So I want to keep enjoying the chapter or so that I read each morning. However, I also am curious to learn how Humphrey ends his book (last chapter comes up tomorrow).
Thus reading this book is somewhat akin to dealing with the knowledge that each of us will die one day. We don't like the idea of living coming to an end, while having an understandable curiosity about what that end will be like.
Here's how Humphrey neatly encapsulates the ways people use to deal with the peculiarly human knowledge of life's finitude (other animals apparently don't anticipate their eventual demise).
I will review -- or at any rate visit -- three strategies of restoring meaning to life that are widely on display as human responses to anxiety about death.
Discount the future -- and live for the present.
Disindividuate -- and identify yourself with cultural entities that will survive you.
Deny the finality of bodily death -- and believe the individual self to be immortal.
None of these strategies works perfectly.
Each has its place in the anxiety-reducing armamentarium. I've used all three, and continue to do so, albeit in a much different fashion from what I did before in my religious true-believing days. (In another post I'll explain how I can both accept and deny the finality of bodily death.)
Humphrey discusses each.
Living for the present is great. However, it is the extremely rare person (proably nonexistent) who can always be in the now without thinking of then. Like, the moment of one's death. So anxiety lingers about that immutable future event.
Becoming less of a discrete individual is fine. This is the basic notion of Buddhism: tone down your individualism, and you won't mind no longer existing as an individual so much. Creating legacies (children, art, work, social action, etc.) that live on after you are in the same vein. But symbolic survival isn't the same as actual survival.
As Woody Allen said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying."
The last approach, believing in an immortal soul/self, is how most people in the world deal with anxiety about death most effectively. Virtually every religion posits survival of the individual into some sort of afterlife.
Even Buddhism, though its "theology" of rebirth is rather confusing.
Believing, though, isn't the same as knowing. I can know that I am experiencing the present moment, and I can know that I am creating some sort of effect that will most likely live on after me (again, children and resulting grandchildren are a good example).
Continued existence of my immortal soul, however, is a huge leap of faith. Humphrey does offer up persuasive reasons why people make this leap, including the fact of dreaming and deep sleep -- which show that we can consciously exist when the body is "dead," and wake up again after failing to be aware.
But this doesn't in any way prove the existence of a soul that survives actual bodily death. No matter, for the vast majority of humans. They find comfort and meaning in believing that when they die, they will continue to live in an immaterial form.
Humphrey is dubious that this belief will become extinct anytime soon. Yet...
Given all this, and how much the spiritual health of future generations of our species could depend on it, you may wonder, as I do: is people's belief in the afterlife secure? I suggested above that the one thing that might potentially undermine the belief would be modern science.
...the day may come -- even come soon -- when science will have revealed the illusion of consciousness for what it is, and any rational person will have no choice but to accept the game is up.