What Ails Us: A Brief Ontological Explanation
It is axiomatic that life is precious, and that all living beings are genetically programmed to resist deadly threats to their continued existence. This truism is especially striking when we consider that individuals possess an infinitesimally tiny probability of being born in the first place and an even smaller chance of enjoying a life in which they can thrive, free from danger. In this context, most people tend to view themselves as unique human beings, while their understanding of the motives of others is less immediate. In ontological terms, each of us filters our perception of others through the lens of our own consciousness.
It is therefore with a certain degree of skepticism that we learn of a recent study reporting that suicide in the United States, whereby Americans take steps to end their own lives voluntarily, occurs more often than we would have guessed. Paula Span, in the August 7 issue of The New York Times, reports that a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that , among Americans of all ages, 12.4 per 100,000 take their own lives each year and that those over the age of 65 kill themselves at a rate 20 per cent higher than that. Moreover, the rate for elderly white men is significantly greater still.
While the reasons vary from depression to illness or shame, it is tempting to search for the deeper, underlying causes among challenges in the external environment. Some of these are long-term in nature, such as living in an inhospitable climate or enduring the sometimes-violent effects of racial, religious, or sexual orientation discrimination. Others are responses to short-term events, such as an exposure to global or domestic terrorism, or having to vote in a presidential election in which the two candidates are a dishonest, untrustworthy woman and a xenophobic, authoritarian man.
I would like to suggest that this effort is fundamentally misplaced and that rather than searching for an external source of the problem, it is necessary to look internally. I would maintain that this anxiety about life is the natural consequence of a clear-eyed reflection on the essential nature of life on earth. It consists, after all, of an all-too-short lifetime, marked by suffering of one sort or another, culminating in death. This discouraging picture calls the perceptive observer’s attention to the gloomy cloud of imminent non-being hanging over our heads. Not the least important aspect of this condition is that it calls our attention to one of the two big, unanswerable questions we all face. The first is what are the characteristics of the few individuals that history has chosen to remember long after their deaths, in contrast to the vast majority of other people? The anxiety that this question generates stems from the fact that it forces people to confront their own insignificance, which serves only to exacerbate the underlying problem.
The answer to this question, incidentally, surely does not lie in worldly success – the attainment of great wealth or power. Rich people may lead comfortable lives, but most are not remembered after their deaths, with the possible exception of a few inventors, for whom financial success was a pleasant side-effect. And there have been a number of powerful dictators, but we remember them only for their notoriety. In the United States, even most presidents cannot claim recognition (other than a couple whose actions in office also produced a legacy of notoriety). A small handful had the advantage of being commanders-in-chief during wartime situations. A notable example in the twentieth century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who overcame polio while leading the country through the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II (and who would turn over in his grave to see the current crop of presidential candidates).
I believe we remember those who have made contributions that history deems inspiring, and a great number of these fall into the two categories of discoverers of truth and creators of beauty. Accordingly, most of these people tend to be either physicists or artists. Albert Einstein is therefore remembered because his general theory of relativity improved our understanding of the inner workings of the universe, while Enrico Caruso is remembered because the powerful emotion conveyed in his operatic voice moved audiences to tears.
What is to be done?
Although it may be common to assume that it is only others who lead ‘’normal” lives and inhabit the physical world, this subjective perspective oversimplifies matters, since ontologically, we all find ourselves “in the same boat”. Accordingly, the first order of business for everyone is to compile an inventory of all the elements in their lives that are most troublesome for them, in order to reflect on what it is that they value in life. This task is not to be taken lightly (after all, when Vladimir Lenin did it in 1917, he got the wrong answer). The purpose of this exercise is to construct a sort of ontological “wish list” of all the things in their lives that people would change if they were permitted to do so.
What might be likely to be near the top of most people’s list of concerns, especially if they belong to an older generation, is based on the observation that the physical body performs less and less effectively over time, due to its vulnerability to diseases like cancer or multiple sclerosis, and, as a result, people tend to think of themselves more and more as mental, rather than physical, beings. Of course, the brain is an organ of the physical body too, and, as it also gradually deteriorates, people may eventually shift their focus, once more, to an even higher self-definition.
An individual’s spirit is the life force that animates his or her body, and a person’s spirit continues to represent that person’s unique inner essence long after the body ceases to function perfectly. Accordingly, if people could be granted any wish they desired, their spirit might be tempted to “give up”, dismiss the fear of “pulling the ripcord” too soon, and just wish to be relieved of the burden of a malfunctioning body. Although this desire is in conflict with the ingrained human tendency to resist its own non-existence, these other influences sometimes intervene, which may offer at least a partial explanation for the alarmingly high suicide rate among the elderly. Unfortunately, such actions represent cases of “throwing the baby out with bathwater”, since the spirit would also be sacrificed in those circumstances. One wonders if there might not be some way around this spiritual conundrum, and if the spiritual descendants of some of those memorable inventors mentioned earlier might not have a role to play in it.
The Record of Technological Progress, or Why Ev’ry Thing’s Up-to-Date In Kansas City
Human history has been marked by the continuous upward movement in life’s “state of the art” in response to perceived deficiencies in the status quo. Examples abound, but a few of them include the printing press, which facilitated the wholesale dissemination of human knowledge; the electric light, which extended the workday beyond just the daylight hours; the telephone, which made communication possible among fixed, non-adjacent locations; the camera, which created images of subjects more accurately than paintings; and automobiles, railroads, and airplanes, which created travel opportunities to locations beyond the immediate local area. Some of these innovations were humorously cataloged by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein in their musical production, Oklahoma, but the common element of them all was the application of technology to perceived needs.
In more recent times, the pace of this innovation has accelerated: the internet gives individuals encyclopedic access to information far beyond their own personal experience and can therefore be seen as a modern version of the printing press, while the I-phone combines features of the telephone, the internet, a typewriter, and the camera, so that users can now communicate with other people from any location through speech or in writing, take photographs or motion pictures, and “look up” information on any subject at the touch of a button. Many observers of these developments have speculated about where it will all lead.
I should point out that the I-phone has its share of critics, who complain that widespread internet access makes people lazy and less able to think for themselves, and that society’s obsession with these devices renders their users self-absorbed and unable to function without them. The experience is not uncommon, while walking down a street, to be bumped into by someone with his or her nose buried in an I-phone, wearing earphones, looking downward, and screaming into the device. While such an encounter used to signal an assault on one’s person by a fugitive from a mental institution, it now passes for a friendly exchange with a skilled, technological wizard.
The proliferation of this isolationist technology in American society has coincided simultaneously with a deterioration in the use of the English language. The transitive verb (i.e., having an object) “to get”, normally meaning “to obtain”, is now universally used as a synonym for “to understand”, while the intransitive verb (i.e., no object) “to grow” is widely misused by politicians promising to “grow the economy”. The ”adjectives” “cool” and “hot”, normally references to temperatures, now are used to mean, respectively, “marvelous” and “good-looking”. And even though the adjectives “amazing” and “incredible” really have the distinctly different meanings of “remarkable” and “not believable”, they are overused interchangeably to reference anything mildly surprising, thereby rendering their utterers to be empty-headed cliché –mongers. It goes without saying that the universal, insincere greeting, “How are you?” is never answered honestly, nor is it expected to be.
The Future Promise of Technological Progress
Here, we arrive at the point where the discussion shifts from a description of the past to a prediction of the future. Despite the frivolous use to which many of the new devices have been put to date, the main thrust of technology thus far has generally been the improvement of living conditions for people. Accordingly, it is a reasonable conjecture that the logical next step will be to finally address the most important human need, namely achieving freedom from the shackles of our physical bodies, while still preserving the living spirit of each being. There has already been some progress toward this goal in the field of Robotics, where lives have been extended through the use of artificial limbs and organs (including the once-thought-to-be irreplaceable heart). And most recently, there was news of a man paralyzed from a spinal injury, who had some movement restored by the placement of a “chip” in his brain that allowed him to move his limbs just by thinking about them.
It is actually in the brain (where both long-term and short-term memory is stored, but which is vulnerable to damage from debilitating diseases, such as strokes or Alzheimer’s) that this final threshold resides. If some enterprising scientist were able to cross this last frontier and devise a strategy for accomplishing the necessary self-preserving and self-sustaining properties of the brain (possibly through the application of cryogenics), the final separation of the spirit from the body would be attainable (and, as an incentive, I am confident that a Nobel prize would be in the offing for anyone who could rise to the occasion).
Such an achievement would call attention to the second large, unanswerable question human beings struggle with, namely, is there life after death? If so, the separated spirits would be able to conquer death, attain immortality, and be free to travel across time and space without the constraint of needing to maintain the life of a physical body. In his 2006 study, Entangled Minds, Dean Radin presents scientific evidence supporting the existence of the psychic phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis, which are the essential properties of spirits’ lives when separated from their physical bodies.
Many questions arise from this hypothesis: Would people in the physical world know about the activities of these spirits? Could they contact us? What form would they take? Could we contact them? By definition, nobody knows the answers to these questions, but we can devise reasonable theories.
It is a common supposition that these spirits are represented in each individual’s soul – the spiritual and immortal component of each human being. Although there are undoubtedly many possibilities, it is conceivable that we can have the experience of actively contacting the soul of someone who is no longer physically alive through our memory of that person. And another person’s soul may contact us without our active participation while we sleep, in our dreams. Sometimes the person will look the same as in our memory of them, or sometimes not, but we will recognize their invisible spirit, and they will recognize ours. Accordingly, on both sides, there will be perfect knowledge of past, shared interactions.
Not everyone will be comfortable with the discussion of these issues and may feel that if these ideas ever entered the cultural mainstream, it will be evidence that “the inmates are now running the asylum”. On the other hand, many other people may already subconsciously be having these same thoughts, and if so, it is probably high time that someone made the effort to give them voice.