Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Toomas Karmo: Lenten Meditation on Death as a Supremely Free Act

Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3/5 is "mediocre pass", 4/5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 3/5. Justification: Kmo, being in the throes of moving to new living accommodations, could not blog at much length or with much depth. He did manage to write out carefully what comaparatively little he was able to say.

Revision history: 

  • 20170411T1940Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded a reasonably polished version ot this short essay. He regretted the slippage in schedule, which caused him to upload well after his normally scheduled four-hour upload window of UTC=20170411T0001Z/20170411T0401Z. - Kmo  reserved the right to make tiny, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, improvements over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3, ... .

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity to generate HTML that is formatted in different ways on different client-side browsers, perhaps with some browsers not correctly reading in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets" which on many Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect "Cascading Style Sheets" problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via Toomas.Karmo@gmail.com.] 

Mary Immaculate Parish here in Richmond Hill, Ontario, has been selling a Lenten pamphlet entitled The Little Black Book: Six-Minute Reflections on the Passion According to John (Diocese of Saginaw; http://www.littlebooks.org/). In working through this daily meditation resource, I have been struck by its entry for the Saturday which was 2017-04-08.

The pamphlet commenter first quotes John 19:30, as follows: When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, "It is finished." And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.

He then offers the following (the emphasis, which I here typeset with an underscore, is his, not mine):

Theologians speculate about "the act of dying". Many say that death is always "a conscious act", even when we seem unconscious to those around us. It is an act we perform, not something we simply undergo.

It is also a free act. The freest moment ever. I can move forward, choose God. Or, I can move backwward, reject God.


Next month, with the pressures of a household move abating, I hope to begin writing at length on the analytical philosophy of perception and agency. This afternoon, however, I would like to offer a philosophical thought on "free acts".

At first the theologians' claim seems wrong. How could death be in all instances a free act, when people so often suffer fatal disease or fatal injury against their will?

The body is, for example, bleeding profusely amid motorcar wreckage, on a seldom-travelled road in a rural precinct far from any house. The victim, lacking all hope of medical assistance, is in vain trying to apply pressure with scarf or mitten to a gaping neck wound. The vision dims. The final vertigo, already for some minutes evident, now intensifies. How under these circumstances can the now-impending, the now-foreseeable, death be "free"?

Freedom, however, is logically compatible with practical inevitability. I used to point out to students in philosophy classes that their choice of means for leaving the classroom was as a matter of practical reasoning inevitable. There was in practical terms not the slightest chance that any of them would exit through the window. On the contrary, it was in practical terms inevitable that each and every one of them would choose to leave in the socially conventional way, through the door. And yet the choice of door, rather than of window, would be, for each and every individual student, a free choice.

The same point could be made in terms of voting. Colonel Blympton-Fosse, like his father and his two grandfathers and his four great-grandfathers and his eight great-great grandfathers, is a diehard Tory. The United Kingdom once again has a general election, and Col. Blympton-Fossse once again proceeds to the polls. It is in practical terms certain to everyone - to him, as he proceeds in ponderously tweedy dignity to the polling station; and to his wife; and to his sisters and his cousins, whom he reckons up by dozens; and his aunts - it is certain to all and sundry that he will, once again, as he has done in each and every United Kingdom General Election from 1970-06-18 onward, be in the privacy of that little enclosure voting Tory. And yet predictable though the Colonel's ballot choice is, it remains free. (What would an unfree ballot action be? The answer is banal: you are unfree if, for instance, contrary to fact, a polling officer joins you in the little enclosure, savagely dragging your pencil toward the Labour candidate's line on the ballot paper.)

So the theologians might - I say just "might"; I am far from sure about this - be writing accurately. Perhaps the traffic-accident victim really does in some sense act freely in dying, practically inevitable though that death may be. Perhaps it is in some deep sense, conceivably even eluding the grasp of physiology, in his or her power not to die, even as it is in a rather banal athletic sense in the power of philosophy students to jump from windows, and in a rather banal civic sense within the Colonel's power to vote Labour.

All I want to say here is that the matter of death-as-a-free-act is a mystery specially appropriate for pondering now, as we approach the three-o'clock liturgy of Good Friday.


Difficult as the notion of free dying may be, it is easy to endorse the theologians' follow-on claim that at the hour of death, we (having now decided upon moving) decide freely whether our movement shall be toward God or away from God.

In life, we sometimes have to exercise freedom in defiance of an inner emotional compulsion. We feel, for instance, a rising irritation in a telephone conversation, and are therefore tempted to say something sarcastic. We manage to stay polite, suppressing the compulsion to lash out, while perhaps clenching a thumb between two fingers and visualizing the calm orderliness of a Supreme Court hearing. Or we have to overcome an emotional reluctance to rise from bed. Or we have to fight the desire to grab some snack at some inappropriate hour of the day.

The theologians' suggestion, as I interpret it, is that death is not like that. In death (their suggestion goes, on my interpretation of it), there is no emotion - no distracting psychiatric pull-rope - endeavouring to draw us in the one direction as opposed to the other. No: at this instant of supreme crisis we choose in serenity.


One is all the same inclined to wonder if there might not at the crisis instant be something of a pull-rope - admittedly, in the final analysis exerting a pull still consistent with freedom. One recalls here lines from "The Hound of Heaven" (Francis Thompson (1859-1907); the entire poem can, and in this Holy Week perhaps should, be read, for instance at https://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/HNDHVN.HTM):

'And human love needs human meriting:
          How hast thou merited -   
Of all man's clotted clay the dingiest clot?
          Alack, thou knowest not 
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
          Save Me, save only Me? 
All which I took from thee I did but take,
          Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms.
          All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: 
          Rise, clasp My hand, and come!'

[This is the end of the present blog posting. Longer, more substantive postings, including postings on a topic in the analytical philosophy of perception and agency, are anticipated from 2017-05-01 onward, as I complete my move to new living accommodations.]

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