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What Death Means to an Atheist

I just published this on UtahFreethinkers.com. I figure it’s worth posting here too.

So there’s no God. Death is oblivion, then.

When you die, you die

There is no “soul” mixed in with the chemicals, just like there is no soul in a bacterium, a mosquito, a mouse, a dog or a chimp. There is no afterlife, no heaven or hell, for the chemicals that make up a human body.

This concept — this idea that a human being simply ceases to exist upon death — drives many people absolutely nuts. They cannot imagine it. “Me? Die? I am going to totally cease to exist? All my thoughts, all my experiences, all my relationships, all of my ideas and memories… It all simply vanishes and I am gone? Impossible!!!”

Nonetheless, that is the reality of the situation. [WWGHA]

What happens when you die

You may want to skip the next two paragraphs. It is an exercise in realizing that when you die, you die. Do not read if you have recently experienced the death of a loved one (or think you might soon). You have been warned.

Say this to yourself: I’m going to end up a corpse. It only seems so far away because it hasn’t happened yet. But the Grim Reaper awaits me.

The first stage: blood flows to the bottom of your body, leaving the rest white. Rigor mortis sets in–soon after you shit yourself. Soon, the body bloats as gas accumulates. The skin starts to peel off, leaving a small fissure where bugs lay their eggs, their maggots eating your flesh. The soft organs, including the brain, go first.

Morticians dress you up and make you up for the funeral long before this happens. But you’re still white, cold, lifeless. You still have dead eyes. Because you’re dead; you’ve ceased to be.

Your life, contextualized

Hypothetically, a gravestone will say, in the future: “Adam I. Lived from 1991-2071″.

Carl Sagan reminded us all that on the cosmic calendar, starting with the Big Bang and ending in the present–about to start a new year–modern humanity began at 11:59:59 on December 31.

The last second of the year. And you’ve been here only a fraction of that time. But even this doesn’t convey that there are many billions of years ahead of us, and you–even all humanity–may be only a little blip.

To give you some perspective, that hypothetical headstone should read 13,720,678,821-13,720,678,901. On a scale stretching from year 0 to about the year 100,000,000,000.

I know this is a tangent, but you know what’s worst of all? Even with medical advances, during the last 30 years or so of your life your body slowly breaks down–and eventually your brain. The fresh-faced, vital twenties and thirties quickly end in the long scheme of even your short life.

Death is bad. Really.

If a dragon ravaged our country, taking thousands every day to be eaten, would we call that good? Would we rationalize it as a fact of life? Read Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant.

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. […]

… a small boy yelled out from the audience: “The dragon is bad!”

… “I want my granny back,” said the boy.

[Moral 1] A recurrent tragedy became a fact of life, a statistic. In the fable, people’s expectations adapted to the existence of the dragon, to the extent that many became unable to perceive its badness. Aging, too, has become a mere “fact of life” – despite being the principal cause of an unfathomable amount of human suffering and death.

The appeal of transhumanism

Just one of the values of transhumanism is life extension. There needn’t be death. We’re just not smart enough to have figured it out… yet.

Transhumanism isn’t scary. It’s just intellectually consistent humanism, as Eliezer Yudkowsky argues. There are no arbitrary bounds, no special cases: the more humanness, celebration of life, uniqueness, the better.

 If you believe professional bioethicists (people who get paid to explain ethical judgments) then the rule “Life is good, death is bad; health is good, sickness is bad” holds only until some critical age, and then flips polarity. Why should it flip? Why not just keep on with life-is-good? It would seem that it is good to save a six-year-old girl, but bad to extend the life and health of a 150-year-old. Then at what exact age does the term in the utility function go from positive to negative? Why? […]

But – you ask – where does it end? It may seem well and good to talk about extending life and health out to 150 years – but what about 200 years, or 300 years, or 500 years, or more? What about when – in the course of properly integrating all these new life experiences and expanding one’s mind accordingly over time – the equivalent of IQ must go to 140, or 180, or beyond human ranges?

Where does it end? It doesn’t. Why should it? Life is good, health is good, beauty and happiness and fun and laughter and challenge and learning are good. This does not change for arbitrarily large amounts of life and beauty.

 …. Now what?

Only an atheist can realize what death means

It means this is your only shot. If you think you have eternity, where’s the urgency?

It means that you give life purpose by maximizing that shot… right? Because then you die. And you like being alive; at least sometimes you do, and you can maximize whatever it is that you like about living.

Tangent: perhaps not obviously, it also means that rate of progress matters. Someone who self-modifies (self-improves) at 10 X the pace experiences a far higher quality of life when aggregated across their lifespan than the relatively stupid person….  or the person who doesn’t self-improve at all.

“Sensitive”? Nay, merely cognizant

I wrote about my thoughts on life and death–and my grandfather–after he passed away in late 2010. He was a law professor for thirty years. He was such a WW II buff that he wrote a book of his own. I thought that was so cool. He had a hacking cough from all his smoking; a prominent mustache; and a sense of humor I liked. I don’t know what my dad and uncle went through, but it must have been 50x worse. And it was bad. He was my favorite grandparent at the time, and I was his favorite. My dad wrote the obituary. As I wrote at the time “And that’s it. He’s gone. There is no such person as Dallas Isom any longer and there never will be, only a corpse, a collection of carbon and nitrogen and such things. To dust he returneth as we all will.”

As a youngster (read: just a couple of years ago), I was called “sensitive”. But is it sensitivity, or mere cognizance? To think about a human life!–Snuffed out forever!–the possibilities never seen, let alone explored; that glorious flower of consciousness, withered into ashes; that “candle in the dark”, irrevocably pinched out.

Hmmm…  Sensitive?…  perhaps.

The only problem with “sensitivity”, it seems to me, is when your thinking about living, and all its possibilities, instead of trying a few of them out.

We end up living the rest of our lives in a lie because we pay attention to our mind instead of our being: we listen to our own internal dialog instead of our gut feeling. We think, instead of acting. Instead of living in a world of perceptions and in the now, we live in an imaginary world of future scenarios or we remain locked in past events…  The tragedy of the human being is its own mind…  It is time to let our internal dialog go.

Life is not lived on the computer reading about how someone else is leading the life you wish you had. Steal the knowledge, but go create your own stories and experiences. [Some blogger, blog now defunct]

How to use the mind, then?

You learn how to use it appropriately. You learn how to think better; be more rational. You learn how to be happier, perhaps by reading the post How to Be Happy. And then you see that science confirms that quality relationships are one of the biggest predictors of happiness. So you focus on relationships, including expressing love, e.g. by making Nyan’s rules for optimizing affection explicit:

I hereby declare that you are allowed to love me. I will not judge you or hate you or stop talking to you. I will receive and return your affection happily and gently let you know if you push my limits.

You learn when you’re persisting only because of sunk costs; when effort exceeds benefits (for example, moving on mentally with a dead romance prospect). You learn that you can beat procrastination, and how to build the right habits to beat procrastination and such things. You figure out how to have more energy, and how to eliminate the stress of stuff and things-to-do. You learn that successful self-modification is possible by ditching the Tony Robbins and instead opting for something like Self-Directed Behavior (currently reading).

Why? Because when you’re serious, you’re going to self-improve right! And when you remember that you have one shot, then you become serious. (The trick is remembering over and over.)

Parting tip: if you didn’t follow any of the links–which you very probably didn’t–go back and follow the links.

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