The year 2017 has been difficult in some respects for me. I’ve had six friends in my age group (60s) die this year. Death, in my view as an atheist, means absolute death, permanently the end.
To me, this is what all religion, and all religiosity such as New Agey-ness and any other sorts of “spiritual” beliefs are trying to escape from. They’re all trying to escape the fact that death is death. We you’re dead, you’re gone. Forever.
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.” – James Baldwin
Death is a permanent end. To me, that is in all probability the most accurate statement. How? My answer is astrophysics and evolutionary biology.
These are generally accepted understandings from the world of science:
- Our universe began around 13.8 billion years ago in an event we call The Big Bang.
- The Big Bang sent out an explosion of chemistry which over all these billions of years has made the approximately 100 billion galaxies, each with billions of stars.
- The Big Bang is still happening! The expansion out continues at an accelerating pace! New stars are still being born.
- Earth is one planet of one star of one galaxy, in which all the conditions are such that microbial life began at some point after our planet formed some 4.5 billion years ago.
- Since microbial life began on Earth, the process of evolution by natural selection has been taking place, creating complex “branches” of ever varying species.
- Evolution is still happening! This moment in time is not the end of evolution, it’s just this moment in time – one snapshot.
- More than 99% of all species that have ever lived on Earth have become extinct.
- The human species is about 200,000 years old. In cosmological/geological terms, that’s a tiny amount of time.
- The human species gradually evolved from earlier species and it is gradually evolving to something else. Again, this is only one snapshot in time. A human life is too short to truly grasp cosmological time and processes that take thousands or millions or billions of years.
- At this point we are not aware of other intelligent life in the universe, and certainly not within thousands or perhaps millions of light years from Earth. If there is life that is farther out than that, the prospect of our species learning about it, given that sort of distance, is extremely remote and difficult. And, if there is life somewhere else in the universe, it would very likely be different from what we see on Earth because of its astrophysical and biological unique conditions and history.
- Events in the history of Earth indicate that the evolutionary snapshot we see today could easily have been something else. For example, the asteroid that hit the Earth around 65 million years ago wiped out many species including the dinosaurs. If that hadn’t happened, our species might not have happened. The same could be said for different weather events or Ice Ages or other things, which, had they been different, the evolutionary process, with all of its different “branches” could have taken many different turns.
- We humans have a brain which totally controls the life we have. We know that when the brain dies, the body dies. We know that when the part of the brain which controls X no longer functions, then that person can no longer do X. It’s that simple. If dementia sets in, that person changes in their abilities and even in their personality. A part of the brain corresponds to an ability. This is direct and indisputable. What’s really special and fortunate, is that the brain of humans has evolved to the extent that we now have figured out what I have outlined here.
Those twelve items above collectively paint a picture. No one knows how The Big Bang happened. But since that moment, we have a pretty good idea about how we arrived at this moment in these conditions. And the picture that this paints is one of chance, accident, coincidence, uniqueness, and fragility.
Indeed, there is one major principle in the universe which I discussed in this post. And that principle is: every thing that exists – living or not 1) pops into existence, 2) exists, and then 3) dies (or ends). This is what we observe for literally everything, including stars and planets and all things, living and non-living, on Earth. Begin, exist, end. It’s the fundamental principle of this universe.
So let’s review: we’re one species riding along a complex, continuing evolutionary process that might not have happened in the way it did, on one planet that might not have had the right conditions for life taking hold (and we certainly know of thousands of planets which don’t have the right conditions) and which will one day no longer exist, in one solar system among billions in our galaxy in which the star (our sun) will at one point die, in one galaxy among billions (which at one point will collide with another galaxy, the ramifications of which are unknowable right now).
Given all of the above, how is it at all reasonable or logical to think there is anything permanent about a human being like a soul or a spirit? Somehow, there are eternal spirits who waited all these billions of years and are going inside the bodies of this freak-accident species for this minuscule cosmological moment in this one little tiny, remote corner of an incomprehensibly vast universe to have some fun like it’s some kind of cosmic Halloween party?
I don’t think so. Death is death. Each of us is a lucky blip for an insignificant spec of time living on an insignificant “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” [Carl Sagan] It’s great that our brains have evolved enough to think about how this all happened and figure out so much. But it seems pure folly and nonsensical to think that we’re anything but temporary and insignificant. We have not observed a single thing in the whole universe that is not temporary. Not one single thing. I see no reasonable argument for an exception to this observation. This may not feel good to you, but wasting a lot of your temporary, one-shot, finite existence on a delusion is a high price to pay for a highly questionable shot at feeling better. Personally, I feel much better embracing actual reality.
Of course, in our own little world, my life is significant to me. And yours is to you. And my friends’ and loved ones’ lives are significant to me. And yours are to you. This is why, in my opinion, when someone we love dies, we are sad. I think even people with supernatural beliefs, somewhere deep inside their thoughts, have a sense that the end really is the end.
So, pay attention! This is it! There is nothing each of us will continue as, and we’re damn lucky to have this opportunity at all! And if you are reasonably able and healthy, that’s even more fortunate!
Every conscious moment that passes, is one less in your life that remains. Use your moments wisely, for they’re all you got.