Welcome to Further Than Atheism, an ongoing attempt to explore the wide open range of ideas that lies beyond the single idea that all atheists share: the rejection of gods. Atheism should be a beginning, not an end in itself. When they restrict their attention to what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious. Atheism can consist only of negation, but allows for an infinite variety of positive possibilities as well. The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.
In general, we atheists are big on the material world. When somebody talks to us about creation, we answer by referring to the physics of the Big Bang. If we overhear a child being taught the old myth of Adam and Eve, we think about how we'll teach our own kids the scientific theories of the origin of life on Earth and natural selection. Someone asks us about "the soul", and we respond with explanations about the physical structure of the brain as the seat of consciousness.
Such atheist materialism makes a lot of sense, especially in comparison to the wish-fulfilling fuzzy faith that religions offer. Nonetheless, we may find that even the solid ground of materialism has its edges, if we search far enough. There are two subjects that no system of knowledge, religious or scientific, will never be able to fully explain: existence and non-existence.
Yes folks, I'm talking about life and death. Use those words ("life" and "death"), and the matter seems relatively easy to explain. On a superficial level we all know what death is, and life seems downright obvious. We've got biologists, physicians, and philosophers trying to convince us that they know what it is to be alive and what it is to be dead. To be sure, they've established part of the picture: the view from the outside. That's the problem, though: the actual experiences of being alive and being dead remain unexplained, so mysterious that it's difficult even to find the words to describe them.
... a bowl of cherries, a tree, a box of chocolates. Go past the homilies, and the matter boils down to this question: what explains the feeling of consciousness. The answer: nothing. There is no logical or illogical explanation for the sensation of consciousness, of being one person and no other, seeing with one pair of eyes and no other. Why are you the person reading this article instead of the person in Calcutta selling cabbages? Why, if all human minds are the same, is the experience of conscious existence felt by you in only one mind? How can it be known whether anyone other than yourself truly feels consciousness or merely simulates consciousness?
A hundred questions such as these can be asked, and none of them can be answered by anything but guesses. The problem is that the profound depths of conscious experience cannot be measured, or even explained. Explaining the sensation of consciousness is like explaining the sensation of color. Yet, consciousness feels like the most important of all things. Its quality and preservation are what drive us in everything that we do.
The religious claim to understand consciousness, yet fall back on blind faith. Philosophers claim to explore the question of consciousness, yet either studiously avoid its ultimate mystery or make groundless assumptions about its qualities. Biologists and physicians try to quantify the experience of consciousness, equating it with being awake, but we all know that there's more to it than that. Consciousness is intimately dependent upon the physical, but it also goes beyond the physical to something that can merely be recognized as "more".
As profoundly mysterious as conscious life is, death is even more incomprehensible. Although consciousness can at least be experienced without ever being explained, death cannot even be experienced. After all, death is defined as the absence of experience. Death is the end of all things, at least for a particular human consciousness. Trying to understand the experience of death is like trying to see darkness.
Is there life after death? Absolutely not. Saying that there is life after death is like saying that there is being within non-being. Any form of experience, sensation, consciousness is a form of life. Therefore, if consciousness exists after what we know as death, then death is not truly death. That would be good news. Unfortunately, another aspect of death is that it is unknowable to the living, unreachable, and always completely separate. The living will never know about death and the dead will never tell us about death because they are dead.
Is there life after death? Yes, as long as there are other beings who are conscious. For as long as one being experiences consciousness, there is what we know as the experience of life, the existence of something beyond the mere biological machinery upon which life is based. Nonetheless, this obvious truth makes no sense: once an individual consciousness is dead, nothing exists for that individual any more, not even the question of non-existence. Existence therefore appears to be completely subjective, a matter of completely separate and contradictory realities. For one consciousness, life goes on. For another, the cosmos is completely annihilated.
As materialists, we atheists like to believe that we can explain everything through rationality and critical thinking. Nonetheless, the two great mysteries of existence and non-existence confound all attempts at reason. By our natures, we experience our selves in such a way that these matters will always be beyond us. Life and death present a riddle in which the clues are the riddle itself.
How can we deal with these unsolvable mysteries? The religious pretend to understand the mysteries of life and death because they are unwilling to face the vulnerability of uncertainty. On the other hand, atheists usually pretend that life and death are not mysterious at all because they are unwilling to face vulnerability of uncertainty.
The most honest reaction to the mysteries of life and death is to accept the vulnerability of our uncertainty. It takes courage to admit that we do not understand what it is to be alive and what it means to die. However, it is only by admitting our befuddlement that we can acknowledge the true power of these mysteries. Principled ignorance in the face of life and death is the most logical way to deal with the utterly illogical nature of our solitary and temporary existence.
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