TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
It was during a seasons finale of an otherwise forgettable episode of the increasingly forgettable series ‘Criminal Minds’ where I first encountered the song “As it seems” by Lily Kershaw. The frailty and the refreshing candor might have been an attraction for my ‘white knight’ complex but I’d rather like to believe it was this one sentence that did it; a sentence that I interpret as being atheist at heart. It is certainly not as clear or even remotely as popular as “Imagine”, decades before, where Lennon proposed a world where people would live without fantasizing about heaven and would endeavor to live without religions. On the upside Kershaw’s song contains a phrase that might describe a fundamental property of our universe so there’s that at least:
“Well in this life you must find something to live for cause when the darkness comes a callin’ you’ll go back to where you were before.”
You might think I’m reading things into this and you might be right but let’s analyze it starting with the obvious. She talks about life and darkness coming after it. I hope there’s no debate she is talking about life and death. So what follows clearly must be the songwriters vision on what comes after death: “you go back to where you where before”. This is exactly what, as a boy, I thought death should mean and it’s one of the reasons I am an atheist since childhood. I guess as a young boy I had figured out what later was confirmed by Brian Greene in one of his popularized physics books: the first fundamental property of our universe is that it shows remarkable symmetry. Now for mr. Greene this has no atheistic sequiturs but I hope, when you are done reading you will agree with me that it does.
If life and death are symmetrical then it is logic after our demise for us to go back to where we were before. Now, you might think for this hypothesis and for Kershaw’s song that they allow for us to come from heaven, live and die and then to go back to heaven afterwards. You’d be right because that this is an equivalent mathematical solution to the symmetry ‘problem’. The thing is, there are some serious theological problems with the statement that we are all originally coming from heaven. The very fact that it is a reserved property for angels, being the most obvious one. But there are others since if we came from heaven originally, according to the three abrahamic religions, this would make the ‘deserve your heaven’ challenge somewhat of an unnecessary cause. Where’s God’s grace in this context? It doesn’t seem that this is the solution in Kershaw’s song either because of what comes first: “ ‘cause in this life you must find something to live for…” which is a rather strange notion if you press a Christian framework onto it (I’m just for now assuming that Buddhist or Muslim frameworks do not apply). In the Christian worldview at least there is no cause to find a reason to live for. God is what makes your life have meaning. It’s atheists that “struggle” with a meaning for life since, when all evidence is in, life has no meaning or reason at all. This doesn’t deter them however, for atheist come to value things in life just the same (and at least in their case it’s all real) as any theist does. Anything that is worth something is worth more than death I guess and is potentially something ‘to live for’. (Me? Oh, I’m just curious what comes next.)
Now there is no absolute law that says that life and death should be symmetrical. So this doesn’t prove ‘we go back to where we were before’. The prove is in the particles. In our abiogenesis post ‘My name is LUCA’ we talked about how life comes from non-living matter. The consequence is that your self, your consciousness ‘emerges’ from the matter as well. This predicts that the self is not complete when the sperm fuses with the egg inside the womb and it predicts that consciousness evolves as a child grows inside and then outside his mother. The process of developing the ‘you-that-is-you’ never really stops. In most countries we assume it takes 18-21 years for that “you” to become legally mature and responsible.
The fact that you are matter and your so called ‘soul’ is also matter-based predicts that any serious shift in that matter will have grave life- or personality consequences. That is exactly what we see in cerebral gunshot victims, lobotomy victims and patience on psycho-altering drugs. We have no indication that there is more to a person than is contained in the molecules that he/she consist of. There are no “21grams” of difference between a living person and a recently deceased person despite the urban myth. We don’t go anywhere, the biological processes that we are stop and are replaced by purely abiological ones. When the body has decayed the molecules we are made of are freed to interact with other atoms and molecules in (among other destinations) other growing bodies. So in short, we are nothing before conception, we are grown on pure biological processes into something, we find some meaning to this random existence and we die and go nowhere. Life may seem sad summarized like that but ‘I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.’ D.H. Lawrence
We share with planets and stars that we are made from matter and that we are temporary. We get to arrange this matter into neurons which are able to process data, contemplate the meaning of our existence, which is more than can be said of our own Sun. I don’t think that’s sad, I think that’s a privilege.
“Well in this life you must find something to live for cause when the darkness comes a callin’ you’ll go back to where you were before. Cause this life is as fragile as a dream, and nothing’s ever really as it seems…”
The Silent Atheist.