Erudite Primitivism

On Death

One thing I've convinced myself of over the years is that how you choose to live your life depends entirely on what you think happens when you die. For this reason, organizing your thoughts on death is a necessary precursor to organizing your thoughts on life. As I see it, there are two options: either you'll be judged for the actions you take here on Earth, or you won't. I find it hard to come up with convincing arguments for the former, and so have been drawn to a life defined by the latter.

Let's look at the first option, judgement. The idea here is that there is some being external to the universe we experience who is capable of judging our mortal actions and will distribute punishments and awards accordingly. In the Judeo-Christian fashion, this would be God, and following His rules grants you a life in heaven. Outside of interpreting the judge as a deity, you can also imagine some universal karma or perhaps a point system derived from the program running the universe simulation. However the idea is formulated, the common themes are judgement for actions on Earth, and consequences that last an eternity.

If this were the case, the only rational thing to do is follow the rules exactly. Even if this involves a life of pain and punishment, there is no cost too great that it is not worth eternal reward. Conversely, there is no pleasure on Earth so incredible that it could be worth risking eternal damnation. So, supposing such a being exists, the only way to lead a life is by falling in line and marching in time. The problem with this interpretation of death is that it is so fraught with contradiction, error, and paradox that I'm not sure there is a way to convincingly argue that it is correct.

We'll choose to ignore the obvious paradoxes arising from what we assume is an omnipotent, omnitemporal, omni-everything God (eg making a boulder so heavy He can't lift it). Problems abound anyway. First issue: how do we know which rules to follow? There are just so many religions, almost all with conflicting views on what it means to lead a good life. Pascal's wager seems convincing until you realize you can apply it to all religions simultaneously. For instance, if Pascal convinces you to be Christian, it must also convince you to believe in Norse Paganism. In doing so, however, you have revered false idols, immediately breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Essentially, there is no way to live a life that satisfies the rules of all religions simultaneously. Besides, what if "the rules" aren't part of a religion anyway, but are hidden? Referring back to the potential point system I mentioned earlier, (assuming the simulation argument is true) there could be a line of code that says whichever human who does the most backflips is the only one to get eternal reward, or something equally arbitrary. There would be no way of knowing, and certainly no evidence on Earth to support such a belief. Despite this, it could be the deciding factor in your eternal fate.

Another issue is that this idea presupposes the notion of a soul. This soul would have to be some mode of being that is external to the conscious experience we have every day. Although the nature of consciousness is a supremely open question, I find it increasingly hard to believe that there is some consciousness outside of what we experience in this day to day life. More likely, subjective experience simply stems from electrical activity in the brain. After all, the only things I've ever experienced has been my brain interpreting external input (through the senses) or confabulating stories in the absence of sensory information (dreaming, hallucinating). Conditional on the fact that the only mode of consciousness I've ever had is dependent on such activity occurring in my brain, it seems a natural conclusion that conscious experience cannot occur in the absence of such activity. Without evidence of a soul, it seems foolish to presuppose its existence in this argument.

Clearly, most of the issues here are motivated by claims of religion. Due to this, it's worth asking if claims about eternal happiness are more likely to come from human interest. For instance, it's awfully convenient to tell a Medieval peasant farmer that their toil and work will be worth it because they'll achieve eternal happiness in heaven; this could prevent them from thinking about how meaningless and awful their life really is, or asking why that King gets to wear such an expensive crown. Heaven is also a comforting notion in the face of the human unknown about what happens after death. Finally, one has to consider the inconsistencies of those who preach the religion itself. If it's easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, then why is the Vatican investing billions in the Italian stock market?

Other potential refutations of this notion could hinge on the idea of infinite time. Is it really possible for us to have a conscious experience without end, simply carrying on infinitely? The seeming infinite nature of space in our universe makes me skeptical this is such a good avenue for argument. More likely our brains adapted for finding nuts and avoiding bears have supreme difficulty with a concept like infinity.

Overall, the real issue with arguing for a life defined by judgement at death is that almost any statement made in support of it is unfalsifiable. Normally, unfalsifiable statements are annoying, but not especially important. Russel's Teapot is the ultimate example object, in this case. The only difference between claiming God owns my soul and there exists a teapot between Earth and Mars is the effect each claim has on my life. One matters a hell of a lot, and the other probably only matters if I plan on making a SpaceX competitor. Just because we're dealing with unfalsifiable statements with great impact doesn't mean we should treat them differently than unfalsifiable statements with no impact. Claims require evidence, but we've only found problems.

This analysis is important, because the consequences of death are important to the choices made in life. In looking at a notion of death that includes judgment and eternal punishment/reward, I cannot overcome multiple issues with the idea. Pascal issues deal with the notion of choice between competing rules for life. It seems impossible to choose the 'right' one. Consciousness issues exist because the eternal consequence necessitates some form of subjective experience, which doesn't seem like it can be separated from electrical activity in the brain. Finally, the claims of religion seem far more likely to stem from a need for control. Contradictions in modern religious establishment further motivate this idea. The sheer unfalsifiable nature of these claims also seem like reason enough to dismiss them without evidence.

In taking all this into account, I find myself convinced that there simply won't be any judgment. This has implications for a wide range of ideas, but perhaps most importantly (to me), to the idea of how I should act and what choices I should make in life. Namely, if you don't have to live for something else, you get to live just for yourself. I hope to explore and outline these implications in a future entry.

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