Monday, August 11, 2008

The Paradox of Life

First Published: November 23, 2006
Last updated: January 25, 2009

Darren Aronofsky’s excellent movie “The Fountain” inspired me to the discovery of (what I believe to be) a profound truth about the nature of existence.

Have you ever thought deeply about the creation myth?

In the Garden of Eden there were two trees – the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge”. The fruit of the “tree of life” granted immortality whereas that of the “tree of knowledge” granted forbidden knowledge.

According to the myth, to eat from the tree of knowledge is to be expelled from the Garden of Eden and to lose one’s immortality.

This is, in fact, what Adam and Eve did. But what would have ever compelled someone to abandon eternal paradise for death in this fashion? Why might they have made this choice?

The paradox of life about which I write answers this question.

“Fear of death” is an evolutionary filter.

Beings that lack a sufficiently strong fear death are more likely to die without procreating and to be filtered out of the gene pool. Conversely, beings that are genetically endowed with a very strong fear of death are more likely to survive. Consequently natural selection has ensured that a very strong “fear of death” has been passed on to us and all other living creatures in our very DNA.

A very strong fear of death is a necessary pre-requisite for the survival of a species. It is one of the very strongest drives that we have and this drive shapes our lives in ways that we may not even be cognizant of.

But we human beings have a big problem. Evolution has also endowed us with logical thinking minds. Consequently, we KNOW that we are eventually going to die. There is no escaping this. This is the hell in which we burn.

In the absence of a credible scientific alternative the combination of this deeply ingrained fear of death and the knowledge that death is unavoidable drives some of us to near insanity. In particular it drives us to embrace the insanity of religions which promise an after-life.

Even though, deep down, we KNOW that the immortality these ancient religions promise us is pure fantasy, our fear of death is so overwhelming that we seek instead to consciously deceive ourselves.

That’s what religion is. It’s a group of people whose fear of death is so great that they are willing to join together to engage in collaborative self-deception on a grand scale.

Fear triggers the “fight or flight response”. Those who seek religion choose the path of flight and hiding. But this is not the only choice that they make. In fairness, it should be acknowledged that we don’t ONLY choose to hide in our churches, mosques and synagogues. We also concurrently strive to increase our scientific knowledge to combat the causes of death and to extend life.

A growing number of scientists are making even bolder moves. Like Hugh Jackman’s character in “The Fountain”, these individuals believe that “death is a disease” and that it can be cured.

Aubrey De Grey [] is perhaps the most prominent of the scientists who are leading this effort. These researchers are engaged in finding all sorts of innovative ways to halt and reverse the very aging process itself. Nanotechnology, for example, is one promising area here.

It may not happen in our life-time, however, it is not hard to imagine science eventually advancing to the point at which the disease of aging and all other death-inducing diseases have been cured.

Virtual immortality is not just least a theoretical possibility. It WILL happen. Nothing short of the extermination of the entire species will stop this. The human race WILL eventually achieve a measure of immortality.

Think about that for a moment.

Imagine what life would be like to be immortal.

What would life be like if you knew that you and everyone else were going to live forever?

How would your life change?

How would you spend your time in this Garden of Eden?

Would you perhaps not get incredibly bored?

Would you not seek eventually to find happiness in the pursuit of truth?

Would you not seek to discover the remaining secrets of the universe?

Consider for a moment this thought:
Perhaps there is a limit to all that can be known?

As the centuries passed would we not reach this limit?

Imagine being immortal and knowing all there is to know.

Millennia would pass with no more truths to be discovered – no more problems to solve.

Boredom would eventually transform into something much worse.

To eat from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden is to transform that garden from a place of paradise into an unimaginable hell.

To be immortal in this fashion is to be a god.
But to be a god is to reign in hell.

We NEED struggle.
We NEED challenge.
We NEED pain.
We NEED tragedy.
Ultimately we need death.

The shortness of life is what makes life worth living.

The knowledge of this truth is what enables us to live in the Garden of Eden TODAY; to treasure each and every breath that we take and to be profoundly grateful for each and every experience of life – be it one of joy or suffering.

The paradox of life is that the very thing we are compelled to strive for above all else will ultimately lead us to our eternal prison.

We human beings have been molded by natural selection in such a way that we have no choice but to pursue the path of action that we believe will bring us the most joy and the least suffering.

We cannot help but strive to overcome the incredible suffering of death.

Overcoming this suffering will bring us great joy. The joy will last for millennia.

But, eventually, the very same thing that once brought us our greatest joy will become a source of unimaginable suffering.

And there will be only one way to alleviate this suffering.

That way is to CHOOSE to forget.

And to forget is to die.

For what are we but our memories?

If one were a god would not one’s greatest wish be to escape from this prison by becoming mortal and shedding one’s knowledge?

Would not one’s greatest wish be to die?

Is it possible that this is the real meaning behind the creation myth?

This paradox gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “ignorance is bliss”. :)

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