Tuesday, October 07, 2008

That cottage of darkness

Theresa asked those of us who count ourselves agnostic to comment on Julian Barnes' new book Nothing To Be Frightened Of, reviewed by Garrison Keillor in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Barnes, a professed agnostic, writes about his obsessive preoccupation with death at age sixty-two. Apparently (according to Keillor) it is a rather gloomy book, redeemed by affectionate family reminiscences.

Since I have not read the book, I cannot comment on it, but I think what Theresa wants from us is testimony as to how agnostics deal with the prospect of personal oblivion.

Death is the great black bear that looms in everyone's path. In my experience, believers and unbelievers face death with about equal equanimity or disquiet. I would guess it has more to do with temperament than belief. Barnes would appear to have a particularly morbid cast of mind. I'm ten years older than Barnes and the black bear doesn't keep me awake at night.

What is the message Barnes takes from science? Our brains are lumps of meat and the soul is merely "a story the brain tells itself." There is no evidence of a self, nothing in a grim material landscape that offers hope.

This, I would submit, is an unnecessarily morose telling of the scientific story. It is certainly true that science sees no evidence of a self that can exist independently of our physical bodies. But what a thing is the physically-embedded self! It begins as a fertilized egg that carries within it four billion years of ancestral experience. It grows into a teeming organism of ten trillion cells, contrived of stardust, protected by an immune system finely attuned to tell self from non-self. It accumulates memories of a lifetime of experience. A self is dynamic, always changing, seeking, striving. And death? Personal mortality is the price we pay to exist at all as unique, complex, multicelled, sexually active, thoughtful individuals. Death is life's necessary partner; together they are endlessly creative.

A self is like a fruit on the tree of life. Without fruit the tree must die. Each of our selves leaves the world different than we found it. It is a unique characteristic of a human self to decide what makes the world a better place. The nudge we give to the good is our truest immortality.