Sunday, 12 August 2012

Sunday, 12 August 2012


"No man ever steps in the same river twice," the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus is said to have said. Life and the universe are in a permanent state of flux.

This view seems to be true, if you think about it commonsensically. Apparently science corroborates it too. But what I have in mind is something less (or, depending on how you look at it, more) prosaic. I think that it is possible for anyone to go through such life-changing experiences that you end up wondering whether your personal notion of personal identity is correct.

Time passes and things change. Constantly. That is clearly what Heraclitus of Ephesus meant. According to serious scientists, that is what happens at the molecular level. Gradually, all molecules of our bodies are replaced by other molecules, so that not a single one of our current molecules is a molecule that was part of us at a certain point in our past. But we are, of course, still recognisably us.

Some people, however, undergo changes that are so drastic that this natural flux of life wouldn't be enough to explain them. For instance, when someone becomes an atheist, having been religious all of his or her life. Obviously, small changes will have happened along the way, preparing the ground for such a conversion. Yet, others never change, even if all the molecules of their bodies happen to have been replaced by new molecules since the last time they prayed to their gods.

There are changes that come about through really revolutionary processes. I was thinking about that kind of change just now.

This subject was kind of forced into my mind by a film I saw this evening. I film about a guy who can see when someone is approaching their death. Many scenes in it are suffused with moving statements and images. My first mental impulse was to ponder just how much human beings are capable of saturating life with sentiments which aren't strictly necessary. I felt that our reaction to death is influenced both by animal instinct and culture. We reject death instinctively; but human societies develop different ways to express this rejection. Part of the reason why we reject death is love; but, from a biological point of view, love is simply the name we give to an emotion that we all feel and which fits quite easily in a evolutionary view of life.

By now, however, I was asking myself whether such a dispassionate take on death (and, consequently, on life) isn't actually supremely unwise. It may well be a realistic insight into the matter, but if I am to seek to live a life that I can call good, meaning is something that will have to be part of it. There could come a point where I'm well-advised to accept my absorption into a scheme of things in which utter indifference is all that there is, and be philosophical and almost quizzical about death. That would be my own death, I guess, and even then I might be moved by the beauty of what I'm becoming. For the time being, though, I'm more inclined to stick with love.

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