Friday, March 02, 2007

Do you want to live forever? or the many reasons why I don't like death...

When I was a kid, I kind of looked forward to the famed "Judgment Day." Not because I thought I'd score well or anything. ;-) Rather, I liked the idea that every moment -- every precious moment -- is being recorded.

Probably for some of you, the first thing that jumped into your minds reading the above was "Even when you're in the can? You want that recorded? Eeew!!!" But I was hoping to just fast-forward through those parts. What I liked was the idea that days I'd completely forgotten could be brought back and that I could even watch all of the dreams that were lost before morning.

Giving up belief in the afterlife means accepting the fact that past events that are forgotten are gone completely. You no longer get to look forward to one day learning the right answer to all of those historical questions that are in dispute. Like what was really in that lost Spalding manuscript and did it even exist? If the evidence has been destroyed, then the correct answer can never be known.

What's more, I liked the idea that other people's experiences wouldn't be lost either. Maybe this is weird of me, but when learning about ancient cultures and their customs, a lot of times I think about all of the people who lived, loved, and thought, who are today gone without a trace.

But all of that isn't really why I don't like the idea of death. More than anything else, I just don't like the idea that one day all of my thoughts will stop and I will simply cease to exist.

Part of the problem is that non-existence is inconceivable: I have to exist in order to contemplate anything at all. (We discussed this point in a related post over on The Fire Sermon.)

But it's more than that. The main problem I have with death is that my mind and senses are my only window to observing and contemplating the universe. Sure the universe can get along just fine without me, but if I'm not there to observe it, then to me it's as if it doesn't exist. To me, once I'm dead, it's not just that there will be no me, it's that there will be nothing at all -- everything comes to an end.

I don't know if that makes any sense. Maybe someone will explain why that point makes no sense so I can stop worrying about it. ;-)

I have one other problem with death that probably makes even less sense than that one, but let me see if I can try to explain it:

Nine out of ten atheists agree that when you stop believing in the afterlife, then real life seems that much more precious. When this is all there is, you want to cherish every moment and live life to the fullest. You don't have the infinities for procrastinating your dreams -- anything you fail to do before death, you won't do it ever.

But then here's the problem: Suppose you live exactly the full life you set out to live and accomplish everything you ever wanted to accomplish. Who does that really matter to? It matters to you. But then after you're dead it doesn't matter to you anymore because nothing matters to you anymore -- you're dead. You could try living your life to make a positive impact on other people that will continue after your death. But someday they'll be dead too. Hmmm.

This is why I try not to think about this.

Weirdly, none of this nonsense seems to have any effect on my desire to live a full life and achieve my dreams and make a positive impact on the lives of others. I guess it's because my life matters to me as long as I'm alive, and I'm alive now (at the time of this writing anyway...).

It only bothers me when I think about it. Which is why it would be better if I could stop thinking about it. It seems like it would be nice to be able to contemplate life and death from the outside rather than being intimately and ultimately bound by it. I think that's the draw of a monastic life: you give up "worldly" things in hopes of opting out of the cycle of life by attempting to rise above it, and by trying to deny that you're a part of that cycle and that it's a part of you.

Unfortunately, fear of death seems like an obvious consequence of being human. As with all animals, natural selection has provided humans with a powerful will to survive. Yet the human trait of understanding that you're alive means realizing that one day you will die. And it's not just "if you're not careful, you'll die." It's you will die. period.

Sometimes religion seems like an obsessive-compulsive style strategy for dealing with this internal conflict: since there's nothing real that you can do to ward off death, performing rituals, prayers, and incantations seems better than nothing. This is why skepticism and atheism are scary: they lead you to the realization that ultimately the charms won't work.

I hope to make peace with the idea of death sometime before it happens, but in the end it doesn't really matter either way. Ready or not, it will come...

45 comments:

C.L. Hanson said...

p.s. I just made up that "nine out of then atheists agree" statistic. I think the actual figure is ten out of ten, but I decided to go with a conservative estimate. :D

Artemis said...

"Weirdly, none of this nonsense seems to have any effect on my desire to live a full life and achieve my dreams and make a positive impact on the lives of others"

The best way for you to have a positive impact on other peoples lives - especially your family's - is to cease to exist

aerin said...

What is artemis talking about? Some sort of troll? again??

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Artemis!!!

Wow!!! I think this wins the new prize for meanest comment!!!

I won't say the same to you, though. I hope you'll reconsider and realize how you're only hurting yourself by filling your life with such hate.

Hey Aerin!!!

Yeah, looks like it. An epedemic, huh?

Mojoey said...

In an odd way, I finally figured out that I am not afraid to die by being told I was going to die by a doctor a few years ago. He said, "this is bad, put your affairs in order." I freaked for a day or so, then I figured out that besides leaving my children, death did not scare me. If it came, there was nothing I could do about it. While I waited to find out how painful my last month of so would be, I made sure I knew of all the lose ends I had, there were few, and planned for the my end. I wrote a few notes for my kids and wife, and waited.

When the doctor said it was all a horrible mistake - I got real drunk.

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Mojoey!!!

You have a great attitude!!!

When it comes right down to it, I'll probably deal with it okay, but abstractly it seems pretty hard to swallow....

C.L. Hanson said...

p.s. this troll "artemis" is not to be confused with the Artemis of fMh -- it's not the same person.

aerin said...

Well, I have completely illogical beliefs about this.

I believe what I believe and it has absolutely no logical or scientific basis. It just means I won't stay up all night thinking about this and can personally go about living my daily life.

I don't like the idea that once we're gone, that's it.

I completely understand what you're saying about being positive influence in people's lives - but that eventually they too will be dead.

So that's why I've developed my own innane theories about it. I just don't feel like all the conscious energy we spend or all the thoughts we have just disappear. I don't feel like the soul disappears when the body dies. It doesn't seem right to me.

I'm basing my beliefs on my feelings and intuition, which is what I get upset at other people for doing.

I guess the difference is my irrational beliefs just impact me. I don't have to do anything differently or react differently because I believe them. Unlike some religions, where you have to jump through hoops to be exalted in the after life.

And nice reference to highlander, btw.

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

That's not so irrational. If it turns out that there's some sort of essence of consciousness that continues somehow, I'll be very happy about it. And I won't claim it's totally impossible...

Jonathan Blake said...

Mmm. The smell of nihilism in the morning. :) I understand where you're coming from. I think you expressed it well.

It's funny, I was thinking about this topic this morning. I'm sure this isn't original, but I envisioned my consciousness like a wave of the sea which eventually crashes on the beach and ceases to exist. My mind is just a process which will some day come to an end.

We feel like we are immortal because the only world we've ever known has included us as the observer. As a kid, I used to imagine every event that happened before my birth in black and white as if it wasn't fully real until I entered the world.

Is this observer truly me? Or does the process which defines me also include all of my body which supports the mental observer? Without my body, my mind wouldn't exist. Does my self even further include the world which gives nourishment to my body and gives shape to my thoughts? Where is the line where I end and everything else begins? What uniquely defines me as me?

Is it my intelligence? My personality? My memories? What if I am in an car accident on my way home tonight suffering a traumatic head injury and all of those are taken away from me? Am I still me? Or have I become someone else?

Is the observer in my head the part which defines me? What happens when I drift into dreamless sleep? Where am I then?

Is there any truth in the idea that there is a clearly defined self which persists throughout our life? Our bodies change. Our minds grow and change. The material that makes up our bodies is continually cycled in and out. The flesh and blood which currently make up me isn't the same stuff which made up my body as a child. I am constantly in flux, continually remade.

The only self I can point to is a whirlwind, a wave, a flame which has a beginning and an end. It comes together from other processes, gives birth to still others, and eventually dies.

Why should I become attached to this process of experience that is my self? What the Lord gives, he also takes away. Why should I mourn the end which is the natural consequence of the fact of my existence?

If we can see ourselves outside of ego, death begins to lose its power over our minds.

I live life to the fullest not because it will ultimately make a lasting difference in the universe. All life will probably come to an end in the distant future. I live now because that sterile future comes only after many people live and die experiencing all that life offers. I live so that I can make my personal experience better and to improve the lives of future generations in any way that I can. The universe doesn't care, but I do. I live in curiosity, compassion, thought, and passion because I am human. That's what humans do.

See Ego—The False Center.

Jonathan Blake said...

In defense of artemis comment, I think she intended it to provoke thought about the true consequences of literal immortality. What would human society be like if the old, rich, and powerful didn't die? How would the rising generations have any chance of making their own way in the world?

Or maybe she was just trolling. :)

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Jonathan!!!

Good insights and especially good questions!!! :D

I'd like to be able to see myself outside of ego, but I'm not sure I can. And the trouble is that I've indeed become very attached to this process of experience that is my self. Not sure why, I just like it.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that terrified/controlled me when I was a Mo, was that all of my sins would be shouted from the roof tops when I died.

I am an atheist also now, but I do believe in an afterlife. It's called my children and their children and their childre etc.
My Grandfather has been dead for eighteen years, he died when I was only fourteen. BUT he's had a profound affect on how I have lived my life and always will.
I have a VERY mormon ancestry, and even own the book. My Great (times 5) Grandfather was Brigham Young's right hand man. He was a polygamist and reading his/my history has also had a great influence on my life, if only to not to repeat it.

I work in a long term care facility, and see death often, sometimes daily, and to me death isn't scary at all. It's all of the crap leading up to it. :o)

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

That's a good way of looking at the afterlife. When I wrote about that the people of the distant past are gone as individuals I was thinking of mentioning that some of their ideas and DNA are probably still in use today...

Hellmut said...

What if we value life instead of immortality? Can we savor the moment instead of eternity? In Christian theology we are supposed to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Even in the absence of God, the neighbors remain.

May be, neighborliness can be foundation upon which some of us can reconstruct a perspective that works in terms of social responsibility and personal fulfillment. Unfortunately, correlated Mormonism is weak with respect to neighborliness and is therefore less of an asset to people who break with legacy Mormonism.

I come from a Lutheran culture and might be better equipped to deploy neighborliness to attribute meaning to life. On the other hand, Gandhi who was not Christian at all probably applied the lessons of the Sermon of the Mount to the greatest effect.

Either way, it's worthwhile to look at the rubble in our mind and keep the good.

With respect to death, for some reason it is not such a big deal to me, at least not philosophically. I am sure if I see it coming, I will resist because survival is a drive. But it is also clear to me that there are many things that are worse than death.

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Hellmut!!!

I agree with you about savoring the moment, I just don't want to have to stop savoring the moment, if that's not contradictory... ;-)

I actually don't have that much difficulty finding meaning and fulfillment, and I think your ideas on constructing meaning around neighborliness are a good way of looking at it.

Sideon said...

A heady topic before my first cup of coffee. No. Second cup.

I used to think that when I die, I'd go through the solar system and see the planets and stars up close. What about the red spot on Jupiter? The volcanos on IO? Riding a solar flare? What about going to the bottom of the ocean or to the center of the earth?

I didn't spend too much time thinking about angel wings (or devil's horns). Mostly, it's the sense that we are all lightwaves and energy, vessels of light. In some form, we will still exist, but perhaps not be sentient or aware.

Coffee, anyone?

T. Wanker said...

Man -- or Woman, there is so much to talk about here, but for a change, let me be brief:

1. The monastic life's appeal isn't an opt out but an attempt to more fully opt in to the actual meaning of existence.

2. Judgment Day's appeal is that it had answers -- Let the Millenium begin and all would be known. Instead here we are still sifting around in the darkness.

3. Thanks for sending me over to Fire Sermon -- interesting stuff.

4. I understand that the ultimate termination of life makes current existence precious, but the desire to make the current moment better would seem to be a natural result of such a view point, so the compulsion to do-goodism would seem like a natural result.

5. After you are dead there is nothing at all or you merge back into everything -- you are the math geek (even in the swimsuit) -- is infinity or nullity more compelling or are they equally dark.

That was brief wasn't it?

The Sinister Porpoise said...

Atheism is only a lack of belief in God. The beliefs about anything else can run anywhere that the normal and abnormal spectrum of beliefs of humans run.

But if you believe that this is all there is, you didn't fear the eternity that existed before the moment of your birth when you weren't existing to perceive it, why should you fear what comes after death? (Okay so I'm paraphrasing Lucretius, the Epicurean philosopher.)

Debate about what happens after we die is something I regard as silly unless it's done on a level that's pure theory. It is ultimately unknowable unless someone comes back to prove it.

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Sideon!!!

Yeah, pass me some of that coffee... ;-)

That would be cool to get to tour the solar system and the universe at death -- I wouldn't argue with that as a fate...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

2: How can one not want all the answers??

5: If I could merge into everything and just be part of the life force of the universe or some new-agey thing like that, I'd be happy with it. Yet I think that realistically the answer is non-existence unfortunately. In a sense that means being part of the great circle of life since I've participated to the fullest, but there's still this sad finite aspect...

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

I talked a little about this point in my comments over on the Fire Sermon -- if it bothers me that the universe will continue after me, why doesn't it bother me that the universe existed before without me? In a sense, I think it's not entirely rational, but that it's a part of the human condition.

John Hamer said...

Is March “Life After Death Month”? Jonathan Blake says he was thinking about this independently too.

Last week Chanson’s Grandpa wrote me:

“Dear John --- I woke up this morning wondering where you stand on the subject of life after this life? So I thought I would ask. Perhaps you think that this is all there is to life. What about all those out there who have had an out of body experience and are convinced there is life after this life? … What do you plan to do when you lay your body down and find out you are not dead?”

I wrote him back:

“Hi Grandpa --- I think that the primary reason people believe in an afterlife is because they don't want their existence to end. That desire is a very normal thing and it has caused people throughout history to create many elaborate ideas justifying a belief that their consciousness will continue in some form or another after their body ceases to exist. In my view, the evidence for these beliefs is entirely lacking. I believe that so-called ‘out-of-body experiences,’ like all other visions, do not take place outside of the body; they take place inside the mind. I also believe that consciousness is inseparably connected with the mind, and that when the mind ends, so will consciousness. I do not have a shadow of a doubt that I will never find myself ‘not dead’ when my body lies down. I am satisfied that when my body lies down, my consciousness with cease to exist and that will be that. That's what I believe; if other people want to believe other things, that’s fine with me.”

I don’t worry about the impact of my life after my life ends. Not only will it not matter to you when your consciousness ceases to exist, it is impossible to do anything that has any effect that is immortal. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair!” (Possibly my favorite poem...) The most powerful ruler or thinker’s deed will eventually be eroded down to a wisp of a memory and then lost in eternity. It won’t matter in the end, because there is no end.

I’m a great believer in works, but I don’t do works in the vain hope that some book I make will outlast me by a century. I do them for the satisfaction I get while I’m alive.

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

That Grandpa -- why does he keep emailing you stuff like that? He seems very intent on one day defeating his atheist grandson...

The thing with Jonathan Blake (as well as The Fire Sermon) isn't entirely a concidence. The subject came up in the comments of my recent guest post over on feminist Mormon housewives, and we all started discussing it...

Your approach makes a lot of sense, and that's one of my favorite poems as well. For some reason I keep wanting to make a positive impact that will outlast me even though I know it's irrational since (1) I won't appreciate it or even be aware of it and (2) my impact won't outlast me by very much in the grand scheme of things. Yet while I'm alive I feel like I might as well make myself useful... ;-)

Johnny said...

Damn...looks like I am pretty late to this conversation. Thanks for posting the link to my blog!

I really liked your thoughts. It seems the question someone must ask themselves first is "How much do you matter to you? In other words, how much does yourself matter to yourself? Because as you say, there after you are gone and those who knew you are gone, it really won't matter.

I think this is why Eastern religions have such an strong pull for me. It seems that their emphasis on letting go of our attachment to the ego is a healthy approach.

PS I am going to link to this on my blog. Nice Post!

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Johnny!!!

Maybe I should try some Eastern religions then. Some study in how to let go of attachments might help.

Actually, the more I read of other atheists who are completely okay with non-existence, the more I think it's nuts of me to be so freaked out by it. It's kind of comforting really since it makes me think I'll learn to deal with it too...

Jonathan Blake said...

You're probably already aware of it, but the cover story in this week's NY Times Magazine is Darwin's God—a very interesting read. It discusses why we form such an attachment to consciousness (around page 7 on the website).

Also, this drive to do something immortal isn't bad or irrational in my view. We certainly stand on the shoulders of giants who may be nameless and forgotten, but have bettered our lives and made our current situation (good and bad) possible. I hope that I can take the best of what I've learned from my family, improve on it, and pass that on to my children and human society in general.

We may not be remembered by name and we may not be conscious to enjoy the results of our actions, but let's make our mark on the future through benevolent actions now, for the sake of current and future generations. This, in part, fulfills my personal need to lead a meaningful life.

Robert said...

I'm late to the party too, but have been meaning to comment. One of my very favorite parts of the whole Mormon plan was the idea that the angels were recording everyone's lives. I have a voyeuristic bent(using voyeur broadly--not just about seeing people naked, though I'm by no means against that), so the thought of being able to have a giant DVD collection of the lives and even inner thoughts of EVERY human being seemed like one of the best things I could imagine. Beats the hell out of Blockbuster, when it comes to figuring out ways to spend eternity. So I was kind of sad to let that idea go with everything else. BUT...I had a conversation recently with another ex-Mormon who had an interesting scientific twist on the whole angels recording thing: his hope is that the matter and energy patterns we create now could someday be sort of backtraced by some incredible supercomputer, so that you could essentially rebuild a model of the past (and possibly even retrieve a person's brain structure, and therefore revive their minds). Sounds pretty implausible to me, but it's one way to bring back the tiniest sliver of hope without resorting to God or angels. Also, it sounds a lot more plausible if you down a couple of stiff drinks before you start talking about the subject. :)

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Jonathan!!!

That's a good point, and thanks for the link. The cause of religious thinking is a fascinating topic.

Hey Robert!!!

Good, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought that having everyone's lives recorded would be a great thing to have for the eternities.

Your friend's idea seems cool, but I think that even if you could get the algorithms correct, it seems like it would be impossible to get all of the necessary starting data.

Sacred Slut said...

Ultimately, if you don't believe in the survival of the "I" after death, none of it does matter. And that is the depressing thing about atheism, I guess. If you are honest with yourself, you have to realize this is true.

Of course, we don't know for sure what happens after we die (although personally I see no evidence for continued ego survival). But since we're here, now, we might as well enjoy the ride. We might as well make the most of every day, and work to make life better for everyone on the planet.

If nothing else, intelligent life is probably exceedingly rare in the universe. It would be a shame not to cherish this brief flame in the dark.

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Sacred Slut!!!

Exactly, that's basically my position as well.

tori said...

What you say about accepting that past events are gone forever I have to disagree with. I figure if they're in my memory and if I tell the important ones before I die those experiences are never gone. I've got a little bit of a Gilgamesh thing going on...

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Tori!!!

Tha's a positive way of looking at it.

Mr. Fob said...

I consider myself more of a Christian-leaning agnostic than an atheist (though it depends on the day, really), but I identify with your reasons for fearing death. For some reason it's easier for me to conclude that my life doesn't matter if I'm going to cease to exist anyway than it is for me to conclude that there's no reason to fear ceasing to exist since I won't be around to regret it once it happens. If that makes any sense.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mr. Fob!!!

Actually, that's a little confusing, but confusingness is par for the course when contemplating one's own non-existence. ;^)

For me -- even though I understand that once I cease to exist I won't regret my non-existence -- I already regret my future non-existence in advance. If that makes any sense... ;^)

INTJ Mom said...

I'm former mormon (well, they still count me on their records but I haven't been active for 17 years now) and I'm probably more agnostic. I don't believe Jesus, if he actually existed as a real person, was/is a god, and I don't believe in a personal god, but I'm open to the idea that there could be some type of "god" or higher consciousness out there.

Anyhow, regardless of whether there is an afterlife or not, there is a god or not - I just figure I'm here, alive, for whatever reason, and I might as well make the best of it. I can leave a legacy of good works and good examples for my children and grandchildren and hopefully it will mean something to them, but if not - oh well, I'll be dead and I won't know any different.

I really have no desire to be famous or "immortal", I just want to stay in good health and be able to raise my 2 remaining kids at home to adulthood and make sure they get the training and education I think they deserve. It would be nice to see grandkids and live to see further advances in science, technology, etc. but getting my kids well raised is my main concern.

INTJ Mom said...

I finished reading comments, I guess I said basically the same thing Sacred Slut did, just in a slightly different way.

Truthfully, the Mormon version of an afterlife didn't appeal much to me. While I'd love to be able to keep learning and discovering things forever, I most certainly don't want to be one wife amongst several or many in a polygamous harem and I absolutely have no desire to pump out babies for eternity. Giving birth to 4 children has been plenty for me, now and for eternity.

Thinking and learning has always been such an integral part of my personality throughout my life, it's a huge part of what makes me -me. If my "self" is supposed to perpetuate forever, I don't see how I could not "learn" if I didn't make it to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom in Mormon afterlife lore. God would have to literally lobotomize me in order to keep me from thinking and learning - and then I wouldn't be "me" anymore. This was another thing about Mormonism that just didn't make sense under scrutiny.

Boy, the Sunday school teacher I brought up those thoughts with sure got upset with me - questioning doctrine like that. I can't begin to tell you the number of times I was told by local church leaders I shouldn't think so deeply, I needed to just obey, not think.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey INTJ Mom!!!

I think part of the problem with these afterlife stories is that one person imagines his vision of heaven -- and tells everyone that's the true heaven -- but different people have different ideas of what would constitute heaven.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Senior S!!!

I appreciated your comment very much!!! The reason I had to delete it is because it contained identifying personal information, and blogger doesn't allow me to edit comments, only delete them, sorry...

ordinary girl said...

Hi, C.L. thanks for the comment and the link to your post.

I understand how you feel. When I was younger I didn't fear my own death at all, only the death of those I loved. That used to really get me upset if I thought about it all. And it's still probably my greatest fear.

But it's been something I've thought about more lately. I think it's the control freak in me that won't let me get to upset. There's nothing I can do about what happens (if anything at all) after I die. So I just have to let it go. It's a self-defense mechanism I have.

But I think most atheists are freaked out about the thought of death. It's a very human thing to worry about our own deaths. It's almost beyond comprehension to think that some day you won't exist anymore, except maybe in memories.

That's one thing that comforted me a lot when my niece died. Someone wrote a little note in a sympathy card I got at work about how she'd always be alive in my memories. And I guess I think of myself as living on in that way after I'm gone.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ordinary Girl!!!

Do you think most atheists are freaked out about it? It seems like most I talk to are basically like "When you're dead, you won't know the difference, so don't worry about it." But I feel like it's hard not to worry about it....

Joshua Zucker said...

In terms of the "memories living on", I think Douglas Hofstadter says it very well in _I Am A Strange Loop_. He takes that as being literal more than metaphorical: the memory of you that lives on in others is a copy of you, and if they know you well or if some aspect of you has made a big impact on them, then the copy can be a moderately high-fidelity one.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Joshua!!!

That's a very good metaphor. And, as nice as it is to have a high-fidelity copy, and as permanent as may seem, the copy will also one day cease to exist. But c'est la vie... ;^)

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I'm also an ex-Mormon atheist, have thought about death in almost exactly the same way you have, and in the end came up with anti-solipsism.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wm Jas!!!

That's quite an interesting perspective on the subject!

Since you're an ex-Mormon atheist, I'd like to add your blog to Outer Blogness and to the blogroll at our community blog Main Street Plaza.

And if you'd like to return the linky favor (and join our discussion!) we'd love to have you join us. :D

Anonymous said...

Congratulations for having common sense. May I suggest cryonics? Check out Alcor.

Carla said...

this is kind of how I dealt with this one: http://lifeofcarla.blogspot.com/2010/09/because-i-like-dead-people.html

Probably just selfish, but I just want to see everyone I love again, forever, especially my husband.