death — part two

In the first video I looked at the illusions we construct to deny death and how they lead to divisive and disproportionate emotional responses to folks who don't share those illusions. In this second video, I'll be exploring several other grave subjects, including the label of 'pro-mortality atheist', the demands of immortality, the claim that there are no atheists in foxholes, and the possibility of peace of mind without recourse to illusion. Clearly, inventing illusions to deny death hasn't brought the peace of mind we might've hoped for. Our poorly-constructed fantasies of immortality unable to withstand scrutiny or challenge have inevitably created deep divisions which remain despite attempts to smooth over them with a veneer of multiculturalism. A veneer that can swiftly dissolve when death raises its bony head. So what about aiming for literal immortality? A few months ago QualiaSoup and I were labelled 'pro-mortality atheists', because we pointed out that while death brings endings for which we often feel unprepared or ill-equipped, without it, there'd be no space for new life. But this isn't a pro-mortality position. It's a practical recognition of the fact that our resources are not limitless. If we're going to try and introduce a limitless demand within a limited system, we need to address the mechanics of that. And let's be honest with ourselves. we're already buckling at the limits of our resources sustaining mortal existence. As wildlife is displaced to meet the demands of our sprawling agricultural crops, many species are being pushed toward - and beyond - precarious levels. We're nowhere near sustained survival in space, let alone the colonisation of other planets, so at the moment, this Earth is all we have. Will we be able to discipline ourselves, prepare for these thresholds of expansion, and try to work within our current limits? Or are we going to deny the existence of those limits and walk obliviously towards unknown levels of crisis. Engineer Saul Griffith conceptualised the problem in terms of energy consumption. At the moment, our global energy consumption is 13 terawatts. In our population of around 6 billion, that averages to 2.2 kilowatts per person, although national averages vary hugely. Consumption in the US is 11.4 kilowatts per person. Assuming an equal consumption of 5 kilowatts per person by 2035 - that's 30 terawatts in total - Griffith set about showing the level of resources that kind of demand would require, if we exclude fossil fuels. If we aim to achieve 5 terawatts of that total through conventional nuclear energy, that requires 5000 nuclear reactors over 25 years. Getting another 5 terawatts from wind energy would require a new, full-size 3-megawatt wind turbine every 3 minutes, eventually covering 2% of all land area. Finding 10 terawatts through solar energy would mean manufacturing 250 square metres of solar cells per second. And if we apportion 2 terawatts to bio fuels, we'll need to generate 4 olympic swimming pools of genetically engineered bacteria per second. That still leaves 8 terawatts unaccounted for. But something else we've failed to account for is population growth. While the current figure is around 6 billion, by 2035, that's expected to increase to around 8 billion. If no one died starting today, that would soar to over 10 billion. This highlights the issue of reproduction. If we were able to put off death indefinitely, would we go on producing children? If so, how many would we spawn in our lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands? Saul Griffith's statistics are based on our current lifestyles. Of course immortality doesn't necessarily mean immortality in our present form. But whatever our proposed form, immortality would require two essential conditions. The first is eternal sustainability. That means the immortal system can't be subject to terminal degenerative processes such as ageing. We have already encountered human cells with this property. The HeLa cell came from the cervical cells of one Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Where most human cells are limited in the number of times they can divide, the HeLa cell seems to have bypassed this natural in-built senescence. It's been reproduced in gargantuan quantities and involved in all kinds of research including tests for polio vaccinations, the effect of zero gravity on human cells, gene mapping, and cancer research which is appropriate considering the cervical cells in question were cancer cells. Perhaps unsurprisingly, growth control's been cited as a major issue, with the HeLa cell becoming a significant contaminant among other cell cultures. But even assuming stable sustainability could be met in whatever biological or non-biological form we come up against the second essential condition: indestructibility. To achieve immortality, the agent must also be impervious to all fatal damage from external agents. We have identified a life-form with extraordinary resilience to environmental extremes. The tardigrade reaches up to one-and-a-half millimetres, and can survive within a huge temperature range, from almost absolute zero to around 150 degrees centigrade; they can withstand doses of radiation hundreds of times beyond the threshold of other animals; they've reportedly endured pressures around six times that of the Mariana Trench, 11 km below the ocean's surface, and survived for days in the vacuum of space. But all this is nothing compared to the demands of immortality, which necessitates the endurance or avoidance of every conceivable environmental hazard. We have, in effect to become universe-proof. Aside from the more dramatic phenomena like black holes and the collision of galaxies, there are the more mundane problems. If we found ourselves encased in rock for thousands of years, what might that do to us psychologically? But let's race by these concerns and skip to the finish. Ultimately we begin to refer to end-of-universe events, like the big crunch, or heat death. When we begin to acknowledge any universal end which we can't surpass, the discussion shifts from immortality to indefinite longevity. In the absence of indestructibility a counter-intuitive irony emerges. Far from decreasing our anxiety around death, we raise it to its highest possible level. If we hope for 70 or 80 years of life, losing a few years, maybe even a few decades, can feel a substantial loss. But if we achieve eternal ageless individual sustainability, the prospect of death is raised to an indefinitely vast loss. In part one of this series, I explored some of the divisive and destructive psychological defences we currently employ to deny death. Imagine the extremity of defences needed when that loss is multiplied indefinitely. Neither I nor QualiaSoup are pro-mortality. Acknowledging the limits we live with is not equivalent to being in favour of them. But we are mindful of the fact that any bid for significantly enhanced longevity will require a considerable rethink in regard to our physical resources, as well as considerable psychological preparations. In 2008 my partner of ten years was diagnosed with lymphoma - cancer of the lymphatic system - and within hours of that diagnosis descended to full life support. We were all told to expect the worst. For days, we did what we could to prepare for the end. I noticed superstitious ideas bubbling up inside me all the time. Ideas like: 'Don't change your route to the hospital. Change equals death. If you stick to the same route, nothing'll change.' I knew what these thoughts were about. They were my attempt to find some tiny sense of control over a situation in which I felt utterly powerless. So I changed my route to the hospital and I resisted several similar notions. But eventually I did succumb to a supernatural comfort. I began to fantasise about a magic button I could push, that would instantly swap our places. I'd be the one in that hospital bed, about to die. I longed for that button to materialise. Throughout those days, I just kept pushing my thumb down on thin air. The dissonance was tremendous. I wanted so desperately for it to be true, that my awareness that it was a fantasy became painful. Then the day finally came when I didn't need the button any more. With a last-ditch experimental drug combination, the doctors achieved what no superstition can. Through the application of scientific knowledge and skill, they prevented death. My partner made a full recovery and we were married later that year. Throughout that entire experience, the idea of any life beyond this one never crossed my mind. All I could stretch to was a death swap. After that experience, facing my own possible death in these last few months was a walk in the park. Not a single superstitious fantasy this time. It's simply not true that there are no atheists in foxholes. But those who regurgitate this thought-terminating cliché unwittingly concede a remarkable own goal. Even if the odd atheist did find divine ideas frothing up in their mind in their last moments, are those desperate, irrational, psychological defences, mobilised by a fear of imminent death, actually being defined as 'theism'? Let's boil down what's being proposed here: an atheist clutching at straws in a state of fear is a theist. What an extraordinarily revealing commentary on the nature of faith. Some people have asked how I've found peace of mind in regards to my own death. For me, it's about fully embracing the fact I have nothing to prepare for. As humans, we have a peculiar vulnerability to anxiety. We're not confined to reacting in the here-and-now. We've developed the capacity to look deeply into the future. To anticipate problems and prepare for them. Where preparation's possible, we can act purposefully and productively. But when preparation isn't possible, we have nowhere useful to channel our energies. If our drive to prepare persists, we descend into neurosis, obsessive, unproductive, impotent thoughts and actions. But there is another option. To stop preparing. To bring our thoughts and actions in line with reality. There are few times in life when we get to be absolved of all possible responsibility for something. Death provides that liberating opportunity. If we're honest with ourselves, and manage to let go of our denials, we'll acknowledge the fact that death lies intrinsically outside of our experience. Just like the time before our birth. We don't look back on that pre-conscious time with intense emotion. And we needn't do so with death. This sentiment's been echoed by many writers over the centuries. Mark Twain, for instance, who famously said: "I do not fear death ... I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." Over two thousand years ago, Lucretius put forward a similar 'symmetry' argument, that those who fear future non-existence, should contemplate their past non-existence. If we allow ourselves to contemplate that past non-existence, we might find our fears about returning to it simply fall away. Far from being incompatible with a realistic awareness of death, peace of mind can come as a direct result of it. Therapy works by bringing what's out of our awareness into our awareness exposing our illusions, our assumptions, our defences. Sometimes we come to therapy because coping strategies that once seemed helpful are no longer working for us, or actively working against us. When we become conscious of these inner conflicts and how they hold us back, we have the chance of letting go of them and moving forward. It's not an easy process, our defences are there for a reason, and sometimes removing them will put us in touch with great pain and vulnerability. The prospect of facing that, after years of comforting denial can feel daunting, sometimes overwhelming. Even clients who seem genuinely motivated can start sabotaging their own therapy finding excuses not to put a plan of action into work, maybe even forgetting to turn up to sessions. Sometimes a move towards health can feel like a backward step. It might mean taking more responsibility, getting less attention, feeling less powerful, less special. As Freud noted: 'The patient wants to be cured, but he also wants not to be'. We see echoes of these processes played out on a global scale. Illusion and denial covering pain and fear. Dysfunctional cultural coping mechanisms, like religion, which once might've seemed to offer great peace, but which have become their own problem to be coped with, actively stifling our progress, holding us back at a primitive stage of development we've long outgrown. Mechanisms we perpetuate, by injecting them into our children before they can even think, forcing them to share our denial, never giving them the chance to experience the pain of realistic loss, and work through it in a productive and healthy way. And making it all the more devastating when they discover it's all lies. Like the client in therapy, some of us wish to let go of these illusions and move forward, while others resist. Again, a move towards health might seem like a backward step to some making some of us feel less special, taking away some power, some attention, requiring greater personal responsibility, as our trespasses are not magically forgiven, our guilt is not transubstantiated into innocence. Giving up these false comforts, dismantling these fantasies, is no mean feat. They are the most seductive, beguiling ideas humans have invented, drilling right down into our deepest fears and vanities. Are we ready to bring these illusions into our collective consciousness? To confront our fears, rather than recoil from them? A few years ago in a video exploring my transition to atheism, I included a brief contemplation on the tasks involved in leaving a comforting illusion. Many of us have made that transition. I hope many more will find the strength to do so.