Sunday, August 31, 2014

The wheel of life and death

Victor Stenger passed away on Wednesday. He lived and died an atheist. From a secular standpoint, his death will be missed in the way some people miss a handsome oak tree that was destroyed by ambrosia beetles. They enjoyed looking at it. Now it's gone. Sad, but life goes on. Indeed, some people miss their favorite tree more than they miss dead humans. His demise is no more important in the great scheme of things than a fallen leaf. 
To put his life and death in perspective: 
We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. 
What are all of us but self-reproducing robots? We have been put together by our genes and what we do is roam the world looking for a way to sustain ourselves and ultimately produce another robot child. 
For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria.
– Richard Dawkins
Whenever an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires (with knowledge and goals), I say that it is adopting the intentional stance or treating that thing as an intentional system.   
So powerful is our innate urge to adopt the intentional stance that we have real difficulty turning it off when it is no longer appropriate. When somebody we love or even just know well dies, we suddenly are confronted with a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it…A considerable portion of the pain and confusion we suffer when confronting a death is caused by the frequent, even obsessive, reminders that our intentional-stance habits throw up at us like annoying pop-up ads but much, much worse. We can't just delete the file in our memory banks, we wouldn't want to be able to do so. What keeps many habits in place is the pleasure we take from indulging in them. And so we dwell on them, drawn to them like a moth to a candle. We preserve relics and other reminders of the deceased persons, and make images of them, and tell stories about them, to prolong these habits of mind even as they start to fade. 

– Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin 2006), 110, 112.

The wheel of life and death 
In Buddhism this is extended to the idea that everything physical or mental is by nature transitory and in a constant state of change. Whatever rises must fall. This state of change must thereby result in decline and decay. In this sense existence is an unending cycle of growth and decay, integration and disintegration.  
Along with the frailty and insecurity of life, it is believed that at the center of existence there is a void. This void is the result of the insubstantial nature of life, and the aggregates, although forming a recognizable and perceivable object, do not produce a substance " all of them are insubstantial, a part of the endless movement of life.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 141-146.
But Freddie's Summer soon passed. It vanished on an October night. He had never felt it so cold. All the leaves shivered with the cold. 
One day a very strange thing happened. The same breezes that, in the past, had made them dance began to push and pull at their stems, almost as if they were angry. This caused some of the leaves to be torn from their branches and swept up in the wind, tossed about and dropped softly to the ground. All the leaves became frightened. 
"What's happening?" they asked each other in whispers. 
"It's what happens in Fall," Daniel told them. "It's the time for leaves to change their home. Some people call it to die." 
"Will we all die?" Freddie asked. 
"Yes," Daniel answered. "Everything dies. No matter how big or small, how weak or strong. We first do our job. We experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. We learn to dance and to laugh. Then we die." 
"Does the tree die, too?" Freddie asked. 
"Someday. But there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That lasts forever and we are all a part of Life." 
"Where will we go when we die?" 
"No one knows for sure. That's the great mystery!" 
"Will we return in the Spring?" 
"We may not, but Life will." 
"Then what has been the reason for all of this?" Freddie continued to question. "Why were we here at all if we only have to fall and die?" 
Daniel answered in his matter-of-fact way, "It's been about the sun and the moon. It's been about happy times together. It's been about the shade and the old people and the children. It's been about colors in Fall. It's been about seasons. Isn't that enough?" 
Then, Freddie was all alone, the only leaf on his branch. The first snow fell the following morning. It was soft, white, and gentle; but it was bitter cold. There was hardly any sun that day, and the day was very short. Freddie found himself losing his color, becoming brittle. It was constantly cold and the snow weighed heavily upon him.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, Leo Buscaglia

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