The Fear of Death, The Meaning Crisis, And The Orange Meme

I recently had a philosophical conversation with a lovely and intelligent man, someone I’m quite fond of, someone who’s a co-founder living in New York. For quite a while, he’s been afraid of his own death and of the death of those he loves.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” We shall see about not being able to get out of it–but what is that picture in this case?

This man believes that what Ken Wilber calls the “orange meme” is wholly true. By the “orange meme,” Wilber means the post-enlightenment picture of science and of scientific rationality, a picture that is twinned with secularism. Heidegger would have called it the “age of the technological world-picture.” Hence, this man thinks that we have evolved according to natural selection and hence live, singularly and collectively, without any greater purpose (no grand Teleology); science provides us, so far as we know, with the best models of reality; we have no reason, after Darwin and evidently too after Freud, to think that we’re special or extraordinary creatures (we are a “weedy species” as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it in The Sixth Extinction). The modern world, so understood, has been thoroughly disenchanted.

I submit that it is this picture that must, as it already has, give rise to nihilism and the fear of death in us secular moderns. This man takes the existentialists’ call to courage (as well as the aesthetic claims of love and beauty) in the face of a meaningless universe to be about all we’ve got. This is, let’s say, a modernist or high modernist version of the orange meme. And yet. And yet. He asks, What is the point if there is no purpose? If time is scarce, my time limited, what if I have ‘used’ it ‘incorrectly’?

I suggest, then as now, that the following assumptions are indeed scary: That one is a self and that self just is this perishable mind-body composite. That this self is born and that it shall die. That there is nothing–no greater reality–beyond what is perceivable or conceivable (that’s Nisargadatta’s lingo) by this self. That, therefore, secularism–the “immanent frame” with a “closed spin” (Charles Taylor)–is true. That time, as it’s experienced by the self, is finite, fleeting, and scarce and cannot be otherwise. That one’s life is measured by what this self has accomplished before his days are numbered. That this self is a Doer, whose doings may be enough that he’s able to feel, before his death, that he has no “unfinished business.”

What I appreciate about Wilber’s view is that the orange meme is not entirely untrue. Rather, it is but “partially true.” And if it is but partially true, then it shouldn’t be discarded but should be “transcended and included.”

What is that which makes possible transcending while including? It is what I call the twin paths: the Way of Loss and the Way of Wonderment. Both slice open this picture, and others.