Richard Dawkins on the Luckiness of Death – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

We are born into the certitude of our eventual death. Every once in a while, something — perhaps an encounter with a robin’s egg, maybe a poem — staggers us with the awful, awe-filled wonder of aliveness, the sheer luck of it against the overwhelming cosmic odds of nonexistence. But alloyed with the awe is always the half-conscious grief that the light of consciousness will be extinguished one day. It is a heavy gift to hold, this doomed delirium of aliveness. It is also a buoyant gladness if we are limber enough to stretch into the cosmic perspective that does not come naturally to us puny, Earth-bound bipeds cortical with tender self-importance.

Consider this.

Brain Pickings

For each of us, one thing is true: Had anyone variable been ever so subtly different — had your parents mated on an extra day or at a different altitude, had the early universe cooled a fraction of a second faster after the Big Bang, you would not exist as the particular constellation of atoms configuring the individual consciousness that makes you you. Because chance plays such dice with the universe, and because the die dictates that the vast majority of energy and matter never had the luck of cohering into this doomed delirium of aliveness, it is, in some profound and practical sense, a staggering privilege to die — one that betokens the benefit of having lived. To lament death, then, is to complain our luck, for any negation of the possibility of death is a negation of the improbable miracle of life, a wish for there to be nothing to do the dying — nothing to have partaken of the beautiful, bittersweet temporality of aliveness.

It is easier to bend the intuitive mind into this correct but counterintuitive perspective while walking in a cemetery at the height of summer. Doing this very thing while thinking these same thoughts, I was reminded of a passage from one of the most lucid and lens-clearing books written this side of Darwin — Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library) by the visionary and often controversial (which is the social fate of every visionary) British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

A civilization after Marcus Aurelius celebrated mortality as the key to living fully, half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” A scientific epoch after Darwin contemplated the meaning of mortality in the wake of his beloved daughter’s death, Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will, in fact, never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Indeed, those unborn ghosts include more excellent poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the group of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s exquisite “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness, and Christopher Hitchens on how to live with our mortality, then revisit the science of how alive you really are, examined through the curious lens of trees and Alan Turing.

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