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How can atheists feel comfortable about death?
June 5, 2005 5:45 PM   Subscribe

I am an atheist. My inevitable death and the deaths of those I love causes me occasional mental distress. I have no afterlife to look forward to, only oblivion. Is there a way of thinking about this that will make me feel better about it, or should I resign myself to feeling really down about it from time to time?

The idea that there will probably be a time in which the human lifespan will be considerably longer, and possibly indefinite, is particularly irksome. Some future obiwanwasabi living forever with his loved ones while I am reduced to dust is quite depressing.

"There's nothing you can do about it - accept it" isn't comforting at all. "It happens to everybody" used to be vaguely comforting, until I realised that it probably wasn't true for some future humans. The idea that some particularly advanced and benevolent humans will time travel, snatch my mind at the point of death and "resurrect" me and and my loved ones to live in their perfect universe doesn't sound terribly likely (though I am keen to hear of other ways in which atheists might be able to enjoy an 'afterlife').

I'm hoping that there's some way of looking at it that I haven't considered that helps me to think about it in a better way. You know the old trick of rephrasing "What is the meaning of life?" as "How can I live a life that is meaningful to me?" I'm hoping there's something like that for kicking the bucket.
posted by obiwanwasabi to Religion & Philosophy (76 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm a fellow atheist, and this is the way I look at things:

It's the very fact that we are mortal that makes life worthwhile. If you knew you were going to live forever, why would you bother doing anything? You'd always have a second chance.

I know that I'm going to die at some point, but it doesn't bother me. I've done things that have affected others' lives, mostly for the better (I think), and intend to keep doing so. I'm the father of two amazing children. I have friends I care about who care about me. I have a job that indirectly helps people.

In other words, try to create some immortality for yourself by doing things that change the world, even if only a little bit. Don't look at your eventual death as depressing--look at it as a challenge. Get as much done before it happens as you can, and you'll be remembered.
posted by cerebus19 at 5:58 PM on June 5, 2005


How do you feel about nature?

'Cause when you die, you'll be a bigger part of it -- and a better part of it -- than you are now. Every time the alive you gets into a car, buys a product packaged in plastic, throws away a styrofoam cup, you put a dent in the earth.

But when you die, should you be buried, you will give back to it. What's left of you (and by the way, I think our souls continue on, though I don't know how) will feed the planet and will, down the road, provide food for future generations.

It's a drop in the bucket, but what more do you want?

There's one way to look at it.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:00 PM on June 5, 2005


A time traveler came back in time to tell me to tell you that the day after you die, nuclear war will break out and irradicate the rest of the human race. He also said to tell you that your family was safely brought back in time so that they could live out their lives peacefully. Hope that helps.
posted by gaelenh at 6:01 PM on June 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


hmm... the universe has been here for ~14B years and you are going to live 80 or 90 of those if you are lucky. prior to these 80 or 90 years you were dead also. have you thought much on that?

that's pretty much how i look at it. i dont remember where i was before i was born, so the whole thing doesnt bother me too much. given the apparently miniscule probabilty that i would be given the opportunity to exist, i pretty much just give thanks that my conciousness is here.
posted by joeblough at 6:04 PM on June 5, 2005


As I see it, death is the atheist's equivalent of buddhist enlightenment.

Definition of enlightenment: the beatitude that transcends the cycle of reincarnation; characterized by the extinction of desire and suffering and individual consciousness. This state of mind sounds a lot like death to me, and of course, this assumes one believes in reincarnation. Atheists get the best of both worlds :)

In other words, don't think of death as a bad thing, it's probably the best thing that could happen to you after life. Sure beats living forever in my opinion.
posted by koenie at 6:04 PM on June 5, 2005


the only consolation i can find is that it's an honourable suffering. you could welch out and believe in some kind of religion, but then you wouldn't be an atheist, right? so it's a pain that validates the strength of your own nihilism - if it were easy, there'd be nothing to be proud of.

i'm not sure that's particularly healthy, and i wouldn't think too hard about it in case you drift off into some kind of nietzschean fascism, but it does help.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:06 PM on June 5, 2005


Well, how old are you?

It's very possible that these 'life extending' technologies may be applicable to people living today. I mean, the 'simplest' method, which would be downloading your brain into a computer neuron by neuron might be achevable by 2050. I certanly plan to be alive by then.

In the meantime thing like hormone tharapy stem-cell therapy might be able to slow down the aging process to the point that we'll still be alive when even greater advances are made, enabling true earthly immortality.

(no wonder the fundies are so against stem cell research. If people are granted earthly imortality, what's the point of being chrsitian?)

I would say, for now try to be as healthy as you can and you might get in under the wire.

That's how I look at it, anyway. Beyond that there's really no reason to worry about it. Worrying won't get you anywhere. So when you do worry try to get your mind onto something else.
posted by delmoi at 6:06 PM on June 5, 2005


The second law of thermodynamics shows that not only we, but everyone to come, and everything to come, is doomed to destruction. Eternity and afterlife just doesn't make sense in the context of the universe we live in. In practise, eternity of any kind is hell.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:07 PM on June 5, 2005


It's the very fact that we are mortal that makes life worthwhile. If you knew you were going to live forever, why would you bother doing anything?

Yep. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a whole bunch of stories dealing with the concept of infinity, and The City of the Immortals is one of my favorites. The Immortals sit in holes and stare at the sky, all day, every day, because they've pretty much done everything, or because what you and I would consider important means nothing to them. Your life means so much precisely because of its duration. I think the ephemerality of certain events in one's lifetime lends weight to their perceived importance. But, who's to say? Living for 500 years, or even immortality, might be a total blast. I'm just not going to find out about it. Whatever.

disclaimer: I'm a full-on atheist with some mild Zen leanings.
posted by LionIndex at 6:14 PM on June 5, 2005


well, if you buy into the atheism, then you also believe that there will be no feeling of oblivion at the end. Your awareness will end.
posted by filmgeek at 6:17 PM on June 5, 2005


When I die, my body will decompose and enrich the soil and plant life. In the same way, the ideas, relationships and practices I created in my lifetime will continue to effect the other people I've come into contact with, and through them future generations as well. The only part of me that won't survive is my consciousness, and that's a pretty insignificant thing.
posted by cali at 6:17 PM on June 5, 2005


It seems like cerebus hits on something important - given that you do not believe in an afterlife, you're certainly not living in a way to avoid hell or to "deserve" a heaven, so you must not fear what comes after death, exactly because you don't believe there is anything after it. Combining this with the fact that your life is finite, but you also yearn for immortality leads me to believe you feel like the actions you're taking in life are not fully satisfying.

If you are doing something fully satisfying, and planned to continue in that manner, I'm not sure where your discomfort comes from, and would ask you to elaborate.
posted by odinsdream at 6:18 PM on June 5, 2005


I guess a better way of putting it is that it seems like you're saying "I have all these great things going on and it's horrible that I have to give them up when I die", while it might be the case that if you didn't have to die, those things wouldn't be so great in the first place.
posted by LionIndex at 6:19 PM on June 5, 2005


My inevitable death and the deaths of those I love causes me occasional mental distress. I have no afterlife to look forward to, only oblivion. Is there a way of thinking about this that will make me feel better about it, or should I resign myself to feeling really down about it from time to time?

I bid you a warm welcome to what is often called (albeit clumsily) "the human condition". There are no definite answers--at least, none that are very convincing. At the end of the day, you go to sleep with the cold breeze of oblivion softly breathing on your neck.

Most of western literature has been asking aloud the same question, excluding that written by the (fortunate? unfortunate?) simpletons for whom the idea of God was fully and utterly satisfying (it wasn't for none of the greatest of religious writers.) Perhaps you will find some temporary relief in the transcendence of your particularity to a higher community of mortals. You'd do well to start with Hamlet.
posted by ori at 6:21 PM on June 5, 2005


it wasn't for any, rather.
posted by ori at 6:22 PM on June 5, 2005


When I was crazy, I thought very much about immortality, and what it would entail. It seemed 100% real to me, and I considered it carefully. I ended up being thankful that I have a finite life, because going on forever would be so very, very wearying. Imagine what never being able to retire would be like....
posted by beth at 6:30 PM on June 5, 2005


It's not like you can stop it. Why worry? Concentrate on living in the present and let the future sort itself out.
posted by Eideteker at 6:31 PM on June 5, 2005


The fall of freddie the leaf really seemed to help me out with death when i was younger and lost that whole "it's okay cause i'm going to heaven" safety net. I didn't read this exact version of it, and I can't find the one I did. I liked it a lot better than this one, but the just is still the same. Other than that, I still think about it, but why dwell on it. You know it's coming. You know you can't stop it. Might as well enjoy the ride.
posted by chrisroberts at 6:39 PM on June 5, 2005


God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Death is beyond my ability to stave off. All I want out of my short life is a little serenity.
posted by DaShiv at 6:42 PM on June 5, 2005


I think everyone has given some really interesting advice. I would also suggest that you do resign yourself to feeling bad every now and then. While, as many have suggested, death may make life more meaningful and all that, it would be silly to pretend that it isn't also an awful, sad thing. Feeling bad seems to me to be an important part of the human experience.
posted by Doug at 6:43 PM on June 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


I'm more upset that I only get to experience a small slice of the entire human experience. Dying means I won't get to see how the story ends.

I am also an atheist. I used to fear death, but now it just disappoints me. It's a natural part of our existence, and along the human timeline I am more often dead than alive. I try to enjoy the little time I have. There is no point spending my whole time alive contemplating death. It's better to focus on being alive.

I just figure that by the time I die, assuming I die of old age, I will be ready to go. This is based on my past experience with my age: I was ready to leave my teens, and definitely ready to leave my 20s. I think at each stage I will be ready to go on to the next, and when I reach death, I have confidence that I will once again be ready then. Thinking about it now is hard only because I am not ready now, but why should I be ready to die at age 33? I will be ready when the time comes.
posted by veronitron at 6:51 PM on June 5, 2005


“The idea that some particularly advanced and benevolent humans will time travel, snatch my mind at the point of death and "resurrect" me and and my loved ones to live in their perfect universe doesn't sound terribly likely”

There's already an organization set up precisely for that purpose. It's called the Time Travel Fund and I've joined for $10. Maybe it'll work, likely not, but it's fun anyway.
posted by Monochrome at 6:57 PM on June 5, 2005


I like veronitron's advice. Worry about it when the time comes. We're all good at procrastinating so put this one off. :)

Who knows maybe you won't ever have to deal with the actual fear. My grandfather has Alzheimer's and he is so far gone now I don't think he fears or thinks about death. It's almost as if, for us, he died a while ago. But when exactly?

Focus on today and how amazing it is to be alive at all, in this universe. Who knows? Maybe there is some kind of a dull afterlife and you will just sit around kicking yourself for ever wasting any of that precious time you were alive thinking about something futile like Death. Billions of people have died before me - my great-grandparents and historical figures like Julius Caesar and Napoleon. I'm not afraid to go wherever they went. It's part of what makes us all human together.
posted by vacapinta at 7:04 PM on June 5, 2005


What on earth is there to be "down" about? You have had the singularly unique and exquisite pleasure of having existed. It's a shame to have to give it up in the end, but what there is is pretty damn exciting. Be thankful and quit worrying about it ... whatever you think now, it makes no difference once you're dead and gone. Might as well choose to enjoy it.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:13 PM on June 5, 2005


I share obiwanwasabi's condition. whenever I get just a little depressed, I start thinking about dying and the afterlife (lack thereof) and occasionally have a panic attack. that said, none of the advice here so far really helps me! yes, the world is amazing, but I still don't want to die. y'all sound like a bunch of little league coaches.

sometimes I try to calm my mind by reading "real" ghost stories. (although even if ghosts are real, it doesn't necessarily prove that consciousness continues after death.) or, I'll think back to weird things that have happened to me in the past that could be conveniently chalked up to something supernatural (dreams that came true, chance encounters, etc).

in other words, I try to stay in a state of denial.
posted by mcsweetie at 7:24 PM on June 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why being an atheist entails not believing in an afterlife. Strictly speaking an atheist does not believe in theism - therefore you don't believe in a God or Gods controlling the universe. It doesn't seem necessary to jump from that proposition to the idea that you will cease to exist when you die.

I used to think, proud in my skepticism, that I had 'discovered' that there was no God and was therefore more enlightened and more aware than those people who do believe in God. All I had done, however, was decide that religious thinking did not in general explain life or the universe. If I were to be a good skeptic, I would realize that I had no actual positive ideology on the foundational nature of the universe or existence, I had merely found what appeared to be limitations to some of the ones I was given (namely Christianity). Being skeptical or even flatout disbelieving about any and all religious tenets does not mean that one has to be a nihilist. In fact, I think the biggest failing of much religious thinking is that it tends to place the thinker in the center of the universe. In other words, when I think 'There is no God,' then the universe has no meaning or there cannot be existence after death. I think what has happened instead is that I have a new way of viewing the universe, one without a typical theist God, and that the universe is the same as it was and will continue to be - I just have a new perspective on what may work. The actual truth, or objective reality, of my thinking is no more or less firm, ultimately.

I think the skeptic's position on the afterlife has to be 'no one knows what happens - which neither means that something happens like Heaven or that nothing happens like ceasing to exist. It means no one knows.' In fact, if either Heaven happened or nothing happened when I died, those would be the most surprising results to me... Why?

Since someone brought up the laws of thermodynamics, I sometimes think about the First Law of Thermodynamics when I consider people I have known who have died 'Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.' Whatever it is that produces the phenomenon of consciousness, it doesn't have to be a religious soul, but whatever it is, I don't think it will be destroyed. Perhaps it is changed quite a bit, but I don't think it is destroyed.

I think one of the most interesting things Neil Gaiman did with the Sandman series was propose, in various ways, the unlikelihood of death being the end of life.
posted by Slothrop at 7:35 PM on June 5, 2005 [2 favorites]


Well, you could always find religion. Not all religions or religious people are like some of the nutjobs getting press these days. If the whole concept of a god seems to foreign to embrace you might seek out the local chapter of the Unitarian Universalists. They focus on spirituality, more than a deity. Most of the world's cultures believe in some sort of afterlife, regardless of their deity or lack thereof. Are they all wrong? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I am not so sure that we need to understand or know what might follow death, but contemplating with others how we should spiritually connect with others, what our existence might mean and what our passing might mean certainly has value for the soul, the psyche, one's peace of mind, whatever.
posted by caddis at 7:50 PM on June 5, 2005


I'd like to take this opportunity to plug Bad Religion, which could best be described as an intellectual punk band. They've done a few songs on the topic of death, such as Slumber, Pity the Dead, and In So Many Ways. They aren't necessarily cheerful, but I appreciated them; they made me feel I wasn't alone.
I can see the shadows on the wall
Drifting as the leaves start to fall
Unfazed by rugosity, the objects yield to gravity
And depict the destiny of us all.
No one really knows why we die
No one gets a break, so we try,
Ignoring mortality, we worship mediocrity
And wait to see what happens up on high.
In so many ways we live to follow the sun
In so many ways we exalt and fail as one
In so many ways we want so bad to be done
In so many ways we show our pain in unison
posted by CrunchyFrog at 7:52 PM on June 5, 2005


I have the religious koolade, so I won't offer any personal insights. But you may find some useful responses here.
posted by Doohickie at 7:53 PM on June 5, 2005


Embrace it, go through it and suffer it because it adds texture and contrast to the brighter, joy giving, laughter filling moments you experience.
posted by alteredcarbon at 7:59 PM on June 5, 2005


You might look into cryogenics. Even if it doesn't pan out, that's probably your closest bet to the time travelers coming back to save you, so it might give you some peace of mind.

In my 20s, I was pretty sure that I'd be able to live forever. Ten or 15 years ago, it just seemed like the 21st century would do for medicine what the 20th did for physics.

It still seems tantalizingly close, but now as I suffer things like heartburn and watch my body begin to take the early steps towards failure, I realize I'm in a race against time that I may not be able to win.

That created a fair amount of anxiety for me. The best solution I found to that is to not dwell on it. When I find my thoughts going down that road, I force them into another area.

Lately, too, I've begun to recognize consciousness as sort of an illusion. You are only you as you understand you because of a quirk of some chemicals in your head (or some other to be identified essence). Your life isn't really real. It's a temporary dream. I find that for some reason, that perspective allows me to enjoy it without worrying too much about when the bubble bursts.

But, until you reach that point, cryogenics.
posted by willnot at 8:00 PM on June 5, 2005


I used to have that same sort of fear about death, and I'm a Deist. Then I went through being my father's caretaker when his cancer went terminal, and was by his side when he died.

My dad had two months where he knew he was going to die - his cancer was that bad. I saw him every day, but you know, it wasn't the soul-crushing experience I thought it would be. My father's biggest fear was not being able to be there for those he'd be leaving behind. I think a lot of our own fears of death are intermingled with not being able to provide for our loved ones once we're gone. So, do what you can now to plan for your death and get at least some peace of mind there.

Having witnessed it, the process of dying no longer scares me. Sure, it can be messy, but so is birth. You do what you can with what you have. It was a process, and we treated it as such.

I'm now a whole lot comfortable with the entire concept of being "ready" to die, too. Though he was only 59, I sat holding my father's hand, telling him he had my permission to go "home," wherever that may be. His sickness was so very unfair, but his decisions leading up to death (including refusing chemo) were totally right for him and I was ok with that. Unless you die in an accident, you will probably have some control over the way you die. Get a living will and health care surrogate to make sure.

As for what lies beyond, don't think it's dishonest to be an atheist and admit you have no idea what happens at/after death from the perspective of the dying. The fact that the universe is one great big something instead of absolute nothing blows my mind as it is, so I personally think a great many things are possible. But, even if it is oblivion for us mere mortals, it isn't like not existing bothered us before we were born. We can only really experience existing, so from my point of view, that's as good as immortality.
posted by Sangre Azul at 8:04 PM on June 5, 2005


I agree with Slothrop. Death is a fundamental unknown and there is effectively no conclusive way to decide what kind of journey it is other than ultimately going through it. Luckily, you don't have to solve the problem of understanding death now, as you will at some point in the future.

From a personal standpoint, the universe as we know it is quite amazing and a source of perpetual mystery, so I would not perport to think that since I have not had a personal post death experience that there is none.

An interesting movie about consciousness (and ultimately its continuations) is what the bleep do we know.
posted by blueyellow at 8:05 PM on June 5, 2005


It might seem a bit flip, but the old zen master Bunan said, “Die while you're alive and be absolutely dead. Then do whatever you want: it’s all good.”
posted by youarejustalittleant at 8:08 PM on June 5, 2005


No Death, No Fear is a good book on the subject from the perspective of a Zen monk. It doesn't presume any belief in any kind of supernatural being or any kind of traditional religious myth, so maybe it would be palatable to you.

Or you could have a near-death experience. Regardless of whether they are "real" or what they mean, most people who have them report a dramatically reduced fear of death.
posted by mcguirk at 8:12 PM on June 5, 2005


Dashiv beat me to it but the serenity prayer captures exactly how I feel about death. Yes, I know that it's sort of silly to use a Christian player to help you out with atheism but its always helped me. There is so much stuff in the world that I can do something about that it seems like a waste of time to worry about something that I can't. You might as well worry about continental drift or entropy for all effect it will have.
posted by octothorpe at 8:25 PM on June 5, 2005


The only way to avoid dying is not to live in the first place. That said, the way I deal with it is not to think about it -- the same as those who are religious.
posted by kindall at 8:37 PM on June 5, 2005


I'm always curious about the ways in which people "know" there is or isn't some kind of post-mortality. Are all of our feelings social constructions, a soup of chemical interactions and neural firings? I mean, that's very possible.

But anyway, I went to my Grandfather's funeral recently, and despite his religion, nothing much was said about the afterlife, but I did see about 20 grandchildren and family members, and it occured to me in a really tangible way that he was living on in his progeny but more importantly in the memories he'd given us.

I know that sounds like a Hallmark moment, but it was real to me.
posted by craniac at 8:39 PM on June 5, 2005


at a younger age i decided that i'd start thinking about afterlife as soon as i have fewer days to look forward to then i do to look back on. However, always remember that death should focus you more on the equisiteness of life and make you appreciate every damn day the more.

also, remember that belief is based on arbitraryness (ie: it's not a thing about thinking, it's a feeling or an emotion). I've personally chosen to believe in the afterlife as envisioned in the movie "defending your life" (or some veriation there of). Remember, it's a great big universe and we're all really puny...so how much do we really need to worry about ourselves when we can just be in awe of the unbelievable hugeness of it all.

good luck and enjoy it while it lasts
posted by NGnerd at 8:47 PM on June 5, 2005


Slothrop mentioned it and mudpuppie sort of touched on it, but here is what I believe.

ENERGY.

What some people call a soul, I call energy. I don't see it as a conciousness like we have now but a different way of living. A cycle. To me, knowing that I will be a bigger part of this collective energy is a much more comforting and logical way of accepting death.

Perhaps my energy will spark more life. It's a super positive thing for me. In this sense perhaps you do have an afterlife, just not how religions say so.
posted by freudianslipper at 9:20 PM on June 5, 2005


I think you need to stop thinking about death so much, and reallu stop and think about the materialist proposition of eternal life. Would you really want it?

I don't know; I've read and heard of a number of stories about eternal life, and while most of them are theist, they pretty much convinced me that eternal life on earth isn't all it's cracked up to be. Even if you also have eternal youth. Maybe even especially, because you live eternally without really experiencing much of life.

Do you really want to live forever on Earth? You'd be spending an eternity making a living, after all; if we lived forever, retirement wouldn't be an option. Not to mention that the increased competition for resources brought on by the resulting overpopulation would make it near impossible to live an eternal life of leisure, to any extent.

Also, things don't really change that much, only on their surfaces. It might be fun for to watch a few centuries go by, but it seems to me it would get tiring. A pleasing arc of a life that begins with your education and development into a successful individual and ends with a few years of relaxation/recreation at the end of life seems much more fulfilling.

If you're still bothered by death, it seems the only other thing an atheist can do is to be comforted that the idea of yourself lives on. Generally this is done by either having kids, doing something particularly memorable (having an important first in an important field, writing the great American novel, killing large numbers of people), or leaving large sums of money in your will to build the Obiwanwasabi Memorial Some-Useful-Building (museum, hospital, library, college building).
posted by dagnyscott at 9:29 PM on June 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


I often find it helpful to be grateful for what I have rather than depressed by what I don't. Look at it this way: You came *this* close to not existing at all. A slight variation in the dance of the genes, a zippier sperm getting to the egg first, a small variation in termperature, a headache, a phone call, any of a million events and wham! No obiwanwasabi. Not now. Not ever.

So rather than being depressed that you will die, be grateful that you live.
posted by mono blanco at 9:52 PM on June 5, 2005


Okay, I really do think living forever would be awesome. That's why my belief in life-extending techniques borders on the religious. And like mcsweetie, I'm not too comforted by a "hey, that makes it worth it." A healthy fear of death is the most obvious survival trait. It's also a wonderful incentive to ambition. Try expressing it -- powerful emotions are one key to effective expression that touches other people. Deep feelings like the longing for companionship, the need to be understood, and the fear of death -- these are the currents that run through the greatest art and literature. And the artists and writers who truly tap into them will always outperform those who lead a happy, uninsightful life.

So don't ignore the pain. Channel it.
posted by NickDouglas at 10:00 PM on June 5, 2005


"There's nothing you can do about it - accept it" isn't comforting at all. "It happens to everybody" used to be vaguely comforting, until I realised that it probably wasn't true for some future humans.

Won't our sun eventually go supernova or somecrap? Won't our universe eventually blow up? Those futurepeople who get to live a crapload longer than you, they're gonna die too.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:00 PM on June 5, 2005


I wouldn't cop-out with any sort of 'energy' bullshit. The only energy inside you are a series of electric pulses and various chemical reactions. But, I must admit, it amuses me that you can accept the non-existence of god and yet feel afraid of dying. I find the notion of a Godless world--though I've accepted it--far more terrifying than any kind of simple non-existence.

So, well, I've had very much the opposite problem.

I've never been afraid to die, even in the slightest. In fact, there was a good long while where I was called suicidal even though I didn't want to die, I just wasn't afraid to die. I repeatedly risked my life with total abandon. There were so many times that I came so very close to dying, and I never felt afraid. During these adventures, I always had to make the conscious judgement that what I was doing was worth dying for. It was only after I'd come to truly accept the value of my own life that I could proceed relatively calmly in the face of death.

For me, the notion the entire notion of death as a positive construct, an "oblivion," a thing that is defined by the absence of life, is nonsense. Sentences like "I fear death" don't really parse. It's like saying, "I fear tommorow." At best, it's a metaphor. In my world, I suppose, there's just no such thing as death. I can only talk sensibly about life, and further, the value of life. When a good friend of mine passed away a few years ago I was practically happy. He had lived an amazing life. He'd accomplished tremendous things and in the end his death was a glorious death. He was beautiful and triumphant up until the very end. In his own words, it was such a "fitting end for our hero." It was beautiful.

In the end, I suppose you may fear death not because you fear "oblivion" (again, this doesn't make much sense) but because you've never taken measure of your life and those around you. Or worse, because you feel your life is meaningless and valueless. Like the wealthy man who stays awake at night terrified that he'll lose all his money and someday be poor, you simply don't grasp the true nature of your wealth. And so, you lust after more and more, eternal life, though it'll never really be enough. For me, personally, the question has never been about when or if I'll die but rather will my death have been worthy of my life.
posted by nixerman at 10:19 PM on June 5, 2005 [2 favorites]


As mentioned above, believing that there is no God does not mean that you have to believe that there is no afterlife. So, one thing you could do is change your beliefs. If, however, you're absolutely convinced that there is no afterlife, then getting depressed about that is kind of like getting depressed about the fact that there is gravity. It's a fact, and there is nothing you can do about it, except to choose to not worry about it. That people will be able to extend their lives indefinitely at some point in the future is a bit of a stretch. I wouldn't count on it if I were you.

Also, with death comes the end of all suffering and all problems (if you believe that there is no afterlife). There's quite a bit of value in that.
posted by epimorph at 10:31 PM on June 5, 2005


Usually when I get scared I just think that I'm just a weird little knot in some crazy complicated but perfectly ordered 4 (6? 11?) dimensional object that exists for all time (by definition) If that doesn't work I try pondering quantum mechanics or chaos theory. For example, read the Web of Life or download Xaos and have a look. I think that I'm like one of those little buddha things way the hell in there somewhere and my whole life is just its little frills and spirals but I'm just part of a bigger one, etc., and the whole thing is just the equation z -> z^2 + c anyway. Then I usually just take a bong hit and try not to think about it anymore.
posted by Astragalus at 10:32 PM on June 5, 2005


I had considered posting this exact question to Ask Metafilter. Thank you for pre-empting me.

I would say that I have fought this particular battle to an uneasy cognitive stalemate. The way I address it is to tell myself that each day is a very long time -- each month and each year, even more so. Even though I hopefully have many, many days left, each one is a gift, a small slice of eternity for me to fill with something worthwhile.

Another way I address mortality is with lots and lots and lots of exercise. I have been seriously committed to fitness ever since the early death of a parent. Our bodies are machines over which we do have some control - it's up to us to keep ourselves in tune.
posted by killdevil at 10:38 PM on June 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


I've come to think that it's just the next step. Even if we find someway to make ourselves "immortal" it will just put it off. It's the next step. I probably didn't want to be born either but that was the next step. Everybody takes it at some point. The truth is we don't know what happens and that's kind of exciting.
I've done a lot of meditation, yoga, etc. over the years and though I haven't stuck with any of it I found them useful experiences. The one with the most impact was holotropic breathwork. I just took a weekend course at Naropa Institute in Colorado about ten years ago and after it I felt differently about dying. I don't know if it would do that for anyone else but you might look into it. Here is the website of the guy who popularized it. http://www.holotropic.com/
Not the same people I took it from but I think he's the reigning authority.
Please feel free to ignore this, I'm reluctant to post it but, well, that was my experience so there you go.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:58 PM on June 5, 2005


I occasionally (perhaps like mcsweetie) find myself gripped by sheer panic when I consider eternity -- and mortality. Nonexistence is a freaky concept. The thoughts usually find me in the shower (where my mind wanders most), and it is absolute terror. But it passes once I physically remove myself, usually about two seconds after the terror strikes me.

(I was raised Catholic and am essentially searching now. Considering a nonexistent afterlife is all part of my search.)

Anyway, long way to say that when I feel said thoughts coming on, the following logic-train seems to stave them off. What is existence, really, but one's memories? If I lost my entire memory tomorrow, it would essentially be like the "old" me had died. I would have zero recollection of my past, and a new me would be born. I'm sure one can argue for inherent knowledge/abilities, but those are different. They certainly make me "me," but my memory and recollections are what make me truly alive, in existence.

So I sometimes comfort myself by thinking that death can be compared to serious amnesia. For some reason, full amnesia doesn't seem to scare me like nonexistence, even though, by my definition, they're about the same. But when the current me dies, who's to say it's not just my memories disappearing? Perhaps I keep going... maybe I shrink down to infant size and come down a birth canal at the same time, too...

Anyway, certainly just a little game I play, but it seems to quell some of my unease.

Also, I've not read it, but have been meaning to find The Vitality of Death by Peter Koestenbaum. I've heard it makes a solid case for finite lives.
posted by johndavi at 11:08 PM on June 5, 2005


But, I must admit, it amuses me that you can accept the non-existence of god and yet feel afraid of dying.

Just to be clear, I'm not the slightest bit afraid to die. I'd just really rather it didn't happen against my will. It depresses me. It seems very unnecessary, and very unfair.

Living forever unfulfilling? I'd like the choice. Grateful for the life I have? I am, and want it to continue. Focus on the good stuff? Hard when death will take it all away; not thinking about it is a little ostrich-like. Consider that my consciousness or 'energy' might survive death in some form? Not gonna happen. Time travellers? They could just as easily be puritans and stick me in an artificial hell for eternity for my sins. Death makes good things better? I really don't buy this - dinner with my family wouldn't be better if I knew they were all going to die during dessert. Death as enlightenment? I choose to stay unenlightened, thanks. Live a life full of value and meaning? I do, and don't see how death is better than doing living such a life for as long as I feel like keeping it up.

Suggestions from the office include cultivating a Buddhist-like lack of attachment, and actively embracing and planning for your death rather than having it lurk around in the cellar of your mind - in other words, derive comfort from control (up to, and including, committing suicide). I'll have to think about these more.

I'm more depressed than ever - thanks, though, everybody ;).
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:14 PM on June 5, 2005


obiwansabi,

I suppose the essential core of the problem is: Live a life full of value and meaning? I do, and don't see how death is better than doing living such a life for as long as I feel like keeping it up.

I would say your life has no value and meaning if you cannot contemplate--perhaps even cherish--its end. What I mean is, you may view death as some sort of negative, life-destroying event but this view doesn't make much sense to me. You feel it's unfair because, like a child, you think you have no control over it and in this sense death undermines and ignores any sort of value or meaningul you may have built into your life. But death isn't something that comes to you--you "go" to "it." In this sense death is purely a positive, life-affirming event. People who live courageous, graceful lives up until the very end are beautiful. The ability to equate death with action is, I suspect, one of the defining criteria for what it means to be human. I suppose Nietzsche said it best: one should aim to die at the right time.
posted by nixerman at 11:39 PM on June 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


Is there someone (or something) that means so much to you, you would take a bullet for them? I know that for most parents I know, this answer is a clear yes. They would sacrifice their life in an instant if it meant they would save the life of their child. And there would be very little of this hand-wringing.

Fear of death comes from too much idle contemplation about an unsolvable paradox. I exist. But, what will happen to me when I no longer exist? This question makes no sense since...you no longer exist. Then what is it that bothers you exactly?

I agree about planning for your death. In fact, why not look forward to your death. Face it head on. Outdo Hunter Thompson. Plan to, say at the age of 60, to jump out of an airplane with no parachute. Think of how amazing those final moments will feel of flying through the air knowing this is the end. There will be nothing like it. Look forward to it.

But...reserve the right to change your mind of course. It's more of something to look forward to, just to remind you that you are in control.
posted by vacapinta at 11:42 PM on June 5, 2005


dinner with my family wouldn't be better if I knew they were all going to die during dessert.

For me, it'd depend on what's for dessert and whether they'd finished theirs yet.
posted by mono blanco at 11:43 PM on June 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


I don't believe in an afterlife -- at least one we are conscious for -- and I came to my peace with death during a hike in the Grand Canyon. I was on my way up after having climbed to the bottom a couple of days previous. It was by far the most physically challenging thing I'd ever done. I was alone, out of water, and a few miles from the top. Yes, I was really hopelessly stupid about it. I honestly thought I was going to have to shell out a few thousand dollars for a helicopter ride the hell out of there.

So there's this horrible narrow pass where the rock is red and the drop seems steeper than at any other point in the climb, and I'm beat and feeling vertigo, so I take off my pack and sit down. It's early in the season, and there's no other hikers in sight. I'm looking out over everything. I'm aware of every trembling muscle, my terrible thirst, my own harsh salt drying on my skin. And I'm more aware than I've ever been that death is no abstraction. It will happen to me, and it is happening now, under and above me, to more things than I can count. And my death would be just another brief shout in all that endless shouting.

And I was glad. Because against all odds of my even existing, I was there, and I was alive despite my own bumbling. No one knew exactly where I was, but I did. Of course one day I wouldn't be there, and that would be an end to seeing all this beauty, to thinking at all, but it would also be an end to all pain. Not just my own, but my awareness of all the pain and terror in the world. And my death ceased to be at all important. I was a speck; I truly didn't matter. There was nothing to fear. There was nothing to do but live until I died, and to choose for myself whatever else I would do. And I could choose to comfort, to be kind, to help other people -- I had that power. As long as I was alive, I had power to ease other people's suffering, and thus my own.

That got me up, and to a point where there were other people, including two girls who smiled at me, to which I replied "Fuck!" -- and who laughed, gave me water and food, carried my pack, and walked me out, telling jokes and stories to buoy me along. They chose to spend a few hours of their lives leading me out of my tough spot, and now I will never forget them. Too, I carry relics of kindness I don't even know about; someone must have helped my great-grandmother when she landed penniless in New York with her children after burying her pogrom-murdered husband. Whoever they were, they permitted me to live, so their aspect, if not their awareness, lives on in me.

If there's no God, there's perfect freedom to choose the life you will make for yourself. If you keep choosing the adventurous, difficult things -- if you keep choosing to be good to yourself and to other people -- you can carve a brief bit of happiness for yourself and others out of the time you have. That's a kind of immortality, and one I've decided is good enough for me.
posted by melissa may at 12:40 AM on June 6, 2005 [1 favorite]


Don't be an ass.

If you're too lame to appreciate the amazing good fortune that being born on this planet is, then you don't deserve to live.

It's all well and good for people that live in mud-huts to invent a fantasy world to explain what happens when we die, but an even slightly aware mind will recognize that crap for what it is.

Instead, focus on how unbelievably cool it is to be alive in the first place. Then, do whatever it takes to make this experience the best it can be. Maybe that will involve helping those you love, helping those you barely know, taking a nap, rocking out, or whatever. If you do it right, you won't have time to ponder stupid questions like "What will happen when I die?" You also won't fall prey to the thousands of nutjobs that would like you to tithe your way into their made-up bullshit plan for you after you're dead.

You're lucky to be here. Your soul is only yours for a while. Don't flip out. It's all good.
posted by fartknocker at 12:46 AM on June 6, 2005


When you die it is as if you were never born. There is no past, no present, no future, nothing. Most of us fear dying far more than we fear death. Perhaps the only sadness in our demise is not having embraced life to its fullest. But knowing that this is all there is gives one good reason to enjoy life while we can. Don't worry about death for death will take care of itself. Worry instead about living.
posted by phewbertie at 1:09 AM on June 6, 2005


Lots and lots of good points here. And although I share what I think is a healthy fear of oblivion, there are some pretty good arguments for mortality.

One point that I haven't seen so far is that the world does not belong to you (or any of us) for all time. If we're lucky, we get to be young, adolescent, middle-aged, and finally old. After that, the ride is over and we need to let the young'uns have a turn.

Also, didn't anyone see Zardoz?
posted by shaun at 2:25 AM on June 6, 2005


When my mother was recently diagnosed with liver cancer, and with her condition now rapidly deteriorating, I have been thinking about this "stuff" quite a lot.

Before this crisis in my life, I didn't really understand why it would be necessary to even really have a solid idea of what you *thought* would happen to you after death. I mean, what you *think* happens doesn't change what *actually* happens, so why worry about it? Now, unfortunately, I know, it's important at some point (for your sanity!) to have a belief to cling to, to give yourself a semblance of control when everything else is falling apart, for when the bad days are heartbreaking and the good days are just "ok". And at the age of 24, I would rather have left this knowledge for a few years thank you...

Anyway, what I wanted to share is a phrase that has been comforting me in the past week:

"Each of us begins with love, goes through struggle, passion, and suffering, only to end in love again"

I don't know where this quote comes from, and depending on your beliefs it's a load of baloney, but it's been good for me when emotional recently.

This post is also not strictly answering your question, but i thought i'd put it out there anyway.
posted by ancamp at 3:01 AM on June 6, 2005


I used to feel similarly, until I spent some time on the neurology ward, where I observed certain degenerative conditions. These included stroke, brain tumors, and progressive dementias such as Alzheimer disease.

When I think of my own death, I presume it will be an end or an unknown change to my Self. We are habituated to think of the Self as a unitary entity, but close observation of the neurologically deteriorating reveals that this is not the case - that a person's essential personhood can fragment, deteriorating bit by bit. Bed 6 may lose a sense of humor, bed 4 loses the ability to find his way around familiar surroundings. Bed 3 forgets how to talk but still takes pleasure in physical comedy. Bed 2 loses perception of the left side of the world and of his own body (one of the most disabling things that can happen to a person.)

After closely observing these people, seeing them stripped of their dignity and essential personhood bit by bit, I found that the idea of death supervening to put an end to it was rather comforting, whether it be a final terminus or just a change of trains.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:42 AM on June 6, 2005 [1 favorite]


I think you should read Alan Watt's The Book, of which this site provides an excerpt. Includes some of his thoughts on death.
posted by dhruva at 3:58 AM on June 6, 2005


It seems very unnecessary, and very unfair.

It's VERY hard to be an atheist to the core, and though you may be speaking figuratively, your language suggests that -- like most atheists -- you cling (maybe against your will or even your knowledge) to some subtly theistic beliefs.

If the universe is truly un-controlled -- if it's all random or following some "robotic," deterministic rules -- then it's a little odd to say that anything that happens to you is "unfair."

I suspect that we develop the notions of fair and unfair when we are small children. We're good and yet our parents don't give us a treat. They are treating us unfairly. The very idea of unfair (or fair) implies a controller (parent, God, etc.) who is treating us poorly.

If you truly embrace a non-theistic universe (or a universe that isn't controlled by some plan or intelligence), then nothing is really unfair. Stuff just happens.

I think it's pretty easy (for most atheists) to accept this intellectually, but I'm talking about accepting it on a gut level. Really FEELING it.

When I was younger (but already an atheist), I still found that when something really bad happened, I would blame or beg some force (“How could you let this happen? " or "Please, please, PLEASE don't let this happen!") I knew it was a fiction, but it was a very strong feeling. Slowly it faded. I DO think it was intellectual at first. I would beg or plead and then say to myself, "That's silly. There's no one to plead TO..." And eventually that it penetrated beyond the intellectual. Now I never find myself talking to even an imaginary force. It feels natural for the universe to be impersonal.

And it's SO hard to escape anthropomorphism in language. "Impersonal," conjures up the image of a person who is aloof. But I don't mean that. I mean that the universe doesn't have a mind or any sort of relationship to you (other than one of sub-atomic particles interacting with each other via random or determined rules). The universe is like a rock or a sheet of paper. It can’t be unfair. It’s just an object.

Anyway, I no longer care that my life doesn't have "purpose" or "meaning," because nothing has purpose or meaning (except for human constructs, like novels or songs). A rock just IS. A person just IS. I'm in the same boat as everything else.

Which isn't to say that life is empty. Evolution endowed me with the ability to think and feel, so I can still get perplexed by a crossword puzzle, savor a bowl of split-pea soup, etc. It feels good to eat, to love, to dream because ... because it FEELS good. And that's as profound or as banal as it may seem. But it DOES feel good.

To be truthful, I am skeptical that anyone could really be deeply concerned about whether or not their life has meaning -- IF they are living it fully. If you cook gourmet meals, drink fine wines, make love, listen to beautiful music, etc., your senses will be so full that you won't care if any of it means anything or not. Why does it have to mean anything? It feels SO good. If you crave meaning so much, could it be that there's something else missing from your life? Are you lonely? Do you hate your job? Maybe you should work on THAT stuff and leave the universe to itself. (You live in a house. Does the house have to have meaning? Of course not. Who cares. It’s just where you live. But living in that house gives you the fun opportunity to lay on the sofa and eat a big bowl of ice cream!)

The result of this type of feeling is that the "romance" is taken out of death. Death isn't DEEP or SPECIAL or tragic. No unfair parent doles it out to me. It's just is what happens. And it no longer scares me.

Here's what DOES scare me: pain and losing loved-ones. And this ties in with what I wrote above, because those both involve FEELINGS. No one wants to feel pain. No one wants to be lonely. So I don't care about my own death. But I DO want to die without pain. And (selfishly) I want to die before my wife dies, because I can't imagine a happy life without her. And I know of no solution to that problem -- except not to love or not to live.

[Incidentally, though I have been able to pretty much banish ALL theistic feelings -- even very weak ones, I have not been able to rid myself of the feeling of free will. I don't believe in free will, but I FEEL like I have free will. I used to think it was impossible to avoid that feeling, and it may be. But psychologist Susan Blackmore claims to have done it. She said she very gradually lost the feeling -- much in the same way that I lost all feeling of even a fictional controlling force. It was intellectual at first -- then it sunk it.

Even if God and will are fictions, is it healthy to totally avoid them? Interesting question. I wish I knew the answer.]
posted by grumblebee at 6:58 AM on June 6, 2005


After I die I won't be here to "suffer" over it. Till then I plan my life to include happiness, achievement, and some sort of fulfillment if that really exists. I know that I am doing well with my time here, and frankly I think about life all the time, and death only in shuddering moments where I think "damn, that car almost KILLED me!" etc. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to die "I would have been splattered! That would have hurt..." but I don't worry about what happens after death or feel as though it's unfair becuase, well, even if it may not happen to everyone, it happens to the overwhelming majority. Plus, as people get older they seem to either 1) get tired of life and slowly die from lack of effort, 2) pain increases to the point where living ain't that comfortable anyway, or 3) live happily till they die / die early on. So either you want to die or you don't see it coming...the body prepares us for this, and I don't consider it unfair. It is however why I read SF - to get some measure of the future.

Another way to look at it could be this: How do you know that you are you? You experience life. But so does everyone else. So, "you" could be everyone, depending on the point of view, and "you" can exist at all times. It doesn't mean you'd have a soul or whatever, just that there are tons and tons of "you"s out there, and they will continue indefinitely, as will the greater you which is everyone. Kind of like envisioning yourself living in someone else's skin, with their mind - they will live with their mind in their skin, so it's exactly the same as if you were them. This is the same as immortality, without the necessity of a soul.
posted by lorrer at 7:05 AM on June 6, 2005


When you die, donate all of your money to an orphanage in a 3rd world country. This way, you can die knowing that you've actually done something worthwhile in this world.
posted by eas98 at 7:16 AM on June 6, 2005


Pretty much a born atheist, I recently went through what you seem to be describing as an early midlife crisis. We're all going to die. It's not so much me, but the loved ones. Esp. those who are older, or, oh gosh, the worst. . .the dog. The DOG is going to DIE, most likely before me. What I really fear is the anguish without the comfort of the believers that the dead go to their great reward. The only remedy is to seize the day, be grateful, etc. And it's gotten much better lately. My panic attack type crisis over this stuff lasted about a year and a half. Just have those wrestling matches with it, and see where you come out on the other side. Who knows where that'll be.
posted by rainbaby at 7:48 AM on June 6, 2005


I'm not an athiest, so I suspect that my decisions may not be yours, but I wish you luck in coming to terms with this issue.
posted by unreason at 7:56 AM on June 6, 2005


It seems to me that the universe operates according to certain observable, measurable rules, and one of those rules is that things die. You are part of the universe, therefore you die. You don't get the "choice". Much more talk like that and you will be proving all the Christians right -- they tend to claim that atheists are prideful to a fault and make themselves their own God. Don't do that. Accept that you are a small part of a larger world. Death is one of the most important parts of keeping an ecosystem running.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:31 AM on June 6, 2005


As a fellow atheist, I have two words for you: Samuel Beckett.

Read (or re-read) "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame." Pick up the collected short work and read "The Lost Ones" and "Act Without Words." Beckett is the perfect writer for atheists, since he examines the difficulties of atheism head-on, without importing any weird pseudo-religious values (about the beauty of nature, for example). Beckett pulls no punches. I find his grimness a lot more credible than the idea that the universe is beautiful and will continue to mean something or be beautiful after I and others are gone. There's also a good "Beckett on Film" DVD series out there, and the existentialist writers, like Sartre and Camus, might also speak to you.

Personally, I think that atheism leads more or less inevitably to dark thoughts like these. Beckett has been tremendously helpful to me; he expresses these thoughts eloquently and attempts to come to terms with them to the extent that coming to terms is possible.
posted by josh at 8:43 AM on June 6, 2005


Alan Watt's The Book

The very first page of his The Wisdom of Insecurity (click Look Inside) seems directly relevant as well; that book looks quite interesting.
posted by kindall at 8:56 AM on June 6, 2005


obiwanwasabi, I happened upon this quote in a profile of Richard Dawkins that appeared in Salon a few weeks ago. I found it very inspiring.

"We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades -- before we die forever -- in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That's the kind of privileged century in which we live. That's what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it's the only life I've got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born."

On a related note, you may find Natalie Angier's speech on raising children without religion a thought-provoking read.

On a personal note, I am an atheist, although I had a religious upbringing. I never found the eternal pepetuity of the soul comforting; if anything, it deeply freaked me out. I am much more comfortable with the idea of a finite life; like Dawkins said above, it motivates me to know and do more and to try to ensure the happiness of those I love and care about. In my own family, so many are so accepting of their unhappiness while anticipating some great afterparty. To me, THAT is depressing.
posted by Sully6 at 8:57 AM on June 6, 2005


You shouldn't feel better about it. Ignore everyone in this thread who's giving you advice about how to think of it as positive, or beautiful, or necessary, or what have you.

On the other hand, don't resign yourself to it either. Let it piss you off. As you note, there may well be a time when the human lifespan may be considerably longer or indefinite. It's unlikely, I think, that this will happen in our lifetime, but not impossible.

Work for that. Donate money to research in that direction, or do research yourself. Channel your disappointment/anger/fear into fighting death. And ignore those who would have you surrender, who would tell you that the fight is hopeless. History is replete with people who succeeded when others thought their battles were hopeless.

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:21 AM on June 6, 2005


I've been thinking about this a lot lately (probably because last week I had two serious panic attacks in as many days thinking about it) and I find that it's less likely to consume my thoughts when I'm more content with my life at the moment. if I'm already bummed out, then any nagging worries about the afterlife is just enough to put me over the edge.

so I guess maybe everyone telling you to live in the now and look on the bright side are right. death is probably less of a reality for you and me now than it will be in another 20 or so years, so in the meantime I'm just gonna try to keep my head up and buy things and stay away from large, deep bodies of water.
posted by mcsweetie at 12:32 PM on June 6, 2005


Several posts here have referred to the nature of consciousness, examples.: "Since someone brought up the laws of thermodynamics, I sometimes think about the First Law of Thermodynamics when I consider people I have known who have died 'Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.' Whatever it is that produces the phenomenon of consciousness, it doesn't have to be a religious soul, but whatever it is, I don't think it will be destroyed. Perhaps it is changed quite a bit, but I don't think it is destroyed."

"I've begun to recognize consciousness as sort of an illusion. You are only you as you understand you because of a quirk of some chemicals in your head (or some other to be identified essence). Your life isn't really real. It's a temporary dream."

I've just started reading a book that explores this in the context of information theory and thermodynamics. The User Illusion: "The 'user illusion' in computing is the desktop graphical user interface (GUI): the friendly, comprehensible illusion presented to the user to conceal all the bouncing bits and bytes that do the actual work. Tor Nørretranders writes that 'our consciousness is a user illusion for ourselves and the world ... one's very own map of oneself and one's possibilities of intervening in the world.'"
posted by Tubes at 12:36 PM on June 6, 2005


Many of the ideas posted above have never been that helpful for me in dealing with the pain of seeing my own inevitable extinction. I don't, at this point, feel the need for mortality to give my life meaning. Nor do I expect that I would succumb to boredom in 500 or 1000 or 5000 years of life. I imagine it would take a lot longer than that to learn everything about how the universe works - and as long as I can keep learning, I've got a purpose. As far as the "conservation of energy" idea - well, the energy that powers my brain will one day move on and be fueling the bacteria and bugs that recycle my body. What I'm attached to isn't the energy, it's the pattern in that energy which we call consciousness.

The following idea has brought me some comfort, though I certainly don't promise it will work for anyone else. I suppose it's essentially a Buddhist concept, but I reached it independently through another direction.

Why am I afraid of the end of my life from one direction (the future), while I'm not afraid of the fact that it also ends in the other direction (the past)? I guess it's because of the experience that I am a conscious entity moving along the timeline towards the end in the future where I will cease to be. In fact, though, that's an illusion. I'm speaking here not religously, but scientifically. There is no single, unified, conscious entity that has existed/will exist for that entire timespan. It's trivial to point out that the atoms in our body are replaced through the years, so that I might not be composed of any of the same atoms that I was 20 years ago. It's just as true, however, to note that the patterns which make up my consciousness have likewise changed over the years. The tdismukes from 20 years ago did some things that I can't even look back and really comprehend today. I expect that the tdismukes of today has insights that the me of 20 years ago just wouldn't get. My memories give the illusion of continuity, but that's all it is. I've got plenty of memories that my past self didn't, and my past self had memories that I've forgotten. In any realistic sense, the tdismukes of the past has already died many times and been replaced with a closely related person of the same name. The gradualness of the changes obscure this fact, but it's true nevertheless.

For some reason, this comforts me. The tdismukes of today will be long gone by the time that some other person with the same name reaches his end. I'm hoping that person has reached some greater peace with the idea of mortality and will be happy with the memories that I and my temporally displaced kin have passed down to him.
posted by tdismukes at 2:43 PM on June 6, 2005 [1 favorite]


Slothrop: I'm not sure why being an atheist entails not believing in an afterlife. Strictly speaking an atheist does not believe in theism - therefore you don't believe in a God or Gods controlling the universe. It doesn't seem necessary to jump from that proposition to the idea that you will cease to exist when you die.

Agreed.

dinner with my family wouldn't be better if I knew they were all going to die during dessert. For me...it would depend on which members of the family...

As to the afterlife? Who knows. I'm hoping for an vast library of edible books with a cappuccino fountain. Oooh, and a room with a view. And a fluffy robe. Basically, I'd like the afterlife to be like a luxurious spa retreat. After some nice quiet reading time, I may mosey back to earth, just to see how people are doing, maybe reincarnate, maybe go spook an old antebellum mansion for a while...perhaps join some friends on Planet X for some tea.

I've got a degree in philosophy, so it's fair to say that I've spent some time gazing into the abyss...and I decided that it needed some lights. And maybe a throw pillow.
posted by dejah420 at 7:35 PM on June 6, 2005 [1 favorite]


Okay... delete this post if you want, but I'll throw in a bit of a theistic view: As a Christian (Presbyterian), I've come to the realization that if there is any kind of a tipping point (i.e., we all don't get to heaven), chances are that I won't make the cut. Going under that assumption, even though I believe in God and hope to return to Him upon my death, the only thing I can count on is this life. In this life, I feel I've already received more than I deserve and God owes me nothing. So in a way, I'm in the same boat as the atheist in that I cannot be assured of a pleasurable afterlife. I think this is an important and humbling realization: We're all of us (believer and atheist both) in this thing together and the best we can do is help each other get through. Anything that may follow is strictly a bonus. While I don't want to live forever, my time on this earth is the most valuable commodity of this life.
posted by Doohickie at 7:56 AM on June 8, 2005


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