Pharyngula

Giving up the ghost

Guest Blogger Danio:

When I began to seriously question organized religion, years ago, it didn’t take long to conclude that the myths I had been taught as a child were no more tractable than any of the other thousands of belief systems that have come and gone throughout human history. While I quickly and cheerfully discarded all god-belief without regret, the concept of the soul, a consciousness of some kind that could persist beyond the physical life, was significantly harder for me to relinquish. The idea that the essential ‘me’ would cease to exist upon my death was not nearly as disconcerting as the realization that my departed family members, of which there are, regrettably, many, were no longer present anywhere, in any form.

Science and reason helped me overcome this sense of loss, and appreciate the importance of accepting life, brutal and exquisite as it is, as an ephemeral, purely biological process. Reading Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain and various other works helped me to clarify my feelings on mortality. PZ has also written eloquently on the subject, when, for example, he discussed the brevity and relative insignificance of human life on a geological time scale.

Most of all, I have arrived at this acceptance as a lover of science, contemplating the wonders of genetic transmission through lineages. I can easily envision a connection, a common thread that runs through the years, linking my life to thousands of others. I see the ghosts of countless ancestors flit across the faces of my children, with all their various expressions of youthful joy and consternation and everything in between, and recognize that my offspring represent the distillation of innumerable contributions to the molecular constitution our flourishing family tree–the joining together of humanity at its most elemental.

I felt this connection keenly as I stood in sorrow over the casket of my grandmother six years ago after her sudden death from an aortic aneurism. Even in my deepest lamentation, I was aware of the bouncing, fluttering, shifting movements of the girl-child in my womb, still several months shy of her birth. The front of my hastily purchased black maternity frock rippled and bulged extravagantly, and while others in the chapel prayed for their god to accept the departed soul into heaven, I stood apart, a placeholder between past and future, a biological bridge between the inanimate human cells in the pall before me and the exuberant new life within me. I felt overwhelmingly comforted by the realization that, though I had given up the ghosts upon whom all the other mourners were focused, I was the willing conduit through which the genes of my forebearers sought eternal life.

Today, my most treasured piece of jewelry is my grandmother’s engagement ring, which she wore every day of her adult life. When I wear it as a tribute to a bygone existence, as I am doing as I write this, I do not seek to comfort myself through summoning the image of her benevolent spirit hovering nearby, or a belief that the object that accompanied her through so many years of her eventful life must have been imprinted with her psychic essence. I need not even reminisce about the countless loving human moments we shared during the 34 years in which our lifetimes overlapped, although that is indeed a pleasurable journey in its own right. The knowledge that informational fragments of the human that she was still dwell in me–and in my children, to whom she is but a cheerful image in an aging photograph–enables me to comfortably dismiss the possibility of an ‘after’ and savor the impermanent ‘now’. I find abundant solace in the realities of the natural world when I pause to remember those who have gone before, and those who will live on after I depart, beginning with the still exuberant girl-child who will, someday, inherit her great-grandmother’s ring.

Comments

  1. #1 Brian English
    August 13, 2008

    Great post. I like it. It also sheds light on how distraught a parent must feel when a child dies before they do, especially if the child was too young or for other reasons didn’t have any offspring. In a way, a lineage dies with them instead of continuing on and evolving through time.

  2. #2 inkadu
    August 13, 2008

    I considered stuff like this, but ultimately rejected it. Pretending a mixed genetic inheritance somehow represents even a fraction of a whole person seems like wishful thinking to me.

    But that post was good enough for a Unitarian sermon.

  3. #3 Denis Loubet
    August 13, 2008

    I appreciate the fact that every living thing is the result of a four and a half billion year unbroken chain of successful reproduction leading back to a replicating molecule that happened to out-perform its neighbors.

    Just think, you’re a direct result of 4.5 billion years without an epic fail in the reproductive department. It’s the one thing that life does well.

    My view of death may be a little different however. I think it needs to be destroyed because it’s nothing but a waste.

  4. #4 Danio
    August 13, 2008

    Pretending a mixed genetic inheritance somehow represents even a fraction of a whole person seems like wishful thinking to me.

    Yet strong familial resemblences would seem to argue otherwise. And don’t forget about mitochondrial DNA, which gets meddled with far less often.

  5. #5 OctoberMermaid
    August 13, 2008

    I feel much the same way about death as you described in one of the paragraphs; I’m not so much worried that I will cease to exist when I die, it’s worrying about my friends and family. I want THEM to have something, you know.

    The difference is, I haven’t really made peace with that yet and I’m not sure if I ever will.

  6. #6 Patricia
    August 13, 2008

    A lovely post Danio! As a fellow Oregonian, I hope to meet you someday.
    I live within a rock throw of the Google Borg cube. Portland isn’t too far for me to go for a Pharyngula meet up. Alas, as a middle-aged ol’ cow, I don’t drive at night.
    On the other hand – I peddle eggs and herbs every Saturday in front of Full Sail Ale brewery, maybe I’ll see ya there.

  7. #7 bad Jim
    August 13, 2008

    Lacking children of my own, I suppose I have to be content with living on in the memories of those who knew me or knew of me, not that I particularly care.

    My genes most probably persist in my siblings and their offspring, so I can share vicariously in their reproductive efforts. Using Haldane’s reasoning*, I’m represented 1.5 times by my siblings, 2.25 times by nieces and nephews, and 0.25 by the latest generation, for a total of 4. That’s kind of a big family. Maybe I should sign myself “Uncle Jim”.

    * JBS Haldane wrote “I’d trade my life for two brothers or eight cousins”, or something to that effect

  8. #8 Danio
    August 13, 2008

    Right back at ya, Patricia. Please do let me know if you’re in Eugene for any reason, ever. I hope the Scandi fest this weekend was grand!

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    August 13, 2008

    OT (somewhat): Let PZ into a country, and …

    Socialist Forces in Ecuador Desecrate Eucharist in Conflict over new “Abortionist” Constitution
    President Rafael Correa regularly quotes the Cuban communist Che Guevara at the end of his speeches

    By Matthew Cullinan Hoffman

    GUAYAQUIL, August 11, 2008 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In response to criticisms by the nation’s Catholic bishops regarding pro-abortion and anti-family language in Ecuador’s new proposed Constitution, a group of people entered a chapel in Guayaquil, grabbed the Eucharistic host that was exposed for adoration, tore it apart, spat on it, and stepped on it, according to ACI Prensa.

    The profanation is reportedly the third that has occurred in recent weeks, as frustrated partisans of the socialist party Alianza PAIS lash out at the Catholic Church for criticizing their newly-proposed constitution. …

  10. #10 Rick T
    August 13, 2008

    Very good post Danio.
    I feel the same way now and had to travel a similar path as you did to come to the same conclusion. I will add, however, that I soon came to find immortality as a thing to fear and to dread. How Christians can think that worshiping God forever is a good thing, I don’t know. Why they think they will go duck hunting or scoring virgins in heaven, either, is a mystery to me. After a million or so years of that would you even remember any of those interactions or even remember how you got to heaven in the first place?
    These considerations and more just leave me wondering why everyone is so eager to get there. It would drive me crazy after a millennium or so.
    Just as we anthropomorphize our dog or our god we also think about heaven as we think about our earthly life and it seems that the whole concept is ill conceived and has not been thought through by those who place hope in this after life.
    I just hope that, when my time comes, I’m content and ready to die and am not leaving a burden on my family.

  11. #11 Autumn
    August 13, 2008

    Beautiful post, Danio.
    I once tried to explain to a friend (a very attractive female friend slotted comfortably next to me on my futon) about what I believed about eternal life. I started with a bit about genetic descent (not as eloquently as you have), but reached my stride in the stretch run, where I described the probable end of the Solar System in a violent outburst of matter, and how a few of those atoms might be of me; I may contribute to some other world recieving an atom required for a molecule that is incorporated into another chain of life. This is true immortality, even if I only have a molecule or two incorporated into a star visible to some other species, I will be that much a part of the future universe.

    Didn’t work the way I wanted it to, but she at least told me, in effect, that I should use this line to bed some other girl.
    Damn.

  12. #12 Kseniya
    August 13, 2008

    It mighta worked on me, Autumn. ;-)

  13. #13 Mike Carr
    August 13, 2008

    John 15:26 “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me,

    Who was this guy? Ask and you will receive.

  14. #14 Eris
    August 13, 2008

    This is the second time in a few days that I have heard mention of atheists dealing with the fear of death and non-existence. (The first time was the NPR report on Camp Inquiry.) And so, once again, I feel odd, since I’ve never feared non-existence. Even when I was a child and still accepted the idea of souls, I never really had any enthusiasm for the idea, and once I became an atheist (about age 11) I never gave the idea any further credence.

    You live, you die and that’s it. This never struck me as frightening idea, nor even a mildly sad one. To me, the idea of death as the end of existence is in the same category as the idea that things fall when you drop them: it evokes no emotional response whatsoever.

    Am I alone in being like this? Does everyone else go through a stage of fearing death? Maybe I’m just weird.

  15. #15 mayhempix
    August 13, 2008

    Beautifully written Danio…

    When I tried to express such peceptions to those around me during my youth it became clear that I was traversing a separate universe. One girl even told me I was scaring her.

    If only we had met in our early adolescent incarnations. SIgh.

    But I’m pleased to admit that my wife who I met when when she finishing her doctorate understood immediately and our son appears to be catching on at even a younger age than I did.

    ;^ )>

  16. #16 John C. Randolph
    August 13, 2008

    I don’t remember who said it, might have been Dawkins, but I remember someone saying that what’s really out there in the universe is so much more wonderful than any of the creation myths that people have invented.

    -jcr

  17. #17 Craigp
    August 13, 2008

    I’d like to point out that you don’t have to have a genetic excuse to be overwhelmed by the threads of life that stretch from further back than we can see to further forward than we can imagine. The same sense of wonder can be found even without grief or children.

    Of course, I also find the same sense of wonder in the scope of a planet, a solar system, a galaxy… Big Things, all.

  18. #18 mayhempix
    August 13, 2008

    To: Eris | August 13, 2008 2:06 AM

    It’s not death itself that I fear. It’s the possibility of pain and disease that gets to me.

    And I also feel that it is going by so fast I will never have the chance to really express my complete love to my family and friends or ever come close completing all the goals I set for myself.

    So much to discover, learn and express… so little time.

  19. #19 Donovan
    August 13, 2008

    I became an atheist in a very healthy family. My grandparents were all in their 70′s and still going strong. I had lost no one very close to me. When I did start to lose family, it was a very unlikely source that I gained support from: Stephen King.

    In his Gunslinger series, one character says often, “Never forget the face of your father.” This was it to me. While the bodies of my friends and family may die, as long as I remember what they taught me, they ‘live on’ in a way. This might sound border-line religious, and it is. But I the people I have lost only live on in me, not in any heaven. They ‘live on’ in the actions of the ones who actually live.

    It’s sort of like rolling a ball. The action (someone’s life) doesn’t end when the ball leaves your fingers. The action only ends when all of the effects end: the ball stops rolling, the tables stop falling, the galss lamp stops its shattering spread (your memory has faded into the lump called ‘culture’ and no longer has a direct effect in anyone’s life).

  20. #20 Louis Irving
    August 13, 2008

    Nice post Danio,

    You really made me think, and perhaps realise, that we are simply the huge, stupid, lumbering bodies for the true immortals – our genes.

  21. #21 mayhempix
    August 13, 2008

    To: Mike Carr | August 13, 2008 1:54 AM

    Please go live your messianic salvation fantasies somewhere else.
    In case you haven’t realized, no one here gives a damn.

  22. #22 Donovan
    August 13, 2008

    Eris:

    It is not my death I fear. Not at all. I don’t want to die, and will do all I can to live, but more out of fear of pain and suffering then death.

    What I do absolutely fear is the death of my parents, the death of my wife, the death of my children and my sisters’ children. I even fear the death of my dog. I love these people (my dog likes to be anthropomorphized) and don’t want to lose them. It will hurt when I do. Belief in a soul has nothing to do with it. I don’t believe in a soul, but I believe in them.

  23. #23 wright
    August 13, 2008

    I’m moved by the original post, and many of the responses. I too found giving up the fantasy of an afterlife difficult, and with it the hope of reunion with my dead relatives and friends.

    But I also have found that recognizing the brevity of life adds to its beauty and value.

    During the memorial services of my stepfather and grandparents, I listened to others tell stories about them that I had never heard. I had this thought again and again: despite the finality of death, which I now reluctantly accepted, it was clear that I had only known my older relatives for a fraction of their lives. And the fullness of those lives, now shown to me, overshadowed even their deaths.

    On the topic of children showing how we can in a sense transcend death… My nephew is now four years old. To look at him and see my sister’s younger self both echoed and uniquely mingled with his father… It is a joy nearly beyond words.

  24. #24 99&44/100%Puerile
    August 13, 2008

    Eris @ 14

    No, you’re not alone feeling that way. I think there may be a lot of us who aren’t scared of being dead and who regard it as such a non-issue that it doesn’t really bear discussion. Dead is DEAD. I’m not frightened of that. Of dying? Maybe. But not of non-existence.

    After all, I have trouble convincing myself that – once we’re dead- there’s any bit of person left to feel the fear. What I think gives some people trouble is divorcing themselves from the idea that there’s some sort of “you” left over after death, a part that can regret not being alive. For me, that seems unlikely in the same way that I feel it’s improbable that I’d sleep and dream of regretting not being awake.

    (OK, that last sentence is everybody’s cue to go “OOOoohh; she’s deep!” Or not.)

  25. #25 99&44/100%Puerile
    August 13, 2008

    Oh, and Mike Carr @ 13?

    Yawn.

    Almost every person here, I think it’s safe to say, has read that old collection of Bronze Age myths of yours. Often multiple times. Sometimes that’s the very reason we’re atheists. Now please go find a real job.

  26. #26 JJ Berg
    August 13, 2008

    I’m with you #14. I’ve always been a huge fan of Twain’s statement “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

  27. #27 John C. Randolph
    August 13, 2008

    Does everyone else go through a stage of fearing death?

    I fear death right now. That’s why I don’t go bungee jumping. It never seemed like a “stage” to me.

    -jcr

  28. #28 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    Wow. Thank you, Danio, for a moving and beautiful post (being male, I’m a little jealous now x.x :P) and thank you, Mike Carr, for eloquently illustrating, with your pointedly pointless juxtaposed blathering, what a pale, pathetic shadow of humanism’s embrace of life the death-cults and all they offer truly are.

  29. #29 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    PS: Danio, do you mind if I reproduce this post elsewhere, along with Mike Carr’s comment, to illustrate the point?

  30. #30 Beelzebub
    August 13, 2008

    Since we don’t yet understand the nature of consciousness, I think it’s premature to conclude that physical death is the end of individual existence. For all we know there are exactly 1713 different types of conscious entities and you just happen to be one instantiation. There might be approximately 6 gig/1713 = 3,502,628 of you in the world at this very moment. Didn’t that guy you bumped into at Starbucks seem strangely familiar?

  31. #31 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    Since we don’t yet understand the nature of consciousness, I think it’s premature to conclude that physical death is the end of individual existence. For all we know there are exactly 1713 different types of conscious entities and you just happen to be one instantiation. There might be approximately 6 gig/1713 = 3,502,628 of you in the world at this very moment. Didn’t that guy you bumped into at Starbucks seem strangely familiar?

    Since there’s a contrived set of unevidenced assumptions we can pull out to “refute” anything of which the available evidence has made us reasonably confident, then, if we’re going to hold back from conclusions because “it’s possible” that they’re wrong in some bizarre contrived unevidenced way, why not take the last sixteenth of a step into solipsism?

  32. #32 Beelzebub
    August 13, 2008

    “the available evidence has made us reasonably confident”

    Azkyroth, let’s do a thought experiment. If tomorrow morning you were to wake up wherever you normally wake up, and also in Moscow, then you get hit by a bus, are you dead? If so, what about if the Moscow-you gets hit by a bus. Are you dead?

  33. #33 PeteC
    August 13, 2008

    @30 – It is not at all premature to conclude that! Compare: “It’s premature to conclude that the physical presence of alcohol in the brain is the end of rational existence”. No, we jolly well do know that physical events correlate absolutely with mental changes. Go spend some time with a stroke victim, whose brain has been irreparably damaged, and is now a shadow of their former self, and try to go through the mental contortions to conclude that further damage to the brain (i.e. death) will somehow restore everything.
    Danio is right on. Along with giving up the “big god” of religion, the consistent atheist must also give up the “little god” of our immortal, supernatural, contracausal, non-physical selves. (See http://www.naturalism.org/atheism.htm for an essay along these lines.)

  34. #34 Beelzebub
    August 13, 2008

    Danio is right on. Along with giving up the “big god” of religion, the consistent atheist must also give up the “little god” of our immortal, supernatural, contracausal, non-physical selves. (See http://www.naturalism.org/atheism.htm for an essay along these lines.)

    No, look I’m not saying Danio is not right on. What I am saying is that in terms of what it means to be an individual, we argue from a position of ignorance. The nature of consciousness is yet unknown. As Roger Penrose theorized, it may be something requiring explication at the quantum level. Regardless of your stroke victim example, I think it’s premature to believe beyond doubt that death means exactly what it traditionally means.

    An individual is not merely a physical instance, rather an organization of atoms. This should be obvious just by noting that physical bodies recycle atoms every 7 years or so. Beyond that, if there existed the technology to reconstitute a body down to the molecular level, they could be destroyed and recreated at will. In saying that corporeal existence is the only possible means to record life you are committing the same kind of error as spiritualists, insisting that the “soul” is the sole repository of life. Life = information, and wherever the info goes, so goes the life.

  35. #35 Rayven Alandria
    August 13, 2008

    When religious folk ask me why the thought of ceasing to exists does not upset me I tell them that my immortality comes from the affect I will have on my descendants. It brings me comfort to know that who I choose to be will affect offspring for many generations. That is why I devote my life to making sure my influence is a positive one. I think many religious people do not take their time here seriously because they think all the heaven and god fairy crap will make up for the horrid way they treat their children in the here and now. (not that all religious people treat their children like crap, but IMO most do)

  36. #36 PeteC
    August 13, 2008

    @34, your stance of “it’s premature to believe beyond doubt that X” could be applied to anything, whether Thor or the FSM or Yahweh. And of course an individual is just an organization of atoms — which is why it is of utmost importance that the organization be maintained for the individual to maintain its experiences. When the organization is disrupted (say, through ingestion of drugs, or fever, or stroke, or seizure, or massive trauma) the “individual” is diminished. So it is entirely straightforward to accept that in the limit, when the brain’s organization is maximally disrupted, the individual is maximally diminished. Accepting the finality of death is no less rational than accepting that you will no longer be able to read what’s written on a piece of paper if you burn it to ashes.

    I also suggest you read Daniel Dennet’s sound refutation of Penrose’s peculiar quantum ideas about the mind at http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/penrose.htm

  37. #37 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    Azkyroth, let’s do a thought experiment. If tomorrow morning you were to wake up wherever you normally wake up, and also in Moscow, then you get hit by a bus, are you dead? If so, what about if the Moscow-you gets hit by a bus. Are you dead?

    I’m more concerned with freezing to death should I wind up somewhere north of the North Pole.

    No, look I’m not saying Danio is not right on. What I am saying is that in terms of what it means to be an individual, we argue from a position of ignorance.

    Since there’s always more to learn, we “argue from a position of ignorance” when we draw conclusions about anything. Why single consciousness out?

  38. #38 Ragutis
    August 13, 2008

    I don’t so much fear death as fear having to die before I’m done living. Immortality would drive one insane (through boredom if nothing else) but, as Heinlein’s Lazarus Long did, I’d really like to stave off the Reaper for as long as I can find (and be capable of appreciating) interesting new things to see, learn, and experience. Sadly, that’s likely far longer than what I’ll actually get, so I guess I just need to concentrate on accomplishing as much as I can while racking up as few regrets as possible with what time I have.

    Lovely words, Danio.

  39. #39 clinteas
    August 13, 2008

    Thanks for the nice post Danio !

    It has helped clarify for myself my attitude towards dying and the loss of loved ones,and how important it is to keep images of them in your mind,and things they owned or wore,to remind you of them.

    And also it has clarified for me how much more convincing,satisfying and rich the handing-on of genetic information through the generations is,compared to the whole tedious and empty promises of an afterlife,that in a sense we are truly not dead when we’re dead,and live on through our children,as our ancestors do through us.

  40. #40 conelrad
    August 13, 2008

    It is not religion which sanctifies death,
    it is death which gives weight to religion.
    (Not mine; read it somewhere.) Death is the
    one big fact we all have to face; your
    thoughts were very creditable, Danio.

  41. #41 shonny
    August 13, 2008

    Giving up the ghost – good title.

    Only thing the xians got right, – from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust. Period.
    The ghost is the period in between, that little spark of life.
    So don’t fuck around thinking there is more to come later. This is your opportunity, so make the most of it here and now, because you won’t get a second chance.

    Trust me on this one!

  42. #42 John C. Randolph
    August 13, 2008

    should I wind up somewhere north of the North Pole.

    No fear of that, by definition.

    -jcr

  43. #43 negentropyeater
    August 13, 2008

    the concept of the soul, a consciousness of some kind that could persist beyond the physical life, was significantly harder for me to relinquish.

    And I still can’t !

    Let me try to describe what I think is happening to me :
    I have these two ideas in my brain;

    1. nothing happens after you die, that’s it you just die, you can’t think anymore, finito, the rest is just wishful thinking, there is no evidence for anything else.
    2. perhaps something does happen afterall, we just don’t know, or do we ?

    But as soon as try to kill 2) and say, 1) is it, 2) just comes creeping back in, I feel like a profound sense of despair if I fight against it and I let it back in.

    And then I ask to myself, why not just leave it that way, what benefit does it give me to try to force myself to kill 2), even if I understand clearly that it’s just wishful thinking ?

    What is happening to me, I’m normally a rational thinker, I base my ideas as much as I can on evidence and critical thinking, but on this issue, it’s stronger than me, I just can’t be rational, it’s too emotional.

    Is it genetic, memetic, has it to do with the way my brain is structured, what is it ?

    But I tell you, I just can’t. That’s the reason why I guess I’m an agnostic.

  44. #44 Logicel
    August 13, 2008

    Mike Carr #13, please communicate in English or French or Russian or Spanish or Chinese or Indian or Arabic or any other known language but refrain from writing in your own special delusional code. Thank you.

  45. #45 Katkinkate
    August 13, 2008

    Wonderfully poetic, Danio.

    “Posted by: Azkyroth
    …….I’m more concerned with freezing to death should I wind up somewhere north of the North Pole….”

    Only possible direction from the North Pole is south, mate.

  46. #46 Susan
    August 13, 2008

    shonny (#41) said, “Only thing the xians got right, – from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust. Period.
    The ghost is the period in between, that little spark of life.
    So don’t fuck around thinking there is more to come later. This is your opportunity, so make the most of it here and now, because you won’t get a second chance.

    Trust me on this one!”

    This is why I don’t understand most atheists’ stand in support of abortion. If this life is the only shot we get, wouldn’t that make an abortion the greatest injustice?

  47. #47 Logicel
    August 13, 2008

    If I can accept coming into a state of conscious being rather abruptly, then I can accept that I will leave that state just as abruptly. Such a perspective brings a sense of closure before the state in question even gets closed. As the Chinese say, you are dead at birth.

    Before this state gets officially closed, we can deal with the up-and-coming event in various ways. My way is humour–I see something gut wrenchingly funny about human mortality. We are the ultimate defective product, though we are constantly trying to improve the product, we are dealing with a product that historically is programmed for obsolescence. But we plod bravely along (those determined genes leading the way), doing our best (or our worst). I regard the whole enterprise as one lark from beginning to end. Is that being extremely irreverent?

  48. #48 Denise Smith
    August 13, 2008

    Just as I finished reading your post, Danio, I thought, wow. I need to get permission to read this at church…
    #2 Inkadu beat me to it. Obviously, I am a UU, as well as an atheist.

  49. #49 Fernando Magyar
    August 13, 2008

    Mike Carr @ 13,

    http://xkcd.com/459/

  50. #50 Grammar RWA
    August 13, 2008

    42, 45

    “I’m more concerned with F than M, where the probability of F is zero.”

    Humor. sheesh.

  51. #51 Grammar RWA
    August 13, 2008

    And then I ask to myself, why not just leave it that way, what benefit does it give me to try to force myself to kill 2), even if I understand clearly that it’s just wishful thinking ?

    I would worry about poisoning my critical thinking faculties.

  52. #52 Mardonius
    August 13, 2008

    I’m not sure I agree with all of this acceptance of death. I long ago left the idea that life persists after death behind, yet I’m not sure how the idea that death isn’t a bad thing follows from that. Death is the complete destruction of the vast magority of what we value in a person, and the rest disappears in a few short generations as memory fades and bloodlines die out.

    The processes of the universe such as evolution are beautiful, but also terrible and almost lovecraftian in their utter lack of concern for anything humanity values, so unlike some posters who have articulated their views I get little out of imagining my long dispersed atoms slowly disappearing from proton decay as the universe enters heat death.

    And so I think that individual sentient life, while insignificant on the ultimate scale, is something to value and fight for above all things. We look on a death from smallpox or cancer as a thing of horror, so why does old age get treated as a saviour from the ‘boredom’ of immortality?
    How do you know you’d tire of 15 billion light years of stuff to do so soon?

    I think the proper thing to do should be to fight death, in all its forms, using all the tools of science and medicine secular society has built over the generations. We may not succeed in driving the blight of death from our own lives, but if we could do so for our children or grandchildren that may be the greatest gift we can give them.

  53. #53 ThatsMrK?firToYou
    August 13, 2008

    I find it odd how obsessed so many religions are about being dead.

    Its not something I ever stop to think about, when I’m dead, I’m dead, same for everyone else. Yet even your common or garden religious types seem to have a strange fascination.

    I don’t fear being dead.
    If I forced myself to think about it I have apprehensions about the actual process and would prefer the quick and painless route over the others but that’s just me preferring the easy route!

  54. #54 Grammar RWA
    August 13, 2008

    shonny (#41) said, “Only thing the xians got right, – from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust. Period.
    The ghost is the period in between, that little spark of life.
    So don’t fuck around thinking there is more to come later. This is your opportunity, so make the most of it here and now, because you won’t get a second chance.

    Trust me on this one!”

    This is why I don’t understand most atheists’ stand in support of abortion. If this life is the only shot we get, wouldn’t that make an abortion the greatest injustice?

    Susan, there are billions of humans who’ve been born, yeah? Maybe 100 or 110 billion?

    How many possible combinations of human DNA haven’t been born? Far more than billions.

    Is that an injustice?

  55. #55 Grammar RWA
    August 13, 2008

    I’d feel terrible if my mother was forced to have me against her will. I marvel at the narcissism of people who demand that their unique genetic codes were so important to the world that their mothers should have been imprisoned to be incubators.

  56. #56 Bee
    August 13, 2008

    Nice post, Danio, and many fine comments.

    Wright said (#23): “On the topic of children showing how we can in a sense transcend death… My nephew is now four years old. To look at him and see my sister’s younger self both echoed and uniquely mingled with his father… It is a joy nearly beyond words.”

    More selfishly, I see my sister’s daughter, by some genetic chance so physically and mentally like me as a child, but as she has matured, so obviously a much improved version, taller, healthier, smarter, more successful. I feel so priveleged to know her, and it has indeed been a peculiar source of satisfaction that something of me does survive, albeit completely outside of my own doomed and particular set of thoughts, memories and emotions.

    I am much more afraid of the final processes of getting dead, than of being dead. The latter I just find regrettable.

  57. #57 Isherwood
    August 13, 2008

    What a great article. I’m sending this one to my mother. Thank you.

  58. #58 John B.
    August 13, 2008

    I don’t fear death itself but I do fear a painful, protracted death process. To the best of my knowledge, death is the cessation of all consciousness, all awareness, but I think most people think of death as an EXPERIENCE of cessation of consciousness. Maybe our brains are wired in such a way that we can’t think of it any way other than “what it would be like”.

    It’s what Yeats was writing about: “Nor dread nor hope attend a dying animal; a man awaits his end dreading and hoping all…”

  59. #59 Jenny
    August 13, 2008

    Danio: Thank you so much for this post. I can absolutely identify with you – while most folks here are seasoned atheists, I’m personally grappling with these issues myself right now. While it was relatively easy for me to realize that all the dogma I learned as a kid was silly (and eating some 2000-year-old dead guy’s body and drinking his blood, even symbolically, is just creepy), I’m still in the process of working through my terror that one day, I will simply cease to be. I think my little mind has a hard time imagining the opposite of existence. It sounds silly, but this literally keeps me up nights. So, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Give me some time, and I’m sure I’ll realize that much like kindergarten, this party won’t last forever, so I’d better enjoy snack time and nap time while I can. But then again, who wants to spent an eternity in kindergarten?

  60. #60 Sastra
    August 13, 2008

    Mardonius #52 wrote:

    I’m not sure I agree with all of this acceptance of death. I long ago left the idea that life persists after death behind, yet I’m not sure how the idea that death isn’t a bad thing follows from that.

    I don’t think we’re making this sort of good/bad dichotomy here, so much as rationalizing the inevitable, and searching for a way to both accept it with equanimity and give it a larger meaning in context of how we see our lives. There’s a major switch in attitude taking place when you look at what can be avoided, and what can’t.

    The hard part is both considering death a “bad thing,” and not compromising your principles by kidding yourself that therefore it’s “no thing.” I really have no problem with negentropyeater #43 and his slight hedging on the “probably death is the end, but maybe not.” That’s not being disingenuous, it’s being accurate. I do it myself.

    Beautifully written post, Danio.

  61. #61 negentropyeater
    August 13, 2008

    Grammar RWA,

    I would worry about poisoning my critical thinking faculties.

    How does it poison it ?

    Take abortion for instance. If I were a woman, this undecision might cause a problem to me, I don’t know how I’d deal with it exactly, never been in that situation.

    But it doesn’t change my thinking that it is a personal matter it is my wishful thinkng on one hand with regards to what I do with my life, and another person who might not have this wishful thinking, so it’s absolutely clear to me that the woman’s choice always needs to be the most important thing.

    I never found an issue I had to deal with where it poisoned my thinking. Only when it regards my personal decisions about how I follow my own life, but who cares about that, apart from me ? It doesn’t influence my decisions on ethical issues or any other issues because 2) doesn’t intervene, because I’m conscent that it’s a problem, or not a problem, whatever, with me, not others.

  62. #62 BMcP
    August 13, 2008

    Belief in some sort of afterlife is so fundamental to many people simply because it is about impossible to conceive not existing. Right now we are fully aware of our existence, our thoughts, feelings, and memories. Imagine what is it like not to have any of that at all, imagine absolute nothingness to the point you can’t even have your own thoughts let alone remember or sense anything or dream, it’s pretty difficult to imagine. In that light I see why people believe their soul or will or consciousness extending in some form beyond the moral coil. Who knows, maybe they are right, no I don’t have any evidence for that, but who knows, you can’t say for absolute certain that it won’t happen.

    Be sure to the most and best you can though in life now though, most likely our only shot.

  63. #63 BruceH
    August 13, 2008

    One of the things that convinced me to give up any idea of a soul is the fact that the “essential” part of a person can depart long before one’s death. Stir up the brain a little bit, and voila!, an entirely new personality is born.

    If there was a soul that housed one’s personality — impervious to earthly trauma, even death — that should not happen.

  64. #64 negentropyeater
    August 13, 2008

    In other words, if you want, I see Atheism as the common denominator, the level I need to be in when I have to think about any issue that doesn’t involve only me. The other level, that of “Perhaps”, of agnosticism, is when it’s only about me (which is actually quite rare).

    I’ve always hoped somehow, that theists could do the same, simply recognize that only Atheism can be the common denominator that we all share when we think critically about issues and other people.

    The other stuff on top of, is something very personal, based on wishful thinking, and shouldn’t influence our decisions about ethical issues and other people.

    If you can’t cut the wishful thinking, at least you can recognize what it is.

  65. #65 DLC
    August 13, 2008

    Danio : Good post, thanks. food for thought.

    Negentropyeater @43: you are not alone. By everything we know, life as we know it ceases to exist with brain function. However, we should always apply the “as we know it.”
    This said, I have to add that as someone with a scientific education and inclination, I do not believe in things without proof. So I don’t believe in faeries, gremlins, or gravitons until someone shows me some proof they exist.

  66. #66 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 13, 2008

    Beautifully written post on a semi-personal topic. (As in, we all have our own reasons to reject religion, but they are likely shared with the group.) I have probably edited out my own back-and-forth on dualism, but I believe I never considered the concept of a soul as a valid out from when I learned about our mortality.

    Seems I spared me a lot of angst. That come instead in spades when I now hear that there are very few successful individuals (LCAs) that can originate a current population. Most of us will contribute to life by dying, not by spawning an ultimately successful descendant/allele. Obviously that’s not much of a consolation.

    Pretending a mixed genetic inheritance somehow represents even a fraction of a whole person seems like wishful thinking to me.

    The genome, indeed the organism, is nothing without its environment. But our ability to spawn ultimately successful cultural ideas are on par with our ability to be LCAs. And indeed, it is feasible that it is as important to select fit ideas as it is to select fit alleles. So that doesn’t do it for me either.

    Ultimately I guess I’m one of those “go get it while the getting is good” types, by analysis and by trait. I have to make my own reasons; I don’t want consolation, I want to have fun.

    @ Beelzebub #30, 32, 34:

    Since we don’t yet understand the nature of consciousness,

    That is in large because we don’t understand how to define it or what it would characterize, isn’t it? We do know how to describe the mind and its nature, so that isn’t an out for such dualism as you propose.

    And Penrose’s woo? Please!

    Life = information, and wherever the info goes, so goes the life.

    Well then, since the genome acquires information by learning about the environment, and it’s hereditary as opposed to other natural structures, life resides there.

    But I would be careful to use a characteristic to define a process such as life (i.e. evolution), as it fails spectacularly. You have just told us the web is a life form.

    Okay, maybe you believe that, but how about Windows then? [Insert horrendous screams, while someones mind is ripped to pieces by the brain sucking functionality (or not) of the user interface.]

  67. #67 J Dub
    August 13, 2008

    Interesting post & comments. Here’s my attempt at something similar.

    The only way we know other people is through our senses. Perception, memory, learning, and so on. We’ve got neurons up there in our brains that do all this stuff. Every touch caress, slap, punch, kiss, that we’ve ever felt has been a result of that stripe of neurons called the somatosensory cortex.

    When a person loses a limb, she doesn’t lose the neurons in that stripe that were “listening” to the limb. Often, she will have “phantom limb” syndrome where she still feels that limb. In a way, this is not an illusion, she REALLY feels that (now non-existent) limb, because the only way she’s ever felt that limb was through those neurons in her somatosensory cortex, and they haven’t gone anywhere.

    I think this happens when a loved one dies. We have millions of neurons that “know” the loved one, and the neurons haven’t gone anywhere. The person lives on in our brains, in more than just a poetic way. In a real way, we still “have” that person every time we think of her.

  68. #68 Seamyst
    August 13, 2008

    Excellent post, Danio, and to many of the commenters here as well.

    I am not an atheist myself, though I did go through a period of time where I identified as one. I now believe that there is something higher than us, something that binds us all together. Call it the Force, call it God, call it advanced quantum theory, call it whatever – I’m still trying to work out how I want to call it. I also believe that there is something that survives after death – a soul, for lack of a better term.

    I have actually become somewhat fascinated with death and the idea of dying (in a non-suicidal way, mind you, I’m in no rush to hurry the process along). What is it like to die? What happens after? I believe that there is something after death, but I’m not sure what it is; at this stage in life I believe in reincarnation pretty strongly, that our souls come to Earth to learn one or more Lessons in a lifetime. Karma also plays into this to a degree, in that what you choose to do in one life can positively or negatively affect what happens to you in the next life (although circumstance and chance are also part of the equation).

    So… yeah. I’m still working out what I believe, and it’s probably going to be several years yet before I have it all worked out to my personal satisfaction, if I ever do in this life.

  69. #69 negentropyeater
    August 13, 2008

    DLC,

    I could also say “perhaps fairies and gremlins exist”, but actually I don’t, why would I even bother with this ?

    But only with the issue “perhaps something happens after we die”, because simply I wish that it might be true, the “as we know it” that you are refering to takes preeminence and I can’t get rid of it.

    I know it’s irrational, but what can I do, I’m not going to lie to myself, and it really doesn’t bother me to have this wishful thinking inside of me, as I know it’s there.

    If you can kill the wishful thinking on this issue, or you’ve never had it, good for you, I just know I can’t, I just get too emotional about it, it always ends up creeping back in.

    Honestly what? I can cut the crap, I’m scared shit of dying, is that new ? So I comfort myself by saying, perhaps something does happen after I die, I don’t know what, it would then be a nice surprise, I’ll see. If nothing happens, I won’t know about it anyways.

    Being scared of death and wishful thinking, that’s all it takes to be irrational.

  70. #70 Interrobang
    August 13, 2008

    I would say I’m afraid of death, but mostly in the sense that some part of me says, “I’m not ready to stop existing yet!” Given what just happened with my grandfather’s death, I’m reasonably sure that if I die of old age or illness, I won’t feel that way anymore.

    This is why I don’t understand most atheists’ stand in support of abortion. If this life is the only shot we get, wouldn’t that make an abortion the greatest injustice?

    And you remember everything that happened to you before you were born? I’m sure.

    Actually, forcing someone to ruin her life by continuing a pregnancy she doesn’t want, when she’s the one who can already feel pain, fear, horror, and sadness — and the parasite inside her can’t — is a pretty damn big injustice, don’t you think? If not, what the hell is wrong with you? My biological mother was forced to carry me to term by legal circumstances, and it keeps me up at night. The only act I can think of that’s comparable is state-sanctioned rape. Both violate your selfhood and body and carry a risk of dying besides, all with the approval of the Beneficent State.

  71. #71 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 13, 2008

    We may not succeed in driving the blight of death from our own lives, but if we could do so for our children or grandchildren that may be the greatest gift we can give them.

    Unfortunately life that adapts by individuals dying (evolution) is much more viable than eternal individuals. As evidenced by the lack of them.

    But perhaps this concept is feasible if those individuals are individually adaptable. I’m currently reading the first instance of Peter Hamilton’s Void trilogy, where he describes such a society. The individuals can choose to slowly edit both their genomes and their memories/minds over time, at “regeneration”. As he portrays it this form of process seems both competitively fit compared with evolution and able to avoid (or rather integrate) the threat of Kurzweil’s proposed technical future singularity.

    So, yes, why not try for eternal life, but be careful about increased extinction risks as the environment slowly changes while we don’t. It will be tremendously difficult to avoid them, say along Hamilton’s speculative massive technology.

    OTOH we know that any direct descendants of ours won’t be human any which way, so perhaps it is arrogant to not want to give up that particular “ghost”. And, it seems to me, I now find myself arguing the same conclusion as in my previous comment, death (if unavoidable) is the major contribution we do anyway. How about that.

  72. #72 Schmeer
    August 13, 2008

    Seamyst,
    What brought you to the conclusion that there is something more out there? I’m endlessly fascinated by people who go through the change you described, please indulge me.

    My wife and I have a friend who claimed to be an atheist all her life, but has now joined a UU church because of similar feelings. I’ve, unfortunately, been forbidden from asking her about her experience because my wife thinks I’ll transform into Hitchens after a few questions. I wonder if that transformation would be anything like changing into the Hulk. “…need Scotch and a cigarette… NOW! Die theist!!!”

  73. #73 Grammar RWA
    August 13, 2008

    negentropyeater, people are already so skilled at calling on cognitive biases to reach desired conclusions that I’m wary of deliberately practicing and reinforcing those tendencies. There will always be instances when we may not know what we are overlooking, but I don’t see how it can be good to multiply those instances.

    Ideas have effects. Acceptance of “there is a significant chance that people have souls” grants greater cultural currency to “women seeking abortions should be imprisoned because embryos have souls.”

    That is a detriment to all. What is the benefit? For you, there is the comfort of a pretty lie. Perhaps I can’t judge which should take precedence without knowing how much you need the lie.

    There is also the possibility that this angst about death is a net burden to you, even when tempered by comfort.

  74. #74 Deepsix
    August 13, 2008

    One of my favorite movies is “About Schmidt”. A great movie, but a very dark comedy. Anyway, there is a line in the movie that really struck me. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is looking back on his life and he says,
    “Relatively soon, I will die. Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone. None that I can think of. None at all.”

    We have one chance at life, and we’d damn well better live it to the fullest.

  75. #75 Bob Pybus
    August 13, 2008

    I have been an Atheist for many years but have difficulty dismissing the possibility of previous and future lives. I have been influenced by reading the books of Brian L. Weiss, M.D.
    His writings describe people under hypnosis describing previous lives sometimes in languages that the person under hypnosis could not have knowledge of. Not only that but frequently the facts and experiences recalled from these past lives have been verified.
    For anyone interested the titles of some of the books are as follows: Many Lives Many Masters–Messages From the Masters–Same Souls Many Bodies

  76. #76 negentropyeater
    August 13, 2008

    Grammar RWA,

    Ideas have effects. Acceptance of “there is a significant chance that people have souls” grants greater cultural currency to “women seeking abortions should be imprisoned because embryos have souls.”

    But who manufactures those ideas ? Religions, they pretend they know, that they can interpret things and vehiculate these ideas. They translate an unknown into a certainty.

    If we can all accept that we fear death and tend do this wishful thinking, to different degrees, some not at all, some more, depending on many factors, genetics, memetics, personal experiences, we should be able to recognize that we do not need religions to dictate to one another any of those certainties.

    Then it becomes obvious for everyone of us, that an issue such as abortion is a personal choice.

  77. #77 Seamyst
    August 13, 2008

    Schmeer @ #72:

    For a while I had wanted there to be something more out there, but was unable (or unwilling) to fully believe it – to feel it, if you will. Then a somewhat drawn-out event a couple of years ago helped to supply what “proof” I evidently needed that there is indeed something greater than us. (In short, an online friend suffered a house fire; the house was destroyed and he sustained second- and third-degree burns over something like 70% of his body. Members of a “community” to which we both belong banded together, donated lots of needed items to him and his family [who had luckily been elsewhere that night], and sent Reiki healing energy his way. His doctors said that his recovery was “almost miraculous” in its speediness and thoroughness, as he walked out of the hospital six weeks after being admitted and was fully recovered a month after that, when they had originally said he would probably never walk again.)

    This wasn’t the only event that helped me realize the existence of something more, but I would say it was the catalyst. I think what also helped was letting go of my need for there to be a God-type being – that is to say, a supreme being to whom one could talk/pray and expect or hope for results. And then, somewhat later on, that the something more could indeed be that part of quantum mechanics that suggests everything is connected on a quantum level. That, I think, took care of my concern that it had no place in science – that instead it could be an expansion of what we are beginning to see, albeit imperfectly as of yet, in quantum theory.

    I guess the main two things were the event I described above and letting go of the need, to just let it be there if it exists and not make any demands on it.

  78. #78 Denise Smith
    August 13, 2008

    Schmeer @72…I wouldn’t worry. If your friend’s church is anything like mine, she WILL be asked and expected to discuss. This type of conversation goes on all the time. UU churches are full of all types of people. Mine has many atheists, like myself, you do question some of the crazyassed beliefs there, only thankfully without any Hitchens Transformations…but sometimes WITH the scotch!

  79. #79 octopod
    August 13, 2008

    Applause for #67. That’s a very nteresting idea. I wonder how it maps to brain physiology? (would hit the books but is at work)

  80. #80 Ryan
    August 13, 2008

    Beautiful, beautiful post.

  81. #81 Danio
    August 13, 2008

    Wow, thanks, everyone, for such great responses. To be honest, I was a little unsure about how this post would be received. I may not fear death, but rejection is another matter entirely :) I’m glad I hit the right note for a crowd with such finely honed critical thinking skills. This entry officially belong to Scienceblogs now, but please do feel free to use it in any copyright-abiding manner you desire. If you want to email me at jbp31433(at)uoregon.edu, I’ll give you a real name to go along with it.

    Mardonius @52

    I think the proper thing to do should be to fight death, in all its forms, using all the tools of science and medicine secular society has built over the generations. We may not succeed in driving the blight of death from our own lives, but if we could do so for our children or grandchildren that may be the greatest gift we can give them.

    Acceptance of death ? Indifference to or desire for death. As a compassionate human and a biomedical researcher, I wholeheartedly agree that resources expended on improving longevity are well spent. It should not be done, however, out of fear of death, but out of a desire for a better quality of life.

    This is the crux of the abortion question posed above for me, as well, and Interrobang addressed it really well. Indiscriminate proliferation does not equate to ‘valuing life’, and the notion of forced maternity, which will so often have a negative impact on the quality of life for both mother and child, is just debasing. Some organisms live principally for the purpose of crapping out as many offspring as possible before they kick off. Their genes are in total control of the process. Humans can (and, in my belief, should) temper their reproductive urges with consideration for the environmental, social, personal and economic cost of adding more humans to the planet.

    The only downside to this outlook is that those of us who subscribe to it will soon be vastly outnumbered by the quiverfull nutters.

  82. #82 Schmeer
    August 13, 2008

    Seamyst,
    Thanks for elaborating. So would you say that you are convinced that Reiki healing works? I’ve heard a variety of claims regarding it, but have come to the conclusion that The Amazing Randi and JREF have: not enough evidence to support those claims.
    You’ve been kind enough to share your personal thoughts, so I hope you don’t take offense to saying that I think you may want to read a little more on quantum mechanics. I’ve found that the new Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson, A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene have been useful in giving a very light introduction to quantum mechanics.

    Denise Smith,
    To clarify: our friend is willing to talk. My wife has forbidden me from being a participant in the talk. I tend to think she has a valid point, so I accept her rule. I value the friendship more than satisfying my own interest.

  83. #83 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    No fear of that, by definition.

    -jcr

    That was the point. The idea of “me” being simultaneously in Moscow and here makes about as much sense.

  84. #84 Seamyst
    August 13, 2008

    Schmeer,

    At this point I’m not willing to say that Reiki healing works conclusively, no. I have no personal experience with it, either giving or receiving, for one thing. For another, my story above is just one second-hand anecdotal instance, which hardly a scientific study makes. Thirdly, yes, my friend healed remarkably fast and well, but who’s to say that the distance Reiki healing was the sole, or even a contributing, factor? It’s certainly possible, but that’s all it is at this point. In my opinion, anyway.

    No offense taken at the quantum mechanics suggestion. It’s actually been quite a while… I know that there’s some evidence or hypothesis (or SOMEthing) that suggests particles on a subatomic level may have some sort of connection over vast distances, and I thought that was in quantum mechanics, but I could be totally off and my Google-fu is completely failing me right now. I do have Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but it’s at home and I’m at work. Thanks for the reading suggestions, though, I’ll definitely look into them.

  85. #85 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    This is why I don’t understand most atheists’ stand in support of abortion. If this life is the only shot we get, wouldn’t that make an abortion the greatest injustice?

    A fetus, while biologically alive, does not have “a life” in the sense we mean when we speak of the human experience of living, except as a hypothetical potential. The woman carrying, however, certainly does. It seems obvious a definite life is more valuable than a maybe-later-life, especially considering the quality of a life an unwanted child, and a woman forced to give birth to it, are likely to have.

    Additionally, all sentient beings have the right to bodily autonomy. It is no more just or ethical to force a woman to carry a pregnancy against her will than it is to force a person to donate a kidney at gunpoint – even if the recipient would die otherwise. I assume you agree….

  86. #86 Iain Walker
    August 13, 2008

    Beelzebub (#32):

    If tomorrow morning you were to wake up wherever you normally wake up, and also in Moscow, then you get hit by a bus, are you dead? If so, what about if the Moscow-you gets hit by a bus. Are you dead?

    Depends on which one of them is Azkyroth. They can’t both be, unless the thought experiment assumes that 1=2.

  87. #87 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    Beelzebub (#32):
    If tomorrow morning you were to wake up wherever you normally wake up, and also in Moscow, then you get hit by a bus, are you dead? If so, what about if the Moscow-you gets hit by a bus. Are you dead?

    Depends on which one of them is Azkyroth. They can’t both be, unless the thought experiment assumes that 1=2.

    Hence my North Pole comment. They couldn’t both be me; individuality is neither defined nor experienced in such a way. The “other me” would either be a clone (in which case its death has no more effect on the other’s life than any other human’s) or an appendage remotely controlled by me in some fashion. Of these two possibilities, only one of them is not flatly contradicted by what we do know about how the mind and consciousness operate. Therefore this thought experiment is like asking how we would cope with a world where things “fall” upward.

  88. #88 Schmeer
    August 13, 2008

    Seamyst,
    The connected-ness thing you are thinking of is called quantum entanglement.
    I tried to write up a summary of quantum entanglement, but it started to go on waaaay too long. I don’t think it was going to help. Wikipedia will probably be much more helpful to you than I can be.

  89. #89 Azkyroth
    August 13, 2008

    This entry officially belong to Scienceblogs now, but please do feel free to use it in any copyright-abiding manner you desire.

    It never ceases to amaze me that people voluntarily agree to that sort of thing.

    Never mind, I guess.

  90. #90 Iain Walker
    August 13, 2008

    Beelzebub (#34):

    Beyond that, if there existed the technology to reconstitute a body down to the molecular level, they could be destroyed and recreated at will.

    Yes, and the same technology could be used to produce multiple copies, with or without destroying the original. That’s mere duplication, and duplication does not preserve quantitative identity. To put it another way, a Star Trek transporter is just an elaborate way of committing suicide without making your friends and family feel bad.

  91. #91 Seamyst
    August 13, 2008

    Schmeer – ah, yes, it was quantum entanglement. Thanks for the info!

  92. #92 Danio
    August 13, 2008

    Azkyroth:

    SB has first dibs on publishing it, which they have already done by allowing my original work to appear here first. It’s permissible to cross-post it elsewhere, excerpt it, link to it, etc. All other republishing rights are non-exclusive, so the contract doesn’t seem particularly draconian to me, as far as these things go.

  93. #93 Christopher
    August 13, 2008

    What an insightful and touching post! I had a bit of a tear in my eye at the end.

  94. #94 Beelzebub
    August 13, 2008

    Hence my North Pole comment. They couldn’t both be me; individuality is neither defined nor experienced in such a way.

    But they areboth you, that’s the point, and that’s why it’s such a poser (which I can’t take full credit for — I believe I read something like it in one of Dennett’s early works). You wake up normally AND in Moscow. The normal you makes coffee, etc. The Moscow you wonders how the hell he/she is suddenly in Moscow. Now, let’s say the normal you suffers a massive coronary just after waking. Have you died? The only discontinuity that has happened is you woke and felt a great pain in your chest. The Moscow you takes it from there.

    Why do I place emphasis in the idea of “consciousness”? Because it’s so utterly unexplained at the phenomenological level, as yet. As someone said, this may be a definitional problem, but nobody seems to be offering a convincing definition either. Gravity was a problem of definition also, in the year 1200.

  95. #95 Grammar RWA
    August 13, 2008

    If we can all accept that we fear death

    I don’t think this is true.

    we should be able to recognize that we do not need religions to dictate to one another any of those certainties.

    Not there yet. Right now it matters which groups of ideas we support. Sam Harris is right about moderate woo. Unless you have data…?

  96. #96 Beelzebub
    August 13, 2008

    Or maybe that’s a rotten analogy. People understood that if you drop a rock it hit your toe, but some thought it explained by the Aristotelian notion of “seeking its place.” Dismissing something as a mere problem of definition is really a cop out in any type of scientific endeavor. Definition and explanation are usually synonymous here.

  97. #97 inverse
    August 13, 2008

    Struck with the thought – the whole deal with the wafer seems to smack of idolatry. I thought that was forbidden. Even if they believe it has been transformed in some way, that should still apply.

  98. #98 khan
    August 13, 2008

    No, you’re not alone feeling that way. I think there may be a lot of us who aren’t scared of being dead and who regard it as such a non-issue that it doesn’t really bear discussion. Dead is DEAD. I’m not frightened of that. Of dying? Maybe. But not of non-existence.

    “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
    — Isaac Asimov

    After all, I have trouble convincing myself that – once we’re dead- there’s any bit of person left to feel the fear. What I think gives some people trouble is divorcing themselves from the idea that there’s some sort of “you” left over after death, a part that can regret not being alive.

    This idea of being upset about being dead/not being is interesting.

    A similar idea is shown in the anti-abortion/anti-birth control statement: “Suppose your mother had used birth control/abortion?”

    There is this weird idea that I would be upset if I had never been conceived/born.

  99. #99 windy
    August 13, 2008

    Azkyroth, let’s do a thought experiment. If tomorrow morning you were to wake up wherever you normally wake up, and also in Moscow

    …in Russia, up wakes you!

    Seriously, I think both you and Azkyroth are wrong. I think my consciousness is a state of my material body and if an exact physical copy were to be somehow generated down to the same memory traces, it would not be paradoxical or equivalent to breaking the laws of physics to have two individuals both having the experience of being “me”. (I assume that the copies would start diverging soon enough.) But contrary to what you are saying, this does not give me any reason to doubt my mortality, since Riverworld is fiction.

  100. #100 ndt
    August 13, 2008

    Posted by: Eris | August 13, 2008 2:06 AM

    This is the second time in a few days that I have heard mention of atheists dealing with the fear of death and non-existence. (The first time was the NPR report on Camp Inquiry.) And so, once again, I feel odd, since I’ve never feared non-existence. …

    You live, you die and that’s it. This never struck me as frightening idea, nor even a mildly sad one. To me, the idea of death as the end of existence is in the same category as the idea that things fall when you drop them: it evokes no emotional response whatsoever.

    Am I alone in being like this? Does everyone else go through a stage of fearing death?

    You are definitely not alone. I can’t remember ever having a fear of death. Maybe it’s because my parents didn’t bring me up with a belief in an afterlife.

  101. #101 Jim
    August 13, 2008

    I think death is kind of like the first part of total anesthesthia; the light blinks out giving a timeless total darkness. The difference of course is the usually coming back to the light when the anesthesthia wears off

  102. #102 Leigh Williams
    August 13, 2008

    Negentropyeater @64: “I’ve always hoped somehow, that theists could do the same, simply recognize that only Atheism can be the common denominator that we all share when we think critically about issues and other people.

    The other stuff on top of, is something very personal, based on wishful thinking, and shouldn’t influence our decisions about ethical issues and other people.

    If you can’t cut the wishful thinking, at least you can recognize what it is.”

    This is an important point, and it reflects exactly the way I think of religious beliefs as a theist.

    The ONLY way we can connect in the real world is by recognizing that rational thought and objective evidence are our only means of communication in society.

    You have no reason in the world to accept my personal experiences as evidence. I accept them, of course, or I wouldn’t hold these beliefs — but it would be the height of arrogance for me to insist that YOU believe as I do. There is always the possibility that I’ve misinterpreted those experiences, perhaps because they’re the result of wishful thinking. Or maybe they’re “real”, but the product of the particular way my brain is wired rather than of a true apprehension of the divine.

    I will tell you that when I was an atheist, I was not at all afraid of death. That changed after my mother died. I could not emotionally accept that she had ceased to be, though I still rationally believed that it was so. But the possibility of life beyond death remained in the realm of my wishful thinking for many, many years nonetheless.

    That possibility notwithstanding, it’s how we treat each other here, in this place, that matters NOW; surely we can all agree on that.

    Beautiful and thought-provoking post, Danio.

  103. #103 Charles
    August 13, 2008

    http://www.theinquirer.net/gb/inquirer/news/2008/08/13/atheists-miffed-religion-spore

    I thought this was funny enough to post here. Just shows you how sad militant atheists are today.

  104. #104 negentropyeater
    August 13, 2008

    GrammarRWA,

    I don’t think this is true.

    I didn’t write that we all fear death, this is evidently not true, read what I wrote.

    Right now it matters which groups of ideas we support. Sam Harris is right about moderate woo.

    Agreed, but that’s because they all manufacture certain types of ideas where they exploit an emotional need and some wishful thinking and then present them as certainties, whereas they have no evidence to support them. So if we can’t stop some people from manufacturing and distributing such ideas and others to absorb them, the very least we can strive for is to encourage people to doubt these ideas and not to accept these as definite certainties unless there is evidence to support them.
    In other words, if noone can kill those ideas, because there is an emotional need for them and some people absorb them so easily with the help of a bit of wishful thinking, the key question is evidently not wether we (who is we?) should support them or not.
    The key question is how do people become conscious about the fact that whereas some have absorbed these ideas, others have not, and that absorbing such an idea doesn’t make it more certain. Then it should become obvious to everyone that they cannot form the basis of our shared ethical principles.

  105. #105 David V
    August 13, 2008

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I enjoy every fleeting moment with my kids, realizing that as the seconds tick away, the future is arriving like a runaway freight train. The realization that there are no second chances in the “next life” greatly intensifies my desire to make things “right” with them this time around.

  106. #106 antaresrichard
    August 13, 2008

    Being an evolutionary dead-end myself, I guess I’ll have to be content with all the wee beasties happy for a feast.

  107. #107 Ermine
    August 13, 2008

    Charles,

    What exactly makes these atheists ‘militant’? They offered feedback, just as the game developers asked them to do, whether YOU agree with it or not. How the hell does simple disagreement make one ‘militant’?

    That article really annoys me, actually. They clearly allude to other complaints from people other than the atheists, but ignore them completely and class everyone else but the atheists as ‘tolerant’. The fact that they called written feedback ‘militant’ leads me to believe that there’s a lot of bias in the author of that article.

    If you can’t see it, why the hell should I care about your opinion?

    As a matter of fact, I agree that the complaints (as reported – with that much bias, I find it hard to just accept the claims at face value) sound silly. That doesn’t make them intolerant, and it sure as hell doesn’t make them ‘militant’!

    I guess it just goes to show just how sad theists are these days – they’ll grasp at any straw to try and put atheists into a bad light, won’t they?

  108. #108 JonathanL
    August 13, 2008

    http://www.theinquirer.net/gb/inquirer/news/2008/08/13/atheists-miffed-religion-spore

    I thought this was funny enough to post here. Just shows you how sad militant atheists are today.

    Well, after reading the forum thread that aparked that debate I think I might be on the side of those atheists. The issue isn’t about having religion in the game it’s about having magical religious powers. And then that forum thread turned into a discussion on evolution, good grief!

    http://forums.ea.com/mboards/thread.jspa?threadID=396975&start=0&tstart=0

  109. #109 JonathanL
    August 13, 2008

    Err… aparked = sparked

  110. #110 ThirtyFiveUp`
    August 13, 2008

    Interesting book from Brett Grainger who came from a family of Fundamentalist Christians. He realized they were seriously deluded. Now, apparently, he has found a church home with Episcopalians. He likes the liturgy. That was an extraordinary time in England. King James Bible, Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer; all with the best English prose. Beauty, such beauty; our language has devolved since then. Episcopal churches also often perform good music.

    http://www.brettgrainger.com/Brett_Grainger/In_the_world_but_not_of_it.html

  111. #111 davot
    August 13, 2008

    Nice original post and continued follow up…
    Here’s my story… On June 5th of this fine year I lost the love and light of my life to a driver who passed out behind the wheel after undergoing some medical treatment[s]… My wife was 43, commuting to her last day of teaching school here in Las Vegas. She commuted everyday, no matter what, 9 miles.
    I recently have had a long time work colleague continually “attempt” to help me through these very trying times with scripture after scripture, copied hypocrisy after copied hypocrisy. At an apex of exasperation I explained to my friend that we were and are, both atheists, and although I appreciate your attempts, your horribly mistaken in them…I me and in what life in general has to offer. He was confused and set about understanding what that might mean. A day or so later we met for lunch and discussed the ramifications of “living” the false convictions of life after death, the carrot-on-the-end-of-the-stick reunion of lost loved ones and the blissfully ignorant realm of dissociation that comes with it..
    I simply explained to my friend that Atheism, and in our case- adhering to the concept of Human Secularism- is so vastly superior- imo- to any religion, that to discuss them together is to do a disservice to myself and my wifes memory.. this shocked him.
    I followed with this: “Jim, is it easier to accept this life as final? A single, one-shot deal with no pretense of heavenly spirit guiding and supporting my grieving heart and aching head,to place the understanding of the chaotic moments that claimed my wifes early death as non-divine in origin, non-divine in action and to live the rest of my days as best I can, raising my two children alone with the great memories I have and the guidance we’ve instilled in our children thus far, without any religious overtones, OR is it easier to simply accept that “God” has acted in some mysterious and unknowing way, choosing to take this perfect human from her loving home and family” for reasons that I must accept, without ever knowing, without ever understanding, only blindly accepting….? [I continued] So which things in life this far have been the most rewarding for you Jimbo? those things that came easiest, without struggle… or those things you had to work and strive for?
    I can only hope Jim has since begun the long road of religious recovery, understanding that there are alternatives to culturally induced brainwashing… I will be there for him, as no spirit or supernatural entity could ever be…in person.
    For that,and much more, I am honored to accept and better understand the beautiful brevity of our 20 years together, and its tragic ending, with a slightly easier feeling by continuing to relieve those sorts of persons from needless subjugation of heart and mind, from the senseless realm of religious dogma masking truth, honor and self awareness.

    Life is astoundingly more colorful, more humanly exquisite and vastly more interesting when one accepts this reality for what it is; rather than one in which the cultural trappings of religious sheep dung are wafted about obscuring the many true scents life has to offer.
    Peace.

  112. #112 John C. Randolph
    August 14, 2008

    I can only hope Jim has since begun the long road of religious recovery,

    I would tread very lightly there. I’ll argue with superstitious people anytime, anywhere, but when it comes to breaking people loose from their emotional needs, I consider that very dangerous ground.

    -jcr

  113. #113 Leigh Williams
    August 14, 2008

    John, I doubt that in Davot’s case a frank discussion was at all dangerous. At least, he has made his friend aware that well-meaning attempts at offering comfort were worse than useless in this case, and that brandishing the vocabulary of religion in such circumstances does not help. I am glad to see that Davot has friends who care so much about him at this time; and while I doubt that Jim’s faith has been shaken, apparently his concern for Davot’s feelings has overridden any urge to proselytize. I certainly hope that Jim will continue to offer as much sympathy and support as he can.

    Davot, I am so very sorry to hear about your loss. Indeed, since your wife was a teacher, and no doubt a fine one, in addition to being your life’s partner and your children’s beloved mother, we all share in your loss. The death of such a one, especially in so untimely a way, diminishes us all.

    You have my deepest sympathy. And I would urge you to be completely frank with your friends about your situation. If I’m reading you rightly, they care enough about you to do only that which will help you, and not that which causes you more pain.

  114. #114 Davot
    August 14, 2008

    Leigh, thanks for your thoughts and compassion… It is indeed the most trying , hardest part of my life, to say the very, very least, its pathetic to even try and put it to words. The sheer number of lives she touched were amazing, the school re-opened to host a memorial and grief counseling for former and current students. [google Barbara Tronnier] I sit and weep with agony, but I am not alone. Our vast network of friends and family bouy me up and of course my two kiddos are especially vibrant energy sources that remind me of the “connectedness” of all life forms, all beings. It’s the simple finality of the situation, the incredible instant isolation and removal from such a huge part of my being, that is so difficult to fill, to even begin to fill; but truth, and the deep accpetance of truth and the emotions brought forth from truth are brighter,clearer and of a more honest sort of inventory of ones emotional self- and self awareness-imo-.

    When put into the direct sunlight, the direct observation of reality in all its unforgiving cold heartedness, with all its consequences, and conversley all it’s benefits are a truer form of dealing with pain and grief, happiness and joy than any foolishness brought about by superstitous ritual. Accepting what happened as pure chaos, no divine intervention, [or lack there-of ad nauseum], and held up as an example for others to, ah, perhaps better understand life without superstitions is the point, John C. Randolf.

    To not expose those dependent upon emotional constructs foisted upon them by and through religious dogma is to advocate total pacifism and that, again, imo- is truly doing a disservice to them and the rest of mankind.

    Leigh, your also correct about my friend Jim.. his is a faith and psyche that could never leave its sheltered situation, but as you ascertained, he is now slightly more educated in his understanding of the human condition than those still held under the simplistic measures of religious reason and [irr]-rationale. I know Jim will always be “there” for me, to his own personal credit, not to his belief in faith.
    thanks for listening guys, Dave.

  115. #115 Drawing Business
    August 14, 2008

    A lovely post, which bought back my own feelings after my dad died (more than 10 years ago now). In my case, he was my step-father, so we had no biological connection, but a strong emotional one; it is the things he taught me, and the values I took from him are what will hopefully live on in my children (the first of which is due within the next 12 days!).

    It also bought to mind one of the worst experiences I had of religion, attending the Catholic funeral of a relative who died in his mid-forties, leaving behind a distraught wife and two confused young children. The priest conducting the funeral infuriated me by spending most of the service praising god, and the rest of it telling his grieving family how their departed loved one was now in a better place; that his time of earth meant nothing, and was simply preparation for eternal life with the lord. I was shaking with rage at the absolute lack of compassion or consideration for the family, and managed to stay in my seat only out of respect for their feelings.

    If I hadn’t already been fiercely atheist, then that mumbling idiot of a priest would surely have had me asking some serious questions about the nature of religion. The only good thing I could hope for from such a callous display of “holiness” was what it might prompt others to question their beliefs.

  116. #116 Danio
    August 14, 2008

    Davot,
    I’m deeply sorry for the untimely death of your beloved. I hope that you are finding what comfort you can in your memories and in communing with people who loved her.

    My experience with a deeply religious response to death came many years ago when the son of one of my coworkers was killed in a motorcycle accident at 19. When the work gang showed up at the funeral to pay our respects, the bereaved coworker was barely coherent–her grief so raw and open that even I, still 10 years away from becoming a mother myself, felt a measure of the ultimate pain of losing a child. We gathered around her in sympathy, with gentle hugs and soft words of support, until one of our number, a born-again Christian, lunged forward with a fierce, zealous look and stage-whispered “Rejoice! He’s with Jesus Now! He’s with Jesus!”. Fortunately, I think the grieving mother was so out of her poor mind that this didn’t register. In fact, she told us afterward that she had no memory of the funeral services at all. I, however, was utterly horrified by this and was never able to feel comfortable around the fundy co-worker again. I still wonder at the worldview that encourages such a sentiment to be articulated at a time of intense pain. Surely fundy funerals aren’t unbridled celebrations? Surely there is some consideration for the sorrows of the people who remain–particularly when the deceased is a young, vital person taken before his or her life has run its course– regardless of where they believe the departed spirit might have gone on to? Do I really want to know the answers to these questions?

  117. #117 dan
    August 14, 2008

    Danio, thank you for the lovely post.
    A lot of thoughts on reading the thoughts of the crowd in here…
    Remember that as an evolved animal, you have an instinct of self-preservation that has worked for 4 billion years. Fear of death is most likely an expression of this programming. Those individuals who don’t fear death ofton die too soon to procreate.
    So fear of death is a natural instinct which we can overcome with rationalism and philosophy.
    I have been growing the conclusion that life is pointless on the planetary level and up; but utterly filled with meaning on the personal level.
    With that in mind, I find that I don’t mind my absence of existance, and the value of my accomplishments are tiny and futile.
    This give me great comfort because now there is now pressure to “live life to the fullest”. I can simply have a good time, and do no harm to my family and friends along the way.
    I never, never see theists having conversations like this one!

  118. #118 Azkyroth
    August 14, 2008

    But they areboth you, that’s the point, and that’s why it’s such a poser

    No they aren’t. If a thought experiment arbitrarily imposes assumptions that are logically impossible in the real world, it’s meaningless.

  119. #119 Beelzebub
    August 15, 2008

    No they aren’t. If a thought experiment arbitrarily imposes assumptions that are logically impossible in the real world, it’s meaningless.

    There’s nothing “logically” impossible about it at all, not a thing. What, do you have something against paradox?

  120. #120 Beelzebub
    August 15, 2008

    davot,
    Thanks for that great comment. I salute your courage and honesty and most of all, your perseverance. Your wife sounds like she was a really great person. I remember a few years ago when I was still kind of a go-along-and-get-along atheist (i.e. a closet case) a friend that I hadn’t seen in literally a decade called to tell me his mom had died. I knew her well and was very upset. They had gone through a UU memorial service for her, and I said something like “I hope that was a comfort to you.” He replied that he didn’t know how honoring imaginary beings would be a comfort. That had quite and impact on me. There isn’t really a lot one can say in the face of such grief. Most people who go spouting off at the mouth do it more for themselves than those in grief. I think perhaps the very best thing one can do is shut up and be quiet.

  121. #121 negentropyeater
    August 15, 2008

    Beelzebub,

    You wake up normally AND in Moscow. The normal you makes coffee, etc. The Moscow you wonders how the hell he/she is suddenly in Moscow.

    Can you explain how this would be possible ? Are you talking about someone having two dreams at the same time, just don’t understand your assumption here.

  122. #122 Benji
    August 15, 2008

    Congratulations, you made me cry.

  123. #123 nieciedo
    August 15, 2008

    This is beautifully written. It does, however, raise the question of why we bother making everything so gosh darn important.

    We’re all gonna die, and there’s no reason to believe there’s anything after death, that any “self” endures that can think and remember and regret. Ultimately, then, the person who went out and made the most of his life and experience the world in all its beauty and pursued his dreams and so forth ends up in exactly the same place as the pathetic loser who wasted his life alone and never considered what more life may have to offer. We all become worm food, and no “self” survives that can look back with gratitude on a life worth lived or with regret on wasted years.

    Unless one has the good fortune to be person of historical import (which usually involves killing a lot of other people in creative ways) any memory of our existence will be lost in a few generations — all this high-sounding drivel about being immoral in one’s children or the influence one has in others’ lives is, like life itself, transient and ultimately pointless.

    We’re born, we mate, we die. Nothing more, and nothing less. Pretending that being human means anything more is delusional. The one worthwhile book of the Bible is right: all is vanity, and there is no profit for any man for all that he may labor beneath the sun.

  124. #124 windy
    August 15, 2008

    If a thought experiment arbitrarily imposes assumptions that are logically impossible in the real world, it’s meaningless.

    Assume that someone has the capability to make an exact physical copy of your body, including all the memory traces in your brain. Why would it be logically impossible for both the copy and the original to experience being “Azkyroth”? (they would be two separate individuals, naturally, no telepathy or other spookiness)

    Logical possibility is actually the broadest category of possibility – it is not practically possible to make such a copy but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be logically possible.

  125. #125 Paul W.
    August 15, 2008
    You wake up normally AND in Moscow. The normal you makes coffee, etc. The Moscow you wonders how the hell he/she is suddenly in Moscow.

    Can you explain how this would be possible ? Are you talking about someone having two dreams at the same time, just don’t understand your assumption here.

    I’ll give it a shot.

    First, a warmup exercise.

    Imagine that we have a machine that can extract a single atom from your body, and replace it with another atom of the same type. (Carbon for carbon, etc.)

    Now we proceed to replace the atoms in your body, one by one, over some period of time. Are you still you, or have we gradually replaced you with someone else?

    Keep in mind that most of the atoms in your body are replaced by interchangeable atoms over some period of time. (Years.)

    If the current monistic scientific materialist view of body and mind are correct, nothing much will happen to you. All of your brain circuits will continue to function as per usual and you won’t notice a thing. Even under some dualist theories—property dualist views like Chalmers’s IIRC—you’ll still be fine and your experiences will be unchanged by having your parts replaced.

    Now suppose we do this fast—over the course of say, a second, we extract and replace each of the atoms in your body. You still don’t notice any difference.

    Now we throw in a curve. Rather than simply extracting the atoms, we move them exactly a meter to your right. Over the course of a second, we replace every atom in your body, and move the old atoms into the same configuration, a meter to your right. In doing so, we make a “copy” of you…

    …or is it you? Are we incrementally moving you three feet to the right, and building a copy with new atoms in your old place? Hard to say.

    Now let’s say that instead of moving all your atoms one way, we move half your atoms a meter to the left, and half your atoms a meter to the right, and fill in the blanks with new atoms. For every atom we move left we put an equivalent atom to the right, and vice versa.

    Now there are two yous, each with an equal claim to being you. Each has the same configuration of atoms, down to the atom, and each has half old and half new atoms. They’re identical copies, or sames, although immediately their experiences start to diverge. (One notices a twin to the left, the other notices a twin to the right, etc.)

    To massage that into the current form, suppose you’re lying in your (big) bed and we do this in your sleep. We move half your atoms a meter to the left and half your atoms to Moscow, filling in the blanks in both cases. Now there’s a you in your bed and a you in Moscow.

  126. #126 Beelzebub
    August 15, 2008

    Paul W. gives an interesting scenario for how this might happen, and I don’t want to step on any toes, but a thought experiment doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to reality in that way. Nobody can ride a beam of light either, or travel close to the speed of light. There is no way to tie the fate of a cat to the radioactive decay of an atom. But both of these scenarios serve to establish an interesting “thought” experiment.

    You wake up in two places. Let’s just say it happens. There’s a zillion reasons why it won’t physically, but there are no logical reasons why it can’t. For me it’s an interesting idea because no matter how well you convince yourself that both of you would have individual experience, the thought that you would simultaneously experience both waking in the US or UK (or wherever) and Moscow keeps creeping in. It’s a little like that picture of the young and old woman or the cube that shifts in orientation. My question is why is this a paradox?

  127. #127 Beelzebub
    August 15, 2008

    Thanks windy, that was a very useful link.

    I guess this proposition is logically possible, but nomologically (physically) impossible, or at most very, very improbable.

  128. #128 Paul W.
    August 15, 2008

    Paul W. gives an interesting scenario for how this might happen, and I don’t want to step on any toes, but a thought experiment doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to reality in that way. Nobody can ride a beam of light either, or travel close to the speed of light.

    Right. I was only fleshing out the scenario to make it clear that the thought experiment makes sense—that there’s a clear logical possibility of splitting one person into two people, without violating anything we know about the nature of mind or consciousness or continuity of experience.

    Without that, I’m sure a lot of people would balk, thinking there must be something important left out when you say “you suddenly are in two places at once”. Many people will suspect that there’s a logical contradiction in there somewhere, and get stuck at that point.

    BTW, I think the early Dennett discussion you mentioned may be from The Mind’s Eye, coauthored with Doug Hofstadter. IIRC, they go through some similar warmup examples to make it clear there’s no logical impossibility in the “two yous” scenario.

    There’s a substantial philosophical literature on this sort of “personal identity” issue.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-personal/

  129. #129 windy
    August 15, 2008

    There is no way to tie the fate of a cat to the radioactive decay of an atom.

    I think it should be possible to do this, just a bit tricky. You only need to rig up a Geiger counter to something that will kill the cat.

    For me it’s an interesting idea because no matter how well you convince yourself that both of you would have individual experience, the thought that you would simultaneously experience both waking in the US or UK (or wherever) and Moscow keeps creeping in.

    I don’t get that feeling. If experience happens in the brain, and there is no connection between the two brains, why would they share experiences at a distance?

  130. #130 negentropyeater
    August 15, 2008

    But I don’t understand what’s paradoxical about it.
    Assuming that it’s physically possible to do this, duplicate an individual whilst he’s sleeping.
    One just ends up with 2 individuals with the same memories and everything. One wakes up in his normal bed in Paris and continues from here, he remembers going to bed after reading Pharyngula, then if he dies, he dies. The other wakes up in Moscow, last thing he remembers was reading Pharyngula and going to bed in Paris, he just contnues from there, asking himself how did he get to Moscow and etc…
    Both of them are entitled to be called “You”.
    But You don’t wake normally AND in Moscow, You wake up normally AND another You wakes up in Moscow.
    I don’t see where’s the paradox.

  131. #131 CJO
    August 15, 2008

    I don’t see where’s the paradox.

    Who is you?

  132. #132 negentropyeater
    August 15, 2008

    Who is you?

    Both of course.

    You is just a name. From now on, there will be a You in Paris and a You in Moscow, neither is more or less entitled to be called You, they both remember the same things, until the moment they wake up.

  133. #133 windy
    August 15, 2008

    Who is you?

    I agree with negentropyeater – both are. It would be a bigger paradox if one of them wasn’t me for some reason!

    Imagine that you are teleported to Moscow on one of those Star Trek transporters. Is the Moscow you “you”? Well, who else?

    Now imagine that you are teleported to Moscow and the original copy is left behind. Is the Moscow you any less “you”?

    (btw, this thought experiment reminds me of James Patrick Kelly’s Think Like a Dinosaur!)

  134. #134 CJO
    August 15, 2008

    I must say, you are accepting your newly dual nature with a great deal of equanimity. ;)

    But I hear you. I don’t see anything like a logical paradox. But it would certainly be unsettling for there to be a person identical to yourself, who had an equal claim to be you. The tax implications alone…

  135. #135 CJO
    August 15, 2008

    btw, this thought experiment reminds me of James Patrick Kelly’s Think Like a Dinosaur!

    Oh, yeah. That’s a great story. There’s an older, classic story that is similar… but of course I can remember neither title or author. If I remember, I’ll post.

  136. #136 negentropyeater
    August 15, 2008

    CJO,

    no, you don’t have a dual nature. From the moment they wake up, they are already starting to be two different indivduals, they don’t experience being dual, just two different individuals, with the same memories until the duplcation night, includng the same name, reading Pharyngula, living n Paris, etc…

    If they meet again they’ll just see a twin with partly the same memories, and they’ll need to find an agreement how to call each other.

    But nobody knows which one is more “You” than the other. t doesn’t matter does it ?

  137. #137 Sven DiMilo
    August 15, 2008

    WTF are you people talking about? And why is there always an even number of you talking about it?

  138. #138 CJO
    August 15, 2008

    Silly me! Who needs to remember things? We have Google now.

    The classic story is called Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys. (And the info at that link is a total spoiler.)

    negentropyeater, I get that the two are distinct, and don’t experience being “dual” in that sense. But do you really think it would be as simple as sitting down over a beer and hashing out who gets to resume life as “me” and who has to be “me2″? Personally, I think I would rebel at being told that I wasn’t “really” me, after getting off the plane fom Moscow, and that someone just like me was inhabiting my house, etc.

  139. #139 negentropyeater
    August 15, 2008

    CJO,

    my guess is that if you were willing to be duplicated, you’d have talked about this before with some Doctors, who would have explained everything, you would have made an agreement with yourself on how to deal with the situation when both “Yous” would wake up, who would take over the name, house etc…, and all this would be part of your memories when you wake up, one in Paris, the other in Moscow, so both of you’d remember the agreements you’ve made before the duplicaton, and continue from there.

    Of course, if this were a complete surprise, and you never knew that you’d be duplcated that night or that it’d be even possible to do it, the You who wakes up in Paris won’t know a thing until he sees the other You knocking on the Door and saying, hey I was in Moscow, I don’t know how I got there, but I’ve come back home, I do live in this house too !

    Then they both need a good lawyer, and I don’t think our legislation has yet envisaged this possibility…

    More legislation will be made.

  140. #140 negentropyeater
    August 15, 2008

    It would become the first legal case of You vs You.
    Until it’s possible (if even possible) to duplicate humans, my guess is noone is going to draft a legislation envisaging this possibility ;-)

  141. #141 windy
    August 15, 2008

    Personally, I think I would rebel at being told that I wasn’t “really” me, after getting off the plane fom Moscow, and that someone just like me was inhabiting my house, etc.

    I’d say that it would be a serious legal and psychological problem, but not a paradox. But unless my passport was duplicated too, the Moscow me wouldn’t have much of a case!

  142. #142 Beelzebub
    August 15, 2008

    The part of this “paradox,” if you want to call it that, that I find intriguing with regard to death is where one of the twins is killed soon after the duplication.

    Let’s say you are told that during night you will be duplicated to Moscow but also that you will be executed at noon. Do you rest easy, knowing that you will still live on in Moscow? I can tell you that I wouldn’t. Think about it. As far as _I_ am concerned I will wake the next day and be killed at noon. How does the fact that another me will live on in Moscow change anything? According to what most people are saying this will be a completely different person at that time. Is it because I have a special connection to this other person, a kind of empathy? Because he’s almost completely the same as me? Can I, then, gain some kind of life beyond death by developing empathy with others? It’s a bit of a mind bender.

    On the flip side, why should I be afraid to die if I live on in Moscow? The only thing I’ll have to endure is a single morning and then death at noon, and let’s say it will be a very comfortable death, like just going to sleep and dying.

  143. #143 Beelzebub
    August 16, 2008

    Of course, there’s also no reason I should identify specifically with the doppelganger that’s going to be killed (say in Paris). I believe, after thinking about it, that in this scenario, the Paris me really is going to die. If I happen to be the me who wakes in Paris I’m SOL, and it’s just as if I would be put to sleep permanently in our normal world. The paradox is why I should believe this given the fact that I’ve only diverged from my twin in Moscow for a few hours.

  144. #144 Beelzebub
    August 16, 2008

    Sweet……dreams?

  145. #145 negentropyeater
    August 16, 2008

    Beelzebub,

    let’s proceed in the following way :

    First let’s assume that the Paris duplicate is going to be killed before he wakes up, only the Moscow duplicate will live.
    So this is told to you before the duplication, so you already know that you’re just going to wake up in Moscow and take it from there. So here it’s simple, you’re going to go to sleep, wake up in Moscow and continue your life, you also know that you had a duplicate who was killed, but it shouldn’t really matter to you, that was part of the experiment and you don’t really care about that other you who never actually got to wake up. So no huge problem here for you either before the duplication, or after.
    Now let’s suppose that you’re told that the Paris you will be woken up and given a second before being killed.
    So here, before the duplication, you know that the you in Paris is going to have a terrible awakening and the moscow you will live. This info is in your brain so the moscow you remembers this info when he wakes up, but should it make a big dfference to him wether there was an another person who lived for one second instead of being killed before waking up as in the previous scenario ?
    So for you before the duplication, you should say, well I’m just going to wake up in Moscow and take it from there, and try to forget that there was another person who had a terrble awakening for a second, and who wasn’t me anyway.
    For, the person in Moscow is different from the person in Paris.
    If you extend further from a second to an hour, should it make a big difference to you, the person in Moscow ?

  146. #146 Beelzebub
    August 16, 2008

    If you extend further from a second to an hour, should it make a big difference to you, the person in Moscow ?

    No, I don’t think so, except for any concern I might have for the other individual who happened to be me the night before. But let’s say I’m a terrible guy. There’s no reason I shouldn’t enjoy my vacation in Moscow. On the other hand, the Paris me, no matter how short the morning time duration, believes he’s going to be killed (and I personally think he’s right). To him, the idea that the Moscow me will live is as little a concern as that the Paris me will die to the Moscow me. I think this is a rather startling confirmation of the notion of “living in the moment.”

    Let me try one more scenario that’s even more mind bending. Say the Paris me wakes 20 minutes before the Moscow me and is informed that he will be euthanized painlessly in 10 minutes but that 10 minutes after that he’ll wake in Moscow and not remember anything about waking in Paris. Should he be upset?

  147. #147 Rev. BigDumbChimp, KoT
    August 16, 2008

    I can definitely say that coming into this conversation late and reading only the last few comments will cause confusion.

  148. #148 Beelzebub
    August 16, 2008

    So for you before the duplication, you should say, well I’m just going to wake up in Moscow and take it from there, and try to forget that there was another person who had a terrble awakening for a second, and who wasn’t me anyway.

    The problem here is that if, before the dup, you think “I’m just going to wake in Moscow” you will be both correct and fooling yourself because you will do both. The Paris you will then both have to deal with dying and the fact that you just lied to yourself.

  149. #149 Danio
    August 16, 2008

    RBDC: Yes, some of the commenters do seem to be off on their own private hike. As long as they’re having fun, I suppose….

  150. #150 negentropyeater
    August 16, 2008

    Beelzebub,

    I’m not saying that you should lie to yourself before going to sleep, but should you care much about the Paris You ? He’s going to die very soon (if he dies before waking up, you really don’t care about him, do you ?). Does the fact that he’s going to have a second, or a minute, or an hour, of awakenng change anything ? You know that you’re going to live but that you’ll be in Moscow next.
    The Paris guy who wakes up, well, that’s too bad for him of course. When he wakes up, it’s going to be a terrible awakening, what do you think he’s going to think about ?

  151. #151 lostn
    August 16, 2008

    Excellently written prose. You are very eloquent and well spoken Danio.

  152. #152 lostn
    August 16, 2008

    I’m still having trouble piecing together when and where you gave up your god-belief however. Was this moment your ‘epiphany’ Danio? Or were you already an atheist at the time?

  153. #153 Danio
    August 16, 2008

    lostn:
    thank you! As far as the ‘timeline’ is concerned, I was already an atheist at the time, I had already decided that belief in an afterlife was incompatible with an otherwise rational world view, but while I was feeling totally ok about being godless, the idea of ‘absolute mortality’ kind of bummed me out for a while until I figured out how to put this positive spin on it, if you will.

  154. #154 Beelzebub
    August 16, 2008

    I’m not saying that you should lie to yourself before going to sleep, but should you care much about the Paris You ?

    Yes, because the Paris You is you too at that point. You can’t simply identify with the Moscow You and consider the Paris You some schmuck who’s going to get the axe. So if someone says to you before you sleep “Don’t worry, you’re going to wake in Moscow but another guy will wake in Paris” he will have told the truth to the Moscow waker and lied to the Paris waker.

  155. #155 negentropyeater
    August 16, 2008

    Beelzebub,

    change the thing and assume it’s the Moscow guy who gets killed after a second of awakening.
    Do You, before going to sleep, worry about him that much, or say to yourself, oh, I’ll wake up in my bed like normal anyway ?

    no, the Paris You, ie the You that you will be when you wake up in Pars the next morning, is not You at that point. He doesn’t exist yet, no more than the Moscow You. You don’t have to “identify” with any of the two. But You know that you will definitely live.

    The fact now that it’s the Moscow You who survives, and not the Paris You, doesn’t change the reasoning.

  156. #156 Beelzebub
    August 17, 2008

    no, the Paris You, ie the You that you will be when you wake up in Pars the next morning, is not You at that point. He doesn’t exist yet, no more than the Moscow You. You don’t have to “identify” with any of the two. But You know that you will definitely live.

    Yes, I will definitely live, but I will also definitely die. Come morning I will both live and die. Because — come morning I have become two people. You don’t agree? I think things become far more paradoxical without that conclusion.

  157. #157 Monado
    September 8, 2008

    If you’ve ever fainted, been knocked out or anaesthetized, or even fallen asleep, you probably noticed that while you were gone, you didn’t miss ‘you.’ So why fear death? Regret leaving life, sure. The transition? Maybe. (And tell me why we have to suffer when we won’t make our pets do so.) But unconsciousness? “The soul surviving the body is like 70 miles per hour surviving a car crash.”

    Beautiful thoughts, Danio & some commenters. Remember also that many of our atoms have been through the heart of a star to achieve atomic weights over 2 or 3.

    People may not need religion, but they may need rituals. We should think up some good, secular new ones.

  158. #158 Hosting
    March 13, 2009

    very good blog thanks