Commonplace Book

Scott Atran on “The Tragedy of Cognition”

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“Existential anxieties are by-products of evolved emotions, such as fear and the will to stay alive, and of evolved cognitive capacities, such as episodic memory and ability to track the self and others over time. For example, once you can track even the seasons — and anticipate that leaves will fall off the tree in autumn and that squirrels will bury nuts — you cannot avoid overwhelming inductive evidence favoring your own death and that of those you are emotionally bonded to. Emotions compel such inductions and make them salient, and terrifying. This is ‘the Tragedy of Cognition.’ Dying is by nature not a telic event because once the process of dying starts (from birth on) it cannot be stopped to avoid the inevitable end state. By introducing a supernatural agent, religion resolves the Tragedy of Cognition. Dying is converted into a telic event whose goal state is an extended afterlife. The result is, in part, an allaying of an otherwise recurring and interminable existential anxiety…”

— Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Oxford UP, 2002), p. 66.

Bonus Link:

Born Believers: How Your Brain Creates God

Commonplace Book

Charlotte Perkins Gilman on Death

“It is told that Buddha, going out to look on life, was greatly daunted by death. ‘They all eat one another!’ he cried, and called it evil. This process I examined, changed the verb, said, ‘They all feed one another,’ and called it good. Death? Why this fuss about death? Use your imagination, try to visualize a world without death. The first form of life would be here yet, miles deep by this time, and nothing else; a static world. If birth is allowed, without death, the resulting mass would leave death as a blessed alternative. Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil. ”

— from page 40 of The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the posthumously published 1935 autobiography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author and lecturer.

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Thomas Carlyle on work…


“I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

— from Sartor Resartus, Book 2, Chapter 9, by Thomas Carlyle

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Philip Larkin on the fear of death…


This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says
No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

— from “Aubade” by Philip Larkin


Philip Larkin’s almost perfect poem by A.N. Wilson

Commonplace Book · Movies · Woody Allen

Woody Allen on work…

“It’s a way of coping with the world. You know, in the same way that somebody copes with it by being a stamp collector or a sports addict or a titan of industry or an alcoholic or something. My way of coping with the horrors of existence is to put my nose to the grindstone and work and not look up.”

— from “The Director’s Craft: Woody Allen reflects on ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona,’ love and his life,” by Rachel Abramowitz, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2008.