Perpetual Existence Machine

Birthdays usually are pretty ok.

Birthday presents and Facebook happy birthday comments are all well and good.

One can never get tired of someecards.

ecards

But with each passing year I commemorate my birth I just can’t get over the one thing that really sucks about getting older – the knowledge that all things end.

And by end, I mean I’m gonna die.

In the end everybody dies.

ben

NOPE. NOT EVEN BEN MAKES IT OUT ALIVE

 

The inevitable cost of years of Facebook birthday notifications is that family, friends, people we see on TV, and eventually ourselves, will shrug off this mortal coil and join the choir invisible.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this post is going to be about death.

Did you know there’s more than one kind of death?
Clinical death, as defined by Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (13th edition) is as follows:

Permanent cessation of all vital functions. [defined by]
1) total irreversible cessation of cerebral function of the
respiratory system, spontaneous function of the circulatory
system. 2) the final and irreversible cessation of perceptible

Legal death, according to Wikipedia, is:

A government’s official recognition that a person has died. Normally this is done by issuing a death certificate. In most cases, such certificate is only issued either by a doctor’s declaration of death or by an identified corpse.

The idea of death (clinical death), in particular, our own death is unsettling to many people. The late Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), author of On Death and Dying (1969), writes:

In our unconscious, death is never possible in regard to
ourselves. It is inconceivable for our conscious to imagine
an actual ending of our own life here on earth, and if this
life of ours had to end, the ending is always attributed to
malicious intervention… therefore death in itself is
associated with a bad act, a frightening happening…

 

The philosopher Thomas Nagel (1937- ) writes that the problem with death is that death interferes with our ability to enjoy all the goods of life. According to Nagel, the mere fact that we are alive and able to experience what life has to offer is good.

So, as Nagel writes, “If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of”.

Nagel argues, if our lives were not interrupted by death, we would continue to live long and prosper and to partake of whatever good there is to derive from living. For Nagel, the objectionable thing about death is the loss of life. No matter how old a person is, even if we live to be a thousand years old, death is still an evil because death limits what we could have experienced.

all good things

 

Unfortunately for us, Nagel says, grow attached to the goods and experiences of life that death will eventually deprive us of. Although the average human lifespan is generally no more than one hundred years, we see our lives and life’s opportunities as limitless; we can’t imagine our own death.

Viewed in this way, Nagel writes, death is seen as an abrupt end to our limitless possibilities. Nagel writes:

But the time after his death is time of which his death deprives
him. It is time in which, had he not died then, he would be alive.
Therefore any death entails the loss of some life that its victim
would have led had he not died at that or any earlier point.

So… our minds cannot conceive of our lives ending.. It is especially difficult to accept our own inescapable demise in light of the fact that there are cells in the human body that can live indefinitely. It seems unfair that a single cell can live forever while our whole is condemned to die.

The trouble is, we have to realize that someday we’re going to die

And that sucks.

 

grim reaper

Still, a problem with some people is not that death itself is a bad thing (as Nagel suggests) but what they fear is what happens after we die. After all, there aren‘t too many folks around who can tell us about that.

Some people believe that we go to Heaven or Hell, where we are either rewarded for our good deeds or doomed to eternal damnation. Other people believe in reincarnation. Some people think we return to earth as spirits. Some think that after death, we rejoin the universal consciousness.

And some people think that we die and that’s it.

dead

 

If that’s the case then there’s nothing to be afraid of.

The ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) argued that we have no need to be afraid of death. Epicurus believed that our fear of death is irrational in that believing that death is to be feared means that we think that death is a bad thing.

But for death to be bad, Epicurus claims, we would actually have to experience death.

Epicurus argues that we do not fear death but the experience of dying. Epicurus states:

So that the man speaks but idly who says that he fears death not
because it will be painful when it comes, but because it is painful
in anticipation. For that which gives no trouble when it comes, is
but an empty pain in anticipation.

 

Epicurus claims that dying is not the same as being dead, merely the end of all experience. And since death is the end of all experience, Epicurus argues that we don’t actually experience death.

Despite what John Lennon may have sang, no one knows what it’s like to be dead.

there is no afterlife

 

 

So according to Epicurus, death is neither good nor bad. Epicurus says that we should think about death like this:

Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all
good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of
sensation. And therefore a right understanding of death is nothing
to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it
an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for
immortality.

We need not worry about death, Epicurus tells us, because “that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us”.

Epicurus says the world is made up of atoms and the atoms that make up our bodies merely dissolve into separate atoms after we die. In other words, Death is not painful or to be feared because our atoms will be busy dissolving back into the stuff of the universe. In the end, our deaths will be the ultimate no biggie. It will be over before we know it.

man's best friend

REALLY, WE’RE ALL AFRAID OF DYING AND MEETING THIS GUY

 

Likewise, in Phaedo (which is all about the death of Socrates), Socrates tells his companions that he does not fear death. For Socrates, death is merely the separation of the soul from the body. Socrates says death should not be feared

Because as we have a body and our soul is fused with such an
evil we shall never adequately attain what we desire, which we
affirm to be the truth. The body keeps us busy in a thousand
ways… It fills us with wants, desires, fears and all sorts of
illusions and such nonsense… it is impossible to attain any full
knowledge with the body…either we can never attain knowledge
or we can do so after death.

Socrates tells his companions he does not fear death because he believes in the immortality of the soul.

Socrates argues that the body is a prison for the soul and that our earthy, flawed bodies keep us from attaining the Truth. The worst kind of imprisonment, Socrates says, is due to the bodily desires that force us to see the world through a cage, and while we are caged our soul “wallows in every kind of ignorance”. Socrates says we should desire our souls to join the invisible, the divine and immortal, where our can be happy “having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires and the other human ills.”

Socrates maintains that philosophers should want their (our) souls to be in its purest state. Lovers of wisdom should want to die to attain Truth and to seek the release of the soul from the body. Socrates says to Cebes when philosophy is practiced in the right way, philosophy trains lovers of wisdom for death.

Socrates declares philosophers should look forward to death!

The_Death_of_Socrates_cropped

DON’T WORRY HOMIES, I ACTUALLY WANT TO DIE!

Ok. So, Epicurus says that we shouldn’t fear death because we don’t actually experience death, and Socrates argues that the philosophically correct thing to do is to look forward to the end of life.

But if we should look forward to death, why do we dread it so? What about what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross said about not conceiving of our lives ending?

Is it wrong to want to live forever?

You know the answer is yes, right?

you can't live forever
The ancient Greek myth of Eos demonstrates a problem of immortality.

The goddess Eos fell in love with the mortal Tithonus. Eos, not wanting her love to die, asked Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life. Eos, however, forgot to ask Zeus to also grant Tithonus eternal health. Tithonus eventually grew old and sick, but because he was immortal he could not die. Tithonus’ immortality was not a blessing but a curse.

On the philosophical side, the late philosopher Bernard Williams’ (1929-2003) tells us in his essay “The Makropulos Case: The Tedium of Immortality” (1972) that the primary problem with immortality is that we would become so bored with living forever that life would become intolerable.

cry

THAT MOMENT YOU REALIZE THAT YOU’RE GOING TO LIVE FOREVER

 

Williams’ example is the case of Elina Makropulos, a woman who drank a life-extending elixir and lived to be 342 years old. According to Williams‘ account of the life of the immortal woman, Makropulos had lived so long that she no longer experienced any joy in her existence and soon became indifferent to experience. The reason why Makropulos found no joy in life is because Elina Makropulos had simply lived long enough to do everything there is to do. Williams describes Elina Makropulos’ life:

Her unending life has come to a state of boredom, indifference, and
coldness. Everything is joyless: “In the end it is all the same,” she
says…

 

What do we do, Williams asks, when we’ve had all the time in the world to do everything and have already done it?

The short answer is: be bored out of our minds and praying for death.

Williams states that we have only a limited amount of time to enjoy the goods that life has to offer and the fact that life is finite creates an appreciation for our lives and experiences.

In short, it is the inevitability of death that makes life livable.
Just like the poem says, we want to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” because we know our time is fleeting.*

Right now, you may be thinking, I’ve seen a movie about this very thing. You’re right.

You have.

death becomes her poster

THERE IS ONE CHARACTER IN DEATH BECOMES HER THAT REJECTS THAT IDEA OF IMMORTALITY. MADELINE ASHTON’S HUSBAND, ERNEST MENVILLE. WHEN ERNEST IS PROPOSITIONED TO TAKE THE LIFE-EXTENDING ELIXIR, HE REFUSES, DECLARING THAT HE DOES NOT WANT TO LIVE FOREVER BECAUSE HE FEARS THAT HE WILL BE BORED AND LONELY. ERNEST SAYS HE DOES NOT WANT TO LIVE FOREVER WHILE EVERYONE HE KNOWS WILL GROW OLD AND DIE. ERNEST SAYS OF IMMORTALITY, “IT’S NOT A DREAM, IT’S A NIGHTMARE”.

Williams predicts an immortal would soon grow indifferent to life and that life becomes meaningless simply because he has run out of things to do; there is no longer anything worth living for.

An immortal does not derive pleasure from overeating, partying, or having sex because he knows that it ultimately whatever he chooses to do makes no difference. The next day he will do the exact same thing all over again… and again.

 

honest-couple

THESE IMMORTAL PEOPLE HAVE DONE IT IN EVERY WAY IMAGINABLE…. FIFTY YEARS AGO

 

After we’ve done everything (and had an eternity to do it) the question we inevitably ask ourselves is “now what?” – what is there to make life worth living? An immortal would eventually be overcome with the desire to end the tedium of immortality and that death offers the only permanent solution to the problem.

It takes an eternity to realize the truth of what Bernard Williams wrote, “It can be a good thing not to live too long”.

So…

If Socrates, Epicurus and Bernard Williams are right, then death really isn’t such a bad thing. Instead of fearing death, we should thank out lucky stars that even the most unpleasant death is preferable to an eternity fulfilling our desires.

We should be satisfied to know that we die to appreciate life.

zombie with placard

 

The fact that we cannot imagine our own death or that we may, in the future, develop the means to prevent death does not give us the license to live forever. And even if we could live forever, we shouldn’t want to. If you think about it, death doesn’t sound half bad. When we die we either: 1) return to the cosmic dust of the universe, 2) go to an idyllic Heaven, where every day is like Christmas, or 3) we’re released from the bonds of our flawed earthly bodies.

cause of death

More importantly, the real reason why we shouldn’t want to live forever is because, as Elina Makropulos warns us, there is indeed a fate worse than death – boredom.
As modern science continues to redefine what death is, we’re left to ask more questions about the nature of death both medically and philosophically, and there’s plenty of discussion and definitions going on out there to have us talking about death for an eternity, which really, is exactly what philosophers want us to do; to never stop asking questions about everything, including death.

In the end, this is how I choose to think about death: Some people say we experience more than one death. Our physical death is just the first death that we experience. Our final death, some say, comes the last time someone speaks our name. If this is true, then Epicurus, Albert Einstein, Anne of Cleaves, Socrates, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Whitney Houston, even Bernard Williams, truly are immortal.

That’s the kind of immortality I think even Bernard Williams would be ok with.

*“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the oft quoted first line of the Robert Herrick (1591-1674) poem “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” (1648).

 

 

 
SOURCES:

Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. 1977. 13th edition. Ed. Clayton L. Thomas, M.D., M.P.H. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company. p. D-4.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have To Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. 1969 [First Touchstone edition, 1997]. NY: Touchstone. pp. 16-7.

Great Treasury of Western Thought: A Compendium of Important Statements of Man and His Institutions by the Great Thinkers in Western History. 1977. Eds. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. NY: R R Bowker Company. p.131.

Thomas Nagel. “Death”. Mortal Questions. 1979. NY: Cambridge University Press. pp.3, 7-10.

Epicurus. “The Pursuit of Pleasure”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p.491.

Richard Schoch. The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life. 2006. NY: Scribner. pp.52-3.

Fred Feldman. Confrontations With the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death. 1992. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. p.128.

Plato. “The Death of Socrates”. Twenty questions. pp. 448, 450.

Bernard Williams quote: http://www.unc.edu/~jfr/RI-TMCR1.htm.

Bernard Williams. “The Elina Makropulos Case”. Life, Death, and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings On the Big Questions. 2004. Ed. David Benatar. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Litttlefield Publishers, Inc. p.331.

This Post Does Not Have A Name

I watch a lot of movies.

Maybe too many movies.

I must say, however,  I’ve never seen any of The Fast and the Furious franchise.

I’m more of a horror/sci-fi person. Not much of an action fan.

On November 30, 2013, one of the stars of The Fast and the Furious franchise, Paul Walker, died in a car crash.

He was only 40 years old.

 

paul walker

 

There’s something funny about movie stars. You never really think of them as having an actual age. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have spent one second thinking about his age. But now that I’m older, the first thought on my mind when I heard the news was the fact that Paul walker was only a few years older than me.

And even if he wasn’t so close to me in age, his death would still be tragic. He was a person. He has family and friends. And many fans who are now mourning his sudden and violent death.

I don’t know how many R.I.P. pages popped up on Facebook.

And, of course, his death made for plenty of programming on TMZ.

TMZ posted video of the car Paul Walker  in in flames.

 

paul walker accident scene

 

A few days after the crash, TMZ aired their  “last known video footage” of Paul Walker.

 

tmz last shot of paul walker

 

You know, when a famous person dies, there’s no shortage of sensational coverage of a person’s life. Death, whether a person is famous or not, is often treated like an entertainment event. I guess if you’re famous or  unfortunate enough to die in a spectacular fashion, the news and entertainment show vans and their cameras aren’t too far behind.

Unfortunately for Paul Walker, he was both.

But sometimes, it gets us thinking about those things that we otherwise often put off – like the inevitability of death. That death, no matter whether a person is 9 months or 99 years old, is an unpleasant and often unwelcome reality we all must face. But as tragic and uncomfortable as the subject of death (even the death of a famous person) is, it’s also an opportunity to ask philosophical questions.

Naturally, when someone dies,  our minds often drift to questions about our own lives – what our lives mean. We ask if our lives have meaning. Have we accomplished all with our lives that we wanted to do? What will our lives mean to others after we’re gone? Have we made a difference?

When a celebrity dies, especially if there were others killed along with the famous person, we ask what is the true value of a life. Paul Walker was a famous person but he was not the only person killed in the accident. Walker’s friend, race car driver Roger Rodas, also perished.

I’m certain that many people were shocked and saddened by the death of Rodas, but if you spent any time watching the Hollywood-centered media, it’s likely that you may have had the idea that Paul Walker was the only occupant in the car.

 

roger rodas

 

 

That’s because in our media-driven culture, the lives of the rich and famous are often more valued than the lives of average people. We want to believe that our lives, that any life, is important and if tragedy befalls anyone, what happens to us will be treated as important as if it had happened to a famous person.

Look, I’m not downplaying the situation. Lives, whether the lives are famous or not, are equally valuable.  That’s why it is so upsetting when any life is treated like it is less valuable. It’s why the fact that Roger Rodas’ death was virtually ignored by the entertainment media affects our moral sense on the value of life.

 

 

Zombies and Matters of Pragmatism

Funny thing about zombies…

The zombie film, most associated with George A. Romero’s flesh eating ghouls first depicted in Night of the Living Dead (1968), isn’t supposed to be something that one thinks about — that is to say, when one watches a zombie flick, one’s attention would not be focused on analyzing complex philosophical issues or concepts. Certainly with the standard zombie fare represented by notable titles such as Bong of the Dead, Redneck Zombies, Hood of the Living Dead, L.A. Zombie, Nudist Colony of the Dead, Zombie Strippers, Pot Zombies, and Aaah! Zombies, it’s no surprise that any serious philosopher would dismiss the entire zombie horror sub-genre as crap. I will admit I am no exception to this rule.

Don’t get me wrong, most zombie movies are crap. And really, they need not be anything more than what they are — simply movies with people being attacked and consumed by hoardes of the undead. (NOTE: the fact that a movie is crap does not negate the fact that it may be entertaining). The funny thing about generalizing, even when you generalize in the name of philosophy, is that sometimes — often times — you make a mistake. The mistake I’m thinking about goes by the name of the AMC series The Walking Dead.

Now I know what you’re asking, “what on earth does a TV show about zombies have to do with philosophy?”. Philosophers can debate whether zombie movies and TV shows like The Walking Dead are worthy of metaphysical or epistemic analysis, but certainly no philosopher in his or her right mind would ever claim that a zombie and/or zombie movie or TV show cannot be subjected to ethical scrutiny. My answer to the question is this: SHANE WALSH IS THE MOST PHILOSOPHICALLY FASCINATING CHARACTER ON TELEVISION. And how, you say, is Shane Walsh the most fascinating character on television? The answer is this: ETHICS.

Ethics is defined as the science of morals in human conduct. Ethical philosophers construct theories concerning how individuals can and should act. Ethical theories include utilitarianism, deontological ethics, situational ethics, divine command theory, ethical egoism, emotivism, intuitionism, pragmatic ethics and applied ethics. To be sure, Shane Walsh, or rather the late Shane Walsh (formerly played by Jon Bernthal) is certainly an ethical piece of work. We, the audience, watch Shane, a cop before the zombie apocalypse, devolve into a paranoid, murdering, unrepentant, would-be rapist psychopath, whose scheming to murder his best friend and former partner Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) results in Shane’s eventual death and zombie resurrection. To the causal observer Shane Walsh lacks any remaining thread of civility, but the philosophically-oriented eye, Shane is a case study in pragmatic ethics.

Just as pragmatism, founded by American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) holds that the truth of a theory rests on how the theory works in practice, Shane Walsh’s method of dealing with and operating in the zombie apocalypse rests on his ability to get things done — that is to say, how his theories work in practice. William James wrote, “In practical talk, a man’s common sense means his good judgment…”, and certainly Shane Walsh’s common sense is based on his good judgment.

So… when Shane shoots Otis in the leg and leaves him to be eaten by a pack of zombies, or openly expresses his desire to call off the search for Sophia, or when Shane, against Rick’s orders, opens Hershel’s barn and treats the denizens of Hershel’s farm to the zombie equivalent of a turkey shoot, or when Shane openly challenges Rick’s ability to protect his wife and son (Shane tells Rick, “I don’t think you can keep them safe”), or when Shane leads Randall out to the woods to kill him, or attempts to kill Rick on three separate occasions, it’s not because Shane has lost all contact with his humanity. Shane does what he does because he know that his method of getting things done is simply what works.

Shane tells Rick, “You can’t just be the good guy and expect to live”. And in the end, Shane is right. In the last episode of season two, “Beside the Dying Fire”, Rick Grimes (after dispatching Shane) declares that he is leader of the group of survivors and that the group is no longer a democracy (fans of the show lovingly refer to Rick’s declaration as the beginning of the “Ricktatorship”). Rick realizes that Shane is right. In the post-civilization zombie world, high-minded ethical systems like Kant’s deontological ethics or Aristotle’s virtue ethics are no longer applicable. If a man wants to survive the onslaught of the undead he has to be willing to only do what has practical value — what will allow not only himself, but others to survive.  Shane Walsh does not lack morality, as some have claimed. He is neither amoral, nor is Shane Walsh purely in it for himself (Shane’s repeatedly tells Rick that he wants to protect Rick’s wife and son, and even saves the lives of others, including Rick Grimes and fellow survivor Andrea, thus demontrtating that he is motivated by someting other than his own desires). Instead, Shane Walsh exhibits the kind of morality that is not bogged down by concepts of virtue or absolute duties. Shane’s willingness to follow the pragmatic approach to morality not only saves lives, but also allows Rick Grimes to live long enough to stab Shane through the heart.

Sobering thoughts on Death means Socrates is right

Philosophers love to think about things. We make it our habit of thinking about everything, even things that most people don’t — or to the point, won’t think about. A philosopher’s thoughts are usually limited to thinking about round squares, the nature of reality, or some obscure Leibniz text that no one has ever read or wants to read. This activity usually satisfies the intellectual curiosity of most philosophers. However, one of the sobering side effects of thinking about everything has us contemplating subjects that no one, not even philosophers, like to think about.

The subject at the top of that list of subjects is death.

That’s right. Death.

I must admit, I hadn’t thought that much about the subject for quite awhile. But just as each rising dawn and setting sunset reminds us that each day we slowly trudge closer to our own inevitable end, sometimes death jumps right in our faces and tells us that we are all doomed to fall into her inescapable hands.

May 4, 2012. For some people, May fourth was a joyous day — and as I rose that morning I looked forward to celebrating my undying fandom of Star Wars (for those of you who don’t know May 4th is Star Wars Day). But, a quick glance on MSN ruined my commemoration of  George Lucas’ science fantasy masterpiece. May 4, 2012, Adam Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, died. He was only 47 years old. Now, if I was a younger person, Yauch’s age wouldn’t have bothered me. But seeing that I am closer to 40 than I am to 20, Adam Yauch’s death has affected me much more than it would have (even) several years ago.

As a Beastie Boys fan, I am saddened by the loss of such a talented artist. But even since Adam’s Yauch’s death two weeks ago, the philosopher inside me is wondering: Why am I still bothered by the idea of death?

In Phaedo, Socrates said that the philosopher, more than other people, wants to be free from “association witht the body as much as possible.” Death, according to Socrates, frees the soul from it’s impure body. Once we die our souls are free to be virtuous — we are pure. The point of philosophy, Socrates says, is to prepare us for death. I know that this is how I’m supposed to think about death, but somehow the thought of having to die a painful death from cancer, heart disease, or a shark attack in order to be freed of my impure body so my soul can be virtuous is not at all comforting.

In my philosophical opinion, that idea kind of sucks.

A Fate Worse Than God

At the end of the movie American Beauty, a post-murdered Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) tells us, the audience, that he is, despite all appearances, grateful for “every single moment of my stupid, little life”. Now, there’s a philosophical pinata in this movie, and it’s been written about and commented on by professional and layman philosophers aplenty. A common theme that emerges among those who look at American Beauty philosophically (and I assume even those who don’t), is the question of the meaning of life. At first glance, Lester’s life seems pretty pathetic — loveless marriage, crap-ass cubicle job (from which he is fired), and a daughter who propositions the neighbor kid to off her dad, not to mention Lester’s growing obsession with the best friend of his teenage daughter. We look at Lester and see someone worthless, someone who has let life pass him by, someone who, if he disappeared tomorrow, no one would notice. Lester’s life stank of the quiet desperaton that Thoreau wrote of in Walden. However, even though we know that Lester’s life has come to nothing, at the end, he’s still grateful for every single moment of his life. So, there are no wasted moments after all. At the end, Lester found meaning in something that seemed so meaningless. But for the rest of us, in the real world, how can we tell that, in the end, we’d be so grateful like Lester? How do we determine that the lives we have are worth living? The 18th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was nice enough to give us a method for solving one of life’s most vexing questions: Is my life worth living? Nietzsche’s solution? Eternal return. Nietzsche’s “eternal return” goes a little something like this: a demon come to you and says “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it… every pain and every joy… everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you…” . Nietzsche says if our response is that we “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus”, that our lives are not meaningful. that is, if, at the prospect of having to live your life over again for an eternity, you greet the news as someone would greet a death sentence, you had better rethink how you’re living your life, and fast. Because your life sucks. Most of us would say yes to the demon if we had the possibility to change things we had done in our past — to improve on ourselves, to change things for the better. Most of us wouldn’t have a problem if the demon presented us with the situation that wheatherman Phil Connors experienced in the movie Groundhog Day. Phil was stuck living the same day repeatedly, but each time he began a new day, he was able to change his actions. Eventually, Phil discovered that the point of repeating the same day over and over was so that he would change something about himself. At the outset, Phil wasn’t a very nice guy. Repeating Groundhog Day allowed Phil to see where he was going wrong. The day became a kind of cosmic mulligan. He did it ’til he got it right. Only when Phil improved himself was he allowed to move on to February 3. But with Nietzsche, there is no release. There is no moving on to the next day. And absolutely no changing things, either. What would we do if we realized that, wnlike Phil, we couldn’t change what happened? We would have to live every excruciating detail of our lives forever? I suspect that only after a few times, we would end up alot like Michael Palin in the “Deja Vu” sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It doesn’t take long before Palin’s nerevs are frazzled, knowing that the same thing will happen over and over and over again. (if you haven’t seen this sketch, watch it). The idea that is scary is that there aren’t enough good times to make the truly awful times bearale for an eternity. For every fantastic birthday or trip to Cancun, there’s that time that you were attacked by the neighbor’s dog, or the time you spent a week in jail for unpaid traffic tickets. Those times sucked. In Nietzsche’s eternal return, the demon gives us a choice. We can decide whether we want to take him up on his offer or not. But what if the afterlife (or whatever lies beyond our plane of existence) is more like what happened to Phil Conners? What if we don’t have a choice? What if when our lives end, nature or God automatically pushes the “repeat” button? What if repeating our lives was something that wasn’t meant to teach us a lesson about life so much as it becomes a punishment for our lives? There’s this movie that came out in the mid-80s called High Spirits. It’s reallya forgettable movie, but there’s a character who is doomed to live the night of her murder for an eternity. Every night, she and her husband Martin reenact their wedding night. Martin accuses her of cheating (which she wasn’t), chases her down and then stabs her. She dies and then the next night it’s back to the same thing chase and stab again. By the time the audience sees the unfortunate bride and her husband replay her murder, they’ve been at it for over a hundred years. (Once again, however, she is released from her eternal bonds by love. She finds the true love of her life, played by Steve Guttenberg. Win some, lose some, eh?). But this poses a very interesting question. Ok, Nietzsche wants us to find meaning in our lives, but what if the real meaning is in our death? There’s this idea that meaning has to be cultivated over a lifetime. That, taken as a whole, life either has or hasn’t meaning. But why is this so? There are plenty of people who say that their entire point of view about life changed in a single moment. All the meaning of one’s life can be crammed into one, singular moment. So why not live that moment for an eternity? That’s ok, only if the moment we are living is worth living for an eternity, but what if it’s one of those punishment moments? What if, if we are doomed to eternal punishment, we have to live the single worst moment of our lives for an eternity? In the movie Salvage, a young woman is forced (again, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, well at first anyway) to live the day of her murder over and over. As she begins to realize that she’s repeating the same day over and over, she attempts to find ways to stop her murder from taking place. But, it seems that no matter what she does, she always ends up at home, where the murderer brutalizes her before murdering her and burying her body in a field. We think, like she does, if she can just figure out what’s going on, much like Phil in Groundhog Day, she can break the cycle. But here’s the thing. She’s not repeating her murder to figure out anything about her life at all. In the grand scheme of things she really doesn’t matter at all. It’s because it’s not about her life, it’s about her death. She is a part of someone else’s punishment. She’s not stuck in her own eternal return, she’s struck in her murderer’s eternal return. He is being punished for murdering the young woman, her boyfriend, and a bunch of other people. He has to feel her pain, but the only way he can feel her pain is if she feels the pain of being murdered. That made me think, if a person chooses to take the demon up on his offer, exactly whose lives are involved? Is everyone you know doomed to be a part of your eternal repetition? If they are not, are they just facsimilies of the people you know? Is eternal return a group effort or is each person’s recurrance solipsistic? (and if that is, how can I be sure that my life isn’t now?). If I’m in something like Groundhog Day, and if everyone else wasn’t repeating the day as I was, who were those people that I was dealing with? Were they convinvingly realistic looking holograms like the holodeck on Star Trek:TNG? If Igot to know those hologram people, did I really know the people that I thought that I knew once time returned to normal? You know, this may have all been an exercize in overthinking. I should try to just sit back and enjoy what I’m watching instead of analyzing everything for it’s “philosophical significance”.

The Art Of Not Paying Attention

I was reading through an issue of Entertainment Weekly, when I read that The Seventh Seal was being released as part of the Criterion Collection. I know that the movie is supposed to be about life and death, and God and all that, and that it’s one of those movies that I must see before I die — and I have seen it — it’s just that I don’t remember a damn thing of what I saw. What makes matters worse, is that I watched it in a philosophy class. You see, since I was in a philosophy class, I was supposed to be paying attention. And I thought that I was. Well, truth be told, I payed attention long enough to remember that there was some dude who played chess with Death (who, by the way, looked a little like Observer from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Maybe that was no accident.), and that they’re all dead at the end. It’s not that the movie ended on a sour note that did it, either. Hell, I like bummer movies. And It’s not because it was in black and white. A few of my favorite movies were shot in black and white including Night of the Living Dead and The Bad Seed, both of which end with the deaths of the primary characters. And it wasn’t because the movie was long and boring either. I made it through taking philosophy classes — the realm of the tedious, sleep-inducing lecture. But a strange thing happened while I was watching this movie. It’s like I was never there to see it. Physically I was there, but my mind decided to take the day off (or my experience machine had powered down for repairs or whatever), because anything that happened between the opening credits and when the screen went dark at the end is a blur. (Which, consequently, is kind of the same thing that happened to me when I saw Donnie Darko. The opening credits started, and then everything went black.) Even now when I try to think about what I saw, all I can remember is how much a young Max von Sydow doesn’t look at all like Stellan Skarsgard, who played a younger Father Merin in the prequel(s) to The Exorcist. I remember more about those anal rapes they call the prequels to The Exorcist than I remember anything about an important film of philosophical significance. I know that this movie has lots of philosophical significance and that it is one of those movies that I’m supposed to see before I die, but I don’t really feel that bad for having missed it. I feel bad for lots of things (some of which I’m sure to tell in detail in future posts), but I don’t feel even the slightest bit of guilt for publically saying that I don’t remember anything about this movie. Which makes me think of something that a psych 101 professor said. He said that, for most people, childhood, when they think back on their own, is filled with many memories. They remember trips to the Grand Canyon with the folks, or fishing Lake Erie with granddad (wait, would that be safe?), or having their cheeks pinched past the point of human endurance by grandma’s knitting club (those women could have been guards at Gitmo). The point is, is that for most people, their childhood supplies them with many memories. Many memories of childhood, my psych prof said, is a pretty good indicator that a person had a fairly good childhood. But, for some people, he said, when asked about what they remember about being a kid, they usually say, “nothing”. My professor said that people who truly had a bad childhood don’t remember much, or what they do remember is sketchy at best. The point is, is that there was nothing that happened (while they were kids) that was worth remembering. That’s why they draw a blank when they thing back to when they were young. (And until then, I thought that everyone’s minds suddenly went blank after they reached four.) Anyway, I think that the same thing happened when I saw The Seventh Seal. I really didn’t see anything worth remembering. I’m not saying that the movie sucked (after all, it’s foreign — and that means that it has to be good), but what I am saying is that I already saw Bill and Ted play Twister with Death much more entertainingly. Once you’ve seen the knock-offs, it’s a little hard to appreciate the original. Like when you hear Beatles covers, and then hear the originals… kind of like that. So maybe what I am is a little jaded. Or maybe a little stupid.

Thanatopsis

Arguably the best line ever delivered in the history of modern cinema was said in 1968 in George A. Romero’s classic tale of the undead, Night of the Living Dead. When asked by a local reporter if the dead are slow moving, Chief McClellan answers, “They’re dead. They’re all messed up”. The chief’s response is the perfect meeting of a great line and a great delivery. That line had always stood out of the movie for me, even when I wasn’t in the habit of looking at things philosophically. But now since I’ve been bit by the philosophic bug, that line lead me to ask myself a few questions: 1) What’s so messed up about death? 2) Is it messed up that you die? 3) Is there something inherent to death that, once someone dies they become messed up? 4) Are they messed up because they’re dead? 5) Is death itself a state of being messed up? It really started to bother me. Chief McClellan seems to think that the messed-upness about death is the fact that one is dead. Being dead, as evidenced by the chief’s sentiment and the ruthlessnes with which they “kill” the undead, robs an individual of his humanness. Once a person dies (and in particular if one reanimates) a person ceases to be morally considerable as anything other than something that must be destroyed. Perhaps then, being messed up has something to do with the idea that a person lacks humanness. So, I’m assuming that it goes something like this: person + dead = messed up, messed up = not human. This seems to be the sentiment that not only runs through Romero’s movies, but throughout other zombie flicks as well ( I think a funnier description of the messed up state of dead people is said by the character “Rhodes” in George Romero’s Day of the Dead. Rhodes calls the undead “fuckin’ lunatics”. I say this because Rhodes may have been onto something and not known that he was). This assessment, of course only leads us to more questions. I ask, if one can lose his humanness, what is humanness? Does the fact that we die mean that we have to lose what makes us human (or at least morally considerable)? Also, I ask, when do we stop being human (this is important in the real world when we consider those who are only mostly dead, like someone who is in a persistent vegetative state or is “brain dead”)? Do we stop being human? Are we more than the sum of our parts? In the average zombie film, it seems that there is an inextricable connection between being human and being alive. This is exemplified by how the dead are described in the various films of the genre — “things”, “them”, “ghouls”, “stenches”, zombies”, “undead”, “deadites”, etc. They are called anything but “human” or “people”. If these movies reflect how we actually feel about the dead, then being a human (and thus morally considerable) is being something that is a body imbued with life. It would take up too much time to get into the various views on what exactly life is, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that a thing that lives is something that breathes, has a discernible heartbeat, has a body temperature roughly around 98.6 degrees Farenheit, and neither rots nor attempts to eat the flesh of the living. So, if life is a qualification for human classification, why do we worry about how the dead? Why do we worry about how dead bodies are treated (like why necrophilia is illegal in most states. I think that there are still a couple where you can have sex with any dead person that you want to get it on with), or why are we strongly discouraged from speaking ill of the dead? Afterall, they’re not there to see us do anything to or speak ill about them. Why do we keep promises to dead people? Seems like a waste of time to hold a promise made to a dead guy over our heads. Perhaps our concern has more to do with our fear of ghosts, or visits from restless spirits, or divine retribution. Speaking of, I hope that Thomas Jefferson was haunted by the spirit of a dead friend whom he promised to use the friend’s money to buy the freedom of slaves when he died. Jefferson didn’t. But the question remains. If a zombie is messed up and morally unconsiderable, can we somehow cause harm to a zombie or other unliving person? Since it’s so fun, let’s look at zombies. A zombie, according to Random House College Dictionary (def. 1), is “the body of a dead person given semblance of life by a supernatural force”. So, by definition a zombie is someone who has the outward appearance of something that is living but is not. A zombie moves (or shambles), makes noise in the form of moaning, and in the case of Re-Animator’s Dr. Hill, it will perform oral sex on you (it’s a visual pun). Zombies are put through various abuses throughout the pantheon of film: In George Romero’s Land of the Dead, zombies are made to fight each other over food (the “food” is a live person thrown into a cage with two zombies). In the 2004 re-make of Dawn of the Dead, the heroes play a shooting game where they shoot zombies who resemble celebrities. In Shaun of the Dead, zombies are used as contestants on a game show. In Tom Savini’s 1990 re-make of Night of the Living Dead and in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, zombies are used as target practice by local hillbillies. In movies, zombies are killed, or re-killed in ways that we would never imagine treating a living person. This is because they’re all messed up — that is, not human. There is a body but no one to offend. Since they’re dead already, you’re not killing anyone. “Killing” a zombie is no different than playing the latest RPG video game. But for some of us, this sentiment doesn’t sound right. Zombies look like us — they used to be regular people. It seems counterintuitive to treat someone who is dead in any way that we please. Being messed doesn’t completely disqualify someone as morally considerable. We do take care not to offend the dead, either by words or by deeds. In Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead, Barbara (who survives this time around) says about the zombies, ” They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us”. Barbara says this when she sees the local yahoos having their way with zombies. In Barbara’s view, a zombie is still a person. They’re more than their physicality. They don’t lose their personhood or humanness upon death. We’re still capable of committing violence against them. Their violence against us doesn’t seem to warrant mistreatment by the living. There is a common thread that runs through the zombie films of Georre Romero that sets his films apart from other films in the genre. Namely, that Romero’s films may be entertaining, but they are also meant for us to think. This is a good thing. The question (and the finer point) that runs through his zombie films is “who are the monsters?”. There is an obvious answer and there is the one that makes us a little uncomfortable. Barbara discovered the answer when she saw the townies abusing the zombies. When we think of an individual doing another person harm, there are two individuals that come to mind — the victim and the perpetrator. We consider the act, but we also consider the intent of the person who committed the harm. This is where (I think it was) Kant was going when he suggested that it is wrong to break a promise to a dead man. The moral transgression isn’t in that we harmed the dead person, so much in that it speaks to what kind of person we are morally. We evaluate the intent of the agent. If I promise to buy the freedom of slaves with the money of my friend’s estate after he dies, and I do not, the moral harm is that I have shown myself to be untrustworthy, that I do not honor my promises. It does not matter who I made the promise to — I gave my word and I should honor my obligations to keep my word. (It’s funny that there is a reason [one might say excuse] as to why Jefferson acted as dastardly as he did. Jefferson wrote, ” The Earth belongs… to the living. The dead have neither power nor rights over it”. Asshole.) A better example to use with zombies is how we treat animals or people with demished capacities. As Rhodes observed, zombies operate much like “lunatics”. That is, a zombie, as we are reminded in zombie flick after zombie flick, cannot be reasoned with. Likewise, people who have no control over themselves (perhaps because of mental illness) are not rational. Like animals and the mentally ill, it is incumbent on us, the rational ones, that we care for those who cannot control or care for themselves. So perhaps we should think of zombies (or those who are mostly dead) more like we think of the mentally ill, or people who suffer from an addiction or compulsion. They cannot be but what they are. We should treat them sympathetically. For instance, my dog does not understand that there is a legitimate reason why he is not allowed to poop in the house. If I attempt to demonstrate my very well thought-out reason, he won’t understand it. I cannot treat him as if he should understand. I would not hold him to the same rational standard that I would another adult human. Therefore, when he does leave an “accident”, I cannot punish him in the same way that I would if he were a grown man who had crapped on my livingroom floor. If I did, I would be out of line for doing so. If I do (which would entail some asskicking), then I am in the moral wrong for my behavior. My willingness to overpunish my dog reflects on me as a rational moral agent. My moral aptitude is demonstrated by my actions. So, if I string a zombie up and poke it with sticks for shits and giggles, it says much more about what kind of person I am than about how dangerous the zombie is. And that’s precisely what Barbara saw. It wasn’t the zombies who had lost their humanity, but the living as well. The living had ceased to act like humans. Their intent was to cause harm — it just so happens that their targets were people that they could get away with treating so badly. Like the man who makes a promise to his dying friend and then breaks it, they treated the zombies harshly because they knew that they would get away with doing it. To them , a zombie is nothing more than a thing. It is not a person. It deserves no moral consideration. It deserves no respect. An interesting side note is that we can see this attitude (maybe not to such a degree) in our electronic world. Websites such as Second Life enable people to enter a “reality” where they can act and do what they choose. A person can indulge any and every desire. The idea is, is that if there is no real person, then there is no moral transgression. There is no living being to offend. This is the same idea that is behind the idea of virtual child pornography. Since the child in question is the product of a computer and there is no real child who corresponds with the virtual image, then there is no moral wrong with having (virual) sex or viewing sexually explicit images of children who do not exist. But, as we all know, it takes two to tango. There is no actual being, but there is an actual someone who is having sex with virtual children. If one doubts that there is a problem here, all one needs to do is ask this question: would you feel comfortable alone, camping in the woods with someone who you discovered enjoyed rape/murder fantacies in a virtual world? Would it matter at all is the person didn’t do it to anyone who actually existed (that they only did it with/to a virtual person, an automaton, or god forbid, a zombie), or would the fact that that person even entertained those sorts of intentions cause you to turn down the invite to go camping this weekend? What matters isn’t that the victim (there I go, thinking like Barbara) is dead and all messed up, but that, like Romero suggests, the monsters — the moral monsters — are us. The end scene in Diary of the Dead is the perfect example of this point of view: The end scene of the film depicts a couple of gunsmen who have rigged up zombies for target practice. The last target is a female zombie who has been strung up from a tree by her hair. One of the gunsmen shoots, blasting her body away from her head. As her body drops, the top half of her head and her hair remain rigged to the tree. As her head dangles, a single blood tear streams from the corner of her eye. This final scene, the zombie’s tear, suggests that despite her condition, she still retained some bit of her humanity. Perhaps she wasn’t as messed up as Chief McClellan has believed. Somehow she still feels. This, of course, is how we think about souls. The body my die and whither away, but there is some part of us that remains. The soul is what may be harmed by the actions of the living. I feel that many people, when they think of people who died, tend to treat the dead according to this view. But of course, any atheist (or strict materialist) would object to notions of souls existing past death. We’ll grant them that (primarily because this is how I believe myself). So, in real life, the dead do not move around and eat the living, and we may not believe in souls, but we do have, in our own minds, memories of those who have passed. Perhaps we can or should honor that. There’s an old cliche — that a person isn’t truly dead so long as we keep them in our hearts. This may be why we are offended by the idea of treating a dead person improperly — why the idea of necrophilia or cannibalism (unless we happen to be stranded in the Andes mountains with our soccer team), or procuring organs without the original owner’s consent, are abhorent to us. The body is material and will eventually rot and turn to dust. But the body is also symbolic of the person who once was. And to that, we feel have a deep moral obligation. Until we are completely forgotten and lost to history, we may argue, when we die, we become more than the sum of our parts. At least as long as those who remember us are living, our existence, our humanity, becomes transcendent. More importantly, how we regard the dead reflects on who we are — that those who are left behind are honorable, moral people. So, it is indeed possible to harm the dead, because when we harm the dead, we harm ourselves. Treating the dead harshly takes away from our own moral standing — we become less human when we do so. The short of it is, is that when we die we don’t lose our humanness. And being dead isn’t so messed up. Well, it’s either that, or we really are afraid of visits from good old Jacob Marley and his rattling chains. ….. or even worse, that kid from The Ring.