Life after Dying? Absolutely

I and many – not all – of the people I know feel quite sure that life ends at death. And yet we rely on an afterlife of a natural kind: other people’s lives will continue after we have gone. If people did not believe that was so, life would lose much of its meaning.

So argued philosophy professor Samuel Scheffler in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times back on September 21, 2013.

Because we take this belief [that the human race will survive after we are gone] for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.

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To make his point, Scheffler offers this doomsday scenario.  “Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?” It is reasonable, he says, to imagine people losing the motivation to research cancer, to reform society, to compose music, and perhaps even to have children.

Scheffler’s discussion has personal relevance for me. I’ve written about my occasional flashes of panic that when I die, not only will my life cease but so will my past, along with the lives of everyone I know and perhaps the entire universe. I described the fear thus:

These flashes of annihilation come at me seemingly out of nowhere. My gut tightens and there is an instant of blur and panic until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of some frightening memory from childhood or like the imagining of a car crash. The odd thing is that the sudden blankness sometimes includes my surroundings along with me.

I compared my experience to that of the child who closes his eyes and thinks that because he can’t see anyone, no one can see him. Except that my reaction is fear, not delight.

Lives (legacy.com)

I haven’t had such panicky moments now for several years. A couple of thought streams have helped. The first I mentioned in the  early post. I bring my attention to all the significant people – from family members to national leaders – who have died without the world ending. In fact, I wrote, “Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs.” And among the benefits of a funeral, I suggested, is the opportunity for the living to be reassured that the death of one of their own will not jeopardize the existence of the others.

I’ve also been reading about how the activities of any organism, even a bacterium, consist of refueling, protecting, repairing, and reproducing itself. Each living thing is alive by virtue of the fact that it – we all – try to avoid harm, seek out energy sources, reproduce. So it is not just that organisms prepare for the future. It is that being alive in the first place is to be a mechanism for continuity.

Learning about such basics of biology puts the existence of life on a solid ground that I hadn’t quite felt before. And it helps me understand why believers in traditional religions seem so confident about their afterlives.

 

Life Is Precious, Life Is Cheap

Life is precious. From humans to microbes, each organism arranges itself to energize itself, repair itself, avoid danger, resist death. A tomato plant defies death by its very persistence in living and by living beyond itself through its seeds. Life must be precious for living is what organisms do at almost any price. With its roots in biology, love is real. The atoms that compose our bodies were born in stars and move on from us out to the earth. We search other planets for signs of life.

A cancer survivor I know travels to the ocean once a year to celebrate her life.

Life is cheap. The number of organisms on this planet, from humans to microbes, is beyond counting. Life must be cheap, for living is what all these organisms do. Every body is vulnerable, dependent on the right heat, light, and water, built from ordinary materials, prone to breakage. Big fish eat little fish, and humans eat big fish. Fear, depression, hunger, illness, disability, poverty, discrimination, or fatigue cramp many of our days. Love is only biology, an incentive to bond to protect the offspring. pThe atoms that compose our bodies are almost entirely empty space; if an atom were the size of a golf ball, the nearest electron would be in orbit a mile away; everything between is vacuum.

A healthy, fortunate man I know asked me last week, “Is this all there is?” I said “Yes.”

Lives are precious and cheap, one-of-a-kind and a dime a dozen, self-perpetuating and ephemeral.

 

Escher’s “Ascending and Descending”