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