Posted: Fri, February 01, 2013 | By: Gennady Stolyarov II
The video “Afterlife” is a compilation of remarks by Seth Andrews (TheThinkingAtheist) and other famous YouTube atheists regarding the religious concept of life after death. However, the video goes beyond merely (correctly) critiquing ideas of the afterlife, and reflects an unfortunate acceptance of human mortality itself. As a lifelong atheist and transhumanist – a resolute foe of senescence and death and a seeker of indefinite life extension – I offer my critiques of the statements and quotations made in this video. The video does present many interesting and valid insights, but it unfortunately throws the metaphorical baby – indefinite human life extension, driven by scientific discoveries and technological innovation – out with the bathwater – religious myths of an afterlife, unsubstantiated by evidence and arising out of a desire to attain comfort in the face of mortality. As much as I respect Mr. Andrews and others quoted here, I must regretfully conclude that “Afterlife” embraces the other side of the religious coin: the premise that the only way to try to beat back the alleged inevitability of one’s eventual non-existence is through an unsubstantiated fantasy. But there is another, fully secular, fully human-centered option: the progress of our civilization and its eventual ability to conquer the age-old (and old-age) perils plaguing humankind.
I would welcome an in-depth discussion with Mr. Andrews or any of the other commentators in the video regarding this alternative to the religious afterlife – an alternative that can affirm and extend the precious, only life that each of us has. I hope that more atheists can recognize that transhumanism is the logical implication of rejecting a teleological, theistic worldview and amplifying all that is best about us as humans, so that the purpose of the universe can be what we make of it.
Vladimir Nabokov: Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats at hour).
My Response: In the “prenatal abyss”, one has never been alive, so one does not know what one is missing – or that one is missing, in fact. But once one is alive, one is able to anticipate one’s own non-existence – which is the worst fate of all for an individual, worse than eternal torture or eternal boredom (neither of which is realistic in any case). Furthermore, when one is alive, one has the ability to discover the history that came before one’s time. One has no way of knowing or observing the future after one’s death.
Mark Twain: I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.
My Response: Being dead presupposes having once been alive. Having never existed makes one a mere potential among trillions of possible beings. Having existed once but not anymore means that one’s entire self – a fully formed universe of memories, sensations, thoughts, and aspirations – has become snuffed out. For each of us, there was a time when we did not have all that we have now: our lives. But, now that we have it, to lose it would be intolerable. It would literally be the undoing of everything we have ever been or done or aspired toward.
DarkMatter2525: The universe would continue in its ways if humanity weren’t here to witness it.
My Response: True, but to the individual, it is the same as if the entire universe has been extinguished. Whatever goes on after one’s death, one cannot experience it or be aware of its existence – and hence the only significance it might have is in terms of one’s anticipation of how it might be. That anticipation can only take place while one is alive and is necessarily fraught with extreme uncertainty. It cannot compare to the real thing – to living in the future. I want to live a millennium from now, not merely speculate about how it might be.
HealthyAddict: The universe is absolutely massive, and we are virtually insignificant in it.
My Response: The vastness of the universe in no way diminishes the significance of the individual. What is valuable, what is important is a function of entities that can pursue values or make judgments of importance. Only living, conscious entities can actively pursue values – and the very idea of values only makes sense in the context of the survival and flourishing of such living, conscious entities. The universe is vast, but the lives of humans and possibly other sentient beings are still of the ultimate importance – since it is the human scale on which valuation occurs. Size and importance are not related.
Another sense of the term “insignificance” might simply be “powerlessness” or “vulnerability” – without a moral judgment attached. It is true that humanity is still in its infancy, and still extremely fragile. Numerous natural disasters, originating on earth or in outer space, could severely damage or destroy our species. But this should only motivate us to expand our sphere of influence through technology and its application to the colonization of space and the enhancement of our bodies. If we are weak relative to the inanimate forces of the universe, then we must become stronger – as individuals and as a species.
Evid3nc3: I see no evidence that the rest of the universe cares that we exist or is even capable of caring. But I don’t really need validation from the rest of the universe to find my own life important.
My Response: I agree. There is no teleology built into the universe. What this means is that we must do our own caring; we cannot rely on the universe as a crutch – except in that we should utilize the laws of nature as instruments to advance our well-being. It is up to us to protect ourselves and expand our sphere of influence in the universe. And we should all, like Evid3nc3, find our own lives important – which is precisely why we should make every effort to prolong our lives – which are the source of that ultimate importance for us.
Laci Green: It’s just absurd to me how many people live for dying.
My Response: I agree that it is wrong to live for dying or to anticipate that one’s individuality and vantage point into the world will persist after one’s physical body is destroyed. Rather than live for dying, one should live for living – and act to keep on living. To do so, one should support (at least morally) the emerging efforts to prolong human lifespans. One should also educate oneself about the possibility of indefinite life extension within the coming decades, as well as the developments that are occurring today to help bring this goal closer to reality.
Seth Andrews: I think fragile, fearful humans were terrified of death, and so they wrote their own ending to the story – this happy fantasy, a place where they’ll be reunited with people they’ve lost, they’ll experience constant joy, and of course they’ll never, ever die.
My Response: I think this is indeed the predominant motivation behind the origins of religion. People who could not hope to avoid death through technology sought to comfort themselves and to make everyday pursuits more tolerable by convincing themselves that their existence does not cease at death. In effect, religion is ersatz-immortality: a poor substitute for the real thing, but enough to trick many people into not realizing the grave implications of death. But in an era when technology is advancing so rapidly that there is hope for us and our contemporaries to live indefinitely – there are two main attitudinal dangers. The first danger is continuing to believe that the ersatz-immortality is good enough and that it justifies not striving hard for the real thing. The second is the other side of the same coin – unfortunately embraced by too many atheists: rejecting both the ersatz-immortality and the real thing, abandoning the most profound triumph for our species, when we are – in historical time – on the verge of achieving it. I support abandoning the fantasy, but I do not support relinquishing the reality – literally – and acquiescing to becoming food for worms.
DPRJones: The concept of an afterlife diminishes the value that we place on our lives and the here and now.
My Response: I agree that this could be the case, if the expectation of an afterlife discourages people from striving to both improve and prolong this life. As an atheist, I hold that this life is the only one there is – and it is indeed the most precious life there is and could be. Therefore, to lose this life is to lose everything, and so the foremost ethical objective should be to hold onto this life.
DarkMatter2525: An unlimited supply of anything, including life, means that its existence cannot be appreciated.
My Response: For all practical purposes, the air on Earth is inexhaustible by humans. Does that mean that we do not appreciate the ability to breathe and sustain our lives in that way? Does this mean that air is not essential to us or any less important to our lungs than if we had to ration it or purchase canisters of oxygen to carry around? Certainly not. While scarcity of a resource is a key determinant of its monetary price, the idea that scarcity is somehow necessary for mental appreciation is highly flawed. Use-value (utility) and monetary “value” (price) are not the same. We should – and can – appreciate a thing or a condition for its own qualities qua thing or condition – and the benefit those qualities confer upon us. How many of those things or conditions exist or are going to exist does not matter.
Furthermore, the fact is, we still live one moment at a time. We do not have all of eternity at our disposal at any given moment, no matter how long we live. We only have the given moment, and a limited range of possibilities for what we can do right then. Thus, a kind of temporal scarcity will always exist – in the sense that some activities and satisfactions will always be more remote in time than others, and we will have to wait and strive for the ones that are more remote.
DarkMatter2525: If life is eternal, then there should be no sense of urgency.
My Response: Value is not derived from urgency, but from improvement of the human condition and, subsequently, from enjoyment of the fruits of that improvement. A work of art or music is not any more beautiful because of the urgency with which we experience it; it is beautiful because of its intrinsic constituent characteristics – the brushstrokes and notes that comprise it. Indeed, urgency detracts from value by inducing a stressed, rushed, crazed, and hectic experience where we miss important aspects of life because we worry that we will not have the time to do whatever we consider to be higher on the priority list. With less urgency, we could partake of more of the good things in life and have a longer-term perspective – planning for the future and treating ourselves and others with more respect and consideration. We could be more frugal, since we would enjoy the fruits of saving directly. We could take better care of our living spaces – both locally in our homes and on the scale of planets. We could still fulfill all of our highest priorities – and more of them, too, since we would have more time. But longevity itself would reshape our priorities and enable us to gain a more balanced, deliberate, and sophisticated perspective on our lives.
For me, the greatest happiness comes from those serene moments where I do not have to rush anywhere and do not have to worry about falling behind. It comes from having accomplished and from having done something good that could later – with purpose and deliberation – be the stepping stone for something even better. In the midst of intense work, happiness is that plateau of leisure between the past and the future, the reaffirmation that life can be good when it amounts to a progress that never hits a permanent wall. Urgency detracts from happiness by preventing one from truly enjoying life in a leisurely fashion – as opposed to trying to cram in as much as possible now, now, now – expecting (fearing, perhaps) that there might not be much time left.
Thunderf00t: I do not fear being dead, but the concept of the alternatives offered by the religious do trouble me. [Regarding Heaven], there does appear to be one constant: It will last for eternity. Imagine that. Imagine eternity. […] The first hundred years may be possible; the first thousand – more painful; the first ten thousand – insufferable. But this is just the start. An eternity in heaven would be hell for me.
My Response: I agree that Heaven as imagined by the religious would probably be a somewhat uninteresting place, since one would spend all of one’s time in it “glorifying God”. But this problem has nothing to do with experiencing an indefinite existence. It is a great poverty of imagination to be unable to think of what one could do with ten thousand years, or a much longer timeframe. Think: could you even consume all of the literature, music, art, and culture that humankind has created up to the present if you had ten thousand years? Indefinite longevity would bring about unprecedented richness, depth, and breadth of experience – as well as the immensity of individual learning and refinement, and the possibility to pursue multiple careers and many more hobbies than one currently can.
Furthermore, if Thunderf00t dislikes the prospect of an eternal existence, why would an eternal non-existence be any better or more preferable? Once you are dead, you are dead forever – and cannot choose to go back to not being dead. On the other hand, if you are alive indefinitely, and you feel tired, you could choose to take a nice long non-lethal nap or vacation and resume your activities when you are refreshed and in a better mood. Those who feel tedium or boredom now might later feel more like finding something meaningful and interesting to do in this vast universe. To die is to deny oneself this ability for an improvement in one’s outlook and enthusiasm.
The great and all-too-common error made by Thunderf00t is to see all of an individual’s life as a simultaneous totality rather than the way it is actually experienced: one moment at a time. While Thunderf00t might be unable to conceive of what he would do with ten thousand years, he probably knows what he would like to do the next minute, or the next day, or the next week. If he could live and work in this way – experiencing one day at a time – while remaining at his physical and intellectual prime – would there ever be a day when he would consciously decide that he would rather die tomorrow? Only a person in tremendous suffering could conceivably make such a choice. With technological and moral progress taking away ever more of that suffering, the desire to keep on living should become strengthened until no sane, rational person would ever want to die.
DarkMatter2525: Given eternity, anything that can be accomplished, will be accomplished. Beyond all achievements, there would only be limitless, pointless existence.
My Response: Considering that over a thousand new books get produced every day, doing or accomplishing “everything” would be impossible – since our minds’ conception of the possibilities will always outpace our ability to actualize those possibilities. DarkMatter2525 is assuming a finite, static set of possible accomplishments. In reality, the scope of possible accomplishments and activities grows every day at much faster rate than any given human has the ability to pursue those accomplishments and activities. One cannot experience today all that has been created even today by the billions of people now alive. The longer we live, the smaller will be the fraction of available pursuits in which we will be able to engage at any given time. Even if humans are able to enhance their minds radically in order to process and memorize as much text as a computer can – the human creative faculty would be able to generate proportionally more text as well, so that the volume of available output would still accelerate away from the ability of any human to process all of it. And books are just one subset of human activity – which will become increasingly diverse and multifaceted as our civilization advances. And think of all those billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, that we have yet to explore and colonize!
Laci Green: When I think about my own death, I used to feel scared, but I don’t think I do anymore.
My Response: I hypothesize (though I cannot be sure) that Ms. Green only sees death in the abstract for now. She is young and healthy, and it is easy to rationalize away the significance of death when it is remote. This is a coping mechanism that many people have, and it works particularly well when everyday life is reasonably good. But how many people can have this equanimity when death approaches – when it is too late to do anything about it? If Ms. Green does not wish to experience fear regarding the prospect of her eventual death – fine. I have no problem with people choosing to focus on other matters in an everyday context. However, I sincerely wish that she and others who do not feel scared would nonetheless have an intellectual awareness of the great destruction wrought by senescence, decay, and death. Then they could – calmly or cheerfully, as they please – support research and advance moral arguments that assist humankind in beating back this menace. I advocate not fear, but action.
AronRa: I’m not afraid of being dead. After we die, we will not know the truth at that point. We will not know, wish, think, remember, dream anything.
My Response: Precisely, and that is the worst possible fate. Our very being, our “I-ness” – that which makes all other experiences possible – will be extinguished, and not even the memory of our once having existed will remain with us.
Seth Andrews: I don‘t really find this sad or tragic either. I don’t really welcome death, but I don’t live in fear of the end. And I’ve come to see it as just another part of the natural world.
My Response: Not all that is “natural” is good – and, indeed, nature offers ways out of the problem of senescence by showing us numerous species that do not experience the ravages of biological aging or experience them at a much slower rate than we do. Since, in its truest sense, the word “natural” is just an expression for “what is” – Mr. Andrews is committing the Panglossian fallacy – the view that “whatever is, is right.” Cancer is natural, and it is brutal. Also natural is the fact that 99.9% of all the species that ever existed are now extinct. Just because this is natural, does not mean that we should accept it for ourselves. We can remake the outcomes of nature by studying the laws of nature and harnessing them for our own benefit. Once we have secured our continuing existence, we can work to eventually create a more humane, less predatory environment for all life forms that deserve it. We already do this to some extent with domestic pets and certain other useful animals – though, arguably, not to the extent that a more morally developed and resource-rich society might accommodate.
Thunderf00t: In some respects, we never die. Our lives are entangled with those who come after us, just as our lives are entangled with those who came before us. [Faraday, Newton, and Pasteur affect everyone’s lives today.] Death is not the end. We are intertwined with both lesser and greater things.
My Response: It is true that our lives have an impact on others, and that impact can extend beyond the lifespan of the individual. It is also true that we sometimes do not even perceive all the ways in which we impact others and others impact us. However, while our influence on the rest of the world might be a source of pride or reassurance to us in life, in death it means nothing – because we would not be aware of it even as a general concept without any particular details. Others who remain alive might still hazily and incompletely remember the dead individual, of course – but that memory is an asset to them, not to the dead. I benefit from the existence of Faraday, Newton, and Pasteur – good for me. But they are oblivious to this at present.
Laci Green: Just because there is no grand scheme it plays into does not mean there is not something beautiful about what is going on here.
My Response: I agree that the universe, or existence, has no grand scheme. But it is not clear to what “beautiful” phenomena Ms. Green is referring. There is true beauty in existence, but there are also true nastiness and cruelty and injustice. It is important to recognize the beautiful and good elements of the world, while struggling to eradicate or reform the bad. The real war we must fight is against the forces of ruin, and we should not lapse into the Panglossian fallacy of accepting absolutely anything that occurs on a regular basis as somehow “beautiful” or even remotely palatable.
ZOMGitsCriss: Ironically, the only part of me that is immortal is my material body. […] Every atom of me will be recycled back into the universe.
My Response: A long time ago (when I was fourteen), I tried to find consolation in that idea as well. It worked for about two hours. But then I realized that what matters is the arrangement of those atoms and the temporal continuity of that arrangement. I gain and lose atoms all the time, but each individual atom is not what makes me who I am. The essence of who I am, rather, is the manner in which those atoms interact with one another within the overall structure of my body – including my mind. When that is gone, I am gone.
DarkMatter2525: Even though a cell might not last forever, the role it plays in the larger organism is important, and that is how I see myself – as a part of something bigger.
My Response: But that “something bigger” does not care about DarkMatter2525, by his own earlier admission! So why should he care about it enough to be willing to be a mere cog in it? And if, as Laci Green says, there is no grand scheme to it all, then what exactly is he a part of? In terms of purpose, the only alternative to a teleological worldview, where purpose is “built into” the universe, is a humanistic worldview where purpose originates from the self – based on the biological requirements of one’s own survival, which, once sustained at a certain level, enable the individual to use his will to shape the universe to give it purpose. But in order to confer purpose upon an initially purposeless cosmos, one has to exist and to keep existing. Once existence stops, the purpose-giving process also stops, and so the “something bigger” is also no more.
ZOMGitsCriss: Knowing that this life is the only one I have makes me a lot more conscious of my actions, makes me want to do something with this short life I have.
My Response: I agree that knowing that this is the only life we have should make this life the greatest value to us – to be treated with the utmost seriousness and respect. We should seek to do great things with our time – but we should also seek to prolong our time, which is in itself a monumental and glorious undertaking.
Seth Andrews : There’s too much to learn, too much to see, too much to know, too much to experience. I’m not just going to exist. I’m going to live.
My Response: Certainly, some conditions of existence are better than others, and mere survival is not all there is to life. Flourishing can occur when life is lived in a way that fulfills an increasingly sophisticated series of human needs – ranging on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from basic material sustenance to self-actualization. But pursuing the higher needs by no means undercuts or conflicts with the more basic needs. Indeed, the higher needs are largely unattainable unless one already lives in a prosperous, peaceful civilization where the basic needs are so easily fulfilled that one almost takes them for granted.
All too many people perceive survival as somehow antithetical to enjoying life – but in fact enjoyment of life is not possible without being alive. Therefore, if one wishes to do more of the things that make life enjoyable, one should strive to live as long as possible – far beyond the paltry eighty or so years that comprise the current average life expectancy in the Western world.