Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sleep and death

A: Last time you were saying that life was our most fundamental desire, and that it didn't make sense not to seek eternal life, even if we had no proof that it exists.

B: More or less.

A: I thought about that some more. What if we make an analogy between death and sleep? Imagine the end of a long day of work, both physical and mental. You lie down in bed, your work finished, no more distractions. You don't just accept sleep--you embrace it. You relish the moment when your eyes close, and there is nothing more to do than to simply drift off.

B: I know the feeling. I suppose you're going to say we could accept death the same way.

A: Exactly. That's the ideal, anyway. A life well lived, leading to a noble death, which you can embrace just as much as you relish sleep at the end of the day. What's wrong with that?

B: There's no denying that having a need satisfied feels wonderful. I love that feeling of falling asleep, all cozy and warm, just as anyone else. But sleeping is like eating. It is a need we satisfy so that we can keep on living. Nothing feels better than to eat after feeling famished, or to drink after feeling intense thirst. That doesn't mean I actually "embrace" hunger or thirst, except in the sense that I know I need to eat and drink and that doing so brings pleasure.

A: That's quite a lot of ambivalence, there. You don't embrace hunger or thirst, but you do get pleasure out of eating and drinking.

B: Exactly! I love eating and drinking, not hunger and thirst.

A: That supports my point, not yours. You love eating, drinking, and... sleeping! And in the same way, one could come to appreciate death as a satisfaction of our ultimate desire--to be set free after a life well lived.

B: But death is not analogous with the other three. I eat and drink and sleep in order to sustain my life.

A: No, you also said there was pleasure involved. Isn't it true that we do these things primarily for the pleasure they give us? Sure, after the fact you can give this justification that you're sustaining life, but the immediate effect is to satisfy a desire.

B: True. Desire is a complicated business. Our desires compete with one another. We can't discretize them and satisfy them one by one, and call that happiness.

A: I suppose not. Still, can't one have the desire to die a good death, and be happy with fulfilling that desire at the end of a life well lived?

B: The problem is that death is an end to all desire, hence to all satisfaction of desire. I submit that part of what it means to live, especially as a conscious being, is to continually learn better what it is we truly want and how to find fulfillment.

A: OK, but eternally? That sounds tedious.

B: Not if there is genuine discovery all along the way. Although one might describe it abstractly as a repetitive existence--one always learns new things--in terms of concrete experiences, it is never dull, never repetitive.

A: Fine, fine, but you haven't responded to the initial comparison between sleep and death. Sleep is not like eating or drinking; it is much more like death, since in falling asleep you let go of consciousness. And you do so willingly, even gladly. How can you do that if the desire for life is so fundamental?

B: Hold on. I never said the desire for life is fundamental in the sense of being "primal," in the way that food and drink and sleep are. I don't have an "urge" for life. It would be more reasonable to say that life is made possible through urges, since only by continually searching to meet our needs can we grow and sustain life. At the same time, not all urges should be listened to equally. We often have urges to eat bad food or to drink too much. If we care for our life, we won't give into these urges.

A: Are you saying sleep can be the same way?

B: Sometimes. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a lazy person in bed."

A: Right, but keep in mind the analogy I've been trying to make. Just as one shouldn't desire sleep until the end of a day well spent, so also one shouldn't desire death until the end of a life well lived.

B: At the end of a day well spent, one ought to desire sleep in the same way that three times a day, one ought to desire food. Our hunger for food should be kept in check, but we also need food, so we should listen to our bodies. In the same way, we need sleep, and we ought to listen to that need.

A: And one day, we all must die.

B: Only if you mean we must die in order to live, which in fact I believe.

A: Well there's an interesting twist.

B: Just as you cited last time, Jesus did say, "Those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it." The goal behind renouncing one's life is to find true life, eternal life. The goal is not simply to embrace the void.

A: I know it seems like I'm willing to "embrace the void," as you say. I understand there's a tragic element to a vision of the world without eternal life. But it comes down to making the most of what we actually have, rather than wishing it could be otherwise. So we're really back to where we started.

B: Indeed. I still think you're being the defeatist in the desert.

A: I am by no means a defeatist. On the contrary, I think we should make the best of what we have now, rather than hoping for an eternity that probably isn't going to exist.

B: And what would that mean? How does one make the most of what is here?

A: By savoring every moment, by loving people, by leaving the world better than we found it.

B: Leaving the world better than we found it? But how can it ever be better than we found it, when in fact it is destined for destruction?

A: What, you mean several billions of years from now? That doesn't mean we can leave our descendants with something better than what we have.

B: I suppose we can, but they are just as doomed as we are. Each generation can decide, out of stubborn devotion to an ideal given to them by their ancestors, to leave the world better than they found it, yet no matter how many generations of human beings exist, you say that the human race must one day die out, do you not?

A: Who can know for sure? I mean, the best science we have says that's true, but we have a long time ahead of us to discover some way around that. Besides, even if the human race will all die out, why would that mean we shouldn't leave the world better than we found it for the next generation?

B: I don't know if it means we should or shouldn't. I'm simply trying to understand what it means to "make the most of what is here." When you say "make the most," you must realize that whatever you make is only temporary, and no matter how good you make it, its destiny is destruction. Or do you believe in the possibility of eternal life after all?

A: I never said I had proof that eternal life doesn't exist. I just don't think it's very likely, given what we know. And I think it's more important to accept what we know to be true than it is to hope for things for which we have no evidence.

B: Yet you persist in hope for things for which we have very little evidence. You want to leave the world better than it is for the next generation. Setting aside the ultimate destiny of the human race, why should we have faith in the next generation? Will it be much better than ours? Who is to say it will not destroy itself and/or the world?

A: You're being a bit pessimistic. We don't have much evidence to suggest that the human race will destroy itself in the next few generations.

B: What kind of argument will you give for that? "It's never happened before"? That's hardly a good argument, firstly because in fact entire civilizations have been wiped out before, and secondly because modern humans have more dangerous means than ever before. History may be cyclical in many ways, but nuclear weapons simply didn't exist before 1940, and that changes many things.

A: I'm not sure where you're going with this. Are you trying to pin me down, saying that I really have some sort of quasi-religious faith after all? Look, I have no illusions about humanity. I agree that we are in danger of self-destruction all the tie. All we can do is put our best foot forward, hoping that the next generation will benefit from whatever we do now. And even if they don't, we only have one life to live, so we'd better appreciate the time we have.

B: So it ultimately comes down to appreciating one's own personal experiences.

A: I suppose it does. That's all we have, in the end.

B: And even they won't last.

A: No, they won't, not as far as I can tell.

B: I agree with you, the evidence that we can examine for ourselves seems to point in the direction you say. As much as I would love to assert that the argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is air tight, that is far from being true. If I'm going to base my opinions on our best science, on science alone, then I will have to admit that all we can do is appreciate the short life we have. But that is precisely why I place my desire for life above my desire for truth. If I strive to make myself an "objective thinker," if I scour the evidence and try to make the most dispassionate assertion I can about what is most likely, I am confident I will come to the same conclusion as you. But I did not marry my wife because I had dispassionately investigated whether or not I would actually be able to fulfill my vows to her--to love her my whole life long. Rather, I made that vow in the hope of fulfilling it through daily effort, because she is my true love. In the same way, I have made a commitment to Christ in the hope of obtaining eternal life, not because I have measured the odds solidly in its favor, but rather because it is my one true desire. Knowledge comes afterward, in service of life, not the other way around.

A: That's fine for you, but you know the problems I have with that approach. Anyway, we can continue this discussion later.

B: You have some other moments to savor now, do you?

A: Exactly.

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