The title of this post comes from an autobiography by Isaac Asimov published posthumously by his widow, Janet, and brings up a topic I’ve written on very little before: My accident in 2007, about a year before I started blogging.
I was struck by a vehicle while at a crosswalk on my way to a nearby bus stop, planning to do some writing when I got home, though the collision and its several month-long period of recovery weren’t the important part — it was the change in my thinking up until then.
It was, to my perception at the time, a close brush with death — I was pretty messed-up by the accident, though after the stitches for the head injuries, the major damage was a broken arm and fractured hip, both now healed with time and physical therapy.
During my recovery, especially the first ten days of bedrest, I thought long and deeply about life and what it meant — and not once did those thoughts involve a return to anything resembling religious faith.
As I lay on the gurney in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital only moments after being struck, I was aware that this could be it, that this could be my end. But fear of death wasn’t involved — I was angry.
I was angry at this inconvenience that would set my writing project back months, angry at my not seeing the car before it struck me, and concerned about how this would affect my family.
If this was what it is like to die, then it wasn’t so bad. I just sat back and relaxed, and let the paramedics do their job. I might come out of this, I thought, or I might not. Either seemed perfectly acceptable at the time.
My several-hour stay at the hospital was touch and go, but I survived. And over the next few days I came to this:
Life’s been more than fair to me, much more, I think, than to many others who never had the fullness of existence I’ve had.
After my accident, it’s not that I fear dying anymore, though it would be a great inconvenience. There’s a lot I would like to do first, projects to complete. It would be irritating, but not frightening, to die sooner.
I don’t fear dying because I’ve no reason to believe in an afterlife, neither hoping for reward in paradise nor fearing perdition in an imagined (and as far as I’ve reason to think, imaginary) eternal torture chamber.
But even then, life has been very good to me, and I think it has a lot going for it. There is much good to be done, much to accomplish, and life is precious, made more so with my relinquishing any belief in reward or punishment to come after.
To repeat the title, it’s been a good life, and I thank all those I’ve known, friends and family, online and real-time, past and present, for making it so.
But when I’m gone, that’s it. Lights out. No more me. Anywhere.
When I’m gone, the energy content stored up in my body’s molecules will go back to their source, returning to the Earth and the Cosmos whence they came.
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but that doesn’t imply anything spiritual, not in a supernatural sense.
But it’s cool that the atoms I’m made of, which cycle in and then out of my body even now, have almost an immortality of a sort, and will eventually find their way into the bodies of new life arising long after my death. And you know what?
I think that’s kind of neat.
The above was something I’d posted to Facebook earlier today, though in plain text, on the wonder felt even — no, better — especially by religious nonbelievers toward our connection to the universe, not the trivial sorts promised by mysticism or supernaturalism, but our actual, deeper connection and our awareness of it.
This feeling of the sublime I think is something that anyone who’s seen the night sky, or beheld a waterfall, seen the Earth from orbit, or better still, seen it from the orbit of another planet in our solar system though a spaceprobe’s camera, can relate to.
There’s the serious misconception (I think it’s myopic) that reality is dull, lifeless, drab, uninteresting, and that another world, an ideal perfect world beyond this one, is far better and much to be preferred over this life, this ‘vale of tears.’
I understand this, but I also think it’s wasteful and shameful — reality has both beauty and horror, not one or the other — and the phrase “none are so blind as those who will not see” applies just as easily to dogmatic belief as dogmatic denial, and many times in the same individuals.
The desire to believe fantasy as truth, to denigrate the real, and to spead this desire and denigration to others by indoctrinating the young and vulnerable, is one of the greatest — if you’ll excuse my use of the word — sins — against the human mind, crippling its ability to appreciate what actually is over what never was nor likely will be.
Supernaturalism promises wonders, but it only promises them — there is no instance it it ever having fulfilled that promise — and I think it would take better evidence than someone’s favored holy book to show otherwise.
In the entire recorded history of our species, brief flash of time though that’s been, no mystery that has ever been adequately looked into and explained has ever been shown to have an occult or supernatural cause, and the cases that haven’t been explained are just that — only unexplained, and only through a lack of data — not vindication of anyone’s pet doctrine.
Supernaturalism poisons the mind, and dulls the imagination, starving it of and blinding it to the real wonders and feeling of awe that comes from understanding of what is, supplanting these with unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of centrality to the universe, imposing on us a false sense of purpose and meaning rather than letting us find our own, endangering our personal integrity and intellectual honesty in uncritically accepting tales told originally by those ancients whose knowledge and understanding of the world pales before our own in the modern era.
To be frank, even with what little I’ve learned about the worlds discovered through science and philosophy, I find reality far more interesting and preferrable to believing the evidently unreal. As a former religionist, I’ve thrown off the chains of doctrine and dogma, freed my mind from its demons — and its gods — and my only regret is not having done it before I did.
I’ve no reason to believe in anyone’s god, least of all the one I walked with as a child and now without as a man, no idols, no gods, no devils, no celestial saviors nor tyrants, no myths except those I may free myself of whenever they are brought to my notice.
It seems so strange now, having been so focused on an imagined hereafter that both the awesomeness and terror of the world around me seemed dull and distant, but now seems so sharp and clear.
I’m not a scientist, not yet, but from what I see now, reality, however it turns out to be, is far preferrable, far stranger and for more interesting that anything any human mind can imagine.
Even mine….especially mine.
And to me, the unending search for truth is far more important than the supposed guardianship of it by those absolutely convinced they’ve already found it in millennia-old books or the claimed revelations of bronze-age hermits.
No one owns a sense of the numinous, no matter their belief or conviction. Appreciation of the truly wondrous can happen to anyone, and belongs to us all as a species.
It’s been argued that one who wears his position on his sleeve, rather than hiding it by a cloak of clever, reasonable-sounding rhetorical deceit is more to be trusted, that open and guileless unreason is preferable to rational trickiness.
Well, maybe, but it’s not that simple.
It isn’t necessarily the case that someone with an extreme position or unreasonable stance will display it openly, nor are any discussions with him likely to be effective. Not all unreasonable types are guileless simpletons…In fact many are quite intelligent and indeed, quite tricksey.
I’d personally prefer dealing with reasonable people when at all possible, as I’ve enough logical literacy to pick out and identify most of the fallacies they might commit. But against a skilled bullshit artist, one may have to apply a bit of care to avoid being taken…
…and equating open unreason with trustworthiness is not the way to do this.
Let’s examine why, by examining hypothetical unreasonable people having a goodly amount of intelligence:
Firstly, the unreasonable are more likely to make unreasonable demands in negotiations or discussion, demands so unreasonable as to be difficult and costly, or impossible to meet even in principle.
Secondly, the unreasonable, in making any offers or claims, they are more likely to make ones that are too good to be true, and which cannot be fulfilled or be factually correct.
Neither of these things will be obvious, when done by canny extremists.
This is why any such offers and claims should make one instantly suspicious no matter who makes them. No authority is infallible, no matter how venerated or prestigious or amicable.
Thirdly, and finally, the unreasonable are more likely to hold an extreme position, one difficult to negotiate over or otherwise rationally discuss for any number of reasons, and if intelligent, they will know this, and be even more likely than a more reasonable sort to use flawed logic to cloak his unreasonable stance and make it seem less extreme than it really is.
This is typical in those cases where a rationally indefensible position is being advocated, and the advocate has a vested interest in convincing others, especially by masking his arguments and making them appear stronger than they really are.
Logical fallacies are the tools of unreason and first line of attack of the dishonest.
Given these assumptions, I’d much prefer discussing things with more rational types, as they are less likely to make unreasonable demands, make unreasonable claims and offers, or have a need to resort to clever-sounding fallacies to obfuscate their true intent and position, all other things being the same, including intelligence.
You can, after all, reason with them. Not so for unreasonable types, even when their extreme views are obvious. That just means that they’re more dangerous and disagreeable, not more trustworthy.
A reasonable individual would probably have a more defensible position, a more justifiable stance, and is thus likely to have a better command of good arguments, or at least more reason to use them, and less of an incentive to resort to clever rhetorical tricks to mislead the unwary about the quality of his arguments.
I understand the reluctance of people to trust who they may see as deceptively shrewd, reasonable-sounding-but-tricky people, and prefer the more open, seemingly guileless, simple folk as more trustworthy no matter the leanings of their stated position and attitudes, but this is a simple, and simply misleading false contrast.
People with extreme positions and views aren’t necessarily open about it — the intelligent ones often aren’t.
But it’s not their intelligence that should be mistrusted, it’s their extremism, which may be expressed as a dangerous, dogmatic ideology that lets them to deceive, defraud, kill, or otherwise harm others with a clear conscience.
The Nazi deathcamps, the Killing Fields of Cambodia (now Kampuchea, I think), the ethnic cleansings of Kosovo, religious wars throughout history, etc… are all classic examples of the things people are motivated to do when they are convinced of having absolute knowledge. That belief is itself an extreme view, and in the history of science and philosophy has shown to be a fruitless and failed pursuit.
I don’t distrust reasonableness or intelligence — these things in themselves are nothing to fear — instead, I’m wary of possible aggression, manipulativeness and general dishonesty from those with extreme views no matter their level of intelligence.
So extremism to me does not scream “TRUSTWORTHY!!,” open or not, instead it’s a warning sign to keep my distance and alert others that this individual may be dangerous in some way and is not to be trusted.
I value reasonableness as a virtue, and if you are afraid of someone who may feign that combined with deceit to scam you, it’s not the reason you have to look out for, it’s the deceit.
And that, mein fiends, requires a healthy dose of skepticism, not a knee-jerk rejection of rationality.
No one ever said not being fooled was easy, except those who then get fooled.
One of my greatest peeves is my tendency to drive myself too much, often sweating the small stuff, and generally irritating myself out when I don’t measure up to my own performance benchmarks. Stress, excessive drive, and I are old friends, though we relate poorly at times. I say this not to brag, nor to bitch about something, but to point out some insights gained over the last, say, five years of blogging and as a Skeptic, fractal artist, and general annoyance to those rationalists who do it better than me.
I tend to hate my own work — because it’s mine and I expect better of it — well, it sometimes seems that way to me. I’ve also a notoriously poor record of getting ideas across in personal situations offline. That’s one reason I blog, since that helps me sort out my thoughts, arguments, and the rare spirited-but-fun rant.
But I suspect that I’m hardly unique in this…
Many of us hold unreasonable expectations of ourselves, though not necessarily unrealistic, just unreasonable. The problem is, drive can reflect a somewhat realistic assessment of ourselves, what we know we can or should be able to do, but we often evaluate that reality in an unreasonable way.
To a degree, this is adaptive, since it often leads to success, and I suspect that there’s a little bit of OCD at work in any successful person’s bag of tricks — psychological traits tend to vary along a bell-curve, with extreme behaviors being outliers at either end of the curve. Diligence is generally seen as a virtue until and unless it becomes excessive and morphs into fanaticism, and maybe even an outward sign of psychopathology.
High expectations can be realistic, not just optimistic, and conversely, we may be unrealistic in dwelling too much on our limitations — our knowledge of our limitations may reflect hard reality, or not, and we may in fact be falsely convincing ourselves that we cannot achieve based upon faulty evidence and advice volunteered by others. While it’s true that we can’t all be exceptional, we cannot be all above average — for if we all were, what could ‘average’ even mean?
So it is not just reality that limits us…unreality can do the same. While it may be realistic to recognize that, for example, we can’t all be godlike, or even setting our sights a bit lower, that we can’t all be Mozart or Einstein, I posit that diligence is one thing that helps achieve what potential we do have, and that beating ourselves up repeatedly about our inability to be perfectly consistent in our performance across all areas is a mistake.
To have that inability is human, and aren’t we just, despite our wishes? We are small things in a big universe, and while hardly of consequence to the cosmos as a species, we can also be very, very large, for our unique (so far)ability to give meaning and purpose to our own lives as we wish.
If only we allow ourselves to, and don’t mope over our failures while ignoring our successes.
Diligence when put to frequent and effective use is a good thing, but perfect consistency is in my experience humanly impossible — there is only one demographic in existence that is perfectly consistent in everything — the dead.
Diligence helps us achieve our objectives, mind our Ps and Qs, and lets us oversee our own moral and ethical behavior, but I think we should avoid expecting both more and less than is realistic.
In my experience, often it is not reality which hampers us, but the more nightmarish personal fictions of ourselves we harbor, what we falsely imagine we can’t do, that keep us from achieving our goals.
I metaphorically beat myself over the head daily about this, knowing full well that it’s irrational and self-destructive, and that I should know better. Sometimes I win, sometimes not. But writing this feels almost therapeutic to me, and I hope that others can use this to see where I have not, and themselves benefit from it.
Thanks for reading this.
A friend of mine is dying, recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. He’s got a life expectancy of two years or so at most, I’m told. It doesn’t look encouraging. It started me thinking today about some of the things that matter the most, and I thought I’d post a few words on one of those here.
Be warned, I may ramble a bit here…
First, there’s integrity. To me, that means something…If I can’t be trusted to be honest with myself, how can I be with anyone else? To me, the first and worst sin, if you could call it that, isn’t pride — it’s self delusion, and from that the deception of others.
If there were any sort of god or gods in any truly evidential, objectively incontrovertible, unambiguously obvious sense, knowable to all, then I would have no problem accepting the fact — it would after all be a fact, one that would not require me to believe first, either by conversion experience, or mere accident of birth, for it would be knowable despite unbelief to the contrary.
But the source of my unbelief in gods is a glaring lack of real evidence for them, and without that evidence, demonstrable by anyone no matter what anyone else personally believes, myself or anyone else, I’ve simply no grounds at all to believe in any sort of supernatural agencies or beings, not without surrendering my integrity.
It seems to me that the universe is not given to granting wishes, mine, nor anyone elses, and I have to live with that. The cosmos doesn’t care about me, and isn’t even aware that I exist. Like it or not, I must face reality, glorious, terrifying, depressing, stark reality, whether I like it or not. It’s a source of contentment to me, to live to change what I can and accept what I can’t.
I’ve often argued against faith as a way of knowing. And for a good reason, for the sort of faith I argue against denies knowledge to preserve belief. It’s that sort of intransigent faith I oppose, that which rejects evidence and closes the mind to inquiry, to believe, to paraphrase one father of the early Christian church, “…because it is absurd.”
My religious nonbelief is not something I chose, something I decided to do merely because it was cool or trendy. When it happened to me, it was neither cool nor fashionable. It was not something I wanted at the time.
My unbelief was a realization that came upon me over my adolescent years. It was a thing imposed on me by reality itself and the necessity to say goodbye to my need to believe, to let go of something that was no longer me, and could never be me…ever again.
It meant giving up a part of myself that now seemed out of place with my understanding of the world and myself. I said farewwell to my naivete, not without some regret, and never looked back, even after I tired of looking into other religious and spiritual traditions. None of them were suitable, none of them fit my needs — and I explored a more sensible, pragmatic, secular worldview.
Truth to tell, early on, I flirted with absolutist views of philosophy and had mistakenly absolutist views of science, but those proved just as spurious as anything else I found myself giving up.
Then I flirted with relativism, before finally noting the flaws in it, the very incoherency that made it untenable as a philosophical position — even on it’s own merits, it made no sense — too many glaring logical holes.
Neither absolutism nor relativism were sound positions — one led to dogmatism and bigotry, the very things about religion that repelled me, and the other led to fuzzy thinking and mistaken tolerance of bigotry.
So I rejected both.
An understanding of the history of philosophy and the sciences reveals that the search for absolute truths about the world is forlorn, and holding all ways of knowing as equally valid means that none of them at all are valid.
A viable way of knowing needs methods of revealling error and miscalculation, and the outcome of our observations must make a difference or they tell us nothing of any real worth.
I’m human, of course, as much as I may imagine otherwise in my frequent science fictional musings, and so I err, I slip from time to time — but don’t we all, whether we admit it or not?
I would betray my integrity, whatever it’s worth, if I consoled myself with false hopes and wishful thinking that all will be right, and that my friends, especially those seriously ill, will get better, and I’ll see them again someday in somebody’s version of an afterlife.
But given what I’ve come to understand of the different concepts of the soul and afterlife, the history of those concepts over time, and the nature, history and origins of the various holy books of the major religions, no good reasons present themselves for my willing acceptance that any of them are true.
I cannot make myself believe, cannot force myself to believe in spite of the evidence of reality.
Rather than identifying myself with any sort of doctrine or creed, I’ve chosen ethics, conscience, and my rational empiricist values as my guide to the path I walk. Where I wind up is anyone’s guess, and I know not where or when that will be.
But I won’t betray myself, and by extension, those who trust me. If I lied to myself, tried to convince myself that all will be warm and fuzzy if I believe in the unbelievable, realization and cognitive self-chastising would quickly follow. That’s no boast, that’s just how it’s always been since my deconversion.
Every. Single. Time.
So with my obligatory skeptical arched eyebrows (a la Jack Nicholson…), I have to say, that however uncomfortable it may make me, I wouldn’t give it up for the world — or the afterworld.