Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"What should we think about death?" A critique

A friend recently shared this video on facebook from the British Humanist Association and narrated by Stephen Fry entitled "What should we think about death?"

...and I made the mistake of clicking on it.

After watching it, I felt compelled to comment on why I disagreed with it, but before I knew it, the response became way too long for facebook to allow as a comment so I decided to post the response verbatim below. I hope my friend will forgive me for this but it's the only public place I new I could put such a large response. Plus, no one reads my blog anyway :P


Not exactly sure why I clicked the video. I should know better, but perhaps I was feeling subconsciously masochistic? In any case, I think the video is, as the British would say, rubbish. Now, I don't think atheism is rubbish, and I don't think you are stupid for holding that position, but this video fails to deliver any good arguments on why the view contained inside is the right way to think about death. I'll explain why.

For starters, the video contained several jabs at religion that implied we believe something that we do not. I'm sure you've heard of this as a strawman tactic. If not, it's where someone mischaracterizes an opponent's position (creating a "straw man") and then attacks that mischaracterized view. Once that view is sufficiently rebutted, the straw man's creator declares victory over the position as though their oponent's actual view was dealt with fairly.

Toward the beginning, the narrator claims that "wanting something to be true, is not the same as it being true". This is rather insulting, since most (if not all) of those who believe in an afterlife would agree emphatically with that statement. The idea that "believing something hard enough, long enough, and with enough faith, will make it true" is ludicrous and a straw man because the implication is that those with religion believe only out of a refusal to accept death. All of the religious that I know, believe because they have either been convinced by philosophical arguments, (such as those for a first-mover) or because they have experienced life-change as result of, or in relation to, religious teachings and/or practices.

One thing that will be clear to even casual observers of the video, is that the religious symbolism contained within is designed to mark Christianity as the main religious target. This makes it especially embarrassing when the video's first argument against an afterlife is that it wouldn't be enjoyable because the things we enjoy in life can't be enjoyed in a disembodied state. Why is this embarrassing? It's because Christianity is emphatic in teaching that eternity will not consist of existence in a disembodied state. Clearly the authors of the video have a juvenile understanding of Christian doctrine which was probably influenced by pop-media suggesting what heaven would be like. It would probably surprise the authors and others who have not read the bible or studied the teachings of Christianity, that an embodied existence on earth (the current earth or the earth remade) is the ultimate home of the departed. This was another straw man.

The video asks: "If life were eternal, wouldn't it lose much of what gives it shape, structure, meaning, and purpose?" This is an empty, ambiguous, and useless question since the video does not care to define these terms and how they pertain to a life. Instead it dumps these vague and many-faced terms on the viewer to apply (or not apply) how they wish. But how does a life have 'shape'? How does it have 'structure'? These terms are for physical objects, not a life lived. I'm not opposed to their literary use to describe a life, but their application in this context is left intentionally vague. Similarly, meaning and purpose both mean different things to different people and function more as buzzwords here. The statement implies that a life that continues without end cannot have meaning or purpose, even though, a. this is intuitively false and b. no explanation is given for why this would be so.

Arguably, the weakest assertion in the video is that one of the things that makes something pleasureful is that it comes to an end. Huh? Why is this true? For something to be distinguishable as a pleasure, one need only have experience with something that is not a pleasure or something that is pleasureful to a lesser degree. Suppose I were granted wings. Would these only be a pleasure if they were eventually taken away? Hardly. I have lived my entire life grounded and unable to fly unaided. This new state of being winged in no way negates the pleasure I experience from the freedom they bring. The negative examples given in the video rely on many assumptions that cause them to break down as analogies on closer inspection. We want to stop reading a book because they are written with a beginning, middle, and end by the intent of the author. The author presumably has a finite amount of time before he or she dies and a limit to their creativity which would render an infinite-length book impossible to write. But suppose the author had no beginning or end, no limit to their creativity, and suppose we the reader had no finite amount of time to read this endlessly creative and engaging book... Take the infinite cake example. We have a limit to our stomachs which would make an endless consumption of cake pretty uncomfortable. We have taste buds that don't preserve that first-bite feeling throughout a whole meal. But do these limits pertain to the afterlife? Not according to any religion I've ever studied. The silliest part of both examples is that the video authors forget that the examples require the reader and the taster to exist from beginning to middle to end in order to experience all three. How can we appreciate life's end if we don't exist to appreciate anything at all? Death isn't the point where we get to experience the end of life. It's the complete and utter end of all appreciation altogether. There is nothing to appreciate. There is no one to appreciate it.

One thing the video loves to engage in is what I call sappy, sentimental, bs (or ssbs for short). Anytime an atheist wants to lessen the sting of death, ssbs is always close by. Have you ever heard the claim that "we're all made of stardust"? That's a prime example of ssbs. It stems from the speaker's own fear of death and refusal to accept the indignity and the ignobility of it (not to mention the meaninglessness and purposelessness). The remainder of the video is comprised of approximately 10% british accent and 90% ssbs.

"Death is a natural part of life". If there was ever an example of an empty platitude, this is it. Death is by no means a natural part of life. A natural part of the universe maybe, perhaps a natural part of nature... But death is literally the opposite of life. Life has no mixing with death. Where life begins, death ends; where life ends, death begins. It's oil and water. Life is movement and experience and reproduction and consumption and stimuli. Death is stillness; it is nothingness; it lacks any tangible reality. Not only is it not life, it is not-life.

"We need to come to terms with death so we can find meaning and purpose in the here and now". More ssbs, and there're those 'meaning' and 'purpose' buzzwords again. Can we ascribe ultimate meaning or ultimate purpose to ourselves? Can a screwdriver decide that it is a hammer? But that implies an original designer... let's use an amorphous blob. Can an amorphous blob decide that it's purpose is to write patriotic songs? or build purple skyscrapers? Perhaps it could think that, and after many billions of years perhaps it could functionally do that, but is that's its meaning? or purpose? I think that's a tough case to make. Any purpose ascribed to the blob by the blob itself dies with it.

"We need to make the most of the one life we know we have and help others to do the same". Why? Sounds nice, but is there an argument for why I should accept this guy's purpose for me over my own purpose for me? Who decides what "making the most of this life" looks like? Who's the judge of a life well lived? What do we do when our ideas of such a life conflict?

"Choosing good over evil without the expectation of reward in some other place". WOOP WOOP (That's my ssbs alarm sounding). Who defines good? Who defines evil? What if our definitions conflict? Or put the relativism question aside for a moment.. The head-scratching implication here is that atheists do good (and theists should do good) not because of reward/punishment, but because it is simply the right thing to do. But change the wording around and you see the problem. "One should be good becuase it is the right thing to do". Or, "One should do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do". Ah, a tautology, and a question-begging one at that. We're back to relativism. What makes "the right thing to do", the right thing to do? Without an eternal and unchanging standard, right and wrong are defined by the whims of society, namely the society with the biggest stick.

"When we die, we will live on in the work we have done, and in the memories of other people whose lives we have been a part of". Sagan have mercy. This is the most disingenuous type of ssbs because it's being used to appease the desire for immortality in the same video where religion is mocked for doing the same. The worse part is, the mechanics don't work. Not only is being remembered not analogous to life in any way shape or form, but this is not immortality. Everyone is forgotten eventually and even if someone wasn't, they will be in the eventual heat-death of the universe, where all energy will be unusable and all life ceases to be. How can I take comfort in the knowledge that my work helped someone else if I no longer exist? How does my memory benefit me when I cannot think, reason, appreciate or sense anything at all? If one wants to be atheist, fine. But let's take it to its logical conclusion and stop insulting people's intelligence by claiming one can 'live on'.

"Our bodies will break up and become part again of the cycle of nature..." uh oh..[cue inspiring music and hubble telescope images in the background]

"... The atoms that form us will go on to form other things: trees, birds, flowers, butterflies." This is where the ssbs reaches its climax. Here's another short list of things your atoms can go on to form: sphincters, cancer cells, viruses, mucus, pus, sh**, mud, bacteria, HIV, meth, napalm, gunpowder...

Not quite as inspiring.

Sorry for the overlong rant.. I really shouldn't have even clicked the video. I hope you understand I'm not attacking you personally and that this wall of text is directed specifically toward the video and the views of the authors expressed therein. I'm sure you can understand that it gets tiring to have atheist/humanist organizations berate you for believing things because they "feel good" (which we don't) all while simultaneously selling a butchered version of their own views in a package designed to make us "feel good".