Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
The most basic form of integrity is to accept reality for what it is rather than how we would like it to be. I have always loved science fiction writer Phillip Dick on this when he says, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I am sympathetic to the sentiment that underlies Parfit’s viewpoint—I really am. The prospect of this grand panoply of life, with all its colors, characters, and challenges, amounting to nothing, either personally or ultimately, is sometimes almost more than I can bear.
But it’s hard not to conclude that his [Derek Parfit] efforts amount to an elaborate rationalization, a denial of the essential truth of life’s meaninglessness, by reading into reality something that is just not there. The continuity of universal process (physics yields chemistry yields biology to beget us) that he equates to a sort of immortality doesn’t ring true. Once I shed the “mortal coil” of my body through death, so, too, disappears the consciousness that constitutes the unique “me-ness” of my personal identity as Sylvia Jane. I am more than the sum the physical elements and processes that constitute me. Even if these physical elements could be reconstituted exactly in Parfit’s thought experiment terms, it could never amount to the same “me” because I would necessarily have different experiences. It’s that old idea that you can never step into the same river twice.
I’m not happy about this pessimistic conclusion, but I would rather accept it than delude myself with false comfort. I maintain that the best we can do is to pursue what I have called the fulfillment offered by “pure experience.” We can only cope, not cure. (my emphasis.) Depending on our personal tastes, these can vary widely, but in their highest form, they are all participatory and first person in nature. This begins with the visceral pleasures of good food and drink, exercise, creating art or building things, discovery, and lending a helping hand. Then there are joys of children and especially grandchildren, of course.
But at this point in my life, I think its highest form might be the opportunity to interact with and imbibe of the camaraderie with other thinkers about life’s Big Questions as I am here. (Would that it could be more of a face-to-face event over a good glass of wine!) I have this unquenchable thirst to simply know how it all hangs together. Isn’t that why we all visit this wonderful blog! Beyond the practical advantages, it’s simply fascinating and, to me, an end in itself.
This might seem like so much fluff. I imagine everyone mostly gets the point of my conception of the vitality that pure experience affords, but it might lack the impact or immediacy that it deserves because no matter how artful the words it is nearly impossible to convey. It might be somewhat off the topic of the post in question, but I’d like to offer the following piece called “Success” to make what I mean by pure experience more tangible. It has been apocryphally, though not undeservedly, attributed to Emerson, but was actually written by Bessie Stanley in 1904. I grant it might be a tad overly sentimental but I think it still works and remains relevant. Here is my amalgam of its several variants:
To laugh often, love much, and appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others
and win the respect of intelligent people
as well as the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To fill your niche and accomplish your task
by leaving the world a bit better than you found it,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
a perfect poem, a rescued soul,
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
To live a life that inspires,
and whose memory becomes a benediction:
This is to have succeeded.
I claim no great progress in this direction. All I can say is that I find as I get older I am perhaps getting a little better at it. I like to think that intent matters as much as result. If we honestly do the best we can, we really have succeeded—at least in moral terms.
Anyway … I have far less difficulty with the Russell quotation, but vicarious immortality through living on through others yields, to me, only false comfort. Though our descendants are certainly derived from us, they are not us. I see it as a sort of cultural form of Parfit’s argument from the physical.
As I am finishing this, I noticed Mr. Miller’s comments on a previous post. I do sympathize with his ever pessimistic sentiment but find myself resisting the suicide that, as he accurately describes, seems to be dictated by the logic underwritten by the reality of existence. Is this a weakness in me, I wonder, for I like to think of myself as a creature who lives consistent within the dictates of reason and the constraints of reality? This is what is so unnerving about the meaning-of-life problem! It’s bad enough that life evidently has no meaning beyond the intrinsic, but that that same existence includes creatures impelled by the biologic imperative to resist with all their might (and then some!) its implications for action makes my head spin in an effort to make sense out of it. As mentioned elsewhere, perhaps I hold out hope that time will reveal a “solution” simply not apparent at this time. More likely, though, I am simply being swept along by the biologic imperative to survive. There is, perhaps, a little comfort in viewing the situation as an exercise in irony, but, if truth be told, not much. So I go on, wandering in the dark, not knowing where—and certainly not why.