Why talk about all this on a blog on science & religion? Well...Ebert has a thoughtful essay on death - a topic that automatically brings up conversations about a scientific and/or religious worldviews. [Here are some earlier posts on the topic: Death and Religion, NYT review of "Nothing to be frightened of", Weinberg on life without God, and (of course) Carl Sagan on life, death, and religion].
Here is Roger Ebert's article Go gentle into that good night (if you have time - read his full entry - it is worth reading):
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
I don't expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. "Ask someone how they feel about death," he said, "and they'll tell you everyone's gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that's not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you're really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don't really exist and I might be gone at any given second."
Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, this blog has led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. In the beginning I found myself drawn toward writing about my life. Everyone's life story is awaiting only the final page. Then I began writing on the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and was engulfed in an unforeseen discussion about God, the afterlife, and religion.
On religion and death:
Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer persuades me. I wrote about that, too. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart. All I require of a religion is that it not insist I believe in it. I know a priest, a lovely man, whose eyes twinkle when he says, "You go about God's work in your way, and I'll go about it in His."
What I expect will most probably happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. Perhaps I have been infertile. If I discover that somewhere along the way I conceived a child, let that child step forward and he or she will behold a happy man. Through my wife, I have had stepchildren and grandchildren, and I love them unconditionally, which is the only kind of love worth bothering with.
Though, he does say that he will leave behind many memes - but they will all "eventually die as well, but so it goes". Towards the end of his article, he brings up a fascinating quotation from Vincent van Gogh. I love the imagery in the quotation - and perhaps it adds another dimension to The Starry Night:
I have been corresponding with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 1988 he made a luminous documentary named "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh." Today Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself "a simple worshiper of the external Buddha." Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why? I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age, would be to go there on foot.
Thank you, good Paul. I think that is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably not have to go on foot. Or, as the little dog Milou says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, pas de pied, je l'espère!
Good stuff! Read the full article here.