In the course of looking through old blog posts yesterday to find those related to death, because I'm working on another book based on my writing on that subject, I came to a couple of posts that made me think, in my usual humble way, Dude, these are fantastic! They make so much sense, it's a freaking secular miracle!
Some ten years later, this is still my best guess about God. Also, about life after death, existence, and the nature of the self. Looks like I’ve reached a pretty stable stage of my atheism.
My best guess about God
May 3, 2010
Nobody knows what ultimate reality is, which religious believers call "God." All we have are guesses, some more defensible than others.
Here's mine — after some forty years of delving into mysticism, spirituality, religiosity, and philosophy. Subject to change, of course. If I've learned anything, it's that there's always more to learn. Or guess about.
I'll be as pithy as possible, a shift from my usual wordiness.
(1) God doesn't exist. Not in the sense of an all-knowing, all-powerful personal or individual consciousness. Or even a universal consciousness, though this is more likely than an anthropomorphic God.
(2) The cosmos is, always has been, always will be. In some form or another. Existence always has existed. If you want an eternal "God" to worship, there it is: existence.
(3) It may well be that our universe is just a very small part of the cosmos. But reality is thoroughly natural, not supernatural. Other universes, if they exist, are as natural as ours.
(4) We'll never understand the ultimate laws of nature. Or even know whether they exist. "Ultimate laws" probably is a human conception, not the way things really are.
(5) The biggest problem with being a member of Homo sapiens also is our biggest evolutionary advance: self-awareness. We are aware of being aware. Unlike other animals, we construct an ego, I-ness, by looping our awareness back onto ourselves.
(6) This creates a fear of death, because we know we're going to die. This creates a desire to exist forever, because we can ponder our non-existence.
(7) Thus springs up religion. Along with notions of God, soul, spirit, eternal life, heaven, and such. All are products of a self-created "self," which actually doesn't exist in the sense a stone, sunflower, star, or snake does. It is conceptual, not physical.
(8) Enlightenment — seeing reality as clearly as possible — is recognizing that ego, I-ness, selfhood, individuality, or whatever you want to call it doesn't exist.
(9) We're part of the cosmos. And the cosmos is part of us. We just happen to be beings who can conceptualize ourselves as separate from everything else, which we really aren’t.
(10) So when we die, we're dead, inasmuch as "I" consider myself to be a "Me." But the cosmos continues. And so will I. Just not as me. Whether this is a chilling or reassuring realization depends on how much "Me" is attached to my "I."
I’m confident that there’s no life after death. But not 100% confident. This is the way of science, and also of wise living. Never be absolutely sure about anything. Then you won’t fall prey to rigid dogmatism. And if a cherished belief turns out to be untrue, you’ll be more prepared for this.
Keep open a crack in your belief system
August 31, 2010
Ah, it feels so good to let in the light, to freshen the atmosphere, to relieve the pressure of a claustrophobic enclosure. Not anywhere outside — within our psyche.
All we need to do is keep open a crack in our meaning-of-life belief system, that conglomeration of thoughts, feelings, intuitions, knowings, and what-not which enable us to get out of bed in the morning, move through life with a sense of purpose, and offer us some answers to what's it all about?
Nothing is 100% certain. Including what I just said.
Hey, there might well be something that is 100% certain. So far, though, it isn't apparent. Even the most intensively validated theories of science, such as quantum theory, are considered by the scientific method to always be open to falsification.
So living in touch with reality requires that we remain open to the possibility that whatever we fervently believe to be true, isn't. Otherwise truth could smack us in the face and we'd pretend that we didn't feel a thing.
If you're absolutely sure that God exists, erase the absolutely in your mind. Ditto if you're absolutely sure that God doesn't exist. Double ditto for any other belief that you don't see yourself ever letting go of, or modifying.
Loosen your hold. Lighten your dogmatism. Lessen your certainty.
I'm not saying that we should uncritically embrace every alternative belief path that appears before us. The human mind generally moves along well-trod patterns for good reasons. Sticking with the tried and seemingly true allows us to learn from experience rather than having to figure out again today what was known yesterday.
However, whenever we find ourselves defending some position with unusually rigid zeal, that could be a sign that a retreat is in order. How far we move back from our personal 100% Certain Maginot Line is up to us.
I don't think it matters much how large the doubt gap is. Truth can slip through the eye of a psychological needle, or a wide open mental barn door.
What counts is that some crack exists in the otherwise solid structure of our belief system. This is where the benefits will come from that I mentioned above: lightness of being, freshness of attitude, relaxing of rigidity.
Recently I was lying in bed, about to fall into sleep, with thoughts of what one day will come, death, running through my mind. I mulled over one of my favorite frightening fascinating topics, non-existence.
I recalled how in a conversation with friends a few days ago, someone told a story about an atheist she knew who was in a hospice, close to dying. He kept asking staff and visitors, "What happens next? What happens next?"
Meaning, after death.
Now, since he was an atheist, one would expect that he already had an answer to his own question: nothing. When you're dead, you're dead. No more consciousness, no more existing.
But that prospect can be scary, especially if life feels like it's well worth living. If you're happy being alive, it's only natural to want to hold onto that good feeling for as long as possible.
That's why eternity is so appealing to religiously minded people. They don't believe they'll ever stop existing. To them death is just a transition to an even better life.
I could feel some familiar anxiety arising as I visualized my own non-existence (yes, I know that's impossible). I could tell that it was going to be difficult to fall asleep so long as I felt trapped within the bounds of a reality marked by an absolute finis at the moment of my last breath.
Then I thought, "That isn't absolutely certain. No one knows for sure what happens, or doesn't happen, after death. There's a slight possibility that my consciousness will continue to exist, just as I used to believe.”
Instantly I felt the mental pressure subside, like I'd opened a stress-release valve. I relaxed into a pleasant state of who knows? Sure, I still considered that the vastly most likely possibility is that death is The End.
But allowing even a small likelihood of To Be Continued into my mind changed everything. And the same would have been true if my certainty had been in life after death.
Cracks in belief systems are beneficial no matter what the content of our convictions are. It's never healthy to believe that you can't be wrong. That's egotistical, dogmatic, and, well, wrong.
In one of Huston Smith's books he talks of meeting a Zen practitioner who tells him, "I've got a new koan: I could be wrong.” Beautiful. Fully embrace that koan and it seems like enlightenment would be close at hand.