To you, with regard (9)

Let’s put the lid on this series, and when I say ‘put the lid’ I mean ‘pull the rug’. (This is the hand, the hand that takes…)

A number of things follow from the thought-experiment I’ve been developing. If, after you die, you are going to be uniquely and recognisably you for eternity, it follows that you should spend whatever life you’ve got becoming the best you that you can – the most fulfilled, the most fully actualized, the version of you that you would want to be if you had the choice. You are, after all, not going to get another chance; once round the circuit and that’s what you’ve got – that’s what you are – for ever and ever and ever. Secondly, if you’re going to be you for eternity along with everyone else, it follows that everyone else is going to count for exactly as much as you do. Moreover, on that immaterial, timeless plane their equal value with you will be inescapably obvious; empathy won’t be optional, over yonder. This rules out pursuing (what may appear to be) self-fulfilment by hurting other people, as doing so will land you with an eternity of apologies – an eternity of genuine pain, really. Thirdly, if everyone’s around forever, it follows that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live is (always already) around forever: when you check in, you’ll be rapidly introduced to your grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in whatever level of fulfilled self-actualization they (will eventually have) achieved before (they will have eventually) died. And it pretty much follows from this that, if you ever get the feeling that somebody up there likes you, you’re right, and you may well be feeling Somebody’s empathetic vibrations. (Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.) Only that Somebody isn’t Him, it’s just them; to put it another way, it’s just us.

Put all of that together and it follows fairly directly that – to quote myself – it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

Now, let’s say that none of this is true. Syllogism: animals die, their bodies rot, and no trace of them is ever perceived again; human beings are animals; therefore… Alternatively: everything that exists can be observed in some reliable and predictable way; evidence of survival after death has never been reliably and predictably observed; therefore… Let’s say that death is the end – of everything we know, think of or can imagine. No eternal presence; no timeless, dimensionless tuning-fork note; no reuniting with lost ones, meeting heroes, apologising to enemies; no warm buzz of omnidirectional empathy. Our existence through time isn’t superseded (sublated) into eternity, it comes to a stop and is cancelled in a single terminal moment. Our unique identity isn’t perfected and eternally preserved, it’s lost amid a million others and eventually forgotten, with a million others. What follows from that? Where’s your laundry list of moral precepts now?

One answer – widely attributed to atheists but mainly espoused by depressives, cynics, libertines and revolutionaries – is that if nothing lasts, nothing matters: you’re never going to be held to account for what you do, so why not do whatever you want? What’s interesting about this answer is the bad faith that lurks within its apparent logic. Look at the disjunct between the two groups I mentioned just now – those who are supposed to believe that they can do whatever they like without any comeback, and those who actually hold this belief and act on it. Revolutionaries and suicides believe that there is no future; suicides and cynics believe that nothing they do really matters; cynics and libertines believe that conventional morality is bullshit; libertines and revolutionaries believe that their own goals and desires are the truest morality. Most people in those groups probably do share the two key beliefs that death is the end and that there is no God to sit in judgment on us – but this basic atheist credo clearly doesn’t get us all the way to suicidal depression, revolutionary fervour or libertinism, or even to outright cynicism. On the contrary, one can believe that human life is made all the more precious – and the challenge of living fully together all the more important – by the fact that there is no life beyond this one and no chance of coming back for another try: you get what you get, and that’s it.

Hence the suggestion of bad faith. To spell it out, if we’re saying that if nothing lasts, nothing matters what we’re actually saying is that if nothing we can know lasts longer than human life – and if there is no agency higher than human life – then nothing matters more than my own decisions and impulses. Syllogistically, I would be bound by a higher morality in my dealings with other people if there were a God or an afterlife; there is no God or afterlife; therefore… The problem with this train of thought is that, unless you’re going through a crisis of faith, the belief that there is no eternity and no God doesn’t come as news: if you hold that belief, you already believe that that’s how the world is. But this means that the first half of the syllogism collapses: it’s like saying “if 0=1, morality is true”. (Don’t take my word for it, check it yourself – can’t argue with the maths.) What you’re really saying is, lots of people tell us what to do on the basis that there’s something higher and more permanent than the lives of people in society; there isn’t; therefore we can do as we like. It’s bad logic, apart from anything else: you’re jumping over the step where you establish that the lives of people in society don’t have any intrinsic value.

Which brings us back to our laundry list. If each individual is unique and intrinsically valuable, but each one of us is snuffed out, annihilated, when we die; if each person’s life is a unique journey to self-actualization, but each journey stops, never to be resumed, at the instant of death, however soon it comes; what follows from that? (Apart from a strong urge to put back my head and howl like a dog for my father, for my mother, for Madeleine, for Les, for every friend and relative who’s gone before and been taken too soon.) If my life is this bizarre hybrid of a treasure and a bad joke, and if everyone else is in the same position as I am (and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t), then surely Eliot Rosewater had it right:

At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of unique individual souls living on eternally – an idea which I’ve developed in a particular way in these posts, but which in itself is fairly uncontroversial among Christians – is an inverted reflection of the unbearable reality of death: death which ends time and extinguishes the individual. But this cuts both ways. Assume, in a kind of melancholic fantasy, that there is a God and a Heaven but that human life has no access to any of it – that some other beings are up there casting down their crowns around a glassy sea, while we poor homo sapiens die and rot – and certainly our lives would seem to be of little account. If there is nothing but human life (bounded by death), though, the scale we need to be working on is, precisely, the scale of human life bounded by death. And if, while we’re here, we’re each unique and valuable; and if, while it continues, each person’s life is a journey of self-actualization; and if each individual is ridiculously fragile and each life is absurdly unrepeatable; then it seems to follow – with, if anything, even more force – that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people.

And when we die?

Tonight we fly
Over the houses
The streets and the trees
Over the dogs down below
They’ll bark at our shadows
As we float by on the breeze

Tonight we fly
Over the chimneytops
Skylights and slates
Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find

Over the doctor, over the soldier
Over the farmer, over the poacher
Over the preacher, over the gambler
Over the teacher, over the rambler
Over the rambler
Over the lawyer,
Over the dancer, over the voyeur,
Over the builder and the destroyer,
Over the hills and far away

Tonight we fly
Over the mountains
The beach and the sea
Over the friends that we’ve known
And those that we now know
Over their homes
And those who we’ve yet to meet
We’ll fly

Over the fathers
Over the mothers

And when we die
Over the sisters
Over the brothers

Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad
Over the children
Over the lovers

If heaven doesn’t exist?
What will we have missed?
Over the hills and far away
This life is the best we’ve ever had.

If you have been, thanks for reading these posts. I may publish a short round-up with links to earlier posts, but apart from that I’m not intending to continue the series. Normal service – i.e. closely-argued political nitpicking – will resume shortly.

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