Friday, April 20, 2012

The 2nd Law of thermodynamics

Before I leave John Updike's bouquet of odes to natural processes, let me share these lines from "Ode to Entropy":
Death exists nowhere in nature, not
In the minds of birds or the consciousness of flowers,
Not even in the numb brain of the wildebeest calf
Gone under to the grinning crocodile, nowhere
In the mesh of woods or the tons of sea, only
In our forebodings, our formulae.
Can that be true? That no other creature than ourselves anticipates non-existence?

Surely, other animals experience danger. The wildebeest calf darts to avoid the lunging crocodile. The rabbit in my neighbor's yard watches warily as I pass. The fearful infant chimp clings in its mother's protective embrace. Is this a threat response without awareness of fatal consequence? Is obliviousness of death the default condition of non-human nature?

I suppose, in the absence of a common language, there is no way to know for certain what goes on in a chimpanzee's or gorilla's brain. Nor do we know when and how the idea of personal immortality arose in the minds of humans. Funerary evidence would seem to suggest that a belief in immortality was universal among our ancestors. It is, however, a belief that flies in the face of everything modern science has learned about the nature of a human self.

For the great majority of humans, faith in an afterlife remains firmly entrenched. For myself, I have no greater expectation than that -- like Updike's tossed banana peel -- I might nourish the roadside chicory.