A responsible afterlife

(I’ve had some ruminations of a philosophical bent rattling around in my head for a while. I’ve been trying to tie them together into a unified theme so as to write them down as a single essay, but they’re not jelling. So for now I’ll document them piecewise here and see what emerges.)

Given: There is no hard evidence to support the existence of any sort of afterlife. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but it does mean I must conduct my life based on the assumption that there is no existence after death.

Why? Firstly, if I assume there is an afterlife, then I have an excuse for not leading a fulfilling life. If there’s something I don’t get done in this life, then I can excuse it to myself by imagining that I’ll get to do it in the next one. If I assume there is no afterlife, that provides motivation to enjoy this life and do fulfilling things with it.

Secondly, the assumption of an afterlife can lead one into dangerous situations. A lot of people have been coerced into an early death or have rationalized potentially fatal risks on the promise of an eternal reward. It would really suck to find out you decided to die violently in your youth based on false promises.

Thirdly (and this is a corollary of the above point), believing our dead have gone on to another existence dulls the horror of death, and while I understand the need for some people to shy away from that horror, I really feel this is a problem because it cheapens life and also prevents us from devoting serious effort to the conquest of death – a problem I think is solvable or at least can be significantly pushed back.

Fourthly, assuming there is no afterlife is the safer bet. If I turn out to be wrong and there is an afterlife, it’s pure bonus.

I can see two possible holes in this argument:

One, if you assume there is an afterlife and there is not, you actually won’t be disappointed because you won’t exist. You need to exist to feel disappointed. This truth is not sufficient to justify belief in my opinion.

Two, suppose that (ignoring all my other sins) the act of assuming there is no afterlife is the critical sin that will condemn me to the bad kind of afterlife. I admit my response to this is emotional and not rational: if this is true, then the deity making that judgement is an asshole not deserving of my respect anyway. So again my choice unchanged.

So I’ve established that I feel I must proceed on the assumption that there is no afterlife. Contemplating the non-extistence of an afterlife turns out to be horrifying, and I can understand why people shy away from it; if there is no afterlife, then this life is all you get and there is nothingness after you die. You do not carry on in an eternal sleep. You are not reunited with lost loved ones. You do not get reincarnated as anyone or anything. You do not become a ghost. You have no awareness. Furthermore, it means that all your loved ones who have already passed away are not in a better place; they do not exist at all anymore. Your memories of them are all that remain.

All of that is pretty unpleasant to face, especially if you have lost loved ones. It’s also difficult because the human mind seems inherently unsuited to grasp the idea of not existing; I’ve pondered it quite a bit but it still tends to be a slippery concept – I can reason about the state of nonexistence but not really grok it intuitively.

But none of this changes my choice to disbelieve in an afterlife because I consider belief in one to be irresponsible; it fosters laziness with respect to managing our own lives, it encourages acceptance of impositions and restrictions on our lives, it cheapens life by masking the horror of death, and it is used as an inducement to throw away lives on causes that often look silly and insignificant if you put them in perspective against the finality of death.

One last thing: if you find the idea of dead loved ones being completely nonexistent distressing, consider that in that state they can’t feel remorse or grief, nor can they begrudge any feelings you may have on the matter. All emotion associated with their condition is yours, and you can choose to change it. I find this comforting.

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