June 26, 2012
Earlier I found myself watching this video I found on youtube. It was made by prominent atheists on the internet and they share their views on life and death.
I’d like to make a few comments on what was said, for whatever they’re worth. First the idea of an afterlife.
Their central point seems to be that the more value and emphasis we place in the eternal afterlife, the less value we’ll have for the here and now. Several times they made a point that we shouldn’t live for death. I agree with that, and it’s worth noting that in the past, when societies were much more religious than they are today, things like torture and oppression were much more common. Human life had much less worth to them. That’s because what really mattered was a person’s eternal soul. If you had to torture a sinner to make them recant their heretical beliefs, they felt it was worth it in the end. The rationale was something like: better a short period of torture than eternal torment in hell.
If you take away that belief in the afterlife, and wonder that maybe, just maybe, this life is all we get, that really changes your perspective on a lot of things. Human life, as fragile and difficult as it is, becomes much more valuable.
Even so, is belief in an afterlife all bad? My family is very religious and on holidays I’ve heard them talk about how my grandmother must be enjoying the streets of gold in heaven. When grandma was still alive, I’d sit in the chair next to her and she’d tell me, “Jason, I had a dream! It was such a wonderful dream. I was walking up a hill of grass and then I heard a voice. It was Zora! She called out to me and said, ‘When did you get here?’ And I said, ‘Last night’. The sky was filled with angels and they sung praises all day long.” Then she’d tell me to serve the Lord because she wanted me to be there one day with all of them. That’s what she lived for, to serve Jesus, and love on her family.
You need to picture the setting. I’m in the room with a decrepit old woman on oxygen who had been confined to a wheel chair for the last ten to fifteen years. In the background you heard the air machine pumping on and off. A loud puff of air shot through the tube each time she took a breath. She used to love to cook, shop, and sit on the porch talking with Zora. She had always been active but she couldn’t do much of anything anymore. Her friends were all dead. Unable to walk, she had trouble cooking in the kitchen. Shopping was difficult because she needed someone to push her around in her wheelchair. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she liked to buy dolls. There was a large wooden cabinet next to her wheelchair filled with beautiful porcelain dolls, wearing expensive dresses, their hair all fixed up. For the most part she was confined to that small area of the room, watching a glowing television and reading her Bible.
I try to picture an atheist telling her the things in this video. What value are your bringing? You say she’s a coward for believing in the afterlife, and that it’s a fantasy. You tell her that Zora is dead and gone forever and she needs to acknowledge these truths. Grown ups don’t need fairy tales. But what exactly are you offering her?
Ideas of the afterlife embody our fears, our frailties, our hatreds, our desires, and even our deepest bonds of love between one another. If hatred were to leave the world, the idea of hell would also leave our world. If we could remove suffering and death from our planet, people would no longer care about heaven. There’s a reason why the first noble truth of Buddhism is ‘Life means suffering’. We’re not satisfied with our existence and the way things are. We never have been. That’s the root cause of it.
Most religious people today ignore the “weird” stuff in the Bible, or their holy texts. Noah’s ark? That couldn’t possibly be true. Talking snakes in the garden of Eden? That’s a fairy tail. It’s symbolic, to tell us a story. But millions of people today literally believe in the heaven found in the Bible, and even think the way to get there is by believing in a human sacrifice and commemorating it periodically by a blood drinking ritual (Christianity and communion). Why is this? Why do they doubt most of what’s in the Bible, but still believe in its interpretation of the afterlife? That’s because that problem hasn’t been solved and they don’t have anything else to turn to. Once technology reaches a point where aging, death, poverty, and other forms of suffering no longer exist in human life, then I think you’ll see hopes of the afterlife go with it. Until then, it’s with us to stay. If you don’t want people to dream about an afterlife, make life pleasant here on Earth. It’s not something you’re going to argue away with logic.
Next they talked about eternity. A point is made that it would be miserable to live forever. Think if you had to live for millions of years! It’d be so boring. Or would it?
We have to ask ourselves why we get the feeling of boredom in the first place. In short, your brain craves new experiences and rewards novelty. We’re part of a larger evolutionary processes where new forms of diversity and complexity are being created here on Earth. Deep within us is an impetus to create new things, to explore and to innovate. They’re making an assumption that there’s a limited amount of things to experience in this world and that we’d eventually run out — something I disagree with.
Even if I give them that point though, that still doesn’t mean we’d have to find life boring. As technology progresses, we’ll soon have control over how reward chemicals are released in our brains, and we can manipulate what we find pleasurable. Take music for example. If we lived forever, wouldn’t we eventually grow tired of all our old albums? And if there isn’t an infinite number of songs we could compose, won’t we grow tired of music altogether?
I don’t think so. We’d eventually forget those old songs, assuming we had the same brain structure as we have today (which we won’t). If we didn’t modify our brains, we’d completely forget everything that happened to us eons ago. I can barely remember my childhood and I’m only 29. But we could change how our brains work once we implant technology into our brains. We could reprogram our brains however we wished. This could enable us to listen to the same song over and over and over, for a million years and never grow tired of it. It’d be like hitting a “reset” button on our brains and we’d hear the song like it was the first time.
When you think about problems like living eternally, you have to think about how much knowledge you’d acquire about the world and the vast amounts of control we’d have over it as our technology progressed. A problem like overcoming boredom is trivial. And if you got sick of an experience, you could erase you memories or alter the structure of how reward chemicals are released in your brain.
Let’s say in the distant future we’re almost like gods. We have full control over what we experience. We’ve converted every atom of our universe into our machines, computers, or whatever other form of technology. This basically amounts to saying we can control every atom in our universe and tell it to do whatever we want. If boredom is my only problem, that’s not a huge issue. Here’s what I’d do. I’d talk with a vast AI computer and tell it to erase a portion of my memories, possibly all of them, but I’d have this machine guide my affairs and keep me from possibilities where I suffer. In other words, I’d create an invisible hand which would immerse me in all kinds of virtual worlds, but all of them happy and wonderful. They’d be “new” to me, but I wouldn’t suffer, and that’s what’s important.
This brings up an interesting problem. Storing memories requires space, either in a brain, a computer hard-disk, or some other physical medium. If you lived forever you’d have to eventually forget past events because if not, all the matter of the universe would be used in your giant brain, holding all your past memories and knowledge. In a stage like this, the distinction between self and the world is gone. All that exists is you. You have to disconnect yourself from portions of yourself in order to exist within a “world”. You’d take the physical atoms currently holding your past memories and convert them into computational machines which would then compute the laws of physics for the new “world”. The AI would be something like God, watching over you and guiding your experiences.
For the AI to exist, atoms have to be allocated for its existence. It needs storage space for its knowledge, computational hardware for its brain, and so on. For the laws of physics in this new world to exist, computational machines have to exist to compute them. For you to exist, atoms have to be allocated to “you”, storing representations of your body and other things, such as your memories, and your brain (a computer itself which computes sensory information, makes decisions, deliberates between possibilities, and so forth). It’s an interesting thought experiment. Science doesn’t exist in such a world. There’s no external world to study. It’s a world of pure creation, where you can create anything you “want”, but you also control what you want,because you can control how your “brain” releases reward chemicals and deals with rewards. You could make yourself fully content, idle in a dark void of nothingness. The idea that we have to be fulfilled by experiences within our brains assumes we don’t have control over the world.
Regardless of these things, I’m going to die. I see death as change, not an ending. Whether I live forever, or die, I think the “me” I am now would cease to exist, regardless. If I lived forever, I’d eventually start merging with our future technology, which would lead to a further evolution in what I am. That technology would connect me to everyone around me, and even my environment, and I’d rise to higher and higher states of consciousness and awareness. I’d merge with computers which hold all human knowledge, computational machinery would supplement my brain functions, and with time, I’d discover every facet of what my brain does, and redesign my existence to something beyond my current ability to imagine. I’d cease to be the Jason I know now in every way. I’d become part of a vast super-organism and the distinction between myself and the others around me would fade away.
I’d be able to share my thoughts with someone else. My emotions. My experiences. In the future, those things will be like files on a computer are today. We can download them, experience them, go into virtual reality and live as different people, and so on and so forth. I’ve talked about all of that before though. So let’s get back to death.
It’s difficult to say what happens with death because I don’t know exactly what the relationship is between subjective consciousness and my brain activity. These atheists are telling us that when we die, that’s it, so make the most of your life. They show an hourglass with sand slowly falling and tell us that our short lifespan is what gives our life meaning. We need to be rushed in order to have any meaning in our lives.
I’ve never liked this type of thinking. It reminds me of capitalism and the modern world. Everyone is rushed, buzzing around here and there. People seem incapable of knowing what to do with leisure time. I personally get angry that my life isn’t longer. I’m just getting warmed up! I’ve spent the past eight or so years studying mathematics and physics and I’m just now getting to the place where I’m understanding the difficult stuff. I see so many directions I could take my studies. There’s so many things to understand. I don’t think there’s a limit of things to research.
Those in this video tell us that subjective consciousness is linked to our brain activity, therefore once our brains stop functioning, that’s it. Eternal slumber. We didn’t care about the countless years we were unconscious before we were born, so why care about all the years after we’re dead? But I want to ask them how they know they didn’t live during those times? Maybe they’ve lived countless lives as aliens, in a civilization that’s already died out, obliterated long ago when their star burnt out and engulfed their planet? At night we dream and we know we were consciously experiencing that dream. Thing is, if our brain doesn’t wire a memory trace of that experience for us to remember, that experience just vanishes. Gone forever. We know we had the experience, but we don’t remember it. That’s how I think past lives could work. Also, they have no clue how subjective consciousness arises from brain activity, and why do they feel so sure they could never be revived, or experience life as something else? Or be reborn? They assume they will not experience time or this universe again. But why? Physical processes brought them to life once, but it’s impossible that it could ever happen again?
Just the other day my Dad was watching videos on youtube and heard people talking about mind uploading, such as backing up people’s brains. The issues involved perplexed him, and he got to thinking that it’s possible for people to be reconstructed, assuming we had adequate technology. I got to thinking, “Dad, you’re now realizing how difficult these problems really are.” Once you die, why couldn’t that brain be reconstructed? And if that happened, would that be the same “you” as before?
Let’s make this problem even more difficult, shall we? Let’s assume you die next week. Further assume that if you’d lived, you’d take part in the Singularity and technology would have kept you alive for some extremely long period of time. You would have merged with that technology until eventually there was little to no original biology even left inside you. That could have been “you”, but you died, remember? So let’s say I live on instead. I see the Singularity and me and others build an AI being which is nearly identical to what “you” would have been, had you survived. We construct this giant computational machine and connect it to us. Those atoms which would have been “you” are instead some “artificial” AI being. Now think about that for a moment. The only difference between the old “you” surviving and this new “you” is a problem of self continuity. You don’t have memories of your past forms of existence, similar to what happens when you dream and don’t remember it. Assuming you’d survived, you would have a continuous stream of consciousness, remembering your past up to the present. If we abruptly created “you”, you’d lack those past memories, but that’s the only difference.
Anyways, I find it all puzzling too. These are just some of my thoughts.