The Human Condition

Posted: June 1, 2011 in Debate, Industrial Collapse, Manners, Philosophy

I got carried away in a face-to-face exchange recently and brought too much ammunition to the debate, which resulted in my blindsided interlocutor shutting down and dismissing me rather than suffer the conclusions my arguments required. I clearly overwhelmed her, which is good sport on talk TV, though overwhelming someone is usually accomplished by being louder and more insistent than by being convincing, and in retrospect, I felt some regret at being such a needless bully.

The episode made me think about how I can sometimes be insufferable, not because I’m in error necessarily (though that’s always possible) but because I’m prone to turn over rocks others would rather leave unexamined. As further ideas cascaded out of my head, I quickly hit upon three terrible truly true truths that typically cause others to dislike or even hate me for pointing them out. Under normal circumstances, I have the good sense not to shove truth in others’ faces. But I’m easily excited by ideas in an abstract way and can become intemperate. With all that in mind, I will unburden myself of the first terrible truly true truth and leave the other two unrevealed as too controversial. The first is uncontroversial yet is among the most enduring problems of philosophy: the foreknowledge of our own deaths, or what is sometimes called the human condition. Rest assured, I don’t have an exhaustive treatment. Just a few comments.

Fear of death is a sort of existential dread peculiar to humans, who alone among the animals (or so we think) can conceptualize time, escape the eternal present, and project forward to our own nonexistence. Death ranks as one of our greatest fears, but unlike others, there is nothing to project the fear onto or to rebel against. So we tend to put it out of mind or sweep it under the rug. Most of us are spared detailed knowledge of the time and manner of our demise, but as death approaches in advanced age, I’ve witnessed how some people begin to get more comfortable with it, losing the dread, perhaps even finally welcoming the inevitable.

In other cultures and other times, death probably did not haunt us through our days quite like it does now. For instance, those who obtain meat by slaughtering animals are far more intimately acquainted with death than those of us who get meat in hygienic, cellophane-wrapped packaging at the grocery. Medical practitioners are also undoubtedly very humanely aware of human mortality. Like many truths these days, however, death for many of us is stowed away and marginalized as some far-off news event that happens to other people, and even when it appears in our personal lives in, say, the loss of a family member, our grieving process is markedly dysfunctional.

My expectation is that the day may soon come when overpopulation begins to rebalance and carts will traverse the streets manned by public workers calling out “Bring out yer dead!” This isn’t a prediction of The Rapture, the rollover of the Mayan calendar, or some other end-of-times scenario. Rather, it’s a simple extrapolation of the likely effects of increased unavailability of energy to run civilization coupled with disruptions including climate change and ecological collapse. This, by the way, is not one of the three terrible truly true truths, though perhaps it ought to be.

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