Monday 26 December 2022

The felt-unnaturalness of suffering, ageing, dying, death - why?

Perhaps the very root of religion and philosophy, is to explain why we regard suffering, ageing, dying, and death (and other such facts-of-mortal-life); to be unnatural, unjust: a violation of 'the natural order'. 

Since these aspects-of-life are universals, it would be supposed that Men would just take them for granted - yet that is not the case. They are instead experienced as A Problem. 

The 'puzzle' is therefore the combination of degeneration and death, with an attitude that they ought not to happen. 

Traditional religions and philosophies (ancient and modern) have come-up with many attempted explanations for this situation. 

For example, the idea that death etc. are an illusion (in the eternal, divine, change-less scheme of things); or the opposite idea that because they are real and inevitable, therefore we should not be bothered about them (followed by attempts to 'train' people into this attitude of indifference). 

Materialist modernists ignore the strangeness of our attitude - and instead try to cure the problems, by technological means - so that there would then be nothing to worry about.

(e.g. Attempting to engineer no pain, prevent decline, and enable either a quick and painless death; or entertaining hopes that death itself will be abolished... somehow, sooner or later.) 

This is the mainstream secular/left/liberal 'therapeutic' idea of morality-as-suffering; and virtue as that which diminishes suffering (and, conversely, sin as that which increases suffering). 

But the serious and honest thinker will recognize that the puzzle is deeper; and none of these are true answers. 

A genuine explanation needs to explain - and therefore stating variations-upon "there is nothing to explain" (e.g. it's all meaningless random/ determinism) merely kicks the can onto the deeper question of why we should (and so universally) ever have felt there was something to explain... 

The major modern 'solution' to this most profound of questions is, simply: not to think about it

This is an attempt Not to think; by active and powerful distraction; and by destruction of the possibility of thinking; enforced by propaganda and officialdom. 

And this is, perhaps, the real and deepest reason for that attitude of total rejection of 'the past' (and destruction of all reminders of the past) which has gathered so much strength over the past few decades; and lies behind our addiction to media and other technologies of stimulus-saturation/ immersion, distraction and intoxication. 

Yet this problem cannot be avoided

It will always be there; and an implicit (lived-by, 'revealed-preference') answer will always be in-place - even when that answer is being-denied explicitly. 

Attempting paradoxically to avoid the problem (e.g. thinking about how Not to think) is at the root of much that is most evil in the world; because trying to ignore a real and inescapable problem is itself to affiliate to the powers of evil: the Prince of Lies and his Empire of Lies. 

The reason why JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is experienced by so many people as the most profound of novels, is that (by his own account) it was rooted in his recognition of the centrality of this problem. 

One of Tolkien's greatest, though least known, works was indeed addressing this problem directly

Tolkien himself never could formulate an answer satisfactory to himself - but he recognized that this failure did not make the problem go-away.  

My feeling is that it is acknowledging the problem, and understanding what is at stake, that is vital - rather than formulating a satisfactory answer. 

Because then we will be in a position to recognize the true and saving explanation when - after death - Jesus Christ will show us the nature of our perplexed condition, and how it can be solved, eternally. 


Mia said...

If everything is designed to encourage our salvation, then what better than a terrifying slow build of awareness of death? First watching others die, then feeling it marching steadily closer to you? Because when someone you love dies, you have a choice: kill your love to kill the pain of loss, or choose to love forever through Christ. And you can't kill a specific love; to fully escape you have to kill your full capacity to love. A slow process leading to sure damnation, so ideal for God because it requires our full and intentional rejection of Him before we are lost, with many chances to repent.

In my atheist days, I was baffled by this death-fear, but post-birdemic/peck I observe it to be universal. Is it a universal moral failing like an original sin? Or can God embed feelings like that in us without violating free will? I suspect it's a consequence of love and how powerful love is (God would not incarnate any soul that lacked capacity for love to begin with.) Even if we live without conscious awareness of love, once we feel it slipping away we have to react to that loss.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mia - Good points.

I don't see 'fear of death' as a sin in itself. Mortal life, as such, is intrinsically tragic - it is Not Enough.

It can become a tragi-comedy if we have faith in salvation - but that does not eliminate the tragic elements.

Maybe it is the fact of death, and the tragedy of mortal life, that serves to remind and encourage us Not to lose sight of 'why we are here' - and to help prevent us from falling into the *illusion* (or self-inflicted *delusion*) that mortal life and death is sufficient unto itself.

Once we recognize that mortal life is intrinsically insufficient, and that the fact we cannot Honestly avoid this recognition - we are in a good place to accept the gift of Jesus Christ.

Jack said...

I think the most common response of all today is sentimentality, and in the West this sentimentality is a hollow bubble emanating from our Christian past. This sentimentality is a response of fear by the common folk against the nihilistic scientism worldview imposed on them by the intellectual elite — the elite won't let them speak openly of heaven and redemption anymore, so they retreat into fine sentiment instead. The problem with this sentimentality, rooted-in-fear, is that it is too weak to address evil and suffering, the "problem" of existence. I saw just yesterday this Harry Enfield sketch. It represents three sentimental old fools being unable to condemn evil (represented by the "yuppie" character) or to console the suffering (represented by the bulimic daughter). It's the first sketch right at the start of the video:

For me, death is alienation — it's alienation in its objective form, as opposed to the subjective alienation we experience inwardly. The most moving passages of the Bible for me are the parts of John's Gospel which speak of us being born again as children and friends of God, which is to say the end of all alienation — John equates this overcoming of alienation, returning to friendship with God and humanity, to everlasting life. The resurrection of Lazarus, chapter 11 of John, is for me the most beautiful depiction of this theme: his friends and relatives feel alienated from the dead Lazarus, they all feel alienated from Jesus and from God, perhaps even Jesus himself feels alienated — but then he restores their hope and overcomes their alienation by His Word... I don't even think death is the most profound form of alienation in this world. The more profound forms are loneliness, scandal, guilt, self-loathing, hatred, bitterness, injustice, etc. Death merely brings this spiritual alienation into visible focus, into a form which even the most carnal people cannot ignore. And in that sense death is a kind of blessing: it forces people to confront the deeper problem, and at least prevents the most alienated rulers of this world from ruling immortally. Death is indeed unnatural, but the alienation which we experience from God and from each other is the more fundamental unnaturalness. I always entertain the following consideration: what would the world be like if all the natural evils we suffer today remained, but everyone were a saint? Despite sickness, poverty, death, bad weather etc., the world populated by saints would be a paradise. All these calamities would just be converted into opportunities for love, and the dying would be so inundated with love that they'd feel like they were in heaven already, and would regard the dying part of their life as the happiest part of their life. As it is today though, what we suffer from more than from death is disease, is the brutal alienating indifference we inflict upon one another. You could write an allegory where St Peter accidentally sends the saints to the burning hell and the sinners into gorgeous paradise, and over time hell gets turned 8nti heaven n'y the compassion of the saints, and heaven gets turned into hell by the crassness of sinners.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - You make some good points; but you go too-far in describing the possibilities of this mortal life. This life can never be Heaven because of the way things actually are, including the way Men are (in all their vast individual variety).

Nearly all Men bring problems with them into this world (some are innately very evil, all are evil to some degree); and this 'entropic' world inflicts many more.

To wish away (or imagine away) the way things/ Men actually are - is to wish away part of the very essence of this mortal life and to make it something other which it is not. Given that God is the creator of this life and of Men as His Children - this must surely amount to an attempt to foist some other plan than God's upon this world.

With his account of Numenor, Tolkien provides a story that can be read as a parable of the unsatisfactoriness of mortal life; in that the Men of Numenor are given pretty much everything you ask for (no illness, greatly enhanced powers and appreciation, a paradisal environment of plenty and beauty) - but death remains (albeit greatly delayed).

In failing to come to terms with death, failing to trust God and base Hope upon this faith; Men's innate corruptions turn the Numenorean society to great evil and self-destruction. So aggressive becomes this evil, that God is compelled actively to destroy Numenor.

The West is moving, accelerating, towards something similar with its escalating lying and spreading moral inversions - although perhaps other-Men may be 'allowed' to become the agents of necessary destruction, rather than direct act/s of God.

Lucinda said...

My understanding, built very much from things I've thought about because of this blog, is that the mortal situation was the only way to teach us how to love, to go from being immersed in love, to being participant. We begin immersed in love, so we know to value it, and then it all falls apart, aggressively. But small progress on our part, even just in our thinking, and necessarily in our thinking, makes big changes on our participation.

Mia said...


Multiple purposes are served by everything in creation, no doubt, as is obvious from biology. There's a bit of a carrot and a stick in our experience of death. Considering that an ideal sort of death constitutes a feeling of "Well, I'm glad that (life) happened, and I'm glad it's over," I think that is fitting for a graduation ceremony.

Fear as regards death is complicated. We are told to fear soul-death but not bodily death, though the implication is more not to fear primarily or exclusively bodily death, not that fear of such is a sin.

You've mentioned before how animals eaten alive seem not to suffer, which happens to be my most-feared death. The range of deaths is so great, the purpose must be varied as well.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mia -

" The range of deaths is so great, the purpose must be varied as well."

Very important point - I agree that must be the case, although I hadn't thought of it.

"We are told to fear soul-death but not bodily death" - I tend to think that Christians - as of nowadays - should eschew fear as a motivator.

Ideally - the line of arguments should be more along the lines of "Is That *really* what you want for yourself - eternally?" But I have found that, for various reasons, very few people are prepared to think seriously about such matters (or to think At All about such matters).

ben said...

I suppose they didn't happen (or happen as much, in the case of suffering) during spirithood. So they're new.

My understanding is that many things that are assumed to be new (and experienced for the first time during this life) are actually familiar. Being surrounded by other people, 'socially' interacting, competing, cooperating, the sexes, perhaps some individuals.

Probably even history is familiar and 'remembered' rather than learned from scratch as a child.

This is not the case for ageing or the prospect of dying.

So the real question would be - why are so many things not felt to be unnatural?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ben "So the real question would be - why are so many things not felt to be unnatural?"

Yes, that's the question of our times, at any rate.

The closer people are to spirithood - as children, or Men at the earlier phases in development (Barfield's Original Participation) - the less they are unnatural, and the less they feel unnaturalness - but although less, they do feel it; in their way and to their degree.

So why not nowadays in mainstream culture? Evil, that's why.

Someone said...

Because we, as biological organisms, want to be young and live forever, while for nature, the individual organism is only one of the countless number of those who have lived and those who will live, and whome she uses for the purposes of evolutionary selection.

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - What? You are here converting evolutionary theory into a kind of (implicit) deism - by supplying motivations to what are (in biology) abstract and algorithmic processes without purpose.

This *can* be done as a shorthand; but here it doesn't work as such.

Surely this doesn't count as an explanation - being neither scientific nor metaphysical. You need to be explicit.

John said...

The intellect can't unbreak a heart with its study and its solutions. Instead the intellect, seeing through this broken hearted lens, only sees more darkness in itself and the world. The solution is then annihilation, for distractions don't work because the nagging darkness is always whispering in your ear.

But how can one unbreak a heart, when one does see the world as it is, and that death is not only final, but is the ultimate heartbreaker. Now I see, having truly feared death so agonisingly final, that God must exist, God is a necessity.

Thank you for this blog, I don't always get what's being said but its always made me interested, and right now it inspires me. The questions that truly matter.