Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Dialectic of Doubt

Being primarily selfish creatures, humans have always lived based upon their definitions of their self interests. Like each of us, no human living then could know for certain whether his own life was all that he would ever know and experience, or whether there was something of positive value beyond the physical death of the body. There is the possibility that death ends both pleasure and suffering, which might be interpreted as a neutral prospect, but could also give rise to the hope that, in ending suffering, the dead are happier than they were in life, since so much of life involves suffering. However, if all hope, including that of death as a painless nullity, is a delusion, then the individual faces the prospect of a future comprised of an infinite, lonely wasteland, solely real in that all happiness past or falsely present is nothing more than a futile mental diversion, a false memory dreamt by a desolate, longing state of consciousness, unbearable but for the fact that it is unavoidable and immanent, indistinguishable from death, though, again, not the optimistic version of it as a nullity granting relief and release, but death as a constant, painful, and eternal process of entropy – unending diminution and loss. Obviously, there was, and is, no means of proving or disproving any position on this matter. If one knew, beyond any doubt, that this life is all that there is, and that nothing may be done to influence what happens afterwards, then the only sensible course of action would be to enjoy one’s single and solitary life as much as possible, and as selfishly as possible, with one’s own definition of self interest limited to that of a single life. To some extent, many people accept this “one life” idea as a probability and “working hypothesis,” and live accordingly. However, even for most of those who tend to believe that death ends everything, it is impossible to banish all doubt of the idea that existence may somehow transcend physical death, and that, consequently, one’s actions in this life may somehow affect one’s existence beyond the grave. Since it is inevitable that some degree of belief in the hereafter will persist, even in those who take the greatest pride in claiming a personal skepticism regarding transubstantiation, it becomes necessary to purchase a sort of “spiritual insurance.” Of course, the amount that each of us purchases varies, depending upon the degree of skepticism regarding the possibility of a hereafter. The type of insurance purchased also varies in that the purchasers need not be faithful to any given religion, or even outwardly pious and observant of religious ritual. The only commonality in practice is sacrifice to a good beyond one’s individual material self interest, based on the assumption that one’s consciousness may transcend the material self. It is interesting to note that in Greek Mythology, Chronos (or Time) tries to eat all of his children, until Zeus, his son and the founder of the Olympian Gods, kills him. The lesson is clear: Time is cruel and consumes its offspring, and the only hope of escaping the fundamental horror of temporal existence is the belief in something beyond it. There is the possibility that this hope is a false one and that we never truly escape Time- that a Hobbesian world exists in which the future is a wasteland and we are all merely self-deluded cannibals, driven insane by the desperation resulting from the knowledge of our certain destruction. If so, then all is pointless, and it doesn’t matter how selfishly we act or what atrocities we perpetrate. Although one might argue that, if the actual truth is intolerable, entertaining a roseate delusion of transcendence might constitute a “golden lie,” and that it is therefore not a waste of time, no delusion can be sustained as an eternally convincing lie, as it is the truth, intolerable or not, which must be faced. The truth is ineradicable and immanent, though not always self-evident. Since no one can know with any certainty which prospect is real, the mindset of the individual, and of human society as a whole, alternates between pursuing our happiest dreams and surrendering to our ugliest suspicions. The means of engaging in these pursuits evolve in complexity and sophistication as well, as the inventions and benefits resulting from the evolution of our civilized and humane personae are mirrored in our destructive and wasteful abuses of this new knowledge, the logical and contradictory negation of the spirit which created it. The essential dialectical conflict between the outlooks underlying a seemingly dynamic, materialistically progressive process never changes.

(c) Copyright 2009 by A. Rogolsky

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