How do you vaccinate against life. You could use a condom for starters or if you are Catholic and opposed to contraceptives then perhaps you could promote celibacy and advocate playing with little boys instead of producing them. But even if this strategy worked, I mean really worked, and all humans vaccinated themselves against life and died out (which they may anyway shortly) it would still be less than a spit in the bucket. Like fighting malaria with a slingshot.
Life is a whole lot more than human life. Go tell the mosquitoes and bacteria to stop breeding. No. Even a repeat of the Cambrian Dying-off in which 95% of life on earth got wiped out could not stamp out this disease completely. Those remaining 5% would do again what they did then, namely fill in the vacuum with even more species, and do it faster than before.
Let’s face it. There is no vaccine against life. At least not for the next 4 billion years or so.
OK, no vaccine. How about an antidote, a cure? If you can’t prevent a disease maybe you could cure it after it happened. But how do you go about curing a disease with 100% mortality rate? You can’t just reduce it to 69%. That might work for the AIDS virus which not everybody has, but not for Life, a viral epidemic encompassing every living organism on the face of the planet. Imagine you being one of those unlucky 69%, being told that some of your friends will live forever while you are doomed to die. That could put a serious dent into your golf game.
You can’t reduce the risk factor either. You can’t be 31% dead (though many people feel that way most workdays). No, sir. Physiologically speaking, if you are infected with life your prognosis is a death warrant, no exceptions… unless… Unless… the disease is vanquished, eradicated completely, once and for all, utterly wiped out like TB or Polio, and the threat hanging over us all is gone, vanished, vamoose. You heard me (Praise the Lord). Life eternal, here and now (Hallelujah). I must quickly add that unfortunately life may for the foreseeable future still be sexually transmitted (how distasteful) until a cleaner, more Christian way can be found, but the mortality rate certainly can be brought down to 0%.
A cure. Nobody dies, not in the cosmic sense at least. God is great.
All this is of course no big news if you have been paying attention. This is pretty well what we have been told for much of our existence, in every language, in every creed. Hindus go as far as to believe that even mosquitoes live forever, and one of them, for all we know, may reincarnate as Donald Rumsfeld. It makes little difference if you are a good Christian, a devout Muslim, or pray to your Versace handbag. The itinerary may vary. You may end up not coming back but moving on to sit at the feet of the Lord (what feet!!) or come back as lettuce, or merge with the All. The salient point is that you’ve been saved. YOU DON’T DIE!
Life = A sexually transmitted disease with 0% mortality rate, i.e. not a disease at all.
Phew! That was painless.
[a few blank pages]
And that pretty well concludes my book. Thank you for buying it.
©Copyright Peter Elyakim Taussig, 2012
Life is highly overrated. We make such a fuss over it - “It’s a life and death question”. I don’t get it. You live you die. You were you aren’t. You became something else, some other compound. We don’t fuss over sugar dissolving in our tea or yesterday’s rotten vegetables composting into topsoil. Things exist and reconfigure. That’s how it goes, and not just in life. Molecules do their eternal dance, bonding, separating, generating electricity. Some have bonded in such a way as to acquire cognition in some mutated apes. After a short while they disintegrate and go back to being Hydrogen and Nitrogen. No big deal, really.
The narcissistic mirror-gazing that characterizes our species is the most ridiculously elaborate nonsense ever created by Nature. It permeates every human thought and activity. The most cynical nihilist still labors under the delusion of being special. Life is considered a miracle for some reason and, by extension, human life must be an extra-special-miracle, so special in fact that it is sacred. And from this unfounded premise flows every concept, every mythology, every god, every moral our harebrained imagination ever concocted.
Life is no miracle. It is a very common phenomenon that follows ordinary laws that have been replicated in the laboratory. It is probably as common in the universe as carbon. Whatever is special about life is what we make up about it.
Not even the will to live is that remarkable. All living things have a will to live, until such time as they recognize that their game is up. All except humans. Only humans believe that there is something inherently wrong with dying. Death must be conquered.
And so we have metaphysical interpretations of Life, an “after-life”, souls, spirits, resurrections, eternal bliss, and invocations of a sacred “Life Force”. We now also have longevity research, and Cryopreservation, and cloning, anything but the simple fact, known to any chipmunk, that life and its cessation are the commonest ripples in the vast natural fabric of the physical world.
And a physical world is really all there is, if you leave out human fiction. In the physical world whatever exists dies, be it you and I, the bacteria in your gut, or our galaxy.
No big deal.
An intelligent alien would find the bizarre stories we humans make up fascinating, amusing, or perhaps nauseating in their pretentious self-centeredness.
The following essay was written at the time when my wife was undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, and I was being partially scalped to remove a piece of Melanoma (it made me look a bit like Gorbachev).
Being alive entails killing. It’s an unsettling thought that we try very hard not to dwell on, so we invent euphemisms to cover it up, make it more palatable. We speak of harvesting and fishing and sanitizing, but what all these terms really mean is the act of terminating another life to preserve our own. There is a scene in the comedy Notting Hill in which a rabid vegetarian accuses Hugh Grant of having “murdered” a carrot he just ate. It’s funny, but true. Nature, from a tiger pouncing on a gazelle to the weed in your garden choking the life out of your Swiss Chard, is one giant killing machine.
But there is one form of killing we rarely if ever find in Nature, suicide. True that while protecting itself or otherwise intending to kill someone else an organism may inadvertently or even deliberately lose its life, but you could hardly call that a suicide. A heroic act of sacrifice, intended to ensure the continued survival of its kind, is more like it. But a wanton termination of one’s own life runs contrary to Nature’s prime directive – “Try to survive, whatever it takes”.
The case of bacteria and viruses who invade a body to infect it with a deadly disease is no exception. It may look like suicide, after all the virus kills the very body that it feeds on. But seen not from the perspective of the individual virus but from its species or strain, your demise (along with your viruses) is in fact a blessing. As you hack and sneeze and bleed to death millions of new viruses spread to other hosts. Bad for us, good for the viruses.
Many people look at cancer as just another disease, like typhoid or Malaria. Something causes a cell to start mutating. It spreads and multiplies, just like a virus, and in the process destroys healthy cells and eventually kills you. But there is a fundamental difference between cancer and infectious diseases. The cell in question is not an outside “invader” using your body as “prey” for its own advantage. The cancerous cell is you. When it succeeds in its scheme to kill you, it will die as well. From the point of view of the cancer this is not a noble sacrifice, neither is it a smart strategy. This is suicide, plain and simple. There is no residual benefit whatsoever to the cell, and its actions contradict the very essence of self-preservation.
Why would a cell want to kill itself? What is it trying to achieve? And what could possibly be Nature’s purpose in such a suicidal process that seems to run contrary to its own evolutionary principles?
Or does it? Could there be some evolutionary “message in a bottle” here that Nature is sending? Is it possible that the cell’s suicide, far from signaling the breakdown of Nature’s laws, is in fact a useful process, perhaps even essential?
I am a firm believer in Nature being utilitarian. Things occur for a reason, and the reason usually has to do with survival. Basically, when it comes to living organisms, things happen to either ensure their survival or hasten their extinction, as the case may be. There is no middle way in Nature. An organism is either fit to stay, fit to fit in as it were, or else it is deemed a failure, a dead-end, and it must go. Countless species have come and gone based strictly on this elegant principle. Does the suicidal nature of cancer point in the latter direction, or does it have some other, less depressing (for us) purpose?
Whenever I am stuck for an interpretation of a natural phenomenon, I fall back on a device that at least helps me understand the question, if not provide an answer. I create a story around it, with the forces at play its characters. This anthropomorphic interpretation is of course fanciful. Natural objects and forces don’t possess the kind of consciousness that we associate with ourselves. But it helps at least clear the fog, and sometimes, if I am lucky, may point in the direction of a possible interpretation.
Go back and imagine for a minute that first mutated cancerous cell, before it had started to spread through your body. Imagine a possible mythical reason for its behavior.
The cell becomes aware of itself. It looks at itself and starts believing that it is unique, quite different from all the other cells around it, and what’s more important, quite separate from the larger system within which it lives, which is your body. Having gained self-awareness and believing itself to be autonomous from the tyranny of your body, it feels superior to the other “ordinary” and mindless cells around it, eventually denying even the fact that it has no existence outside you. And then it starts to spread. It wants to subdue its neighbors, perhaps not to harm them, just to convert them to become a copy of its superior self. And as it succeeds, its ambition, and one would assume its self-confidence and pride, grows along with its conquests. One by one the other cells of the body fall in line with the new order. Pretty soon the entire universe of the cell would be its domain. It looks like a winning strategy.
But like other delusions of grandeur, it is nothing but folly, shortsighted, ignorant folly. As the cell’s power grows, its universe collapses all around it. And at the height of its expansion and power, its world comes to an end and it dies along with the body that it killed. It’s a suicide murder, and it is tragic like all avoidable tragedies.
As I contemplate my little fable I become mindful of a new interpretation of cancer that sets it apart from all other diseases. The story is a chillingly accurate metaphor for human folly. Substitute Hitler or Napoleon for “cell” and you get the sad history of human Hubris. Substitute the cell killing its own ecosystem and you have an apt metaphor for us destroying the very planet upon which our life depends. Does Nature have a poetic sense or am I endowing unrelated phenomena with a meaning they don’t have? Either way, cancer as an up close and personal warning for our species to beware of Hubris may have some positive purpose (though that may be poor consolation for the individual dying of cancer).
The futile hunt over the past half century for a “cure” for cancer, something along the lines of a Polio vaccine, has yielded very little, not even a basic understanding of the nature of cancer, let alone a cure. If anything, the situation has steadily worsened in spite of the billions of dollar poured into cancer research. Today cancer incidents have become as prevalent as TB used to be in the 19th century. It therefore makes sense that people would be talking about an “epidemic of cancer”, something as terrifying and commonplace as the bubonic plague was.
And yet cancer is no epidemic. It is not a foreign pathogen attacking us. It is “us” attacking ourselves. As such it has no precedent. When a species develops mutations that place its own survival in jeopardy it is Nature’s way of questioning its viability.
A physical cure for cancer may someday be found, though I strongly doubt it. However, while we wait we would do well to stop viewing cancer merely as a sickness and start seeing it as the symptom it is, and heed the vital message it delivers to all of us, afflicted or not. Nature is NOT benevolent. It is impartial. Its only criterion is viability within your system, whether you are a cell or a human. If you ignore the greater context in which you live you die.
Cancer on the largest scale may be the planet’s house cleaning.
I do believe in reincarnation, but it is a different kind of reincarnation from the one Buddhists and Hindus believe in. It preserves nothing of the present ME, except the impersonal physical components that made me. Those molecules of my transient form, that maintained my Peter-ness while it lasted, will upon my death morph into some other form, perhaps a blade of grass, perhaps a drop of water, but no part of my temporary illusion of self will survive, none of the thoughts or experiences that came into being as a result of my transient consciousness will be present in that drop of water, because they were an integral part of the Peter who is gone.
This is not depressing!! It is glorious and real. It reaffirms the only true identity I ever had as an Earthling, being a part of this magnificent closed system, a finite set of components which keeps taking on a myriad forms, like a never ending kaleidoscope. It gets me in touch with every cell, with every atom in my body. It gives a tangible meaning to my oneness with the trees and the ocean and the clouds and the animals and the other people I love so much. And while I am in this temporary body, the experiences and thoughts are NOT an illusion. They are as real as my body, and just as transient.
But once I am dead, all these thoughts and experiences die with me, and just like a blade of grass I generously return everything to that big nourishing soup to create another something.
This relieves me of the need to invent fairytales like souls and spirits and past lives and many other illusions that we humans invent merely because we are so terrified of dying. Perhaps being OK with not leaving anything behind except the building blocks for something else is what the sages of yore meant by non-separateness.
I have dealt with the subject of suicide at length in my book The Atheist's Guide to Miracles. This little essay was a precursor, a first draft if you will, of my thoughts on the matter, written at a time when I was contemplating suicide. So it is not mere idle talk.
“Life is sacred because it is God given” maintain the faithful. “Human life is the culmination of evolution” claim their secular opponents. I don’t believe in God or any other superstition that places humans at the center of creation, so for me the dogma of the sanctity of life is no more than an empty meaningless slogan. Humans have no problem shooting each other given sufficient patriotic inducement. Even those who profess never to kill anything still live in a world in which life is cheap and expendable. The Jain who covers his face lest he kill an insect becomes a tasty lunch for a tiger devoid of such refined sentiments. We hold human life to be extra precious, but we let 22,000 children die of hunger and disease every single day because saving them would inconvenience us.
My morality does not derive from any divine edict. I cannot justify my moral decisions hiding behind the fabricated word of a non-existent god. Deciding whether my life is sacred or not, whether it should be maintained at all costs or be allowed to be terminated is mine to make and no one else’s.
Consider that the life in question was never my idea in the first place. My parents copulated and I was the side effect of their moment of passion. I was certainly not consulted in the matter. It would be a stretch to feel awed by something as common and as patently random as life. My life happened and here I am. Other than my parents (long since deceased) who else could presume to decide whether I keep my life or ditch it? A judge, a rabbi, some moral philosopher I have never met? One thing is certain, society, which had nothing whatsoever to do with my birth, has the least claim to make such decisions.
Stripping away the religious and Humanist slogans, the biological process of life has but one function, to replicate itself, which I have done. However, being human and having evolved a certain amount of self-awareness, I also have the ability to evaluate my life, something I doubt (though I cannot prove it) a slug or even a dog can do. Furthermore, self-awareness allows me not only to weigh whether I like my life or not, it also lets me realize the cost to me, in effort and suffering, of maintaining it. Finally, my human brain also provides me with the option and the means to terminate my life should I so desire, in theory at least. Theory, because society and its skewed moral code decrees that it has the final say in the matter, that it has the right to supercede my decision. In some states suicide is a criminal offence! What is the punishment I wonder, jail?
Clearly suicide is not a decision anyone would take capriciously. It takes a great deal of suffering to induce a person to wish to die. On the other hand life provides ample such opportunities. Chances are that sooner or later health, relationships, finances, and safety will get compromised and what seemed like a joyride descends into pure misery. Hell is here on earth and no virtue or healthy diet can protect us from it. When life goes to pieces there is that unique human ability to conjure up a better future that keeps most of us from doing ourselves in right away. But on occasion the misery persists and hope fades and the pointlessness of the whole exercise stares us in the face. If you are like me, allergic to false consolations, you will, sooner or later, ask yourself “what’s the point?” And should you be brutally honest with yourself you will realize that not only is there no point now, but there never was one to begin with.
When that happens, what will keep you going? What are the core requirements for life to be worth the effort? Put another way, the absence of which elements would make suicide an appealing, even preferable alternative to living?
The two elements that fill these requirements are:
Purpose is an even more potent living force. Setting a goal, striving to have an experience, to master a skill, to make lots of money, wanting to help someone you love or refusing to abandon someone in need, or for that matter wanting to please your God, all these can give focus to an otherwise miserable life. As long as I have reason to live, no matter how much suffering there is in my life, the goal or purpose make the cost worthwhile.
Purpose and happiness are therefore the sustainers of life. Take away one or the other and life is diminished to mere existence, becoming meaningless. Take away both and life becomes intolerable. A life of pain and suffering without direction or reason may become a poor alternative to a quick and painless death. Why shouldn’t suicide be a reasonable, even appealing, option in such circumstances?
And yet, conventional wisdom (which is no wisdom at all) holds that taking one’s own life is the ultimate crime, regardless of the alternative.
Two arguments are usually used to justify this prejudice, the one moral the other practical.
The moral argument takes many forms but essentially it is religious. Life is a god given gift and violating it is a sin. In other words, your life is not yours at all. It is some sort of loan from the universe. When “sin” fell out of fashion the same sentiment was re-branded as “cowardice”, as if life was some sort of heraldic contest aimed at proving your valor.
Aside from the fact that none of this can be proven or even defended by minimal requirements of reason, the argument that continuing to endure pointless misery out of inertia is somehow more courageous than taking a difficult and decisive step to end it, is plain embarrassing nonsense.
The practical argument against condoning suicide is not much more persuasive. It goes like this. Circumstances of life can change but death is finite. A person considering suicide is not in his or her right mind. It is therefore the obligation of someone on the outside to prevent the person from taking their life as a kind of deferment, allowing the person to recover their wits and then make a reasoned decision.
A few assumptions here make me laugh. Just because you are considering suicide does that automatically make you insane? Will the “sane” people who sanely go about causing death and destroying the planet be the judges?
Granted, many attempted suicides are nothing but cries for help. A timely intervention may save a life and win the person’s gratitude later. But that is not to say that many suicides are not genuine premeditated acts in which a person has weighed the relative merits of suffering, mental or physical, against the release of death, and found the latter to be a more appealing alternative.
Denigrating such a decision by preventing it or later portraying it as a failure or sin is blatant prejudice based on our superstitious past. It has a long ignominious history of deliberate humiliation, both of the people who committed suicide and their families. In many cultures death by suicide precludes a proper burial, and many hide it as a stain on the family’s honor.
Behind this embarrassment is an assumption that living in this world is the greatest gift anyone could wish for, that this is the best of all possible worlds, that death is the ultimate curse to be avoided at all costs, and that anyone preferring it to life mocks this belief and delivers a personal slap in the face to everyone else who believes it.
Suicide is the ultimate repudiation of the goodness of this life, a contradiction of the unexamined belief in the goodness of this world, a rebellion against the sacred myths that people have invented and that have kept humankind in chains and nearly destroyed the planet. Suicide is a statement that life is not always worth living and that death in certain circumstances is far preferable to misery. Above all it is a statement that one’s life is one’s own, to do with as one wishes.
Now that I call courage.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)