Saturday, July 24, 2010

Nitrogen Death

"Early in the Space Shuttle program, a worker at Kennedy Space Center walked into an external fuel tank (a vessel nearly as big inside as a Boeing 737) to inspect it. He was not aware that it had been purged with pure nitrogen gas to prevent oxygen in the air from corroding its interior. Since nitrogen is the major component of ordinary air, pure nitrogen has no distinctive feel, smell, or taste; the worker had no indication that anything was out of the ordinary. After walking a short distance into the tank, he lost consciousness and collapsed. A co-worker, not realizing that his collapse had an external cause, ran in to aid him and succumbed also. By the time other workers realized what was happening, the two men were dead." [1]
Even though I read this passage over fifteen years ago, I still remember it vividly because every few months I find myself thinking about it. I have read hundreds of articles over the years; why does my mind keep returning to this passage?
Is it because dying like this scares the heck out of me? These two men walked into what they thought was a completely ordinary tank only to die without having the slightest inclination that anything was wrong. What an awful way to go. They didn't even have the chance for one final thought. Perhaps there are some who would prefer to have death take them in this way, without pain, without fear. Not me. While the thought of dieing like this does indeed scare me, fear is not the reason I keep thinking of it. A lot of passages in articles I have read scared me, sickened me, made my blood boil, and yet I don't keep thinking about these passages.
It is the deadly ordinariness of the situation, this is what keeps forcing me to think about it. The passage reminds me of how we can be lulled into living our everyday lives if we are not careful. I can hear what you are thinking: "Oh, how profound! Some blogger just realized that he is mortal and thinks he's had an epiphany." Don't click away just yet. My thought is a little deeper than merely the fear of immanent death. I am also not going to advocate the trite aphorism that you should live every day like it is your last. Understood literally this is absurd, understood in any other way this is blatantly obvious.
There is little on Earth that is more ordinary than nitrogen, but it was precisely this ordinariness that prevented these men from sensing that something was wrong. It was the deadly ordinariness of nitrogen that killed them. One of the many flaws in human nature is our tendency to become bored with everything that is familiar. When we become bored with something, when something becomes merely ordinary, we stop thinking about it. This is when the ordinary becomes deadly by killing our humanness, by smothering in us that which separates us from every other living thing. As Pascal wrote:
"Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. ... Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality."[2]
Let us strive to think well! This is what makes us uniquely human. Of course we should appreciate every moment we have, but our ability to appreciate our life is not that which makes us human. It is our ability to think about our life that makes us human. I am convinced that my dog appreciated her life in a simple but very real way, but she certainly did not think about it. Only we can think about our existence. Only we can think about our world. Neglecting to think about the ordinary not only kills our humanness, it also has a profound affect on our operational values—i.e. the values we really act upon, not the values we claim to hold—and thus profoundly affects the way we live our lives.
While what it means to "think well" could be the subject of a large treatise, I think the essence of thinking well is simple and consists of two parts: First, as Descartes began one such treatise, "The seeker after truth must, once in the course of his life, doubt everything, as far as is possible."[3] A belief that has never been tested, even if true, is a mere bias. The only way to test a belief is to doubt the belief, to honestly and genuinely consider the possibility that the belief is false. Of course, you must start with your most fundamental beliefs upon which most of your other beliefs rest. Testing a belief does not mean merely accumulating a bunch of arguments in favor of your belief. It means finding the strongest arguments against your belief and weighing these against the arguments for your belief. One word of caution, if you find yourself regularly concluding that those who disagree with you are morons, it is safe to say that you are not thinking well. While this approach to thinking well should be obvious, it is depressingly rare. Far too many confuse confirming their biases with thinking well.
The second aspect of thinking well is even rarer than the first, and I think it is what led Pascal to write that thinking well "is the basic principle of morality." It is one thing to arrive at a conclusion by thinking well, it is quite another to live constantly with that conclusion in mind. It is important to be clear that what I am suggesting here is more fundamental than saying that thinking well means living in accordance with one's beliefs. In other words, the second aspect of thinking well is not merely to avoid hypocrisy. The second aspect of thinking well involves striving to keep our beliefs constantly in mind. Living this way is a prerequisite to living in accordance with our beliefs, and I think it is far harder. This is where the deadly ordinariness of our lives has its most profound effect. Believing something and acting in an opposite manner is hypocrisy, but at least if we keep our beliefs in mind we have a fighting chance. When we allow the deadly ordinariness of our lives to keep us from even thinking, when our core beliefs are smothered by the ordinariness of our daily lives, then it is no contest, we have lost before the game has even started. When this happens to us we are living in what I call the Ordinary World. We all live in the Ordinary World at times, and some live most of their lives there. When we are stuck in the Ordinary World, we are stuck there not because we are convinced that our perception of the world is true, we are stuck there because the ordinariness of our lives lulls us into not thinking well.
There is one other observation about the Ordinary World that I would be remiss to ignore. While some are lulled into living in the Ordinary World, others choose to live there. As Pascal wrote: "Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things."[4] I am not sure which is worse, being lulled into not thinking about "such things" or choosing not to, but the result is the same.
While I have spent years doing my best to think well, I have rarely disciplined myself to record my thoughts. I have thought about writing a book, not to be published as I know this would be highly unlikely, but just for myself and perhaps a few family and friends. But who has time to write a book worth reading while holding down a job, and more importantly, being a good husband and father? Not me, especially since I am the slowest writer on the planet! Having given up on the idea of writing a book, I decided to create this blog. This blog will not be a "whatever pops into my head today" blog and don't look for me on Twitter. If I am able to post every other month I will be happy. And while I will leave it to you to be the judge of the quality of my thinking and writing, I can assure you that I will spend time with each post doing my best to make each as concise and coherent as possible.
I think it is important to be up front with you in this first post about one of the most fundamental beliefs we can hold. While I was an atheist into my twenties, that was a while ago and I have since come to believe in the existence of God. However, there will be no intellectually fuzzy "leaps of faith" here, religious, existential, or otherwise. I will try to always explicitly state my premises, and my arguments will be based on reason. Therefore, whether or not you agree with me, I can promise that you will be able to argue with me either by finding flaws in my logic or by denying my stated premises. If you happen to stumble upon this blog, are interested in the subject, and find what I write merits your attention, I welcome your thoughts.
Lastly, I think it is also important to emphasize that despite the title of this first post, this blog will be about life, not death. And no, I do not think that death is just a natural part of life. However, it is not an accident that I chose to open this blog with a passage about death. There is one way in which death is absolutely indispensable to the subject of this blog. Death is awful in so many ways, but it is also the Ordinary World's mortal enemy. If watching a loved one die or waiting for the results of a biopsy will not force you to think well, there is little else that will. Without death, the Ordinary World could effortlessly claim a complete victory over most of us. I loath death, but in this one way I am thankful for death because the Ordinary World is a greater enemy than death itself. Death robs us of this life, but the Ordinary World seeks to render our lives meaningless. And so my thought comes back to that passage I cannot forget. I will continue to think about the death of the two men who died in that nitrogen-filled tank. I hope you continue to think about them too.
Don't let nitrogen kill you.
1. ^ Creque, S.A. "Killing with Kindness." National Review 11 Sep. 1995. Print.
2. ^ Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. Penguin Classics, 1966. 95. Print. [View or Purchase]
3. ^ Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. I. Trans. Cottingham, Stoothoff, & Murdoch. Cambridge Univ Press, 1985. 193. Print. [View or Purchase]
4. ^ Pascal 95

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