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Dead is Dead

Yesterday, I posted an article on Examiner about near-death experiences. As it turns out, science can explain the experiences that many people have in this regard which tends to lead many people to believe in an afterlife and God. This article got a conversation going with a few people who wrote to me telling me that they don’t want science to explain these types of experiences. Instead, they just want to believe that their deceased loved ones are living on forever on a white cloud or something.

As it turns out, this type of emotional reaction is not new to me. When I first started questioning religion, my mother got a little edgy because she too wants to believe that our deceased family members are still living on some how. In fact, based on conversations we have had on the topic, I think that this view is the only real connection to religion she still has, although I could be wrong about that.

Still, while I understand that people don’t want to believe that dead friends and relatives are… dead, the reality is that they are. No amount of wishful thinking can change that fact. The only place that dead people still live on is in the memory of those who are still alive.

A comment that one person made to me on this subject is that the human mind seems so infinite that our consciousness must live on. How could all of someone’s experiences just be gone, just like that? Not to be caulis or anything, because I know that death is an emotional subject, but that type of thinking is a little ridiculous. Let’s think about it this with an analogy:

I believe that there is a pot of gold buried somewhere in my back yard. While my back yard isn’t large, it goes down very deep. In fact, I couldn’t drill to the center of the Earth because we don’t have the equipment necessary to do so. In other words, my back yard is seems so infinite that there must be some pot of gold buried in it somewhere. I just have a hard time believing that there is no pot of gold buried at any depth of my backyard. You can’t really prove there isn’t a pot of gold buried there unless you were able to drill to the center of the Earth. I want there to be a pot of gold buried there.

Such a claim would be ridiculous. We all know that there is no pot of gold buried in our backyards. Whether or not there is a pot of gold in my backyard is not really an emotional issue. So no one really has a problem calling bullshit on it. But death is an emotional issue. I hate to tell people that their dead loved ones are… dead. They get very emotional very quickly. They don’t want to believe that dead means dead. But it does. No one says that that guy was hit by a bus and afterlifed instantly.

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  • The Fighting Liberal (formerly Mr. X)

    I’ve been saying this forever, now: The #1 reason people cling to religion, is their fear of death (BTW, this fits evolutionary psychology like a glove).

    And some day, maybe science will grant us relative immortality. When that day comes, religion will die out.

    “A comment that one person made to me on this subject is that the human mind seems so infinite that our consciousness must live on. ”

    A question of relative complexity. You can’t build a computer that can record and model, in complete detail, all of its own workings. You need a MORE POWERFUL COMPUTER to do that. Applying this analogy to the human brain – logic dictates that a human brain can never comprehend all of its own functions. Thus, your consciousness always appears to be “infinite” to itself, no matter how small it actually is, in relative terms.

    In the meantime, I, as an atheist, continue to grapple with the reality of death. Ultimately, it seems to be about accepting, and taking a “glass is half full” perspective. At this time, my maternal grandfather, who I’m particularly close to, is due to undergo surgery early next month – so this topic hits close to home right now. The fact is, whether he survives the operation or not, he’s lived a long, full life, and that’s as much as any of us can realistically expect of our existences. He’s “had a good run”, I hope I “have a good run” too, and at the end of the day, there’s only so much to feel sad about.

    I’d like to think that death isn’t the end, but I refuse to live in denial for the sake of personal comfort.

  • Kat

    People waste a whole life worrying about what comes next, instead of living THIS life. We are organisms..just like all the other living organisms on earth.. trees, flowers, plants and animals…We live..We die…If you waste this life, why would you deserve another one?

  • http://myspace.com/scott888 Scott

    Accepting death is part of becoming an atheist. Perhaps if more people accepted death as truly the end then they would live life better.

    I have noticed that I am a very paranoid driver because I know one fuck up could be a deadly head on collusion. The fact we have to drive everyday is what greatly ups the probability that we could die before we expire naturally. So I drive very carefully because I am pro-actively dodging death daily. However, the other drivers on the road are not. I’m going 55, the speed limit and someone passes me even though there is a car in the other lane further up the road coming towards him. Belief in the afterlife probably contributes to other drivers putting me in danger of death.

    Also, belief in an afterlife is what gets people to go fight wars. Perhaps this is Darwin’s way of reducing the number of sheep on this planet. Suicide missions only happen because people believe in 72 virgin wives.

    “We live..We die…If you waste this life, why would you deserve another one?”

    Originally religion was designed to appease the people with very shitty lives such as slaves and peasants. Since their life was going to be wasted anyways, they needed to have something. Today in the middle east we have polygamy where one man can get four wives. Since populations tend to be 50/50, this means that alot of men cannot find a woman and start a family. So going on a suicide military mission for 72 virgin wives sounds like a great idea. As for the people in this nation that choose to be religious, they have far less reason to believe in an afterlife for life in the US is not that bad.

    What needs to happen is for people to start living as if they only live once. Then there would be less death caused by the people that think they do have an afterlife.

  • Hmmmm

    Facts are, we don’t really know what constitutes the self. Yes we know that our brains are responsible for our abilities to translate sensory information and that they are responsible for our personalities and that they allow us to be interactive with the world around us, however, we don’t know what ‘we’ actually are. The nature of identity is still up for debate. What if we are not our brains themselves but rather the interactions created by our brains? We would still need to decide what about those interactions constitutes identity. It is possible that we are but patterns, like music. It is possible that the song continues in some other medium beyond the brain when the brain dies – like a song being played on another instrument, or being continued on another instrument. Anyway, it is simply not true that this mystery of the nature of identity is solved and until it is, we really can’t, with honesty make claims regarding the nature of death and its finality. We also should not, of course, count on an afterlife. We should live as if there isn’t one.

    Our brains can be damaged and yet we seem to retain identity. Our brains are constantly changing and yet we seem to retain identity. A person can lose their memories and still be themselves. We might be the sum of our parts, but those parts are in no way constant. If we are our brains, then we have absolutely no concrete identity anyway since there isn’t anything necessarily constant about our brains and our deaths at the end of our lives are in no way special really.

    • existential blues

      Our brains can also be damaged with the result that we lose our identity. What does our identity even mean if we lose all of our memories? It doesn’t make sense to say that we retain our identity in that case. Then there are cases of things like multiple personality disorder. You are romanticizing the idea of identity.

      The universe is affected by the fact that we existed, just as it is affected by by a rabbits having existed. The ripples spread across the pond until the universe ends. Whether those ripples have any real significance is debatable.

      • Hmmmm

        Well, I am not sure about this, but I think if you ask a person who has lost their memories if they have an identity older than when they were last able to retain old memories, they would say that they did. There is something intangible, something we can’t really express with words, that seems to tie all of our bits and pieces together. It isn’t the same as all of our bits and pieces though. There is something to being me, that has nothing to do with anything you could describe about me, if you know what I mean. I admit, this might be an illusion. I don’t have any good reason to think that my experience of myself is an illusion though.

        • http://www.dangeroustalk.net Staks

          Memory is one part of the brain, but the brain has redundancies. So you mean to tell me that if someone had their brain completely removed, that they would still have an identity? I find that pretty hard to believe.

  • http://www.myspace.com/diana_graves Diana

    The thought of oblivion sounds appealing, actually.

    Life went on just fine before we were alive, and it will go on just fine after we die.

    We live on in our good works and in the memory of those people we’ve had an impact on. So, be good and go out of your way to improve the world and the lives around you and you will have immortality.