Here's a thoughtful, well-written essay that was emailed to me recently by W. Kelly Lundrigan. I'm pleased to post it, as I like Kelly's style.
That said, I can't resist adding my own comments (in blue italics). I found myself agreeing with Kelly up to a point, then, not so much. Add your own ideas to our bloggish conversation if you like.
The wonderful thing about life to me, at this point when we know so much, is that we actually still know so little. We are still, essentially, living a mystery. At least as to the big questions such as "where do we come from?" and "where do we go?" We don't, even after all we have accomplished, know the answers to these ultimate questions.
Agreed. But let's keep in mind what you said, Kelly -- we are living a mystery -- when we get into your further conclusions.
Maybe we are not supposed to know while we are here. Its funny, where you can't know with a scientific certainty, it has to come down to what you can believe in the end. Even for those of us who love the scientific method and would prefer to spurn a lack of rational, logical chain of deduction, we feel the need to decide what we believe in this regard, because it determines how we live the remainder of the "life" we have in this sphere of existence.
Well, why not simply accept one's not-knowing, rather than feel the need to believe in something that's unprovable? You seem to assume that belief concerning the ultimate nature of the cosmos is an irresistible urge. I doubt that it is.
I am as fact-based, rational and irreverent toward religion as they come. But I can't conclude, even based on what we DO know, that this "void" of utter nothingness exists, of which we are terrified by our attempt to even comprehend and wrap our minds around. There is no void guys. Stop worrying. We never lose or destroy matter or energy; it just goes somewhere else in a different form.
I'm not sure what you mean by a void of utter nothingness. When I speak about nothingness, I'm usually referring to it in a personal sense -- the nothing that each of us will not experience (because nothingness obviously can't be experienced), yet what we will become in a sense, after we die. Assuming that death is the end of an individual's consciousness.
Yes, matter or energy isn't destroyed; it just changes form. But if our consciousness is dependent on being in a human form, then the dissolution that occurs at death certainly is a cause for worry. If I'm worried about not existing as a conscious being, that is.
You fear the loss of consciousness which you equate to "being." I have come to deal with that feeling of fear by thinking of it this way. At worst, all that is left of me are the ripple effects which are created by what I do while I am here. In that sense, you survive your bodily death by everything you do while you are alive, no matter how small (good or bad).
Your children will remember your love and what you taught them, whether it be a love of the outdoors they pass on to their children, your wonderful recipe for spaghetti sauce that your descendants are still enjoying lifetimes after you are gone, how to ski, to respect others and their right to exist and be happy, what it means to be just and fair, family traditions, and so on.
Every kind act you demonstrate toward another person will change, in some small or large way, that person's outlook and the way they treat others, and so on. Every principled stand you take to do what is right, no matter how painful and hard, will inspire and give courage to others to do the same.
Nice ideas, which are indeed comforting up to a point. But your "at worst" really equates to "no life after death." That's pretty bad to many/most people (including me). That said, I do enjoy the thought that what I've done here on earth will have the ripple effects you spoke about, leading to a sort of impersonal immortality -- though the ripples will fade into near-nothingness quite quickly.
I could go on and on, because the point is, (I'm sure you have got it by now), your life has an infinitely expanding ripple of effects on other lives into the future. Thus, we never cease to exist. After being granted the ultimate gift of existence from whatever "entity" governs "existence" (and I do believe there is one, as I explain below), your impacts upon this sphere of existence are infinite. And, therefore, permanent.
As above, not really permanent. Or infinite. Theoretically perhaps, but in a practical sense we've already lost track of how, say, a Neanderthal has affected present day humanity. A million or a billion years from now, what impact will each of us have on the cosmos?
Even though your consciousness may, at some point, become lost, or at least unable to communicate with those who remain in this sphere of existence. If that is all we get, is that really so bad? Think about it, just as a “worst case” type of scenario, while I explain why I don’t think that’s all we get.
Again, dying and never existing again...that's a scary proposition for many people. I'm not speaking of becoming lost or unable to communicate. We're talking of utter non-existence, forever and ever. The only worser case might be suffering horribly for eternity.
While I can understand why the sudden “blinking out” of your consciousness scares you, (it is certainly a scary thought because Descartes was as right as we can get with what we know: thinking really does equate to being for us), there is no reason to conclude our consciousness ceases to exist. (This is the part where you have to decide what you believe, cause I can’t get you to here with science).
Hmmmm. That leaves blind faith, or unfounded belief. I'll turn your statement around: there is no reason to conclude our consciousness continues to exist. Isn't that a much more likely eventuality, given the lack of evidence that there's life after death?
Let’s try to use what we do know to make some deductions using logic, which never fails us, at least as far as it can go. Let us use Descartes' reasoning as a starting point. He used one simple, unassailable fact that he could prove was real, at least to himself: he was thinking. He had thoughts.
What did that mean, to have “thoughts”? And what did it mean to be able to question in your thoughts whether “you” actually exist and can be questioning your ability to be having “thoughts” while you are thinking? To Descartes, it meant he must actually “exist” as something; as some conscious entity. That, ultimately led Descartes to believe he had proven the existence of “God” as he understood God to exist.
Most philosophers consider that Descartes seriously botched his proof of God argument. I agree. It's very flimsy reasoning, founded as it is on...reasoning. See, for example, this critique. Excerpt: "His attempt, therefore, to vindicate the validity of human knowledge failed essentially, because, by rejecting the reliability of his own powers to discover and know truth, he made it impossible for himself to extricate himself from the net of his own universal doubt."
It leads me to something similar, which is that the fact of existence, and “creation,” of “being,” gives rise to at least an inference, if not a deduction, that it occurred as an act of “will” and a plan of “design” rather than as a random occurrence.
There's no evidence of this. Inferences and deductions are creations of human thought. I find it difficult to believe that the cosmos operates by the rules of how people think.
I understand there are really no random occurrences and that probability theory would account for the creation of our universe and the earth and the incredible coincidence of it being perfectly suited for human beings who have conscious thought because under probability theory even the most unlikely outcomes happen in the stretch of infinite time.
What I don’t understand, or accept, is that the forces that shaped our universe just happened. Everything else being equal, nothingness is just as likely as somethingness. In fact, the reason we need the “void” theory is that we need the existence of the void to give meaning, relationally, to the opposite, which is “existing.”
Again, I don't see where this notion of nothingness comes from. Where is the "void" in reality? Isn't it just a human concept? Why can't the cosmos simply be, always existent? Yes, people need opposites to make sense of anything. But what is the opposite of the cosmos as a whole? Why posit an opposite to everything? Wouldn't that also be part of everything, leaving no opposite?
So why do we have an expanding universe, with matter, etc..instead of there being “nothing?” What set it off? No one knows, of course, even quantum physicists who are much brighter than me and who have thought about it much longer. They explain it by theorizing about a “singularity” where time, space, and essentially everything about our dimension as we know it, ceases to “be” as we know it. But they don’t know what it would become instead at that point.
We understand our somethingness. It is all around us. We study it constantly, it really is all we have, all we know. We don’t understand nothingness. In fact, we can’t even prove nothingness exists. We have never seen it. We just presume it does because, to put it simply, where we don’t understand things, we tend to fear and to believe the worst.
To repeat, I'm not aware of any scientist or philosopher who argues for a nothingness that exists in any objective sense. That would be absurd...an existent nothing. Rather, individual entities (like you and me) can essentially become nothing -- when the something that we are dissolves into formless matter/energy.
But why did our “somethingness” ever come about? What does it mean that we have, as humans, the most powerful motivating force ever in our essence, that of love? (I know, we have hate too). But here is the point. Why does any of it exist? Just by chance? How can chance even apply in nothingness? If there is nothing, what “chance” or probability is there of something coming out of nothing?
None, at least that I can see. Zero probability. If there are no atoms, quarks, antimatter, electrons, or whatever particles (I can’t keep track of them all anymore) spinning around somewhere as gases bumping into one another, there is zero chance of something being created. Ever.
You're assuming that there was a creation. That once there was nothing, and then there was something. As I said before, this doesn't make sense, and you agree. However, it is entirely possible that the universe bounces in and out of existence, being a "bubble" tossed out the "sea" of a much larger unseen cosmos -- which has always existed. So, no need for a creator. The cosmos simply is.
The fact of our existence is all we have to go on. We know we exist. That fact gives rise to the conclusion, perhaps not deductively, but through inference that it is more likely than not that our existence is intentional and an act of will and design by some entity or process that we simply do not, and perhaps never will, understand.
If we can't understand it, why say stuff about it? I don't see how you derive a conclusion of intentionality and design from an unknown entity or process that we don't understand.
Like I said, maybe we are not supposed to. Isn’t it enough that we have been given the wonderful, extraordinary and exquisite gift of life and existence? Like I said, it boils down to what you ultimately believe, which comes from your gut, your intuition, your logic, and the feelings and experiences (love) you have stored inside of you from the course of your life.
That's fine. But personal belief is different from universal reality. People can believe what they want in their gut, while the universe follows the principle of "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
But, it simply makes no logical sense to believe there is a “void” of nothingness that will ultimately and finally prevail despite all the “somethingness” we see around us. Our existence, and experience, and progress as humans, has some meaning that cannot, intrinsically, be denied. We exist for some purpose. And that purpose defeats death, my friends, whatever “death” really is. Just wait and see.
What else can we do? To repeat: nothingness may prevail against our personal somethingness, while the universe goes on merrily existing. I don't see the undeniable meaning and purpose that you do, which seems to derive from your faith in things unseen and unknowable.
But be comforted while you are waiting by the fact that whatever entity or force turned “nothingness” into “somethingness” for us thought enough about us to give us an existence that holds some of the most blissful things imaginable. It would not make sense that it has no plans for us beyond the physical existence we have now. I realize it gave us some of the hardest things imaginable to deal with too.
But, the cost that goes along with being a conscious, sentient being which is aware of its own existence is….that you are aware of your own existence. And thus, what it would mean to “not” exist. We are, in that sense, effectively “gods” ourselves. Capable of creation and destruction, with conscious decisions to pursue either course.
Or at least we are images of what “god” must be, and what we are a part of. But, for me, the fact of existence and creation of all that is around us, persuasively negates the probability of us disappearing into nothing. We are here, and conscious of being here, for a reason.
I hope you're right. However, there's no evidence for this hypothesis. Every world religion (except Buddhism, which isn't really a religion) posits a reason for human existence. So it seems to me that while you say you're non-religious, your belief system is a form of personal religiosity.
That's fine. But the conclusions you've come to don't seem to follow logically or reasonably from your premises. You've got a big leap of faith going on.