If You Had Only Two Months to Live

Jon Galloway has a post titled “Thanksgiving as a Lifestyle“, where he argues that we should be thankful for every second we have, and backs it up with three observations:

  1. The fact the you are alive is utterly improbable in the grand scheme of things.  Given what we think we know about evolution, the probability of you existing is just about zero.
  2. You experience an obscene level of comfort compared to many more deserving people who preceded you and compared to most of the world alive today.
  3. Your lifespan will be but the blink of an eye.

I agree strongly on the first two points, but I have some issues with his final point.  It jars me in the same way that the pop psychology books do when they say, “Imagine that you only have two months to live!  How will your life change?”

Thanksgiving is about the future

For starters, the Thanksgiving holiday was conceived and celebrated by people who believed that their souls would live forever.  That’s the opposite of “your life will soon be extinguished”.  But let’s ignore the fact that the country was founded by “rigid Christian fundamentalists”, as the Seattle School District teaches.  Passover is a celebration of thanks which agrees with Galloway’s first two points, but was also a celebration of the Jews’ beliefs that their descendants would never be wiped from the face of the earth.  Again, completely opposite of “your life will soon be extinguished”.  A survey of thanksgiving rituals in other religions and pagan traditions reveals that people always celebrate thanks along with some optimistic and enduring expectation about the future of themselves, their race, their country, or whatever.

If you had two months to live

This gets me to the pop-psychology challenge, “imagine that you had two months to live”.  It’s very similar to the debates the stoic philosophers (and 8 year-old boys) have about “what would you do if you could be invisible”?  Some influential stoics tended to believe that people would do naughty things if they were invisible and could avoid getting caught.  By the same token, some modern people argue that belief in an afterlife is necessary to make people act morally.

Again, we needn’t rely on religion to make this point.  Study after study shows that people are more likely to do anti-social things when they feel that their misdeeds will not be detected or punished.  Thus, telling someone “you have only two months to live” could be an invitation to irresponsible debauchery and profligacy.  Of course, this is often the goal of the pop-psychologist.

Many people, when they finally come to grips with their own mortality, or when they feel that there is nothing more to be gained, descend into self-gratification and self-destruction.

By extension, it might seem that the only people who would change their behavior upon receiving a death sentence, would be unprincipled people.  Because people with principles would already be living the way they felt was right, right?  Not necessarily…

Intimate Death

There are others, when faced with their imminent deaths, who live more fully and selflessly.  In her book “Intimate Death“, Marie de Hennezel describes the profiles of several patients she cared for in palliative care facilities in France.  It’s amazing how dying people will hang onto life for a few extra months or weeks in order to set things right and bring closure to loved ones.  At the time when they have nothing left, people who were previously selfish become inexplicably generous and empathic.  Interestingly, even the patients with no family to speak of would often bond with the hospital staff and seem to worry more about the comfort of the nurses than of themselves.

One could argue that these people, scared of death and not wanting to die alone, are bonding with others out of a sense of need.  Of course, this characterization could apply to all young codependent “lovers” as well (and codependency deified is named “Ishtar”, as I explained earlier).  But I reject this characterization.  Many of these people extend their own lives at a time when life is most painful, and make great sacrifices for the benefit of others, then gracefully let go of life.

Two Ways

So, how do you reconcile the examples of people who drown and extinguish themselves in self-indulgence, with the examples of people who chose self-sacrifice at death’s door?  One simple distinction would be this:

  1. People who have no faith in an afterlife, are good only out of fear of consequences in this life, and become increasingly bad as the potential length of potential consequences decreases.
  2. People who have faith in an afterlife, are as bad as sustainably possible in this life, but become increasingly good the closer the afterlife comes and the potential for being judged increases.

This is an oversimplification, of course, but the overall pattern is true.  Note that there are religious people who have no faith, and avowed atheists who have great faith (in the goodness and endurance of humanity, etc.) so this is not a religious statement.  But it is sufficient to revise Jon Galloway’s third point to one that is a more accurate support for thanksgiving:

“The amount of time you have to make a positive contribution to the lives that will come after you is but the blink of an eye, but is more than you earned and is more than enough”

Whether you consider that a blessing or a curse makes all the difference 🙂

Book Review: De La Mettrie’s Ghost

Excellent book.  I’m glad I didn’t get turned away by the materialist reductionism at the beginning.  Here is a summary:

Materialist Views

Chris Nunn is Associate Editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and researcher and practitioner in the field.  He begins his book by giving a survey of what is known about consciousness.  He covers biology, chemistry, physics; then into psychology.  If you read just this first section, you’ll come away thinking that the author is a brain-dead reductionist who doesn’t understand free will.  But this is really the only honest way to treat the subject matter at the materialistic level.


He then moves into philosophy, and despite a wide-ranging treatment, he says nothing I object strongly to.  I love his rebuttals of Cartesian dualism.  He moves quickly to the point — memory is the critical faculty which enables us to say that, for all practical purposes, we have a form of free will.  He adequately elucidates this point, and basically demolishes the strict reductionists.

False Perceptions and False Memory

From here, he does due diligence in exploring things like false memories, hypnosis, and the delicate balance in the seeming paradox of free will.  I was already rather familiar with these issues, but it’s gratifying to see them covered honestly in a book by an avowed materialist.  His treatment of Libet is exactly what Bandler and Grinder were saying in the mid ’70s, and what hypnotists have known all along.  His treatment of “free won’t” is reminiscent of Augustine’s balance between concuscible and irascible.

Somewhere along the way he presents two “axioms” of consciousness, which he takes great pains to point out are designed for refutability to make Popper happy.  The axioms are believable enough.

Stories and Cultural Determinism

After settling upon the idea that free will is predicated on stories embedded in memory (which I strongly believe), he then explores the logical question — how do the stories that our society and culture tell, shape our free will?  He veers into literature and history here, and presents some delightful and even hilarious stories about the way stories impact people’s free will.

In this section, he leans heavily on the idea of “mental objects”, which are similar to “platonizations”, “memes”, or “demons”.  This concept of “mental objects” is a platonization in itself, and he seems to lean too heavily on it sometimes, but to no apparent damage.  This section is far from being reductionist, and the author takes to the new freedom with much aplomb.  Many times you get the nagging feeling that he is presenting facts out of context in order to support his narrative.  But the narrative is fun, he is full of wonderful insights, and as long as you don’t treat it as religion you will totally get his point.

One minor pet peeve.  In this section, he frequently uses the idea of “attractors” to explain order in chaotic systems.  I get annoyed when people who don’t fully understand chaos theory appropriate its terms; like people who say “fractal” every time they mean “pattern”.  At least Nunn uses “scale free” roughly correctly.  And since I am fairly well-versed in the subject matter of this book, I was able to understand “attractor” as the author meant it; but it’s a bit of a stretched metaphor here.

Science Fiction

To wrap up the book, he concludes with a highly speculative chapter on quantum physics, black holes, and so on.  It’s fun and kind of “science fiction”, and not at all necessary for the narrative of the book.

He gives a fairly good treatment of near-death experience research, and suggests that maybe Ayahuasca (the hallucinogenic) will point to a scientifically verifiable context for consciousness that is bigger than individual or culture, and independent of shared experiential memory.  I was shocked that he did not mention Ketamine at all in this section.

Epilogue: Tell Good Stories

Finally, the book has an “Epilogue” tacked on, which is the primary spot in the book where the author feels free to share his opinions and call to action.  He launches into a complaint about the unredeeming quality of stories available today (he seems to have forgotten that Tromalchio was roughly contemporary with Cicero, so it’s not as if the ancients didn’t have worthless tripe).  He thinks it’s import for kids to grow up on a diet of the best quality stories possible.

He rather indefensibly lurches into the thesis that you can attack the “sex and violence in media” problem by generating as much “other” media as possible.  But he can be forgiven for this, since it’s just an opinion tacked to the book as afterthought.


He is rather quotable.  Here are some interesting quotes:

“But, as we shall see, some surprising research findings have led to serious suggestions that free won’t may exist while free will does not.”

“The problem is that, if one appeals to biology to explain the power of each cognitive object, of which there are many thousands, one may end up having to propose implausibly large numhers of distinct biological mechanisms, as well as a range of more general ones such as ‘herd instinct’.”

“Nevertheless, experience can appear to cause physiology as well as the other way round; though the latter view is the one often favoured by reductionists. In fact the two, experience and physiology, are best regarded as aspects of a single process. Supposing otherwise is really only a hangover from Cartesian dualism, and can lead to all sorts of futile ‘chicken and egg’ arguments.”

“He left the castle, clothed as a pilgrim, intending to go to Jerusalem. His half unregenerate status showed itself when he fell in with a Muslim travelling in the same direction. The Muslim allowed that the Virgin Mary was a virgin immediately before Jesus’ birth but would not agree that the same applied after delivery. He rode on fast vhen Ignatius’ temper began to fray. Ignatius was in two minds about whether to pursue and knife him ‘in defence of Our Lady’s honour’.”

“If one believes Marshal McCluhan’s dictum that the medium is the message, it appears that the ‘medium’ for the Saint story is not the literature in which it is told but, rather, the people in whom it is embodied.” — this the money quote, and probably why a reader recommended I pick up this book.  The parallel to Barfield’s “Philology and the Incarnation” is delightful.  Nunn even foreshadows this “incarnation” story at the very start of the book.

“Both points of view are equally valid. What remains constant in a Necker cube are the lines on the paper.”

“There is a big ‘but’. It is that this view of a partially autonomous consciousness has been reached through picturing it as a part of the physical world – as simply an aspect of brain function.” — wow, intellectual honesty!  bravo!

“Some conclusions deriving from good science are indeed conclusive, but they are quite rare.”

“It’s worth remembering that Claude Shannon’s definition of information, the one that scientists mostly use, proved so enormously useful precisely because he excluded any notion of meaning from his idea of what constitutes a ‘bit’. If information is itself to a degree mysterious, then meaning is even more so.”

“But the boundary between efficient and formal causes is a lot fuzzier than is often supposed.”

“I have assumed, throughout this book, that consciousness (the expression of and contributor to the story) and some memory-related aspect of brain function (the relevant matter) can be identified with one another for all practical purposes. In other words, I have assumed in effect that the poem is its print on the piece of paper
. Put so baldly, any such assumption seems dubious at best.”

“Why, in the case of NDEs, should an immaterial soul be able to impress such remarkably clear and vivid memories on a damaged body that has a hard enough time hanging on to even confused memories of its own? … The most straightforward explanation for this specialness is that the stories themselves can act like attractors in a chaotic system, and formally cause the appropriate neural states to crystallize out. At times of crisis, this argument goes, the stories most deeply ingrained in a person are likely to provide the most powerful attraction for all the neural chaos going on and so, perhaps, may be the ones experienced.”

“People absorbing impoverished and plain nasty stories will increasingly as time passes tend to embody these qualities.”

You Aren’t What You Eat

A big “thank you” to whichever reader recommended I read “De La Mettrie’s Ghost”!  The recommendation was made in comments to another post 2 years ago, and I only recently got around to reading it.  In fact, I got annoyed with it at first, and put it down to finish a couple of other books.  But I’m glad I picked it back up.

The author seems quite impressed with reductionism, but does a fine job of being objective.  The book is an invaluable survey of all of the current (and past) perspectives on consciousness.  Partway into the book, the author gives a rather brief treatment of David Hodgson, but with clarity and lack of bias.  This led me to seek out some more of Hodgson’s work, and it’s really rewarding.  It was worth reading the book just to discover Hodgson.

It’s funny; the deeper you get into the complicated and stubborn arguments, the simpler things become.  There are an infinite number of variations of the same basic argument, which boils down to “you are what you eat”.  The rebuttal tends to be rather unitary and boring, and boils down to “what you eat becomes you.”