Confined indoors due to the coronavirus and the lockdowns, I had a lot of time to think, to read and to watch videos on YouTube. I’d like to take you on a little journey, to show you what I found and what I learned, and how I think that all this connects to what is happening in the world today.
Covid-19 has sent people into a frenzy. Despite the low mortality, a lot of people fear for their lives. There is a big disconnect between the actual numbers of deaths and the fear of death that this crisis has elicited in people. There seem to be a number of reasons for that.
First and most obvious is the relentless pounding of the populace with images of apocalyptic scenarios. Switch on the television, and you will be flooded 24 hours per day with stories of doom, gloom and death. Quite illuminating in this regard is the bellicose language – the current health crisis is compared to and described as a war. Terms like “a battle between life and death”, “battling the virus” and “front-line workers” are testament to that.
But if you look at the numbers – even recognizing that they are entirely manipulated and fabricated – they talk another language. The latest numbers suggest that between 5 and 20% of the population has had contact with the virus. At least half of those get infected but don’t develop any symptoms at all. Of those infected, most only experience mild symptoms, analogous to what a majority of people experience during any flu season. Only a small minority fall gravely ill, and still many fewer die.
Of those who die, the vast majority are elderly and suffer from multiple comorbidities (concurrent illnesses) that put them at risk of dying with or without any viral infection. The risk for the average person to die from Covid-19 is around 0.001%, which translates approximately to the risk of dying during a car trip of between 9 and 450 miles distance. No one thinks twice before jumping into a car and driving to work.
So, in the end this is an expression of an inability to think, to take what is known, to extrapolate this into the future and to apply it to our own life, in a logical and reasoned manner. And it is also testament to the fact that a lot of people are happy to just follow the lead of authorities, of ‘experts’, without asking themselves whether what is advertised is in their own interest, or in the interest of those ‘experts’ or authorities.
But I think that this is not the only reason people are in a frenzy. In times like these the specter of death rears its head – something that normally can be safely tucked away in a quiet corner of our mind. Death – even while we experience it on TV every single day as ‘entertainment’ – is for others, living somewhere on our planet, distant from us. Our own mortality is relegated to the future, so far away it might as well not happen. To speak about death is virtually a taboo. But this crisis has brought death back on our own doorstep. Suddenly it stares into our own face.
But then, why does the thought of dying generate such fear and panic in people? To me it seems that one of the answers is our materialistic view of life and the universe.
While formerly we believed in a benevolent God, who at the end of our life would take us back to Heaven – sometimes with the proviso that we had to live according to some rules and be good, lest we end up in Hell – this God and his Heaven have disappeared. We come out of nothing, and back to nothing we return. There is no God, there is no afterlife – there is not much sense in being on this planet. We are ruled by deterministic laws of nature, and free will is just an illusion. So if I only have one single shot at life, and once I die, I and my memory and my accumulated experiences are gone for eternity, then I will cling to life as much as I can.
And if there is no God and no afterlife, what good is it to be good? Why should I be virtuous and just and equanimous? Why not just do whatever I please for as long as I can? Because if there is no God, there cannot be punishment either, so I can be as evil, as selfish and unjust as I want. There are no consequences. If there is nothing higher, if there is no meaning in the universe, then there is no reason to even conceive of the idea that there is anything wrong with evil, selfishness, and injustice.
This reminds me of the choice Solzhenitsyn describes in his work The Gulag Archipelago, where he tells us that any prisoner that entered the Gulag system had two choices: To either survive by any and all means necessary, which meant to leave any moral or ethical measures behind. Or to keep his humanity and integrity intact, in which case he would be dead within twelve months. And if you believe that you only have one life, and that there is no higher authority than you, there is no point in keeping your humanity and integrity, because – who in the end is the arbiter? It’s you, so whatever you choose, it is right. It simply doesn’t matter.
This may be liberating to some degree, I think, if you compare it to the life of pre-Enlightenment man. They were told to be good, all day and every day, otherwise they would eternally burn in hell for their sins. And to be good in every situation is difficult if not impossible, as we all know very well ourselves. Temptations abound, and often we make decisions under pressure or in an impulsive way.
But this ‘liberation’ comes at a heavy price. There is no sense, no purpose in the universe anymore. I am just a small speck of dust in the cosmos, blown hither and thither by random forces. I struggle, I die – and then I’m gone, forever.
However, if you believe in a Divine presence, in something that transcends your own little life, in an immortal soul and in a continued existence after you shed your mortal remains, suddenly things look very different. If there is a God and an afterlife, it makes perfect sense that you might be judged by your actions and behavior after your earthly existence (the concept of karma comes to mind). And God might be the judge before whom you might have to answer for your deeds.
Having lost the belief in a Divine presence, is there another way to find moral strength and hope in a life that is punctuated by pain, tragedy and suffering, and that leads to certain death at the end?
Stoicism is one way I think that can help. I recently watched this excellent lecture by Michel Sugrue, where he explains the Stoic philosophy through one of its exponents, the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
After the death of Socrates, Hellenistic philosophy split into different schools of thought, including Epicureanism, Skepticism and Stoicism.
Epicureanism’s core principle declared that pleasure is its sole intrinsic goal. However, it was not hedonism in the sense we understand this today, because it stated that the absence of fear and pain constitutes the highest pleasure, and it advocates a simple life. Epicureans in general shunned politics, because it could lead to frustration and ambitions, which were contrary to their stated goals.
Skepticism posits that knowledge or rational belief is impossible, leading its adherents to question and doubt everything.
The most well-known and persistent spin-off of the Socratic school of philosophy was Stoicism. Its core proposition is that rejection of pleasure should be the standard for human happiness and felicity.
The wise man lives according to nature, he is not afraid of pain, not afraid of death, nor poverty, he is not afraid of any of the vicissitudes of the human condition. He fears only that he should let himself down and be thus less than a complete human being.
The only concern to a wise man is the things that are completely under his own control. You can’t control the movement of the sun or the planets, the weather, other people or society around you.
There is only one thing that you are at least potentially in control of, and that is you: your will, your intentions, your self.
Thus, the truly wise man is one who is in control of his own soul, who takes utter and complete responsibility for his actions, and who is indifferent of anything else, not because he doesn’t care about other people or the felicity of the entire human race, but because this is not under his control.
He doesn’t worry about what tomorrow will bring, since tomorrow is not under his control either. The Stoic philosopher is the man who has liberated himself from fear. He is not afraid of death, he is not afraid of pain, he is not afraid of other people’s dismissal of him as a fool.
The only thing he cares about is to meet his moral obligations. He doesn’t even need life itself: virtue is enough. And virtue in Stoic terms is the organised soul who pursues rationally the ends which are good for all human beings.
The two most notable proponents were Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Ironically, they were socially as distant as possible, the former being the Roman emperor and the latter being a slave.
We remember Lord Acton’s dictum: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Marcus Aurelius was the exception to the rule. As emperor he had absolute power over anyone and anything.
If a man under such circumstances behaves well, it shows something about his soul underneath, because no external constraint is making him do what he is doing.
Marcus Aurelius controlled the entire Roman world for 19 years. He could have had all the money in the world, he could have had sex with whomever he wanted whenever he wanted. If he wanted to get drunk, he could have brought in wine by the boatload, for 19 years straight.
He stands over the centuries as a reproach to our own self-indulgence, that we are unable to deal with the circumstances of life. If you can deal with the temptations at that level, you can deal with anything.
Any virtue that is accessible to any one human is, in principle, accessible to all of us. We all have a rational nature which allows us to control our feelings, our behavior and our connection to other people.
If for some reason a Stoic philosopher gets sick, well, sickness is part of human life, he accepts it as it is, deals with it in the best possible way and then he moves on.
Marcus Aurelius wrote his book, Meditations, to himself – it wasn’t meant for publication. He wanted it to be burnt after his death, but someone disregarded his wish and preserved it for posterity.
Why did Marcus Aurelius do that – write a book to himself – given that to write is a means of communication with someone else? Because he was the loneliest man in the world. As emperor he had no friends, no one to talk to, because he had no equals. Everyone he talked to wanted something from him. He was the emperor of the world, he owned everything. He has absolute power over anyone’s life. And yet all he wanted was to live the life of a philosopher, but he had the misfortune of being born into succession as emperor.
The weariness got to him after a while. The whole book is the musings of a melancholic soul, but also of a man who just didn’t give up. He constantly reminds himself: although the people he has to deal with are all corrupt, evil and depraved, it’s his job to teach them and morally improve them, and if he cannot do that, at least he can put up with them. It is up to him to do good, be just, model virtue.
Marcus Aurelius is the only ruler in the Western tradition who remotely embodies Plato’s ideal of the philosopher king. What did he write in his book? Moral maxims, just a few of them, which he repeats over and over again.
“Soon you will have forgotten all things, and all things will soon have forgotten you.”
So, don’t get too worked up about things, because soon you’ll be dead. And soon all the other people who know you will be dead, too. What, then, is the point in being mean to people?
Mediations largely consists of short 2-3 line epigrams essentially saying: Don’t loose your temper with people, you know how they are! And: It’s not your fault that they are stupid, you tried to teach them. If they killed Socrates, what do you think they are going to do with you?
He is prepared to rule the Roman empire for the same reason as Plato’s philosopher king: If I don’t do it, someone worse will do it. The gods put me into this position, so I cannot abdicate my responsibility.
Roman Stoicism’s main two maxims are: 1) Stop complaining, because there are only two things in life – things you can control, and things you cannot. 2) And regarding the things you can control, who do you think is going to do it for you, if not yourself? So stop complaining about that too.
“Humans are social animals, either teach them, or if that is not possible, at least put up with them!”
“Are you weary of enduring the bad men in the world? The gods aren’t and they made them. Are you really weary of enduring the bad men in the world, especially given that you are one of them?”
Marcus Aurelius’s view of death: Everyone dies, so you too are going to die. So what’s the point in complaining about it? You can try to stay healthy and avoid death, but when you are going to die, you are going to die. Don’t give in to your irrational fear. Control your movements, your emotions, that part of life that is you.
So the take-home message of Stoicism is: Do not fear anything, because you either can’t do anything about it, or if you can and you don’t do anything about it, you have only yourself to blame.
Given this take-home message, Stoic philosophy is often regarded as harsh and somewhat cold and unfeeling, and that is true. To live according to Stoic philosophy requires you to be able to look at life and yourself in a detached and rational manner. And it requires a fair amount of personal discipline.
And while the Greek Stoics had a highly developed theology, practical Roman Stoicism is more agnostic about the question of God, so if you are looking for relief through a transcendent god figure, you’re in the wrong bar.
Marcus Aurelius’s view on God is that there is no proof for or against the existence of God. So he looks at both possibilities to find a way that accommodates both.
If there is no God and we are only atoms and void, then what you do doesn’t have any influence on what happens to you. If there are gods, they must be good, wise and moral. Would they then do anything bad to you, if you lived a moral life? What would you have to fear them? Either way, don’t worry!
While this type of Stoic philosophy (and its modern variants) gives us good tools to live a good and virtuous life, it doesn’t give us answers to the most basic questions humans ask: Why are we here? What is the point of our existence? This used to be the domain of the Church, whose answer was quite straight-forward and easy: You are here because God willed it to be so, and the point of existence is to glorify Him.
The Stoic philosophy presents an antidote to the nihilistic materialism of today. But it has been – as in the video above – characterised as cold, harsh and unfeeling. And it sets the bar very high. I still think that the Stoic approach is better than the nihilistic approach, because you are more likely to lead a better life. And if you live a better life, on average you will be more content, satisfied and successful.
But maybe there is another way to combat the fear without necessarily having to be a superhero like Marcus Aurelius?
Whitehead’s Radically Postmodern Theism
I recently read a book by David Ray Griffin, a retired American professor of philosophy of religion and theology and a political writer. The title is Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy. Another article can be found here.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher. In the first part of his life he wrote mostly on mathematical topics. His most famous work is Principia Mathematica, which he co-wrote with his former student Bertrand Russell, and is one of the twentieth century’s most important works on mathematical logic. Later, at the beginning of the 1910s, he progressively turned his attention to the philosophy of science and then to metaphysics.
He developed a comprehensive metaphysical system which radically departed from most of Western philosophy. Whitehead argued that reality consists of processes rather than material objects (hence his philosophy came to be called process philosophy), and those processes are best defined by their relations with other processes, thus rejecting the theory that reality is fundamentally constructed by bits of matter that exist independently of one another.
Today Whitehead’s philosophical works – particularly Process and Reality – are regarded as the foundational texts of process philosophy. Whitehead’s process philosophy argues that “there is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have consequences for the world around us.” This has recently led his philosophy to be used in the discussion of ecology: Whitehead’s God is a deep ecologist, but one whose deep ecology includes animals and human liberation.
It must be noted that Whitehead’s process theism does not privilege claims to special insights or revealed truth. If process theism is not based on revelation, neither it is based on the appeal to science alone. It is no more characteristic of process thought to give a ‘scientific’ argument for the existence of God than to give a reductionist account of religious belief by means of a theory in sociology or psychology. As far as Whitehead is concerned, the working assumptions of the sciences are no more or less open to question and clarification than the working assumptions of religion.
In other words, process theism is not based on religious doctrine or theology, nor is it based on scientific theory. It is a product of metaphysics, or what Whitehead calls ‘speculative philosophy’:
“Speculative philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted”.
Or to formulate it differently: What Whitehead tries to achieve is a system of thought – based on certain assumptions Griffin calls ‘hard-core commonsense notions’ (ideas that are inevitably presupposed in our existence, even if this presupposition is verbally questioned) – that is able to account for all the facts and experiences we have in our life, including consciousness, meaning, aesthetics, morality, scientific knowledge, truth, etc. He maintains that neither religion nor science alone, is capable of that, but that in a sense ‘merging’ the two – opposed, but not necessarily contradictory and mutually exclusive – views about life, the universe and all, may give us a better tool to understand humanity and our place in the Universe.
The bridge between theology and science is done through the theory of ‘actual entities’ and counters the idea that everything that is material is without any mind-like qualities (which Whitehead refers to as ‘vacuous actuality’). All actual entities are ‘dipolar’, so all of them have a physical aspect, but none are entirely lacking in psychic qualities, although in most cases these qualities are negligible, as would be the case with subatomic particles, atoms and molecules. So in process thought, physical does not mean having no feeling, emotion or experience, even if that experience might be very low-grade as in electrons or protons (hence, one pillar of his theory is thus called ‘panexperientialism’).
When coming to the question of God, Whitehead does not offer scientific proofs: “There is merely the confrontation of the theoretical system with a certain rendering of the facts”. After having established a satisfactory alternative to scientific materialism, he asked himself whether his philosophy required a reference to God. It seems that Whitehead was surprised to find that it did, because at the beginning of his philosophical studies he was agnostic.
Especially in regards to the question of morals and ethics he came to the conclusion that – having discarded the prevailing notion in the philosophies of the last 200 years, that moral and ethical precepts can be derived from nature alone – God is conceptually necessary for the overall cohesiveness of his theory.
Whitehead’s argument for God is summarised by Ford in the following way: “Actual entities either belong to God or to the World. Given the World, God must exist. Given God, the World must exist. Since one or the other must exist, both must”.
Through this short and much simplified review of Whiteheads process theism I think that we have come a step closer on our search for a divine existence in the Universe – while there is no scientific proof for God, to posit a Divine existence enables us to explain many of the experiences in our life, for which all other world views – especially scientific materialism – don’t provide us with a coherent explanation.
The next step in our journey now is to ask if there really aren’t any rational arguments for a divine creator that can be put forward starting from a purely scientific basis. I think there are arguments for this, and I shall give two here. The first is Intelligent Design (as opposed to Neo-Darwinism) and the second is based on reviewing the evidence of so called ‘Near Death Experiences’ (NDE).
Intelligent Design and Neo-Darwinism
I grew up believing that Neo-Darwinism is a scientific theory that has pretty much been shown to be correct, and that no truly scientific person could reasonably assail its underlying basic assumptions. I had heard of Intelligent Design (ID), but thought of this school of ‘thought’ as merely a variant of Creationism, the (religious) belief that the world as we know it, with all its features and creatures, had been designed and built by God in seven days, as is stated in the Scriptures. And that was, of course, nonsense, as science has shown our planet to be billions of years old.
At some point I started to read a few books and articles about Intelligent Design, and I have come to the conclusion that Neo-Darwinism is fatally flawed, and that ID is much more coherent and without the internal contradictions of Neo-Darwinism, which its high-priests have conveniently shoved under the rug.
I won’t give the whole argumentation of why I believe this to be the case. I will however point you to those books and articles that have convinced me of my present position, and I will give you by way of example two arguments (among many others) to illustrate my point.
Two books that make the point very elegantly and eloquently are Stephen C Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt and Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box. And for interesting articles see here and here.
One example that I would like to touch upon is ‘Irreducible Complexity’ (IC). Many of the myriads of biochemical and functional processes in our body are said to be ‘irreducibly complex’ (like the bacterial flagellum, the ciliae, and the blood-clotting cascade to just mention a few).
As described in one of the above mentioned articles, we can look at ‘Irreducible Complexity’ in the following way:
“If you have a system of 20 parts that are all needed for the system to work (remove any one part and the system becomes useless), the system cannot evolve step-by-step in Darwinian fashion, because you’d have 19 intermediate states that aren’t useful for anything and thus natural selection wouldn’t select them. This is one of the biggest problems for Darwinism. Dawkins claims ‘victory’ because he shows something evolved two parts that did something together. Two parts is the worst example of ‘complexity’ possible (literally).”
Another example is the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of life forms. Again cited from the above article:
“For two billion years, only single-celled organisms existed, without producing anything complex. This makes perfect sense. What doesn’t make any sense (from the Darwinian perspective) is that, suddenly, in some 20 million years, most major animal phyla appeared in all their complexity. The Darwinian prediction is that things evolve slowly at a fairly constant rate. The Cambrian explosion stands in complete opposition to this theory. Of course Darwinists, who begin with a pre-formed belief – that evolution is true – and then try to twist the facts to fit the conclusion, and produce all kinds of really lame excuses for this that we won’t even get into here.”
This is not to say that Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms are not operative in our world, they certainly are, but probably only at the family and genus level in the hierarchy of life. They certainly cannot account for how life started in the first place, how the phyla came to existence in the Cambrian explosion, and even less so how things like consciousness or altruism could have evolved in the human race.
The question of who or what the Intelligent Designer is has not been answered so far, but speculations abound. Of course most of the proponents of Intelligent Design say “God did it!” And this might be a straightforward solution to the riddle, but I don’t think it is the only one possible.
Maybe the Universe and life have always been present in one way or another; maybe we were created by beings, who were created by other beings, who in turn were created by yet other beings … ad infinitum.
So even if we don’t have an answer to the question of the nature of the Designer, the fact alone that there has to be a designer to account for all the facts means that our universe is not purely deterministic, and that some Creative Force is operative in our world, in whatever form this may be.
Near Death Experiences (NDE)
Another avenue I have researched is Near Death Experiences or NDEs.
My first encounter with NDE was a few years ago. A colleague with whom I was working asked me if he could tell me about his own NDE and the psychological effects it had had on him. His story – unlike the majority of those encountered in the research – was not a pleasant one, but mostly because he didn’t want to return after having witnessed the bliss of the afterlife. When I met him, he was still struggling with the implications and had just started to come out of a two-year-long and very dark depressive phase. This naturally spiked my interest as a medical practitioner, because up until then I had not given much thought to those episodes, thinking that it was merely the result of a brain starved of oxygen producing hallucinations. I began to read the literature that was available about this topic. At that time there weren’t that many books and soon I lost steam and directed my interest to other topics.
A few months ago I read another book on NDE. Meanwhile there is a multitude of books on this topic. Here I’d like to reference only two – Evidence of the Afterlife and God and the Afterlife, both co-authored by Jeffrey Long, MD and Paul Perry. Dr. Jeffrey Long is a radiation oncologist from Louisiana, who investigates NDEs and hosts www.nderf.org, a website, where he has collected over 4000 cases of NDE and has analysed these cases with a scientific methodology.
He found that a substantial portion of people having a cardiac arrest or having been declared ‘clinically dead’ reported a NDE afterwards (current estimates are around 10%). The reason that this fact is not very widely known, especially within the medical community, is the reluctance of the patients to talk about their experience – for fear of being ridiculed or seen as crazy (which in many cases is not unfounded, given the absence of knowledge about NDE in the general population, as well as within the medical community).
NDEs seem to have common elements that are reported in similar fashion across different cultures, different pre-existing religious beliefs and different ages of the experiencers.
Dr. Long cites as evidence of the afterlife the following points:
- It is medically inexplicable to have a highly organised and lucid experience while unconscious or clinically dead.
- NDErs may see and hear in the out-of-body (OBS) state, and what they perceive is nearly always real. In many cases this could be independently corroborated.
- NDEs occur during general anaesthesia when no form of consciousness should be taking place.
- NDEs take place among those who are blind, and these NDEs often include visual experiences (even in those who had been blind from birth and have never seen before).
- A life review during the NDEs accurately reflects real events in the NDE’s life, even if those events have been forgotten. They clearly are different experiences from dreams or drug-induced altered states of consciousness.
- Virtually all beings encountered during NDEs are deceased at the time of the NDE, and most are deceased relatives. In certain cases this relative was unknown to the subject at the time, but he or she recognised the relative later from photographs.
- The striking similarity of content in NDEs among very young children and that of adults strongly suggests that the content of NDEs is not due to pre-existing beliefs.
- The remarkable consistency of NDEs around the world is evidence that NDEs are real events.
- Subjects experiencing an NDE are transformed in many ways by their experience, often for life.
In the second book quoted above the author explores specifically the question of God. He found that over 40% of experiencers were aware of the existence of God or a supreme being during their NDE. And that included a significant portion of NDErs that before their experience were either agnostics or atheists. Looking at the belief of NDErs before as compared to after their experience, 39% believed that “God definitely exists” before their experience, compared to 72.6% of NDErs after their NDE, which is an 86% increase in those who definitely believed that God existed after their NDE.
There is an oft-quoted scientific principle that what is real is consistently observable. And the consistency of Dr. Long’s findings far outweighs any inconsistency. In addition to that there is also an overwhelming majority of NDErs who reported their experiences as real. This contrasts with dreams and hallucinations after which there is no doubt in the mind of the subject as to the reality – or lack thereof – of his or her experience.
Of course, skeptics argue that these are not real experiences, more like the figments of an oxygen-starved brain, just as I did before studying this topic in more detail. What is interesting is that over the years there have been over 20 different ‘explanations’ as to what NDEs ‘really’ are. If any of these theories would present a strong unassailable case, there wouldn’t be so many of them. And in general the skeptics don’t address the consistency of the accounts, or provide hard evidence to disprove their validity. Skeptics need to give strong evidence AGAINST, if they want to counter the strong evidence FOR NDEs.
I grew up in a secular Christian family, where religion was ‘exercised’ but without any deep belief or conviction; it was a social thing at best. After university I grew more and more disenchanted with religion, especially with their exponents who were flawed, and sometimes downright vicious, who were “talking the talk, but not walking the walk”. I left the Church and became a hard-core atheist. Well, maybe not entirely, because I always had doubts about my view of God, the Universe and all.
The journey I have described in these pages has led me to believe that there indeed is a Supreme Being, a God or whatever name you would like to attribute to the Cosmic Creative Force that suffuses, builds and maintains our universe. This has been a difficult and at times painful process. The slaughter of sacred cows is never an easy or painless process.
On the other side, however, it has taken some existential angst from me. If there is a God, and thus a soul, and consequently an afterlife, there is nothing to fear really.
And that brings me back to the Stoic philosophy, whose central tenet is “Do not fear what you have no control over, because it just doesn’t make any sense”, but with a twist – I know now that the Universe is not a cold, hard and random place, but one suffused with purpose, love, creativity and life. I still have my reservations – my intellect seems to embrace the idea of a Creative Force or a God more easily than my emotions, so all of this is still a work in progress.
One day, it will be my time to depart this world – in the grand scheme of things, whether that is tomorrow, in two weeks or in 20 years is not so important. Like the Stoics say, what is important is to lead a good and virtuous life.
And I know now, that when this day comes, there will be new and amazing worlds to explore.