Thursday, July 26, 2007

Life After Death

I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this, but it occured to me today that when theists say that science doesn't know everything, like what happens after death, that they are begging the question. Only if we assume that something of a person's consciousness or subjective experience continues to exist after death can we even ask the question, "What happens after death?" Because, if one ceases to exist upon death, then naturally there is no after death to consider.

Typically, I answer the question, "What happens after death?" with the answer, "Nothing." But this answer, it occurs to me, implicitly accepts the premise of the question. It's like, say, someone were to ask, "After you make toast, what happens to the bread?" You could say, "Nothing happens to the bread," but that isn't entirely accurate. More accurately, there is no bread anymore for something to happen to. There's just toast. The toast was bread, the bread became toast, so to talk about what happens to the bread after it is turned into to toast is actually incoherent. A better answer is, "There is no bread for anything to happen to."

In the same way, a more accurate response to the question, "Well, what happens to you when you die?" is to say, "That question doesn't actually make any sense, since, after death, there is no 'you' for anything to happen to. It's like asking what happens to your car after it's sold as scrap. Things may happen to the parts, but there is actually no car for anything to happen to anymore."

Probably a fairly trivial point, but I like trivia.


At 5:16 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

This is a good point. Another instructive way of re-reading the question is: "What happens to 'you' when there is no 'you'?" If you asked it that way, the response is likely to be: "Huh?"

I have a similar observation about the question "What happened before the Universe began?"

The word "before" is a word that relates events in time, and time is an aspect of the Universe. It is, therefore, a completely nonsensical query. There was no "before" the Universe ... "before" only has meaning in the context of the Universe.

When I've said in the past, many people have claimed that I am playing a semantic game, but I am not. When I ask for clarity from the questioner, I invariably get the you-know-what-I-mean-don't-be-a-jerk reponse.

I don't know what they mean. The question makes no sense.

But here is an observation that truly is a silly little philosophical game: I am convinced that people have trouble understanding this because they are more comfortable with Euclidean spaces than polar spaces.

Time is a dimension, so it is natural in a Euclidean space to believe it proceeds in two directions to infinity. Thus, identify any point on that line and there's always a point preceeding it. But if we think in terms of a polar space, it is possible to consider dimensions that have singular points of origins, with no preceeding points.

So: What does a negative value for the radius mean in such a space? It means nothing, there is no such value ... the quesiton makes no sense.

These questions are like dividing by zero: Once you step outside of rules of the mathematical system (in the cases above, logic; in my analogy, algegra), anything can be proved. From a false premise, nothing is known about the consequent.

The questions are essentially jibberiish. They are the ones playing the semantic game, they just don't know it. So many people are so certain that the questions make sense somehow.

And it is natural to think in terms of before and after -- those are easy terms to understand. And our intuition tells us that we understand the concept of "I" (the self) and "world" (the Universe) at some level, but it is clear that our understanding is very incomplete and very flawed.

Part of the reason we struggle with it is because perspective forces us to so naturally separate ourselves from the Universe. Likewise, we separate the concepts of "before" and "after" from it.

None of these things can properly be separated.

Time is a fundamental property of the Universe, and if we step back one level of abstraction then we might be able to view it not as a dynamic, flowing thing, but as a static structural component of all there is. This is not the same as saying that the Universe has "always" existed (another time word), but it is the same as saying "The Universe is."

That's a tautology, so of no real utility. But at least it's not nonsense.

Like you, I see nothing strange, unpleasant, or unreasonable in the idea: I am, and one day I will not be. Perhaps there's something more, I don't know ... but I lack a language or a logic for making any sense of such questions.

At 6:56 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

I have had the "what happened before the universe began" discussion with theists as well, including my uncle. He read one of those books that claims that science proves God exists and gave the book to me, certain its "ironclad" logic would make a believer out of me.

And, of course, one of the nonsensical arguments it made was the classic "unmoved mover" or "first cause" argument (which has an official name that I can't think of right now), with the twist of using the Big Bang as proof: "What caused the Big Bang? Everything has a cause, so something must have caused it, so it must have been God."

The problem, of course (I'm sure you're way ahead of me on this, Paul), beyond the unwarranted assumption that "God" would have to be the first cause if there were one, is that cause and effect has any meaning in the context of the Big Bang, and it doesn't. Causality is only meaningful in the context of time, and time, being (as you note), a property of the universe itself, only exists within the universe. It doesn't act on the universe. Without time there is no causality, and without causality, there is no need to posit a first cause or an unmoved mover, and, indeed, it is nonsensical to do so.

I like the polar coordinate method of explanation. I will use that in the future.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

By the way, I was sure I'd heard this argument before ... and after getting a bug in my craw about it, I poured over a couple of books.

Sure enough: See the essay "Can we survive our own deaths" by Antony Flew.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Sorry ... the proper title is "Could We Survive Our Own Deaths?".

I just re-read it and found it more disappointing than I remembered it. Alas ...

At 1:50 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

And, since Flew has now adopted a wishy-washy theism in his old age, he's not a very good source for using in arguments. Even though his conversion doesn't actually affect his arguments, those arguing against rationalism will still use it to poison the well, alas.

At 5:49 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

BTW: Russell called it the argument of "First-Cause", but theologists refer to it as the "Cosmological Argument" I think.

Is that the term you were looking for?

At 9:24 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

Cosmological Argument. Yep, that's it. Thanks!


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