Terrible Food, Small Portions: Andrew Stark on Accepting Your Inevitable Demise

September 12, 2016

Death is an unsettling thing to come to grips with. We know it is inevitable that it will one day happen to us. One of the first things most of us learn about death is that it happens to everyone, yet perhaps because no one ever comes back to tell the tale, there’s a lot about our impending doom that’s difficult to fully grasp. To help us take comfort in our inexorable demise, we welcome Andrew Stark, an author and political science professor at the University of Toronto.

Having spent time as a policy advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada, he now offers himself as a life advisor – or rather, a death advisor – in his new book The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death. Stark gives us an overview of what the greatest minds of history have said about what it means to die. With a skeptical eye, he sorts through the various arguments for how we should feel about death, effectively shaking off the sugar coating of mortality in an effort to provide us with solace that stands the test of logic.

This is point of inquiry for September 12th, 2016. 

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If you’re not from North America and you follow my other podcast, we the People live at WTOP underscore Leive. Today’s conversation is a really interesting one. It’s basically about death. Andrew Stark is a professor of management and political science at the University of Toronto. His new book is The Constellations of Mortality Making Sense of Death. So of all of the reasons why religious people claim to be religious. When I when I talk to them, there are broadly, I think, two camps. Right. One is reasons why they actually believe in their religion. And another is why they want their religion to be true. And the latter is a very powerful force. And the main thing that is going on there, I think, is I don’t want to die. I would not want to live in a world in which is the case that my consciousness ceases to exist when I die. And I wonder what your what your thoughts are about this, because that’s probably a good entry point to the constellations of mortality. 

Well, I think that you’re right that that is a motivation for a lot of believers. I come at this issue from a different perspective to just pick up on the point you’ve just made if if what’s motivating your belief is not the merits, but some kind of wish fulfillment. And you recognize that, then at some level you’re going to know that you’re going to be skeptical of your own views. You’re going to know that you’re believing in something because you’d like it to be true, not because you necessarily have evidence that it is true. So for people who feel that way or for people who are not believers, a tall my interest was in trying to look at ideas that the philosophers and gurus and techno nerds and a variety of other thinkers and authors have offered over time to reconcile us to our mortality, even if we believe or suspect at some level that this is it, that there is nothing, nothing to come. So even those people who may be religious because they would like to believe something, whether or not they’re sure it’s true, might find some value in the ideas that I’m looking at. 

Can you give them comfort? One other Constellation’s that you that you offer to such people? 

Well, my book looks at the constellations, but it looks at them skeptically as well. It does conclude that we do have reason, even if there is no afterlife, to be thankful that we are mortal creatures. But on the way to that conclusion, I look at a number of ideas that have been offered over time. I divide them into four broad categories very briefly. The first is a set of ideas that the ancients argued and others since that death actually is benign. It’s irrelevant to us. And so we shouldn’t be anxious about it. Epidaurus is the most famous expositor of this view. He said as long as we are here, death isn’t. And once death comes, we are no longer around to suffer whatever it might visit upon us. So really, a person’s own death is actually irrelevant to him. And if you just allow yourself to let the logic of this observation overtake whatever psychological concerns you might have, you will find yourself consoled. And there are a number of other death is benign ideas. Buddhists argue without any reference to an afterlife, that there, in fact is no such thing as a self. And so there’s nothing that actually does die. We’re just a string of memories and thoughts and perceptions and hopes. And these can continue and those who are close to us after we disappear. So there are a number of ideas that have been advanced to the effect that death is benign. A second set of ideas is that if you think about it, you’ll realize that anything you might hope to gain in an immortal life, you can gain in a mortal life. There’s nothing that living forever would give you that a limited existence can’t also give you. One example of this is an idea I associate with Gordon Bell, who is a Microsoft engineer thinker who developed the idea of a life log where we will, if you’re so inclined, you can record all of your thoughts and perceptions and everything that happens to you and everything that you do 24/7. And he says in this way, you’ll gain a kind of immortality, because one of the things we want from immortality is the idea that everything we have done, all of our memories, all of our experiences won’t vanish when we do. And he says, well, here’s a way you can die. And still everything that you did will live on forever. So there are a number of ideas that I look at under the category of mortality will give us all of the good things immortality can. A third set of ideas argues that immortality would actually be awful if we live forever. Things would either get incredibly boring if things ceased to change in any in any meaningful way, or if they did change in a meaningful way, they wouldn’t be boring. But we ourselves would, in effect, disappear because new ideas, new thoughts, new aims would supplant old ones. We’d be more interested in life, but we wouldn’t be the same person anymore. So we would in effect, of died. And there are a number of arguments, many, many arguments as to why immortality would be a bad fate. And I look at those and the final set of ideas is that if you think about. All of the losses that we suffer in death and the most prominent example is the fact that we have to say goodbye to those we love permanently actually happen in life anyway, or would happen if we didn’t die. I quote Mel Brooks’s 2000 year old man who complains that his his grandkids are no longer calling him every millennium because they know that over time if they’ve drifted apart. And the fact is that, you know, you could make the argument that the losses that those kinds of personal relationships that we have and cherish and that we feel so sad about terminating at death would terminate anyway. And there are a number of arguments to that effect. So to sum up, there’s kind of a pattern to these various constellations that don’t rely on an afterlife. Death is benign. Mortality would give you all of the good things. Immortality would. Immortality is malignant and life would give you all of the bad things that death does. And that’s the framework that I within which I look at all of these ideas that don’t rely on the safety net of an afterlife. And I try and test them to see whether they really work. And I find fault with many of them. But in thinking about them, I try and generate what to me is a plausible argument, a convincing argument actually, to me, whether it is to others, remains to be seen as to why mortality is a good thing. 

Yeah, that’s that’s what’s interesting about the book, is you are groping towards a solution here. And I wonder, one of the things that I think is is slightly off the mark about a lot of the arguments that you’ve just recounted and that you present in the book. And I wonder whether you agree with this. Is that the objection to mortality? As far as I’m concerned, the reason why it leaves a dark pit in my gut when I think about a universe in which I don’t exist is not because I wish to be immortal. Like I can be perfectly comfortable with the fact that I’m a mortal being and perfectly comfortable with the recognition that immortality would bring a whole host of problems that would be greater than the problems that it would solve. And yet I can still find the idea of a universe in which I don’t exist, nihilistic and depressing emotionally. Does that make sense? 

Yes, it makes complete sense. And in fact, although I make an argument at the end of the book as to why mortality is a good thing, and I also make the case that I think the argument I make is psychologically more compatible with the kind of creatures we are than many of the other constellations on offer. I don’t claim that it’s emotionally warming. It’s still very difficult to contemplate. As you say, a universe in which you are no longer apart. It’s painful to contemplate, you know, drinking a glass of wine for the last time or kissing your your spouse for the last time. No consolation, I think, is is likely to palliate those kinds of poignant feelings. But on the other hand, that’s probably a good thing because we didn’t have those poignant feelings. It might mean that we didn’t value life. But on the other hand, I think it is possible to make a case that for the kind of creatures we are. Death is a good thing and take some level of psychological, even if not visceral consolation in that. 

Do you have any personal opinion about whether or not A, an individual’s pessimism or optimism or general outlook is likely to influence their outlook on mortality? I know that this is not something that you deal with directly in the book, but I remember having lunch with a colleague a few years ago who was saying that he really didn’t fear death at all. He didn’t worry about death. If he were to die tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother him. And I interpreted that as being evidence of quantum Cobb and morose personality personality. And I said I’m I revealed to him that I’m terrified of death. I find it a really disturbing idea that when you just said, like having the last glass of wine, you know, kissing your loved ones for the very last time. I find that absolutely soul crushing in a way in a completely irrational way. But I wonder whether or not that’s partly because I have the good fortune to have been born with a broadly sunny disposition. And I just genuinely enjoy the days that I have on this planet. 

Well, that’s an interesting question, actually, especially the way you ended it, because you’re characterizing yourself as someone with a sunny disposition who loves life and therefore is finds the thought of kissing your loved ones goodbye or kissing them last time, soul crushing. But the fellow you you talked about a moment ago who doesn’t feel that way at all. Also sounds pretty optimistic and sunny. So I guess I conclude from that that sunniness or loving life or optimism doesn’t necessarily correlate with a fear of death. You can you can be as sunny, life loving, optimistic person and for that very reason, not welcome the end of that sunny, optimistic experience that you’re enjoying. Or you can be a sunny, optimistic person like your friend and be so sunny and optimistic that death doesn’t concern you at all. I assume that there are psychologists who’ve looked at the connection between optimistic and pessimistic personality traits and fear of death. I don’t really know that literature, though, so I don’t I don’t know what to say about that. But I guess my gut reaction is I don’t know if there’s a correlation between optimism and a particular view of death and pessimism and the opposite of death. 

What do you make of the of the claim that death is benign? 

I dismiss those arguments. I don’t accept them. We could take the argument that let me take what what’s known as the existentialist argument as to why death is not just benign, but a good thing. That argument in a very simplified form is that if we didn’t die, if we didn’t have a termination point to our life, then we would never get off the couch. We would never get moving. We would never create a self. And so far from death, destroying the self, a death is actually the thing that. That gives birth to it. We wouldn’t we wouldn’t have a life, wouldn’t have a have an ark. We wouldn’t have a narrative. There would be nothing to us if we didn’t have that deadline looming ahead of us. To me, that argument doesn’t work for a number of reasons which I discuss in the book. But I guess that the basic one is that it ignores the fact that life itself provides deadlines, opportunities, possibilities. They don’t hang around forever, even if he was immortal. I think Barack Obama would likely still have gotten off the coach and run for president in 2008 because he would have said to himself, well, if I wait till 2016, maybe another Democrat will come to the fore, he’ll be more popular. I want to be the president who brings in the public health care. Life continually throws things at us and then snatches them away such that we don’t need death. In my view, to act as the sort of the whip cracker to get us going. Heidegger, who advanced the existentialist view I’ve just articulated, interestingly viewed possibilities and opportunities in life, not as momentary things that come and then go such that if you don’t grab them, they’re gone. He likened our possibilities and opportunities to objects like hammers or shovels that we can always pick up and set down as we like. And I guess if that’s how you view possibility and opportunity, that they’re they’re always there for you. I guess maybe you would see death as something that you would need to motivate you to get out into the world and create a self. But I don’t view the opportunities and possibilities I’ve seen in my life, and I don’t think many people do in that way. I think they come and then disappear and you grab them or you don’t. And that provides the motivation to get out and create a self. And so to say that death is a good thing, because without it, we wouldn’t be people. To me, is is false. It doesn’t ring true. 

Yeah. It’s also strangely tautological in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. 

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There are there are three things that I think are worth unpacking that are worth, I guess, picking apart here that I’d love to sort of be a little bit more specific about. 

One is or the question of would immortality be more desirable than being mortal? Another is, what does it mean for us to face death? 

And how should we think about the termination of our own existence? And a third is how should we deal with other people’s death? 

My lost my grandmother last year. She was my favorite person in the world. I lost my grandfather the year before that. My grandmother was on the eve of her one hundredth birthday. She was a day before her one hundredth birthday in New Zealand. And it was sort of it has been a deeply affecting process to be constantly confronted with experiences which trigger the grandmother part of my brain and make me think, oh, I should text her or I should send her. 

I mean, she was very in great spirits and in great health right up until the end. So she thought it was a relationship that was still capable of of looming large in my life. Mm hmm. And the fact that there is a little jigsaw piece in my head that is no longer filled is a difficult thing for me to get my head around. And I wonder whether or not your research and your and your thinking has led you to a way to reconcile ourselves to that remapping of the brain. 

That happens when when our world when the world around us is altered by the death of loved ones. 

Well, I am not really, in a sense, useless, Andrew. I’m used as totally OK. See? This has been fun. No, I. 

My book is one of the things that I really wanted to avoid doing is putting lipstick on a pig, if I can put it that way. Yeah. A lot of consolations don’t ring true. And, you know, there’s a there’s a bromide quality to them that disappears, if you think about it more than 30 seconds. You know, there’s some self-help books there, some popular books like Randy Portia’s Last Lecture or Tuesdays with Morrie, which I know has been very popular. And I know they can elevate your mood, but not for long because they don’t really grip the issue. So I don’t I don’t want to try and sugar coat anything. The book really looks at what it means to you to die and how you should think about your own death, how you should come to terms with it. It doesn’t talk about how to come to terms with the loss of others or the death of others, because to me that’s even more difficult. 

And that’s sort of why I’m asking. I mean, precisely because it’s not the focus of the book is why I don’t believe that it hasn’t come up in your head in the process of writing the book. 

Of course it’s come up, but I it’s it’s in a way a a more difficult subject. I mean, I guess I could say that there are parts of the book that touch on that. And I’m sort of thinking out loud here. I’m trying to draw a connection between those parts of the book and the question you’ve asked. Talk about Joan Didion’s notion of magical thinking, which in a way dovetails with what you’ve mentioned a moment ago about having a a piece of, you know, that there’s a piece that, you know, your grandmother filled a space for you or a piece of the world belonged to her. And she talks about how after her husband, John, died, it seemed to her as as if he was still there because all of the physical traces of his life were still there. Is room was still there. His study was still there. His shoes were still there. So even though John was gone, is his life in a way continued. But of course, the fact is that it’s sort of the other way around. It’s not that she thought he was still there because his shoes and desk, et cetera, were still there. She kept his shoes and desk, etc. It’s still there so that she would have that that feeling of continuing. Not really answering your question, but I’m sort of trying to to draw points of contact between the book and the idea that you. Yeah. 

Well, I mean, I think it’s useful because, you know, if people if people simply want to read the book, they can read the book. But I always think it’s a no shirt. A little bit interesting to play in the in the in the sand pit around the edges of the question as well. And I mean. Yeah. Right. 

And I mean, the other thing I would say and again, this is this is this is a very pessimistic and somewhat cheerless way of looking at the loss that happens when somebody dies. But I go back to the Mel Brooks example, and there are many poets and writers who’ve said this. I don’t know if I can do this from memory, but I’ll try. Shelley has this line. I think it’s all things that we love and cherish, like our selves must perish. Such is our rude mortal lot. Love itself would. Did they not? And what are you saying? That even if we didn’t die. And I’m not I’m not going to specify you’re related with your grandmother in particular, it’s a general observation about humankind that he was even if we didn’t die, our relationships with others, as close as they are and as loving as they are, can’t last forever. We drift apart. We you know, maybe not in every case, but as a general statement as time passes. 

Your grandchildren aren’t going to be calling you anymore. You might not be calling your grandmother anymore. You’ll have met. You know, you’ll have your own descendants and we will wander apart. So that’s not a particularly cheering. By any means. 

But it does put in context to some extent, it’s meant to in any event, to put into context the kind of loss we experience when somebody dies. 

It’s meant to say, well, you know, don’t forget the kind of ravages that time itself would inflict on us if we didn’t part this way. And, you know, you have to look at things in that context as well. Yeah. 

Your your quotation, your quotations there. Remind me of two Woody Allen quote quotes, actually, one being in any hole where he tells the story of two old Jewish ladies who were at the deli. And one of them says the food here is terrible. 

You had a one man, the fortunes of those who yell. And this is what his attitude towards life. Right. It’s an awful experience that. Although it’s too short. Yes. And and his other great line about immortality, saying, you know what? I don’t want to achieve immortality through my art. I want to achieve immortality by not dying. Yes. 

Those are, as you mentioned earlier, the question of the visit of Buddhist attitude that death is benign. Because. Because your self is an illusion. Rand, I’d like you to expand on that within the context of I think there is an emerging movement within the secular sphere who are beginning to recognize that there there may be an opportunity to reach out to people who feel that there is some who feel that the ideas movement has traditionally lacked a certain respect for the transcendent. 

And Sam Harris is a big proponent of this. 

You know, I have had personal experiences on psychedelics, on ayahuasca. You know, where there are doors of perception that are available to my consciousness, that I don’t regard these as being evidence of any kind of supernatural thing one way or another. But it’s clear that there are experiences that one can have that would certainly lead one to believe that the strictly rationalist perspective on on death, the strictly materialist perspective, may be missing some kind of nuance. And I wonder whether or not you. You have thoughts about that? 

Well, I certainly agree with. It’s not an area that I know a lot about. But if you’re talking about spirituality within it, within the life we have or notion of transcendence or the possibility of of altering consciousness and perception, I think I mean, I guess I guess what I’m talking about is the is the illusion of selfhood. 


Okay. Well, sure. And so I guess I do discuss that in a short section of the book. I can’t say what it is to be a Buddhist practitioner who, after many years of rigorous discipline and training, has been able to reach a mental state in which he or she feels that the soul herself has disappeared. I have to accept and I have tremendous respect for that kind of practice and I have to accept that that is a mental state that someone can bring themselves to. However, I look at what people who claim to have to have reached that state and I say claim I’m not doubting that they have how they try and describe it to those of us who are on the other side and who are unlikely ever to to get there. I look at the metaphors they use and what it what is life like? If you don’t have a self, how do you describe it? How do you can visit? And the terms are interesting. Some Buddhist writers talk about their life as if it’s a breath or flowing air. Others talk about it as if it’s kind of this gas or oil or a butter that’s kind of running a little bit. So I look at these terms and, you know, flowing air is something between liquid. It moves and air itself versus material is something between liquid and solid. Food writers also talk about a life without itself self as if it’s like a shadow or a shade, which is something between somewhere between air and solid, something solid, but also airy. So these are very wispy notions to me that are used. 

Try. Convey what life without a self is like, and to me, it makes me feel like if you rip the self out of life, it’s like you’re ripping a bandage off your skin and you take all much of the skin with it as well. I don’t know what that life would be. It’s very hard to grasp what that is. And it’s such a there’s such wispy notions that I wonder whether it’s a life I and many others like me would recognize or embrace. So I raise these as questions, obviously, because I’ve never experienced that kind of Buddhist transcendence myself. I know I won’t. I think I’m too wedded to the idea that I have a self and I’m writing for people who suspect that they are, too. I can’t exclude that it could happen. But when I look at reports from the other side, they don’t. 

They don’t make me want to go there. Yeah. I put it this way. 

I mean, it’s it’s really interesting. 

I may be wading into territory that is unwise given our particular audience and and our particular bias towards bias. Maybe the wrong word, our particular preference for the always rational answer. 

But yeah. So I was on Joe Rogan’s podcast recently. Who is who is big into, you know, psychedelics and so on. He is a comedian and a commentator here in the States. And we were told he was talking about having just spoken to Penn Jillette, you know. How a magician. Yeah. And Penn is a great guy. And I’ve interviewed him on several occasions. And he’s a real friend to the to the secular community. But he has never drank alcohol, never done any drugs of any kind. And that’s totally his his right. But his attitude towards psychedelics is we know exactly what’s going on in the brain when you take these things. All it is is perturbations of your neurology. And we understand that sufficiently well that it can’t reveal anything to us about the nature of being human. 

That strikes me as an act, as a statement that can only be made by someone who has never had those kinds of experiences and has never meditated and has never made any attempt to delve into those waters. 

And let me reiterate here that I’m not claiming that I can know anything about the nature of the material world from the it from experiences that I’ve had. But I can certainly know that the the wishy washy ness of the of the means of communicating rationally, the experiences that is that are available to humans, to human consciousness, is not evidence of anything other than the difficulty of putting into words certain transcendent experiences. You know, it comes down to something a little bit like the question of how you would explain the color red. To someone who’s never seen the great red. Red. Right. 

I myself can’t speak from experience when it comes to the use of psychedelics. So I don’t know. I’ve read accounts of psychedelic experiences. 

I certainly had an interest earlier in my life in Writers of the Beat Generation who dealt with and spoke about these issues. I mean, let’s. 

So let let let me put it this way. I don’t want to force you off off Touraine in your comfortable talking about just because it happens to be a hobbyhorse of mine. 

But the fact of being matter that was mute out of exploding stars that is now self-aware and capable of understanding the universe is weird in a way that materialism doesn’t quite grasp for me. Right. And so so I’ll probably get hate mail for even saying for even suggesting this. But there is something is there is something deeply, deeply peculiar about the fact of me being able to have this conversation with you right now. Since we both contain nothing other than the continuative substance of the universe. Right. And so I wonder whether or not let’s just sort of wrap this up like mortality. The reason mortality is kind of horrifying to me is because it just reminds me of that fact that I am just just matter and that it is completely perplexing as to why matter would be having this conversation. 

Well, I you’re right. This is takes us a field. I guess my initial response to that would be it seems to me that that the question you’ve raised about, you know, whether you want to call the question of dualism or the mind body problem, however you want to call it, how does consciousness emerge from a front matter? Those are questions that that doesn’t. Those questions don’t take us outside the realm of reason, its reason itself and our thinking about them and science and philosophy that if we ever answered them, are going to be the tools that embrace that question. So if you’re speaking to a rationalist audience, it doesn’t seem to me that the questions you’ve raised, the issues you’re talking about, should be deemed out of bounds or or, you know, Moutray, the greatest rationalists in history, have wrestled with them. And they will continue to. 

Hear, hear. The book is about regulations and mortality. Making sense of death. Andrew Stark, thanks for being on the show. Great to talk to you. Thank you very much. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.