Posts Tagged ‘immortality’

A stroll with Ray

June 8, 2012

My Philosophy Walks project is an exercise in “peripatetic multitasking,” as someone has called the act of thinking, listening, speaking, writing and/or dictating while perambulating. Sometimes a good walk involves meditative inner silence. Other walks, though, welcome other voices. The medium or mechanism of their conveyance matters less than their impact.

Yesterday’s walk continued my personal celebration of Ray Bradbury, whose wisdom on many fronts I’m belatedly discovering. I downloaded a dramatized version of his Dandelion Wine from the public library to my phone via Overdrive, and another recording of the author reading his own work, and thus experienced the oddly death-defying pleasure of enjoying a great author’s virtual company hours after his bodily demise.

We do that whenever we crack a book by an author no longer carnally with us, of course, but the presence and immediacy of audible human voices is more vivid. Encountering those voices whilst striding pleasantly in the open air magnifies the experience.

Dandelion Wine is Bradbury’s fictionalized autobiographical evocation of his own childhood, published (incidentally) in the year of my own birth. So, in a fashion, it was an escorted walk back in time for us both. Twelve year old Ray would’ve been astounded, ninety-one year old Ray gratified.  I was simply delighted with this charming account of the artist as a young person, waking to his own conscious existence.

“I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!”

And perhaps the most reassuring wisdom of all:

“No person ever died that had a family.”

It’s an author’s privilege, and a reader’s, to claim membership in an extended family rooted in the shared experience of wonder at simply being alive. And it can be a walker’s to tag along too.

Note to Robert Ettinger: the best dreams are waking

July 30, 2011

Robert C. W. Ettinger: now there was a guy who understood that “life only avails, not the having lived.” Or maybe not.

He gave us cryonics, separated the Splendid Splinter’s head from his bat, inspired Woody Allen (“Sleeper“), and now seems to have shuffled off this mortal coil.

I know I shouldn’t make light of anyone’s passing, but this is just too rich.

“Life is better than death, healthy is better than sick, and immortality might be worth the trouble.” I don’t disagree. It might be.

It might also be more sensible to recognize our personal mortality as a small but crucial part of the much larger and more enlivening story of life on the grand scale, at the species and cosmic level where death and life are yin and yang. It’s really not all about me, or you, or her. It’s about us, about we who’ve been privileged against all odds to wake up in the universe and begin to sniff around, we who have a golden opportunity to prepare our immediate successors for their own moment of lucidity and aspiration.

Links in a chain, we are. Not a chain dangling from a hook in a meat locker, but a chain of genes and dreams stretching beyond every perceptible horizon.

Still, I’m entirely with Mr. Ettinger in his lust for more life. Give me more experience, please. “So when I come back I’d like to try skiing,” and a few dozen other risky ventures. I’d like to meet my great-great-great… grandchildren. I’d like to know how the story turns out.

Older Daughter said last night she’s miffed that there’s this great, vast universe out there and she can’t reach it. I know what she means, and I think I know what Robert Ettinger wanted. But the thing is, we can reach it. What else is an expanded and evolving cranial capacity for, besides foraging and fending off predators more efficiently, if not to dream?

As she and Dumbledore and Emily Dickinson remind me, just because something’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real. The brain is wider than the sky and warmer than a deep freeze. It’s a pretty good time machine and rocket ship too.

singular future

August 10, 2010

Immortality. It’s not just for the religious, anymore.

You can matriculate at Singularity U. and major in it. Or something close. The curriculum includes programs in Futures Studies, bio- and nanotech, AI & robotics… but reading between the lines, the real subject at this school whose stated mission is to “address humanity’s Grand Challenges” seems to be the defeat (not just acceptance or understanding) of death. [“Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday“… Jaron Lanier on the “First Church of Robotics“]

Or you can line up with Aubrey de Grey to study “the strange science of immortality.” That’s the subtitle of Jonathan Weiner’s Long for this World, a page-turning account of the strange scientist who confidently predicts that humans will soon begin to live forever. [de Grey’s “manifesto“]

Unlike Chancellor/Trustee Ray Kurzweil, de Grey says he’s motivated not by dreams of personal immortality for himself or his kin– (he has no children, saying “anyone can have kids. I want to make a difference.”)– but to benefit humanity.

It sounds like fiction. It sounds, in fact, like Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel of a dystopian future in which people carry Orwellian smart phones so they can run instant background checks on each other and constantly monitor their credit ratings, and go to college to major in things like Images and Assertiveness.

“A cornerstone of the Post-Human Philosophy,” in the brave new world, is that if you really want to live forever you’ll find a way. The people who think this way, the narrator observes, are captivated by a singular “inability to grasp the present moment.”

Is there a sensible way we can inhabit the present, invest in the deep future, and genuinely study and advance the amelioration of the human condition? And do it without being kooky eccentric egocentric geniuses? That’s what we’re going to study in Future of Life, getting under way in just a couple of weeks at my own singular university.


June 29, 2010

This was a disquieting minor development. I discovered it after my walk yesterday, so it had to have happened some time between then and the evening before.

Some would say I was happily fated by Dames Fortune and Design not to be there, when the small but dangerous limbs (they’re pointier and heavier than they look, I promise) descended onto my hammock pillow.

I just say I was darned lucky, and am very grateful… but neither to Providence nor to my guiding stars. It was just Dumb Luck (which we all need plenty of) and statistical probability. “The brilliant randomness of everyday life,” as Nick Rescher put it.

Main thing is, I got back up on that horse and rode again. No injuries to report, no fatalism to declare. Just roll the dice again, please. Summer is a time of deceptive calm, but I’ll take it. Risk-aversion is for immortals.

Coming soon: “Atheism and spirituality”

July 31, 2009

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” I’m looking ahead to a new course in the Spring (2010) semester.

First I was going to blaze trails, at least around these parts, with  Atheism Old & New. (Epicurus, David Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell are “old,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Shermer are among the more notable new.)

Then I thought it would be more politically prudent, in these troubled times for public education funding (and, frankly, with tenure in the balance) , to do a Spirituality course instead.

Now, reaching for a grand synthesis and throwing caution to the winds (but ducking the blow-back), I’ve decided that atheism and spirituality deserve each other. As William James pointed out, the absurdity of religion is matched only by the spiritual audacity of its intentions. “Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

The religious impulse is inseparable from  what some have called elan vital or life force. That’s what spirituality is largely about: living, breathing, attending, caring, learning. Paying rapt attention to each present moment, one after another as conveniently measured by our restless, respiring consciousness. What does that get us? More life, we hope. “Not God, but more life” is our most natural human aspiration. Eternal life even, in the most audacious old dream.

Yet, James  informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by the progressive epic of evolution. And it requires death. A lot of it. “I [am] incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” Scratch 9 out of 10 atheists, you’ll find an evolutionist craving “more life.”

But more for whom? Is there sufficient consolation in the hope of a future life for humankind (and its unimaginably evolved spawn) at large?

sleeperOr must the saving life to come be mine, all mine? Recall Woody Allen on this point: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children… I want to achieve it through not dying.” We’ll see how that works out for Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Well, perhaps somebody will see.

Evolution as salvation? That’s a proposition whose meaning and truth (or falsehood) a course on atheism and spirituality could have a lot of fun figuring out. Spiritual atheists and evolutionists do exist, after all, as do jaded believers and “Young Earth creationists” pantomiming the motions of a lifeless faith. (And don’t forget Francis Collins and the theistic evolutionists.)

although all the special manifestations of
religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories),
yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important

Watch this space for course details. First, though, the new Fall course connects with spirituality too: would life be worth living, if we couldn’t pursue happiness?


June 5, 2009

The ballplayer, not the idea mill. Ted Williams (Teddy Ballgame, The Splendid Splinter, the Kid, 1918-2002) was also known as an idea man, but it was a single idea and it was intransigent: his idee fixe was to be the best hitter of baseballs ever. With obsessive singleness of purpose he set out to master the science of hitting, to understand and apply consistently the mechanics and the mindset of what has been called the most difficult task in all sport: squarely to hit a round ball with a rounded stick.  He was the last to hit over .400, in 1941. A 40%+ success rate in this particular endeavor is astonishing, and may well never be matched again. (He actually topped out at .406, playing the second game of a double-header and placing the whole achievement at risk rather than settle for a mere, rounded .400.) Williams is a baseball immortal. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for him. His contemporary Satchel Paige said maybe he’d pitch forever, but he knew he was being ironic. Williams was dead serious. More about that later.

ted williams

“A man has to have goals – for a day, for a lifetime – and that was mine, to have people say, ‘There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.'” My Turn at Bat

Here’s a clip of Williams at bat, from Ken Burns’ splendid baseball documentary… and his last at bat, on September 28, 1960, the inspiration for John Updike’s classic New Yorker commemoration “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”

My favorite Ted quote: “I’ve found that you don’t need to wear a necktie if you can hit.”

And one more: “Hitting is fifty percent above the shoulders.” For a ballplayer, that approach made Ted an intellectual.