Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thoughts on an afterlife

There's a really nifty video involving debate between a pair of rabbis and two prominent atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I know it's a little dated (although Hitchens is still dealing with cancer here, he looks a lot better than I've heard he's been doing lately), but it's the first time I've had a chance to sit down and really listen to it.  It's good.  Really good.  I think anyone listening will think their "side" of the argument won the debate.  I like that quite a lot, since it means that the unbiased listener should (hopefully) walk away with some different arguments from both sides.

If you don't listen to the whole thing, at least listen for the first 6 minutes or so.  Sam Harris speaks so very eloquently in a way I'm inclined to agree:
The afterlife comes into the midst of this reality as a promise that all of this is going to make some sense in the end, that somehow at the end of existence we're all going to be let in on the punchline and have a mightly laugh with the almighty god for eternity.  Now there's no evidence for that and I think therefore that this concept of the afterlife really functions as a substitute for wisdom, as a substitute for really absorbing our predicament that everyone is going to die.  There are circumstances that are just catastrophically unfair.  Evil sometimes wins and injustice sometimes wins and the only justice we are going to find in the world is the justice we make and I think we have an ethical responsibility to absorb this really down to the souls of our feet, and this notion of an afterlife, the happy thought that it's all going to work out and it's all part of god's plan, is a way of shirking this responsibility.

This is the crux of my problems with the afterlife.  There are a lot of other people who seem smarter and wiser than I who assert that they are comfortable with the idea of everything just ending when you die, but it's a concept I've struggled with and will undoubtedly continue to struggle with.  I do not like the idea of my own mortality, yet somehow I equally do not like the idea of my own immortality.  No matter how I feel about this inimical shadow of death, though, my desires should not rule over my wisdom.  I don't want to cease existing, but the truth of the matter is, as far as I can tell, I will at some point.  There would be no greater surprise nor greater joy to find consciousness is not tied to the mind, but I have to be honest about what I see.  If it turns out the joyous surprise is real, then I can enjoy that after I die.  If it is not, then I will be gone and there will be no agony nor pain to worry about.

Some of the rabbis' points are really quite good, too.  Bradley Artson Shavit makes a very good counter-argument to the statement that religion is man made 38 minutes in:
As you say, it's man made, and I agree, it is man made, as is medicine and law. But the solution to bad medicine and bad law is not to get rid of it, the solution is to have open discussions and continue to refine it and surpass it.
 Kudos to Hitchens for quoting Star Wars and saying, "I can quote literature and scripture, too."

Also, much love for David Wolpe.  I know nothing of him outside of this, but he took the debate with a great amount of cheer and good humor, and I can respect him for that.  He also made a really good argument towards the end about how you should not bother with anyone who argues their stance from logic and reason and your own from psychology, playing you as the weak-minded one.  "There are believers in the afterlife who are weak and fearful, there are believers in the afterlife who are courageous and strong.  There are atheists who are weak and fearful, there are atheists who are courageous and strong."  Seriously, major kudos for arguing that point.  Additionally, his statement, "Can we all agree that whether there's an afterlife or not, the point of life is to live in such a way that you deserve one?" is quite possibly my new favorite line.

There's a lot of brilliant quotes from both sides that I didn't include.  Even though it's an hour and a half long, it's really worth listening to!

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