The 10th NeverFromConcentrate podcast where we talk about the Potato Paradox, Dean Potter, and the myth of Sisyphus.
CategoryLife and Death
What are my conditions for wanting to die? Trivial. I get asked this in job interviews all the time. I’ll paraphrase one example:
Interviewer: Ok, Mr. Peretroukhin, you’ve passed all of our coding puzzles. Great job! I have one last question for you, if you don’t mind. What kind of mental or physical trauma would you be willing to face before you’d ask a friend to fatally poison you to end your suffering?
Me: Easy. If I ever lose 12 chess games in a row to players rated below me.
Interviewer: Jesus. You’re twisted. What kind of sick person comes of up with that kind of torture?
I’m only half joking. I’d want to die when my mental faculties no longer allow me to fully experience the world as I have before (when everything I do is an inaccuracy, a mistake or even a blunder; when I leave all of the pieces of my life hanging without a second thought). I don’t think I would consider ending my own life for anything related to my physical well-being (as long as my mental health is unaffected and I have at least two senses remaining). Losing control of limbs would of course be devastating. I can’t imagine the anxiety and anguish that comes with having to rely on support workers for the most basic necessities. It’s something I’d never want to experience, but I don’t see them as show-stoppers. If I have my mind in tact, and enough external sensing left to experience the outside world, then I’ll keep on chugging along.
There’s so much of the world that you can taste, smell, see, hear, and touch. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind the smell of a campfire, the sound of a crescendoing movie score, the sight of the milky way on a dark summer night, the feel of bare skin on skin, or the taste of a perfectly crisp, cheesy slice of pizza. As long as I have more of the world to take in (in whatever physical form I’m in), I will want to be there.
A few question to think about for our podcast next week:
1) In certain forms of ‘reduced’ mental states, I may be completely lucid and consciously decide to reverse my decision. However, it’s clear that I am no longer of the same mental acuity. What do you do then? Does my present self get to overrule my future self?
2) What if you lost all of your senses? Would you want to exist as only a mind, with no external link to the world?
3) And finally, I’ll throw the question right back at you, Mr. Chakerwarti, what are your conditions?
I can’t finish off this topic without mentioning one of my favourite novels of all time: Flowers for Algernon for Daniel Keyes. I won’t spoil any of the plot for you, sufficed to say that the book deals with the role of intelligence in our lives, and how it interacts with ‘happiness’. You should absolutely give it a read sometime.
Find a way to inform you of your upcoming baby.
Ask you the question again.
Come up with the best possible defence of why you shouldn’t do it.
Ask you the question again.
If yes, kill you.
Those would be my steps. Yes, it’s over simplifying a really complex situation, and ultimately, an emotionally painful action. But, your life is yours to live, and I’m a firm believer on that policy. By the way, I’m saying this all with the risk of potentially facing the following sentence, if someone was to catch us (well me, you’d be DEAD):
Criminal Code of Canada is 241(b):
Counselling or aiding suicide
241. Every one who
(a) counsels a person to commit suicide, or
(b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide,
whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.
So I don’t take that lightly. Maybe I’d be selfish and play some more games of chess with you, beat you a few more times before calling it a life, but I would grant you your final move – just moving your piece for you.
(An interesting side note, attempted suicide was actually an illegal action in Canada before 1972. So before then, if you were caught trying to call it quits, and you failed, you could be sent to jail. Thought that was kind of silly, but showed some divine respect of life at the same time.)
But to keep with your basketball analogy, I threw you a crisp pass, while you were standing wide open for three in the corner, and I believe you ducked and let the ball hit a guy’s beer to the floor. So I’ll pass again – what would be your conditions for helping me play your last move?
That simple, eh? I think you’re assuming too much agreement here, and I’ve come up with a scenario to test your ethical stance. But first, lest you scold me for throwing the ball back into your court so quickly, let’s talk a bit about play making.
I know that I commited a grave sin with my introduction to the topic. After our first few exchanges on NeverFromConcentrate, we agreed that we’d try to refrain from ending our letters to each other by posing a list of questions (which is exactly what I did in my last post). We agreed that if we did that, we’d be shying away from the spotlight, too afraid to take a stance ourselves. We’d be point guards making unnecessary passes to guys in tight coverage, when there could be an open lane to the basket if we were only brave enough to put our heads down, put our arm up, and drive.
Driving is good. We shouldn’t be afraid to run right at 7-foot-tall, 250 pound philosophical topics and do everything we can to get to the basket on every possesion. But sometimes, driving isn’t the right choice. Sometimes it’s useful to pass the ball back and forth and find the open man, to pick apart the question, and to refrain from giving any answers ourselves. Sometimes we need to work on our passing, so we don’t play hero-ball in every post. Of course, we shouldn’t pass the ball too much though, because then much like Socrates, we’d spend our entire lives coming up with annoyingly poignant questions and have the good basketball fans of Athens come after us (because goddammit at some point, you have to shoot the damn ball!).
Alright, enough basketball metaphors – I’m going to tackle your question directly. Here’s the scenario:
1. I have a serious but not completely terminal illness. It’s causing me severe pain and has left me immobile. Doctors say that there is about a 50% chance that the pain can be controlled and mitigated with an experimental surgery that may let me live indefinitely (albeit with constant pain, and reduced mobility).
2. You know for a fact that my immediate family and significant other want me to agree to the surgery and do everything I can to prolong my life.
3. You also know that my significant other is pregnant, however she has not told me yet.
4. I have weighed my options and do not want to continue living. I am asking you to kill me (through some untraceable poison) and make it seem like I passed away of natural causes.
What do you do?
Ball’s in your court.
A history of instinct prefacing consciousness in our evolutionary past presents an illusion of control in the human world. As we discussed on the topic of free will, the actual merit of control falls more accurately on a continuum with our genetic programming on one end, and our will to influence that programming on the other. And in this struggle of perceived control, one element of programming pervades all of our decisions: our instinct to survive. From where you live, to what you choose for your job, to what you eat, to who you love, there’s a baseline survival instinct guiding our decisions. So before we get to the assisted part of the youth-in-asia discussion, let’s talk suicide and Dean Potter.
How does the behaviour of suicide fit into that instinct to survive? As silly as it may sound at first, suicide can be thought of as an evolutionary adaptive behaviour. As elaborated on in this article, evolutionary neurobiologist, Denys deCatanzaro, quantified, measured, and discovered correlational proof of the following mathematical relationship of suicide:
Ψi = ρi + Σbkρkrk
- Ψi = the optimal degree of self-preservation expressed by individual i (the residual capacity to promote inclusive fitness);
- ρi = the remaining reproductive potential of i;
- ρk = the remaining reproductive potential of each kinship member k;
- bk = a coefficient of benefit (positive values of b k ) or cost (negative values of b k ) to the reproduction of each k provided by the continued existence of i (-1 ≤ b ≤ 1);
- rk = the coefficient of genetic relatedness of each k to i (sibling, parent, child = .5; grandparent, grandchild, nephew or niece, aunt or uncle = .25; first cousin = .125; etc.).
“People are most likely to commit suicide when their direct reproductive prospects are discouraging and, simultaneously, their continued existence is perceived, whether correctly or incorrectly, as reducing inclusive fitness by interfering with their genetic kin’s reproduction.”
Suicide is adaptive when we remember our evolutionary behaviour has it’s foundation set in a social, and not an individual, society structure. So where does Dean Potter fit into this? Lets put or romantic hats on for a second. When Dean Potter continually adventured into unexplored land, eventually diving to his death, people often claim such behaviour as having a suicide wish. But, to me, and I’m guessing yourself too, this is a perfectly poetic life philosophy. One to strive for. One that is truly anti-programming. To keep with the Myth of Sisyphus analogy, instead of suicide at the bottom or in the middle of the hill with no means, energy, or will to keep pushing, Dean Potter went out on top (well, literally speaking, he went out on the bottom). Beyond just pushing yourself to live without fear of death, I think there’s something poetic in the conscious action of taking your own life when you’re at a high Ψ. When you know the book has an ending, it’s more profound to write your own final chapter after conquering whatever you decide was meaningful to you. In the case of Dean Potter, he had already partially written an ending, he just didn’t know when it was being published. For me, I relish the idea of sometime in the future, when I’m content with life, things I’ve done, or have wanted to do, having a goodbye party with my friends and family, and taking the dive to embrace the absurd.
Now on to the whole assisted part of the suicide discussion. You asked a bunch of questions at the end of your post. I’m going to steer away from the ‘resource-allocation-medical-utilitarian’ discussion, and also away from the ‘categorical value of human life versus the right to autonomy’ one, because I think we both are pretty pro-euthanasia/autonomy. But if you are still interested in venturing into that area, here‘s a great debate on the topic. Instead, I’m going to answer your last one. Yes, I would kill you if you asked me to. What’re your conditions?
One of the legends in the climbing community, Dean Potter, died base jumping in Yosemite National Park on May 16th. His death affected me on some profound level. On one hand I felt remorse: he was one of the brightest lights in the climbing community and I grew up watching some of his incredible stunts.
On the other hand, I felt his death was strangely inspiring – a fitting culmination of his incredible journey. Potter’s life was spent pioneering new ways to explore remote terrain, climb it, and fall back down to do it again. In an almost literal interpretation of The Myth of Sisyphus, Potter found meaning in pushing a boulder up a mountain, watching it fall back down, and repeating the whole thing over and over again. One by one, he found ways to remove safety ropes, to be free of all the training wheels, right up until his death. He fought against all of the limitations that the world places on us, socially and physically. In the end, the world got the better of him, just like everyone else. But he died doing what he wanted to do; he died free.
I think of Dean and all of the other extreme athletes (Alex Honnold, Reinhold Messner, to name some of my favourites) when I think of the assisted-suicide and euthanasia debates. To me there is no debate at all. We all hold our own mortality in our own hands. Whether you risk your life climbing massive vertical walls, jumping out of airplanes, or just walking down the street on your way to get a Grande Blonde, it is your life to risk. The absurdity of the human condition is up to every individual to interpret, and everyone should have the option of ending it all when they see fit.
Of course, this is all very idyllic. I’m a romantic Rachit; guilty as charged. Maybe the most interesting debates in euthanasia arise when the will of the individual is not so clear. What happens if the person is in a coma or is in some other manner unable to communicate? Who gets to decide what happens? How do you balance the minute, but ever-present, sliver of hope for improvement with the drain on the medical system that can use the resources to help other people? Would you kill me if I asked you to, even though the pain I feel may only be temporary?
Pulpy, pulpy questions.