NYT column to explore the meaning of death, but only with religious scholars

George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, is obsessed with death—particularly his own. And I can understand, for I too share the existential dread he describes as a “shudder”. In the piece below, an introduction to a series of upcoming interviews that Yancy will conduct for the New York Times, he reveals his angst:

The fact of death is like a haunting. It frequents me, entangled in everything I do: It’s just beneath my pillow as I sleep, strolling next to me as I casually walk from one class to the next, inserting its presence between each heart beat in my chest, forcing its way into my consciousness when I say “I love you” to my children each night, assuring me that it can unravel the many promises that I continue to make, threatening the appointments that I need to keep. This sense of haunting is what the Harvard professor Cornel West calls the “death shudder.” Of this “shudder” in the face of death, he writes, “Yes, dread and terror were involved, but also perplexity. Exploration. Where does nonexistence take you? What does it mean to be stripped of your own consciousness? How do we live with the idea that we are always tantalizingly close to death? At any moment the bridge can collapse.”

I continue to shudder. Yet there is something about facing the fact of death that invites us to double back, to see our existence, our lives, differently.

Sometimes I think this dread is an especially Jewish trait, though Yancey isn’t Jewish. But Woody Allen is, and has repeatedly and eloquently expressed not only his fear of extinction, but how it renders everything meaningless, a meaninglessness that he thinks artists should counteract (see video here). Christopher Hitchens’s view of death, which haunts me, is this one, expressed in his memoir Hitch-22:

“The clear awareness of having been born into a losing struggle need not lead one into despair. I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence. (It’s the second of those thoughts: the edition of the newspaper that will come out on the day after I have gone, that is the more distressing.)

I too want to stick around and see what happens! But I don’t share Hitchens’s fear of eternal life, so long as it’s on Earth. For after he said the above, he added this:

Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave. Whether it was a hellishly bad party or a party that was perfectly heavenly in every respect, the moment that it became eternal and compulsory would be the precise moment that it began to pall.”

It’s worthwhile thinking about our extinction, though I’m more liable to be rendered depressed by such cogitation instead of grasping, as many do, the fragility and ephemerality of life and embracing a joy at still being alive. So be it.

What I’m kvetching about with Yancy’s column is that he’s going to explore the idea of death only with religious scholars. The intro says this:

This essay is an introduction to a series of monthly interviews to be conducted by the author with 12 religious scholars and practitioners on how individual religious traditions understand and respond to the inevitability of death.

At the end he notes this:

It is in this spirit of exploration that I will interview 12 deeply knowledgeable scholars, philosophers and teachers, one each month, about the meaning of death in their respective traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Jainism and others. I will be asking questions like: What is death? Why do we fear death? Is death final? Do we have immortal souls? What role does death play in how we ought to live our lives?

The objective is not to find definitive answers to these eternal questions, but to engage, as my students and I try to do in our classes, in a lively discussion about a fact that most of us would rather avoid, and move ourselves a little closer to the truth.

It looks, then, that only those with “faith traditions” are going to be interviewed. Now why on earth is that? There are plenty of secular philosophers and scholars who have dealt with the idea of one’s death, and dealt with it honestly, not having in one’s “tradition” the false idea of an eternal life—or the possibility of reincarnation as a higher or lower being. The secular tradition begins with the ancient Greeks and continues right up to the atheistic philosophers of today. A well known survey by Bourget and Chalmers showed that 73% of professional philosophers are atheists, with only 15% being theists. Why do theistic or “other” philosophers get a say here rather than the 3 out of 4 who are nonbelievers? I have no idea.

If you’re going to explore death, you must—absolutely must—explore it as it is: the end of our consciousness and existence, with no evidence of an afterlife. Yancy is missing a big opportunity here.

 

55 Comments

  1. John CRISP
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Well, as – if not “another way of knowing” – at least another way of expressing, it’s hard to beat Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade:

    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
    Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
    In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
    Till then I see what’s really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.
    Arid interrogation: yet the dread
    Of dying, and being dead,
    Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

    The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
    —The good not done, the love not given, time
    Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
    An only life can take so long to climb
    Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
    But at the total emptiness for ever,
    The sure extinction that we travel to
    And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
    Not to be anywhere,
    And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,
    And specious stuff that says No rational being
    Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
    That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anaesthetic from which none come round.

    And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
    A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
    That slows each impulse down to indecision.
    Most things may never happen: this one will,
    And realisation of it rages out
    In furnace-fear when we are caught without
    People or drink. Courage is no good:
    It means not scaring others. Being brave
    Lets no one off the grave.
    Death is no different whined at than withstood.

    Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
    It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
    Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
    Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
    Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
    Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
    The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
    Work has to be done.
    Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

    • JezGrove
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, John CRISP – I just came here t post a link to Aubade.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      “Death is no different whined at than withstood”.
      A lot of good bits in there, but I liked especially that one.

    • uommibatto
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Beautiful!

      Larry Smith

    • JezGrove
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Philip Larkin is problematical as a person (certainly very much filled with the prejudices of his era), but a brilliant poet. A classic example of “judge the work, not the author”.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Larkin’s description of “being dead” expresses a common secular misconception about death: that it’s the onset of a nothingness we will inhabit eternally:

      “…the total emptiness for ever, The sure extinction that we travel to – And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, Not to be anywhere…That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anaesthetic from which none come round.”

      A better view was expressed by the good old Alan Watts in a talk on “What happens after death”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3MA0n4jEXk

      We shouldn’t anticipate nothingness or emptiness, but rather continued experience, just not in the context of the person who dies. So there’s no personal continuity of experience one should anticipate at death (no reincarnation), bur rather a generic subjective continuity.

      • Posted February 3, 2020 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        Yeah. Self-interest is compassion for your future self – my spin on Alan Watts. If you have enough interest in others’ lives, you can say “Death isn’t the end of the world, it’s only the end of me.” Of course that doesn’t work for the people who are around at the end of the world (the habitable universe, whatever). Now that could be some serious angst.

  2. GBJames
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    One wonders why a religious scholar would have any more insight than anyone else.

    • John CRISP
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it reminds me of the BBC’s “thought for the day” broadcast on its Radio 4 channel every weekday morning sometime before 8 am. By policy, everybody who is invited to speak on this three-minute slot comes from a “faith tradition”. It would seem that the nonreligious do not think. Moreover, the “thoughts” are invariably formulaic: the speaker takes some current event, says a few things about it, and then tortures it until it fits into a box manufactured by the big cheese in the speaker’s faith tradition – Christ, Mohammed, Guru Nanak, Buddah…

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Time for another plug for Platitude of the Day (https://platitudes.home.blog), whose contributors do their best to satirise, mock or criticise the daily offering on Radio 4. Not many people read it, but it’s often worth the effort.

    • Roger
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Because the voices in their heads affirm their opinions.

  3. Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    “If you’re going to explore death, you must explore it as it is: the end of our consciousness and existence, with no evidence of an afterlife.”

    I can accept this without any angst. My only concern is how the rest of you are going to get along without me.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      Some of our best minds are working on a solution to that problem.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      The answer is – and I’m assuming you predecease me (if you don’t, it’s not my problem) – we’ll manage somehow just like we’ve managed somehow without everybody else who has already died.

  4. Mark R.
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Nothing a few Dylar pills can’t mitigate. 😉

  5. Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Yancy simply assumes that an atheist, lacking any belief in an afterlife, reincarnation, or any of that stuff, would have nothing to say on the subject. He should get out more.

  6. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I have read a lot on near death experiences. Most, but not all, are pretty pleasant.
    To me, death is like following asleep, I was having surgery once and thinking the drug they gave was not working. The next instant, to me, was waking up with my wife beside me smiling at me. Not a bad experience at all. At least that is how I hope it will work, except there will not be a waking up part.
    And hope U am in the group that has the positive dying experience.

    But why worry about something that us inevitable and over which you have no control.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      The startling thing about being under anaesthetic (or momentarily knocked out, which happened to me once) is that there is no detectable gap in your memory. It’s as you describe it, you go from one state of consciousness to the next with no interval in between.

      cr

      • GBJames
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        That’s what they call “dead space”.

  7. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    “Sometimes I think this dread is an especially Jewish trait…”

    I’m quite curious. In what way would the fear of death be an especially Jewish trait? That strikes me as a potentially fascinating thought.

    By the way, as I see it, the fear of death is all but universal and most often dealt with by running into the arms of some comforting illusion. Moreover, the act of running away from the fear — rather than remaining with it — only serves to increase its influence on one.

    I guess the best one might say about the notion that only the various religious traditions have much of any importance to say about death is that most of those traditions do appear to fall into the category of “comforting illusions” — so in that sense they have a certain ‘expertise’ in dealing with death. Just not sure it’s the sort of expertise one should prefer.

    I make a partial exception for one or two of those traditions, though — such as Buddhism. I think some strains of Buddhism might not run from death into illusions. At least not to the same extent as other religious traditions.

    • Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      It sounded a lot like a trait that the Sartrean brand of existentialists are on about, to me.

  8. Frank Bath
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I want to live forever too, to see what happens because so many glorious things have happened. But as sure as ‘It was ecstasy that snatched you out of oblivion’, I read somewhere, back to oblivion I will go. Though not in ecstasy I fear. I like Woody Allen’s line, ‘I don’t mind dying I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ All in all it’s the probability of pain that puts me off it, otherwise I’m reconciled. Yes we have all got to go but at least we came. Zillions didn’t. Weird that.

  9. flogus
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in what this guy has to say. He’s the brilliant mind behind this inane NY Times self-flagellating #MeToo confessional, where he opined how it’s an act of “soul murder” for a boy to look at a girl’s butt. Excerpt:

    When I was about 15 years old, I said to a friend of mine, “Why must you always look at a girl’s butt?” He promptly responded: “Are you gay or something? What else should I look at, a guy’s butt?” He was already wearing the mask. He had already learned the lessons of patriarchal masculinity. I was in an unfortunate bind. Either I should without question objectify girls’ behinds or I was gay. There was no wiggle room for me to be both antisexist and antimisogynistic and yet a heterosexual young boy. You see, other males had rewarded his gaze by joining in the objectifying practice: “Look at that butt!” It was a collective act of devaluation. The acts of soul murder had already begun.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      ??? Of course heterosexual males look at and ‘estimate’ a woman’s butt. I don’t say it is the only thing ‘estimated’, but denying it is hypocrisy.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        I remember a recorded talk by Dan Dennett in which he showed an image of some female baboon butts, all swollen and pink. Then some human female butts (though somewhat more clothed than the baboons). It’s all about perspective. It’s part of a the biological imperative and accounts to a great extent for why we are all here.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      I must confess to mass murder as of yesterday afternoon. Piha beach is littered with murdered souls, all wearing bikinis. And I did it. 8-(

      (Even worse, I don’t repent. I’ll probably commit a soul massacre again today. The sight of a beach sprinkled with good-looking young chicks in bikinis always cheers me up. What should I do, not look?)

      cr

      (And before someone wilfully misinterprets this – I don’t stare at them, ffs. That’d be creepy).

  10. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Non-existence won’t bother me. It is contemplating it while I’m still existing that bothers me.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Yup, that summarises it neatly.

  11. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Death, being inevitable, is fascinating. It’s a one-way trip, like birth, and NO ONE has ever come back to tell us what it’s like. However, I do rather like Zen Master Raven’s take on it (by Robert Aitken): Mole asked Raven what happens at the moment of death? “Raven sat silently for a while, then said, ‘I give away my belongings’.”

    I admit, I’m rather curious about it, but not, I hasten to add, curious enough to hasten the process, at least not now.

  12. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    At least it’s not nearly as bad as this NYT article!

  13. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I very much admire how the extremely old tend to view the matter. No doubt they once regarded death as a ‘shudder’, but no more. My mother, for example, is well into her ’90s. She enjoys life, and still has a very sharp mind, but is decidedly indifferent about the final call. Sometimes I catch her checking her watch.

    • A C Harper
      Posted February 4, 2020 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      I’m the same age as PCCE, or near enough. My wife and I have prepaid for natural funerals and updated our wills (and Powers of Financial Attorney). So now, with the paperwork out the way, I am indifferent to the idea of my death… although I would prefer to go without prolonged suffering.

  14. rickflick
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me Yancy’s claim to want to “face up to” anything should be taken with a large grain of sea salt. He is starting up his “project” with a blatant lie. He thinks that belief is more important than truth. Let’s see now which fairy story we like best. What a handful of molasses! Even young children know when someone is lying to them.

  15. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I hate the fact that we are dying.
    There is no evidence it is other than being under anaesthesia, but never waking up, or being like before you were born or conceived.
    There is only one consolation: we all go there, no power or glitter can avoid it.
    Death is the great equalizer

    • Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      As the authors of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers?” figured. “Picard speaks the truth. I have visited his people. I have seen how they live and how they die. When death takes one of their loved ones, they are as helpless as we are.”

  16. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    The thought of my own death does not bother me in any way. I mean, I’d rather it didn’t happen yet but I know it will happen one day. I’m slightly nervous about the process of dying, but once it is over, I have no fear of that.

    What I really do not like at all is watching everybody I know and love grow old and eventually die.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly.

      The thought of being dead doesn’t worry me. But I will miss not being alive.

      (Umm, that is to say, I *would* miss it if I had any consciousness, which I obviously won’t, being dead. It’s curiously tricky to express this logically, though paradoxically I think my meaning is clear.)

      cr

  17. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    “It looks, then, that only those with “faith traditions” are going to be interviewed. Now why on earth is that?”

    Could be just practical considerations. Atheists all have the same, short answer to what happens after death. Perhaps Ricky Gervais put it best:

    “There’s nothing wrong with being dead. The best thing about being dead is that you don’t know about it. That is the best thing. It’s like being stupid, it’s only painful for others so it’s fine.”

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but they cope with it in different ways. And besides that, you don’t mind that only believers are interviewed, and no philosophers or humanists? Seriously?

  18. Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just attended a funeral where death was a kindness not a threat.
    You wake up and then you dont, i just hope it is gracefully done. I hear fire rescue people are regularly breaking deceased individuals out of locked toilets,
    As for not including atheists in the conversation, this amounts to ignoring the very subject in its complete sense and filling it in with grand (albeit some more epic than others) stories and lies.

    Give the people what they want! which is?
    A head full of candy floss, sugar and fluffy but not very satisfying.
    For this religion, get ‘them’ to want more.

  19. Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Maybe it’s because I’ve had trouble with dysthymia and depression for my entire adult life, and with chronic pain for the last 18 years, but I have no sense of “shudder” at the prospect of nonexistence. There are plenty of times when I feel that I can hardly wait for it. And I agree with Hitch, that the prospect of a never-ending party with no option to leave is deeply horrifying, even if it’s a great party.

    As for why we fear death, as the guy asks…surely there are good, sound, biological/evolutionary reasons why we tend to fear death. Creatures without a strong, gripping fear of death–and its harbinger, pain–are less likely to drop successful progeny, all other things being equal, than those that do fear pain and death.

  20. GEORGE SEPSO
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree with Hitch at all. As for seeming never-ending parties, I’ve been to a few. The key is to partake in moderation, always pace yourself, and don’t blow your wad too soon! Still, waking-up afterwards often seems less preferable to not waking-up at all.

  21. grasshopper
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    “So, always look on the bright side of death
    A-just before you draw your terminal breath
    Life’s a piece of shit
    When you look at it
    Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
    You’ll see it’s all a show
    Keep ’em laughing as you go
    Just remember that the last laugh is on you

    And always look on the bright side of life
    Always look on the right side of life

    C’mon Brian, cheer up!”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      That takes me twice as long to read as the words themselves would indicate, because my brain *insists* on pausing at the end of each line for the tune to play itself out.

      Like,
      ‘Always look on the bright si-ide of death
      [de dum, de dum de dum de dum]’

      … and so on.

      😉

      cr

  22. KD33
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I highly suggest finding the YT video “Famous Comedians on Death” (Gervais, CK, Pryor, …). There’s probably as much wisdom there as Yancy will get from all of his experts. And it’s hilarious!

  23. Lee
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Humans are visual reasoners. Much of what passes for reasoning is actually an attempt to visualize “what X would be like?” In this case, the question is “what would the world look like if I weren’t there to see it?”

    The correct answer to this, of course, is to point out that the question contains a contradiction. There *is* no experience without an experiencer. If I try to visualize death, I only get images of cold, dark vagueness. But that is also incorrect. Death is not *like* anything.

    Rather similar to trying to imagine what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object (also a contradiction). If I insist on trying I shall imagine grinding, sparks flying and upheaval everywhere. I can’t imagine a contradictory state of affairs- they can’t exist.

    Just a reminder that sensory imagination, while very useful, isn’t up to a lot of tasks. We need to supplement imagery with logic.

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      This is similar to the way that some people can be talked out of subjective idealism.

  24. Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Yes. It bothers me that only religious scholars will be included in a discussion of death. All that lives dies. We, while alive, use our senses and brains to experience our environments and try to ascribe sense/meaning to it. Because that’s all we can know, it’s
    hard to imagine an alternative of no senses and no cognition. And yet, I can imagine my death and all time thereafter when my molecules (atoms, or whatever elements) are freed to combine with others, to become something new that won’t be me. It pleases me that some of my elements may eventually meet up with those of my dead spouse to create something entirely new. I imagine the universe constantly recombining and renewing and that, although we won’t sense or cogitate on it, we’ll be there.

  25. Matt
    Posted February 4, 2020 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    A 97-Year-Old Philosopher Ponders Life and Death: ‘What Is the Point?’

    https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/604840/being-97/

  26. phoffman56
    Posted February 4, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Sorry to be sarcastic on a topic like this, but:

    Professor Yancy evidently doesn’t get paid enough by Harvard, so needs a brain-catching topic to produce absolutely no new information at all for NYTimes readers–especially as he breathlessly describes it, but probably even if he did find a bunch of secular people to also pontificate on human death, as though that’s fundamentally different from a mosquito’s death. It’s doubtful if there has been a topic on which more has been written. And I’d predict that the scholars of the various traditions will have nothing to say which is not already much more thoroughly been written about. In fact I’d be surprised if any of the already elsewhere written ‘ideas’ of the interviewees was truly original if not new, instead being something they had read, and (forgetfully?) reprocessed.

    But maybe he or they will produce a somewhat interesting booklist. Then calling it a waste of time is premature by me.

    Perhaps having a look at that ‘Le Blog de J.P. Sartre’ from an old New Yorker online would again be a good palliative for many of us. I’m 78, was raised in Canada in the stupid Irish Roman Catholic tradition, and had done enough of that pointless self-flagellation by the time I was about 16. So maybe I shouldn’t be any kind of adviser on the topic. Safe to say I also have the perfectly natural reflexive avoidance of accidental death. And I keep it to only that as much as possible.

    And that is not unhealthy psychological avoidance–don’t mind dying–just don’t want to be there when it happens. So I’m unoriginal too.


%d bloggers like this: