Friday 30 June 2017

Why don't atheists want eternal life? An illustration of metaphysical demoralisation

(From my personal experience...) Atheists think it is absurd and irrational when religious people talk about eternal life beyond death as necessary for a meaning in life; because if this mortal life lacks meaning, then why would a mathematical extension of it provide meaning?

(For atheists...) It is like multiplying zero - no matter how many times it is multiplied then it is still nothing. If mortal life has zero meaning then in can't be increased by duration; but if mortal life does have a meaning then there is no absolute necessity for eternal life. ('One life is enough!...')

From an atheist metaphysical perspective, that is - with atheist assumptions that a human life is, objectively, simply an incident in biological history, this argument appears irrefutable.

But if we take a religious perspective which assumes that reality was created, for a reason, by a deity who is our father - then we begin with a picture of a vast and unfolding story, stretching across 'eternity', in which we are participants. For Christians we are - by a family metaphor - both individuals and members of this story: personally concerned for our-selves and also for others.

From this perspective, mortal life has two aspects - the first is that one human lifespan - whether 7 minutes or seventy years - it is of microscopic duration compared with the timescales involved in the great story of creation (indeed, if eternity stretches without end - a lifespan is, relatively, of near-zero duration).

So mortal life requires consideration in the perspective of eternity in order properly to understand it. In other words, the atheist has misframed the question - because he is viewing eternity from the perspective of mortality - assuming the validity of the finite span of mortality and challenging the validity of an eternal perspective; when the correct procedure is the opposite way around.

But on the other side, Christians ought to remember that mortality was also experienced by Jesus Christ - and this indicates that the experience of mortality (however brief in comparison with eternity) is very important, presumably necessary, for the fulfilment of the divine story.

Non-Christian religions are often good at explaining the eternal perspective, and arguing in favour of an eternal perspective which shrinks (sometimes to microscopic levels) the importance of mortal life. But they tend to have trouble explaining why mortal life is of any value at all: why bother with it?

Mainstream Orthodox Christians also often have the same trouble - but this is not intrinsic to Christianity, but is a consequence of building-in inappropriate Greco-Roman derived philosophy, and then seeing Christianity through its lens.

The clarity of the Gospels should remind us that mortal life needs to be understood in a divine and eternal context - that life-on-earth is a relatively brief and temporary phase; but also that even the briefest of mortal lives is also vitally important both to our personal selves and also to the great plan of things. 


Chiu ChunLing said...

But if atheists were really proceeding from the presumption that life was so worthless as to not justify any suffering at all, they would already have killed themselves. Of course many do, or engage in a variety of behaviors that seem designed to that end. But by and large it seems that the problem is more of perspective than of mathematical axioms.

That is to say, most professed atheists devalue life after death because it is more distant, and thus looms smaller to their natural perception of time. They are not really rejecting the premise that life itself is of value, or there would be no truth to the assertion that "there are no atheists in foxholes" (which is not precisely true but does accurately reflect how much more precious life seems to even an atheist when a modest amount of suffering might avert immediate death).

One may distinguish between doctrinaire and social atheists, but what they both have in common is an angry impatience for the idea of suffering now for a long deferred gratification. That, rather than a enduring sense of real existential despair, is generally the reason that atheists don't treat their future life with much concern if it requires something of them in the present.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CC - I would say that most people in The West (who are of course de facto atheists, however they self-identfy) are only kept from suicide by anaesthesia and distraction - by not-thinking (or not really thinking - what they call thinking is merely superficial automatic cerebral processing, inculcated and maintained by society - especially, nowadays, the mass media).

Modern atheists are, to put matters simply, functioning on an animal-survival basis. That is, they want to stay alive fro animal instinct, and they live merely from animal vitality, rather than qua human beings.

So long as they experience net pleasure or hope of it, they can continue; but when the balance tips towards suffering and they lose hope - they want to die.

What stops them is, mostly, cowardice - hence the constant pressure for a right to 'assisted suicide' humane killing, euthanasia etc. They want to die, but they fear to suffer - my prediction is that if/ when suffering-free death is 'provided', we will see a massive increase in suicide.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Hmm...I don't know about that. I think that there are certainly clear tendencies to encourage suicide readily evident in the agenda being pushed by atheistic forces in society, but I also detect more than a whiff of hypocrisy, it seems most of them are encouraging others to commit suicide rather than working up to it themselves. Death by foolish (short-sighted) misadventure is still much more widespread than pre-meditated suicide.

spiltteeth said...

Could you go into the difference between living from animal vitality rather than qua human being? Would this be receiving one's life from God and a life of sacrifice?

Bruce Charlton said...

@s - What I intended was that all living things are equipped with biological reflexes and instincts that (on average, within limits) tend to maintain homeostasis and life.

Even the most suicidal of people - those with severe melancholia/ endogenous depression - usually do not kill themselves; there is a significant barrier to overcome.

Indeed, suicide - or even 'attempted' suicide parasuicide - very seldom happens in clear consciousness; people are nearly-always intoxicated, taking a psychoactive drug or actually psychotic. In common parlance, they need to be 'disinhibited' to overcome their innate instincts.

I don't know whether you have read my Mouse Utopia ideas about mutation accumulation?

One aspect of this phenomenon is that it would be expected to weken innate, evolved homeostatic and survival mechanisms (probably when at a more advanced stage than we currently see - when the higher adaptations of sexuality and social life are affected). So, in future people may 'find it easier' to kill themselves than in the evolutionary past.


Chent said...

I think you overcomplicate things.

They don't want eternal life because eternal life comes with strings attached: trying to suppress the Self and reduce Pleasure. They would like to overcome death (they are not joyous about dying) but this cost is too much for them.

They don't want to do that. All the other arguments are excuses and rationalizations.