I Know What Happens To You When You Die

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me just say that my title is perhaps just slightly overstated. I probably should have called this article “I’m Pretty Sure I Know What Happens To You When You Die” but that doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time and I’ve finally found the answer (actually I came upon the answer a long time ago but I was too lazy to write it up).

Before I pull back the curtain on this ancient conundrum, let me just say that the answer is not warm and fuzzy. So if you’re not ok with a little metaphysical tough love then now would be a great time to move on to a more uplifting blog.

Ok, for those of you still reading (hi Mom!), sit back, make yourself comfortable and prepare for some enlightenment. So…what happens to you when you die is…wait for it…

Nothing. That’s right, a whole lot of nothing. You don’t go to heaven. You don’t go to hell. You don’t get to meet god (she’s way too busy for the likes of you). You don’t even get to meet St. Peter. You’re not reunited with your deceased loved ones (although I admit that’s a nice thought). And you don’t get to frolic with angels. You go into a profound state of non-existence.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been there, man. I don’t mean I’ve been dead. I mean I was once before in a state of non-existence. So were you. Remember? Before you were born, you didn’t exist. For a really long time. Six billions years of non-existence – those were some boring times, weren’t they?

No one has any memories from before they were born. That’s because your memory is a product of the rich configuration of neurons you’ve spent your whole life assembling in that hunk of cells called your brain. Without those neurons and some associated biochemical goo, you’d have no memories and there really would be no you. That’s why you have a hard time recalling anything before your birthday.

So given what I think of as me came into existence on my birth date (or thereabouts), when the hunk of brain cells in my very hard head run out of oxygen and die, all those memories and personality taints – everything that makes me me, will die with the rest of my body, at which point I will return to a state of non-existence. All those other theories, which sound so nice and serene, are really just adult fairy tales, designed to make us feel like our lives have some sort of cosmic meaning and that we’re so special that we must somehow live on after our bodies have stopped working.

Some people might say: “Wait a minute, if my life doesn’t have some sort of cosmic significance, why should I bother being a good person? Why not just do all those filthy things I think about doing every 7.4 seconds?”. And the answer couldn’t be more simple: when you do “the right thing”, when you help other people, when you work hard, you get a good feeling. It’s called fulfillment. You don’t need someone to give your life meaning by telling you a fairy tale about some reward at the end of the rainbow. Your life has as much meaning as you choose to give it.

So work hard, have fun, be a good person, help other people, try not to be too selfish and the result is you’ll probably live a happy and fulfilling life. And then you’ll die. That’s just the way it goes. In the meantime, enjoy your state of existence while it lasts. Trust me, the second time through non-existence is even longer than the first. :)

41 thoughts on “I Know What Happens To You When You Die”

  1. Simple explanations make me suspicious. I think Stacy has a good point. The big assumption you make is that what might be true in your preexistent state is also true after death. Perhaps the mind outgrows the need for the brain in the same way an infant leaves her umbilical cord behind when she's born.

    About your argument for being a good person, I think it only carries weight for people who already agree with it. It assumes that people only find real "fulfillment" in the ways you describe or that such fulfillment should be that important to everyone that it is morally binding. I think you would have a hard time using this argument to convince someone who claims to find fulfillment by hurting people, cheating, stealing, etc. that he is wrong to do so. I once wrote a short paper on this topic (metaethics) for an ethics class. I'll send it you if you're interested.

  2. Nobody has mentioned what I believe to be the solution. Now that I've gotten your attention…
    Anyways, here is what i think: individuality is an illusion brought about by our biology. When we pass away, the living mass of humanity will continue on its trajectory. Your mission, should you accept it, is to provide conditions for the continued prospering of sentient life on our planet and elsewhere. When that egg and sperm came together, the "you" that developed out of it got a chance to be the thinking part of all that is. Just think of all the matter in the universe and how little of it is incorporated in the bodies of thinking, feeling, reflecting beings such as ourselves? To be a sentient being can be a wild ride. It is most certainly the greatest game in town, an opportunity that doesn't come around all that often. Don't waste it. It is a product of chance and culture. But existence comes with a moral responsibility. Do no evil. Do good work. Think about how the next seven generations will prosper or despair about what you undertake today. Make up your own set of ethical rules. Just remember: most of the human race has already lived and died. Those of us alive today will soon pass away. Work in a way that will be viewed as "providential" by future generations. In learning to live with one another in the present day, our evolved species may one day take our place in a much larger intergalactic society. If we blow it we're gone without a whimper. What a sad day that would be.

  3. Interesting comments all.

    Stacy – Re your observation that we don't recall much about infancy but yet we know we experienced that part of our lives, I agree and I think it supports my hypothesis. The reason we don't recall much about infancy is because our brain, memory, personality and thinking processes are just beginning to develop. At that point, we're just a little hint of our future selves. That's because who we are is a product of growth and development, not some innate metaphysical soul. And just as our identity is created by growth and development, our identity (our soul, if you like) is destroy when our brain dies. I know it's not a very nice thought but I see no other logical conclusion.

    Paul – two thoughts on your comment:

    1. Re: your suspicion of simple answers, I'm sure you've heard of Occam's Razor, which basically says that the simplest answer is often the correct one.

    2. I'm not trying to convince everyone (or even anyone) that they should behave like me. I'm just sharing what works for me in the hopes that it might work for others. If not, so be it. I agree that not everyone will get meaning and fulfillment from simply being a good person but I can't be a party to stuff I don't believe in the hopes that it will help other people control their impulses.

    Greg – that is deep, man. I'm going have to think about that for a while. :)

  4. Marc,

    1) Yes I've heard of Occham's Razor. I think it's often misused. See my comments on this post: (http://montaraventures.com/blog/2007/12/19/occams-razor-applied-to-theism/).
    The simplest explanation is often not the true one. I'm not sure the Razor should be trusted where the implications of one answer vs. another matter a great deal. And in this case I think they do.

    2) More to the point, which I didn't make very clearly, is how do you convince yourself that others who don't share your most basic values are wrong? I don't see how your argument works for you. Religion carries with it a transcendent moral authority. It's perfectly consistent for a believer to think that if murder is wrong for him, it's also wrong for others (and vice versa) because the foundation of morality is not a human construct. This is what makes religion dangerous in that people often abuse or misappropriate that authority. But, without it, I think you would have to admit that any set of values is no better or worse than your own. How do you avoid nihilism? Why should one care about past or future generations, as Greg says we should, if when we don't exist it won't matter to us? These are questions that I've struggle with for a long time.

  5. Twilight – I like your metaphor of humility: waves in the ocean. However, may I modify it just a bit? We are waves with consciousness. We can dip in a paddle and change direction. I like to think the universe is pulling for us to succeed. We can exploit the many physical laws, forces, matter, and life forms to get food, clothing, shelter, and warmth. But to come up with sustainable economies, we must understand the universe and as many relationships as we can fit into our meager 3 pound brains. Chin up! We are part of something bigger than our own individual selves. Go with the wave. Mother nature nurtures us and we should strive to be her stewards.

  6. Paul –

    How do I convince myself that others who don't share my most basic values are wrong? I don't. Ultimately, we are all walking around with a belief system in our heads. I happen to like mine but I can't prove it's accurate and I don't attempt to. Although that doesn't stop me from writing provocative blog articles about it every so often. :)

    When you say you don't see how my argument works for me, I'm not entirely sure what you mean but I think I can explain how this works for me with an example…When you're a kid your parents tell you about Santa Claus (except my parents didn't because we're jewish but that's another story :). Anyway, this myth gives you a comfortable feeling that all is right with the world. Then at some point you find out it's all a lie, and although it's told for the best possible reason, you feel disappointed and upset. But eventually you get over it and you understand the world a little better.

    That in my view is what's going on with most religions. From a very early age I saw right through it. I could tell that I was being indoctrinated. And I reached a point where, by myself, I pretty much figured out that, metaphorically speaking, there is no Santa Claus. Ever since then I've felt much better about the world and my place in it.

    That's how it works for me. Don't get me wrong, I would love to believe there's some kind father figure out there who's watching over me and waiting to bring me home and when I die, if I'm really good, my soul will live on after death and all those other nice stories, but there's a real feeling of strength that comes from embracing what seems like the real truth, even if it's not what you want to hear.

    Re: your other point: "without it [a transcendent moral authority] no set of values is better or worse than my own". I couldn't agree more. Clearly one of the benefits of religion is that it offers a framework for social control, i.e. it gives people a roadmap for How To Be Good, which has the big guy's official stamp of approval. But for me personally, I'm not interested in believing in something because it helps people behave themselves. I'm interested in the truth, good, bad or ugly.

    The price tag of having a huge group of people following dogma rather than thinking for themselves is huge. A lot of good but also a lot of bad has been done in the name of religion. At the moment, religion is the main reason why a whole subgroup of US citizens can't have equal rights. That's a big problem for me.

  7. Gutenberg provided conditions so the chains of dogma could no longer keep our minds enthralled. I remember Paul studying the bible at lunch many times over the years. Those would have been hand scribed homilies without the printing press. Many sermons could be spawned by this one thread. What will the Internet do next? Imagine, true believers and atheists locked in quiet dialog. Give it your best, but remember: no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  8. Thanks, Marc and Greg, for your responses. I had the same experience of disillusionment that Marc did, but ended up in a different place. While religion certainly is used as a means of comfort for many people, it's not for me and many others I know. For me it's a compelling avenue in the search for truth. The gospels teach many things people didn't, and still don't, want to hear. If you think comfort is all there is to it, you're listening to the wrong people. There are many more people who reject comfort for the sake of religion (and suffer persecution for it) that who take comfort in it. Comfortable Christianity, for exaple, is a gross distortion.

    Atheists don't have a corner on valuing truth, in my experience. "Indoctrination" and dogma happens on both sides. The children of M. Murray O'Hare and at least one of Bertrand Russel's daughters did not find their parent's atheism compelling. When Anthony Flew decides there much be a God after all, his atheist former admirers turn on him like attack dogs. (Is that any more unexpected than the Spanish Inquisition? :-) ) Dogmatism is a HUMAN inclination, not a particularly religious one and, while much evil has been done in the name of religion, it's a drop in the bucket compared to that which has been done by those who have tried to eliminate it from their society. But I'm not keeping score. Evil is evil… The faith I follow even predicts human evil. How do atheists account for it in their own ranks, or even judge it to be so?

    From what I know of you, Marc, I find it hard to believe that you are as much of a moral relativist as your first paragraph implies. If you don't think your beliefs about equal rights are accurate, why do you feel compelled to have others recognize them? You do support laws and their enforcement of them on those who would deny those rights to others, don't you? Aren't their basic values just as valid as yours? On what basis can you even value the idea of equal rights? Why should people have any rights at all? I haven't been talking about the need for having some kind of prepackaged "road map for how to be good". My questions go deeper than that: What gives any meaning to the distinctions we make between good and evil? If you believe that those distinctions are all just in our heads, then what makes the difference among us? Is it that "might makes right" or "majority rules"? No, there are problems with that. So how do you avoid nihilism?

    Thanks for the encouragement, Greg. I find your comments here very interesting to think about. The only thing I would add to them is that I think there must be a "maker of heaven and earth and all things seen and unseen" behind what we see as Mother Nature. Certainly books like "Rare Earth" (e.g., the anthropic principle) seem to make a compelling case for the idea that the universe or I would say, God, is pulling for us to succeed. It takes us a long way from Carl Sagan's minimalist views. I think William of Ockham himself would agree that some things are not so simple as they seem.

  9. Another comment to Greg,

    I don't think our individuality is an illusion. I have a hard time believing that. I think real Christianity embraces individuality and communality in tension. Either extreme is problematic. If we're all part of the great mass of humanity, then there's going to be a lot of inhumanity in that mass given our history. On the other hand, extreme individualism is a compelling picture of Hell in C. S. Lewis' book, The Great Divorce.

  10. Paul – a few quick reactions…

    "From what I know of you, Marc, I find it hard to believe that you are as much of a moral relativist as your first paragraph implies. If you don't think your beliefs about equal rights are accurate, why do you feel compelled to have others recognize them?"

    I never said I don't think my beliefs are accurate. I said I can't *prove* they're accurate. That's an important distinction. I was trying to make the point that both of our belief systems are ultimately based on faith. Because my beliefs are mostly informed by science, I happen to think they are more likely to be correct than views informed by religion. So I do think they're accurate – it's precisely my confidence in those views which compels me to share them.

    "You do support laws and their enforcement of them on those who would deny those rights to others, don't you?"

    Indeed I do. I support laws against murder, stealing, etc. because they those crimes are, in my option, wrong. Not because of some absolute divine moral code handed down from god but because of the simple intuitive obviousness (to me) that it's wrong to kill, steal, etc. I don't need someone to teach me that those things are wrong with an elaborate story to justify it – I can make up my mind about it on my own.

    "On what basis can you even value the idea of equal rights? Why should people have any rights at all?"

    On the basis that I'm a thinking human being, just like you. I can have opinions and reach conclusions with those conclusions coming from god.

    "If you believe that those distinctions are all just in our heads"

    I do. I truly believe there is no higher power that judges us and our actions. I think we all have to make up our minds about what makes sense in this life.

  11. typo: "I can have opinions and reach conclusions *without* those conclusions coming from god."

    Freudian slip? :)

  12. So, just because something seems intuitive and obvious to you it gives you the moral authority to impose those beliefs on others who may see things differently? Why do people have equal rights just because they're thinking human beings? Do those who think more than others, or think differently have different rights? You may not need an elaborate story to justify the imposition of your morality upon others, but I do think you need some kind of acknowledgement of a moral standard that transcends human opinion. That's something that religion has that neither you or science has. How is science able to determine what's right or wrong? It's a tool equally suited to doing both good and evil. At best it's amoral. The moral priniples that govern its use have to come from elsewhere. Reason can distinguish a moral issue from a nonmoral one, but reason alone can't justify my belief that it's wrong for one person to kill another.

    What is "simple intuitive obviousness" (to you) doesn't apply to anyone else but you (and those who happen to agree with you already), yet somehow you think it should. I don't see how, on your own terms, that is so.

  13. In my first comment on this post I mentioned an ethics paper that I'd written a couple of years ago on issue we've been discussing here. In some ways I feel like I've been writing out that over again, and doing it badly, in this context. So, I've put it online here. I think it explains more clearly the points I'm trying to make, if you're still interested.

  14. > So, just because something seems intuitive and obvious to you it
    > gives you the moral authority to impose those beliefs on others
    > who may see things differently?

    I know where you're going with this – if I'm for a law against murder then I am implicitly imposing my morality on other people. And you're right – but I assume you're for laws against murder too. So we are both doing the roughly the same thing: we both are trying to project our own moral codes onto society at large. The difference is that you think there should be such laws because you think they're god's rules, whereas I'm for such laws because I think a) they make sense and b) they lead to a more orderly, fair existence for everyone.

    > I do think you need some kind of acknowledgement of a moral
    > standard that transcends human opinion.

    I completely disagree. In my view there is no such thing as an absolute moral standard. We have laws which outlaw the behavior that most of us think is wrong. Sometimes the laws don't cover things I care about, sometimes they do. I would not claim that murder is wrong in some absolute sense, only that is seems intuitively wrong to me. I can have an opinion about this with god giving me the answer. The fact that so many people agree, whether religious or not, suggests to me that this is indeed intuitively obvious to the vast majority of humankind.

    > How is science able to determine what's right or wrong?

    It isn't. Science doesn't attempt to tell you how to live your life or what is "good" or "bad". Science is a tool that helps us understand how the world works but it's up to each of us to form conclusions about how to live our lives.

    > At best it's amoral.

    Indeed – it's completely amoral and so by design. If you're getting your morality from science, you're doing something wrong. My sense of morality comes from science + thought.

    > What [if] "simple intuitive obviousness" (to you) doesn't apply to
    > anyone else but you (and those who happen to agree with you
    > already), yet somehow you think it should.

    Right now I'm in the situation you posited – I think gay people deserve the same rights as straight people, simply because using the information from science and my own thinking and logic, it seems obvious to me. But a lot of people disagree, and many of them do so because they think their god tells them that homosexuality is wrong. So, in fact, I am in that very situation where I'm at odds with perhaps more than 50% of America and one of the reasons I'm outnumbered is because so many peoples' views are informed by dogma, so many Americans don't want to think for themselves. So we all have to deal with the situation where our the laws differ from our opinion of how the laws should be and we all have to decide whether and how hard to fight to change those laws.

  15. "I know where you're going with this …"

    OK, lets go a little deeper. Why do you think the laws make sense, and why should we all value "a more orderly, fair existence for everyone" as you do? Not everyone values that. This seems obvious to me.

    "The fact that so many people agree, whether religious or not, suggests to me that this is indeed intuitively obvious to the vast majority of humankind."

    This seems like an appeal to the will of the majority to me. In many times and places, the majority, or a minority with the power to do so, has not agreed. We have had, and still have, human slavery, race wars, all kinds of discrimination of one group or nation against another. These things happen in our own society and around the world because it's not very obvious to many people that the rights of others are more important than getting what they want at the expense of such supposed rights.

    "My sense of morality comes from science + thought."

    Science + thought can justify, and have justified, a lot of horrible things. It doesn't by itself support the idea that any human being has intrinsic value or rights. That is an assumption you seem to make with no compelling basis for the idea that others should accept it or see it as intuitively obvious. You have to start with the idea that humans have rights to come to the conclusion that those rights must be equal. Even that involves the assumption that equality is to be valued. The Nazi doctors were scientists with with a view that the value of some human life is relative to their interests.

    Science also has its dogma, Marc. My eyes were opened to this when I read about the reaction of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to a book published by two science journalists: "Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science", by William Broad and Nicholas Wade. The AAAS wanted to suppress the book. It's a very enlightening book. I still have the copy of Earle Holland's article describing that AAAS meeting tucked away in my copy. I don't think things have changed much. Scientists are human after all and I maintain that dogmatism is a human tendency, not a particularly religious one.

    Thinking well for oneself involves finding the best arguments one can that test one's own point of view and considering them, not the easy dismissal of one's opponents as simply being "informed by dogma". It's a difficult job for anyone.

  16. It's not really *an appeal* to majority rule – it's a recognition that the majority view in that example happens to coincide with mine. If the majority view changed and tomorrow most people thought murder was wrong and we passed laws legalizing murder, I would do my best to fight against such laws – not because of any absolute moral authority but simply because I think it's wrong and a bad idea for our society.

    So I agree there have been lots of times in history and now as well when the majority opinion is completely repugnant to me. I cited one such example in my last comment. So I wasn't saying that the majority is always right. Like I said, when I disagree with laws, I try to fight against them or reverse them. But I don't need to claim some supreme moral authority to do so – I make my claim on the basis that I, a thinking human being, thinks things should be a certain way.

    Let me ask you something: Why do you think murder is wrong? Are you aware of some absolute divine reason that goes beyond just having a human opinion? If so, an I wrong to disagree with your reasoning when I claim there is no absolute morality?

  17. Your recognition of majority opinion seemed to be a justification for some morals being intuitively obvious. When you are in the minority you think it's because people are simply being dogmatic in their beliefs, that they've been indoctrinated and aren't thinking for themselves. But have the majority come to their beliefs by science + thinking for themselves? Maybe we've all just been indoctrinated to believe those things. People can be right for the wrong reasons, I guess. But what are the right reasons? How does science + thinking show they are right? Thinking human beings disagree. What, in your way of thinking, resolves that conflict? We can agree that the Nazi doctors were morally wrong, but that may just be what we've always been taught. If science is a better tool, then show me how they were wrong scientifically.

    The answer to your question of me is at the end of my paper, but I hope you will read the whole thing. Absolute morality, as such is not the real issue if by that you mean a set of behavioral rules that apply in every case. It's the need for an Absolute that makes moral reasoning meaningful when we apply it to others. If human beings have any intrinsic worth that makes murder or mistreatment of them wrong, what gives them that worth? If it's just a human invention, then it will always be questionable in any case. The claim that we need no such justification for our moral reasoning makes as much sense as standing on a tree limb and claiming that we don't need the tree trunk to keep us from falling.

    Your moral principles and mine are borrowed from a culture heavily influenced by religion, the idea that we're all created equal, and endowed by our Creator, for example. I don't think we can saw off the branch we're standing on and not expect to fall. We didn't get where we are, morally speaking, with science and thinking and we won't stay there or get much farther with that alone as far as I can see.

  18. > Your recognition of majority opinion seemed to
    > be a justification for some morals being
    > intuitively obvious.

    I didn't say (or imply) majority == right.

    > When you are in the minority you think it's
    > because people are simply being dogmatic in
    > their beliefs, that they've been indoctrinated
    > and aren't thinking for themselves.

    Again, my criteria is not whether the view is held by a majority or a minority, it's whether it makes sense (to me).

    > How does science + thinking show they are
    > right?

    Science doesn't say anything is correct with 100% certainty. Science says that when we demonstrate something over and over again using the experimental method, that conclusion is very likely to be correct. And the more it's verified, the more likely it's correct. But it's not perfect, it's just a method for testing hypotheses. It's religion that assumes it's 100% right and expects us to believe miraculous claims without extraordinary proof. It's religion that expects people to accept conclusions "on faith".

    > Thinking human beings disagree. What, in
    > your way of thinking, resolves that conflict?

    Nothing. In my way of thinking, we don't have to resolve our conflicts. You can believe in religion and I can choose not to and I don't see the need to resolve that conflict. As far as I'm concerned, we can agree to disagree.

    > If science is a better tool, then show me how
    > they were wrong scientifically.

    As I noted in an earlier comment, science doesn't "do" right or wrong. It helps us understand how the universe works. I never claimed science could prove Nazis were wrong. In fact, I said science is amoral, it doesn't care.

    > If human beings have any intrinsic worth that
    > makes murder or mistreatment of them wrong,
    > what gives them that worth?

    My opinion. But that's relative to me. You may not have the same opinion. You're entitled to that.

    > If it's just a human invention, then it will
    > always be questionable in any case.

    Bingo.

    > The claim that we need no such justification
    > for our moral reasoning makes as much sense as > standing on a tree limb and claiming that we
    > don't need the tree trunk to keep us from
    > falling.

    I disagree (obviously :). I can and do have an opinion without needing any god given universal morality. You keep talking about justification and I keep talking about opinions. I think that's the difference – you want to be sure of yourself and the only way to be perfectly 100% sure is to assume some all knowing, perfect set of laws, which conveniently make it ok to assert that your views are more than just opinion – they're handed down from god and therefore indisputable. You can claim that but I can disagree.

    > We didn't get where we are, morally speaking, > with science and thinking and we won't stay
    > there or get much farther with that alone as
    > far as I can see.

    I realize that religious concepts have so pervaded our society that those principals may have been ingrained in me through non-religious socialization processes. But I rejected my religious training because I didn't believe any of it. And if I didn't believe in certain aspects of my socialization I think I would have rejected those ideas as well (as I have in many cases). I think the answer is far simpler – I used my human brain to think about how to live my life and what kind of person I wanted to be and I came up with conclusions that I feel comfortable with. So I don't kill people. And I don't think other people should kill people. But I don't need god to justify that view.

  19. My whole point about justification is that you need it in order to believe that your moral standards apply to others who disagree and can legitimately be imposed on them. Opinion applies only to yourself. When you say other shouldn't kill people and should be prevented from doing so or punished for doing it, you need some sort of justification for that belief. As I said, "It's the need for an Absolute that makes moral reasoning meaningful when we apply it to others." If it's only your opinion that it applies to others, I don't see where you have any basis for the enforcement of that opinion. You say opinions are things that others are entitled to. Why aren't they entitled to freely act upon them?

    As for 100% certainty, I think you miss the point there too. Religion doesn't provide 100% certainty for anything. Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin in my experience. What it does provide is a context where moral reasoning is a meaningful activity, not just for oneself, but also in its application to the larger society. It's the only way that I can see to avoid nihilism, wherein the percent of certainty is zero.

  20. Go with me on a brief thought exercise…imagine for one second that you don't have a religious underpinning for the golden rule. Imagine that as a kid someone bullies you and you think "if I treat other kids that way then I'll get a feeling of power but, on the other, it seems more reasonable and fair to treat other kids the way I'd like to be treated". So you stumble on the golden rule without having it explicitly taught to you and, assuming for the sake of this discussion, there's no absolute, god-given justification behind it. Here's the question: is there any reason why you can't or shouldn't still advocate that rule?

    I mean, just because I didn't get my views from god doesn't mean I don't have a right to advocate them. Do you think that people who get their morals from god are the only ones who have the right to advocate? What if I told you I don't believe you got your rules from god, that you just *think* you got them from god. If I'm right and your morals are not really god-approved, I still think you have the right, justification and responsibilty advocate them, if you truly believe they make sense.

    > It's the only way that I can see to avoid
    > nihilism, wherein the percent of certainty is
    > zero

    Do you believe in your religion simply because the alternative (nihilism) is unpalatable? That would seem a pretty thin justification to me. I think you should believe what makes sense, what seems most honest and truthful, regardless of the outcome.

  21. So Paul, I'm just curious, what are your views on gay rights? You knew I was going to ask you that eventually right? :)

  22. OK, In your view, why would it seem more reasonable to treat others that way I like to be treated? Many people don't do that and are get away with it. Why shouldn't they if they can? There's no compelling reason behind the Golden Rule by itself to someone who thinks what they want is more important than the wants and needs of others. Why be fair? Why be reasonable? You use such value laden terms assuming others should value them the way you do. This is assuming what you need to prove when it comes to this kind of discussion.

    You talk about advocating. That's fine. You can advocate opinions and others are free to reject them. My point is about enforcement, forcible prevention or punishment. If you believe those things are justified on people with whom you disagree, what makes you think so?

    "Do you believe in your religion simply because the alternative (nihilism) is unpalatable?"

    No, but it's a good reason not to be an atheist.

    "I think you should believe what makes sense, what seems most honest and truthful, regardless of the outcome."

    I do too. I also think that those beliefs have to be livable and one should honestly live out their implications. I don't see many atheists doing that and I wonder why. If the outcome is self-destructive, as I think nihilism is, that represents a huge contradiction for me. So atheism is a false alternative as far as I can see. Occam's Razor is no help when it's at your own throat.

  23. "So Paul, I'm just curious, what are your views on gay rights? You knew I was going to ask you that eventually right? :)"

    No, I didn't know that. I think you can assume that they are much the same as yours, except that I don't see where you have a basis for them. So much for that red herring. :)

  24. > OK, In your view, why would it seem more
    > reasonable to treat others that way I like to
    > be treated?

    Have you ever seen a person or an animal suffer? It's pretty disturbing. I find torture repugnant at a visceral level. No one needed to teach me that, it's an innate reaction we call empathy. At the same time, I can intellectualize it and think "I wouldn't want anyone to do that to me so why would I want to do that to anyone else. Besides, if it can be done to the other guy than it can be done to me so it's in my self-interest to oppose it.". Someone might say, it's ok, certain classes of people or animals don't feel pain the same way we do. In which case I can use science to try to confirm or deny that hypothesis.

    So that's it: I oppose torture (and by extension, I can make a similar case for why I believe in treating others the same as I would have them treat me) on the basis of intuition, logic and, in some cases, scientific findings.

    > Many people don't do that and are get away
    > with it.

    Yes, the world would be a wonderful place if everyone agreed with all my views. :)

    > My point is about enforcement, forcible
    > prevention or punishment.

    I think I'm entitled to advocate for good behavior as well as enforcement of good behavior. On what basis? On the basis that intuition, logic and science tells informs my views about what's right and what's wrong.

    I think you're advocating on precisely the same basis. You might claim that your justification for imposing enforcement or punishment is somehow more legitimate than mine because your justification comes from god. But I would argue that your belief that your rules come from god are obtained through a similar process to one by which I've formulate my views: from your intuition, reason and judgement. Either or both of us could be wrong. So why are youe entitle to advocate for enforcement but I'm not?

    > No, but it's a good reason not to be an
    > atheist.

    Really? That's like saying you should believe in god because she might exists and if she does you'll be better off if you showed her some respect while you were living. That just seems like such a weak, "hedge your bets" kind of philosophy to me.

    > I also think that those beliefs have to be
    > livable and one should honestly live out their
    > implications. I don't see many atheists doing
    > that and I wonder why.

    Can you elaborate? I'm an atheist. Am I in that category of not honestly living out the implications of my atheism? How so?

  25. Torture is a good example. For one thing, a sadist wouldn't follow your reasoning so it wouldn't work for them. They supposedly get pleasure out of torturing others and they either don't care about the possibility of retribution or they think they can take their chances and escape it. There's no necessary connection between what one does to others and what others do to one in return. So your reasoning that "I shouldn't do it because I wouldn't want others doing it to me" doesn't carry much weight with those who really want to do what you think is wrong. People get away with murder all the time, even in places where laws against it are enforced. For another thing, why bother with torture at all? If a killer is squeamish there are quicker and less painful ways to kill someone.

    Your arguments only apply to people who already share your values.

    My elaboration on the implications of atheism is in the part after what you quoted. I don't see why atheists aren't nihilists. Nihilism implies that all our moral values are an illusion or are arbitrary, that they don't apply to anyone except maybe themselves. The implications of that are very grim they negate the value of our very existence.

  26. Re: sadists, as I said, my views are colored by 1) intuition, 2) intellect/reason and 3) scientifically established facts. A sadist might have different intuition (i.e. might actually enjoy seeing someone suffer) but they would also have the ability to use their intellect and facts to reach their conclusion. However, it's still possible all three of those inputs might lead someone to reach a different conclusion than the one I've reached. I have no problem with that. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I still reserve the right to advocate for my POV (which includes advocating for enforcement of my POV).

    Here's a question for you: how sure are you that your religious views are correct? If it's anything less than 100% then I think you would have to agree with me that there's some chance, though you may deem it very small, that you are wrong. If you buy into your hypothesis that no one can tell other people what to do unless their conclusions are divine and absolute, then if you are wrong you can't tell people what to do either, right? But even if your religious views were all wrong, I still think you would want (and would advocate for) laws against murder. Do you only object to murder because your religious training tells you to do so? Without that training, would you not want feel empowered to advocate making murder illegal?

    BTW, I'm an atheist and I guess I'm a nihilist in the sense that I don't believe there is any absolute moral value, only relative human judgement. And I have to say, it's not a grim existence at all. It's very freeing and empowering because, although I have to give up a lot of nice comforting mythology, I also don't have to accept things on faith. I can think for myself and reach my own conclusions.

  27. "I'm an atheist and I guess I'm a nihilist in the sense that I don't believe there is any absolute moral value, only relative human judgment."

    There's a very good definition of nihilism here. I don't think it accounts for your meaning in any sense. If you find that freeing and empowering, be careful you don't end up like Nietzsche. Perhaps your argument about the implications (or not) of atheism is more with atheists like him, or a contemporary like Peter Singer that with people like me. (I don't know if Singer would claim to be a nihilist, but his ethics take many fellow atheists much farther in that direction than they want to go.)

    "I also don't have to accept things on faith. I can think for myself and reach my own conclusions."

    I think you have to accept those conclusions purely on faith. What other reason do you have to think they should apply to anyone who doesn't already agree with you (for whatever reason)?

    I'm not sure why you insist that I must have 100% certainty in my beliefs. You don't seem to apply that standard to yourself. But, if I am wrong and nihilism is the truth, then I would see no point in advocating for laws against any crimes or for any laws in support of any so-called human rights. Not if I was an honest and true nihilist, believing the truth "regardless of the outcome," as you say. How I feel would be irrelevant because my feelings, thoughts and moral reasoning would have no more relevance than anyone else's. Power is the only thing that determines right or wrong, whose life is worth living or not. Those with the most power make all the rules.

    I think atheism, as a moral framework, collapses in on itself to nihilism. A theistic framework at least has within it the appeal to an authority that transcends human authority. So it's not a matter of percentages of certainty, Marc. It's not even a matter of whether or not certain moral values are absolute or relative. It's a matter of absurdity, nothingness, vs. possibility. In making moral sense of the world, one has to start somewhere. Atheism is too simple to support moral reasoning in any adequate sense, like thinking you can have a tree house in a tree without the tree trunk.

  28. Just for a minute, assume all your religious views are wrong. Wouldn't you still advocate against murder? And wouldn't you still advocate for laws against murder?

    Or would you say "because I don't have a divine justification for my moral views, I have no right to impose them on anyone else and I, Paul Dubuc, would therefore not advocate to make murder illegal"? In which case, in a fictitious voter referendum affirming or overturning our laws against murder, you would abstain or perhaps vote to overturn.

    I'm hoping your answer doesn't start with "that scenario doesn't make any sense so I can't answer". I'm challenging you to think about how you would feel about this topic if your views weren't guided by your religious beliefs.

  29. "Just for a minute, assume all your religious views are wrong…"

    Marc, this whole argument I'm making comes from years of making that assumption thinking through the implications of atheism. My conclusion is that it collapses into nihilism. As one of Dostoyevsky's characters says in The Brothers Karamazov, "If there is no God, all things are permissible."

    Read again the second to last paragraph in my last response. I think the answer to your questions are there. I don't know what else to say. The characteristic feeling for this state of affairs is "despair" (though that is much more than just a feeling) unless you are the one powerful enough to be making all the rules and defining what is right and wrong.

    Nietzsche faced the implications of his atheism squarely. I don't think most atheists do that. I can't see how you are doing that. Perhaps your feelings are just conditioning that comes from growing up in a society that has long taken for granted values that are derived from, and which still depend upon, theistic beliefs. In other times and places life was, and is, cheap and the individualistic mindset that assumes so much value on our own lives a foreign concept. Maybe its an illusion, comforting thoughts you choose not to question. They don't seem questionable in an environment where most people happen to agree with you (though maybe they have different reasons than you), but if like, Bill Maher, you think the world would be a better place without religion, you might give some serious thought to how you know that is so. People might start thinking differently in that kind of world. How would you convince them not to?

  30. I just want to understand your position here because I find it to be amazing. You're saying that if tomorrow you found out your religion was wrong, you'd be just fine with undoing the laws against murder and the random murders that might ensue. That wouldn't bother you in the slightest because you would become a nihilist and nothing would matter so bring on the murders.

    So the only reason you think murder is wrong is because you read it in the bible? You have no personal sense of whether the prohibition of murder is a good idea or a bad idea other than what the bible tells you to think about it?

  31. "I just want to understand your position here because I find it to be amazing."

    It's my understanding of your position. My position against murder isn't so simply stated (there's a little more theology that goes with it), but even if it were, it's better than having no position that is defensible even within one's own belief system. My position makes sense within a theistic framework. As far as I can tell, yours doesn't within an atheistic one.

    So, yes, I have a personal sense that murder is wrong. It comes from the same place, ultimately, that yours does. Maybe I'm just more willing to acknowledge the source than you are.

  32. "You're saying that if tomorrow you found out your religion was wrong, you'd be just fine with undoing the laws against murder and the random murders that might ensue. That wouldn't bother you in the slightest because you would become a nihilist and nothing would matter so bring on the murders."

    I'm saying there is no argument for or against such laws if nihilism is true. So what if it bothers me? Does the fact that something bothers you or me mean that there ought to be a law against it?

  33. > So, yes, I have a personal sense that murder
    > is wrong.

    Ok, so even if you weren't trained by your religion to disapprove of murder, you would still do so, which is precisely where I am.

    > It comes from the same place, ultimately, that
    > yours does. Maybe I'm just more willing to
    > acknowledge the source than you are.

    As I've noted before, I believe my feeling that murder is bad comes from intuition, experience (not directly with murder, fortunately), logic/reasoning and scientifically established facts. When you say I'm not acknowledging from where my views come, I think you mean that my views are shaped by my socialization, which is a product of thousands of years of judeo-christian religious doctrine. So I think you're trying to say that I detest murder on a personal level only because my forbears passed down that ethic which they acquired from their religious training.

    That is certainly possible, however, my socialization encouraged a lot of behavior, some of which I adopted and some of which I rejected. For example, in addition to frowning on murder, my society (and my family) encouraged me to believe in god and to observe the religion into which I was born, which I rejected because it made no sense to me.

    > So what if it bothers me? Does the fact that
    > something bothers you or me mean that there
    > ought to be a law against it?

    If we're talking about something that only affects you then you probably would be off base trying to tell other people what to do. For example, I wouldn't support a law that made smoking in your own home illegal. But when the behavior affects other people negatively (murder being an extreme example) like smoking in public spaces, I am in favor of limiting that behavior. I know from experience that second hand smoke is unpleasant for many people and I from science the detrimental effects of exposure to second hand smoke.
    So in that case, because the behavior affects other people in undesirable ways, I feel empowered to advocate for a law against smoking in public. That doesn't mean I have the right to unilaterally force anyone else to refrain from smoking in public – just that I am entitled to advocate for such a law, essentially to cast my vote in the same way that I would case my vote for laws against murder.

    I do not need a supreme moral code indicating that god disapproves of murder or smoking in public in order to vote for such a law. I'm a citizen, I've got an opinion and I'm expressing it.

  34. "Ok, so even if you weren't trained by your religion to disapprove of murder …"

    No, I didn't say that. I don't think the context of the remark you quoted before this response supports that conclusion. I can't think of any plainer ways to state my position than what I've already written in other responses, unfortunately.

    Your reasoning, intuition and experience applies only to you and those who happen to agree with you. Others use their own reasoning, intuition and experience to come to different conclusions because they accept a different set of values. So, murder is wrong for you and those who agree with you, but you have no basis for the idea that it's wrong for others. What makes your values superior to those of any other human being?

    "If we're talking about something that only affects you then you probably would be off base trying to tell other people what to do."

    That's just it. What makes you think your moral reasoning applies to anyone but you?

    "So in that case, because the behavior affects other people in undesirable ways …"

    "Undesirable" is another one of those value laden terms that you're assuming agreement on. You and others may find some behaviors undesirable, but those who do them most likely find them very desirable, even necessary or pleasurable. How do you convince yourself that what you find undesirable in the behavior of others ought to be prohibited for them?

    "my socialization encouraged a lot of behavior, some of which I adopted and some of which I rejected. For example, in addition to frowning on murder, my society (and my family) encouraged me to believe in god and to observe the religion into which I was born, which I rejected because it made no sense to me."

    We'll maybe there's an important and necessary connection between what you accepted and what you reject that you aren't seeing, Marc. Maybe it's just not possible to reject the latter without also rejecting the former.

  35. > That's just it. What makes you think your
    > moral reasoning applies to anyone but you?

    It doesn't. I think I've consistently said that my moral code is relative, not absolute. As far as I'm concerned, you and everyone else in the world are entitled to entirely different conclusions about what is right and what is wrong.

    However, as members of our society you and I both have the right to express and advocate for our views. And we have the right to support laws that promote our agenda, including prohibition of murder.

    This is our fundamental difference: I think each of is entitled to decide what is right and what is wrong whereas you think your moral code trumps everyone else's because it supposedly comes from god.

  36. "However, as members of our society you and I both have the right to express and advocate for our views. And we have the right to support laws that promote our agenda, including prohibition of murder."

    Whose values determine whether or not that right has any meaning? All you've done is move the problem upscale, but its still on a human level. You're just making an appeal to a larger group of people who happen to agree with your principles. I presume you would still advocate against murder in societies other than our own that do not recognize such rights or see nothing wrong with violating them for ends that are more important to them. Would murder be OK if our society changed and that "right" to advocate was diminished or taken away?

    I don't think you can use assumed values to argue that other values are legitimate when applied to others who disagree. That is assuming the truth of what you need to demonstrate as true.

  37. "Whose values determine whether or not that right has any meaning?"

    No one's. Tolerance for free speech and advocacy is a function of societal organization. I don't claim that every society should have free speech or that free speech is somehow "more right" than other forms of societal organization. I personally happen to think free speech is the right way to go but that's just my opinion, just like I happen to think laws against murder are the right way to go. But there is nothing inherently right or wrong about freedom or murder, I just have opinions about them.

    "I presume you would still advocate against murder in societies other than our own that do not recognize such rights or see nothing wrong with violating them for ends that are more important to them."

    Correct.

    "Would murder be OK if our society changed and that "right" to advocate was diminished or taken away?"

    Again, murder is not universally or absolutely ok or not ok. There are only peoples' opinions about murder, which vary. In my opinion it's a bad thing so regardless of whether my society afforded me free speech or not, I would be against murder.

    > I don't think you can use assumed values to
    > argue that other values are legitimate when
    > applied to others who disagree.

    What values am I assuming?

  38. Thanks, Marc. I think I'm content to leave this discussion where it stands. It's gotten quite long and there's probably not much more to be said. You've been very gracious and patient with me in letting it continue like this here. So, thanks for the discussion.

    Best regards,
    Paul

  39. C'mon Paul – we haven't even touched on abortion or gay marriage yet! :) I'm kidding, of course. I'm fine with putting this thread on hiatus.

    Obviously, we're pretty far apart ideologically (and likely to remain so) but I'm glad we got to learn more about each other's perspective and that we were able to have a passionate and civil debate. Thanks right back to you.

    Marc

  40. I don't know about ideology. You find all kinds on either side of our divide. We have more of a difference in worldview and epistemology, I think. That's even more basic. It doesn't bother me that we remain far apart. I haven't been trying to convince you of my point of view as much as trying to understand yours (and I'll have to be content not to, at least for now). I try to remain open-minded, read widely and find and understand those who seem to be the best examples and proponents of views opposing mine on things I care deeply about. That process has helped me understand my own position better and to change or refine it in some ways. Without that process, we're much less likely to hold informed views and those we reject may well be simplisms rather than anything substantive. That makes our own position simplistic by contrast.

    If I understand your view of religion correctly, the impression that all those who believe in God do so "just because" someone else told them so, for the sake of comfort, and are people don't think for themselves, is a simplism. Well thought out positions that challenge yours on this and and other issues you mention are not hard to find and read. If they aren't convincing to you, they will at least make you a better atheist. You can certainly do much better than Bill Maher's simplistic picture of religion. There are many atheists who will agree with me on that.

    So long, and fare well.

    Paul

  41. I’m sorry i missed this thread. I so rarely come across a discussion about religion and morality that makes sense.

    But, i can’t resist a belated post. I would propose that something like free speech is “more right” because it is characteristic of a society that has happier people.

    Forcing women to be covered from head to toe is “less right” because the individuals so covered will not be as happy as those who have a choice of covering.

    I would submit that a society that restricts murder would be more enjoyable (to most individuals) than a scoiety that condones it or outright supports it.

    Sure, there are many gray areas where choices A and B are not so easy to resolve in their “rightness” but that does not mean that we can’t try and resolve them independent of a supernatural power.

    Ah, i feel better.

    -dan

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