Archives for posts with tag: death

A young boy dashes through the park, trampling through the flower beds. He stops to admire his handiwork, trying to memorize the patterns of dislocated petals and frantic insects. Weary of play for the moment, he collapses onto a bench.

He sees a group of children come up with rules to a new game, devoid of any reason. They scream and run about, tagging one another then arguing over new sets of rules to replace the old ones which allowed them to be tagged. Their laughter rings across the park, the frivolity creating an ambiance of innocence.

He witnesses a young man let his dog off the leash. The young man throws a ball down the field, and the dog bounds after it. With the ball retrieved, the dog jubilantly takes off across the park. The young man yells out after the dog, and begins a slow lope to chase it down.

A couple walks past the bench, hand in hand, talking quietly among themselves. The words are meaningless, but the conversation between their eyes and the dialogue of their bodies express a mute intimacy.

He looks further across the park, and sees a man with a stroller. The stroller is surrounded by a cooing group of women, while the man sheepishly stands by, feeling awkward with the attention. The group of women carry on their way, waving their high-pitched goodbyes to the infant, while one waves only to the man, who waves back with a grin.

Hearing a commotion, he turns to see that the couple, further down the path, have erupted into an argument. They remain mostly hushed to avoid public embarrassment, though passion elevates the occasional phrase before a scrutinizing stare quiets it down again. The words maintain their meaninglessness, however, while tone conveys everything they didn’t intend to communicate.

He sits back in the bench and observes the environment surrounding him. The lives of so many blur together to create a primordial vision of human existence. A flurry of sound and colour wash over him, engulfing him in their emotions. The world spins around him while he sits in the centre, calm and unmoving.

An old man struggles to his feet, and walks slowly toward the gate. As he reaches the old iron bars, he pauses. He pats at his pockets, and turns slightly, as if to look back. Shrugging his shoulders, the old man raises the collar of his jacket against the bitter cold and crosses the threshold, certain he’s forgotten something.

Some people think that a meaningless universe is inherently depressing. That a world without value or purpose is a void, is empty, and that emptiness seeps into all aspects of our being and tarnishes it black with despair. Nihilism is alleged to be the only reasonable belief system within an empty universe, and this frightens people. We all feel that there is meaning, and if that meaning is based on nothing, then it becomes invalid.

But let us look at a purposed universe. If the universe has to start at point Alpha, and must end at point Omega, then all the events between those two points necessarily must be predetermined because everything must culminate at this final position. If we are driving towards a particular end, then we would have no choice but to head towards it. We would be interchangeable cogs; our own value would be nothing, and the only possible meaning would lie in the path, not those who follow it.

If we are free, however, and we can either choose to follow the purposed path or ignore it, then that would be like “choosing” what 2 + 2 might equal. The answer could only ever be 4, and we end up not actually choosing at all.

If we are free to choose to the point where the Omega becomes fluid, then this universal purpose becomes invalid. Think of a screwdriver. If a screwdriver is only ever used to, I dunno, stab people in the eyeballs or something, and is never actually used to screw things, can we genuinely say its purpose to screw is imbued within it? Is it a screwdriver, or is it a stabby tool? By every single perspective, it would be a stabby tool, because that is the purpose that we have prescribed to it. Its created purpose would be irrelevant.

Any universe, if it has a beginning with a predetermined set of events that would lead a causal chain towards an inevitable end, saps any meaning from the individual and places it onto that chain. I know I was using Biblical terms to show the issues with God’s Plan, but this works with material determinism as well. At least with God there’s a semblance of hope and goodness in it. The common consensus is that entropy is the Omega of the material universe, and if our purpose lies solely in our path, then our purpose as material beings can only be death.

If there is no inherent meaning, however, then we are free. Some might argue that birth and death would be our Alpha and our Omega, and that freedom within these two illustrates that freedom can be possible within a purposed universe. However, death is not our ultimate Omega. Jean-Paul Sartre says, “It has often been said that we are in the situation of a condemned man among other condemned men who is ignorant of the day of his execution but who sees each day that his fellow prisoners are being executed. This is not wholly exact. We ought rather to compare ourselves to a man condemned to death who is bravely preparing himself for the ultimate penalty, who is doing everything possible to make a good showing on the scaffold, and who meanwhile is carried off by a flu epidemic.” Death, though inevitable, is unpredictable and just as contingent as everything else, thus making it impossible to be our purpose.

Because we are free, we choose our meaning every moment of every day. We constantly assign value, and our purpose comes from our decisions in the face of the contingencies of the purposeless universe. We are not an infinitesimal part of some “great plan”, we are the greatness. I would argue that the purposed universe is the empty one, because we as individuals become insignificant. In a meaningless one, we have the only significance.

The reason we fear the purposeless universe isn’t because we believe it leads to nihilism. It’s because it means we are responsible. In a universe with meaning, we are without obligation, without fear, because we know that what we do must be a part of what necessarily must happen. If we are free, then everything we do we are responsible for. Responsibility holds the greatest weight. One choice removes all other possible choices forever, and we can’t not choose.

It is, of course, impossible to prove or disprove fatalism. The jury is also still out on whether or not quantum theory has fully disproved material determinism. Just because a meaningless universe sounds better, doesn’t make it the truth.

I’m going to give two examples that personally make me lean more towards meaninglessness over meaning. I volunteer at a recovery house for drug addicts, and some guys get better, but most don’t. Sometimes the guys in the house get along, and sometimes they don’t. To me, if someone is trying to make a better life for themself, and they get placed in a house with someone else who they just can’t fundamentally get along with, and are forced to live next to this person 24/7, the likelihood of that person relapsing shoots up to almost 100%. Well, both of them, really. That something so trivial as the timing one is placed into a home for healing can make or break someone’s life, quite literally, is absurd. But it happens.

The other example is love. That there is someone out there that is perfectly compatible with you actually is quite likely. The law of averages says that someone within the entirety of the human race would have to have optimum compatibility with you. And that person would even necessarily have to be culturally compatible with you to the point of at least putting your location and timelines pretty close together. But pretty close together is relatively speaking compared to the entirety of the human race. Living on the west coast of Canada, my optimized ideal match could very well be in England, or Australia, or could just be being born right now. The likelihood of us ever meeting is almost non-existent. But let’s add the stipulation that this is a person that I will actually come across. There must be, throughout my life, the most optimized match for me. It won’t be as strong a match, but it will be stronger than anyone else I meet. But how many people do I actually engage with that I meet? Maybe I just see her on the bus, and we’re both wearing headphones. Or we just pass in the street. Now let’s add the further stipulation that of all the people that I engage with at least to the point where a relationship might become possible, there has to be an optimum match of those. But what if she’s just getting out of a relationship and is unable to commit? Or the opportunity passes because it is not recognized? Or I’m in a relationship and it’s fine enough that I am disinclined to leave it? We’ve already added so many stipulations that we’ve eliminated most of our optimal matches, and even when we’ve made it the easiest it can be to spend all of our days with this watered down “love of our life”, there are still many factors contributing to even that not coming to pass. Let’s be nice and say that you do meet this person and fall in love and spend the rest of your days together. What if you meet this person in the hospital bed next to you as you lay dying in your final days?

Dostoevsky has similar views on a universe with purpose. He looks at the suffering of children, and goes through many examples of horrific events involving the death and massacre of innocents. An army general letting loose his hunting dogs on a child; a child being locked in a Russian outhouse overnight, etc. He suggests that if the purpose of a universe is an ultimate harmony and bliss, why must it be paid for by the suffering of children? “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I would protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Dostoevsky looks at the world, and rejects any purpose that necessarily requires the atrocity that he sees. That the universe might work in mysterious ways is another position Dostoevsky rejects: “I must have retribution, or I will destroy myself. And not retribution in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.” What value has justice if it’s obscured and postponed to the point of irrelevancy?

Yes, it is possible that this this world of seemingly pointless horror does have a point to it. A point that removes freedom and responsibility from those who participate in it. It is equally possible that there isn’t, and to me that seems the more sensible, and uplifting option. Unless all the meaning you’ve created for yourself disappears through contingencies outside of your control, and there is no permanent meaning outside yourself that you can cling to, that will always be there waiting for you, THEN I guess it could be a little depressing. But more meaning can always be created, and despair is not an excuse to not search for more. Just as misery can be pointless, so too can joy. Ever find ten bucks laying on the sidewalk?

One of the last books I read was On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. While I was reading it, I also watched the movie The Corporation ( I didn’t do these things simultaneously, because that is ridiculous, but the book I had on the go at the time of my viewing of The Corporation was On Killing. Glad I cleared that up. Now, what struck me as interesting were the similarities between how Grossman describes a soldier making a kill, and how the film describes how corporations make a buck. I’m not suggesting that corporate profits are the moral equivalent of killing a dude, but hear me out and come to your own conclusions.

The first point that Grossman makes explicitly clear is that the natural urge of human beings is to avoid killing at pretty close to all costs. People would rather risk their own lives and perform non-combative tasks on the frontline (such as carrying ammunition) than fire upon their enemies. He refers to a study done in World War 2 that claimed that only 15-20% of infantry would fire their guns, and made note of many soldiers who proudly told stories of disobeying a kill order and purposefully missing during a firing squad execution, therefore insinuating that even of that minimal percentage, those firing might not even be aiming to kill.

Grossman furthers his point by claiming that this phenomenon of soldiers being unwilling to kill likely permeates the entirety of human history. Even as far back as Alexander the Great, soldiers would rather hack and slash at their opponents, despite the piercing blow being the much more lethal attack. Or the musket, traditionally associated with inaccuracy, when recreated today has a 60% accuracy rate when firing in a range. On the battlefield, the kill ratio was one kill per one hundred bullets fired (or so, my memory is a bit hazy on this statistic, but the gist is there).

So people don’t like killing. It’s not that hard of a concept to accept, really. The kicker is that while the firing rate for World War 2 was 15-20%, while the Vietnam War was going on, there was a firing rate of 90-95%. It’s a bit of a jump. What changed? Well, somebody figured out how to make killing easier.

Conditioning: The biggest change between WW2 and Vietnam was the training of the soldiers. Previously, soldiers were trained with round bulls-eye practice targets on a run-of-the-mill firing range. When trained in conditions of combat (full gear, in trenches, etc.) and firing at lifelike targets (either a silhouette or an image of an enemy combatant), soldiers are more likely to fire at, and kill, their enemy when participating in the real deal. By simulating the conditions of combat, combat itself becomes easier to perform in.

On top of the different types of physical training, soldiers are put through rigorous psychological training to desensitize them towards killing. By having marching songs about death and a barrage of imagery featuring the act of killing, soldiers are able to enter into a mindset where killing and death are the norm. This, again, facilitates committing this otherwise inherently difficult task.

The Demands of Authority: Being directly told to kill greatly increases a person’s likelihood of actually doing so. Having someone yell “fire” will likely cause those with loaded weapons to do so. This isn’t just in war time. Grossman looks at the Milgram experiment where ordinary folks with no training and no violent disposition are told to “electrocute” somebody up until and beyond that person’s death. With the authority of a clipboard and a white lab coat, what the study concluded is that people will straight up murder total strangers if you exert enough believable power over them.

Group Absolution: When in a group of people, such as a machine gun or artillery unit, individuals are more likely to shoot to kill. This occurs for two reasons. The first is that the individual does not want to let his team down. War creates a camaraderie among soldiers that is an incredibly tight bond, and those who have seen combat routinely describe their greatest fear as letting down their friends. This in turn leads to soldiers overcoming their barriers to killing in order to support their comrades. The second reason is the dispersal of guilt among a greater number of individuals. One cannot blame themselves 100% for the actions of several people, and so committing acts that individually would be virtually impossible become possible within a group.

DistanceI’m talking about two kinds of distance. The first is physical distance, and the second is basically all the other kinds. Physical distance means that it is easier to kill people from further away. We’ve been trying to get further away from killing since we started doing it. Clubs and swords to lances and halberds to bows and arrows to guns to artillery to boats and planes, and although Grossman does not mention them in the book, drones, which are pretty close to being as far from killing as you’re going to get. Killing someone with a knife is nigh impossible (to the extent that soldiers would grasp their rifles by the barrel and bludgeon their enemies rather than use the handy dandy bayonet at the end of it), whereas dropping a bomb is as simple as pushing a button.

The second distance(s) are the cultural, moral, and mechanical kinds. Culturally, the less of a person you think your enemy is, the easier it is for you to kill them. Someone from a different culture is alien, and therefore easier to kill, especially when this factor is propagandized to hell. By using slurs, such as Gook, Jap, Kraut, Raghead, Charlie, Jerry, etc. etc. a soldier can differentiate the enemy from a “human being”. By dehumanizing the enemy, the enemy becomes easier to kill. This dehumanization occurs further even with simple euphemisms, such as “engage the target” or “achieve the objective”. The language used allows a system of denial to take place that eases the soldier’s mind.

Moral distance is the enemy is wrong, and I am right. This allows a soldier to see the killing as a justice being done, rather than one person killing another.

Lastly, mechanical distance is seeing a target on a screen, or through a scope, or on a radar, or basically through any equipment that’s not their eyeballs. By putting something between them and their target, a soldier is more easily able to allow themselves to kill.

The Nature of the VictimSoldiers are found to shoot the target that is deemed the most worthwhile kill. Officers, those running machine guns, or whomever the shooter deems the most valuable kill, even something simple like the one guy wearing a helmet, are the most likely targets of a kill-shot.

These are the factors that enable us to kill. Of course, Grossman goes into far more detail than I do, and there are one or two more reasons that an individual might kill (such as those who are just genuinely totally fine with murder), and I would recommend his book if that sort of thing interests you. However, now I’m going to go over this same list again with regards to how corporations are typically run.

Conditioning: The American dream? The glorification of celebrity and wealth? I think everyday citizens are exposed to more conditioning towards the worship of money and wealth than any soldier going through basic training is taught to worship death. We aren’t socialized to want money; we need money. Want a house? You need money. Want an education? Need money. Want a family? Money. Stability? Money. The drive to go out and earn is so strong that those who don’t (or are even unable) are generally considered moral deviants. It is a moral obligation to make money.

Demands of Authority: Corporations are legally obligated to prioritize profits. They are bound to their shareholders. Not just to shareholders, businesses are liable to society, their employees, and their clients (of course not in every instance) to make a profit in order to create wealth. While I wouldn’t really compare a sergeant screaming in a soldier’s ear to shoot to kill to a shareholder’s meeting, the demands of authority to make money at all costs are definitely present.

Group Absolution: While the bond between golf buddies might not be as strong as those bonds created in war, there is definitely an element of camaraderie among the upper echelons of society. They even have their own Burning Man ( To think that business deals wouldn’t be influenced by any sort of nepotism would be the height of naivety.

Also, and more importantly, corporations are singular entities built up as legal persons, but are in reality a conglomerate of multiple individuals. These individuals, rarely legally responsible for the actions of their corporation, not only have the other members of the board to share in any guilt, but also the abstract entity of the corporation itself. The individual accountability that is normally associated with an action goes further than mere dispersal, and goes straight into dissolution.

Distance: The top floor, in a corner office. The elite rarely associate with those on the lower levels, or visit the areas where production is being produced. In The Corporation, Michael Moore meets a corporate CEO who had never actually visited the third world country where his product was being manufactured. They even made a TV show about how hilarious it would be if bosses mingled with the lowly peons. I can’t remember what it was called, but it had CEOs flipping burgers or whatever. Undercover Bosses, maybe? That sounds right. The idea of the bosses mingling in the workforce is an entertaining novelty, not a staple of reality.

While I wouldn’t necessarily say there is a moral distance between corporate heads and their underlings, there are definitely cultural and mechanical distances. There are multiple euphemisms for firing employees (letting go, downsizing, etc.), and dehumanizing terms are used to describe people every day: client, home owner, employee, tax payers, etc. These terms, while seemingly benign, objectify people into statistics and units of measurement. (Grossman has “social distance” in his list, and points out that in earlier wars when the upper class made up the officers, they were more adept at killing the peasant infantry, but I feel as though that might as well fall under the umbrella of cultural distance because the premise is the same: “this group of people is worth less than my own group of people.”)

Mechanical distance is fairly straight forward. Most information regarding business comes through on a page where the important information has a decimal and a dollar sign.

The Nature of the Victim: While this factor is a bit more of an assumption on my part, and feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but rather than focusing on the relevancy of the victim as with shooting them, when making money the focus is on the irrelevancy of the victim. The massive amounts of capitalistic exploitation and oppression happen in areas of the world that people in North America really just don’t give a shit about. We have known about child labour and Dickensian work environments for decades now, and I wouldn’t say that things have gotten much better.

These enabling factors show up more than just in making money and in killing people. Bullying is often done in groups, and now with the internet there is a mechanical distance that allows new forms of harassment. Even something like breaking up with a significant other becomes much easier via text message (and cowardly, similar to how early soldiers called the use of the bow and arrow cowardly). What these factors do is deaden the connection that we have with our fellow human beings; they remove the emotions that we might normally feel in a face to face interaction. When applied to capitalism, we see that our culture is run by a system that engages in a conditioned sociopathy. This is not the fault of any individual, and The Corporation makes mention of this when they sit down with a CEO that has his own reservations about the environmental destruction that is taking place. The fault lies in the very structure of the system.