We Need Nothing More

I recently received an e-mail from an atheist asking for advice:

I’ve always been afraid of death, and usually I tell myself that it’s pointless. But lately, I’ve started thinking about my existence and ultimately, my death. I was, and still am to some extent, horribly afraid of losing myself forever, which is quite irrational I suppose. I’ve cheered myself up, worked through this fear several times. I’ve made myself realize that life is short and that I should look at death as a reminder to cherish life, to be happy with my past and my present, and to stop focusing so much on something I cannot comprehend. Death will come soon enough, and when it does, it’s not the irrationally horrible void that I tend to imagine in my head. I can only live and work with what I have, and what I have is this reality. I’ve embraced this fact with emotion. I want to be strong. I know I can overcome. I know I have hope inside me. I refuse to live a life of despair when I could live a life of happiness. And yet, the fear keeps lingering.

…Now don’t get me wrong. I am in no way suicidal; I want to live as long as possible, as happily as possible. I would never consider ending my life. But I think to myself sometimes: “once I get out of school, I’ll work, then I’ll have a family, then I’ll keep on living until I die.” It all seems pretty bleak.

If such thoughts depress you, then I suggest you ask yourself this question: What else do you want there to be?

Answer that, and you’ll already have gone a long way toward lifting your bleakness. Your course in life is not set; no one is forcing you to settle down at a job or start a family. If the most common path doesn’t appeal to you, then take a different one. Only you can decide what would make your life meaningful to you, so make that decision and then set out to do it. I’ve had thoughts like this on occasion, and I find that taking this perspective is a good way to vanquish them. From your letter, I take it you’re still fairly young, which is even better and gives you much more flexibility to shape your life the way you want.

If indeed there is nothing after life, then is life not pretty pointless?

I don’t see the logic behind this statement. If your life is meaningful to you now, then that meaning is real, regardless of what happens in the future. You may no longer experience meaning after you die, but death does not “reach back” and retroactively erase the meaning or purpose from all the prior moments you enjoyed. Those earlier moments do not cease to exist. On the other hand, if your life is not meaningful, then what would you gain by extending it other than more meaningless existence?

To see this from another angle, consider a clever argument from John Allen Paulos’ book Irreligion. Let’s take some point in time far in the future, long after you’ve ceased to exist – say, a thousand years from now. Let’s assume that nothing we do now will matter in a thousand years. Depressing, no? Well, maybe – but, by the same argument, it would seem that nothing that will matter at that far-future time matters now. In particular, it doesn’t matter now that it won’t matter then. To put it in simpler terms, why should we care what happens in the distant future, when we’ll have no possible ability to influence events? What we should care about is the here and now, the events that do matter to our lives and the ones which we can affect.

I could just as well see life as full of life wonder, an opportunity to enjoy myself, a view which I harbor much of the time, but not all of the time. I fear death. I fear losing my identity, losing my memories, my experience as a human being, not as a system of atoms.

Obviously, no one wants to die; evolution has given us a strong drive to prefer continued living. At an emotional level, I understand the pull of this argument. But on a rational level, I don’t see what there could possibly be to fear about death. To regret its inevitability, to wish it were otherwise, yes – but to fear it? That claim seems to me to involve a serious confusion of terms.

Fear, by definition, is the expectation of something bad happening to me. But if there is no “me”, then nothing bad can happen to me, so what is there to fear? Claiming to fear being in a state of nonexistence, to me, makes as much sense as claiming to have felt joy before you were born, eagerly anticipating your chance to come into being.

Do you have any advice for a struggling atheist? Any outlooks or personal anecdotes? Have you ever had to deal with such a state of despair or were you always so confident with your mortality?

Yes, I have had these existential fears and doubts from time to time. Everyone does – it’s an inevitable part of having limited knowledge, which means it’s an inevitable part of being human. The most comforting thing I can say to you is that they’ll probably lift on their own, given time. Like any other grief, time heals the hurt.

But that doesn’t mean you have to live with it in the meantime. From what you say, it sounds to me as if you’ve already got a solid, well-grounded humanist philosophy worked out. That will be a tremendous help in overcoming this – it probably is helping already, even if you don’t realize it yet. Everyone has to come to terms with their own mortality eventually, as part of becoming a mature human being. Think of this phase as growing pains. It will pass, and you’ll be stronger for it; and I have no doubt that you’ll rediscover the beauty and the hope that you mentioned, and learn anew to cherish life and live to the fullest because it is brief.

However, on the chance that words can offer you any more assistance, let me offer a few more. Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist closes with this passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It reached in and grabbed me, and it may do the same for you:

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

This, in my opinion, is how an atheist should view life and its inevitable accompaniment of death. Would I live longer, if given the opportunity? Yes, of course – but I’ve never believed for a moment that my life must be meaningless unless it’s infinite.

What comes after this life, if anything, I don’t know. We may be resurrected from the dust by a supernatural being on some future judgment day; we may all be living in a dream; we may be digital souls in an unimaginably powerful computer running a massive simulation of the universe. I don’t know, nor do I care. I only care about what is verifiable, what is real. And what I know to be real and true is that this world and this life are enough for me. There is beauty here, wisdom, wonder and love – as much as I could have asked for. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and there are so many different paths to happiness that it would be selfish and needless to demand anything additional. I echo Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I would extend her compelling conclusion to all atheists. We need nothing more.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • velkyn

    my question to someone who has these feelings is that “Well, what if there was some “afterlife”? What about it would make this life mean any more?” To me, unless you think that you are getting some “reward” or punishment for living this life in some certain way, there is nothing that could influence this life from “beyond the grave”. Indeed, I do wonder why many theists, especially Christians just don’t kill themselves to get to the “good part”. The only reason one would think that they don’t is that convenient word from “God” that it is against the rules.

  • 2-D Man

    This post reminds me of Streetlight Manifesto’s title track from their latest album, “Somewhere in the Between”.

    The chorus goes:

    So you were born, and that was a good day
    Someday you’ll die, and that is a shame
    But somewhere in the between was a life of which we all dream
    And nothing and no one will ever take that away

    They have other great songs too; I suggest checking them out. The whole album declares a humanist philosophy.

  • hrd2imagin

    There’s a phrase that has stuck in my head for a while now, from the movie, The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”

    To me this means that “life” is simply a state of being that we all share. The difference between individual humans is how we spend our time in this state.

    To “Get busy living,” we take control of our lives, actively planning and pursuing those things that make us most happy, and happily accepting the work it takes to get there. To me this means spending time with my wife and daughter, biking through the mountains on a cool breezy day, kayaking white waters and snowboarding through fresh powder. But this comes at a price, so I know I have to work hard to ensure that I can keep doing these things to maintain this happiness for myself and my family.

    Or we can “Get busy dying,” passively letting the days pass while allowing external forces, people and events to define our path for us. The only thing that these people are successful at is convincing themselves that they have no control over their own lives. Many allow events in their past determine their future. Many also allow bad choices they’ve made blind them from the good choices they can make now.

    Death will come for all of us. At this point in time, there’s not much we can do about it except get busy living, or get busy dying.

    Last, if you’ve never seen The Shawshank Redemption, make sure to see it ASAP! It’ll help you to understand.

  • hrd2imagin

    Since 2-D Man brought up song lyrics, another good one is from Pearl Jam’s I Am Mine.

    “I know I was born
    and I know that I’ll die.
    The in between is mine.
    I am mine.”

  • http://www.wordsthatsing.wordpress.com Lirone

    A good and very compassionate reply, which reminds me so much of how I felt as a teenager facing up to mortality. I presume from his/her reference to school that the person who wrote to you is at a similar stage.

    I’m reminded how people who have a diagnosis of a terminal illness often find that they’re living their lives so much more fully than they were before. Of course that can work for any of us, and being aware of death without clinging to an afterlife makes us much more likely to live our life to the full. As you say, death can be a real incentive to go and find something that does matter to you in your life, rather than hoping to find meaning after you die.

    There’s a lovely quote that I can’t remember accurately, but it runs something like:

    “To suspect that you are mortal is the beginning of fear. To know beyond doubt that you are mortal is the end of fear.”

    I don’t suppose any of us are quite in the latter state, but in my experience the closer I can get to really accepting that I will come to a final end, the less afraid I feel of either death or anything else!

    PS – I see you’re reading “I’m a Strange Loop” – have you reached the chapter where he’s reflecting on the death of his wife, and how her identity is in some ways retained in his mind and the minds of other people who knew her? Very beautiful and powerful writing.

  • TJ

    As adults we know we have to struggle through these periods of doubt and fear about death–and there’s some good advice here for doing so.

    Does anyone have any insight on how to address this problem in children? My 10-year old son is smart, skeptical, and a natural-born atheist (no religious indoctrination from us has meant that he thinks most religious ideas are weird and unbelievable).

    He is, however, terrified of death–not only his own, but those of others. He’s smart enough, and I’ve been honest with him about death, that he’s really thought about the fact that he’s going to die some day, and he thinks it horribly unfair and utterly terrifying.

    He also reasonably expects to outlive his parents and grandparents. Even if I live another 60 years and make it to 100, like others in my family have, he should still outlive me. I’m pretty sure he’ll have better come to terms with the situation by the time he’s 60 or 70 and I’m dead, but that doesn’t help the fear and sadness he experiences now.

    We’ve talked about the biological and evolutionary facts of death–in short, you wear out in part because entropy is the enemy and because there’s not much evolutionary pressure to stay alive once you can no longer have children and you’re done raising the ones you had. But it doesn’t address the emotional issues.

    Despite the reasonable claim that there is nothing to fear in non-existence, I think it makes sense to be saddened by the thought of your own death as much as the thought of the death of someone else. I like my friend X, I want X to keep living, and I’ll be sad when X dies, and thinking about that inevitable future saddens me now, too. Replace “X” with “me” and it’s still true.

    There is also the fear of the actual dying part. Death may not be so bad, but dying itself is going to suck–unless you die in your sleep.

    Anyway, has anyone else dealt with the emotional aspects of death in atheist children? The best I can come up with so far has been to tell him I love him, to remind him that life is worth living even if the inevitable end if unfair, and to try not to think about it too, too much for the next 5 years or so, until he has a little more emotional development under his belt to make him a bit better able to cope.

  • K

    I think the problem Atheists have with death is that we’re afraid to be selfish. Afterall, we’ll look bad to christians if we’re selfish. Selfish is bad, right?
    Fact is, humans are nothing. Our lives, in the scheme of things, between the supernovas and spinning galaxies are worth absolutely nothing. You must become selfish to pull yourself out of the big picture and simply take your life for yourself. I am worth nothing, really. What is it? $7.00 in chemicals if broken down? No human is worth a damn but my life has meaning for me and I will grab it with both hands and make it my own.

  • terrence

    Since this thread took a musical tack, I’ll throw in a favorite quote from The Chairman of the Board, on the topic of getting the most out of THIS life:

    “You only live once, but if you live like I do, once is enough”

  • Christopher

    The way I see it, life has no intrinsic meaning – only the meaning you ascribe to it. The existence or non-existence of an afterlife has no bearing on this as said afterlife would only have as much meaning as you ascribed to it as well.

    The only way either of these lifes could have intrinsic value is if something else (typically a “god” for the theist) arbitrarily established meaning and value to them; but this raises still another question – from whence does this thing (i.e. “god”) acquire meaning and value to ascribe to life? I’m yet to hear a theologian come up with an answer to that question that doesn’t resort to an “accept it by faith” answer…

  • Samuel Skinner

    Hey, if I was afraid of futility, do you think I’d try to “convert” Christians over the net? There is a lost cause- I do it so people know there are others out there who are atheists- and so they can see their beliefs laid bare (self reflection is good). Hey, it is a hobby!

  • Ellwood

    I love when threads turn musical. The song Further by VNV Nation has some relation to this, and has always been a comfort to me in my times of existential turmoil:

    “At the end of days, at the end of time,
    When the sun burns out, will any of this matter?
    Who will be there to remember who we were?
    Who will be there to know that any of this had meaning for us?

    Without a thought I will see everything eternal,
    forget that once we were just dust from heavens fire.
    As we were forged we shall return, perhaps, some day.
    I will remember us, and wonder who we were.

  • http://stargazers-observatory.blogspot.com/ Stargazer1323

    Oddly enough, when I became an atheist, I found it very easy to overcome my own fear of dying, because I no longer has to worry about what was waiting for me on the other side of death. I easily embraced the concept of non-existence by recognizing that I would be in the same state after death as I was before birth – lack of consciousness is something to mourn, and to fight against, but not to fear.

    My biggest problem with death since becoming an atheist, though, has been coming to terms with the deaths of my friends and loved ones. As a child, I experienced the deaths of many family members and friends, and the only thing that got me though those periods of grief was the belief that I would see them again some day. Now that I don’t believe in heaven, coming to terms with the fact that I will never see any of them again, and that when the people that are in my life now die I will never see them again either, has been a daily struggle. It makes me cherish every moment all the more, but having seen how quickly those we love can be taken away from us means that I still feel a twinge of fear every time my husband walks out the door in the morning, every time I say goodbye to my parents on the phone, and every time a gathering of friends scatters into the night. I probably wouldn’t be reading this blog right now if my deconversion hadn’t meant giving up on the comforting doctrine of heaven, which is why I’m grateful every day for atheist blogs like this. A daily reminder that I am not alone in my non-belief, or in my fear of what that means for death, is a great comfort when the fear of death creeps into my otherwise content atheistic life.

  • LindaJoy

    Stargazer- I’m in the same place you are. I only realized recently (after a long journey from Christianity through a New Age phase) that I am an atheist. Part of that realization was incredibly freeing and part of it brought on another realization that it was not rational to believe in an afterlife of any kind. It really blew away my vision of floating around the universe looking at nebulas and being able to ask my grandparents more questions. I look at my husband and children and feel sadness and anxiety about the fact (which I believe to be true) that because our consciousness is tied to the life of our brains, I will not have any connection to them after death. I’m working on the suggestions that Ebonmuse puts forward in this piece, but I sometimes feel that it will be just as long a process of accepting as it was getting from theist to non. I’m not really afraid, because if you have no consciousness, you can’t be aware of missing anything. It’s more the sadness here and now that’s tough. I’ll probably read this article over several times because it is the type of thing I need to absorb. I wonder now what our world would have been like if no one was ever taught that there was an afterlife. If everyone had been told that the here and now is it.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I’d like to take a slightly different tack on this. I agree with pretty much everything everyone has said; but I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, and I want to offer a somewhat different angle.

    Death is natural, and we shouldn’t try to pretend that it doesn’t exist and isn’t real.

    But the fear of death, the desire not to die, is also natural. As Ebon pointed out, if our species didn’t have a strong preference for living over dying, we wouldn’t have lasted very long.

    And we shouldn’t try to pretend that that doesn’t exist and isn’t real, either.

    I had a very good therapist once. We did a certain amount of the usual therapy stuff: talking ad nauseum to help me gain insight into my behavior and help me choose it more consciously, yada yada yada. But a lot of what we did was simply to create a safe place for me to experience emotions that I was afraid of, emotions that I kept shoving to the back burner because they felt so enormous it seemed like they were going to overwhelm and drown me. Grief and fear over death, of course, being high on the list.

    And what I found was that, sometimes — often, maybe even most of the time — the best way to deal with difficult and painful emotions is to stop trying to fix them and just let myself feel them. When I let myself actually feel my emotions, they tend to pass. Sometimes they come back, of course; but then they pass again. And they’re not compounded and made worse by the meta-fear, the fear of the emotion adding to whatever emotion it is I’m afraid of.

    I will caution that this only works if you have a pretty solid foundation to begin with. Which is where I think all this wonderful atheist and humanist philosophy comes in. It doesn’t give you an escape from the deep fear or grief over death. It gives you a solid place to come back to when the fear and grief have passed.

    Finally, I just want to add this: I think American culture has a pathological fear of painful emotions, and a freakish sense that they somehow make you a failure. So the final thing I want to say to Ebon’s inquisitor is this: Yes, I have those feelings, too. The sense that death eradicates and trivializes my life; the sense that, without immortality, my life is meaningless. And paradoxically, the sense of life itself as a burden, a parade of petty struggles and mundane samenesses that end only in nothingness and the void. But I don’t feel that way most of the time. Most of the time, I love my life passionately, and accept the inevitability of death with a fair amount of peace. And the fact that despair creeps in from time to time does not, I think, make me a failure as a person, or a failure as an atheist. It just makes me human.

  • Karen

    Accepting the reality of death is a major part of becoming an adult. Like many things about growing up, it’s not fun or pretty. In fact, it sucks to know that some day this fascinating, brilliant world will go on and I won’t be here to experience it.

    But that’s the reality of the human condition. Others here have already suggested ways to cope with it and thrive despite it.

    Theists who believe in life after death are in a state of extended immaturity because they never allow themselves to truly grow up and accept reality. For me, it’s more fulfilling to be an adult, no matter how difficult it is at times, than live a kind of extended childhood based on fantasy.

  • LindaJoy

    Greta Christina- thank you for your perspective. Just knowing that others struggle with the same issues, and then having these struggles expressed so well here is very helpful- as are the suggestions for dealing with it all. Overall, I still vastly prefer being free of the superstition and silliness that ruled part of my brain for so long. I could never go back to that, even for the false comfort of an afterlife.

  • Steve Bowen

    I apologise now if this sounds trite. I’m not the most empathic of individuals at the best of times so normally I would avoid commenting on a thread like this, but: As far as science informs me, the universe is 13.5 billion years old (more or less, thats a guess etc) and I wasn’t aware of any of it. Fifty years ago I was born and since then I’ve enjoyed the world I live in with relish, joy and very little regret (despite some “interesting” interludes). One day I will die. Last week my eighteen year old partner and I bought a new apartment together, talked about future family and made plans for our careers. Do I want to live forever? f**k yeah! and the probability is that I will see one hundred assuming I don’t walk under a bus. But if I die tomorrow the universe will continue to exist for (debatably) a hundred billion years or so, and,you know what? I won’t be aware of any of that either. The moral I draw from all of this is that our legacy is what we make of life today, not what we bank in heaven.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    I’m never quite sure what people mean when they say it’s “unfair” that we die. Compared to what? What would be “fair”?

    Would going to heaven and spending the rest of eternity praising God be “fair”?

    And is it “fair” that you are here when the different person that would have been born if a different sperm had gotten there first is not here?

    As Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth said to Sarah’s cry of It’s not fair!: “You say that so often… I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

    We’re here, and it’s now. What a glorious unfairness that is, when you think about it.

  • Punisher1984

    Just a thought: since life is a matter-engery interaction – and there’s no way matter-energy can be created or destroyed – is it possible for the life of an individual to play out all over again if the proper circumstances came together? What if it already has happend multiple times in the past that we are unaware of?

    Just a little something I thought of whilst pondering the eternal return…

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    I’m going to agree somewhat with Greta – it is a matter of therapy, not of offering logical arguments that we shouldn’t fear death. Fear of death isn’t based on the result of a rational conclusion that death makes life meaningless. It is an irrational emotion, and what is needed is therapy to deal with it.

    If it is not a pathological fear which requires psychological help, I recommend philosophy and literature. Camus, the Stoics, especially Aurelius, the Cynics, Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, etc. I find it helps to keep my mind actively occupied, and literature has a great ability to form our minds and emotions, especially re-reading powerful literature and letting suffuse your consciousness.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    I like this quote from Bertrand Russell. I sometimes think I would like to have it read at my funeral:

    “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”

    Also, as FDR once said, “The only thing we have to fear is — fear itself.”

    Death is the end, in one sense. In another, it’s part of a cycle. If you have family, even if they are not your own children, part of you will physically live on. Ten generations or more from now, your genes may be in most of the world’s population, and your molecules — the literal stuff of you — will be part of many other living things.

    Or change someone’s life mentally — by teaching them, inspiring them, exciting them, or even just making them laugh — and you live on in memory. Even if no one remembers your name, you will have affected the world, hopefully for the better. If I die tomorrow, I die in the belief that the world is a better place because I made friends, inspired members of my family, and did professional work (as a librarian and historian) to improve the knowledge of others.

    This is one reason I’m happy Judaism was my primary exposure to religion. It’s one of the few religions where the afterlife isn’t emphasized, and I have to admit that helped in my transition from faith to atheism. I can’t imagine how scary the concept of hell must be to someone who actually believes in it.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Although I know that I will grieve
    to look on those I love, and leave,
    it’s hard sometimes to seize the day.
    I might be glad to slip away.

    And if someday I find that I
    love life and cannot bear to die,
    my heart will fill with joy to know
    that I can love existence so.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Sorry for the double post. Make that “it’s sometimes hard” in the third line. It scans better.

    Serves me right for giving in to the urge to versify, doesn’t it?

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    “Yes, I have had these existential fears and doubts from time to time. Everyone does – it’s an inevitable part of having limited knowledge, which means it’s an inevitable part of being human. The most comforting thing I can say to you is that they’ll probably lift on their own, given time. Like any other grief, time heals the hurt”……

    Well said, and no one could have said it better.

  • http://carriertom.typepad.com/sheep_and_goats tom sheepandgoats

    On the other hand, trying to overcome the natural fear of death with some of the reasonings of this thread might be likened to a turd salesmen carrying on as if, in reality, he was offering diamonds.

    From the passage of Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism”

    That seems a very high price to pay simply so as to remove all traces of cognitive dissonance.

    Find me someone who can get his or her head around recent conclusions of quantum physics or relativity. At most you have a handful of people who can account for it mathematically, even while they acknowledge it that makes no “sense” whatsoever for visualization. If something can be explained only in such nebulous terms, can you really be satisfied that you’ve gotten to the bottom of it?

    So it’s just a matter of “at which point do we confess our ignorance?” Because either path leads to plenty of cognitive dissonance.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    “Cognitive dissonance” does not mean believing in a well-tested scientific theory whose physical implications are difficult to visualize. It means believing in two or more mutually contradictory propositions at the same time.

  • velkyn

    tom sheepandgoats said “From the passage of Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism”

    That seems a very high price to pay simply so as to remove all traces of cognitive dissonance.”

    As ebon said, you are wrong in your understanding of cognitive dissonance. You seem to be saying that you would rather beleive in nonsense and be content in your willful ignorance than attempt to understand anything. As for “nebulous terms”, I can’t imagine anything more nebulous than religion and specifically Christianity, with how its practitioners vary wildly with intepreting it.

  • shifty

    Lynet:

    I really enjoyed that. Awesome.

    shifty

  • jack

    Elsewhere, Ebonmuse has discussed the insight that a truly eternal life would get pretty boring. It’s a little hard to wrap one’s mind around the concept of infinity, whether mathematical, spatial or temporal. Eternity is not just a long time. It never ends. I am reminded of a great scene from Kurt Vonnegut’s play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. A couple of residents of heaven tell the audience what a great time they have: “We play a lot of shuffleboard in heaven.”

    On a more serious note, there’s the evolutionary perspective. Death is not just a consequence of our inadequate “design”. Death is a feature, not a bug. Evolution works better with death than without it. To see this, just compare the complexity and achievements of sexually reproducing mortal organisms with asexual unicellular life. For an organism of the latter kind, death is probabilistic, statistically inevitable given enough time, but never strictly a certainty. They just keep dividing into daughter cells, oozing into an indefinitely long future.

    So what does that insight say to us humans contemplating our own deaths? One thing is this: we owe it to future generations to get out of the way and give them their chance someday.

    Finally, to Punisher1984, who wrote

    Just a thought: since life is a matter-engery interaction – and there’s no way matter-energy can be created or destroyed – is it possible for the life of an individual to play out all over again if the proper circumstances came together? What if it already has happend multiple times in the past that we are unaware of?

    This line of reasoning is often used by theists in support of the idea of the immortal soul. The problem is that life is fundamentally not matter and energy, but information, encoded and expressed in matter and energy. There is no conservation law for information. Just ask anyone who fails to make computer backups and has their hard drive crash.

  • Christopher

    Jack,

    “This line of reasoning is often used by theists in support of the idea of the immortal soul. The problem is that life is fundamentally not matter and energy, but information, encoded and expressed in matter and energy. There is no conservation law for information. Just ask anyone who fails to make computer backups and has their hard drive crash.”

    1. No one is supporting an eternal soul here – just the idea of matter-energy coming together in the proper proportions to form a life exactly like another that came before it. I can see this happening purely by chance as the proverbial “universal dice” are thrown over and over again.

    Also, you might want to look at M-theory: if it holds true, there may very well be numerous “universes” (a bit counter-intuitive as the universe is supposed to be everything) with a near infinite number of worlds exactly like ours – so exact that there may be other lives just like our own in them. From this perspective, we never truly “die” as there’s always a version of ourselves that lives on.

    I’m not saying this is absolutely true, but it is a perspective on death worth considering: we may already have eternal life, we just don’t experience it as it happens in “universes” far removed from our own…

    2. Information doesn’t exist until there is an intelligent entity to process the noise of his environment and sort it into data – which is then organized into information. Where you information in nature, I just see matter-energy interactions that we catagorized for the sake of reference post facto.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    TJ –

    I too have a ten-year-old skeptic. When he was two, my ex- (his mom) was diagnosed with breast cancer and (long story short) was subsequently told that it had metastatized and she had seven months to live. Jake was five at the time. It hurt to tell him this, but his mother and I had promised each other that we would never lie to him (except about Santa Claus, heh). I drew the unhappy task of telling him. Of course we cried. I pulled no punches, not one. I’ll never forget him telling me “But I don’t want her to die!” What could I say? I told him that we all shall die, no matter what, and that to worry about it when it was well outside one’s control was a useless waste of energy and he’d just as well ought to get used to it. He’s now like Dad — fearing more the deaths of others, mainly because he doesn’t stop to ponder his own that much. I’m not sure this’ll be helpful to you; I hope it is. The only real advice I can give is this: don’t bullshit your son. (Something tells me that this advice, however, is superfluous).

    Good luck.

    Greta:

    That was beautifully written, and very moving. And it speaks many of my feelings in language which had me feeling misty eyes.

    And since we’re on a musical tack –

    “You can choose a ready guide in
    some celestial voice.
    If you choose not to decide,
    you still have made a choice.
    You can choose from phantom fears,
    or kindness that can kill.
    I will choose the path that’s clear;
    I will choose free will.”

  • TEP

    Quite personally I think it is right to fear death. While it is often pointed out that a state of non-existence isn’t going to be unpleasant, it does somewhat miss the point. The problem isn’t that death is bad, it is that life is good. Death is the absence of life – it involves the loss of something good. We fear death not because we might fear its unpleasantness, but because it involves losing something of infinite value.

    Suppose I were to kidnap you and tell you that tomorrow I am going to cut off your arm. Naturally, you are rather upset about this, so to reassure you I tell you the process will be completely painless and you won’t feel a thing. Should you now not fear the loss of your arm? Of course you should! There’s nothing inherently terrible about living without an arm – there are people who are born that way who know no different. But that’s not the point. The point is that you are better off with two arms rather than one. By cutting off your arm, I put you in a worse off state. I remove something of value. In the same way, you are better off existing than not existing, and death is detrimental because you are losing something of value.

    Just because we might recognise that there probably isn’t anything special after physical death doesn’t mean we have to rationalise death away as some sort of OK thing. If anybody truly believed that there was nothing undesirable with death, then they wouldn’t mind the prospect of some crazed gunman killing them thirty seconds from now. But I’m sure most people would prefer to go on living, they’d prefer to retain all the possibilities that come with continued existence. Fear of death is a consequence of valuing life. I think the solution to the problem of the fear of death is to recognise death for the undesirable thing it is and try to do something about it. After all, we fear things because we recognise them as things best avoided. For millennia people have tried to avoid death by hoping that performing certain bizarre rituals would encourage other magical beings to save them from death. Atheism involves accepting that no gods are going to rescue you, so naturally it’s up to us to rescue ourselves. Of course, if it hadn’t been for centuries of people suppressing scientific advancement because they were so sure they were going to be rescued, we’d probably all be immortal right now.

    So I think we should just accept that death is a bad thing, and try to get rid of it. Death is a problem which needs to be solved. Even if we don’t succeed for ourselves, then perhaps we might allow others in the future to live without it. And if we cannot completely conquer death in our lifetimes, we still might succeed in giving ourselves a few extra years with which to enjoy the wonders of existence; to learn to explore, to experience joy and witness beauty. That would still be an improvement.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Death isn’t a bad thing. Death is a necessity. Without death, we could not even have evolved. Without death, we’d be doomed to an eternal boredom. This isn’t to say I look forward to dying; they’ll pry life from my cold dead hands. But it is to say that while it is a loss for us as individuals, it also has merit.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Music has a way of helping deal with the emotions Greta talks about, that we need to let ourselves feel, so they can pass us by. Many times in my life I’d find lyrics that helped me through a tough time. One was Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer“, which seems to be about someone who died, a dancer. He used the metaphor of dance for life. The ending is particularly relevant.

    Into a dancer you have grown
    From a seed somebody else has thrown
    Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
    And somewhere between the time you arrive
    And the time you go
    May lie a reason you were alive
    But you’ll never know

  • windy

    If indeed there is nothing after life, then is life not pretty pointless?

    Well, how does an afterlife help? If the afterlife is not eternal, you face the same problem as the afterlife comes towards its end. If the afterlife is eternal, your current life will be entirely pointless compared with an eternity of new memories and experiences. Unless the afterlife is mostly about reminiscing your former life, which sounds it would be pretty dreadful after a while.

    TJ:

    Anyway, has anyone else dealt with the emotional aspects of death in atheist children? The best I can come up with so far has been to tell him I love him, to remind him that life is worth living even if the inevitable end if unfair, and to try not to think about it too, too much for the next 5 years or so, until he has a little more emotional development under his belt to make him a bit better able to cope.

    Interestingly, I went through such a phase around that age, too. For me the preoccupation with death passed pretty fast, and mostly on its own IIRC (my parents just told me I wasn’t going to die for a while :), so let’s hope you and him don’t have to wait anything like 5 years. You might have already talked to your son about non-existence before birth and how that doesn’t seem so dreadful. And, hopefully this doesn’t sound too lame, but what about comparing life to something like a book or a movie – you know that they will inevitably end, but that doesn’t mean that it feels pointless to enjoy them (although of course the difference is that you remember the book or the movie afterwards, at least for a while, but that’s not the main point I think)

  • Cina the Windknight

    I, personally, like to think of birds. I love birds, and i am a daydreamer and enjoy watching them fly all over the sky. when the thought of death hits me, i like to imagine how the birds will fly, even after i died. i also like to think that in this life, for one time only, I am allowed to fly with them, following my dreams.

    Death makes me focus on what is truly important; it has made me open my eyes to the beauty of the world and brought me a deep sense of compassion for other people, for i have realized that we are all one, that we share the same fate, a bittersweet one. at least i will never feel lonely again, for the world is full of living things, and we are all connected.