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I've been a bit worried about the afterlife recently

February 2007

I've been a bit worried about the afterlife recently. Actually, to be blunt about it, I've been wondering if there even is one. (Being incarnationally-focused has its downsides.) At the same time, I've been beginning to grasp just how futile and, in the grand scale of things, how empty human life is. Last night, my brain finally put the two together, in what I shall call Wilson's First Law (I'm sure Andrew or KT will point out who actually came up with this):

  1. If there is a truly benevolent and active supreme power, there must also be some kind of existence beyond this one.

My reasoning is this:

This life is, in the end, a futile empty tragedy. Not in some emo I-want-to-cut-myself-to-let-the-darkness-in-my-heart-leak-out sense, just that, eventually, ourselves and those we love will all die, having made very little difference to even the small part of the universe we lived in. (That's your cheery thought for the day.)

Therefore, if one assumes an active supreme being (I do), there are only two options:

  1. This is a huge, cruel joke at our expense, or reality itself is truly evil and corrupt, or, as the Buddhists say, reality is suffering (the supreme being is not good.)
  2. There is something else beyond this life (the supreme being is good.) (I don't specify that the something else is better; I suspect that it would be, but it could be no more than the same thing again—‘see how you do this time.')

There are a couple small holes in my reasoning, but I'm feeling a lot better about things today.

EONSim commented:

Makes a certain degree of sense. It certainly is hard enough to make any impression on our own country or planet let alone the universe.

Nato commented:

The idea that our lifes are a pointless waste without the afterlife (or God) is taught with great fervour by evangelical christians; but to be honest, I think it's dubious - it's one of those ideas that people say over and over, and so no-one ever questions it. There are plenty of people who don't believe in the afterlife, and they do find their own meaning. So it would seem that people find meaning in a world without the afterlife...

Why is making a difference so important? The problem with the argument is that you've assumed that significance (or recognition) would be meaningful. I think that's the wrong approach; in fact, the pursuit of significance is one of the things that lead to meaningless.

It's difficult to make a significant difference in life because there are a lot of us. The total amount of stuff you do will only be a fraction of the total stuff done by people. Having another go isn't going to change this; you'll get to do more stuff, but so will everyone else. The propotion of stuff you've done will remain the same. So it's always going to be meaningless.

The pursuit of recognition is worse; people can only really recognize one person at a time (or one group), and this is at the expense of others, who aren't recognized. So it's really impossible for everyone to be recognized all the time. So if you try and get meaning from this, good luck.

Probably time to finish with some backward speak: If you try to achieve something for ourself, you will be nothing; If you do not wish for yourself to be anything, you will achieve something.

Michael commented:

Yes but even if your actions are seemingly insignificant in the overall scale you should not discount the effect they are having on the people reached by them.Consider that on the grand scale there may be a proportionate number of people like you making a similarly significant contribution. Perhaps then significance should not neccessarily be measured on the overall scale but on its significance to those it effects because it may make all the difference to them.

stan_ commented:

even if God is good, it is still a pretty f*cked up game, eg. The Screwtape Letters, where whether or not you will be consumed as food depends on your level of intelligence (and the fact that salvation is not universal)

Nato commented:

I agree with what Michael is getting at. Though I still wouldn't aim to see significant changes in people; sometimes we're just there for people, supporting them, so we're just there, and it's never really obvious what we're doing, other times we help people, and the effects aren't noticed until later [one sows, another reaps et al.].

KT commented:

Some scatterbrained thoughts full of disclaimers:

I am inclined to question [note: not deny] the argument that "This life is, in the end, a futile empty tragedy....[because] eventually, ourselves and those we love will all die, having made very little difference to even the small part of the universe we lived in."

I dunno, like others who've commented, I find talk of 'significance' in life to be curious in a way. Why do we have to assume life is or should be significant? In particular, why should it be so at an individual level? The discussion thus far has talked of meaning in life in terms of there being some purpose or goal towards which we may progress - perhaps world peace or enlightenment or whatever. Maybe we're not here in order to change things. Maybe we're just meant to be here, exist, do our thing, move off.

Hm, I'm not sure. Is it coherent to think of a supreme benevolent God creating a world for no particular reason? Or at least, with no particular 'goal' in mind which we were supposed to figure out and chase after? I mean, maybe the world is ok...

I think what I have in mind here (and as you can see my thoughts are very vague), is that the search for 'meaning' tends to centre around looking for reasons why suffering might be beneficial or justifiable in some way. Yet it doesn't seem logically possible for a world to exist in which there is no pain, or even significantly less pain than there is in this one. Mutual destruction seems to be part of the way things are, and everything that lives gets times when it's winning and times when someone else is kicking its arse and stealing its space. Is this a tragedy? Or cruel in some way? I'm not sure. Maybe it's just... life.

On the other hand, I can't really picture a world in which humanity stopped trying to fight against this arrangement. And I certainly acknowledge my own longing for life to be significant. An afterlife might be nice.

Matt commented:

Thanks for your comments, all. That's given me much to think about. I'll try to respond to some of your points when I have some (non-work) time.

Tim B commented:

Glad you're "feeling better now" - actually I tend to agree, even I don't think the feeling/argument even needs God to work, it just makes no sense to me that anything as wondrous, complex and terrible as humans should exist for just this life, and in this life run down steadily (after the first 20+ years at least ;-) For me it's a special case of Ockham's razor, only the simplest explanation makes sense... Sorry rambling...

IDIEEASY commented:

From a purely secular viewpoint, I have come to the conclusion that experience is intrinsically good and is a good enough reason for life. Even a life of pain/hurt (physical and emotional) is still good because it is experienced. I think it mainly springs from trying to imagine the opposite: is there anything good about no experience? i.e. Is 'nothing' good, bad or just neutral? When I try to imagine not getting to experience, well, its really hard to and in fact I dont even want to because it scares me. To me, that makes being able to have experience good and things like 'purpose' and 'meaning' don't have to enter the argument.

To me, 'heaven' would be being able to continue having experience (in any context), and 'hell' would be death just being the end of experience.

Every time I see my grandma, she likes to tell me how much she's looking foward to dying (well, not the dying part but the going to heaven), so thinking about the afterlife is not something I can escape from at the moment!