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.
I owe a hat-tip to my tweep, @NagasakiOsada : Thanks!
I’m not worried by the thought of an afterlife, since I only believed it existed before I found out what I learned after giving up religion, from psychology, neuroscience, physics and cosmology, that souls are unnecessary to explain human thought and consciousness, and that contrary to my wishes, there is no evidence, not just for souls, but for the prospect of an afterlife.
Not a shred.
Not even alleged Near Death experiences (NDEs) make the cut (I’ve had one in 2007, and it didn’t turn me back into a believer — I was not impressed). Here’s a secret: it doesn’t require the nearness of death to have one — other triggering circumstances, like drugs or direct brain stimulation, can suffice. Other sorts of visions and revelations are too contradictory and difficult to corroborate to be credible by themselves, and scripture, across all religions, gives too many mutually inconsistent accounts, and they cannot possibly all be correct.
Every alleged revelation has its rivals.
My awareness didn’t exist prior to my birth, and I’ll feel and know nothing of it after I’m gone. I’ve no good reason to think otherwise.
What about the oft-repeated argument that the soul is eternal because physics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed? Maybe, but we can detect energy, especially sorts not obvious to our naked senses, and while energy cannot be created or destroyed, it does run down, flowing inexorably from a high state to a low state, like a clock’s spring unwinding and needing to be reset to operate again.
But nothing that we could call “soul energy” has ever been shown to exist in any knowable way. All we have otherwise is the mere say-so of theologians and Cartesian philosophers.
The electrochemical activity of our brain, according to the best evidence we have, is what produces what we call “mind” — the mind is what the brain does — and once the energy stops flowing at all along and between the cells of our brains and central nervous systems — brain death — our minds stop, and permanently.
No one has ever fully died and come back to report it, from beyond the state of full brain-death. Near death experiences are called that for a reason, near death, not complete death.
I would no longer even like there to be an afterlife after thinking about it: I find the very notion horrific, spending all eternity even in permanent bliss while the universe grinds endlessly on would be an unbearable bore after the first few million years, and at some point, I would want it all to end.
I don’t need an afterlife, as this life is much more important to me, more urgent, with more good to be done for its own sake and not hope of reward nor fear of punishment in the imagined hereafter.
I will end, you will end, and one day, the universe itself (as far as we know) will end…
…and I’m okay with that.
- From Mortality to Morality – The Key to Religious Power (martinspribble.com)
- Can You Have a Meaningful Life Without an Afterlife? (patheos.com)
I’m not a particularly courageous man, not like some of my friends who are soldiers or sailors in the military, but after my accident in 2007, the idea of dying really doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, since I wasn’t upset about not being born, and in all likelihood, won’t get bent out of shape about being dead, as long as the process of getting there — going on each day of my life, the clock ticking inexorably away — is well-spent doing some real good in the world.
Once you’ve looked the Reaper in her bony eye-sockets for the first time, you get to thinking about things, even without involving the claims of religion, like who and what you would be willing to live and die for…
Would I be willing to die for my beliefs?
The reason for this is simple: My beliefs, even the most rational, and even my knowledge at its most secure, are not certain. They all come with a margin of error appended. Any one of my beliefs can be wrong, and my best, most reliable, solid knowledge could be mistaken, and so dying for these would not be worth the sacrifice, no matter the conviction with which I hold them true. It would be wasted on something of little consequence to the world at large and of little consequence to me.
But I would die, as I live, for my friends, my loved ones, and anyone I come to care for — I’m sort of romantic that way — to me, friends are people who one should be willing to give one’s life for if necessary.
Would I kill for a friend?
I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I have it in me to take a human life…I lack a warrior’s disposition. The thought of actually killing a real person fills me with revulsion, and I think about it just long enough to flatly reject the notion.
Also, I cannot predict what my mental state, attitudes and beliefs will be at any future date, and I’m not interested in talking sh*t — it’s dishonest to me.
But I don’t see anything wrong with offering myself to save someone else, and I don’t care what anyone reads into that, as long as more lives are preserved than lost, since altruism, not the straw-person parody of it touted by followers of Ayn Rand, but real-world altruism, one of our noblest primate legacies from our early ancestors on the plains of Africa, has obvious evolutionary benefits in enhancing the long-term survival and reproductive success of social groups.
I would make a poor Conservative indeed, though that’s for a future post to address.
So I’m certainly willing to live for what I believe, and for what little I know, but dying for it just seems like such as waste when it could be wrong — I want to be as justifiably confident as I can about the real world, but something like my own limited knowledge is worth more adding to, not getting killed over, for there’s no logic in ending one’s life when certainty in matters of fact is elusive.
This is likely to be the only life I’ll get, so I’ll live it for what it’s worth, for myself and those I care for.