The past one year has been rough – what with the deaths of a few close family members. Just as I am slowly settling into 2015, in quick succession come three harsh blows from life: first, that poignant announcement from Prof. Oliver Sachs, next, the untimely death of a beloved mentor and friend, Prof. Paula Pitha-Rowe, and now, the sudden passing of my ever-the-most-favorite author, Sir Terry Pratchett. One by one, my favorite people are leaving me, and I don’t like it one bit.
Oh, I know the facts of life… I know death is inevitable. I know this is the only life we have, and it is largely upon us to live it as beautifully or as poorly as we can. But death is depressing in its finality. Every time someone connected to my life dies away, it is like a limb of mine is torn away forever. I shall not read another brilliant book written by Sir Terry or Prof. Sachs, nor animatedly discuss research work and detective stories in equal measure with Paula, nor pick up the phone on my birthday and wedding anniversary to be wished and blessed, unfailingly, year after year. Such is the wretchedness of death – it leaves behind memories in those who are left behind.
And yet, during such times of utter despondence, I continue to turn to – and draw solace from – the words of Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate, one of the most beloved poets of India and the author of India’s national anthem. Written originally in Bangla (the vernacular of the people of Bengal), this poem speaks of the continuity and endlessness of life despite the pain and grief in our daily lives.
There’s sorrow, and there’s death
The separation causes pain profound
Yet there’s peace, there’s joy,
In its endlessness life abounds
Life’s stream is an everlasting one
Smile the moon, the stars and sun
Spring follows winter every time around.
Waves rise and waves descend
Flowers wilt and bloom again
There’s no fear, no pitifulness
Of a hardship there’s not a trace
Within that plenitude the mind seeks a ground
— Rabindranath Tagore, original written in 1903; translated by moi
A slightly different version of this translation was posted in 2013 in my personal blog.
Death from age-related diseases is not inevitable. There is no great cosmic principle at work, just evolutionary neglect and our own ignorance of science and technology.
The sting of death is not primarily in the sense of loss we survivors feel. Human lives have an inherent value in them that does not depend on the feelings of others. Each mind holds a unique universe of experiences and perspectives. The most profound loss is that of the mind which has been extinguished, thus undergoing complete deprivation of all personal freedom. Gone are the freedoms to feel, perceive, think, or do anything at all. The dead relinquish their individuality to utter dissipation and oblivion.
That’s a very stark set of facts indeed, but there is an actionable takeaway in that we can dedicate our best effort to overcoming death with the tools we have available to us. We are the first generation to be vested with this potential by the forward march of progress. We must carry the torch and drive back the darkness.
I partly agree and disagree with what you’ve written. Yes to the uniqueness of every mind, but feelings of others do add to the inherent value of life. And no, death is indeed inevitable; life, all life, ends.
(I confess that I took a while to decide whether this was a spam message or not, especially given the weird email address you have used; in the end I decided to keep it.)
The things you’re disagreeing with aren’t at odds with what José said, at least, as I understand him.
A value being “inherent” means it doesn’t depend on others. José’s post affirms that the inherent value of a life is not its only value, although he judges it to be the largest contributor to the total value.
Death comes to all beings, but not necessarily in a specific form. Some species appear not to age. Since these species demonstrate that death by old age is not a universal rule, it might, therefore, be possible to cure old age in humans. On the other hand, it might not. In any case, we would be remiss in the quest to “push back the darkness” if we arbitrarily set aside such a common cause of death and said we’re not even going to look for a way to treat or prevent this.
And now I’m going off on my own tangent.
Accidents happen. We need redundancy in order to recover from the accidents that are big enough to destroy something. Redundancy for humanity means space colonies. It doesn’t matter matter if they’re orbital or planet-bound, so long as they’re not dependent on Earth. Eventually we’ll want them to be independent of the sun as well as Earth. Redundancy for individuals means backups. I suspect this will more likely mean machine consciousness than replacement clones, but given how much the body’s actions on the brain affect the mind, could a machine consciousness upload be considered “the same” person as the biological human? Given how (I assume) a machine consciousness would be more malleable than a biological brain, how quickly would the changes accumulate to make a personality unrecognizable? Would communication between machine consciousnesses create a partial merger as each incorporates ideas from the other into their own minds? Would there be collectives of merged consciousnesses who decided not to go their separate ways? What sort of a world could you weave from the combined imaginations of billions of people?