March 21, 2004

Navel Gazing For Dummies

from - smijer

Normally, I am the last to go in for corny pop-philosophy and its intellectual cousins. Matter of fact, I usually leave all the philosophy (and most other humanities) for people with a better temperament for them. But...

I was browsing the bookstore Saturday and found "Astonish Yourself! 101 Experiments in the philosophy of everyday life". I picked it up because of the word "experiments". It's not often that a pop-philosopher is willing to get his hands dirty. I bought it because of the material I am about to shamelessly plagiarize, #20 Imagine Your Imminent Death:

At any moment we can die suddenly... [snip]... Try to visualize your deathbed agony, your corpse, your burial, your rotting body, your skeleton. Visualize the tomb with its horrible liquids. Understand that you will never see the light or the curving earth again. You'll have finished forever with its warm winds, its wetness, its flashes of color, its scents. You'll know nothing of flesh, to caress or bite into.
It may be that you find these ideas upsetting. You will doubtless be relieved to know that your distress is absurd and, in fact, without foundation. You are dead, otherwise you wouldn't be buried and in the porcess of rotting. At the same time you're alive, and capable of being affected by feelings and emotions. Therein resides your error. These images exist in your head now, and in your living body. When you're dead, they'll no longer exist...

Not all of the books' experiments carry such a fine literary quality, building up a psychological frame of reference, then pulling the rug out from under it with a delicate turn of almost-too-obvious logic. Matter of fact, some of the books' experiments are just plain banal, or corny in that pop-philosophy way. (You might think that this one is, too!) But the author had the sense, at least on these two pages, two take a train of thought that surely everybody has followed once or twice, and promote it from the easily-dismissed "idle fancy" rung, a few notches upward on the ladder of increasing profundity.

If I come across any more experiments worth reporting on, I will let you know. I won't patronize you with this disclaimer every time, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention at least once that these are not the sorts of experiments from which an empiricist would feel comfortable drawing rational conclusions. They are called experiments because one does a thing in order to elicit an experience. The methodology isn't one that would allow a person to draw rational or factual conclusions about the object of study. So, they are almost without real "philosophical" or scientific value. Still they provide at least as much new perspective as a parlor game like "Charades" might, without all the extra excercise.


Posted by smijer at March 21, 2004 09:43 PM

That's only how rational people deal with fear of death... I always put it this way, "How bad was it before you were born?" I can see no difference in death, and the period of time before your life.

univar.jpg Posted by Tim on March 22, 2004 10:50 AM
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The "experiment" you mention is actually a very traditional meditation exercise in Vipassana, or "insight" meditation. (Actually, it's kind of a conflation of two meditations, on the loathsomeness of the body and the certainty of death.) Here's one reference:

univar.jpg Posted by Michael on March 22, 2004 11:03 AM
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I once worked for a plant superintendent who was known for his lack of empathy and compassion. Once, when a long time employee who had worked under him had died the family of the deceased ask a couple of guys from work to be pall bearers. The plant superintendent refused to let them off of work to attend the funeral. One of the prospective pall bearers said to him "You know, when you die there is not a soul alive that will even want to carry your coffin to the gravesite".

Smiling he said, "Yeah but I won't give a damn. I'll be DEAD!".

He was one of the most rational people I have ever known but now he is dead. I helped carry him to his hole.

univar.jpg Posted by boortzlistener on March 22, 2004 03:16 PM
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