We are not here
Words by Lawrence Torcello

“Will I die?” My young daughter asks me as we drive home from daycare. I am never prepared for her questions about death.  I hear this question as a fresh opportunity to fail her as a father.  “It isn’t something you have to worry about... Who did you play with today?” I worry I will pass all my anxieties to her. I want my fears to die with me. I worry I have just coughed a metaphysical contagion into my daughter’s face.

“To study philosophy is to learn how to die”, writes Michel de Montaigne. I admire the writer and the sentiment. The history of philosophy is traced with meditations on death but they can’t penetrate the bubble I try to maintain around my child’s innocence — for just a while longer. I have no right to pretend the consolations of philosophy are relevant to toddlers.

I forgive myself the feeble deflection. I don’t want my daughter’s childhood to shrink a little on the drive home. She hasn’t yet asked me if I will die, and I sense it is because she is afraid of the answer — even without knowing what death means. She knows that my parents are dead and she seems, if I can say so, to have inherited her parents’ inclination to reason out abstractions. I spend the drive home envying those with tidy religious stories to tell their children.

The following day I find myself exploring Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery, as I often do, when the weather and time allow for peripatetic contemplation. Someday, once I can no longer dodge her questions about death, I look forward to hiking here among the city’s illustrious dead with my daughter. Approximately mid walking distance between Fredrick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, on a slope descending to the old 19th century chapel and crematorium, I approach a mausoleum built into the side of a steep hill. An inscription reads “non hic sumus” (we are not here). The crypt belongs to the 19th century anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan. I like this epitaph defiantly carved into his tomb. A reminder that life, rooted in matter, is more than molecular — and it is true.  There is more of Lewis H. Morgan in the Wikipedia entry I consultto learn about him than inside this vault.

Fredrick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Lewis H. Morgan exist though they are not here. I think I am less afraid of death than I am afraid of not existing. My child’s memory will bear out my existence long after I am dead. The memory of students will confirm my participation, and modest contribution, to continuing humanity. In some small degree, things I write, retrievable by others, will be a cipher of my existence waiting to be revealed for years to come — the mere possibility of discovery is enough for me. I believe as long as people exist something of myself, my daughter, my wife, friends, all I love and admire, will exist. I affirm the same kindred embrace of humanity expressed by Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass — time and place avail not!

Physics tells me that the earth will be engulfed by our expanding Sun some six billion years from now. By then, I like to imagine, humankind will populate other regions of space. Scientists continue to debate how our universe itself will end, but there is nothing so abstract it cannot be met with another abstraction. So long as engineering, from scratch, a new universe — more time and place for clever beings to occupy — doesn’t violate any law of logic (it doesn’t) I am satisfied that my hope for indefinite existence via civilisation’s children is justified.

In the face of such distant time spans I almost sit contentedly (rebelliously) optimistic that intelligent descendants will sail their ship, Hic Sumus, onward into a new universe still engaging the thoughts of Montaigne and Whitman —  still meditating on death.

If our descendants exist at the end of this universe then our species will have survived climate change. This is where my optimism is tested. There are those who blindly treat climate change like some distant unknown at the end of time. The truth is that Anthropogenic Global Warming is, at this moment, the greatest moral and existential challenge humanity has ever faced.

In the blink of 100 years our planet may be roughly 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today if we continue our current behaviors. This is 3-4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures. Since 2009 the aspiration of the international community has been to prevent temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial range. This is the temperature thought to provide an acceptable chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. The worst consequence of climate change being the collapse of civilisation followed by human extinction. Peering over the abyss of non-existence 2 degrees Celsius seems a shaky guardrail.  

Climate vulnerability is not evenly distributed across the planet and even in the best of scenarios many of the most vulnerable people on our globe will die of climate related causes. Right now human beings and other animal species are suffering the consequences of increased heatwaves, flooding, wild-fires, sea-level rise and food-stress. Right now indigenous populations are being pushed off ancestral lands by climate change. We are leaving our children a harsher, more depleted, and less forgiving planet than we received. Climate change is already humanity’s moral failure, but it is not yet the extinction of humanity’s memory.

If our progeny are to reach the end of this universe then we must leave our ethical adolescence behind. We must abandon parochial tribalism and address planetary problems as a world community — otherwise no one will exist to read Michel de Montaigne, or Walt Whitman, or to meditate on death at the end of the universe.

Lawrence is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Please visit lawrencetorcello.wordpress.com to find out more.

Illustration by Seb Camilleri.

This feature was first published in Issue Two of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri