15 December 2005

Joining in at Emery's place, again

I was going to comment on Emery's post, but I was afraid I'd carry on too long. And besides, I think the discussion over there bleeds into discussions at Paul's place. So perhaps I can serve as a bridge. Here's the bit from Emery that interests me:
is it true that it's impossible to cognize (not sure what work "cogniz[e]" is doing) the experience of (again, not sure what work "experience of" is doing here) death rationally? Or is it just the case that the thought of our personal extinction is, well, unpleasant? It seems to me that it's easy to conceptualize death. Go to the wall and flick the light switch. One second the light is on, the next, it's off. The off position is death.

First off, as a heathen myself, I find the matter-of-fact nature of Emery's metaphor quite appealing; I'm somewhat drawn to the idea that death is fairly simply. However, I think Emery is cheating here. He dismisses the work done by 'cognize' and 'experience' so that he can then go on to 'conceptualize' death by offering us this very nice metaphor. But conceptualizing death is not cognizing its experience. The work cognize is doing is to make the link to epistemology. This means we're not just saying what death is like (as Emery's quote does), but saying something about knowing death.

How can we know our own death, or know an experience of it? This is the question that TMcD says leads us to religion. I see how the question drives us to religion, but I don't see how it really answers the question. That is, here I side with Emery, because I think religion is more like a metaphor or a conceptualization; it tells us what death is like, or how it's going to be, but it doesn't allow us to cognize it. And, in that sense, Emery's light switch response is spot-on.

On the other hand, I'm probably missing something about the religious experience; of course I am, since I don't have the religious experience. But the question about cognizing death doesn't have to lead to religion. It could lead to Heidegger. It could lead to an awareness of our own finitude in the world. It could lead to a realization of the limits if epistemology, which means that in asking about 'cognizing death' we're asking the wrong question.

5 comments:

Rebecca said...

Couldn't religion also spring from cognizing life? From trying to ascertain how all of this stuff happened the way it did, from those crazy cabbages over at OaO's place to the phenom that is Madonna's pastiche in Hung Up?

And, I think we are continuing our discussion once again erasing and ignoring the Mediterranean-centered nature of our definitions of religion, right? Buddhism is not really about cognizing death--it's about life and suffering and desire and birth and rebirth. Yes, death happens in there, but it's not about that and it certainly doesn't start from cognizing death.

Transient Gadfly said...

I'm with Red. The death thing is way overplayed, especially in your standard monotheist clime. This idea of, yes, your life sucks in these 80 years on earth, but play your cards right and you'll be rewarded with eternal paradise (play them wrong, and boy will you be sorry) is, frankly, a pretty strange interpretation of the things we've been talking about.

So what, e.g. is the relationship between the experiences of the Edge playing guitar in front of thousands of people one of whom is you, and death? I'm not saying there isn't one; in fact I'm sure there is. I don't know what it is, though.

tenaciousmcd said...

Sam, I mostly agree with your post, and I appreciate you catching Emery in his "cheat," because it saves me from having to make the same point but from a much more self-interested vantage point. I also agree that the epistemological problem created by death does not automatically lead to an afterlife-oriented theism. It can also lead to other possibilities such as (a) a resolute "being-in-the-world" atheism, as for Heidegger; (b) a detached from the world atheism, as for the ancient Epicureans; or (c) a detached theism w/o an afterlife like the ancient Stoics. (I won't comment on anything non-western, since I'll embarass myself, before Rebecca's expertise, even more than usual.) But I do believe that religion grapples with the unknown better than a strict secularist position that claims to know the unknown and be uninterested by it, as Emery and Rorty claim to be.

tenaciousmcd said...

I had to come back and comment on something gadfly says here, since it stuck in the back of my head once I left yesterday.

I agree that religion is not ONLY about death, and clarify by saying that the mystery of death helps reorient our approach to THIS life. And, as a Christian, I believe strongly in the goodness of this world, as divine creation, a goodness that demands an engaged and ethical life. Furthertmore, I am deeply suspicious of sects that place exclusive or even predominant emphasis on the afterlife, especially if that is interpreted as a self-interested pay-off (one reason I find both fundamenatlism and Mormonism deeply problematic). I think that's been a consistent theme of my posts in this debate, although we're now spread on two websites, so I'm going to need to explain myself in multiple places now.

Sam said...

Thanks, TMcD. That makes sense. Oh, and instead of explaining in two places, you could just heed Emery's call to start your own blog....:)