Saturday, June 17, 2006

Life & other contingencies

I’ve been out of town for the last few days. I went to Sydney to visit a relative who has had a serious health scare. The scare alarmed me because I care about this person.

A concern that occurred to me while visiting came from awareness that my particular concerns for this person – or indeed, at the other end of the spectrum, for being joyful about the prospects of a new life – are only a drop in the ocean of events – there are lots of deaths and births out there. This is quite apart from the fact that eventually, as a non-believing atheist, I will face mortality concerns myself and eventually drift off into the universe as a finite set of unguided molecules – in my view, increasing entropy denies the possibility of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence so, regrettably, these molecules won’t get together again.

Today there are 6,522,735,778 humans on the planet – if you really want to be fastidiously up-to-date go here. Population is growing by 130,860,569 births annually and depleting by the 56,579,396 deaths - even with demographic transitions, population is still surging ahead with twice as many babies born as people dying. In total, 74,281,173 extra humans are added net annually. To be specific these figures mean about 4.1 births per second, 1.8 deaths so 2.4 net extra people per second. (I include the estimates to the last person not because I have any respect for such spurious accuracy but because I might be the 6,522,735,778th!).

These are stunning large numbers. More than two September 11 attacks worth of deaths every hour and more than a holocaust of Jews each six weeks. Yet we do attach significance to particular deaths and take our own lives and those close to us seriously. Will I get that promotion? Will Pamela Brown go on a date with me?

My nihilistic thoughts will disintegrate as my current depression concerning this ill relative subsides. I will reintegrate as a functioning, nonreflective human who sets aside adolescent existential concerns, brushes his teeth and gets on with the biggest act of all.

You are right! It hasn’t been a great couple of days.


Patrick said...


If it's any solace, to the extent that you are right about our attitude to death it is only rational, and anyway you are wrong - people spend dozens of fortunes a year on not dying.

Just think of the money we spend on medecines, on medical research targeted at organ replacement and anti-aging, on safety, etc.

What's best, a lot of this has both direct public good effects, like safer transport, and trickle-down effects, like better advanced surgical techniques or experimental medecines.

So the only thing to do is keep on living, work hard at something you enjoy and smile :)

hc said...

It makes sense to stand apart and say people with major ailments who have little chance of recovery are bad medical investments.

It makes a difference when it is you - or someone you know - who is in that situation. And it is costly anyway to play God!