Sunday 4 April 2021

Is death the great fact of life, or not?

I was an atheist for most of my life - especially in terms of believing that I would be annihilated at death - that nothing of me would remain. 

I had heard it said that death was the main fact of life, that knowledge of our mortality cast a shadow back over life, that awareness of death affected everything about life - but I did not feel this myself. For a long time, death was a remote and 'theoretical' possibility. 

I think this had to do with the nature of my reasoning about death - from an atheist perspective. The fact that everybody reported that everybody in the past had died - and the inference that therefore I too must die, was a 'secondhand' piece of information (like astronomy) - and was not inner knowledge. 

I was 'convinced' of it only as I would be convinced by some fact of history or science. And facts of history or science are not the kind of thing that operate as 'the main fact of life'.  

My general attitude to death was that I hoped it would come upon me unawares - that I would be living well (as I then regarded living well), and then suddenly I would not be alive - but would know no more about it than falling asleep. 

In other words, contrary to the notion that death was the great fact of life, it was not a fact in my life. 

This was, and is, pretty much the standard, mainstream modern attitude and belief, I think - among young people, most of the time. Death didn't bother me. I didn't have any 'hang-ups' about being dead; did not live in fear, was 'cool' about mortality...

I had no psychological problems about death - no depression, no anxiety...

And this seemed to me to assert the superiority of atheism over Christianity - because Christians seemed to be terribly bothered about death. 

So, the assumption behind this atheist view of death is that being dead is separate from life and that therefore death has nothing to do with life

Death is not an event 'in' life; consequently there is an exclusion of death from life. 

Because we will not be around to experience it, it therefore seems best to live as if there is no death. Seize the day, and all that jazz. 

What about the death of other people? 

More of a worry - for sure. But it was understood wholly in terms of their absence. Somebody dead is outside of life, he has gone from life - irrevocably. 

That might be very unpleasant for me (while I was alive) but after I died and ceased to suffer then that's it

It now seems clear that this was a literally insane way to live; and the fact that it is normal, mainstream, common just means that nearly everyone is insane. 

But why insane? 

What's the problem - if there is no immediately-obvious negative psychological impact? 

The problem is that by deleting death from life - there are no grounds for preferring life over death: such a preference is utterly arbitrary. 

We can feel and say that we personally would - at this exact moment - prefer to be alive than dead. But if we were dead and gone, then we would be none the wiser - so the preference is arbitrary. 

Indeed, matters are even worse; because life contains the possibility if suffering. Indeed, it seems that life entails suffering: suffering is inevitable. Suffering is, apparently, the main fact of life for some people (and for me, some of the time). 

Since suffering is generally regarded (in this modern world) as The Worst Thing, then wouldn't people be better-off dead. Indeed, wouldn't everybody be better-off dead? 

Why not? If death has nothing to do with life, and life has serious intractable problems; then who is to say that death isn't better? And if anyone disagrees - well, that's just their current personal preference, and might well change in an hour, a day or a year...

It turns-out that there are devastating long-term disadvantages to the exclusion of death from life. 

To live with death excluded-from life is not 'obvious common sense' - as most modern people assume; this is something new in human history - and something alien, unnatural and deranging for human beings. 

By deleting death from life; we delete our-selves from the universe; we render our lives insignificant because a matter of arbitrary preference. 

Yet here we are - in the universe! And (for some reason) we keep on living - we keep on preferring life over death; and we keep on doing the same for others.

The insanity comes from the absolute conflict between fundamental beliefs and daily living; between our metaphysics and our morality; between what people do all the time and force other people to do - and the fact that they cannot (by their own basic assumptions) justify doing any of it.

Being insane, lacking any coherent basis for reasoning, people cannot think coherently; consequently people have no insight into the fact of their own insanity; and having no insight therefore cannot discover a cause or cure for it.

Such is the modern condition - and much of it derives from our failure to recognize, feel, experience in our depths - what was obvious to past generations: that death is indeed the great fact of life.  


Ron Tomlinson said...

Happy Easter!

I posted this question about 10 minutes ago elsewhere:

Only afterwards did I realise it's pretty apt for today.

Which reminds me, Bruce, it's off topic, but: what is the relationship between mental illness and sin? (Could re-ask at your next Q&A if you like.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@RT "what is the relationship between mental illness and sin?"

I would say there is no necessary or general relationship - but it is an individual matter: i.e. there may be a relationship between mental illness and sin in some individuals, and there is no relationship in others.

In general, our experience (which includes illness) may be vitally important to our salvation or to theosis, we may need to learn from it - it may be the reason why we are alive. But which aspect of experience is important will vary, and so will the lesson we are intended to learn from it. A case for discernment, as are most things.

Also - no matter how insane (or demented) a person may be 'in real life' - God can provide sufficient mental clarity for whatever length of time is necessary for that person's life goal to be fulfilled. God can enable us to choose - but (of course) does not compel the choice.

David Stanley said...

I'm often tempted to ascribe my manifold moral failures to mental illness and most people are happy to acquiesce as its uncomfortable to make judgements.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David. Unless somebody both loves and understands you, he is not in a position to know. Mostly this is something we can only discern for and about ourselves; and indeed we must do this.

Avro G said...

Re: Mental illness and sin. The Bible often links sin and folly, e.g., Romans 1:21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Can we equate folly and mental illness?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Avro - I don't think the Bible is much of a guide here - certainly this folly doesn't sound like mental illness to me.

In a nutshell, I think this mental illness line of discussion is a red herring; nothing much substantive and generalizable can be said about it.

Witness Now said...

You wanted an example of a pastor fighting to keep his church open.

Pastor Chases Cops Out of Church on Easter Weekend:

whitney said...

That was good. He calls them Nazis, gestapo and Psychopaths. To me they just seemed shockingly empty like nonentities, ciphers. It's a good time to share one of C.S. Lewis's last bits.

R.J.Cavazos said...

Decades ago before the tradition became debased, as a child in Mexico one took death and the idea of an afterlife seriously. Death and its influence of daily life was more than most places an important part of peoples mental outlook. Relatedly, ome years ago, some researchers (Vega et al) found that Mexican immigrants to the U.S had very good mental health and that this detiriorated over time and that the next U.S. born generation was as nutty as Americans. Casual empricism for sure, but the different perspectives of death may have been a factor.

Jacob Gittes said...

Such a thoughtful post.
For some reason it made me think of how, as a child, I was incredibly interested in my ancestors, and felt that I had a living connection to them. Now I think that I actually did.
That connection, and my connection to God, was severely attenuated by education, the system, TV, media, etc.
But this post sparked a remembrance of the connections I had.
I will work to reintegrate death and our dead family and ancestors into my life again.

joe smo said...

So this is why atheists act as if they would be immortal if only covid hadn't come around.