Saturday, 3 November 2012

Murakami on Death and Evolution

I'm currently reading Haruki Murakami's magnificent The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I hadn't read before. As usual, Murakami's protagonists are busy trying to figure out, mostly in vain, what is actually going on in a world that is both banal and familiar, and at the same time utterly mysterious and incomprehensible. Very much like the real world actually, the world that we all inhabit and that we're all trying to make sense of in one way or another, without being very good at it.

Chapter 10 of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is titled "May Kasahara on Death and Evolution". In this chapter, a 16-year old girl, which the main protagonist has befriended, reflects on the benefits of death, or more precisely the knowledge of one's own mortality. Here is what she says:

"If people lived for ever - if they never got any older - if they could just go on living in this world, never dying, always healthy - do you think they'd bother to think hard about things, the way we're doing now? I mean, we think about just about everything, more or less - philosophy, psychology, logic. Religion. Literature. I think, if there were no such thing as death, that complicated thoughts and ideas like that would never come into the world. (...) people have to think seriously about what it means for them to be alive here and now because they know they're going to die sometime. Right? Who would think about what it means to be alive if they were just going to go on living for ever? Why would they bother? Or even if they should bother, they'd probably just reckon, 'Oh, well, I've got plenty of time for that. I'll think about it later.' But we can't wait till later. We've got to think about it right this second. I might get run over by a truck tomorrow afternoon. (...) Nobody knows what's going to happen. So we need death to make us evolve. That's what I think. Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things."

There seem to be two arguments here, both directed against the desirability of a deathless existence and eternal youth. The one has to do with meaning. It is suggested that the unexamined life is not worth living and that we would have no reason to examine our lives if we didn't know that our lives will end sooner or later, and quite likely sooner than later. Without the certainty of death, our lives would be meaningless because there cannot be any meaningful life without a thorough reflection on its meaning. The second argument is about human development and progress. Without death we wouldn't bother to think about ourselves and our place in the world and if we didn't do that we would never have developed the rich intellectual culture that we are currently enjoying.

If that is correct, then the concerted efforts to find a way to halt and reverse the human ageing process and thus to conquer death (or at least the necessity of dying) - that insatiable, all-devouring evil dragon of the transhumanists - will, if successful, paradoxically lead to the end of all science and philosophy, and with it, of all human progress.


  1. (Another nightly note during recess at the Delft conference on cognitive enhancement...) There seems to be a crucial conundrum that is overlooked time and time again when people ponder immortality, especially when the ponderings ends with a positive reappraisal of finitude - its tension, its release. I also tend to come 'round to embrace mortality. But I get the feeling that many who do so with me, do so disingenuously. Here's what's made me think that.

    If we entertain the thought of a world in which we can choose to be immortal, here is how many people - falsely - frame the predicament:

    (1) we choose to 'become' immortal. We thus continue living, either indefinitely or till suicide do us part.

    (2) we choose to 'remain' mortal. We thus continue living, till accident, decay or death-hastening suicide do us part.

    But isn't there a logical error here? And might not this error be committed not out of misunderstanding, but out of bad faith - out of understanding only all too well the guilty mess we would then find ourselves in?

    * The Misunderstanding:

    If the world would be thus, that we _can_ become immortal, then it seems we will _already be_ immortal, like it or loathe it. The mere possibility of an immortal future, logically turns every potential way in which we might die into an _elected_ death - a suicide. Indeed, the second option of "choosing to remain mortal" becomes just one way of committing suicide, from the vantage point of potential immortality. It is to opt for a particular brand of suicide, as peculiar as it is popular: to die some indeterminate other day, by _assenting to_ some material decay dynamic that _used to be the default_ up to the point when the possibility of immortality was raised. At that point, one's default predicament switched (even if only as long as one's answer was pending - and un moment de honte est vite passé) into being immortal.

    So you cannot, at the ungodly hour some Bergmanian or Lynchean stonefaced demon holds out the live option of immortality, choose to "remain" mortal. You can only _remake_ yourself mortal. You will make that choice, you will be burdened by that responsibility. No matter that you outsourced the finishing job to the material decay dynamic that you ushered back in. It will have been you who has authorized and authored your own death - and staged it as if fate, nature or the gods did the job. For that is precisely what is, by force of logic, no longer possible: to remain uninvolved in your own death, and to have it simply 'happen' to you, sweet-innocent-babe-like, washed clean in death.

    * The Bad Faith: people commonly fear deep freedom and dramatic responsibilities (rightly so) and try to flee from it (wrongly, cowardly so). There are few if not no freedoms deeper, than the freedom to be or not be. Yet there are also few things so obviously true of human persons, than to be aware of the pervasive possibility to flick one's lifeswitch. This makes for strange psychological brews. Some, like Hesse's Steppenwolf, fondle their lifeswitch fondly - it reassures and revitalizes them. Many others are quick to make suicide 'unspeakable', 'unthinkable' - the way it casts doubt over their very reason for existing (surely there must be a reason!). So too in the case of the demonic offer of immortality: they do not wish to choose whether and when to live or die - that is to be chosen for them! So they let nature re-take its course - leaving unthought as best as they can that it way _they themselves_, when left without excuse and overlord, who chose death-by-nature, a foggy laggy suicide.

    So it's an offer we can't refuse.with only a single fundamental option open to us: option (1). We instantaneously, will-lessly _are immortal_ from the second we practically can become immortal. Whoever wants out (that would be me, for one) must accept that he is to kill himself - by act, omission or accessory.

    1. Wow, this is some argument, Pieter. And I do get your point. Once immortality is on the table you can only accept or reject it, and if the latter then you deliberately choose death, which is, if you will, tantamount to committing suicide. Of course we are assuming here that it is on the table, that it actually is possible, but it's not that we could just take a pill now that makes us immortal. So the question is, what do we actually mean by "possible" here? But even if we accept the reasoning, then I'm not entirely sure what follows from this. If you decide against immortality, then you do decide for mortality, fair enough. This means that you prefer a situation in which you have to die someday (though not right now, which perhaps distinguishes it from suicide) to one in which you don't have to die. You don't seem to be saying that making that choice is clearly irrational or in some other way wrong or unjustified. Instead, you simply demand that we are aware of making a choice here. But what difference does that make? You say we are "rightly" scared of such choices, of such a "deep freedom", but that to try to flee from it is "cowardly". Why are we rightly scared then? Am I really a coward whenever I'd rather not have the choice between two options? Is it so obvious that the more choice we have the better it is for us? That preferring to have things chosen for us is somehow disingenuous? Incompatible with human dignity? Not how it is meant to be?

  2. ... After some sufficient amount of decades or centuries well lived, of course (to end on a more chipper note).