Coping With Death When You Don’t Believe In An Afterlife

Nov 23, 2018

Prelude #

I’m an atheist, and always have been. One of the weird things about being an atheist is that it’s not a unified group, since we are defined by what we are not, rather than what we are; there is no Atheist Pope who makes determinations on doctrine. Given that, allow me to start by clarifying that I am the kind of atheist who:

  1. Fully supports and respects people’s faith, as long as that faith doesn’t obstruct other people’s human rights and personal freedom;
  2. Is married to a profoundly fantastic Catholic girl;
  3. Knows a bunch of nuns and has a ton of respect for them and the good they do in the world;
  4. Thinks Richard Dawkins is kind of a dick hole.

One of the other curious things about being an atheist is that when it comes to the central, inescapable problem of life, the knowledge of your inevitable mortality, the only real comfort you have to look forward to is “well, you’ll be totally dead, but on the bright side you won’t be around to be sad about it.”

This is a surprisingly calming thought once you really internalize it. Let’s be honest, though; it doesn’t sound as good as pearly gates, and harps, and eternity with all of your most hilarious friends, and all of the other things that can never be experimentally falsified. I've lost a lot of people in the last decade, and consequently I've had more opportunities to mull this over than I would have preferred. So I want to describe a couple of concepts that help me as I think about this stuff.

What Vanishes #

In many faiths, there is a concept of a soul; something that animates our flesh, something that describes our true being, and in some way transcends and animates this pile of meat that is our mortal body.

It’s hard for me to believe that such a thing exists, because there’s no way to measure or observe it. It’s also strange, however, in a universe where mass and energy are conserved, to think that a conscious being exists, and then that consciousness vanishes. How the hell does that work? Is it just like a candle burning out? How is it possible that the bundle of sustained chemical reactions that make up me, or some person that I love, ultimately turn into a pile of dirt?

A long time ago, I was sitting by a river, watching the water. The movement of water in any river or stream is so fascinating to watch; it’s stable if you squint, but if you look closely there's all kinds of unpredictable stuff going on.

A small whirlpool formed in this river, just downstream of a boulder that broke the surface, and it slowly moved with the water, spinning, distinct. It was a surprisingly stable structure given the undifferentiated chaos all around it. I watched it flow away from me, until it was out of sight.

At some point, though, that vortex must have broken down. It collided with a rock, or was swamped by a wave, or lost energy from friction. That unique bit of beauty and order in the world dissolved back into the clear water around it. Everything that it was made from was still there, but the structure that made it special vanished without a trace, impossible to reconstruct or recall.

Perhaps that’s what our sense of “being” is: an ordered structure in the chaos, persisting for a while, before finally collapsing back into the dirt. It’s maybe not comforting, but I think it’s kind of beautiful. We’re whirlpools that become self-aware for a time, and then disperse, back into the flowing water that once was billions of other people.

Orpheus’ Scrapbook #

Let’s return to the question of what comfort we can find when we don’t believe in an afterlife. Maybe twenty years ago I read a really good book by Paul Davies called About Time. He’s a physicist, and the book does just what it says on the tin; it discusses what we know about how time works and what it is, or at least what we knew around 1996. It’s a good book, and you should read it. It gave me ideas.

This is perhaps a good time to offer the disclaimer that I never went beyond basic college physics and didn’t go too far in advanced math; some of what I’m going to say may have long been disproved, and I’m going to get pretty pseudosciency. I am just some dude on the Internet with opinions. I don’t claim that any of this is provably true, just that I find it a comforting means to think about mortality and the inevitable passage of time. This is “what if,” not facts, and you should be skeptical.

That out of the way, consider, if you will, that time may be a kind of dimension, the way that three-dimensional space is. If you’ve read Flatland, you’ll remember that a two-dimensional being couldn’t see the depth of a three-dimensional object. Given that we are three-dimensional beings, we similarly can’t see time. We only see the present moment, the current snapshot of the state of the universe.

Consider also that in the first or second or third dimensions, you can go in more than one direction. You can travel forward and backward. This isn’t true of time; its arrow only points in one direction, at least in terms of how we perceive it. Everything marches inevitably into the future. This is interesting.

One way of thinking about the progression of time in the universe is as a series of three-dimensional snapshots, being played many frames per second like a sequence of photos in a motion picture. Another way to think about it is as a series of those snapshots, hung side by side on the wall of some infinitely long gallery. A flashlight illuminates those snapshots one at a time, moving always to the right, and as each of them light up, they represent what “is”.

The thing about these mental models that diverges from the way I previously thought about time is that nothing is destroyed. All of those snapshots exist now, and forever, and always have been there. It’s just that we can only perceive one at a time.

That’s what comforts me, in some small fashion. Maybe in a very real way, all of the moments that have ever been are still out there, in the past, hanging there where we can’t see them. We can never get back to them, not with our current understanding, and quite possibly the laws of the universe mean they are permanently separated from us-as-we-are-now. But they aren’t gone. All those times, all those people we’ve lost, those moments of joy and loss and mundanity, they’re all there, frozen and pristine and undamaged. All that information that represents them is still somewhere, filed away.

We can’t get there from here. But we can think of them, just a short distance back along the timeline.

And who knows: endless eons from now, maybe some civilization somewhere in the universe will have some breakthrough, or the physical laws themselves may alter, or some Big Bang-level event may occur; and maybe, somehow, this movie that we’ve all played parts in will be watched again.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

—The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám


If you liked this, you're welcome to read more of my blatherings.