Some Thoughts on Death – From Sam Harris’ Talk at the GAC

Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 4 comments

At The Global Atheist Convention, one of the most memorable talks given was by the amazing Sam Harris, who changed his original talk from the topic of “free will” to some musings on death and what it means for life. It was controversial to say the least, as about three quarters of the way through he asked the participants to “try something”. This something was meditation, and being as we were at a room full of skeptics and atheists, this was a weird experience to say the least. In fact I’d call it one of the more surreal moments I have experienced. But this was not the point of his talk, in fact it was done simply to illustrate a point about life, death and the “now” that we always inhabit.

The talk focused on a few simple home truths that affect the way we live our lives, and the effect these truths have on religion and our need to address these aspects of being alive. These are some of my thoughts that came from watching this talk, almost my interpretation of what he said, in three parts over the coming days, starting with the overarching topic of death.

Death is worth ruminating over. It’s been said its the single most significant thing you will do in your life. And it affects us all. At some point in our lives we need to face the prospect of death, either our own or the deaths of those we love and are surrounded by. Death is the only certainty in life, but when and how it will happen remains a mystery to us. Sure we can predict a given person’s future using a computer model, and based on their lifestyle, diet, life choices, habits and occupation, and give some sort of indication of the risk of death. But this is all speculation. At any given moment there are thousands of forces that could potentially draw life to a close prematurely, all out of our control.

So, what happens after death? Is it really the end, or is there something else? From a purely scientific standpoint, we can watch as the energy signals within the brain slow down and finally cease activity. If we had powerful enough equipment and technology, we could account for all of the mass and energy present in the body at the moment of death. I’m not familiar if this experiment has already been performed, but I’m confident that this would be the case. It is my opinion that after death consciousness ceases, and our personalities disappear. It’s a scary thought but one worth contemplating. This causes in some people a sense of unease and nervousness. If there’s one thing we really dislike as human beings, it’s uncertainty. But this is precisely why we ask questions, why the constant and ongoing pursuit of science exists at all; to find some source of certainty.

Religion claims to have an answer to this uncertainty. It tells is that it knows what happens, and not only is there life after death, but depending on how you conduct your time while alive, it will either be a blissful eternal afterlife, or continuous suffering at the hands of a god. Of course there is no way to prove or disprove this (yet, but this proof would come from science, not from navel gazing). It makes people feel better about their lives, it makes people feel better that if they toe the line as written in these religious texts, that they have a certainty that they no longer need to worry about death. They have the certainty that they will be reunited with their loved ones, that they will see their grandparents again, and that they will be eternally happy forevermore. The basis of all religions hinges on the mystery of death, an in this lies their power over people. The claim of having an answer is not just a “nice thing to think about” as many would have us believe, it is very likely wrong. And even if it is true, does a life of continuous supplication to a god that wants eternal praise make it a life worth living?

What religion does is give us a sense that our future, which is an unknown commodity, can somehow become known. The certainty with which religious folks see their futures is the tool used by religions to maintain their power. Giving answers to questions that cannot be answered by any living human being (as we can’t know what happens after death) is very appealing to a mind that seeks solace in the now, as it frees the mind to ponder over the possibly more trivial but more enjoyable matters in life.

In the next blog I will attempt to unravel Harris’ presentation in context of our past, our present and our futures.

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  1. A nice article MP, Death is an interesting topic and one which will forever sit looming as a shadow over life. I think the certainty of death should be used to ensure that you live a good life. Do good things now, not later, do them because they are productive, right and interesting, not because of some intangible and uncertain reward after you die. Life is the most precious thing we have. It’s one thing to say ‘I’m going to die one day’ and a different thing to actually know it in your heart. If everyone was able to digest that we’re truly mortal and that our time as a conscious personality is limited, then who knows what could happen. It would either be chaos or bliss, either way it would be interesting. 

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  2. Nice summary of the talk. I found his talk to be a very powering and moving message.
    I would go so far to say that by submitting to their religion they absolve themselves of taking responsibility for their own lives. This is the cruelest trick that it plays on these people, they squander the time they do actually have for some distant promise of beating death and getting the comfort you refer to above. What I took away from Sam’s talk was the need to be “present” in everything you do, cherish the time you have and not worry about distractions that your brain plays on you. You only have one life, live it and make the most of it.

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  3. I have become quite a “fan” of Harris–and I initially approached The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and Free Will with some reservations.  I think that he does a great job of explaining his premises and of “selling” his main points.  I look forward to the rest of your summations.
    As far as death goes, I think you hit the nail on the head when discussing the relationship between it and religion.  Everyone at some point in their life probably thinks about death.  Religions seem to have found a way to “cash in” on this idea.  Each religion tries to put people at ease about death—they tell us what we want to hear.  There is no evidence to back this, nor most likely, will there ever be—death will most likely remain the “great unkown”…unless you are a pessimist like me and are reconciled to the fact that you will become “worm food”.  I find it a point of remarkable arrogance that religions can speak so definitively on the topic of death.  In fact, in my early teenage years it was one of the first things I began to seriously question.

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  4. It is not only your opinion, Martin, that death brings about the ceasing of all consciousness and we really disappear as individuals, but the only position that is compatible with all we currently know about biology, chemistry, physics; basically, it’s the only position compatible with scientific knowledge. Our personalities are not magically preserved. That’s just wishful thinking.
    In my opinion, religion would not exist if it were not for our fear of death. The only fear we should have is of throwing our lives away or not living them to the fullest because of some(Literally) pie in the sky.
    Death is so scary for some, that even atheists grab onto pseudoscience concepts such as “energy” and some quantum effects to keep believing that our minds, our personalities, our selves, will still exist in some fashion or other, after death.

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