Humans have a psychological need to explain things we don’t understand. There has never been a society where Agnosticism was the mainstream “religion.” In ancient times, people invented mythological stories to explain weather, stars, plants, the origins of life and what happens after we die. Their brains simply couldn’t accept the honest truth, “We don’t yet understand why these things happen.”
Science has explained what rain, lightening, and stars really are, but we’re still struggling with the concept of death. So most people pick a religious book and accept its answers as flat fact. They defend the hastiness of their decision by saying, “If it brings me peace and doesn’t hurt anyone, then what’s the harm?”
There are three problems with this justification. First, most religious texts are littered with passages that can cause harm. If you accept the book as a whole, you risk letting the bad in with the good unless you cherry pick what you want to believe, but then you’ll spend half your life doing mental gymnastics to reconcile you’re contradictory beliefs.
The second problem is that your actions in this life are guided by your purpose. So what you believe about death will sway the course of your entire life. Believing you’ll go to heaven for following a specific set of rules invented by Bronze Age tribesmen will have you chasing your tail while ignoring more important issues. Believing you’ll be reborn in a new body can lull you into a false sense of security and cause you to ignore time-sensitive tasks. Believing sin is caused by space ghosts that can only be exorcised by paying a cult member to hear your confessions can cost you a lot of time, money, and freedom.
The final and most important problem is that truth matters. Living out a fantasy feels good, but the opportunity to experience reality is meaningless if we choose not to live in reality. The only sane way to explain death is to admit you don’t, can’t, and won’t ever understand it.
Ironically, your brain is still hardwired to make sense of the unknown, and you still need some kind of working theory on death to give context to your actions and guide them towards a purpose. So you need some kind of idea/s in your head that you can follow as if they were true while simultaneously doubting them enough to reject and improve them for the rest of your life.
Based on the scientific evidence we have, the simplest and most honest explanation of death is that when you die, your consciousness ceases, and that’s it. There is no soul, afterlife, reincarnation, second chances, fairness, justice, mercy, punishment, or any other kind of consequence or closure.
This isn’t as grim as it may appear on the surface. The brevity of life gives it value and should motivate you to make the most of the present moment for its own sake. It also implies a moral code that is best summed up by Sam Harris, “Consider it; every person you have ever met, every person will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?”
You can use this nihilistic atheistic framework as the basis for a meaningful life while still reserving the disclaimer that you could be wrong, or as Lee Child put it, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
We can’t prove there’s an afterlife, but we also can’t prove what started the big bang or defined the rules of nature. The universe is an infinitely large, expanding machine that has rearranged itself over the course of billions of years to create planets that excrete sentient beings capable of experiencing reality. It wouldn’t be wrong to say the universe is a sentient machine that creates reality.
The power and genius required to invent our universe is incomprehensible, and the same force that created quantum physics also created life and death. If it went through all this trouble to design us to die, there must be a reason that is as logical as the freezing point of water. I don’t know what that reason is, but I know we’re in good hands; we’re in the best position to hope for the best. If the universe is on our side, almost anything is possible.
Maybe there was only a one-in-infinity chance of your consciousness existing, but on a long enough time scale, “one-in-infinity” is tantamount to “inevitable.” And if your consciousness existed once despite all odds, that sets a precedent it could happen again. It’s entirely up to the will of the universe, which again, already seems to be on your side.
It’s theoretically possible you’ll be reincarnated into whatever you choose, deserve, or need. Half-believing that should motivate you to become the best version of yourself. So would half-believing you’ll simply re-live some version of your current life over and over for the rest of infinity.
But here’s my favorite half-believed working theory about life and death. You are the universe incarnate. Your consciousness is the universe’s consciousness, and the universe never dies. Even when all the stars burn out, the force behind it still exists.
This means you’re basically a character in one of “God’s” dreams, and dying is like “God” waking up from a dream. Maybe you’ll cease to exist as an independent consciousness, but you’ll live on as a memory with as little regret for your loss as you would after waking up in the morning, ending the lifespan of a projection of yourself that existed in last night’s dream.
Then again, maybe once your consciousness has existed, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. Though, it could be possible that in order to hold onto your consciousness, you have to achieve a level of awareness and completeness to hold yourself together. If you don’t, then your death reverts to “God” waking up from a dream.
In either scenario, when you treat other people kindly or cruelly, you are the universe doing that to itself, and that’s reward and punishment enough in and of itself. Torturing you for eternity would just be God sticking its own hand in a fire.
I’m not saying you should believe this, or that I even believe it. All I’m saying is I wouldn’t rule out the possibility we were created for a purpose. I do know we were born with an incredible set of mental tools that can be used to define and improve your consciousness, and there would be no point in giving us those tools and the opportunity to use them if we weren’t meant to.
If death is the end, that’s all the more reason to become the best version of yourself while you can, so you can experience your fleeting life to the fullest.
Although the universe may have put you in the best position to hope for an afterlife, that’s no reason to be complacent. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by using the tools at your disposal to put yourself in the best position to hope for an afterlife by becoming yourself to the fullest extent possible and making the most out of the opportunity you were given. How to do that is another question altogether that you were probably meant to spend rest of your life trying to figure out.
P.S. Never forget to question your answers.
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January 18th, 2020 at 9:09 am
You wrote a wonderful article. We’re just a small part of this life cycle. We’ll die and return to “God” who is nature. Deus sive natura. According to Spinoza, God is Nature and Nature is God. In his Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza discussed the inconsistencies that result when God is assumed to have human characteristics. In the third chapter of that book, he stated that the word “God” means the same as the word “Nature”, so he declared that all things happen according to the laws of nature,