Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted December 2, 2015

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A rationalist view of immortality

Nothing More

by CD Richards

There are numerous interpretations of the concept of immortality. To some (including quite a few writers of horror fiction) it means the idea of cheating death altogether and living forever. Or perhaps we move to some other plane from which we make occasional excursions to the land of the living to frighten the pants off some poor unsuspecting victim. To many religions it means that while our body may die, the soul survives physical death. Others believe that we have multiple lives, our spirit coming back at some future time as a different person or even an animal. I don't want to get bogged down in definitions, my aim here is simply to mention a couple of the interpretations that I don't accept, and to show what the term immortality means to me.

Although I love ghost stories as much as anyone, for me they are simply entertainment— enjoyable precisely because they are an escape from reality. There is no evidence that life continues beyond the grave. Modern science has taught us much about how our minds work. We know that thought and emotions are carried by electrical signals in our brains travelling along neural pathways; we even understand and can predict to a large extent what types of thought capabilities will be lost if certain areas of the brain suffer damage. The idea of consciousness surviving brain death is a concept for which I can find no evidence.

Those who claim to be able to communicate with the spirits of deceased people —often to bring "messages" to loved ones— have been proved repeatedly, without fail, to be frauds. Professional magicians, who know how they accomplish their tricks, have debunked them time and again— from Houdini to Derren Brown and Penn and Teller. James Randi is perhaps the most famous of all, and has in addition offered for many, many years a large cash prize to anyone who can verifiably demonstrate they have any communication with the dead. The fact that (in spite of there being hundreds of thousands of "mediums" worldwide), not once has the prize been claimed, speaks volumes.

Also, I don't buy into the idea that our souls (or resurrected bodies) exist forever, experiencing some form of reward or retribution at the hand of an all-powerful being. In particular, I don't go for the version that says that there is an omniscient creator, who made one species out of millions with which he was going to have a special relationship, in the full knowledge that the vast majority of all that species that ever lived (over 90 billion, by conservative estimates) would spend an eternity in unimaginable torment and suffering. Why? Simply because they never heard of Him, or believed in the wrong version of Him, or didn't devote themselves to being His servants. This just beggars belief.

Whilst the other side of the coin (the righteous getting to live forever in unending joy and happiness, reunited with all their loved ones) is perhaps a bit more palatable, it doesn't strike me as likely. It seems just a bit too much like wish fulfilment. As living beings, the survival instinct is ingrained in our DNA. We don't want to die. If I can manage to make it to the ripe old age of eighty or so, I will have outdone my parents and exceeded my expectations. And as wonderful as life can be, I don't think I would be sorry to relinquish it. Nevertheless, there are times when I experience a tinge of sadness at the thought that the world will continue along quite happily without me, or perhaps it is more the idea that I might miss something of importance. I think it is this sense of regret at missing out on something, plus the fervent wish that "good people like myself" experience some amazing eternal reward, while the "awful people that I don't like" should be made to suffer for all eternity that causes a great many of the world's religions to cling to some form of this belief.

I have to admit that I find the idea of multiple lives, or reincarnation, much more appealing. In particular, the idea that we could return to life as animals has enormous appeal, especially if it happened to be one of the many animals with whom I currently share my accommodations. These animals are amongst the most doted upon on the planet, without doubt. But there are difficulties with this idea. Imagine if we inherited traits from our past lives, and could actually be, for example, a dog in one life and a human in the next. The sight of a human walking along the street cocking his leg at every fire hydrant would raise some eyebrows, I am sure. I apologise if I am being flippant here. This idea is not one of which I have any great knowledge, so I am not in a position to discuss it at any great length. All I will say is that I have not come across any compelling evidence that reincarnation actually happens.

So, I'm basically discounting the idea of any form of life after death, or multiple lives. If we live our four score years and then we are no more, isn't this a sad, depressing view of things? Where is the joy, the poetry in such a view? I believe, as many do, that there is more beauty and wonder in what science, over the millennia, has revealed to be the truth than in any made up story. Here is what I believe immortality means...

1. I am as old as time itself, and I shall exist until the end of time. This is not some pie-in-the-sky, metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, it's simple physics. We know that matter cannot be created or destroyed. Therefore, every sub-atomic particle in my body has always existed, as far back as time has existed. The stuff of which I am made was there at the big bang. Long after my dead body has decayed, parts of me may well be scattered around the globe, even eventually around the cosmos.

2. I am a star. So are you, and so is every person who has ever lived. As Lawrence Krauss points out, the Christian religion tells us that Jesus died so we could live. Cosmology tells us that stars died so that we could live. This is what Carl Sagan meant when he said "we are made of star-stuff". Our bodies are roughly ten percent hydrogen, which has existed since shortly after the big bang, and formed into stars as the universe cooled. Every other element in your body was created inside one of these stars, and flung out into the universe when that star exploded. This is an awesome thought, and it's not legend, it's not poetry, it's fact.

3. When I die, no part of me will cease to exist, and no part of me will be wasted. I will continue to contribute to the universe, albeit in a less selfish way than I do at present. My elements will be absorbed into the soil, where some of them will feed microscopic organisms and some will become fodder for worms. Some of these worms could be eaten by birds, which perhaps might be eaten by people— so bits of me could well become part of another person. The trace elements of nitrogen and phosphorous my body contains might be taken up by plants or grasses, so that part of me could conceivably end up one day as part of a cow. Over time, other bits might become parts of trees or rocks. Along with all other living beings, I am inseparably joined to this universe, and my future is eternally to be part of it.

There is an old saying - "truth is stranger than fiction", to which we could add "It is often also more wonderful". I'd like to wrap up this essay by sharing a couple of quotes. The first is from Richard Dawkins' book Unweaving the Rainbow :

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

The second is from Infidel , by Aayan Hirsi Ali :

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.

Immortality contest entry


A few people have questioned the phrase "beggars belief". My understanding is that it's not in widespread use in the US, however, it's quite common in Britain, Australia, and probably some other Commonwealth countries. Without getting into a long and involved discussion about origins, it simply means that something is so incredible it exhausts our capacity for belief.
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