Death

Most nonbelievers think there is something absurd about the denial of death. Sam Harris expresses this view well:

We live in a world where all things, good and bad, are finally destroyed by change. Parents lose their children and children their parents. Husbands and wives are separated in an instant, never to meet again. Friends part company in haste, without knowing that it will be for the last time. This life, when surveyed with a broad glance, presents little more than a vast spectacle of loss. Most people in this world, however, imagine that there is a cure for this. If we live rightly—not necessarily ethically, but within the framework of certain ancient beliefs and stereotyped behaviors—we will get everything we want after we die. When our bodies finally fail us, we just shed our corporeal ballast and travel to a land where we are reunited with everyone we loved while alive. Of course, overly rational people and other rabble will be kept out of this happy place, and those who suspended their disbelief while alive will be free to enjoy themselves for all eternity.

So yes, things change. And denying death does have an air of almost obvious absurdity about it.

But then again, our cat died yesterday. I’m in an emotionally turbulent state and will remain so for a while. (He was eighteen and a half, and had a good and comfortable life, by cat standards. Nonetheless, he’s dead and something—someone—I cared deeply about has been ripped out of the fabric of my daily life.) In my current state of mind, I’m no mood to gripe about any comfort anyone might get from even the most absurd beliefs about death.

As I age, I increasingly harbor echoes of useless skills. Somewhere in my brain, only half-forgotten, lurks expertise on software no one has used for two decades, hints of ideas in physics that never panned out, traces of books that I never should have read in the first place. That’s just trash that accumulates. But there are also memories of people and pets I will never see again—not just explicit pictures but also patterns of response, an ability to predict what someone would have done in some situation. I have low-resolution copies of personalities lodged in my brain. And I would not get rid of all this if I could, even though it may not help or can even hinder how I respond to what I encounter today. The memories are all that remains, in many cases.

With time, maybe the clutter takes over. Certainly, the sense of loss does. My father tells me that the problem with living as long as he has (approaching 80 now) is that too many of his friends have died. Every year the clutter gets larger, and more valuable.

I don’t see much to do about all this than to shrug and carry on. But I can also see that a lot of people will be unsatisfied with life as one damn thing after another and then you die. They may perceive that as a problem, and be attracted by supernatural claims that propose a solution. And if so, arguing about such matters need not accomplish anything worthwhile. Right now, I miss my cat. Arguments are just beside the point.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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