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Musing on Mortality -or- The Jellyfish Connection

By Frank Thomas Smith

Immortal Jellyfish

Recently I read that jellyfish are, or may be – scientists aren't sure yet – immortal.

It seems they grow old, but instead of dying – like us – they become young again. It's true. Check it out here at the New York Times. Well, I am not a jellyfish, and hope never to be one. Nor can I get very excited about their alleged immortality. But it got me to musing on the question of immortality of a more advanced species – like us – or the absence thereof, not, I admit, for the first time.

Yes, I know, philosophers and theologists and almost everyone else have been arguing about this since the first guy sat down under a fig tree and asked himself: what am I doing here? There have been many answers, but few that can satisfy many twenty-first century minds.

First there is faith – but faith in what? The traditional churches seem to be relics of the past. The religions which the churches, synagogues or mosques claim to represent, although apparently born of the same root, love to contradict each other and claim that theirs is the only true truth, implying, as a concession, that not-quite-true truths might also exist. I won't bother to go into their corruption and degeneration – with some exceptions, as usual.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855) had an interesting philosophy which he claimed to have practiced. Essentially he thought that because life is so full of pain, sorrow and suffering, and not being a Buddhist, but a Danish philosopher, one must do something decisive about it. Since we cannot know if God exists or not, we must approach the question of what to do logically.

For Kierkegaard, the question was more specific: Is Christianity true or not? If neither God nor Christ exists, and therefore Christianity is untrue, there is really no point in living and the logical solution is suicide. Why go on suffering? (Kierkegaard experts may object that SK never went that far. I don't remember if he did or not, so I hereby admit that whatever I say here about him or others is liberally extrapolated, interpreted and sprinkled with my own ideas.) However, if Christianity is true then we should live it completely and not only on Sundays. The point being that as lack of faith leads to suicide, and faith at least offers hope, the rational person will try it. Kierkegaard did, and it worked...for him, which is the most important thing.

But despite the fact that faith worked for Kierkegaard and for many others, even today, I have the impression – without benefit of polls or statistics – that faith is an increasingly tarnished instrument for measuring the benefits and disadvantages of life. So I would like to offer a simple experiment which could serve as an experiential starting point. It can be performed anywhere. I think the first time it occurred to me was in the crowded main train station, Retiro, in Buenos Aires. It was during the rush hour and I was passing through a pedestrian passage leading from the main station into the subway (metro) system. The passage was a bottleneck in which the sweating multitude was pressed before being spewed out and onto a subway platform. Suddenly I had the strong feeling that I was a unique individual among a throng of beings of the same general species.

I had not been in Argentina long, and that might partially explain why I felt myself apart from the rest, who had very different biographies from mine, even spoke a different language, which I was still trying to learn. I was like a flesh-colored robot slowly dragging one foot after the other along with the crowd. “What am I doing here?” I asked myself. I meant in Argentina...at first. But then the question ballooned to “What am I doing here on earth in this body.” I stopped walking until the person behind bumped into me. She apologized. I continued shuffling along but the spell had been broken and the question remained unanswered.

The experience has been repeated over the years, in different countries, different continents – it even happened today, many years later, in a completely different atmosphere. I was walking along a mountain path near my home, completely alone, so there was nobody to bump into me from behind and break the spell, when I suddenly stopped walking. I again had the feeling, very strong this time, of being like a pilot or a chauffeur guiding my body – almost unconsciously – along the path. That is, until I was conscious of it, my body was on auto-pilot, I was walking along thinking about anything but the steps I was taking. But now yes, I willed to stop walking, pressed the neurological pause button, so to speak.

When René Descartes decided: Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am) he was under the impression that because thinking would not deceive him like the senses, he could depend on it being real, and if it is real someone who is, who exists, must be doing the thinking: donc je suis . That's good, I like it, but I'd like to go a step further: I am, yeah, but for how long? Until I die, is the only answer “Je pense, donc je suis ” provides. So postmortem all Descartes can say (if he still is) is: “I thought, therefore I was,” which implies that he no longer is. On second thought, he no longer has speech organs, so we should say: “...all Descartes can think is ... " But the very act of thinking something in the past tense means that he must still be in order to do so.

Actually, we have no right to assume that René no longer is. All we can say with any certainty is that his physical body no longer is. Admittedly, this includes his brain, which provides an argument – the argument in fact – for those who think (sic) the brain is what thinks because it's full of neurons and electrical impulses and synapses and when injured or just worn out its pilot can no longer think correctly, or at all. Does that mean: I don't think, therefore I am not? Does it imply that anytime I am not thinking – during deep sleep or when unconscious due to a blow or other cause – I am not? Evidently that is not the case. I am, whether I think or do not think.

Looking at it from another viewpoint, we can say that the brain does not really think, it is only the instrument needed for thinking, just as a musical instrument is needed for music, or an airplane is needed for the pilot to fly. This implies that something else is doing the thinking, which can only be me, aka I.

Let's go back to that sensation described earlier of me being the pilot of my body. The body decays and dies sooner or later. Most professional athletes are washed up well before they reach forty. The early forties are when most of us with normal vision need eyeglasses – a sure first sign of the body's inevitable decline and eventual death. Is “I am” finished, too, crashed to bits along with my ex-body, my flagship, by now buried or incinerated? No way for two good reasons:

  1. After a certain age one has accumulated a good number of deceased friends and relatives, not to mention enemies. They continue to exist in my memory. With very little mental effort, I can recall them at will – sometimes with no effort at all. My continuing relationship with them indicates, to me, that they still “are”.

  2. As my body grows weaker with age, my self, that same old “I”, has never been stronger. It insists vehemently that it “is” and “will be” after shucking off this mortal coil.

  3. I have done many foolish things in my life, but I'm damned if I will add to them by denying my own experience of immortality. That is my proof: experience.

Ah, you will say, but real proof requires that the experiment can be duplicated by others. But this experience can be duplicated by others, in fact, it certainly has been, and often. The matter is one of interpretation and acceptance or denial. In reality, we are all aware of our own immortality, but the awareness is buried deep in the unconscious. Digging deep will expose it to our minds and our hearts, more easily so if they are one and the same. Once this first step has been taken – the conscious realization of immortality – the other aspects of existence can be tackled: reincarnation, good and evil, God, Buddha, Christ, Mohamed, etc. After all, every journey begins with a first step. . .unless you prefer to be a jellyfish.