ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Emily Levine - Philosopher-comic
Humorist, writer and trickster Emily Levine riffs on science and the human condition.

Why you should listen

Humorist Emily Levine works a heady vein of humor, cerebral and thoughtful as well as hilarious. Oh, she's got plenty of jokes. But her work, at its core, makes serious connections -- between hard science and pop culture, between what we say and what we secretly assume ... She plumbs the hidden oppositions, the untouchable not-quite-truths of the modern mind.

Levine's background in improv theater, with its requirement to always say "yes" to the other actor's reality, has helped shape her worldview. Always suspicious of sharp either/or distinctions, she proposes "the quantum logic of and/and" -- a thoroughly postmodern, scientifically informed take on life that allows for complicated states of being. Like the one we're in right now.

For more on Levine's thoughts about life and death, read her blog, "The Yoy of Dying," at EmilysUniverse.com, along with updates on "Emily @ the Edge of Chaos" and pronouncements from Oracle Em.

More profile about the speaker
Emily Levine | Speaker | TED.com
TED2018

Emily Levine: How I made friends with reality

Filmed:
1,915,065 views

With her signature wit and wisdom, Emily Levine meets her ultimate challenge as a comedian/philosopher: she makes dying funny. In this personal talk, she takes us on her journey to make friends with reality -- and peace with death. Life is an enormous gift, Levine says: "You enrich it as best you can, and then you give it back."
- Philosopher-comic
Humorist, writer and trickster Emily Levine riffs on science and the human condition. Full bio

Double-click the English transcript below to play the video.

00:12
I'm going to first tell you something that
in my grandmother
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would've elicited a five-oy alarm:
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"Oy-oy-oy-oy-oy."
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(Laughter)
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And here it is ...
are you ready?
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OK.
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I have stage IV lung cancer.
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Oh, I know, "poor me."
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I don't feel that way.
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I'm so OK with it.
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And granted, I have certain advantages --
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not everybody can take
so cavalier an attitude.
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I don't have young children.
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I have a grown daughter who's
brilliant and happy and wonderful.
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I don't have huge financial stress.
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My cancer isn't that aggressive.
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It's kind of like
the Democratic leadership --
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(Laughter)
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not convinced it can win.
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It's basically just sitting there,
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waiting for Goldman Sachs
to give it some money.
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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Oh, and the best thing of all --
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I have a major accomplishment
under my belt.
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Yes.
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I didn't even know it until someone
tweeted me a year ago.
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And here's what they said:
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"You are responsible
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for the pussification
of the American male."
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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Not that I can take
all the credit, but ...
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(Laughter)
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But what if you don't have my advantages?
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The only advice I can give you
is to do what I did:
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make friends with reality.
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You couldn't have a worse relationship
with reality than I did.
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From the get-go,
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I wasn't even attracted to reality.
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If they'd had Tinder when I met reality,
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I would have swiped left
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and the whole thing would have been over.
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(Laughter)
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And reality and I --
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we don't share the same values,
the same goals --
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(Laughter)
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To be honest, I don't have goals;
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I have fantasies.
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They're exactly like goals
but without the hard work.
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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I'm not a big fan of hard work,
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but you know reality --
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it's either push, push, push, push, push
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through its agent,
the executive brain function --
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one of the "yays" of dying:
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my executive brain function
won't have me to kick around anymore.
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(Laughter)
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But something happened
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that made me realize
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that reality may not be reality.
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So what happened was,
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because I basically wanted reality
to leave me alone --
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but I wanted to be left alone
in a nice house
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with a Wolf range
and Sub-Zero refrigerator ...
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private yoga lessons --
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I ended up with
a development deal at Disney.
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And one day I found myself
in my new office
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on Two Dopey Drive --
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(Laughter)
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which reality thought
I should be proud of ...
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(Laughter)
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And I'm staring at the present
they sent me to celebrate my arrival --
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not the Lalique vase or the grand piano
I've heard of other people getting,
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but a three-foot-tall,
stuffed Mickey Mouse
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(Laughter)
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with a catalog, in case I wanted
to order some more stuff
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that didn't jive with my aesthetic.
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(Laughter)
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And when I looked up in the catalog
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to see how much
this three-foot-high mouse cost,
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here's how it was described ...
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"Life-sized."
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(Laughter)
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And that's when I knew.
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Reality wasn't "reality."
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Reality was an imposter.
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So I dived into quantum physics
and chaos theory
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to try to find actual reality,
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and I've just finished a movie --
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yes, finally finished --
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about all that,
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so I won't go into it here,
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and anyway, it wasn't until
after we shot the movie,
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when I broke my leg
and then it didn't heal,
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so then they had to do
another surgery a year later,
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and then that took a year --
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two years in a wheelchair,
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and that's when I came
into contact with actual reality:
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limits.
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Those very limits I'd spent
my whole life denying
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and pushing past and ignoring
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were real,
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and I had to deal with them,
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and they took imagination,
creativity and my entire skill set.
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It turned out I was great
at actual reality.
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I didn't just come to terms with it,
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I fell in love.
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And I should've known,
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given my equally shaky
relationship with the zeitgeist ...
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I'll just say, if anyone
is in the market for a Betamax --
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(Laughter)
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I should have known that the moment
I fell in love with reality,
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the rest of the country would decide
to go in the opposite direction.
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(Laughter)
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But I'm not here to talk about Trump
or the alt-right or climate-change deniers
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or even the makers of this thing,
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which I would have called a box,
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except that right here, it says,
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"This is not a box."
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(Laughter)
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They're gaslighting me.
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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But what I do want to talk about
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is a personal challenge to reality
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that I take personally,
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and I want to preface it
by saying that I absolutely love science.
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I have this --
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not a scientist myself --
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but an uncanny ability to understand
everything about science,
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except the actual science --
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(Laughter)
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which is math.
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But the most outlandish concepts
make sense to me.
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The string theory;
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the idea that all of reality emanates
from the vibrations of these teeny --
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I call it "The Big Twang."
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(Laughter)
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Wave-particle duality:
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the idea that one thing
can manifest as two things ...
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you know?
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That a photon can manifest
as a wave and a particle
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coincided with my deepest intuitions
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that people are good and bad,
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ideas are right and wrong.
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Freud was right about penis envy
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and he was wrong about who has it.
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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And then there's this slight
variation on that,
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which is reality looks like two things,
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but it turns out to be the interaction
of those two things,
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like space -- time,
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mass -- energy
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and life and death.
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So I don't I understand --
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I simply just don't understand
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the mindset of people who are out
to "defeat death" and "overcome death."
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How do you do that?
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How do you defeat death
without killing off life?
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It doesn't make sense to me.
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I also have to say,
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I find it incredibly ungrateful.
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I mean, you're given
this extraordinary gift --
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life --
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but it's as if you had asked Santa
for a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow
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and you had gotten
a salad spinner instead.
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You know, it's the beef --
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the beef with it is that it comes
with an expiration date.
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Death is the deal breaker.
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I don't get that.
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I don't understand --
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to me, it's disrespectful.
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It's disrespectful to nature.
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The idea that we're going
to dominate nature,
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we're going to master nature,
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nature is too weak
to withstand our intellect --
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no, I don't think so.
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I think if you've actually read
quantum physics as I have --
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well, I read an email
from someone who'd read it, but --
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(Laughter)
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You have to understand
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that we don't live in Newton's
clockwork universe anymore.
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We live in a banana peel universe,
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and we won't ever be able
to know everything
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or control everything
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or predict everything.
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Nature is like a self-driving car.
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The best we can be is like
the old woman in that joke --
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I don't know if you've heard it.
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An old woman is driving
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with her middle-aged daughter
in the passenger seat,
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and the mother goes
right through a red light.
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And the daughter doesn't want to say
anything that makes it sound like,
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"You're too old to drive,"
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so she didn't say anything.
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And then the mother
goes through a second red light,
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and the daughter,
as tactfully as possible,
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says, "Mom, are you aware
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that you just went through
two red lights?"
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And the mother says, "Oh, am I driving?"
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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So ...
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and now, I'm going to take a mental leap,
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which is easy for me because
I'm the Evel Knievel of mental leaps;
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my license plate says,
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"Cogito, ergo zoom."
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I hope you're willing
to come with me on this,
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but my real problem with the mindset
that is so out to defeat death
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is if you're anti-death,
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which to me translates as anti-life,
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which to me translates as anti-nature,
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it also translates to me as anti-woman,
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because women have long been
identified with nature.
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And my source on this is Hannah Arendt,
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the German philosopher who wrote
a book called "The Human Condition."
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And in it, she says that classically,
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work is associated with men.
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Work is what comes out of the head;
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it's what we invent,
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it's what we create,
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it's how we leave our mark upon the world.
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Whereas labor is associated with the body.
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It's associated with the people
who perform labor
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or undergo labor.
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So to me,
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the mindset that denies that,
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that denies that we're in sync
with the biorhythms,
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the cyclical rhythms of the universe,
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does not create a hospitable
environment for women
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or for people associated with labor,
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which is to say,
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people that we associate
as descendants of slaves,
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or people who perform manual labor.
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So here's how it looks
from a banana-peel-universe point of view,
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from my mindset which I call
"Emily's universe."
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First of all,
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I am incredibly grateful for life,
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but I don't want to be immortal.
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I have no interest in having
my name live on after me.
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In fact, I don't want it to,
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because it's been my observation
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that no matter how nice and how brilliant
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or how talented you are,
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50 years after you die, they turn on you.
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(Laughter)
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And I have actual proof of that.
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A headline from the Los Angeles Times:
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"Anne Frank: Not so nice after all."
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(Laughter)
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Plus, I love being in sync
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with the cyclical rhythms of the universe.
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That's what's so extraordinary about life:
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it's a cycle of generation,
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degeneration,
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regeneration.
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"I" am just a collection of particles
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that is arranged into this pattern,
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then will decompose and be available,
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all of its constituent parts, to nature,
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to reorganize into another pattern.
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To me, that is so exciting,
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and it makes me even more grateful
to be part of that process.
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You know,
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I look at death now from the point of view
of a German biologist,
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Andreas Weber,
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who looks at it as part
of the gift economy.
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You're given this enormous gift -- life,
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you enrich it as best you can,
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and then you give it back.
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And, you know, Auntie Mame
said, "Life is a banquet" --
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well, I've eaten my fill.
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I have had an enormous appetite for life,
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I've consumed life,
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but in death, I'm going to be consumed.
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I'm going into the ground
just the way I am,
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and there, I invite every microbe
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and detritus-er
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and decomposer
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to have their fill --
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I think they'll find me delicious.
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13:54
(Laughter)
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I do.
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1250
13:57
So the best thing about my attitude,
I think, is that it's real.
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5039
14:02
You can see it.
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1326
14:03
You can observe it.
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1151
14:05
It actually happens.
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14:06
Well, maybe not my enriching the gift,
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I don't know about that --
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14:12
but my life has certainly
been enriched by other people.
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14:15
By TED,
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14:17
which introduced me
to a whole network of people
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14:20
who have enriched my life,
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2679
14:22
including Tricia McGillis,
my website designer,
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3193
14:26
who's working with my wonderful daughter
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14:28
to take my website
and turn it into something
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3538
14:32
where all I have to do is write a blog.
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1891
14:33
I don't have to use
the executive brain function ...
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2496
14:36
Ha, ha, ha, I win!
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3579
14:40
(Laughter)
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14:41
And I am so grateful to you.
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2658
14:44
I don't want to say, "the audience,"
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2520
14:47
because I don't really see it
as we're two separate things.
307
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4405
14:51
I think of it in terms
of quantum physics, again.
308
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5625
14:58
And, you know, quantum physicists
are not exactly sure what happens
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5297
15:03
when the wave becomes a particle.
310
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2598
15:05
There are different theories --
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1539
15:07
the collapse of the wave function,
312
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1621
15:09
decoherence --
313
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1151
15:10
but they're all agreed on one thing:
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1716
15:12
that reality comes into being
through an interaction.
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3069
15:18
(Voice breaking) So do you.
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1413
15:20
And every audience I've ever had,
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2340
15:22
past and present.
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1554
15:25
Thank you so much for making my life real.
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3981
15:29
(Applause)
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Thank you.
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1151
15:31
(Applause)
322
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1460
15:33
Thank you.
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1169
15:34
(Applause)
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1053
15:35
Thank you.
325
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1159
15:36
(Applause)
326
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1025
15:37
Thank you.
327
925810
1181

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ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Emily Levine - Philosopher-comic
Humorist, writer and trickster Emily Levine riffs on science and the human condition.

Why you should listen

Humorist Emily Levine works a heady vein of humor, cerebral and thoughtful as well as hilarious. Oh, she's got plenty of jokes. But her work, at its core, makes serious connections -- between hard science and pop culture, between what we say and what we secretly assume ... She plumbs the hidden oppositions, the untouchable not-quite-truths of the modern mind.

Levine's background in improv theater, with its requirement to always say "yes" to the other actor's reality, has helped shape her worldview. Always suspicious of sharp either/or distinctions, she proposes "the quantum logic of and/and" -- a thoroughly postmodern, scientifically informed take on life that allows for complicated states of being. Like the one we're in right now.

For more on Levine's thoughts about life and death, read her blog, "The Yoy of Dying," at EmilysUniverse.com, along with updates on "Emily @ the Edge of Chaos" and pronouncements from Oracle Em.

More profile about the speaker
Emily Levine | Speaker | TED.com