death

Ask a stupid question countdown... Two

TodayChristian.net posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

2. What happens when we die?

This is a very odd question to ask to "an atheist". It reveals that they're not actually interested in the answer. You would think if you were honestly interested in knowing what happens at death, they would ask an expert - someone in the field of biology, medicine or neuroscience. Instead this approach of asking random people what they think, as if their opinion mattered

But since they asked, I'll give my answer by analogy. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett has pointed out, we can make large strides in understanding consciousness and the brain by learning about how computers work because while they are certainly far from identical, we have discovered many many things that minds can do which can be imitated successfully by computers. So treating a person as an uber sophisticated robot/computer can be instructive.

Imagine taking your old computer and doing something analogous to what would happen when a human dies. For starters, you would turn off the power. That means the computer is non functional, but large amounts of information are stored in memory so the computer can be reactivated in the future. But instead you simulate death further. You subject the computer to some kind of pulverizing process which breaks it up into many, many pieces and scatters the pieces. It's not correct to say that the computer was destroyed because all of its pieces are still around in other places, just as when we die, all our pieces are still around, either in boxes or as food for some small organisms. But our intuition, which I think is correct, is that there is nothing left of the computer; the computer is gone.

The same thing happens to us. All of our parts are broken down and go other places and there is nothing of us left. There can't be a heaven or hell for us to go to because there is no meaningful piece of us that is able to "go" anywhere.

Dementor

The contrary Christian position depends on there being some piece of us that escapes, usually called the soul. It's the thing that Dementors try to suck out of you and the thing that tries to sneak out when you sneeze. However we have a complete absence of evidence for the existence of soul as separate entities, not part of the normal periodic table or standard model. This is probably an accident of language and history since we always had separate words for "mind" and "brain" (and a strange notion that pops up constantly about the "heart" which seems to imply that the heart is more than just a muscle for circulating blood and actually does some kind of "thinking"... I've always been curious as to whether the people writing these ancient texts actually thought that or if they were aware they were speaking metaphorically). But we now understand that, in a fairly straightforward correspondence, the mind is what the brains doesIf you disassemble the parts of the brain, the mind ceases to exist.

We've also known since the time of Descartes that the transcendent soul of Christian substance dualism isn't even internally consistent. It's important to remember that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

The general tone of the question makes it sound like this is a bad thing. If I don't get another eternal life after this one, what's the point of this one? These people never stop to consider that if that view of reality were correct than this non-eternal first life would not have a point to it and dedicated Christians would be rushing off to die in holy wars by the millions in as much hurry as possible to get this pathetic existence over with and get on with the good bits.

Quite the contrary; if you only have one life to live, then it's special... even meaningful. It's because there is only a finite amount of time we have, that makes what we do matter more.

Stay tuned for question one... this could take a while.

Oh, the humanism

Recently, the British Humanist Association posted a series of short animated videos narrated by the great Stephen Fry. For those unfamiliar, Stephen Fry is (to quote the late Douglas Adams):

This man is the bee's knees, he is the wasp's nipples. He is, I would go so far as to say, the entire set of erogenous zones of every major flying insect of the Western world. [1]

And that's not just because he's the only TV personality I know of that can do a Faro shuffle. He is one of the great articulators of the generation. He always has just the right words to say what he wants to say, which often requires him to make up his own words. So I was delighted to watch this series of videos. They are a brilliant elucidation of what it means to be a humanist.

Nothing to do with magic, but enjoy anyway. It will be the best twelve minutes of your week: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tvz0mmF6NW4?rel=0]

I Believe In Atheists

In the same space at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre, at Summerworks, we shared our space with several other productions. One particularly interesting one, which I couldn't wait to see was I Believe in Atheists. The play deals with the question of what happens to unbelievers when they die. The premise: all of the world's religions are true (just go with it for a moment) and you receive the afterlife that matches your beliefs. The downside is that unbelievers must therefore be snuffed out of existence permanently.

Now I really liked the play and appreciate it as a piece of fiction. But the atheist buzz-kill deep inside of me feels the need to address some things it got wrong.

There is a (I think I'm forced to use this word) belief that what we believe somehow influences what's true. It seems to be a combination of the silly position that "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" along with the usual way people confuse correlation with causation.

True many people believe that the earth revolves around the sun (and not the other way around as was once thought) and in probabilistic sense that does make this fact very likely to be true. But it was still true even when no one believed it. The fact exists independently of belief. It's not true because people believe it; it's true and people believe it. That very big difference often gets lost in the course of clumsy human discourse.

There is an oft-invoked argument for god(s); the "so many people can't be wrong" argument. Which is not a valid argument regardless of how persuasive it feels.

One of the things that magic has taught me is that people don't make decisions based on facts; we make decisions based on beliefs. Whether a fact is true doesn't matter nearly as much as whether or not we believe it's true.

Unfortunately, magic has taught me how incredibly easy it is to cause people to believe untrue things. This realization morphed into one of the opening lines for my show:

... where we explore how things which are not real can still shape reality.

It's been a long time since I've been forced to evaluate my own views on death. It's been ten years since my father past away and since we were estranged, it was not a difficult thing to cope with.

Certainly all the evidence that I'm familiar with, from biology to physics, suggests that there should be nothing that could be called an after-life. There is no sense in which consciousness continues once the brain stops functioning. No chance to look down on the rest of the world after the fact. No place where we can be reunited with people who are no longer here. No possibility of coming back in another form.

At first glance it seems awfully depressing. It seems obvious that a great deal of religious belief originated as wishful thinking designed to make it easier to cope with the loss of loved ones. The ability to say "don't worry, he's in a better place" seems useful even if it's not true. To have to go through loss like that without those platitudes and false consolations is incredibly difficult.

I've heard the argument that "energy cannot be created or destroyed so surely we must go on somehow." That sounds like wonderful physics, but the truths of physics don't bear that out.

But physics offers some consolation, in something called the "Minus First Law of Thermodynamics" [1] which states that "information" cannot be lost. Information is used in a rather unusual sense, but it translates as follows: On small scales, all of the laws of physics are reversible in time. That is, if you look at a large scale video (say of a teacup falling off the edge of a table) and they play the video backwards, there's a visible difference and you can tell forward in time from backward in time. Unusually if you look at a very small scale (if you could see the individual atoms in the cup and the tea), there would be no way to tell the difference between forward and backward.

This means that given enough "information", you can work out the past and future states of a system to arbitrary detail. (This was the theory governing Douglas Adams' "Total Perspective Vortex" where you could create a picture of the entire universe by observing a single piece of fairy cake.) So in this sense, the influence that a person has while alive on the world and the people in it, continues on forever into the future.

When you add to that the concept of a meme (a term coined by Richard Dawkins many years ago in The Selfish Gene). While alive, we can create ideas (write them down even) and those ideas can spread like a cat photo on the internet and survive us. Just look at Shakespeare, who lives on even though the individual has long since turned to dust. So all is not lost.

But that leaves the fact that when we're gone, we're gone. And no amount of false consolation will change that. I think one of the great challenges that lie ahead of us in the twenty-first century will be to find a way to deal with death, and talk about death without having to resort to lies and fairy tales.

[1] Harvey R. Brown et al. "The Origins of Time-asymetry in Thermodynamics: The Minus First Law"

[Updated July 2013]