Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tackling the Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Preface - Any thoughts contained in the following ramblings are not meant to include assessments as to whether or not the Divine exists, or what form it may take, or likewise, what happens after death. I'm not dead, so I can't know, and I really loathe making uninformed decisions. So, realize that this is coming not from an atheist, but from a questioner.

So, after a series of bizarre experiences, merging art and life, I find myself questioning that eternal mystery "What next?" Life is a straightforward enough matter. There's diapers at one end, families in the middle, and then diapers again at the other. It's that bit that comes afterwards that people are always wondering about. Generations of humans, millenia of lives marching forward into a big black curtain, a proper stage mask that no one ever sees behind. It is the one certainty in life that every person finds waiting at the end.

I once read that the human race invented the idea of gods as a response to the staggering reality of our own mortality. Horrified beyond the bounds of rational thought at the truth of our existence, the fact that we burned so bright, so fast, and then go so utterly dark, primitive man used his newly developed powers of imagination to impose an external order onto the world. Like a child naming it's invisible playmates, the elements were given identities. Fire, Earth, Thunder, these primitive gods sprang out of nothingness, to give meaning to the desperate young humanity's plight. Because that's where the roots of concepts of Afterlife come from, from our concept of the divine. We were so utterly mortified of what comes after death that we invented religion to protect ourselves from it. It sounds reasonable to me.

Some Asian cultures worship their ancestors. Thus, if you lived a good and venerable life, you would become a sort of house god, given the task of protecting your family. You had an identity, a task, and respect after you died, so it's almost as though you didn't die at all. Christians believe that if you lived a good and devout life, you go to Heaven to be with your creator. You keep your identity, you keep an anchor to your natural life (the same role of worship you had in church is now your role in the afterlife), and so it's like you didn't die. You simply entered a new form of being. Vikings believed their best warriors who died in battle went off to Valhalla, to life on in eternally glorious battle by day, and feasting by night. They kept their same roles and identities as in life, and so it's as though they did not actually die.

This all was triggered when I was asked what my thoughts were on the concept of reincarnation. That one is actually the most transparent of all of the ideas of afterlife. After you die, you just do it all over again. Some mechanism is in place to route your "soul" right back into a new body. You are alive again, and if you're quite good, you can dig deep and pull back memories of past lives. Then, it's like you never actually died at all.

The idea of an afterlife is insurance. It is the human race hedging it's bets against the darkness. By a collective power of will, the human creature unites with other, like-minded people and form a mental shield against the apparent truth of our existence. Even the word "After Life" carries within it's structure evidence of human denial. "Afterlife" or "Life After", it suggests that death is a transition, and not actually death. Death is akin to moving to another town, except the phones are a bit crap there and you can't get a signal to call all the other people you used to know. That's the core of religion, at the end of the day. It is the collective decision of its members to reject the physical evidence they are presented with, and embrace something else.

But what does the empirical evidence tell us? Boiled down in a test tube, the human condition is almost sadistic. Thrust into a vastly complicated universe with absolutely no apparent structure, we are given tremendous mental abilities. We are given the ability to perceive things that we cannot see, the powers of imagination and creativity. We have the unique ability to identify order and patterns, the ability to develop the disciplines of math and science. We are given a drive to know and understand everything, but then we are given the blink of an eye to do it. If we were crafted this way intentionally, it almost seems cruel. If it was accidental, it seems even crueler. Every single human being that has ever lived has been Alive. They have had the spark of life burning bright within them. An identity, a series of connections to other humans - Mother, Father, Friend, Enemy. They had likes, dislikes, quirks and oddities that were unique in all of the history of the universe to this one individual. For a long time, I always used to pride myself on being unique. But, as I open my eyes and study the people in my life, they are all marvelously unique as well. Every decision, for good or ill, is born of a chain reaction of chemicals and experiences and memories that I cannot begin to know. Snowflakes are child's play by comparison.

And yet, like snowflakes, every one of these people has but a short time. And we know it, because we have all seen the hand of death at work. Perhaps it was a bit more immediate for our less modern ancestors, but it was no less personal. Humans did not just being human a hundred years ago, or a thousand, or even more. We have been human the whole time. The sparks of creativity and genius that are with us today have been part of the human condition all along. Those ancestors were just like us, living, laughing, loving. But they're gone now. And they have left us no clues as to what is waiting for us beyond the curtain.

The human creature is presented with the ultimate paradox, and it's really no surprise that we've had to develop all manner of unfounded presumptions about what comes next in order to deal with it. We are given self-consciousness, the ability to have our own identity and unique personality. We then are given a timeline of indeterminate length, except we know with confidence that it will end. We are given the mental ability to tackle any mystery given sufficient time, and then someone starts a stopwatch. Humans are very purpose oriented creatures, so we create situations where we have Purpose. Purpose lets us tap into something eternal and immortal. Purpose lets us be part of something that is not temporary, that is not mortal, but that is everlasting. So, we embrace the purpose we find, and we pursue it because that is how we will live forever.

So, to answer the question, no, I don't believe in reincarnation. I think that, rationally, humans should not be letting ourselves get distracted by the irrelevant. The human creature has a very short time on this world, and we have a great many more important things to be doing than trying to organize what happens after we die. Because, scientifically, we have no evidence of an afterlife. If there is one, there is no reliable physical proof to back it up, so why make an issue of it? I have irrefutable physical proof that I have a life right now. I have an apartment, a car, a cat, and a beer waiting for me in the refrigerator. It is a waste of our precious minds to go muddling around in the afterwards, because we can't yet. If there is something there, then we will all have plenty of time to deal with it when the time comes. For now, I can prove scientifically that I have a beer in my fridge.

For a few more moments, anyway.

There is more to this, though. So I am confident this will not be the last time I find myself tackling it. Feel free to share your thoughts, please.

1 comment:

  1. So, Tony, you are quite the philosopher. I would love to hear more about your persuasive argument because there are some science issues that do clear the air just a bit. And yes, controversial but still very good questions about origins and beginnings. Wow, you express yourself so well. Maybe next time you find your stomping grounds you can come on by? I'd love to see you and hear some more of what you have discovered.