After the Fat Lady Sings

The overwhelming majority of people appear to believe in some sort of afterlife. Now, I clearly understand why a person would want to believe in an after-life. Who hasn’t grieved the death of a friend without wishing that this person might somehow live again? While this wish is perfectly understandable it’s equally apparent to me that our desires never constitute a reliable basis for our beliefs. There is no thread of evidence so flimsy that it would fail to pass as proof for something we want badly enough.

Having said that, even if we could “clean our slate” before we consider this issue, I don’t think it would be wise to do so. If I could magically strip away all the valuations I’ve accumulated in the course of my life, in order to “fairly” evaluate an issue, then it would no longer be me making the evaluation. We can only decide our beliefs from the platform of what we already are.

Neurath gives this fitting analogy of our plight. Consider a boat that must be rebuilt at sea. It must be rebuilt plank by plank, all the while remaining afloat. The sailors are in the difficult situation of replacing the very planks that are keeping them from drowning. They haven’t the luxury of taking the entire boat to pieces in order to rebuild it from scratch. As with Neurath’s boat, we humans have to revise our beliefs about this world bit by bit, yet we can only critique and evaluate these new beliefs from the vantage of our preexisting beliefs.

But let me push the nautical analogy a step further. Suppose you’ve been cast adrift in a boat with nothing but empty sea on all the horizons. You’re terribly cold and thirsty. In fact, you wonder if you might be displaying the first symptoms of hypothermia. Still, you’ve managed to keep your wits about you and try to think of a solution to your problem. But suddenly a large ship appears! It appears to be a cruise ship. On the deck you can see bikini clad babes lounging on deck chairs, with drinks in-hand. But all of a sudden you think, “Wait a minute…I’m on the North Atlantic in the middle of winter! Why are those girls wearing bikinis when I’ve ice on the end of my nose? It doesn’t make any sense. Oh God, but look at all those tanned girls with droplets of sweat on their breasts. No! It’s simply too good to be true. I only see it because that’s what I desperately want to see. It must be a hallucination. On the other hand, maybe the ship is lost? Maybe they are out searching for me? But what about those sweating girls in the deckchairs? Well, maybe there’s a glass dome covering the ship that I can’t see from here. Hey, I think the girls are waving at me…”

So, you’re faced with a decision. Do you abandon yourself to a wonderfully pleasant belief even though you suspect that it’s simply a product of your desperate imagination? Or do you force yourself to acknowledge the fact that you are freezing and dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean?

Robert Nozick has given us a thought experiment called, The Experience Machine. In this experiment we have the option of lying in a tank while electrodes are plugged into our head. This machine will give us a perfect simulation of any life we chose. Nozick asks us if a virtual experience is preferable to what we think of as reality. Should we plug into the machine? He points out that if it’s only the experience we’re after then perhaps we should put suitable drugs in our water supply and be done with it. I’ve spoken before in this forum about the homeless kids in Latin America that spend their day breathing the fumes from little jars of gasoline. It seems they have chosen a sort of “Experience Machine” to their squalid reality. Is there a reason to prefer our everyday world to Nozick’s Experience Machine? Do we have a valid reason to criticize those Latin American street kids for spending their day inhaling gasoline vapor? We spend billions of dollars each year to escape reality by watching Hollywood films or by sitting like Zombies in front of our televisions. Aren’t shopping malls, and theme parks simply crude versions of Nozick’s Machine? We need to think carefully before we dismiss Nozick’s question. Nearly all of us might as choose to breathe gas vapor from a little jar if we were in the shoes of those homeless Latin American kids…er, well, they probably don’t have shoes.

Moving on, I’ll attempt to preempt the inevitable criticism that all such beliefs about an afterlife are purely personal, and as such, out-of-bounds for discussion. I’ll point out that religions have traditionally used the concept of an afterlife as an effective tool to herd people into behaving in accordance with their dogma. The Islamic suicide bombers appear to gladly go to their martyrdom with the belief that they will wake up in bed with a virgin. One can only wonder at how powerful an incentive this must appear to an 18 year-old Muslim, whose only prospect for having sex is through marriage and whose prospect for marriage is severely restricted by his poverty. “You mean all I have to do is detonate this bomb strapped to my body in order to wake up in a world where young women are already lined up and waiting for me?” Another example is the Medieval Christians who joined in the Crusades in exchange for a dispensation for their earthly sins. They were given, in effect, a token to be redeemed after their death. The Jehovah’s Witness faithful endure having doors slammed in their face in exchange for extra amenities in the next life. There’s little doubt that the belief in an afterlife affects the way many of us behave in this life. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to inquire about the evidence we accept for these beliefs.

So what is the evidence? Well, we can quickly dispense with the idea of physical evidence for an after-life. There is simply no credible instance of someone returning from the dead to tell us what it was like for them.

You might tell me that indeed Christ returned from the dead in just this way. I’d reply to this argument by quoting David Hume’s famous argument against the acceptance of miracles.

Suppose someone tells me of a very improbable event. Let’s call it m. Then either:

  1. The person says that m happened. But it did not.
  2. The person says that m happened. And it did.

Hume tells us that both statements 1 and 2 contain surprising elements. So I need to ask myself which is the more surprising or improbable statement? Well, of course statement 2 would be more surprising. But I also know that people often have their own reasons to misrepresent the truth. Now this logic doesn’t preclude the fact that statement 2 could possibly be true. It could. But this logic tells us that statement 2 is less likely to be true. We ought not to believe 2 without any other supporting evidence.

So, I shouldn’t accept the explanation of Christ’s apostles without some other supporting evidence.

Now, I was saying that we have no credible physical evidence to support the idea of an afterlife. Can a metaphysical case be made? Does the concept of a “soul” help make the case? Well, the soul is one of those slippery notions that can mean nearly anything to anyone. It’s difficult to strike a blow against the soul because it’s so difficult to hit a moving target. If we succeed in arguing the soul into a corner it very cleverly morphs into something else and slinks away unblemished. For these reasons I normally try to steer clear of this word. But for the purpose of my argument I’ll take the liberty of defining the soul as – a non-physical personal identity, or essence, that inhabits a body whilst it lives.

Now I will argue that while we have no physical evidence to support the idea of an after-life, we do have evidence to deny this idea. First there is the argument of the corpse itself. Few would agree that it retains the life of the former inhabitant. So right from the start it appears that if there is an after-life, it will have to appear somewhere else other than the body that it once inhabited. Some folks have an image of a “soul” taking flight from the corpse at the moment of death. But this seems a strange notion to me.

Consider the case of a man suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. In the last decade he has declined to the point that he can only sit in a chair and chew on his buttons. Gone is his former charm and wit, gone are his memories of his life and even of his wife’s face. But I wonder if his soul still inhabits his body? As noted above, I think most people would say yes, it only leaves his body at the moment of death. But the afflicted man before us is so vastly different from his former self as to be unrecognizable by his personality alone. His past acquaintances could only recognize him by his body.

But this is a curious thing. We’ve already agreed that his soul - that which makes him who he is - is distinctly separate from his body. If his soul is the single, unique vehicle destined to carry away his identity to the after-life, it will have to carry on-board everything about him that is him. But we’ve said that no trace of him resides in this ruins-of-a-man that is now so oblivious to the world. If the soul at this point is still inside him, why can’t it assert itself? If this soul is so robust as to survive death how could it be so easily trapped inside a malfunctioning body? If the soul can be so easily trapped by a neurological disorder how will it be able to free itself from his corpse? When the man finally dies and the soul takes flight does it carry on the man as he was at the end of his life, chewing his buttons off of his sweater? Would you want this version of you to live on for eternity?

Or will the soul only carry on some vestige of his former self as he was in the height of his life? But what was the height of his life? Did it occur in his youth when he was serving time in prison for car theft, yet able to do 100 pushups? Or did it occur when he was 60 years old and the respected husband, father, and community leader but already unable to walk across the street unaided? Which arbitrary version of his former self will take-flight from his corpse in the form of his soul? You might object that all the versions of him continue to live in an afterlife. But do all the former “selves” live concurrently or serially? If concurrently, how could a decrepit shell-of-a-man co-habit the same soul along with a young prison inmate? If all these former selves live serially, what is their time frame? Do they continue to replay themselves in an endless loop? Would you think that having to live your life over and over until the end of time is more akin to Paradise or to Hades?

Consider the infant that dies less than a minute after having been born. I think most people would say that it has a soul. But if the soul represents that child’s essence, what exactly is the essence of a newborn child? It hasn’t had a chance to develop a complex personality, it has no accumulated memories, never developed hopes and never had any beliefs. Since the child never had a full minute to live in this life, what sort of personal identity or essence will be carried by the soul into the afterlife? Is an infant consigned to live on until eternity empty as a newborn child? Someone might suggest that the complete soul of the infant should contain the essence of a full life that it might have had if it had survived. But this only brings up more problems. What about the child that dies at age-ten? Does he get to carry over a soul of the real plus extra virtual life as well? At what age is the soul complete with the life already lived? Even the old man with Alzheimer’s would have likely lived some years into the future if he hadn’t had this disease. Does he get an extra virtual life experience tacked on to his soul as well?

If souls have the ability to transcend space and time then isn’t the human body more of a prison than it a temple for the soul? What is it about my present body that caused my free-floating soul to be pulled out of the spiritual ether? Or was my soul created at birth? But if the assembly of my body created my soul then why wouldn’t I think that the disassembly of my body would destroy my soul? Why would the human body be a one-way valve for the creation of an everlasting soul when the body itself so conspicuously begins to degrade after only a few decades?

If the concept of the soul was created as a way to explain life then I would say that it has failed miserably. I have as many unanswered questions about the soul as I do about life itself. Explanations are supposed to be less mysterious than the question they aim to explain.

Is it better to look death in the eye for what it is, namely; the end of our existence? Or is it better to deny, as most of us do, that life really ends at death?


Well represented and surprisingly thorough, covering all the major criticism the opposition has for defending life after death, atleast the ones I have heard. I say surprisingly because its as though you knew those whom I have talked to and expressed their views almost verbatim. Although I have never believed in an afterlife, I think if I had, this post would have turned me.

Yes. I have to agree with Magius. All of the arguments you have presented Polemarchus, bring us to a reality in which we are conscious of our existence as organisms whose co-operation has led to where we are now. It’s a difficult reality to stare at, especially given the pressures of modern life.
I suppose every person’s spiritual journey is made up of balancing reflection and denial in the appropriate amounts.


While I agree with you one hundred percent, theology is not the strawman you show here. True, most people have a tough time seeing the difference between identity and the soul, between the ‘I’ and the soul, theology has answered this question. The soul is what we have that is, roughly speaking, in ‘God’s image’. When we die, it returns to God. To be one with God, to be in the light of God, is what it means to be in Heaven. For those of us who do not accept this road, we are separate from God and this is Hell. No doubt this doesn’t fit with a certain brand of Theology but, and there’s a word for this that I can’t remember right now, there is actually a bi-fold Theology. One, for those who aren’t ready for the ‘truth’ and one for those who are (Gee, what a surprise.).

Identity is simply not an issue in this scenario.

hello Pangloss :astonished:

Brad wrote,

I agree. I think I could survive death if an almost identical duplicate of me should appear. Actually, since I’ll be dying the moment before I my death it would be a bummer to reappear identically in another life as the same dying man. :slight_smile:

Steven Weinberg had this to say in his recent book, Facing Up; Science and Its Cultural Adversaries:

"…even when the physicists have gone as far as they can go, when we have a final theory…we will still be left with the question, ‘Why?’ "

"…if you believe in a God who is jealous, or loving, or intelligent, or whimsical, then you must confront the question, ‘Why?’ "

My trouble with setting up theological strawmen is getting one of them to stand up in the first place. Father Tertullian is supposed to have written:

“Credo quia absurdum est.”
“I believe because it is absurd.”

I take it on good-faith that Tertullian uttered this statement while sober, but I can’t decide if it’s either too childish or too complex for my befuddled brain. When I assume that those who find a knot naturally wonder how to untie it, I neglect to account for those who would either cut it or only wonder how to tie it tighter. Still, I have to admit that it would be even worse if we all were to think alike.

Though I dismiss the traditional concept of a soul and the typical religious notions of an afterlife, my dismissal of these notions doesn’t exhaust the possibilities for an afterlife. Nonexistence might be an unstable state (my life is proof enough that I’ve managed to thwart nonexistence at least once already). There’s only one way that I could continue not to exist (i.e. nothingness) but many ways in which I might come to re-exist. And if only one of these many ways of re-existence were to be actualized that would be enough to live again.

Think about your future death. Imagine that a physically “fresh,” but as of yet lifeless duplicate of you were lying in a hospital bed next to your deathbed. This body-duplicate has been preloaded with your memories and your personality. Now imagine that on the moment of your death the attending physician rushes over to the other bed and places shock paddles on the chest of your lifeless body-duplicate in order to start its heart. As your heartbeat comes up to speed in your new body your old body is wheeled down to the incinerator where worn-out hearts, kidneys - entire bodies, in fact - are disposed of. Your experience of a whole body transplant would be one of feeling deathly ill at one moment, and the next moment feeling much better.

But why was it necessary that the physician rush to the other bed? Since your death effectively ends your experience of time there’s no need to rush on your account. The physician might as well go out for lunch. He could return later to shock your body-duplicate into life. But if you didn’t experience this missing lunch-hour you surely wouldn’t experience a missing year, or even a missing millennium. In fact, your body-duplicate could be revived after a number of serially occurring universes had come and gone and you’d be none-the-wiser. Similarly, why would it matter that your body-duplicate is in the same room as your corpse? Your corpse could as easily be in London while your duplicate is revived in Boston, or on Mars, or even in another universe.

If from the moment of your death till the end of time should ever a sufficiently close match to you “just so happen” to come together anywhere, then it will feel no different than if you had closed your eyes only to immediately open them again in this other world. Vast spans of space and time are nothing to a non-observer.

But do we live in such a world of infinite possibilities? If the answer is yes, then random events for which there is only an infinitesimal possibility of occurring will reoccur an infinite number of times (Remember Cantor’s explanation that different “orders of infinity” can be put in a one-to-one correspondence). The proverbial “monkey at a typewriter” might similarly reproduce the Encyclopedia Britannica if allotted an infinite period of time in which to randomly strike the keys.

But what evidence do I have to think that infinite processes exist anywhere in the physical world? Mathematicians routinely sum infinite series and calculate integrals where infinity is given as a limit, but these are exclusively mental processes. Infinity is not a thing; it’s an abstract idea. I might note as well that God is not a thing, it’s also an abstract ideal. Do these ideas exist? Yes, they exist in our minds. But do they exist in the physical world where people burn their fingers on hot stoves and where airplanes occasionally crash into mountains? I have no evidence to make me think that infinite processes or infinite beings play any role in the world outside of our minds.

So, let’s consider our chances of returning to life in a finite world. The DNA from any one of the trillions of cells in your body might be sufficient to reproduce your body. But a clone of me is certainly not me. A successful duplicate of me would have to retain many of my memories and display my personality. Now, humans are just beginning to think of ways to upload their mind into machines. It might well be possible in the future. But all of us here were probably born just a bit too early to think we might survive our death in this manner. Unless Nature has produced a way to preserve and recreate each of our individual minds then it looks as though as individuals we are ultimately doomed to Nothingness.

Well, the good or bad news (depending on your view) is that there does not appear to be any such process. Live brain tissue has the consistency of thick custard. With only a little effort you could scoop it out with a spoon. Everything that is precious to us: our memories and loves, our ideas and fears, all reside in this fragile little bowl of custard. In the words of Marvin Minsky, “Minds are what brains do.” As soon as a brain’s life support system fails the brain begins its inevitable transformation into compost. Along with this decay goes all the knowledge and skills we’ve accumulated over a lifetime. In some respects this is a terrible waste. Seen in another way it makes room for new minds bearing fresh ideas.

Miguel de Unamuno wrote:

“Time is a spring that flows from the future.”

We bear an inherent forward-looking bias for the future. We commonly lament our early death yet we rarely complain about our late birth. All of us want long lives but few of us want to be older. We do well to remember that children will be born on the day we die. Thomas W. Clark generalized this thought when he wrote:

“We are simply variations on a theme of subjectivity which is in no danger of being extinguished by our passing.”


Again, I agree, I’ve even come up with my own version of ‘reincarnation’ to describe, if I read it correctly, Clarke’s comments on variation. My fear though is that we keep the complacency while reversing the argument: “Of course, there’s no after life. What a silly thing to think?”

I have no interest in Spiritualism, but I have a lot of interest in religion.

Well done. That essay was very well written and pobably one of the most interesting ideas I have come across thus far on the board. I do have a problem with your conclusion, however.

You seem to suggest that we are completely without hope for existence after death and that we are all in denial of our inevitable non-existence. Your essay was very thorough and definitely left me with some new questions and perspectives, but I differ with you that I am left only with the option of denial or acceptance.

Your idea definitely aggravates all previous religious theory and maybe even disproves most of it. But this does not mean that there are not other possibilities that are just unperceivable per the human characteristic of limited perception. Take deism for example. Deism by definition suggest that we are without ability to identify such a greater being b/c he is external and non-obtrusive to the perceivable universe.

Are you not still left with questions upon examination of the outside world? For instance, what set off the supposed big bang? Maybe that will even be discovered one day, but there will still always be something beyond our reach. Therefore, I “conclude” that we should not conclude anything but be left to question the unknowable.

Your logical analysis of the soul was my favorite, by far, of your thoughts.

I would add to this just a little bit and I think your thoughts would concurr with mine in this. A soul also may not exert influence on the outside world, as (theoretically) all influences and occurences can be explained by natural reasoning. This leaves us to identify the soul as only a vessel or container of our experiences and memories.

My last reasoning would explain your theory of contradiction of the soul’s inability to assert itself. The soul cannot assert itself. The soul must act accordingly with the natural laws of the spiritual world, not the physical world. This of course is all theoretical but is a possibility that does not contradict your previous reasoning.

Reincarnation, on the other hand, in my opinion, seems ridiculous. The problem with reincarnation is the fact that we do not retain our previous experiences. Lets just suggest that it were a possibility. Upon my death, a baby is born at the same exact moment This baby being a reincarnation of my previous self. If this baby holds no value to my previous experiences or my previous self, what identifies it as me? My identity must be transferred or else it is just another identity non-relevant to my own.

If, in the reincarnation scenario it as both Polemarchus an Brad are saying, identity is not an issue, then what is it that is being reincarnated? There must be some value that is transferred in the reincarnation or else it is just another unrelated carnation of a seperate being. Identity is all that distinguishes a being from another being. When you remove identity from a being, you are essentially saying that all is one, no seperating factors. If all is one, then what is the necessity of a reincarnation scenario?

Anyways, these are my thoughts. Hope they make sense. Tell me what you think.

Hi Skeptic,

I think the confusion might stem from my formal use of the word “identity.” I used the word in the sense that a replica could have the same identity only if it were identical to the original. I don’t think a successful replica of me would require this absolute identity.

Here’s my reason for thinking this. To live is to exist in a state of becoming. There is no fixed version of me. I expect to be at least a slightly different person next week than I am today. I can tolerate a great deal of change and yet continue to think of myself as the same person.

Suppose that I have a brain tumor. Suppose also that a new surgical procedure has been developed which enables the defective portion of my brain to be transplanted with a section of donated brain. But how much of this donated brain can I accept before I became a body donor instead of an organ recipient? Though I’d be profoundly changed, could I continue to think of myself as the same person if I received 49.9% of a donor’s brain? What about 50.1%?

I think the borders between “selves” are fuzzy. There’s already quite a bit of me in you, and vise versa. Human minds generally bear the same model number, it’s the serial numbers that make us so different. The universe has blueprints (DNA) to recreate brains of a given model number but no readily available mechanism to recreate a serial number. Human brains are churned out by the billions, but how could nature replicate a specific brain; how could it recreate my brain?

This would require that the organization of neurons specific to my brain would have to be closely replicated (but not exactly replicated) in another brain. There are several hundred billion neurons in my brain. Now, I’ve read that the number of possible chess games after forty moves is greater than the number of particles in the known universe. So, it looks as though the possibility of closely re-approximating my neural configuration by trial and error, would require more trials than this universe has the ability to produce.

Of course, if there were an infinite number of universes there would be an infinite number of recreations of me. But as I’ve remarked in an earlier post, to suppose that infinite processes actually exist outside of the human mind requires the same sort of blind faith others use to support their belief in God, Big Foot, or that Elvis lives.

So, there does not appear to be enough time available in this universe to recreate me. An objection might be made that if I am so rare then how could the universe have created me in the first place? The answer is that when nature made me, it hadn’t set about the task to create me, it simply set about the task of creating someone. Nature employed the DNA of my parents (along with some replication errors) to fashion my body, but it really threw the dice to create my individual self. The infant that was me could have turned out to be any number of different men. I, quite literally, didn’t have to be me.

There are millions of external events that went into making me who I am. My wife has massively influenced my life. I met my wife because her family immigrated to America. Her father would not have left his hometown in Northern Italy had his mother still been alive. His mother would likely not have died so young if her husband had not been killed in World War 1. Her husband would not have been killed in World War 1 if he hadn’t been walking across a particular bridge when the Germans chose to blow it to pieces. I am who I am today in part because an Italian soldier happened to be walking across a particular bridge at a particular moment when it was destroyed. For me to reappear in some after-life as I am, rather than as I could have been, requires that this same young Italian soldier should be blown to bits in 1917.

But what is so precious about me that every world that could contain me must include this soldier having been blown to bits? What if the Germans had blown the bridge thirty seconds after my wife’s grandfather had safely crossed it? If this were true a different man would be typing here at the keyboard. And if this different man might think of an after-life, he would see himself living again as he is, rather than as I am. There are millions of random yet causal events that had a part in making me what I am. Above all the other possibilities, I most value the one string of random events that led to my being who I am. But wouldn’t I value myself nearly as much if I had been different? No matter who I might have become I would still think that my life is uniquely valuable. And if I could have become nearly anyone, then I could easily have become you rather than me. This leads me to wonder if you and I might only be discrete instances of a universal consciousness. This is why I think that it’s a comfort to remember that children will be born on the hour of our death. Human consciousness itself will not die with me. If I could have been anyone, then I could just as well have been the child born at the moment of my death. Thought of in this way, we are not so much individuals as we are part of humanity itself. Is it possible that we are more than just individuals? Is it possible that my individual human-ness is dwarfed by my inherent humanity?

A recurrent theme in my thinking is that we are all even more closely related than brothers. If we could only stand back to view ourselves, either physically or in our mind’s-eye, we might see that we are part of the very same fabric. I love to think about a passage, I think it was from the book, The Right Stuff, in which an astronaut approaching the moon looks back at the earth through his porthole. He is able to blot out the view of the earth with his thumb. He thinks that aside from his spaceship, everything of value to him in his life lies under his thumb. From a great distance the individuals on this planet would appear to merge into a single organism with a common destiny. When I look at the other planets in our solar system I often think of how point-like we must also appear from a great distance. If the individual cells of my body could think, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they see themselves primarily as individuals rather than as discrete parts of a whole organism.

A child learns that the fingers on its hand are part of it because when it thinks, “Wiggle,” the fingers wiggle. The child learns where his body stops and the external world begins. But the man remarks on the fact that what he does affects the word. The good he does makes the world more beautiful while the evil he does makes for an uglier world. We each have the abilty to wiggle the world itself. The actions I take are part of the string of events that go into making other people who they are. for example, whether you agree or disagree with what I’ve written, the fact is that I’ve already changed you. My ideas have altered the neural connections in your brain, and in some small way they’ve infected your way of thinking. From now on, whenever you picture yourself you will have to include the fact that you’ve read this post, and you will have to wonder how much my ideas have influenced your thinking. You influence the people around you in the same way.

I once approached a girl at a high-school dance. While I was talking to her my buddy came over to say something to me. I introduced my buddy to this girl. A few moments later this girl’s friend came up to speak to her and we were both introduced to this second girl. My buddy ended up going out with this second girl. Another buddy of mine eventually dated the first girl. Both of my buddies married these two girls. As of today, six children have come about from my casually having approached a pretty girl at a dance (it might be thought of as an instance of the “Butterfly Effect”). But when these children think about having an after-life, it’s preordained that in their visions of an after-life I would have always approached this particular girl at a dance. None of these children are mine, but without my having acted as I did none of them would exist. But I’m speaking here as if I was the first link in the chain that led to these children being born. This isn’t the case. If my father had not met my mother then I would not have been alive to approach this girl at the dance. The first link in this chain goes back at least to the Big Bang. I certainly wasn’t the first link, but I was a critical link. Everything we do is a critical link to something else.

Skeptic wrote:

I request that you affix a question mark to the end of every statement I make. If I should ever pound the table or raise my voice, just make that question mark a tiny bit smaller. :wink:

At the same time, if our beliefs depended on our certainty we would hold precious few beliefs. My metaphysical beliefs are organized hierarchically. Those beliefs that appeal to my reason (and yes, to my emotions as well) reside near the top. But even the most unappealing beliefs are rarely thrown off the list entirely. Philosophy for me seems to be a process of finding reasons to reshuffle my list of beliefs. I believe those things that currently appear nearest to the top of my list. The only fact about the world of which I am certain is that I exist. I’m only slightly less than certain that I did not exist in the past and that I shall not exist in the future. Of all the facts of this world the certainty of my existence coupled with the near certainty of my mortality constitute those things of which I am the most certain. The Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater writes:

“It is paradoxical that we normally call ‘believers’ those who hold religious convictions, since what mainly characterizes them is not that in which they believe (mysteriously vague and diverse things), but in that which they do not believe: that which is most obvious, necessary and omnipresent-in other words, death. The so-called ‘believers’ are really ‘unbelievers’, for they deny death’s ultimate reality.”

My hope is to fill my brief life with such intense thoughts and emotions that it will stand on its own for all time. A zillion things might have been and a zillion things might yet be, but the things that could be pale in comparison to that which have been. I will be entirely forgotten after my death. But the fact that no one will remember that I lived can never erase the fact that I have lived. To live, and especially to love, is to place one’s mark in this world for eternity. Again, Savater says:

“Really, when our imagination allows death to cause us pain - poor me, everybody is happy enjoying the sun and making love, everybody except me, who nevermore, nevermore… - it does so precisely now, when we are still alive. Perhaps we should reflect a bit more on the strange occurrence of having been born, which is as great a wonder as the terrible wonder of death. If death is not-being we have already defeated it once, on the day we were born…So we may well be mortal, but we have escaped eternal death. We have succeeded in stealing a chunk of time-the days, months, years during which we have been alive, each moment when we are still living-from that enormous death and, happen what may, the time will always be ours, time belonging to those who triumphed against death through being born-it will never belong to death, even if we must in the end die.”

Skeptic, you asked in your PM if I might recommend a book on this subject. As it happens I can recommend a book cum laude. Derek Parfit’s, Reasons and Persons is nothing short of a masterpiece. Parfit’s powerful arguments have greatly influenced my thinking. Any decent university library will own a copy of this book.


Thanks for the book reccomendation. I’ll have to ask my girlfriend to add that to my X-mas wishlist. Again, a wonderful response and I much enjoyed the use of vivid imagery and personal history.

Your point hits hard and makes me wonder if I categorize myself correctly as an agnostic. If I live my life without regard for God, does this make me an Atheist even if I still question the possibility? Maybe it’s not as clear cut as I make it out to be. Maybe I am both an atheist and an agnostic. How would you categorize yourself?

This probably answers my previous question. I like this frame of thinking but I am not quite sure that I am ready to say that I believe, even, the items that are on the top of my list. Know what I mean? Just because it is the most believable, does that mean that I have to believe it. Couldn’t there be something beyond my perception and isn’t that the most likely scenario? Maybe this is what differentiates you as an atheist and I as an agnostic. Of course, who’s to say that if I had the same knowledge that you have, I wouldn’t change my mind?

Interesting. I actually posed this same question under the Science forum. As you said, it would seem to be a very fine line if not a blurred line. So you are pointing out that there is a fine line between having an identity and being a seemingly closed system of deterministic matter and energy. Personally, my innate human selfishness distracts me from seeing things that way. Identity is necessary to claim anything as my own or any action per my own will. Without it, I would have to succumb to the belief that I am the same as every other person, except for the deterministic aspect that my exact time and space make me different (or as you said my ‘serial #’). Yet, the lack of identity is not an entirely negative perspective to me as it negates bigotry and promotes unity, but I am left with a nihilistic perspective that makes life seem worthless. Is there a more optimistic view that I am missing? (Not that it matters if it is true.)

I also think that we must look at the other side of the puzzle, in order to correctly identify the possibilties. Correct me if I am wrong but aren’t you just making an atheistic deterministic assumption in your examples and reasoning? If we were to take a theistic deterministic assumption, identity would be God given and therefore a ‘distinct distinction’ between yourself and I.

This is the way, I imagine such a scenario. (I only wish that I could capture your same expressiveness and clarity when describing the following, but hopefully I will get my point across) Imagine a ‘finite physical universe’ (physical, meaning of ‘energy and matter’). Beyond the boundaries of this finite universe we find no matter. In fact to agree that the universe was finite and had boundaries, we must agree that beyond the universe there is no matter, else it could not be described as beyond. So this seemingly static, non-matter, infinite being is what we might refer to as “God” or “original cause” of the physical universe. Then you might say, well, what caused God?. (Let me skip this for now as it distracts from my point but obviously we would assume God is infinite.) So God being the originator, thus begins the universe with the “Big Bang” and hence his will is carried out and every molecular interaction is carried out in a deterministic fashion.

So we take your same examples and apply them to theistic determinism and suddenly you have a distinct “God manifested” identity, a fulfillment of God’s will. Although, you still lack any form of “free will”, all happenings suddenly have purpose as they are defined by God. So per your example, you met your wife not only b/c of earlier causal events but b/c of the original causal event that God purposefully set in to motion.

Well, what caused God? or as Stephen Hawking puts it, it seems to be “an infinite tower of turtles”. Well nothing did. God is infinite. Is that question any different than what caused the big bang? It is often assumed that the physical universe is finite and beyond the finite universe is a static non-matter being. So why can’t this being be labeled God? Even so, labeling such a being as God does not ensure an after-life but neither does anything detract from such an idea. I think that the atheistic response to this would be that God is just the sum of all the questions that we cannot answer. My response to the atheist is that God is the sum of all the questions that we can’t even think of.

My main point being, what makes atheism the default? The atheist scenario provides no more evidence than the Theist(deist) scenario. As I saw elsewhere on the board, “God doesn’t believe in atheists, therefore, atheists do not exist.” :laughing: From my point of view, I can see no better reason to suggest Atheism than Theism? If all I know is that I exist, I can only infer that there is some purpose for my existence. So why is ‘purposeful existence’ not a default? Why am I then to assume Atheism? I hate to “ride the fence” on anything but what am I to do?

I liked this alot but I would disagree. It is paradoxical to call either set of believers a non-believer when they both must concede to faith.

I love your optimism and am looking for my own, but your words will mean nothing to the non-existent.

Sorry to seem so analytical and skeptical of your thoughts. They have been very enlightening and are definitely helping me to shape my own thoughts. Yet, I can’t help but think that an assumption of either atheism or theism leads to a biased perspective. Thanks again for your thoughts. It’s not very often that I come across someone whom I can agree, but your thoughts seem to be an extended variation of my own.

What’s reincarnated is something like first order consciousness. :smiley:

But here’s still another version of the Christian afterlife:

From: … 07,00.html

Note: the link doesn’t work, but should work if you cut and paste. It’s not necessary though, the article is on quite a different subject than the one present at hand.

I’m not sure that I understand this concept. Would you mind explaining? Thanks.

That’s strange. I have been hearing and reciting this for years only now to notice this part. Well, I guess I had noticed it but I always thought it referred to the resurrection of Christ. Yet, it very clearly states “resurrection of the body”. It is weird how people never seem to read the fine print. Most Christians have no idea what they believe because they have never taken the time to look into it.


----- This is a GOOD THREAD and makes for long reading. I just wanted to remark on something someone said (i think it was skeptic) about atheism being the default position.

----- If i say that a 12 inch elf lives on top of my head and you say nay, then it is up to me to prove it. I am the one making the assertion. I can say it’s a magic elf that only i can see, an elf immune to the inquiries of science. I can get defensive and say, “but you can’t disprove my glorious elf!”, i can deny any quality which you try to attach to the elf (and thus deny the elf). Now how is the default position in which the elf exists any different from the default position in which god exists?

Great analogy Marshall, and I actually just recently read a very similar remark from Polemarchus in a previous thread.

Both analogies get me and that is what I am struggling with. I will agree with any atheist that concludes that there is no conclusive evidence for the existence of God. I am struggling with the fact that there is no conclusive evidence for the non-existence of God. (I do realize that it is impossible to have any conclusive evidence for Atheism but that is still a problem.) Do I have a point or do you disagree?

The problem is that if you tell me there is an elf on your head :laughing:, and I want to say that there is not an elf on your head, I must prove it. Maybe I can’t but that doesn’t mean that I can say that there isn’t. Well then you might say that the burden of proof is upon the crazy guy with an elf on his head or the man with a right arm made of cheese. Right? Just b/c they can’t prove it, does not mean that it is not true. Although, I think both analogies are an incorrect comparison. I am only suggesting that there might be something else out there besides energy and matter. Where did ‘energy and matter’ come from? I will agree, however, with any atheist that every religion has been unable to capture the truth.

Check out this article. It is from the earlier post per Polemarchus. If you liked this thread, it will captivate you as well. It’s called “An Unbeautful Mind”

You guys have covered so much ground in this tread I don’t really know where to begin.

While this idea is a little frivolous, I like it. My Uncle believes that the brain is just a conduit for the soul or mind, as he’s sees them both the same, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Meaning that the brain is an object that (for what of a better word) gets possessed by the soul. Then the soul manipulates the brain in such a way that it controls the body to do its bidding. It’s the soul controlling the brain that in turn relays the commands to the rest of the body. So if the brain then becomes damaged the soul can no longer fully manipulate the body because the part of the brain needed to do this is broken, the soul itself remains undamaged. While I don’t necessarily think it’s highly lightly, I find it a very interesting idea, as I play to many computer games.

Note: From now on when I say ‘soul’: I mean a ‘conscious mind’ that can experience at least one reality which has the ability to grow from each of these experiences.

Polemarchus you come across as a very well read individual, but I was wondering if you’ve read much of the Eastern tradition of thought on the subject of birth and rebirth? While I don’t agree with this concept, because why should my soul lose its memory at the time of the rebirth, as it would learn a lot faster if it could recall its memories clearly from previous existences. But I do believe in there idea of Ying and Yang. Like I’ve said in another post, I believe all life comes from paradox. Meaning if everything is the same there is no life. It’s differences and opposites that create reality. Like if the only colour in the world was Red, we would not be able to make out differences in our surroundings, as it would all be identical. Unless there were at least different shades of Red, which at this point you have light and dark, which of course are opposites. Likewise matter can only move around when where there’s space to do so.

I think the future of spirituality will come from the eastern ideas of opposites. While “new age” to me is a marketing scam, the more traditional eastern thought has a lot to offer us. I’ve heard a couple of Physicists compare Quantum physics to eastern mysticism.

Again a lot of my arguments really are more like ideas then well grounded conclusions. If a soul has to start life somewhere, why not at its birth in this universe, which is composed of Space and Matter? This could be the first step in something much greater. I’m really in the Aquinas line of thought about order in the Universe. While there’s an incredible amount of perceived randomness it all seems to follow rules, yet while these rules are of our creation they are capable of predicting cause and effects. This to me implies there is at least one level in reality that is not complete and total randomness. Or have we developed rules that can predict randomness, but this would be an illogical contradiction of ideas. As Steven Hawkins says, “The process of life is in the creation of entropy [or randomness].” Meaning everything is about things becoming more difficult to piece together again over time. This is the same idea as Polemarchus’s idea of every action is a critical action in the chain of life. But the chain is so intertwined that it’s impossible to see the order and then understand the events that shape our universal history.

Haha, this has got to be the funniest way of putting the fact of our existence I’ve ever heard! But like you’ve said it’s actually not that amazing, as someone in this universe had to come into being. Randomness just happened to create me, but it could have easily been anybody else. It’s really no big deal.

DNA is just a very small part of who we are; I believe we are the memories of our life’s experiences. Meaning, if I forget who I was through amnesia, then I would have become a different person mentally. But physically I would still be the same old Pax Vitae. While everybody would still recognise me physically, as soon as we have a conversation they’d know that I’m not the same person they knew. A body is something that can be thrown away (in my opinion), and you’ve already said this in other posts. But this just comes back again to what you said about the person with Alzheimer’s.

I have to say I come away from this with a very bleak and dark outlook. The sword of Damocles is hanging by the very slender tread, which is order in the universe. It is in this order I find my final hope of something greater to our existence. But it’s not a conviction strong enough that I would bet my life on. But, my life has been enriched by reading this tread.

Pax Vitae

This is an attempt to describe my experiences. Please let me know if it sounds familiar.

The so called “soul” is the observer. The part of you that is your personality identify with your body, and will also let go of this identification when you die because it have served it’s needs. The observer have no specific identity and is one substance. Only when images and relations are formed we see ourselves as separate identities, similar to multiple personality disorder. So it’s not like it’s you that is reincarnated in the form of your personality. They way we think about life and death is a misunderstanding. The part of you that you call your body is just a collection of other lifeforms, and without the collective power of your “soul’s” focus it starts to fall apart and die. Your cells live a little longer after your death but without the care of you (food and water) they will also die. What will happen when you die is that you find yourself separated from your physical body, but you still have the collective form (shape of your body). In that state you still have your personality intact, and you are still a person. You are a ghost, but this will also die (if you “walk into the light”). So what happens is that your focus once again identifies with the one substance (some call it God, nirvana, satori ETC.) This will not feel strange at all, it’s you, and you have always been there. If you experience this during meditation you no longer think about live and death in a dual way, because you realize it was a misunderstanding.

The identity “Johan” exist because it relates to it’s surrounding. With another surrounding and relations I become another person. With a shifting focus in your consciousness you see this personality very clear and realize why it have become what it is.

Yes but entropy finally meet it’s end in form of a reversed creation (black hole in opposite to big bang). So the entropy will not be the death of the universe’s dynamic process. The thermodynamic rules just describes what happens to one point if the reversed creation did not exist.

Reading Gary Zukav might be interesting. We can learn meditation and exploring our consiousnes’s focus from the east.

The meaning with this process is creativity. Or it simply is at it is; because something can not be given a meaning; it just exist. It’s more the dynamic force of the universe. From chaos the substance is able to build complexity. The substance shift from order to chaos to be able to be creative. It’s like dropping a big puzzle on the ground and then put it together. There are rules (laws) how to put it together. When you drop the puzzle the pieces are separated (individuals). There is nothing to compare this with so I won’t be able to provide a good metaphor that realate closer to this.

So when I say that I am God it’s not really true because the “I” I refer to is just the behavior I have. This is just a toolbox, but limititaions in consiousness makes the identification with this personallity total. Basically the real “I” drop down it’s focus and form personalities. The personality take form after impressions given by it’s surrounding. It’s hard to use logic and metaphors to describe this because our collective way to comunicate is built upon another logic.

Thanks skeptic.

----- To be frank (but i’m not. I’m Marshall, and Frank Marshall was a famous chess player) i remembered that analogy from Atheism: the case against God. Yes. I can’t prove he does’nt exist and you can’t prove that he does, Although there are some who claim that agnostics are simply evading the question.

Hi Skeptic,

For that you shouldn’t apologize.

It’s difficult to have a rational discussion about God, because the meaning of the word “God” is ambiguous. Whatever I might say about God, someone could always reply that their God is nothing like that. But a word that could mean anything has no specific meaning. It’s never enough to just utter the word “God,” because no one has a clue what sort of God you might be talking about. The word only makes sense in the context of your beliefs.

So, here is my definition. ’God’ is the name we give to our ignorance. God lives in mystery and dies in understanding. God thrives in darkness and fades in the light. Martin Luther once referred to human reason as, “Satan’s Whore.” I understand his anger. Reason and understanding are to God, what garlic and sunlight are to Vampires. God never left the side of men frightened and confused by the likes of thunderstorms, earthquakes and epidemic disease.

We’ve long ago given up our beliefs that each day a god rides his golden chariot across the sky, or that a child’s birth defect is God’s way of punishing the parents. But God continues to live precisely in those aspects of the world that continue to frighten and confuse us. Death, uncertainty and injustice remain natural havens where we continue to seek the comfort of our God.

Should our renaming of the unknown constitute a comfort to us? Does it make any sense to be frightened of a mysterious universe yet to take comfort in a God that “works in mysterious ways”? In his, A Splendid Feast of Reason, S. J. Singer wrote:

”The practice of naming something that is not understood is one of our oldest psychological tricks to hoodwink ourselves into believing that we have made the unknown familiar.”

All we’ve done is to rename what we cannot yet explain. We’ve repackaged the unknown into a more consumer friendly product. We find warm solace in the mystery of God, yet an identical mystery - the mystery of the universe - evokes in us a cold fear.

When men are diagnosed with life threatening diseases, they overwhelmingly put their trust in modern scientific medicine. But when science is unable to cure them, in their desperation they’ll try nearly anything. Herbal teas, magic potions, snake oil and faith healers are said to heal precisely that which modern medicine fails to heal. In his book, How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker wrote:

”Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they’ve exhausted the usual techniques for the causation for success…”

Skeptic, you wondered that since there is so little certainty in this world if we shouldn’t rightly think of ourselves as agnostics instead of atheists. It depends on where God exists in your hierarchy of beliefs. If one gave equal credence to the arguments both for and against God, then one might best describe oneself as an agnostic. I give as much credence to the arguments for the traditional concept of God as I give credence to arguments for the existence of Fairies or Leprechauns. These reside near the bottom of my list of beliefs. A Christian would certainly think of me as an atheist but I prefer to define myself by my beliefs rather than by my non-beliefs. I don’t, for example, think of myself foremost as a non-believer in Leprechauns. The traditional notions of God certainly are outlandish, but they aren’t even particularly clever. They simply don’t interest me. There’re so many other more interesting things to think about in this world than to wonder how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

You should have seen me smile when I read this. Have you been reading Russell, Frege, Quine or Alexius Meinong? If not, then I congratulate you for having reinvented an example of negative existential propositions. This was a hot topic in the early part of the 20th century, but even Plato mentions them in his Parmenides. This is some well-trodden ground. Is the question that has not been thought of, a question? In the words of Quine, the question that has not been thought of is a question because:

”Nonbeing must in a sense be, otherwise, what is it that there is not?”

But the reason a question that has not been thought of, is not a question, is that a question asks something, whereas the question that has not been thought of asks nothing; it is not a question.

This problem has been wrestled with since at least the time of Parmenides. As you might imagine some of the attempts to come to grips with it are quite esoteric (involving supervaluations, outer domain free logic, etc.). I sometimes think the question that hasn’t been thought of exists, I sometimes think it does not exist, but mostly I think that negative existential propositions both exist AND do not exist. Such statements certainly are logical and linguistic paradoxes but it’s not certain if they are metaphysical paradoxes. For example, John Searle cautions us:

“The original sin of metaphysics is to read the features of language into the world.”

I see what Searle is getting at, still, I don’t agree with him. My world contains more than colliding quarks and chemical elements; my world contains consciousness, ideas and emotions. In some respects my ideas and emotions are more real to me than the physical Elements themselves. Please consider this stanza from the poem, Words by W.H. Auden:

A sentence uttered makes a world appear
Where all things happen as it says they do.
We doubt the speaker, not the words we hear.
Words have no words for words that are not true.

It might be that paradox is an intrinsic aspect of consciousness. We’ve heard of the Zen Buddhist reference to paradox, such as “the sound of one hand clapping.” A paradox might be the portal to a more complete understanding of this world, but it could just as easily represent the solid walls of Plato’s cave against which all our inquiry is reflected. The ultimate paradox might concern the value we give to an otherwise useless collection of atoms that we think of reflexively as ourself. In his book Truth and Existence, the philosopher, Michael Gelvin, begins his penultimate chapter thusly:

”The dog, struck by a car, lies yapping pitifully on the highway, its back broken. Death would be merciful, but the organism continues to function. It is senseless, unendurable torment, serving no purpose.

The radiant girl, with vibrant youth and stunning beauty, plays the Beethoven violin sonata with such bold energy and yet exquisite touch that all who hear are moved to a rapture of joyous confusion, whether to yield to her feminine loveliness, her brilliant performance, or Beethoven’s genius…

The television camera, from the earth-orbiting satellite, scans the small, blue planet, on which we, six billion tiny specks, procreating and dying, pollute the globe and pass on meaninglessly into forgotten history…

Who I am matters as a condition of the dogs suffering mattering or the greatness of the violin sonata mattering. I matter just because these are paradoxical modes of existence. “



I guess that I would be an atheist by your definition as well. Still, just because I don’t believe in religion, does not make me an atheist but an anti-religious agnostic whom does not agree with the traditional concept of ‘God’. I have only been looking into this matter for a few months now, so like I said before, when I am as well read as you are, maybe I will see things differently. It is just that sometimes, I will be just thinking or reading or doing something or other, and I will have this epiphany that there must be some greater reason for this strangely incredible existence that we call life. Just look around you. Isn’t it strange to think that we are just a random occurence that somehow developed into consiousness? I am sure that you have had this same epiphany too.

Well, enough of that. Thanks for your help in defining my situation.

Interesting, what a big label? “negative existential propositions” I love to find that I have postulated a similar question to that of the greats. That is one of my favorite things about philosophy thus far. Similar to your interest in ancient japanese geometry problems. Is this not why you enjoy philosophy as well? You get to see if their reasoning is similar to your own and if they came to similar conclusions. If not, then you learn something new and are able to adjust your own theories accordingly.

I have to think that they exist. Just because questioning is relative to humans does not mean that there are not questionable ‘beings’ or concepts outside the reach of human understanding.

”Nonbeing must in a sense be, otherwise, what is it that there is not?” ~ Quine

All this does is turns the “question” into a linquistic concept. It’s seems that he is just playing with the words rather than their intended concepts. “Non-being” can only “Be” in the sense that it is a linguisic concept. Am I right here? Is this what you were saying? If not, then I must agree with Searle.

Hi Skeptic,

Yes, it happens to me all the time. I’ve never quite gotten over the surprise of discovering myself alive in the midst of this world. No doubt I’ll just be getting used to my life when it’s time for me to die. Well, at least I won’t have to get used to death; no consciousness = no surprises.

When we wonder about the fact that we’re alive we should remember that we can only wonder about consicousness because we have consciousness. This is known as the anthropic principle, but the Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom, reminds us that the word “anthropic” implies that Homo sapiens are involved. In fact, any form of life advanced to the point of wonderment should bear in mind that only things already in existence can wonder about their existence. Anything that wonders already exists. The poet, Piet Hein, summed it up in this way:

The Universe may;
Be as big as they say.
But it wouldn’t be missed;
If it didn’t exist.

When you say, “there must be a reason,” I understand you to be saying that there must be a meaning. It seems there are two types of meaning, extrinsic and intrinsic.

You wrote, “…there must be some greater reason…”. This leads me to believe that you’re thinking about an extrinsic (external) meaning in which your life is a means to a greater end. Take, for example, the fact that human respiration has an extrinsic value to green plants. We exhale carbon dioxide that these plants use for food. So, could it be said that humans exist for the good of plant life? Does this fact, in itself, give my life any greater meaning? I don’t think so. We think of ourselves as already having a greater value than plants, so how could being the means to an end of a lessor thing produce a greater meaning in a greater thing? We prefer to think that green plants exist to feed us rather than we exist to feed green plants. It seems that if my life is to have a greater meaning, then it will have to be the means to an end for something greater than us.

All right, suppose humans exist for the sole purpose of feeding an extraterrestrial race of superior life forms. Suppose this superior race seeded the earth with life some millions of years ago just so it would have a ready cache of food should it decide to travel to this part of the galaxy. Would our being used as nourishment for a race of superior beings really give our lives a greater meaning? What if God were using the joys and sorrows of my life as an amusement to alleviate the boredom of his eternal existence? Would being a plaything of a diety give my life more meaning? I don’t care how advanced the superior race is that eats me, or how omnipotent is the God that runs me “like a rat in a maze” for his entertainment. My life used as a means to a greater end without my knowledge, or against my will, could never give my life a greater meaning.

Intrinsic meaning, on the other hand, is the meaning that I give to my own life. It exists as long as I exist to produce it. Intrinsic meaning is self-reflexive and regenerative. The meaning I attach to my life gives my life a greater value. But when a thing of greater value attaches meaning to itself, that produces an even greater value. The result of this regenerative process is that my life can acquire an immense value, but this value exists only to me.

Now, having conferred this tremendous intrinsic value upon myself, it’s possible to produce even more value by freely giving my life away. Think of the soldier that falls on a grenade to save the lives of his friends. A doctor can follow the lead of Albert Schweitzer and exchange his comfortable and prosperous life for a poor hospital in rural Africa. Consider the man that keeps his pledge to love a woman by tenderly caring for her after she has become disabled or mentally ill. In his excellent Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick describes how humans expand the meaning of their lives through their relationships.

Skeptic, I agree with you that we live in a violent world. But I’m saying that this world is far less violent today than it was in the past. The ancient Romans, for example, complained that even the threat of crucifixion wasn’t enough to keep the streets of the city from being overrun by bandits after dark. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3 B.C.–A.D. 65) complained that the youth no longer had respect for their elders. The same complaints are heard in every age. By modern standards the lives of our ancestors were brutish, violent and short (for 99 percent of human history the average life expectancy was 18 years). It’s a false nostalgia induces people to wish for the “good old days.” Nearly every aspect of life is better today than it was in the past.

I don’t live in the Burbs, Skeptic. I live in the Hills, so far back in the hills that I don’t have commercial electricity. All of my domestic electricity comes from a micro-hydroturbine and solar photovoltaic panels. But this is luxury compared to the way we made our electricity when we first moved to Vermont. In those days (sixteen years ago) both my wife and I pedaled a bicycle generator for three-quarters of an hour each day to provide for our water and electricity. We heated our house through ten Vermont winters using the firewood we cut with a six-foot crosscut saw. We heat the house with LPG these days but we still produce about 25% of our food from our organic garden. My wife and I dug the foundation of our house and root cellar with pick and shovel. We built a two-story house with one-foot thick masonry walls with our own hands. We built fieldstone walls and I hewed the beams for our barn from Red Spruce with a broadaxe.

I came to the land with a strong back and an equally strong desire to be self-sufficient. In those days I was angry at the world for not being the Utopia that I imagined it should be. I think I would have agreed with Sartre when he said, “Hell is other people.” But my thinking has changed radically over the years. I learned that the word “Utopia” is derived from the Greek (u=no + topos=place) and literally means nowhere. I’ve learned that no man is an island. I’ve learned to value the community; I need your help and you need mine. I’ve learned a great deal from my life in the hills, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that for better or for worse, all men are my brothers.