Editor’s Note: I was watching Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s series, “Cosmos,” which is inexplicably being aired on Fox. One of the episodes caused me to ask myself how people could be so amoral that they’d be willing to poison children (including their own) just to increase corporate profits. I still don’t know the answer, but this was my attempt to at least pose the question.

Well, That Just Couldn’t Happen to Me

Cogito. Ergo sum.”

                         — Rene Descarte


I don’t think I’m ever going to die. Although the universe existed for billions of years before my birth, it’s hard for me to accept that it will continue for countless billions more when I’m gone. We humans are the only creatures on Earth able to conceptualize infinity, but we still can’t wrap our minds around an eternity that goes on without us.

The desire for immortality underpins all religion, from Islam and evangelical Christianity to New Age mysticism. Yet even those of us convinced they’re headed for an eternity in paradise cling to life. As bluesman Albert King perceptively put it, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Even terrorists flying airliners into buildings probably feel a pang of fear and regret, notwithstanding the 72 virgins awaiting them.

From strokes to skin cancer, the scariest things in life are those that could actually happen to us. I find movies about demonic possession, vampires and killer aliens from Mars far less frightening than infomercials about identity theft. (But then, I also embrace the irrational notion that, if I can avoid knowing about bad things, then maybe they won’t happen.)

Now in my 60s, “the big dirt nap” looms ever larger on the horizon. I sometimes lie awake in bed at night wondering if this is the night “I die before I wake.” I try to comfort myself with the thought that I’ll sleep through it, so I won’t know it’s happened, but even the knowledge that eternal oblivion is the fate of everyone who’s ever lived isn’t all that comforting.

So I hide from this reality by telling myself that, although everyone else dies, it can’t happen to me. It’s silly, of course, but apparently I’m not the first person to think this, because there’s a specific term for this concept in philosophy. Webster’s defines it as “solipsism” — “the theory that nothing is real or exists, but the self.”

Variations on the theme of solipsism were the subject of several episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” In “Shadow Play” (1961), Dennis Weaver portrayed a convicted killer who keeps repeating the day of his execution like a nightmarish version of “Groundhog Day.” He warns the prosecutor he’s involuntarily dreaming up all the characters in his life based on people from his past, and all will disappear when he “gets the chair.”

Solipsism is also one of the motifs in John Barth’s 1958 novel, “The End of the Road.” A crazed psychotherapist practices “mythotherapy,” based on the premise that each person is the center of his or her own story. Even the 149th guest invited to a wedding with 150 guests sees himself, not the bride or groom, as the center of the event, because our own existence is the only thing that’s real. Psychologically, this translates into narcissism and, taken to its logical extreme, it breeds sociopaths.

Politically, it translates into Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which so devalues the idea of altruism that right-wingers such as Paul Ryan find it spiritually uplifting (despite Rand’s militant atheism). Objectivism’s philosophy of self-interest explains how millionaire congressmen in Washington can justify protecting tax breaks for their fellow millionaires, while cutting unemployment and food stamps and opposing a minimum wage that might enable the working poor to feed their families.

Fox News conservatives such as Sean Hannity lionized racist rancher Cliven Bundy for his refusal to pay for grazing his cattle on government land. Bundy claims to recognize neither the authority, nor the existence, of the Federal government. There’s something solipsistic (and nothing patriotic) about Bundy’s recognition of his own right to profit from Federal lands, while denying the existence of the nation in which he resides.

Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” series has revealed that the lead industry and big oil companies once paid scientists to testify before Congress and lie to the American public to convince them that the lead additives they were putting into gasoline posed no health or environmental threat. They also smeared the reputation of the one scientist who had the integrity to testify about the dangers of lead, a position that had already been vindicated by both history and medicine.

It was almost as if big business leaders were willing to put profits ahead of the health of the nation’s children, including their own. Of course, the big tobacco companies did the same thing when the surgeon general announced that cigarettes cause cancer.

Today, this is happening again with the oil companies, which pay a small minority of mercenary scientists to be climate change deniers. Is it solipsism that causes these hired guns to spout pseudoscience for large paychecks and makes oil executives willing to endanger the planet’s future just to fatten their wallets?

I’m not so solipsistic that I’m comfortable seeing Pacific island nations and coastal cities flooded by rising sea levels or Australia turned into a desert by global warming just so my Exxon Mobil stock can tick up a few eighths of a point. This seems like self-interest pushed beyond narcissism to approach nihilism.

If I do someday find myself on my deathbed, I’d prefer that my generation hadn’t ruined the environment for profit. The solipsists and the nihilists are probably right that none of this will matter once I’ve gone and everyone has disappeared like that episode of “The Twilight Zone” … but I still hope, just a little, that that won’t happen.

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