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Belmont Club

Crossing the Bar

May 24th, 2012 - 8:30 pm

What is it about dying that motivates people to confess to crimes on their deathbed? A cynical person might argue it is nothing but the same self-interest that motivated them in life. After all, when a person has reached a point essentially beyond any effective human retribution what downside is there to admitting to any crime? Plus there’s the possibility that he might have new worries  — besides the earthly — with which he might have to contend. John Henry Newman spoke of the rumor of dark wings in fevered dreams in what one might call the boundary condition.

I can no more; for now it comes again,
That sense of ruin, which is worse than pain,
That masterful negation and collapse
Of all that makes me man; as though I bent
Over the dizzy brink
Of some sheer infinite descent;
Or worse, as though
Down, down for ever I was falling through
The solid framework of created things,
And needs must sink and sink
Into the vast abyss. And, crueler still,
A fierce and restless fright begins to fill
The mansion of my soul. And, worse and worse,
Some bodily form of ill
Floats on the wind, with many a loathsome curse
Tainting the hallowed air, and laughs, and flaps
Its hideous wings,
And makes me wild with horror and dismay.
0 Jesu, help! pray for me, Mary, pray!
Some angel, Jesu such as came to Thee
In Thine own agony….
Mary, pray for me.
Joseph, pray for me.
Mary, pray for me.

What might a person not do when he hears those beating wings? Inevitably the Bard has explored the subject before. Shakespeare wrote of the boundary problem in this way.

For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all.

It’s what we don’t know that makes cowards of us all. But using a deathbed confession as a means of escaping our past suffers from the difficulty that there is no real way of knowing what turns the key. What puts the Hounds off the pursuit? A God who can hear confessions might very well count a cunningly calculated confession as a negative: it is possible that the more a blackguard falsely repents, the faster his descent is sped.

Come to that, what are the rules of the game?

People who have gone through life outsmarting their marks might be making a mistake by thinking they were still playing the same game. What mathematics tells us about phase changes and broken symmetry is that the rules which govern transitions are anything but simple. They are driven by considerations which are not only subtle, but non-obvious. For example, the nonlinear nature of weather forecasting was partially discovered by the observation that early computer simulations gave vastly differing results for the same set of inputs. The limits of accuracy in the way the computer represented digits showed that small differences caused entirely different outcomes.

Assuming death is some kind of phase change, then the best bet is that it won’t be an easy one for Sheeran, Chavez, or Kuklinski to game. There are so many variables to account for that dying remains an act of faith rather than a matter of calculation. Perhaps John von Neumann, who was the most rational of persons, got it right. “While at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he invited a Roman Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation. This move shocked some of von Neumann’s friends in view of his reputation as an agnostic. Von Neumann, however, is reported to have said in explanation that Pascal had a point, referring to Pascal’s wager.”

We live out our lives as a bet in everything that it expresses. Our deaths are no different. Neumann knew there was no sense not making a bet. Whether it works out or not — well maybe we’ll just have to find out.

Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.


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