Last Hum of the Cicada: Death for Naturalists

A newly-moulted G.Nigrofuscata clinging to a lamppost, by Armchair AceDeep in the mountains of South Korea, a cicada hummed its last.  Walking along the roadside, I saw a spider fall upon it with its venomous mandibles.  Caught in the web, it had no escape, and cried:




I stood equally silenced as the spider carried off the corpse into the splintered bark of a dead maple.  It occurred to me that one day I too would sing the silence of my last song.

Death happens.  It’s a truth so true it’s cliche.  Yet, certain experiences have the power to make the truth visceral again.  They blow away the dust that obscures it, and make it real again.  They force us to confront mortality.


How do naturalists make sense of death?

Since naturalists avoid supernatural concepts, there is little room for an immortal “soul” that somehow survives death.  In the wake of this, there seem to be three principle ways of coming to terms with death.

  1. death makes life meaningful
  2. we live on through our effects on the world: memories, descendents, and influences we leave behind
  3. we live on through that part of us which is immortal: the physical constituents of our bodies that disassemble and reassemble into myriad new forms tumbling throughout the Cosmos


Death makes life meaningful

Brendan Myers writes:

Not death, but immortality, confers absurdity and meaningless.  There is nothing an immortal could do, or build, or achieve, that would outlast him.

In a somewhat similar vein, a New Scientist article published just last week maintains that much of civilization’s accomplishments have been motivated by an awareness of our mortality.

The first principle may also underlie the Epicurean view of death, which sees the death event as a non-experience (something we anticipate but never actually experience, since we no longer have living bodies with which to experience it), and focuses instead on leading a worthwhile existence while yet alive.


We live on through effects on the world

Myers places still more emphasis on the second principle, advocating living a life whose story is worthy of being told (whether or not it is actually told).  He calls this goal apotheosis:

…you can be responsible for living in such a way that others ought to uphold your life as a model of excellence which future generations can learn from, and perhaps emulate.

By leaving behind a legacy, be it children, a novel, or the enhanced lives of those known in life, we live on through our effects on the world.


Immortality as part of the Cosmos

The third principle identifies with the matter of the body, which decomposes and recomposes into myriad new forms.

This was involved in the teachings of some Stoics that upon death our bodies dissolve into the elements and thus rejoin the cosmic logos.

A similar, if updated, view is exalted in Oscar Wilde’s poem Panthea:

So when men bury us beneath the yew
Thy crimson-stained mouth a rose will be,
And thy soft eyes lush bluebells dimmed with dew,
And when the white narcissus wantonly
Kisses the wind its playmate some faint joy
Will thrill our dust, and we will be again fond maid and boy.

The same principle would also seem to underlie the meaning of death as part of the circle of life, as expressed in Disney’s The Lion King:

Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Young Simba: “But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”

Beyond the individual

What people fear most about death is probably the cessation of the sense of “me.”  Notably, all three principles cease to dwell exclusively upon the continuation of this “me” in linear time, and reach toward something that transcends the individual personality.


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5 thoughts on “Last Hum of the Cicada: Death for Naturalists”

  1. I must admit that accepting death as the absolute end of my experience has always been the hardest part for me to swallow.

  2. I'm with the Epicureans. We are born, we die, and in between we try and live modestly fulfilled lives. A feeling of consciousness, a sense of identity, and a sense of community are all real but probably illusionary too. What's to hang on to?

  3. I think the Upanishads provides a perspective that allows an enduring "soul" and yet is fully compatible with naturalism. Here it is suggested that the core of our being is awareness. Generally, we expend our awareness on a multitude of perceptions, sensation, imaginings, and thoughts. Taken together, all of this "stuff" we are aware of constitutes what we think of as our individual self.

    But if we focus our awareness away from all this stuff and focus on nothing else but what it is to be aware, we can see that awareness is what is most real and enduring about our being. All of the wants, hopes and fears, attitudes, values and opinions that drift through our awareness are emphemerata — not only do they not survive death, they don't survive life. They change constantly. There are relatively stable patterns to this change, but even these patterns change considerably over the course of a life.

    The contemplation of awareness also suggests that it is rather empty to talk about "my" awareness. Awareness creates me; I belong to it. But as it creates me, so it creates others. Awareness at base is what we all have in common, and not only all people, but all sentient beings.

    To but if briefly, if awareness is what is truly real and enduring in "me" and it is also common to all sentient beings in the past, the present, and yet to come in the future, then what is most real in “me” endures and extends beyond my life and death. The “me” has to go, but it was always something of an illusion anyway.

    Intellectualized as an idea, this notion of the Self can bring no salvation – it is too abstract to assuage the fear of death. But from the deep experience of Self that the Perennial Wisdom directs people to, it truly can relieve forever any existential dread of death.

  4. Thomas describes the Eastern view on the universiality of pure consciousness wonderfully. We could also put this in modern terms, but it still refers to breaking free of the ego. I know there is this biological life form, that is of a species that evolved a strong instinct for self preservation – a desire to continue. But on top of that older 'lizard brain' is a more dynamic neural network that is capable of a more objective understanding of the reality of our situation. As such, I don't have to be associated with those instincts. My desire to continue living is not 'me' anymore than a reflex to sneeze is me. I – the rational/intellectual being – have no obligation to consider the goals of my instincts to be one in the same with my own. This, to me, is one of the first steps of breaking free of the ego (a necessity of making peace with our mortality). But it is not the last step, as it still includes a concept of 'me'.


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