Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Review: The Living End

Dr. Guy Brown, a self-described 'research scientist working on the molecular mechanisms of cell death and degenerative disease...', has written a fascinating study on the history of death. Particularly, on human death and the diseases that precede it. Up until the advent of modern medicine, death was generally a swift affair, often striking with little warning and offering little hope in the way of reversal or postponement. To put it bluntly, until fairly recently people dropped like flies, and there wasn't much anybody could do about it.

Not so these days. Through the miracle of medical intervention a person whose physically degenerated condition would have doomed him to a mere few weeks or months of continued life, can now often be expected to linger on for years or even decades. This might seem like a good thing to the existential bean-counters amongst us, where all that ultimately matters is how high the final score's numbers can be ratcheted up. But to those under the care of the life extension community it can be hell on earth, trapped in various forms of decrepitude for an average of what's grown to be 10 years in the developed world. That average continues to grow.

Alzheimer's, vascular disease, organ failure and a host of other maladies are slowly losing their unique status, merging under the emblem of what's fast becoming a universal affliction- old age. This trend is what Dr. Brown addresses in the book. He's a talented, descriptive writer with seemingly a lot of expertise on the subject, and he's good at weaving detail into a medical-historical narrative that leads us up to where we are today. He also addresses the philosophical issues behind our attempts to stave off the Grim Reaper, including a nice chunk of the end of the book addressing the transhumanist agenda, of which he is rather quizzically pessimistic. Well, maybe not so much pessimistic as simply quizzical- you be the judge.

Of course, at the end he blows it. Big time! At least, from the perspective of antinatal philosophy and concerns. For instance, after going on for some length about the cognitive dissonance which allows otherwise rational people to believe in rather silly things- 'angels, gods, dragons, ghosts, elves, Father Christmas and souls', a state of affairs which he labels an 'asymmetry of proof'- he turns right around and writes this:

In practical terms, though, we accept that something does not exist if we (and all credible witnesses) never observe it. However, the truth of a belief is not necessarily the only good reason for holding that belief. It may be sensible for you to believe in something even though it does not exist, if believing it makes you happy. Thus if the non-existence of immortality, god, human goodness, or the greatness of the English cricket team made you chronically sad, you would be stupid not to continue believing these things, as long as this was psychically possible. Many apparently sensible people have made themselves miserable by only believing in things that were true. How stupid can you get! Indeed, there is evidence that depressed people generally have a more accurate view of the world than happy people (see Kay Jamison's book Exuberance). The implication is that having an accurate view of the world could make you depressed, whereas seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses may help make you happy. But how can you believe in things that are untrue? As the White Queen informed Alice (in Through the Looking Glass), believing impossible things is not itself impossible, it just takes practice.

I probably don't have to tell you that I was EXTREMELY pissed off at this utter piece of crapola once again being passed off as sage philosophical advice, ESPECIALLY as it leads to an unrealistic worldview that justifies bringing new life into this horror of an existence. And there's more! At the very end of the book, Dr. Guy offers a nine-point prescription for our existential ills. Some have to do with practical medical approaches and solutions, and one is a rather benign if new-agey sort of thing about seeing ourselves as 'waves' rather than atoms. For purposes of this review, I'll only mention three of his points here:

1. "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." The beginning of a nice poem by Dylan Thomas, but not very practical, or even consistent with a lot of what Dr. Brown had to say throughout most of the book. Then again, I suppose we can just wish away the need for consistency when it suits us. Wouldn't want to be 'stupid', after all.

8. "Face the fact that we are going to die, and prepare for it." See what I mean? However, further on here the good doctor offers a nod in the direction of legalized euthenasia, so hats off there.

9. "Live life to the full- spread your memes and genes...Leave something really worthwhile behind you- build that dream, write that novel...and have lots of sex." And babies, which is what's obviously being inferred here. Ugh! But with this concept in mind, I thought I might end this review with a bit from the book's opening paragraph:

My grandmother leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially: 'I have been wanting death for the last five years.' It seemed like she was letting me into a profound secret, but I knew she had been telling the same to anyone who would listen for at least the last ten years...I didn't want to know about her relationship with her own death; that was private- something to be faced alone amongst the terrors of the night. But her confession also had an edge of fearless complaint-damning the world and her allotted fate of suffering and boredom.

Seems like rose-colored glasses only work in the dark.


Karl said...

Great review, Jim. The cognitive dissonance that most people appear to be engaged in never fails to amaze me. In spite of the mountains of evidence in front of them (the media, human history, the facts of nature, personal experience etc. etc. etc.) they are just determined to keep the whole horrible show on the road. I guess people are so brainwashed by their parents/ authority figures/ media that all of this is fundamentally worthwhile as to be unable to break out of it. What can an antinatalist do apart from stay in bed?

BTW, cheers for the link to my blog. Much appreciated!

metamorphhh said...

This idea of purposely believing in balderdash to make ourselves feel better has been popping up all over the place lately. I realize that mythmaking has always underpinned human culture, but the myths derived their power from the ignorant masses actually believing in their reality to some extent. But since the existentialists, self-deceit now seems to have become a token of value in and of itself. Truth is fast becoming a dirty word.

Glad to see your blog, Karl. The more, the merrier!

metamorphhh said...

Which is rather ironic, seeing that existentialism supposedly cut through all the metaphysical speculation to the heart of human experience. It's as if they've said "Ok, so we've seen the truth, but we don't really like what we've seen, so let's make something up. The show, after all, must go on."

Karl said...

Very interesting observation about existentialism, Jim. I'd never thought of it in that way before. To be fair to Camus and Sartre, I reckon when they talked about commitment they were referring to the hothouse situation in European politics at the time, ie. we should fight fascism because it's humane to do so. Fair enough. On the other hand, committing yourself to any old thing just for the sake of it seems pretty pointless. I don't think Camus ever really resolved the issues in 'The Myth of Sisyphus' because they can't be resolved. You live or you choose not to live. And it's hard to concoct a good rational justification for life. Sorry, did I say hard? I meant impossible:-)

Anonymous said...

"What can an antinatalist do apart from stay in bed?"

Haha, not much actually. Having always been quite disgusted with the "human condition" and the world at large, reaching the conclusion of antinatalism was just another---albeit big---step. Though finally realised, it indeed took a lot of my energy away. Unfortunately, society expects its individuals to happily "chase those pink balloons", to borrow a phrase from Gary (inmendham), a modern sage. Otherwise you are labeled "sick" or "depressed" etc.

Karl said...

@Anonymous: Snap to all that. To quote my favourite contemporary philosopher John Gray:

"When I put this forward, the naiveté and the innocence - and I might almost say the parochialism - of most liberal humanists, leads them to say, 'Well, if I believed what you believe then I wouldn't get up in the morning'. To which my response is, 'Well, maybe, you shouldn't. Maybe the world would be better off, maybe you would better off, if you had a time of quiet reflection."

Ann Sterzinger said...

"As the White Queen informed Alice (in Through the Looking Glass), believing impossible things is not itself impossible, it just takes practice."

Wow, way to totally understand satire, dude! If this guy lived in medieval times he would have been one of those monks who thought The Golden Asse was about true events.