My “Dialog” with Roger Ebert on Death
The following is my response to “Go Gently into That Good Night,”
renowned film critic Roger Ebert’s eloquent expression of agnosticism in
the face of his probable death from cancer. In his brief response,
he graciously overlooked my lapse from mindfulness of the personal context
of his thoughts. I tried to make amends in my follow-up. All this may
on his blog. I encourage my
visitors to become his as well.
everything is burnt up in the inevitable collapse of the universe, what,
in the end, are we contributing to? What does our “kindness” matter?
As Bertrand Russell famously wrote in 1903:
man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were
achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves
and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of
atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling,
can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of
the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday
brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death
of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must
inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these
things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no
philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the
scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding
despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
Henceforth? Safely? The impregnability of Russell’s (and your?)
position is superficial, momentarily tenable only if one ignores the
stake of contradiction driven through its heart (and the untenability of
the empiricism that cannot make sense of the science it depends on).
Russell may have written your credo, but how can it not drive you
either to madness or despair? There may be, as you believe, nothing for
us on the “other” side of our deaths. Unless, however, there is an
everlasting divine life to which we contribute, a repository of
experience that cherishes every worthwhile experience, then in the end
nothing means anything, because a universe in ruins that began as “accidental collocations of atoms”—albeit ruins in a future distant
enough for us to evade—stamps an expiration date on all value.
consider the case for such a theistic ethical “contributionism” would,
of course, require you to grapple with the arguments of a philosopher
like Charles Hartshorne. It’s much easier to take the agnostic way out
and suggest that that’s the best human beings can do.
On May 25, 2009, Mr. Ebert wrote:
wonderful quotation. I believe Russell is correct, and he has not
driven me to madness and despair. To the contrary, he helps me to
Shortly after which I wrote :
Ebert, thanks for commenting on my post of May 6. What I should have
done there and belatedly do now is salute the courage and honesty with
which you are facing more immediately what we all face eventually.
Apparent oblivious-ness to personal circumstance marred my expression of
disagreement with your agnosticism. You seemed prepared for what
Socrates said it was the office of philosophy to prepare one for [Phaedo
67e]. I find the spirit of your reflections Socratic, not Stoic,
and therefore encouraging of dialog. I’m gambling, therefore, that you
will receive this follow-up Socratically.
appreciate your appreciation of Bertrand Russell’s eloquent confession
of faith, but don’t understand your “understanding.” In seconding his
thoughts, you are following the logician’s equivalent of a chess
grandmaster. A grandmaster can blunder, however, inadvertently inviting
checkmate. I claimed that his description of the universe’s ultimate
heat death as a firm foundation for human living [“only on the firm
foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be
safely built”] plunges a “stake of contradiction” through the heart of
his worldview (and yours) and shatters the facade of its serenity.
see that it has not driven you either to madness or despair, neither of
which, of course, I wish on you. As your interlocutor, however, I asked
how you avoid either, logically how. Russell’s
eschatology is but a protracted version of Sisyphus’s boulder-rolling
exercise, whose existentialist point Camus sharpened to perfection.
therefore surmise that a “blessed inconsistency,” a logical lapse, an
intermittent forgetfulness of what one believes about this when one
turns one’s attention to that, spares you the aforementioned mental
afflictions. It cannot, however, spare your position the fate of basic
incoherence, to which the only alternative is silence, a dilemma to
which a man of letters like yourself cannot integrally be indifferent.
positive note, I suggested that an escape from the dilemma might lie in
a worldview that made sense both of one’s virtually ineradicable ethical
contributionism and one’s rationality. The latter human traits and
Russell’s worldview are like matter and antimatter.
"dialog" ended there.—A.F.
What is more likely, however ironic and tragic, is that in the name of
restoring America’s “greatness,” you will only catalyze her descent into