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MYTH AND MORTALITY
TESTING THE STORIES

[from Chapter VIII: Stories from Practical Observation]

     In our survey of the stories, beliefs and metaphors that we
use to try to deal with Death it is time to consider the
observable, the obvious and the unavoidable.  Untestable
speculations will become too tempting to resist later, but first
we need to consider what is perfectly clear.  What can we
perceive personally and directly, and what shall we make of that?
     Thomas Carlisle was told that Lady Whatsername, who was
something of an amateur philosopher, "had decided to accept the
Universe."  His gruff retort was, "By God, she'd better!"  What
kind of Universe is this?  And let's leave "God," as in
Carlisle's expletive, out of it for now.
     Dr. Beverly Kunkle, teaching biology and anatomy at
Lafayette College almost fifty years ago, introduced me to the
philosophical implications of scientific observation.  "Isn't any
lover of Truth willing to follow Truth wherever that trail
leads?"  His words have given me courage many times, and have
convinced me that no myth that ignores truth is worthy of
allegiance. 
                           *   *   * 
 

                      A. THE MACHINE STOPS
     A nephew came visiting recently, wearing an all black
T-shirt with delicate white lettering:
                          LIFE IS HARD
                       AND THEN YOU DIE. 
We greeted him and his charming, vivacious wife, chuckling grimly
at the message on his shirt, and then went on to enjoy each
other, and to prove, for one evening at least, that the T-shirt
message wasn't so.  Life is full and exciting and enjoyable, at
least some of the time.  But then, you die.  That fact still
stands, inexorable.
     Many thoughtful people, who have done with myths and fairy
tales, dismissing them all as childish and unrealistic, consider
the metaphor of the machine their own.  A human being is his
body.  The body is a machine, marvelous and complex.  And, like
all machines, it wears out at last.  One may as well face the
fact, although it doesn't really matter whether you accept it or
not.  The machine wears out, and stops.
     This looks quite realistic.  It regards the body as a
mechanical device rather than an organism, however, and they are
not quite the same.  An organism can and does replace itself,
over and over, all new cells every seven years in our case, so
why does it need to wear out?
     Some years ago a group within the so-called New Age Movement
called themselves the Immortalists.  They were picking up on the
medieval myth of the alchemist, the true master of pure occult
power.  Part of the achievement of a true Adept includes such
control of his body that Death is overcome.  Stories of extremely
old Magicians, not prestidigitators -- several centuries old,
that is, not 120 years -- are part of the lore.  The claim is
that they are persons who channel and embody Cosmic Power, and do
not die.
     The Immortalists implied that they were such persons also,
and tried to enlist others into a larger movement, by insisting
that dying was a culturally controlled and even culturally caused
event.  We become old and die because our culture teaches us that
we must, they said.  I must admit to being intrigued by this
idea.  Our culture is, to be sure, very hard on our bodies.  
     Our culture taught us to smoke when we were young, for
example.  It teaches us to acquiesce in the ingestion and
breathing of large quantities of poison.  It provides stress in
quantities sufficient to break down our immune systems.  It pays
some of us to prepare extremely deadly materials in huge
quantities and then it calls that defense.  It fills our heads
with violent stories and calls that entertainment.  It is
possible for me to imagine that persons who found ways to reject
this cultural input, this toxic life-style, could live longer,
maybe quite a bit longer.
     Could the immortalists be right in their claim that we die
only because our culture teaches us that we must and we allow it? 
Can the body clock, which governs aging, the rate of aging, and
ultimately death itself, be reset?  The clock is a metaphor.  No
one has located it, no one knows how it really works, and no one
has yet succeeded in taking charge of it.
     The myth of the Machine that Stops is tied to the law of
entropy.  Everything winds down.  Everything is part of a machine
which is stopping.  The end of all processes is random motion,
which is chaos, which seems to be equivalent to Nothing and is
called the Void in many myths.  
     I suspect that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, from which
this entropy concept is derived, has been overstated by some, as
if it were a philosophical beacon.  If the most probable state of
matter is pure amorphous undifferentiated Chaos, which is what
the "law" says, why is there a Cosmos at all?  On the contrary,
what is is all Order, and all in order.
     "Maybe so," whimper the advocates of entropy, "but it all
ends in Chaos.  It all dies and decays."
     They're whining about change.  They themselves end in
dissolution.  But it is an overstatement to claim that The Whole
Thing changes from Order to Chaos.  It changes from one kind of
order to another.  And they still haven't explained where all the
order came from in the first place.  And now some, studying
turbulence in air and water, have discovered the Laws of Chaos,
which sounds like even more Order!
     Entropy doesn't account for where Order comes from, and the
Order we have includes organisms and the regeneration of
organisms and the reproduction of organisms.  The Void is the
Source of all manifest Order, somehow.  
     Even the not-much-feared but certainly possible
Thermonuclear Destruction of the Biosphere on the Third Planet
out from Helios will not be Disorder, not pure amorphous Chaos. 
It will entail blast, radiation, heat and cold, producing
conditions in which our kind of life cannot predictably survive,
to be sure.  That's the reason why we should prevent it, if we
can, if there's still time.  But it still will be another type of
Order.  It will still be the Cosmos.
     It'll be that part of the Cosmos in which intelligence,
so-called, destroyed itself.  But we have no business blaming
that on entropy, thus excusing those who want to destroy what
we're so fond of, that is, this Live Planet, by saying that it is
all inevitable anyway, as if what they're destroying was doomed
anyway, so what the hell...
     Belief in Entropy could be used as our human psychological
equivalent to traumatized animals going into shock.  Here comes
the end.  So, I'll just turn my mind off, and my body, from here
inside, and be extinguished.  
     The Immortalists deny all this.  The problem with their
denial of the ultimate stoppage of the machine is that there is
no known case of any exception to the observation that all bodies
wear out and die.  That is, there is no known case that isn't a
myth.  So, the most sensible thing is to suppose that one's own
body will do likewise.  Whether that is the same as annihilation
depends partly on whether a human being really is nothing more
than the physical body.
     Annihilation can be made to look quite attractive.  Wouldn't
oblivion be better than the hell of eternal conscious torment
found in the sadistic teachings of the Middle Age Church and the
modern fundamentalists?  
     The Preacher in Ecclesiastes said it would be better to be a
live dog than a dead lion.  W. C. Fields wanted it stated on his
tombstone that he'd rather be in Philadelphia, and he didn't like
Philadelphia much.  Achilles said he'd rather be a slave on earth
than a king in the realm of dead phantoms.  We can't be sure
about The Preacher and W. C. Fields, but Achilles is comparing
being alive to being dead and not annihilated.  When one compares
being alive to being blotto, it depends on what life was like, or
promises to be like from here to the end.  In some circumstances
death can be called "deliverance," even if it is annihilation.
     Epicurus said death was the deprivation of sensation, and
believed that the "soul" did not survive death any more than the
body did.  The atoms, of both, disperse at death, he said. 
"Death, the most terrifying of all ills [as some think] is
nothing to us, since as long as we exist, death is not with us,
and when death comes, then we do not exist."
     "I don't care where I'm buried."
     "Dispose of the remains as inexpensively as possible, with
no fuss."
     "I don't care who comes to my funeral."
     "I don't want any funeral or memorial service at all."
     Different individuals have said all of the above to me. 
They do not believe that they will be around in any sense at all
after death.  "I don't care what people say.  I won't be caring
what the neighbors think.  It won't bother me."
     The machine stops.  Modern philosophers like Freud and
Schopenhauer and Heidegger, as well as Ernest Becker in THE
DENIAL OF DEATH referred to earlier, have observed that deep down
contemporary man does not really believe in his own death.  "All
men are mortal, but not I.  All men will die, except me."
     The realists, who do believe that the machine really does
stop, remind us of Death's inevitability and also of Death's
finality.  Many of the myths of mankind deny one or the other of
these two things.
     The Machine Stops.  Medical science and advanced meditation
techniques can keep it going longer, but then it stops.  There
are no known exceptions.  Stories persist that Yogis and Adepts
live to be very old, some of them.  There are very old people
living in the Caucasus Mountains.  But there are none who do not
die eventually. 
     In the meantime the machine can be better taken care of. 
Smoking really is stupid.  We already know of the value of
exercise.  We used to call it work.  Injury and abuse will demand
payback, sooner or later.  Consider the current condition of many
retired boxers.  If it's a machine, and the process is
mechanical, then for every action there is an equal and opposite
reaction.
     I recall my high school biology teacher lamenting my
inordinate desire to play football, given my size and poor
eyesight.  Neither he nor I quite understood that it was my
adolescent need to prove virility and enhance ego that made me
want to play so very much.  He warned that all the hits, all the
blows, all the falls and bruises would take their toll -- that
the machine was made for a pre-determined quantity of use or
punishment only, and that it was foolish to subject it to so much
meaningless and needless abuse while it was young and still
maturing.  The arthritis in my elbow and shoulder now causes me
to suspect that he was right.
     If it is all mechanism, then the brain/mind/logic/reason
function is part of it.  Everybody's machine includes this
ability, even though not everybody uses it much.  The human group
has multiplied and collected the products of this function and
calls that Knowledge/Science, and from that sector we can hear a
clear word.  Several clear words, in fact.
     [1] Your ego, and your body, are not an exception.  You may
as well begin to deal with that fact now.  Some people refuse to
make their last will and testament, and refuse to think about
plans for their own funeral and burial.  That's superstition, as
if thinking about it will cause it.  It's nonsense.
     [2]  Take care of your machine.  No smoking.  Be useful. 
Work.  Play.  Exercise.  Eat and drink correctly.  
     [3]  Be gentle with other machines.  They're only trying to
get through this maze, just as you are.  If life's a bitch, as
I've heard tell, if life is hard and then you die, then when
Death and Fairness and Irony and Poetic Justice come up for
conversation, be thoughtful of the other person.  Maybe, being
loving and gentle, we can get through this.  No whimpering. 
Let's see your courage.  We're all in this together, and nobody
gets out of here alive.  Life is a fatal disease.
     A dear friend, a realist and a lover of people and of life,
confides to me that he thinks Blotto is the belief he's best
reconciled to, in the life-after-death question.  You're dead,
and when you're dead, you're dead.  It's all over, when it's
over.  He quotes Shakespeare to me:
          "The coward dies a thousand deaths, 
           the valiant do die but once."
Then he adds, "But Death is what makes living precious.  Death is
what creates Now.  Otherwise it would be 'forever' already!  We'd
be always putting it off, whatever.  Death reminds you not to put
it off.  Do it, if you're going to."  
     This feels a little harsh, but it makes sense.  It fits the
evidence we have.  Something in me whispers that surely there's
more to it than that, but that may be weakness and whistling in
the void, on my part. 
                                *   *   *
Next excerpt: Rest For The Weary
from Myth And Mortality
© 2006, Harry Willson

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