Death and Evolution: The Varying Degrees of Knowing

In science, in life, there are facts. “Facts” are ideas that a large percentage of the educated population has accepted for the time-being as pretty damn likely. The evidence for these facts comes either from our own common sense and life experience or from the consensus of the scientific community.

Two Examples: Death and Evolution

Often times these facts are treated casually as obvious things. I’d like to look at two examples:

  1. Each of us is going to die one day.
  2. We evolved with chimpanzees and gorillas from a common ape ancestor who lived about 6 million years ago.

The first fact is an example of something we know from our own common sense observations. The second fact is one we know from the consensus of the scientific community.

These two simple pieces of information (along with several others) happen to be ones that have occupied my mind from when I first realized school isn’t just a place I go to and try to get an “A”, but is a place where I get to learn things about stuff I’m interested in.

The Philosophical and the Pragmatic

My relationship with these facts has evolved. The death question leads to the usual  questions… What is the purpose of it all? Where does the sense of morality come from? The existentialist bunch (from Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to Sartre to Kafka) addressed this over and over and over in their work, in various forms, as if through sheer quantity of words they could somehow get closer to an answer that would satisfy them (and us). And as I read more and more my “knowing” of this fact of death changed.

I think it’s easy to dismiss a teenager’s view of such subjects, but I believe I knew the fact of death most deeply at about age 19. Because of how much focus I dedicated to reading existentialist literature at the time, the overwhelming uncertainty and absurdity of it all was deeply internalized by my mind. The feeling of it was most distinct. That’s when I really “knew” it. I would hit moments of real fear of knowing so little about myself and the world around me. Today, death is less philosophical, and more pragmatic like the knowledge that a car (even if it’s a Toyota) will eventually break down. You repair it, you take care of it, and deal with problems as they arise. Sometimes the more I learn the more I know, and sometimes the more I learn the more tired I grow of caring. The knowledge that can fascinate us can also break us. You have to tread carefully and purposefully with such challenging ideas.

Early Humans vs Modern Humans

The same goes for the second fact of evolution. When I read about early humans struggling to develop simple stone tools, hitting rock against rock to make a sharper rock, I am filled with awe. It challenges the common sense brain I use for getting out of bed in the morning, for making breakfast, for going to work, having goals, making money, spending money, talking to friends, etc. The view of the “life force” over millennia puts the daily life of modern humans into an absurd light.  Perhaps “awe” is not the right word. I oscillate between fascination at the glimpse of the mysterious around us and fear of the immense uncertainty of it.

Varying Degrees of Knowing

Most of us “know” the basic facts of reality today. But for most of us the relationship with these facts varies and constantly changes in depth, perspective, and how it effects the way we approach the activities of life.

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