For Atheists, this life is enough.
December 20, 2011 8:24 PM   Subscribe

The challenge of life is to be present for it while it is happening, in this moment, to be aware of it in a way that is both wide in perspective and deep in understanding. If you pester priests to know about a second life after this one, I must ask if you are using this one. Whoever is spending this life walking back and forth from the computer to the refrigerator, it is worth wondering how many thousands of years of this would be enough. This life is enough, if you are here for it. The people worried about death are the ones not truly living. They are the ones who know in their hearts that they need more time. Jennifer Michael Hecht explains why For Atheists, this Life is Enough. And here, she talks about the history of doubt.
posted by storybored (79 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Textbook Existentialism.
posted by euphorb at 8:34 PM on December 20, 2011


Let's hang ourselves immediately!
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:37 PM on December 20, 2011


I love it when atheists are called "smug" for stating simple truths.

I mean, there's nothing smug about thinking your sky-god has chosen you for eternal life and everyone who doesn't agree will burn in hell forever.

No sir, nothing smug about that.
posted by bardic at 8:47 PM on December 20, 2011 [59 favorites]


That piece was so bad it's not even worth dignifying with argument. A simplistic hash of truisms that condescendingly characterizes believers as people whose lives are conparatively empty so they feel they need "more time"? Cheap, trite, shallow ... and yes, smug.
posted by jayder at 8:54 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


For Atheists, this Life is Enough.

What is it about being an atheist that makes that true? I mean, I would like to have a Subaru WRX STi, but I don't believe I do. The fact that I don't believe I have one doesn't mean I don't wish I did.

There are lots of transhumanists out there who want to upload their brains to a computer, freeze themselves, whatever.
I mean, there's nothing smug about thinking your sky-god has chosen you for eternal life and everyone who doesn't agree will burn in hell forever.
Or Rick Warren saying "now he knows the truth", meaning, obviously Hitchens has discovered that hell exists apparently.
posted by delmoi at 8:55 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Newspaper headlines are the worst. As far as I can tell the author does not claim to be speaking for all Atheists, and that's a good thing.

After all, there's no particular reason one couldn't say, "As far as I know, we only get one life on this Earth... and that's pretty much bullshit isn't it?"
posted by Winnemac at 8:55 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Atheist who RTFA and wanted to vomit. This life isn't enough, but it's all you get, so no use grousing about it.

And this whole idea that the time you are alive exists forever, so in a way you're really alive forever.. has anyone actually felt comfort in that? It boggles my mind that anyone can think of that as something other than an interesting thought experiment.
posted by skewed at 8:55 PM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


For Atheists, this Life is Enough.

Speak for yourself. I'd let the vampire bite me.
posted by Roman Graves at 8:57 PM on December 20, 2011 [14 favorites]


Seems like sour grapes to me. Eternal life in paradise would probably be pretty great if it actually was an option, the problem is that we're just meat robots with a relatively short lifespan rather than having some sort of inherent eternal essence. If I could have a few more lifetimes I would sign up without a second thought, if only because I might be better at it after a couple of tries.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:58 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Hey, jayder never said anything about not making an argument, just that it isn't worth it. Who are we to say how much jayder's time is actually worth?
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:58 PM on December 20, 2011


As a good friend of mine told me recently, "One life's worth of putting up with everybody else's shit will be enough for me, thank you."
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:08 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


A simplistic hash of truisms that condescendingly characterizes believers as people whose lives are conparatively empty so they feel they need "more time"? Cheap, trite, shallow ... and yes, smug.

No. The triggered mind cannot see past what it expects to read, to what is actually written. In the Ottawa Citizen article, "people of faith" are not actually discussed at all.
posted by Winnemac at 9:09 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, just "people who pester priests" about an afterlife. And that's totally different, right?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:18 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Most of us will fight to the bitter end just to prolong our lives with a couple of years or even months. I imagine that if we had the option to live decades longer through rejuvenation therapies it would pretty much be declared a basic human right and something theists as well as atheists would want, especially if it's possible to keep body and mind young.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:21 PM on December 20, 2011


As a good friend of mine told me recently, "One life's worth of putting up with everybody else's shit will be enough for me, thank you."
Sure, but a lot of conflict happens because of mortality. People want to do things with you all the time because there's only so much time, and people fight over money so they can buy food so they can not die, etc.

I'm pretty sure immortality would be pretty awesome.
posted by delmoi at 9:22 PM on December 20, 2011


I'm pretty sure immortality would be pretty awesome.

Yeah, but the pension payments would be murder.
posted by storybored at 9:25 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


I was going to say something about her reasoning, but the essay is a bit of a rambling mess, isn't it.

She starts off talking about being in the now (in which she sounds quite a bit like a Buddhist). Then shifts to the claim that she doesn't understand why people are concerned with death (because it's natural?). Then there is an odd tangent about Einstein that smacks of an argument from authority (look people *Einstein* was an atheist, so it must be right!). From there she entertains a notion of heaven in which everyone is bored (to death!, hah!). Then, I don't know, some stuff about responsibility and choice or something. All of this followed by a flurry of quotations and a plug for her book (nicely done, getting that in there). And the grand finale casts "people like Hitchens and other atheists" (like Hitchens in what way?) as secular crusaders just trying to fix humanities problems.

How can you address someone who doesn't stick on any one topic beyond a few sentences?
posted by oddman at 9:36 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


> I'm pretty sure immortality would be pretty awesome.

Really? This is all pure speculation, of course, but...the strain on the environment would be infinitely worse unless we severely curtailed reproduction, which would require a radical overhaul of the institutions of marriage and parenthood. People, having much more to lose if they were to die in an accident (or at the hands of others), would likely become paralyzingly conservative in their decision-making. Without the motivating factors of limited time and/or reproduction, people wouldn't be as motivated to create a legacy (artistic, entrepreneurial, whatever). Your perception of time would speed up to an insane degree (think of how much shorter a year seems now than it did when you were a little kid). I think it would be awful.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:47 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


I love it when atheists are called "smug" for stating simple truths.

I don't get where this came from. The article is rambly and disjointed and shittily written, but I don't see a batch of smugness. Or was that a response to a deleted comment here?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:48 PM on December 20, 2011


As an atheist, knowing that I will die makes me mad as hell. Knowing the people I love are going to die makes me mad as hell.

Enough? What nonsense is that? Yes, we get old and frail. Yes, life is full of disappointment. The logical response is to be mad about that stuff too.

If I can't live forever, I'm at least going to die cursing the darkness.
posted by spaltavian at 9:49 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Or was that a response to a deleted comment here?

Yes, it was.
posted by vorfeed at 10:07 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


And this whole idea that the time you are alive exists forever, so in a way you're really alive forever.. has anyone actually felt comfort in that?

Yes? I mean, I don't know that I'd put it exactly like that, but I don't know what will happen after I die - harps? angels? lake o' burnin' hellfire? supernova? maybe I get to come back as a cat in a lesbian household? nothing? - but not knowing doesn't scare me.

Enough? What nonsense is that? Yes, we get old and frail. Yes, life is full of disappointment. The logical response is to be mad about that stuff too.

Whose logic?

If I can't live forever, I'm at least going to die cursing the darkness.

Who says it's going to be darkness?

I don't *want* to die - I don't want to leave the everyone I love, and the life I have made. But I'm not afraid of it, and I don't hate it, I'm not mad about it. There isn't any point, since it's going to come whatever I feel about it. But when I watched my mom die - heard the rattle, watched as whatever made her her stopped being - I realized that it isn't anything I have to be freaked out about, or welcome, or...anything. For some reason, that not worrying, and the not knowing what happens after (if there is an after), are comforting.
posted by rtha at 10:09 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Usually when people say immortality would be awesome, what they really mean is that it would be great if they were immortal and everyone else were mortal (except maybe their loved ones and cat).
posted by euphorb at 10:11 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


And this whole idea that the time you are alive exists forever, so in a way you're really alive forever.. has anyone actually felt comfort in that? It boggles my mind that anyone can think of that as something other than an interesting thought experiment.

It works for me.

It became especially poignant when I was watching an interview with Neil Degrasse Tyson and he was talking about photons. To us, it looks like they exist for millions of years as they travel across the universe, but time is such that photons experience that journey as a single instant and then they are done.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:14 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I still would like to have a few thousand years. I think I might be getting the hang of this life thing.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:14 PM on December 20, 2011


If I have dreams of "immortality"*, I think they would be predicated on (a) being physically 21 forever, with no real health problems; (b) being wealthy, because society is so rich that if I decide I want to go to Europe or the moon or whatever I can without having to pay for it (and of course housing and food is free); and (c) reproduction stops (this seems pretty much self-evident.

Any other scenario posits 1% immortals and 99% slaves pretty quickly, I think.

I wonder how long people would want to live before they were "done" or wanted to know more what it was to die than what it was to be alive.

Even if we gained theoretical immortality, there is no way we wouldn't go up in a ball of flame quickly, mainly because people aren't going to stop reproducing (and the immortal Duggar-likes will have thousands of babies, given enough time) and we're going to run out of stuff we need to live very quickly anyway, which will lead to the war to genuinely end all wars.

* Defined as of an indefinite lifespan, barring accidents, murder or suicide.
posted by maxwelton at 10:25 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can you imagine being 10,000 years old, having outlived hundreds of pets?
posted by maxwelton at 10:29 PM on December 20, 2011


I predict ethical concerns will result in pets being the only ones going immortal.

Imagine inheriting a 10,000 year old ferret from your gramps.
posted by Anything at 10:34 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Somewhere in a parallel universe far away, an immortal theist daydreams about dying.
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:18 PM on December 20, 2011


This life is enough? Hell, no! I want to live long enough to see the heat death of the universe, preferably being able to skip to another universe before it's too late. Make me a jupiter brain please; and then you can joke about the rapture of the nerds as much as you want.

On a more realistic note, death as an idea everyone of us has to come to grips with; not just the idea that people can and will die, but that you will and that you won't be around anymore is a difficult enough idea that I can't fault people for wanting the comfort of a religion that tells you death is not the end.

There is something petty about certain professional atheists making fun of that.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:27 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


On a more realistic note, death as an idea everyone of us has to come to grips with; not just the idea that people can and will die, but that you will and that you won't be around anymore is a difficult enough idea that I can't fault people for wanting the comfort of a religion that tells you death is not the end.

I guess I think that it's incumbent upon every rational human adult to wrestle with this admittedly difficult idea (assuming said adult isn't struggling to merely survive). If you end up with a religious point of view, ok, at least you looked your own mortality in the eye. But if you end up with a religious point of view just because the idea of looking your own mortality in the eye scares you, then I don't think you've really engaged with one of the core aspects of human life.

Also, it might help to keep the struldbrugs in mind.
posted by treepour at 12:14 AM on December 21, 2011


Why do you have to come to grips with it, or accept it, or whatever? I'm an atheist, but I very simply do not want to die. I plan to fight it every step of the way, and I figure my chances of winning are miniscule, but non-zero, given technological advances. Do not go gently.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:00 AM on December 21, 2011


Yeah, but the pension payments would be murder.

If there wasn't a natural end to normal human life, starting now, you wouldn't need to work for very long before the 'magic' of compound interest took over. But down the road that would cause social problems.

True immortality would mean that you didn't need to work, because you wouldn't need to eat or need money.
posted by delmoi at 1:13 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wh accept death? Personally, adopting a more accepting attitude towards death has been quite positive. It's freed me up a little. I accept this identity as transient, so I feel less attached to it, my load is lightened. I don't have to invest all my energy in to this "I", in to building it, preserving it, defending it, fretting over it..
posted by Greener Backyards at 1:22 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can you imagine being 10,000 years old, having outlived hundreds of pets?
If we can make humans biologically immortal, why not pets?

But like I said, there's a difference between 'unlimited biological life' and 'immortality'. I'd be happy with unlimited biological life, but like I said immortality would mean we couldn't die of starvation, or anything else. So we wouldn't need resources. It could be something like uploading our minds to computers, in which case it's just data in RAM somewhere, all we would need is electricity and we could be 'suspended' as well if it runs low. You could have a situation where earth is in total harmony with a few million living humans along with tens of billions of human minds running on computers (It would make an interesting premise for a novel)
posted by delmoi at 1:22 AM on December 21, 2011


I wonder...given a typical American existence, and accident stats and all that...I wonder what the average age of death would be for a medically non-aging but still mortal person would be. Ignoring that your habits would change. How many times could you get in the car, or eat a slightly undercooked burger, or fly on a plane, or live in earthquake country, or...before it caught up to you?
posted by maxwelton at 1:53 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a theist. I don't know what happens after death. I have a few beliefs about it, but none of them include my consciousness continuing forever or going to paradise, and I readily agree that my beliefs are not especially likely to be what actually happens. I'm not particularly afraid of dying, and indeed prefer mortality to immortality for myself. (Other people can do as they please.) I like the idea of a natural end. Everything ends. It's part of existing to end, and part of living to die.

My religion focuses on living. A number of them do. The idea that theists focus on the afterlife rather than life -- which is, in fact, strongly implied by that "pestering priests" line, even if it doesn't say explicitly that all people of faith do that -- is actually pretty ignorant, and pretends that all people of faith are like certain kinds of Christians.
posted by MadGastronomer at 2:20 AM on December 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


I wonder...given a typical American existence, and accident stats and all that...I wonder what the average age of death would be for a medically non-aging but still mortal person would be. Ignoring that your habits would change. How many times could you get in the car, or eat a slightly undercooked burger, or fly on a plane, or live in earthquake country, or...before it caught up to you?
I think people would be much, much more risk averse. They'd be much less likely to get on planes or drive on unsafe roads. In fact, you could argue that people would be in less of a hurry to do things, and would be willing to sacrifice speed for safety.
posted by delmoi at 2:49 AM on December 21, 2011


My religion focuses on living. A number of them do. The idea that theists focus on the afterlife rather than life -- which is, in fact, strongly implied by that "pestering priests" line, even if it doesn't say explicitly that all people of faith do that -- is actually pretty ignorant, and pretends that all people of faith are like certain kinds of Christians.
this is a hangup a lot of atheists seem to have.
posted by delmoi at 2:50 AM on December 21, 2011



Does faith requires some kind of supernatural belief to separate it from agnosticism.

Not sure I get the point of being a theist if you believe that one's actions in the present life are entirely inconsequential to an afterlife, and that god is a non interventionist. Isn't that very similar to atheism with a sense of magical wonder about nature. A pantheist perhaps?
posted by choppyes at 2:52 AM on December 21, 2011


I don't understand why 14 people have favorited this. I'm definitely not the religious type but oddman's comment is spot on.
posted by Defenestrator at 3:08 AM on December 21, 2011


Hell no I don't want to be immortal. I barely even want the time I actually have here.

But when I need it, I find comfort in thinking about dying as going back to where I came from: nowhere, and going back to being what I used to be: nothing. Living is a brief, occasionally beautiful interlude in the story of my non-existence.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:45 AM on December 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


Does faith requires some kind of supernatural belief to separate it from agnosticism.
First of all, why do you need 'faith' to be 'religious'? The problem is a limited view of religion informed by Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Faith, in the christian sense only means believing in something without evidence, but other religions might only require you to behave a certain way, regardless of what you actually believe. Or they might only tell you how to think, rather then what to think.

Agnosticism was coined with respect to western philosophical issues about god, which were all based on the christian concept of god as the generator of the universe.
posted by delmoi at 4:46 AM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Who says it's going to be darkness?

It's not going to be anything. It's a turn of phrase.

Enough? What nonsense is that? Yes, we get old and frail. Yes, life is full of disappointment. The logical response is to be mad about that stuff too.

Whose logic?


The logic of the article. It's not logical to not want to live forever because of other things and yet not rather those things being true so you would want to live forever. If you're going to wish for $50, you might as well wish for a million. We're talking about optimal scenarios here.

First of all, why do you need 'faith' to be 'religious'?


Yeah, otherwise it's just a club.
posted by spaltavian at 5:33 AM on December 21, 2011


You know what I'd take over immortality? Being able to have a vague number of regenerations for each time I suffer a lethal trauma, plus the ability to travel at will through space and time.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:34 AM on December 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


The logic of the article.

Huh. That's not how I understood it. I didn't read it as the author's point ending, logically, as being mad about getting old etc. Did I miss something? Because in your previous sentence, it sounded like you were speaking for yourself.
posted by rtha at 6:15 AM on December 21, 2011


MadGastronomer: Now I'm curious; If you don't mind, could you name to which faith you belong?
posted by leviathan3k at 6:37 AM on December 21, 2011


Hmmm -- Live Forever or a very lonnnnng time? I'm not brainiac but it just seems like the eventual ennui would be too much. Of course all I've learned about immortality I learned from that shitty movie In Time. (with apologies to folks who liked the movie, of course.)
posted by snap_dragon at 6:38 AM on December 21, 2011


And this whole idea that the time you are alive exists forever, so in a way you're really alive forever.. has anyone actually felt comfort in that? It boggles my mind that anyone can think of that as something other than an interesting thought experiment.

Me, for one. I'm not even strictly speaking an atheist, as I do hold some beliefs that might be characterized as belief in a naturalistic divinity--but it provides me tremendous comfort to know I'm still getting (and will always in a certain sense still be getting) that warm, loving hug my granny used to give me when I was up at night scared of dying as a kid. Don't know why it works for some of us and not for others, but it definitely works for me. It's not a magic tonic for curing heart-ache, necessarily, but it can take the edge off.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:40 AM on December 21, 2011


(Honestly, for me the idea that my own life will always 'be there,' too, so to speak--which unless our understanding of the physics behind space/time is dead wrong is actually true--isn't so much a comfort as a source of encouragement to try to spend as much of my time as possible doing things that I wouldn't mind having to do forever. Not that that necessarily always works out in practice either, since lately I've been spending a lot of time stressing over things I can't control. The idea of absolute non-existence might almost seem like a relief compared to the idea of an eternity spent worrying over the latest horrible turn in current events, but I'm too pessimistic to believe in that possibility.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:50 AM on December 21, 2011


I thought this was a beautifully written article, honestly. I didn't get any smugness about it - just peaceful reflection. Giving examples of others who may feel the same way.
posted by jillithd at 7:00 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think people would be much, much more risk averse. They'd be much less likely to get on planes or drive on unsafe roads. In fact, you could argue that people would be in less of a hurry to do things, and would be willing to sacrifice speed for safety.

I don't know if that's really a given. With our own lifespans there doesn't seem to be a big correlation between life expectancy and risk aversion. A 16-year-old in the US on average has around 64 more years to live and fatal accidents are one of the few ways that their life could be cut short, whereas an 80-year-old has maybe 8 more years to live on average and will almost certainly die from health-related reasons. So you would expect teenagers to be much more risk averse than the elderly when it comes to things like car accidents but that is not the case at all. Sure it would be rational for people to be more risk averse if they had much longer natural lifespans, but that's no guarantee that it would actually lead to that.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:14 AM on December 21, 2011


Whoever is spending this life walking back and forth from the computer to the refrigerator, it is worth wondering how many thousands of years of this would be enough.

Oh, I think I could spend a few eternities like this.

*clicks on TV Tropes link*
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:22 AM on December 21, 2011


I wonder what the average age of death would be for a medically non-aging but still mortal person would be

I seem to recall someone worked it out (excluding diseases and aging but including accidents, homicide, and suicide) and arrived at a life expectancy around 600-700 years with an effective cap of about 1000. So pretty dang long by current standards, and even pretty long in comparison to the time scale of recorded human history, but still peanuts compared to evolutionary or geological time scales. It's long enough that people could conceivably travel to nearby stars without suspended animation or ships capable of relativistic speeds, though.
posted by jedicus at 8:29 AM on December 21, 2011


I didn't think this article was all that impressive, but it's a nice one in the midst of the usual sniping and the current GRAR over what Hitchens really means.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:30 AM on December 21, 2011


The thing about immortality is that if you don't like it, you can give it up at any time. Dying is not something you can take back if you decide, no, really, I'd like a few more years. That in and of itself seems to recommend the option for those of us who believe that people should have a choice, you know?

I'm skeptical about seeing it anytime soon, mind. But I certainly don't get the folk who talk about having to live forever in ennui.

The essay itself was pretty bad, I thought. Patronizing towards anyone who isn't an atheist, and insisting on a monolithic position on the value of life/the question of death for everyone who is. Not everyone who disbelieves in God is going to have the same perspective on this matter, nor fucking should they.

There is no objectively "mature" stance. Arguments over the relative value of accepting or fighting things like aging, death, and disease all depend upon ultimately unproven (and unprovable) assumptions about the likelihood of success, or on how acceptance or rejection will affect individual human beings' happiness and success in this life - which is something that involves too many personal variables to generalize.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:01 AM on December 21, 2011


I loved this, thank you. There is nothing before we were born (that our consciousness knows) so why would we be aware of anything after death? And that's fine...it means there is nothing to fear or worry about.
posted by agregoli at 9:06 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to work with what I'm given. Immortality will be a gamechanger when it arrives, but it didn't offer any hope to my grandfather who recognized his declining mental powers and longed to move on. I don't see any hope of it being on the table when I bury my parents or my lovers. Thus my moral and spiritual hand is forced by reality, not dreams of techno-utopian singularity.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:23 AM on December 21, 2011


And this whole idea that the time you are alive exists forever, so in a way you're really alive forever.. has anyone actually felt comfort in that? It boggles my mind that anyone can think of that as something other than an interesting thought experiment.
Is that really even true? It doesn't make that much sense, like saying a region of space exists over all space. I mean I suppose the fact of it's existence is true for all other points in space, but the 'fact' of it's existence isn't the same as the material in it existing all over space.

Anyway, what we perceive and call time is actually the perception of entropy increasing. Electricity flows out of a battery and into a motor that turns the hands of a clock because it's entropy increase when it happens, and would have to decrease for it to go the other way.

The only way we know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, instead of the other way around is because there's more entropy at sunset then sunrise.

and, there's no way to reverse entropy, there's no way to go 'back' to an earlier entropic state. And not only that, there's not really any way to figure out what it was. The information disappears. So I think it's not really true in a physical sense.
posted by delmoi at 9:44 AM on December 21, 2011


Is that really even true? It doesn't make that much sense, like saying a region of space exists over all space.

A point in time is as fixed in space/time as a point in space is. In classical physics, the past is still physically real at a particular axis in space/time. So yes, it is true. Moving through time is like walking out of a room. The room's still there, even though you don't see it anymore.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:56 AM on December 21, 2011


Basically, delmoi, Einstein's idea of the space-time continuum requires it. And there was even recently a project to put the idea to experimental verification. Einstein's basic idea can be summarized as follows:

Space-time does not evolve, it simply exists. When we examine a particular object from the stand point of its space-time representation, every particle is located along its world-line. This is a spaghetti-like line that stretches from the past to the future showing the spatial location of the particle at every instant in time.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:06 AM on December 21, 2011


Actually, to give credit where it's due, it's really more Minkowski's idea of the space-time continuum, although Einstein readily accepted it and made it into one of the lynch-pins of general relativity
posted by saulgoodman at 10:20 AM on December 21, 2011


But when I need it, I find comfort in thinking about dying as going back to where I came from: nowhere, and going back to being what I used to be: nothing. Living is a brief, occasionally beautiful interlude in the story of my non-existence.

I don't think people came from nothing. We are the results of many somethings. I tend to picture a human life as a subprocess of various other cognitive processes of larger ecosystems and we are no more dead than one of our own thoughts could be said to be dead.

My only question is whether our awareness continues to exist. This is a tricky question because cognitive science seems to be showing us that our own unified awareness is an illusion, only unified by memory and rationalization.

I see no reason why awareness or consciousness requires brain and meat, I think future science will support that these phenomena are the result of sufficiently complex system.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:51 AM on December 21, 2011


A point in time is as fixed in space/time as a point in space is. In classical physics, the past is still physically real at a particular axis in space/time.
Right, but we are not talking about points in space-time, but rather complex objects made up of partcles, the 'you', the events you remember. But you can't look at a particle in space and trace back it's world line into the past, because you don't know if it interacted with any other particles.

Like I said, if you have a geometric space, it's trivially true that the fact that a certain point (say at 1,1) 'exists' is true not just at that point but at all points. But that doesn't really mean anything because we are interested in whatever is in that space. Like, if we have a circle at the origin with a radius of 1, the 'point 1,0 exists' is true 'at' point 1,1, and the fact the circle exists at point 1,0 is true at point 1,1. But the circle does not 'exist' at point 1,1.

Also, it gets into semantics of the word 'exist'. Usually it means that the object is bounded within a region of space and time. Inside the region, it exists, outside it does not. The fact that the region exists does not mean that the thing exists where it does not.

And anyway, relativity is just a mathematical model. It's a really good model but ultimately it's just a set of functions that map to the data Einstein had, and made good predictions about data that he didn't. But it doesn't tell you the underlying causes. And it doesn't mean that artifacts of the model like 'worldlines' actually 'exist'
posted by delmoi at 12:14 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


And it doesn't mean that artifacts of the model like 'worldlines' actually 'exist'

Maybe so, but you're squishier take on what the space/time continuum means is not the conventional interpretation of GR, and it's not really (as I undestand it) what the math supports. The math actually does support the idea that things persist unchanged along those timelines--in fact, one of the big problems in physics on that level is how to account for the apparent (according to GR, illusory) direction of the flow of time at all.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on December 21, 2011


oops--"your squishier take"...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on December 21, 2011


Why wouldn't awareness require the brain? I think we're pretty certain about brain activity and consciousness at this point. I'm curious as to what points you to that, psycho-alchemy.
posted by agregoli at 12:34 PM on December 21, 2011


I think people would be much, much more risk averse.

Algis Budrys' "The End of Summer" is the classic sf treatment of the idea that immortality makes people risk averse. Excellent story.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:58 PM on December 21, 2011


The idea that theists focus on the afterlife rather than life -- which is, in fact, strongly implied by that "pestering priests" line, even if it doesn't say explicitly that all people of faith do that -- is actually pretty ignorant, and pretends that all people of faith are like certain kinds of Christians.

To give you a little context: a pretty clear majority of people who have told me that as an atheist I can't be moral have included a bit about the afterlife. In fact, as a former Evangelical Christian (I wasn't very good at the first part), I can tell you that a large part of WHY we were told to go out and spread the good news was to save souls from eternal damnation. There is a definite obsession with the hereafter in the loudest and most aggressive sects of Christianity.

Also, I think you're reading things into that line that aren't there, the author mentions a specific type of religious person that takes a specific action. It's not condemnation of all religious people for having wasted lives, she's saying that time spent on one particular action that some faithful partake in is wasted.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:24 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually, Hecht describes the context in the next paragraph:

I have been asked how an atheist copes with death, particularly in light of the predicament of Christopher Hitchens, a well-known atheist who died Thursday night after a battle with cancer. Indeed, I have been asked if it is not a raw deal for an atheist, dying like that, without hope of an afterlife. (emphasis added).

The "strong implication" is an extremely uncharitable reading that ignores the fact that the second half of the essay cites over a half-dozen religious people and traditions that don't have strong views about the afterlife.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:09 PM on December 21, 2011


"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying" -- Woody Allen. That about sums it up for me.
posted by funkiwan at 2:23 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


I have been asked how an atheist copes with death, particularly in light of the predicament of Christopher Hitchens, a well-known atheist who died Thursday night after a battle with cancer. Indeed, I have been asked if it is not a raw deal for an atheist, dying like that, without hope of an afterlife.

I can answer that, as my wife died barely a month ago after having spent the last two years in and out of hospital dealing with the complications of a kidney transplant. Raised CofE but having been atheist for decades, what gave her strength in the last month before her death was not the promise of eternal life, but the end of suffering here, the end of having to struggle, of having the finality of not existing anymore. She could've fought on, but death was more alluring than living on.

Death itself can be a comfort if life is no longer worth living.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:07 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe so, but you're squishier take on what the space/time continuum means is not the conventional interpretation of GR, and it's not really (as I undestand it) what the math supports. The math actually does support the idea that things persist unchanged along those timelines--in fact, one of the big problems in physics on that level is how to account for the apparent (according to GR, illusory) direction of the flow of time at all.
Yet, entropy always increases as time moves forward, so in that sense it's not a problem. That's why I was saying what we think of as time is actually the increase of entropy.

Secondly "What the math supports" only has to do with what happens in a mathematical model, not what happens in the "real world" There's still a possibility that relativity isn't exactly true for really large objects, for example. Some people think 'dark matter' is actually just an artifact of people using an incorrect mathematical model, and so they try to fix the model rather the posing some unknown other particles, so there are alternative theories like alternative theories for how gravity works that have been proposed (although it looks like dark matter is probably a more likely scenario now)

There's also the whole issue of quantum mechanics vs. relativity. I mean how does a the existence of a fixed worldline square with quantum entanglement where particles can be altered by changing particles somewhere else in space (but not time, I think) If you say a world-line is a fixed thing, doesn't that make the universe totally deterministic?

I think the core of our disagreement on this is that you seem to think 'the math', in terms of relativity is the 'real thing' and not just a description of what happens. I can buy that about QM, maybe the math and the physical world are the same, but that seems less likely with relativity.

Like, for example, if you put a 1 and a 0 on a coin, flip it n times, and sum the results the most likely result will be s = n/2, and the probability distribution for the sum actually follow a Gaussian distribution (IIRC). Let's call that distribution function p(Σ). Does that mean that the p(Σ) is an 'intrinsic property' of the coin itself? In my mind the coin is the 'real thing' and p(Σ) is not a real, physical thing associated with the coin.

(Oh, and by the way, the reason the sum is most likely n/2 is because if you record all the flips, a record that sums to n/2 has the highest information entropy. Since entropy always increases, the number of flips must move towards n/2 as n approaches infinity)

So to me, a particle is like a real thing, while the world line associated with it is more like p(Σ) or even Σ itself.

---

The other difference is with the definition of 'exists'. Remember bill clinton's "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing."

If the word 'existence' is tied to our concept of time, then suggesting that something 'exists forever' means that there is some other direction of time that exists outside of time. If we say that existence is not tied to time, then saying something 'exists forever' would be tautological, since there would be nothing, not even conceptually, that could not exist forever.
posted by delmoi at 5:35 PM on December 21, 2011


Eternal life in paradise would probably be pretty great if it actually was an option

I don't know - that always sounded kind of boring to me. At least in Hell you have a bit of variety to keep the mind alive, and the hope of some improvement. Like, I don't know... Flaying > Mariachi bands > hot coals > etc.
posted by sneebler at 5:19 PM on December 22, 2011


Eternal life in paradise would probably be pretty great if it actually was an option
Christian paradise? Maybe. But I would imagine atheists could come up with something more interesting.
posted by delmoi at 11:59 PM on December 22, 2011


A couple of things.

First of all, one of the things I really like about being Jewish is that there really isn't a dedicated focus on the afterlife. Skybeards aside, at least in Judaism most of the focus is on this life and what you get out of this life. True, there is the whole messiah thing coming back and everyone getting resurrected out of their graves and hauling back to Jerusalem (which, I have to say, just conjures up images of the biggest, most congested zombie movie ever) but that really doesn't center on most Jewish people's practices. One of the things that really excites me, though, was learning that Jewish mystical teachings actually support the idea of reincarnation. I personally like the idea of reincarnation better; heaven has always struck me as boring and hell really uncomfortable ("heaven for climate, hell for company" - Mark Twain). I like the idea of getting a chance to start over (and also the idea that souls/consciousness get recycled instead of just thrown out at the end).

But this is the thing I came in to write: becoming a father has profoundly changed my attitude about dying. Aside from some serious existential angst when I was around 9 or so, I haven't put much thought into dying. But holding my newborn baby in my arms, I suddenly was on the verge of tears when I realized one day, I am going to die and will no longer be there for him. It also marked the first time when I profoundly and viscerally hoped that I died before someone else (I'd thought about it abstractly in terms of my wife and my twin brother; this was the first time where I was like, "Oh, I'd better die first!").

Finally, I have a special brand of hate for those Family Circus cartoons that featured the ghostly outline of grandma hanging out with Billy or something. I've always loved this cartoon instead.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:20 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Delmoi: But I would imagine atheists could come up with something more interesting.

Weird. All they seem to be able to think of is spending eternity as nothingness. Where's the fun in that?
posted by sneebler at 8:51 AM on December 29, 2011


burnmp3s: "Eternal life in paradise would probably be pretty great if it actually was an option"

"Go to heaven for climate, hell for company." - Mark Twain
posted by Deathalicious at 10:46 AM on January 1, 2012


Weird. All they seem to be able to think of is spending eternity as nothingness. Where's the fun in that?

Well, "eternity as nothingness" is a paradox. I dipped into Lucretius recently and was surprised at how deeply joyful his presentation of atomism is.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:29 AM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


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