Monthly Archives: May 2017

Brief Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s, “Because I could not stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. For most of her life, she lived as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest American poets. Here is probably her most well-known poem, followed by a brief analysis.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Analysis – In this poem, Dickinson speaks from beyond the grave about death—personified as a gentleman who picks her up in a carriage. They drive along slowly, as she ceases to work and views the world she is leaving behind. She grows cold as the dusk falls, and they stop at her burial-place, marked by a small headstone. In the final stanza, we learn that her ride with Death took place centuries ago, but seems to her as if it happened yesterday. When she took that ride with death she first realized that the horses and carriage were taking her to an afterlife.

Commentary – When reading this poem I visualize a deep and introspective woman imagining that she will find recompense for the loneliness of her life in a beautiful afterlife. This is touching, but the philosopher in me doubts any of this is true. Of course, I could be wrong.

A Vision of the Future

A colleague elucidated a thoughtful replay to those who believe that culture needs a vision of an ideal future that inspires people to act now so as to help bring about this ideal in the future. In my case this vision is of a future where our post-human descendents attain higher levels of being and consciousness. Our role in the drama is as protagonists in that evolutionary epic, and this provides (roughly) the meaning of our lives.

I would prefer this aspiration not to be “boxed in” to a single faraway, nearly metaphysical ideal (like Heaven, Utopia, Singularity, contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, …). Instead, I proposed that people should have a variety of aspirations and directions, from very concrete ones to achieve here and now, to very far away ones unlikely to be reached during their lifetime, and everything in between.

Rather than seeing the purpose of our lives in a specific goal, we instead think of it as a direction toward which cosmic evolution continually orients itself. As my colleague puts it:

In an evolutionary worldview, it is clear that life does not have an endpoint, but continues to evolve. Therefore, it is more realistic to replace purpose by direction: life evolves in the direction of more complexity, fitness, intelligence, synergy … you name it. Intent is a good word to capture this idea of pointing or directing, as it derives from the Latin “intendere”, which means “reaching towards.”

In practice this implies that as we reach one goal we then continue to strive for another. And this implies that we not box ourselves into a specific goal, but maintain “the flexibility to choose and change destinations any time along your journey, because … you always learn and become wiser while travelling.” So we shouldn’t accept a endpoint like a heaven, but instead remain open to adapting to lessons we learn along our journey.

This seems reasonable. Our overall purpose in life is to increase the good things about life and consciousness—goodness, truth, beauty, justice, liberty, equality, joy, pleasure—and decrease their opposites. We should try to create a heaven on earth, and for the moment we should take small steps toward this goal. In the present incremental steps may include: reshaping our criminal justice to be less punitive and more therapeutic; preserving the biosphere and stopping climate change;  defeating totalitarian political systems; overcoming racism, sexism, and xenophobia, advancing scientific research, elevating the truth versus the omnipresent lying; raising our children so that they arent’ sociopathic; creating more equitable economic systems; and advancing critical thinking and undermining superstition. Needless to say this list is almost endless.

For the moment we can do is what is humanly possible to bring about a better reality. If we do that we will be judge, if we are judge at all, favorably.

Alexandre Maurer on Why Longevity Doesn’t Equal Overpopulation

I have previously replied to the overpopulation objection to radical life extenstion, the most common objection to those of us who want to defeat death. While my defense of indefinite lifespans centers primarily around moral concerns, the computer scientist Alexandre Maurer has recently offered powerful mathematical reasons to doubt the whole premise of the overpopulation objection.

His main conclusion is that fertility rates and not longevity are the true culprits in population increases. A spectacular extension of life will have a negligible effect on population growth compared with a slightly greater fertility rates. To explain, he offers a simple example.

Assume an initial population of 1000 people. The fertility rate is 2, and the life expectancy is 80. Women give birth at 20.Now, let us consider two variations:

Case A: Death disappears. Nobody dies anymore!
Case B: The fertility rate slightly increases from 2 to 2.5.

Which of these two cases will lead to the greater population increase? A quick calculation gives the following results:

– After 500 years, the population will be 26 000 in case A, and at least 780 000 in case B: 30 times more than in case A.
– After 1000 years, the population will be 51 000 in case A, and at least 206 000 000 in case B: more than 4000 times case A! The gap will be enormous.

The point is that the disappearance of death “only causes a linear population increase; while a fertility rate slightly greater than 2 causes an exponential population increase.” And this means that early death is an inefficient means of population control compared to lower birth rates.

Another consideration is that:

There is an inverse correlation between fertility and longevity: population increases the most in the countries with the shortest life expectancy. The common cause is poverty: when infant mortality is high, there is an incentive to have many children to ensure that some of them eventually survive. In addition, when there is no retirement system, the only “retirement insurance” consists in having many children. Further, to this double incentive to have children, must be added the lack of access to contraception, and a lack of information about it.

The implication of all this is that “people concerned about overpopulation should focus on reducing inequalities and improving the standard of living of the poorest countries.”

In fact, in rich countries, underpopulation is more of a problem rather than overpopulation, and rich countries would benefit enourmously from increased healthy lifespans. Moreover, since rich countries will probably be the first to benefit from life-sustaining technologies, “is very unlikely that increasing life expectancy will result in an overpopulation crisis; especially since such an increase will first happen in rich countries, where the fertility rate is low.”

Moreover, better material security generally leads people to have less children. Remember too that a “even if we lived 1000 years, a fertility rate slightly lower than 2 (e.g.,1.9) is sufficient in the long-term to result in a decreasing population.”

So in addition to all the moral arguments I have made in a previous post, I add Maurer’s insight: fertility rates are much more significant in population increase than death rates.

Letter To New Grandchild

Crying newborn baby
A New Life

It’s early morning on May 16, 2017. About two hours ago my wife and I picked up our four-year old granddaughter who is now safely with us. The occasion is the imminent birth of our new granddaughter, who should be born in the next few hours.

It is hard to know what say about a new birth. There are about 353,000 births each day worldwide, about 255 each minute and 4 each second. That places what seems so special to you in a larger context. Still, if the birth directly affects you as a parent, grandparent, or sibling, the event is momentous.

What Kind of World Will There Be?

What I think about most is what kind of world awaits my new granddaughter. Will the world improve, will we we progress, we will overcome the legacy of our Pleistocene brains? Or will we remain ape-like, driven by out-group hostility and destroy ourselves?

Cosmic Evolution

I know one thing—the Gods will not save us. They either don’t exist, don’t care, or are impotent. (They almost certainly don’t exist.) Thus only we can save ourselves, for we are now the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. To save both ourselves and our planet, we must enhance our current moral sensibilities and intellectual capabilities. There is no other way. If we are important at all, it is as links in a chain leading onward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. If we succeed, the universe will become increasingly self-consciousness. This is the story of cosmic evolution—the universe becoming self-conscious through the creation of conscious beings. Our obligation is to aid this upward march.

Now I don’t know if we can make it, if we can create heaven on earth, but we can try. Perhaps the chance to try is our greatest gift. Here is a favorite poem to express these sentiments:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

Keep Striving

And when you get down, my little grandchildren, take comfort in these words:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
… for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Life Is Good

Remember too that the world is full of beauty and truth and goodness. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and many other things that make life blissful. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are mountains, oceans, trees, sky and flowers; there is art, science, literature, and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven.

Hope

I’ll conclude by giving my best advice. We should adopt a hopeful attitude—expressed as caring and striving—because it is part of our nature, spurs action, and makes our lives better. We should also adopt a wishful hopefulness—wishing without expectations—for the same reasons.

Still, we don’t know if life is meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness and justice matter; if there is any recompense for our efforts; if suffering can be ameliorated; or if anything matters at all. We don’t know if our wishes will be fulfilled, or our hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. For now I still have hope.

All of my advice best comes together in a famous passage about from William James’ essay, “The Will To Believe.” I first encountered it more than 40 years ago, and it still moves me. I hope it provides comfort on life’s often rocky road:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

With love, your grandpa

“How Trump May Save the Republic,” But Not in the Way Bret Stephens Thinks

I was amused by Bret Stephen’s op-ed in the May 13th edition of The New York Times, “How Trump May Save the Republic.” As Stephen’s puts it: “His views are often malevolent, and his conduct might ultimately prove criminal. But we, too, are protected, for a time, by the enormity of his stupidity.” (Yes, this is the same Bret Stephens who spread his anti-climate change nonsense in a previous op-ed.)

Obviously, Trump isn’t an intellectual, but does that make him less dangerous? Trotsky and the intellectuals of the Russian revolution underestimated the mediocre intelligence of Stalin, and paid with their lives. Stalin was brutal and street-smart, two qualities that intellectuals often lack. The mafia kingpin John Gotti was a high school dropout, but street smart enough to have his rival killed and ascend to the top of the Gambino crime family. And that intelligent, Machiavellian Ted Cruz probably still can’t believe he lost the Republican Presidential nomination to the ignorant Donald Trump. In fact I doubt there is a strong connection between education, intelligence and political power—street smarts and ruthlessness probably correlate better. After all, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan, Al Gore and John Kerry to George W. Bush, and Hilary Clinton to Donald Trump.

I will say though that Stephens saved his best insight for last: “Incompetence may protect us—but … only for a while. The blunders may often be self-defeating, but not always. Trump is our president. The enormity of his stupidity, inescapably, is also our own.”

Yet here is another thought—replacing Trump with Pence doesn’t help much, if at all. McConnell and Ryan would push the same no-taxes-on-the-wealthy-no-social-safety-net-theocracy-not-secularism-endless-war-not-diplomacy-force-of-the-law-against-the-unfortunates-legal immunity-for-the plutocrat policies as they do now, but they would look more refined in doing so with Pence in charge. Russia and Saudi Arabia are their models, not the Scandinavian countries.

So even if Trump were impeached or worse, that wouldn’t stop the Republicans from pursuing their current agenda. So we may be better off with Trump as the face of the Republican party. That way he remains the physical manifestation of what has been their somewhat hidden agenda since the early 1980s. Perhaps his threatening tweets, collusion with the Russians, weekly golf course vacations, financial entanglements, nepotism and all the rest will finally put a face on today’s (radical, Confederate) Republican party, which the conservative scholars Mann and Ornstein so aptly described as:

an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

So Trump’s ignorance may save us, but not in the way that Stephen’s imagines. It’s not that he won’t help them lower taxes on the rich, let millions die from lack of health care, deny women birth control, or imprison minorities for failing to pay parking tickets, he will do all that and more, it’s that he’ll make them look so shameless and uncouth in doing so. Perhaps that will finally open people’s minds.

Yet I’m not optimistic that anything can save us from our forthcoming troubles. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the non-stop propaganda of fox news, Infowars, and Breitbart might leave the fascists with near total control. And there is a good chance many of us won’t make it out alive. Good night and good luck.