The Dream Called Reality: Some Scattered (and Unoriginal) Musings on Metaphysics and Hope

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I am not a human. This is only a dream, and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood froze all the time”

—Per Yngve Ohlin

“What were those deathly creatures that flew out of the golden box? They were the ills that beset mankind: the spites, disease in its thousand shapes, old age, famine, insanity, and all their foul kin. After they flew out of the box they scattered–flew into every home, and swung from the rafters–waiting. And when their time comes they fly and sting–and bring pain and sorrow and death.

“At that, things could have been much worse. For the creature that Pandora shut into the box was the most dangerous of all. It was foreboding, the final spite. If it had flown free, everyone in the world would have been told exactly what misfortune was to happen every day of his life. No hope would have been possible. And so there would have been an end to man. For, though he can bear endless trouble, he cannot live with no hope at all.”

—Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes, The Greek Gods 

Some months ago, I had a rather interesting experience. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was rather surreal. Early in the morning, at around 5:15 AM or so, I started walking downstairs for breakfast before I heard a noise. It was the sound of someone walking into the kitchen and switching on the light. Figuring it was probably my sister or her husband, I thought of returning to my room, since I preferred to eat by myself (I generally don’t like to talk during meals unless the subject matter interests me). But I decided to wait just in case the person downstairs was just going for a quick refrigerator raid before heading back to their room.

So I stood there in the middle of the staircase, and waited. You might say that it felt as if my life had temporarily stopped. The whole thing felt mysterious somehow. A collocation of atoms that had coincidentally come into being, the collocation of atoms that was me, was standing still in the darkness at a particular time and place, waiting for another collocation of atoms to exit a particular location. And this collocation of atoms was asking itself whether meaning really existed in a meaningless universe! I felt strange as I observed what was otherwise a very ordinary and mundane event.

If memory serves, at this point my thought process went something like this: is my life and this universe truly meaningless? They appear to be meaningless, objectively, but what if that meaninglessness was actually part of a massive illusion? What if the world in front of my eyes, as well as the events that occur around me, were products of God’s dream, as the Advaitins claimed? Gazing at the walls around me and the ceiling above me, I wondered if I really was existing inside the mental emanation of a Grand Architect.

Depending on how you look at it, imagination is either a blessing or a curse, or both. Imagination enables us to peer beyond the world we have, but it also prevents us from being content with the world we have. Imagination is the reason why life is such a tease. With the mind’s eye, we can look at anything we desire, but rarely are our deepest desires granted. Immortality may not exist, but we can imagine being immortal. True freedom certainly does not exist, but we can imagine being free. We may not be Gods, but we can imagine ourselves as Gods.

The ability to dream, along with skepticism, is the reason why I am able to cling onto sanity and hope in the prison of the real. Reality may be absolute, but my perception of it isn’t, because there is no way for me to know for sure whether or not it’s accurate (as far as I can tell). It may look like this world is real and that my life in it is real, but I am basing that on my own empirical observations; if everything around me were an illusion being fed into my mind, my observations would be rendered moot.

The word “dream” not infrequently enters daily speech. “This is like a dream,” “This is a dream come true,” and “The man/woman of my dreams” are some of the most common examples. It is often used to describe a superlative experience, like a joyous marriage or winning a championship. It’s as if we instinctively know that things usually don’t go our way in the real world, and that it is almost like a miracle when a cherished wish comes true.

Which leads me to the following question: Which is more real, our lives in the waking world or our lives in the dream world? Are dreams a parody of waking life, or is it the other way around? I’m using the word “real” in two senses here: real as in being a part of reality, and real as in being the opposite of counterfeit.

Most of us have had nightmares. Many of us know what it’s like to fall off a cliff or to run away from a shadowy entity, only to end up rooted to the spot.

Sometimes we wake up in our dreams. We notice that something is off, and that leads to the realization that we’re not in reality. If only there was a way to wake up from reality! For reality is a nightmare, a nightmare with moments of calm and sweetness, but a nightmare nonetheless. Depending on who we are and where the currents of causality take us, the nightmare takes on different forms. For some, it may take the form of something overt, like domestic violence or war. For others, it might take the form of something subtle, like a soul-killing job or a decaying marriage.

Apocalypse, that is, an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell (metaphorical or literal), is, needless to say, a ubiquitous theme in not only religion, but also in philosophy and the arts. There is no shortage of dramatic structure that describes an absolute beginning, middle, and end.

On one side, this view is challenged by those who take a cyclical view of history, represented by the likes of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, on one side, and those who take a Darwinian view of history, represented by the likes of Alexander Rosenberg.

Even if we are to assume that these thinkers are right about there being no straight narrative to history as a whole, it seems to me that the concept of there being such a “narrative” to individuals lives, remains unshaken. If there is no reincarnation, then birth, life, and death comprise not so much a cycle as a sequence. Each and every individual undergoes his or her own Apocalypse.

A possibility that possesses me is the possibility that life is an actual story, with a real plot. A story written by whom, you might ask? Maybe a cosmic playwright, or each individual’s “higher Self.” With this possibility in mind, I can continue to have hope in the face of the darkness I see–for the simple reason that the darkness is followed by dawn.

As far as I know, no one better represented this outlook than Per Yngve Ohlin, to the extent that he could be seen as a symbol for it. I suspect that he saw his whole life as a nightmare; that would explain why he surrounded himself with ugliness, decay, and pain, routinely mutilating and starving himself, using paint and soil to make himself look like a corpse. Perhaps he did such things so that he would never lapse into a dull acceptance of the nightmare as being all there is.  

Which leads me to the next question, which is a question that has probably been asked the day humankind discovered philosophy: What lies on the other side of life?

According to the worldview that I hold, the answer is quite simply–nothing. For if atheism is true, nihilism is true, evolution by natural selection is true, the mind is a function of the brain, etc., I have no reason to believe that my existence will somehow continue after the cessation of the electro-chemical activity in my brain.

The rub lies at the level of assumptions. As a skeptic, I recognize that all of the positions I hold are provisional and tentative. For all I know, I can be a brain in a vat–or, better yet, a spirit tricked into thinking he is a body, much in the same way that one might be fooled into thinking that one is a dog/cat/hamster/etc. during a particularly peculiar dream.

So that is the trillion dollar question: is this–all of this I see in front of me–real? I do not think this question can be brushed aside lightly, because the metaphysical question is the fundamental question, which must be answered accurately before proceeding any further. Unfortunately, I doubt that the means to do so are accessible to us. The metaphysical question is a complex and confusing mathematics problem with no answer key. As far as I can see, we are stuck with what seems and not what is. But that can be encouraging, because it is ignorance, not knowledge, in which room for hope lies.

Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta

By Jin-yeong Yi

In “Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind,” I mentioned Einstein and the ambiguity of his viewpoint on metaphysics. He has been called an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic theist, a deist, a pantheist, and a panentheist. Given the persisting controversy, it could well be that his views were simply too nebulous to determine.

I have wondered about Einstein’s beliefs for a while now, though my research has not gotten any further than reading some quotations on the Internet. But I think my studies in general have finally yielded the beginnings of a possible and plausible answer to the mystery. It is this: that Einstein was an Advaitin.

I will use Einstein’s remarks on the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point for this brief, bullet-point style discussion:

“When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”[1]

Traditional Advaita denies that we have free will. Einstein took the same position, being a hardcore determinist. Citing Schopenhauer (who was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism), he repeatedly expressed the view that all events were directed by a rigorous chain of cause and effect.

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

*

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”

*

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord….So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

The quintessence of Advaita is nonduality, the notion that everything is fundamentally and ultimately a single, unified whole, and that only ignorance and illusion, trapping us in delusions of egoism and individualism, prevents us from perceiving this.

“I feel myself so much a part of everything living that I am not the least concerned with the beginning or ending of the concrete existence of any one person in this eternal flow.”

The following quote fits in quite nicely with Karma Yoga:

“Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.”

Here he comes close to echoing Swami Vivekananda, who believed in serving humankind as one’s “larger Self.”

Perhaps the most suggestive pronouncement of all is the following:

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

Here, Einstein appears to be one with the Advaitin philosophers in that he implies that the existence of order in the universe suggests the existence of an intelligent, creative force (though not necessarily a personal one–Einstein made it quite clear that he did not believe in the traditional theistic concepts of deity), i.e., God/Brahman, and that he proclaims the unknowability of this entity/force.

Supposing that Einstein really was an Advaitin, was he himself aware of the fact? It seems unlikely that he was ignorant of Advaita, because he was arguably as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist. But since he never actually used the label “Advaitin” or “Hindu” to describe his beliefs, it seems reasonable to infer that his thinking just happened to culminate in that Weltanschauung.

These are really only sketchy speculations, and are not intended to be taken too seriously. Hopefully a scholar who is equally familiar with Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta will give us his or her own opinion on the subject.

Notes

[1] http://hinduism.about.com/od/thegita/a/famousquotes.htm

Further Reading

Arthur Schopenhauer – Essay on the Freedom of the Will 

Dennis Waite – Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita

Joseph McCabe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Joseph McCabe in 1910

“[T]he trained athlete of disbelief”

—H. G. Wells

“One of the giants of not only English atheism, but world atheism, Joseph McCabe left a legacy of aggressive atheist and antireligious literature that remains fresh and insightful today.”

—infidels.org

For me, Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), Irish English Roman Catholic priest turned atheist intellectual and writer, has been something of a patron saint of not only atheism and freethought, but also learning and education in general. One of his chief publishers, the Jewish American socialist intellectual E. Haldeman-Julius, declared him to be the “world’s greatest scholar.” Overpraise, perhaps, but there seems to be little doubt that he was a scholar of the first order. Even Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, one of his most notable opponents, acknowledged his competence and sincerity and applauded his intellect, albeit ironically, writing: “He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.”[1]

Armed with tremendous mental energy, discipline, dedication (one non-contemporary commentator describes him as “a force of nature”); a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, and Spanish; as well as an unwavering belief in his mission and ideals, McCabe wrote extensively on religion, philosophy, evolutionary biology, chemistry, physics, politics, culture, and, above all, history, for half a century in a lifelong quest to disseminate knowledge and spread the gospel of scientific progress.

Although this Old Atheist no longer had “an atom of religion” in him ever since leaving the church, he was still very much the preacher, except that now he was championing atheism, science, freethought, democracy, secularism, rationalism, materialism, and Edwardian feminism. He wrote over 200 (250 by some counts) books. As he had a firm belief in the educability of all people, much of his output consisted of short booklets (some as short as a few dozen pages) that were designed primarily for working class laymen and laywomen. (I expect that he would be rolling in his grave if he knew of the exorbitant prices his books are selling for today.)[2]

McCabe was justifiably called a “one-man university” by contemporary Isaac Goldberg[3] and dubbed a “20th century Diderot” by biographer Bill Cooke (see his excellent biography on McCabe, titled A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism). When he wasn’t debating or drafting pamphlets, monographs, or encyclopedias with his sleek and lucid prose (which was not infrequently infused with subtle and dry wit), he gave lectures, delivering three to four thousand (according to his own estimate) of them by the end of his long life.

Unsurprisingly, McCabe was a controversial figure in his day. George Bernard Shaw is said to have once remarked that people smelled brimstone wherever the man went[4]. Also consider Hyman Levy’s hilarious recollection of him:

When I was a boy Joseph McCabe was taboo. He was the Bad Man who spread the gospel of wickedness, using Science, the gift of the Almighty, for his nefarious ends. And so when the Bad man came to Edinburgh to lecture the young boy slipped into the meeting (without paying), and listened enraptured to a discourse on the Evolution of the Universe, illustrated with a series of marvellous lantern slides.[5]

Few, if any, would claim that Joseph McCabe’s legacy is perfect. He was perhaps too keen on the atheistic Soviet Union (though he never actually embraced Marxism himself, having no use for dialectical materialism)[6], and, most unfortunately, had a proclivity for alienating other freethinkers with unremitting and unyielding criticism. Nonetheless, he always strove to keep a balanced view of the complex and multitudinous issues he tackled, and what he may have lacked in diplomacy he made up for with loyalty to his friends and all-around honesty. An individual who better represents the love of learning (as well as the love of teaching) would be difficult to find. It is hoped that his legacy will one day be revived and be given its rightful place in history.

Selected Quotes

“…Atheism grows in proportion to the growth of knowledge and freedom. No law of history is more consistently revealed in the records.”

(from “Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger?”)

“Blessed are the ignorant, for they have no difficulties.”

(from “The Mythical History of the Jews”)

“[T]he most deadly solvent of religious belief—let the anti-evolutionists realize this—is the patient examination of the so-called evidence which is offered us in support of it.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“The mind which has been artificially repressed will, if the process be not continued too long, expand more rapidly than the mind which is suffered to grow normally.”

(from The Romance of the Romanoffs)

“It is one of the ironies of the history of religion that what we call the great, historical, or organized religions took their rise from prophets whose mission in life it was to denounce religion in the sense in which these organized bodies use the word.”

(from How Christianity Grew Out Of Paganism)

“Do not listen to those who say that critics crush the voice of the heart in the name of reason. We want all the heart we can get in life, all the strength of emotion and devotion we can engender. But let it be expended on the plain, and plainly profitable, task of making this earth a Summerland. Do that, as your leisure and your powers permit, and, when your day is over, you will lie down with a smile, whether you are ever to awaken or are to sleep forever.”

“No people is entitled to be called civilised which complacently tolerates war, squalid and widespread poverty, dense areas of ignorance, political corruption, and the many other remnants of barbarism which they tolerated. The twentienth century was the last hour of barbarism, lit by a few rays of the civilisation which dawned in the twenty-first century.”

(from The Tyranny of Shams)

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Materialists do not deny the existence and importance of mind and its ideals.They deny that these are spiritual. But because the world has been accustomed to regard the mind and its ideals as spiritual, the cry is raised that ‘spiritual realities’ are in danger, when the question is merely whether they are spiritual or not. A great man of science like my friend the late Professor Loeb would smile at the idea that his interest in science ought to diminish when he came to the conclusion that the mind is only a function of the brain. Most of us ought to smile at the idea that we will turn the world upside down because we have come to the conclusion that it is the only world we shall ever know!”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Pardon my little ironies whenever I come to these anti-democrats. I have never been able to see why the blunders of an uneducated democracy, as ours still is (though many an artisan is a sounder politician than many a professor or property owner), recommend anything except a practical education of the people.”

(on Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt)

“[N]early 40 years’ experience has shown me that a taste for beer and cowboy-stories is entirely consistent with a taste for perfect art and the highest intellectual exercises.”

“We are not only evolving, but evolving more rapidly than living thing ever did before. The pace increases every century. A calm and critical review of our development inspires a conviction that a few centuries will bring about the realisation of the highest dream that ever haunted the mind of the prophet. What splendours lie beyond that, the most soaring imagination cannot have the dimmest perception. …

“… Darwin was right. It is—not exclusively, but mainly—the struggle for life that has begotten higher types. Must every step of future progress be won by fresh and sustained struggle? At least we may say that the notion that progress in the future depends, as in the past, upon the pitting of flesh against flesh, and tooth against tooth, is a deplorable illusion. Such physical struggle is indeed necessary to evolve and maintain a type fit for the struggle. But a new thing has come into the story of the earth—wisdom and fine emotion. The processes which begot animal types in the past may be superseded; perhaps must be superseded. The battle of the future lies between wit and wit, art and art, generosity and generosity; and a great struggle and rivalry may proceed that will carry the distinctive powers of man to undreamed-of heights, yet be wholly innocent of the passion-lit, blood-stained conflict that has hitherto been the instrument of progress.”

(from The Story of Evolution)

“The end or purpose of life is what we choose to make it. There is no end or purpose written upon the stars. We make our goal; and the only end upon which we can agree, the ‘supreme good’ to which all other ideals are subordinate, is general happiness—the greatest happiness of the greatest number. …But what is happiness? I am not sure that I know.”

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: The Maniac

[2] From what I gather, in McCabe’s day, the books sold from anywhere between $0.05-$0.25, which translates into roughly $1.10-$5.50 today. Granted, they were cheaply printed pocket books, but considering the sheer quantity of volumes that McCabe was generating, it only made sense (no pun intended) to make them as affordable as possible. At present, $15-$25 price tags are the norm.

[3] Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought – Fifty Years on the Rationalist Front 

[4] http://www.mclemee.com/id155.html

[5] A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism, Chapter 3: The Trained Athlete of Disbelief

[6] Also, considering the fact that he died long before the collapse of the USSR, it is difficult if not impossible to tell what a complete evaluation of the regime would have looked like.

Reflections on the Riddle of the Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Black hole

“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

—Socrates

What I know can fill a book. What I don’t know can fill entire universes. And what I am not certain of fills all of reality itself.

Upon realizing just how difficult—if not impossible—it is to ascertain anything in this world, one despairs of ever forming a solidly grounded opinion on things. Why should we even try?

No one, living or dead, genius or idiot, monotheist or polytheist or pantheist or deist or agnostic or atheist, can convince me that they have the answer to the riddle of the universe. That is perhaps why I have so much sympathy for the Skeptics of ancient Greece and Rome, while rejecting their doctrine of ataraxia.

The riddle of knowledge is the Riddle of riddles. How can one know what is real, what is true? It seems impossible to even imagine what the answer might look like. Maybe every red pill is just another blue pill in disguise. How can one truly know whether one knows something or not? This riddle may be unsolvable.

But we’ll continue to try, because our minds demand answers. Whether we are humble cracker-barrel philosophers or eminent department chairs of elite universities, we will continue our pursuit of that elusive thing we call truth.

Will the answer to the riddle of the universe ever be revealed? If it is, I imagine that it would be a target that no one in history has ever hit, and that it would be far greater than all of our speculations combined.

Suicide, Fear of Death, and Fear of the Afterlife

By Jin-yeong Yi

Cinema in Australia

“It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world. Perhaps there is no man alive who would not have already put an end to his life, if this end had been of a purely negative character, a sudden stoppage of existence.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Suicide”

What if there is an afterlife, and suicide is punished as a grave sin? This possibility doesn’t worry me all that much. Besides the fact that the probability of an afterlife is minuscule, if not minimal, reward and punishment seem rather meaningless when one considers the fact that we are ultimately not responsible for what we do. We are not responsible for what we do for the reason that we do what we do because of what we are, and we are ultimately not responsible for what we are.

“What is it restrains people from suicide, do you think?” I asked.

He looked at me absent-mindedly, as though trying to remember what we were talking about.

“I… I don’t know much yet…. Two prejudices restrain them, two things; only two, one very little, the other very big.”

“What is the little thing?”

“Pain.”

“Pain? Can that be of importance at such a moment?”

“Of the greatest. There are two sorts: those who kill themselves either from great sorrow or from spite, or being mad, or no matter what… they do it suddenly. They think little about the pain, but kill themselves suddenly. But some do it from reason—they think a great deal.”

“Why, are there people who do it from reason?”

“Very many. If it were not for superstition there would be more, very many, all.”

“What, all?”

He did not answer.

“But aren’t there means of dying without pain?”

“Imagine”—he stopped before me—”imagine a stone as big as a great house; it hangs and you are under it; if it falls on you, on your head, will it hurt you?”

“A stone as big as a house? Of course it would be fearful.”

“I speak not of the fear. Will it hurt?”

“A stone as big as a mountain, weighing millions of tons? Of course it wouldn’t hurt.”

“But really stand there and while it hangs you will fear very much that it will hurt. The most learned man, the greatest doctor, all, all will be very much frightened. Every one will know that it won’t hurt, and every one will be afraid that it will hurt.”

“Well, and the second cause, the big one?”

“The other world!”

“You mean punishment?”

“That’s no matter. The other world; only the other world.”[1]

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons 

There’s also another reason why I see little reason to be concerned with the possibility of punishment, and that is the fact that one searches in vain for a “Moral Law” that exists as an intrinsic part of the fabric of reality. If a “Moral Law” does exist, it is so nebulous that it seems most unlikely that one could ascertain whether suicide is “right” or “wrong” in the first place. For all we know, suicides are rewarded and non-suicides are punished in the next life. As preposterous as it may sound to most, it goes to illustrate just how ambiguous and vague this hypothetical “Law” really is.

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet 

But what of death itself? For some, like the late Peter Steele, the thought of “going nowhere” after dying is too much to bear. For these people, I have a simple thought experiment. Think back to last night, when you were lying in bed in a state of dreamless sleep. Try to recall the emotions you were experiencing during that time. Did you feel any anxiety? Any fear? Regret? Sorrow? I doubt it. Chances are, you recall nothing. You weren’t unconscious in that your body was ready to respond to external stimuli, but you were unconscious in that the movie screen in your mind was blank. You were not conscious of being unconscious, and you surely weren’t conscious of how you felt about being unconscious. In the same way, if we assume that death is absolute and permanent unconsciousness, the fear of it is as unfounded as the fear of sleep would be.

Either way, suicide only hastens what is all but completely inevitable, not bring about something that would otherwise never be. If death is nothing but a cessation of consciousness, there is nothing to fear, and if death is inevitable, there is little point in fearing it in any case. In the immortal words of Epicurus:

“Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”[2]

Infester – Chamber of Reunion

Room of reunion… Join with the departed,
Souls trapped in a timeless sanctuary of darkness.
… Witness the secret places which shall not be perceived by man.
Talisman strung in remembrance of the dead,
Resurrect visions kept in capsules of existence.
Perception enhanced by smoke and hypnosis,
Subconscious prayers for entreaty.
… Come to call, reappear in form!
Transcending through the boundaries of ancient knowledge.
… Notice the transient beings
Which thrive on your fear,
Their meager existence I have already experienced
… Moving closer to the core,
I engulf in luminescence,
Acquired from this cerulean consumption,
The resting place of emptiness…
Where blackness robs the spirit
Chamber of reunion
… I may not return to this chamber.
From the blood, we are born of sadness…
But thy celestial spirits are breathed into me,
So I may never know.

Notes

[1] Chapter III: The Sins of Others

[2] Letter to Menoeceus

Suicide: Scourge or Savior?

By Jin-yeong Yi

Vincent van Gogh - Wheatfield with Crows

“That society who has not the ability, or who is not willing to procure man any one benefit, loses all its rights over him; Nature, when it has rendered his existence completely miserable, has in fact, ordered him to quit it: in dying he does no more than fulfil one of her decrees, as he did when he first drew his breath. To him who is fearless of death, there is no evil without a remedy; for him who refuses to die, there yet exists benefits which attach him to the world; in this case let him rally his powers—let him oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses him—let him call forth those resources with which Nature yet furnishes him; she cannot have totally abandoned him, while she yet leaves him the sensation of pleasure; the hopes of seeing a period to his pains.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature 

It seems obvious that the debate on assisted suicide ultimately comes down to the question of whether suicide itself is right or wrong. Many of the arguments against suicide, it seems to me, are predicated on religion. In terms of rhetoric, one probably need not look further than G. K. Chesterton:

“Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen, an argument arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder one’s self. Grave moderns told us that we must not even say “poor fellow,” of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was an enviable person, and had only blown them out because of their exceptional excellence. Mr. William Archer even suggested that in the golden age there would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which a man could kill himself for a penny. In all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer’s suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man’s crime is different from other crimes—for it makes even crimes impossible.

“About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker: he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.”[1]

While I agree that Archer’s view is dubious (the last time I checked, a “golden age” consisted of mass flourishing, not mass extinction), I also find myself in vehement disagreement with Chesterton’s condemnation.

True, Chesterton himself did contemplate suicide in his adolescence, but in the above passage he speaks as someone who is rationalizing his religious beliefs, not someone who has truly known the power of the desire to die. According to his logic, exterminating 7 billion people pales in comparison, both literally and figuratively, to taking one’s own life without injuring anyone else. It follows that a Vincent van Gogh, say, or a Dimitris Christoulas,[2] commits a far graver crime than a Genghis Khan or a Joseph Stalin. As long as the murderer asks God for forgiveness, he will be given a far more lenient sentence than the suicide, and he will, unlike the suicide, be given a proper burial. Personally, I think that such a notion is breathtakingly ludicrous and silly, and hardly deserves a reply. I must say of Chesterton what Eugene Rose (Father Seraphim) once said of Arthur Schopenhauer: “[He] does not speak to us as one who knows, as one who has truly had a vision of the nature of things.”[3]

I tend to see myself as avoiding both extremes of opinion, the one represented by Chesterton and the other represented by Archer. In other words, I see suicide as being neither an absolute “good” nor an absolute “evil.” In my view, the decision to stay and the decision to leave are more or less equally valid. Let those who wish to live continue their struggle in this world of suffering, and let those who wish to die embark on, ahead of schedule, that great voyage that awaits each and every one of us. I can praise the former for their courage to cling onto life, and the latter for their courage to embrace death.

In an interview, Ludwig Minelli, founder and director Swiss assisted dying organization Dignitas, notes a peculiar pattern he has observed among potential suicides throughout the years:

“Seventy percent of our members which have got provisional green light [for assisted suicide] do never call again. It’s very interesting.

“They are just looking in order to have a choice, to make a choice, because normally they are in a terrible dilemma. … Would I have to go through the whole illness until the so-called natural death, with all the pains, with all the difficulties, or must I make a very risky suicide attempt? When we are getting the provisional green light, this is a sort of opening an emergency exit. So they know, ‘I could go through this emergency exit if really I am in difficulties,’ and this is calming them. …”[4][5]

When I say that suicide saves, I am not being flippant. Of course, the act of suicide destroys, but the possibility of suicide is, as it turns out, a double-edged sword. With it comes the realization that the world has only so much power over you, and that it can rule you only for as long as you allow it to. Those who are truly prepared to die have little left to be afraid of. As strange as it might sound to some, the clear knowledge that one can liberate oneself from an unbearable existence at any moment one chooses can give one not only strength but also a sense of near-invincibility, which can give rise to the will to “oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses”–if only for another day.

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter V: The Flag of the World

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/05/greece-suicide-tributes-retired-pharmacist

[3] “Schopenhauer: System; Comment,” quoted from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works by Hieromonk Damascene

[4] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/suicidetourist/etc/minelli.html

[5] Mr. Minelli goes on to note: “Not only never come to Zurich, never call again. We never hear from them. Then we get the invoice for the membership fee for the next year, and then they will pay the membership fee, but they will never call again. It’s very, very interesting.”

The Romance of Doubt

By Jin-yeong Yi

LH 95 stellar nursery in the Large Magellanic Cloud

“Truth is at the bottom of the abyss; and the abyss is bottomless.”

—Democritus

“Nothing can be known, not even this.”

—Carneades

“The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks.”

—Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

“It’s the question that drives us…”

—Trinity, The Matrix

What is the God of the skeptic? It’s not science. It’s Mystery.

I don’t know if the world I see in front of me is real or an illusion, but I choose to engage it anyway.

I’m like the protagonist of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, except that I have it together a little better than the son: instead of mindlessly squandering all of my resources and letting myself end up penniless and in a pig farm (in other words, exhausting my energy on indulgence and caprice and letting myself end up in an intellectual ghetto), I am exercising due caution and moderation in my exploration of this strange world, admiring a tree here and a mountain range there as I attempt to map the terrain.

Instead of the safe but small house of the father, my mind is out in the world, with the vastness of the universe before me. There’s always apprehension and fear as to what I might find, but also a kind of freedom that comes from being able to think beyond all imaginary boundaries.

I imagine that it’s like being in the middle of nowhere in outer space: no left or right, up or down–nothing but my own sense of orientation. There’s no destination, only the journey. The journey is the destination.

It’s paradoxical: part of me wants to be found, but another part of me enjoys being lost. For it is the latter whence comes the greatest adventures.

“To pose a question entails that you do not know something. To ask ‘Who is the abbot?’ means that you do not know who the abbot is. To ask ‘What is this?’ means that you do not know what this is. To cultivate doubt, therefore, is to value unknowing. To say ‘I don’t know’ is not an admission of weakness or ignorance, but an act of truthfulness: an honest acceptance of the limits of the human condition when faced with ‘the great matter of birth and death.’ This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty.”

—Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist