my body with no direct
interest in the outcome of the proceedings. Then, the cabal took a decision and
I had one further injection to put a dye through me from head to toe. I then
relaxed -- if that is the right word -- into the surgery. I guess this was a
defining moment in determining whether or not I had a rational fear of death. I
took a fairly deterministic view of the proceedings -- there was no time to be
rational about it. If some medical mischance took away my last breath, there
was very little I could do about it, so I confidently placed my life in the
surgeons' hands who knew what they were up to and would not take any
So this was my latest brush with brother death -- close enough not to leave
much space for comfort. I have survived and relatively flourished since this
latest joust which occurred on 1 November 2002. There had been other -- perhaps
even closer shaves. In May l986 very shortly before I met my life partner,
Yvonne, a crazed schizophrenic I once knew on Waiheke Island followed me to the
mainland in what may have been one of the earliest stalking cases in New
Zealand. She drew an extremely sharp kukri knife from her handbag at a bus stop
in "K" Road and had every intention of stabbing me through the heart (please
note same vehicle of my body was likewise under threat). I must have been
thinking pretty quickly for I got my left hand and pushed down resolutely upon
the blade before it could follow its path of execution. For those who like
detective fiction please note I am left-handed. The weapon was diverted from
its intended path and ended up entering my thigh an inch above the knee,
causing a fairly deep wound that penetrated as far as the bone. I managed to
walk about half a mile in the direction of my home in France Street where I
shared a house since demolished to become a car park with a brace of poets --
among them David Eggleton, "the kiwi ranter".
I shared my single room with a cat called Plato. I had hoped to get first aid
on arrival from my fellow poets. However, I collapsed somewhat theatrically on
the very steps of the Mercury Theatre that was located next door to our
swept-up rooms. A pint-sized pool of blood soon collected below my wound and an
interested crowd of spectators quickly gathered including a couple of my closest
friends who just happened to be passing by. I mention these details in a rather
clinical way again, not because I was on the operating table this time, but I
had a sense of being a spectator at these events, almost as if they had
happened to some quite different person unconnected or disassociated from my
own being. I felt both authentic in the Sartrean sense but detached. My friends
called an ambulance and soon I was being rushed through the streets with bells
clanging. I remember offering to read the tarot cards for the nurse attending
me and giving me I think a quick transfusion. My fate had been to escape death
yet again. I felt quite calm about it.
One more memory surfaced. The crazed Fijian who had wielded the knife continued
to hold the knife in her hand, till a giant man of her own race appeared as if
from nowhere and stretched out his hand for the weapon. She surrendered it like
a docile rabbit and he hurled it onto a nearby roof well out of my assailant's
reach. I could breathe again the heady air of freedom in my continued
existence. Later in hospital, a tabloid newspaper reporter came to my bedside
to inquire how a professional tarot reader had failed to foresee this threat to
his own life. I spread the cards out on the counterpane for an instant reading
and up came the 'Lightning Struck Tower' which was a rather belated warning of
what had already come to pass. Was it rational to fear death in these
particular circumstances? -- I think not.
From a philosophical point of view I guess both of these reasonably near death
experiences might have caused me to entertain a rational fear of death, but
there was hardly time for that. In the first situation I had time to analyse
the risks of the operation and signed a piece of paper agreeing to undertake
that risk. I was fairly sanguine about the situation and ran the small risk
that death might occur from some small unpredictable possibilities inherent in
the procedures. I weighed that on the scales of my personal destiny. I felt
confident that I would survive, imprecating the help of my Indian master who I
felt sure would intervene if the need arose. So the question of whether I
entertained a rational fear of death seems to be in both cases a pretty
subjective one. In the second situation I barely had time to sit down on the
pavement and try to work out what Plato might have done in my particular
situation (I mean here the philosopher -- not my cat). Essentially, there was a
moment when my brain went into swift overdrive. This was presumably the right
side -- the more logical hemisphere -- that would have directed my left bodily
part to avoid the blow that if planted accurately would have extinguished my
breath once and for all. I suppose what I am saying here in this reconstruction
of a moment in time is that I simply acted, had no opportunity for analysis and
so ensured quite a few more breaths were yet to come. Or to quote Nietzsche in
another context from his egotistical 'Ecce Homo': I escaped "a yet undiscovered
country whose boundaries none has ever seen."
The words of Epicurus -- to go back to the ancient Greek philosophers -- read a
little like an Aesop fable but may have some relevance to this theme: "Where
death is I am not; where I am death is not." The fear of death, he appears to
be saying, is an irrational one, since it is something which nature precludes
us from experiencing until we cross the border into that undiscovered country
"from whose bourne", as Shakespeare once put it so eloquently," no traveller
returns". In other words it's futile to fear something we can't experience with
our conscious minds. The rational mind does not stray beyond this territory.
Death, "an indefinite but impending certainty possible at any moment" I once
read somewhere and entered in my philosophical notebook for l999. In that year,
marked down by the French seer Nostradamus for the occurrence of strange events,
four deaths of close family members happened in the space of a mere two months.
In the case of my mother she died in her sleep, so there was no possibility to
assess what she was feeling at that particular moment. The loss of a loved one
is one way of measuring our own particular fear of death. I have frequent
dreams myself in which I have communication with both my mother and dead
brother. We often converse in a kind of hinterland that seems rather like
Virgil's picture of the underworld. To assist in the therapy of recovery I
recently wrote an account of my father's funeral dating back to 1971. The
emotions this exercise produced still moved me profoundly and I was able to
recount the full details, still embedded in my deep subconscious self. I have
no idea how far my father feared his own death since I only arrived -- by boat
and train from Spain -- the day before he died from cancer after a long illness
and by that time he had lost the power of speech. My elder brother who also died
in Nostradamus' year after a long and debilitating illness had plenty of time to
prepare himself for the event. In the final months he found a new faith and was
able to face the unknown with equanimity. My own faith is based on
existentialism which perhaps more than any other credo, if such it can be
called, faces the void of the unknown with a certain degree of personal
courage. Nietzsche's own self-explorations led him over the Zarathrustian
precipice into that same country without boundaries -- described in Ecce Homo
-- where he lost himself and so could not retrace his steps from a world
without maps which was of his own creation.
Woody Allen did not describe his attitude to death quite so enigmatically as
Epicurus, but perhaps with greater wit: "I don't mind the idea of dying. I just
don't want to be there when it happens". Whether he likes it or not his presence
at this event will be more than essential. I suppose as an existentialist he
does not need to be told this, assuming that his films reflect his own personal
beliefs about life and death. I once wrote in an obituary for a favourite judge
of my acquaintance that death is not an easy condition to deal with. I remember
at his funeral they played some Albinoni I was always moved by and I wept salt
tears for the death of a man I saw as a mentor and friend.
Thus does one survive, not knowing the hour or the day and there is no
rationale to back up the fear of something whose time of ingress and egress we
can never know.
"Cowards die many times before their deaths/ The valiant never taste of death
but once" -- so spoke Shakespeare in facing squarely up to the theme of this
The rest, as Wittgenstein dared to end his 'Tractatus' with, is silence.
(c) Colin Amery 2003
Web site: http://www.amerylaw.co.nz
III. 'DEATH, VALUE AND FEAR FOR A DAY' BY JAMES MARTIN
I am here now I've been told by somebody
who I forgot so long ago;
so who will tell me anything of value,
like where I go -- and how long I stay?
It doesn't matter anyways.
Time has fled beneath a single star; and I, its
only witness hang there till the morrow..
- James Martin
We are not alone in our private thoughts after all: We need only to listen to
Jurgen Lawrenz, Sydney and Colin Amery, New Zealand speak to us of death and
value, and the rationality of the fear of death -- from their Pathway essays.
I have been listening to the audio tape Socrates Cafe this week. It is about a
young man who founded these little niche discussion-debate groups in
bookstores, schools, prisons, senior citizen outposts -- and just about any
place he could to find an audience for philosophical discussion.
Here is a man (Christopher Phillips) who really loves the questions -- 'the big
questions in fact' -- the meaning of...life, friendship, love, death, age, and
home. So far this is his 'calling' I would say. And he performs his duties with
compassion and concern for philosophical inquiry.
I can't help that liking the 'questions' represents never-ending possibilities
for self-wonder. Rolling from one profound theme to all others that link up. We
all like the 'questions' I suppose. Yet some of these questions are not more
answerable by even more questioning. Ceaseless questions must give way to
practical applications in the moment. Sometimes. The big mysteries can only
receive speculation: from which we can and whereto we belong after we are gone.
Lawrenz reminds us in his Death and Value piece that "Where would we be without
death to remind us of life?" He argues that perhaps much of the world's great
art and philosophy exists on because we must die. And then he says something
quite unique: We are not seeking a meaning of life -- but of death.
Lawrenz looks at death at a distance -- and often draws his thoughts regarding
its value based on the backdrop of natural processes occurring in the
structural evolution of molecules and atoms. Science and nature's way, I think.
And the idea of 'free will' may well be a delusion if ultimately we are but
atoms and particles in motion. All heading toward exhaustion. The end. Just
like us, because we are them.
Now comes Colin Amery who finds it quite strange to need to fear death,
offering two of his near-death experiences to draw from. When he talks about
his heart failure caught just in time -- and a near stabbing by a troubled
woman (to say the least). Amery said something that drew me in: "the loss of a
loved one is one way of measuring our own particular fear of death." His own
faith is based on existentialism and offers this credo credit to face the
unknown rather fearlessly. Perhaps as one can focus more on his and her own
'being' death is more acceptable. As it should be, no doubt. I don't think he
is sure. Neither am I.
The time to be rational or irrational about a thing is transient at least. It
seems tedious to pretend to fear something we can never consciously experience
after our demise. It's like falling asleep before the big operation and never
waking up. Oh well. What is death to do? It doesn't impose on us for sure. It
just comes in many forms. At any time. Get ready. Duck your head. It's closer
than we think.
(c) James Martin 2003
[See James Martin's article 'Is it Reasonable to Fear the Death of Life' in
Philosophy Pathways Issue 48]
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