Saturday, November 06, 2010

The High Cost of Living

"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today"

Imagine (1971) by John Lennon

He glanced at the green, luminescent numbers on the digital clock and it told him that he was travelling through deep night; when the world is stillest and the air is frost. It was the elusive witching hour. No one knows precisely when that should be, but everyone can instinctively tell when they are in it. The supposititious wisdom of superstitions say that it's the time when invisible beings both fey and infernal are out in force to do mischief. He knew that - he just didn't believe in it. He could however, still get a kick from pretending he still does. The sensation of the numinous is a heady, intoxicating experience and there's no cure to wanting to believe that there are worlds beyond one's own. But wanting is one thing, he always said. Puns are another.

He had been driving hard close to 4 hours by now and the banal monotony of headlights and shadows was slowly lulling his overclocked brain to beddy-byes; so slowly, in fact, that he didn't even notice that it was happening. He had always been devillishly lucky. He frequently picked up money from the ground, and had never been seriously injured, broken any bones or crashed his car. And he liked boasting about these things too, jinxes being just this other thing he didn't believe in. It's that same cockiness which made him think he could drive for near 6 hours in the dark of night alone and turn out okay. His only passengers were his backpack of necessaries and his personal computer, which he found impossible to part with for the month he was planning to spend in his girlfriend's place in Butterworth. The only entity he worshipped was the world wide web, and the machine was his shrine to it. The internet is many a wonderful thing, and while it's perfectly capable of keeping him awake for many nights in his bedroom, it had no power whatsoever in keeping him from falling asleep at the wheel. And fell asleep he did. At 120 kilometres per hour.

They also said that the witching hour is the time when sleeping people drift closest to death. By sheer dumb luck, this was one night the old wives got it right.

Near Death Experience
The price is too high to pay.

The biggest commonality that religions of the ages share is a belief in life after death. The afterlife came mainly in two flavours: the diremption of Heaven and Hell, which the Abrahamics such as Christians and Muslims favour, and the metempsychotic cycles of karmic Reincarnation, which is preferred by Eastern faiths such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Both types of afterlife are coupled with our actions and intentions in life. Do good and you'll earn eternal bliss in heaven or be reborn into a better next life. Do bad and you'll be punished hellishly without end or come back as something silly like a cockroach or a sea sponge. More fundamentally, both ideas suggest the persistence of one's self - mind, memory and personality - after the demise of the body.

The most important thing to know about afterlives, of course, is the fact that there's no actual objective proof of the existence of any. None. Nada. Zilch.

Some religions went one step further and decided that anyone who isn't part of their exclusive club should likewise be punished, usually for eternity, regardless of how righteous or moral they have been in life. A lot of godly people asked me: what if I'm wrong? What if I'm wrong about God and after I die, I find myself paying for my oh-so-wicked disbelief in Hell? That's the wager which Blaise Pascal made. Never mind that it's a fallacy of false dichotomy. Never mind that they could easily be worshipping the wrong god and be screwed over anyway - but in the face of neverending existence after death, I ask what is the worth of the infinitesimally short life we now have?

What I see is billions of people in the world today living in service to a God or gods who may not exist and investing in an afterlife they cannot know for sure is really there. What if this is it? What if this one life is all we are getting? In the suffocating fog of hell-mongering and fear of the hereafter, we live a pitiful existence indeed. Some worry constantly about what they can or cannot eat or wear. A great number spend a lifetime preaching the alleged words of God, while more than a few would gladly kill to defend their post-mortem fantasies. My point is, it isn't hard to understand why a Muslim man would blow himself and a thousand infidels up along with him when the merest reward promised to him on his arrival in heaven is an abode with eighty-thousand slaves and an all-you-can-fuck buffet of 72 busty, virginal houris. The afterlife devalues life. The only life we know for sure we have.

Have you ever lost someone, a family member or a friend, and people kept telling you that the person you lost is in "a better place"? I always wanted to ask them how the fucking fuck they know that. It always sounded like some empty platitude parroted by well-wishers to soften the blow. But do you know what most people really think? When an old friend of mine took his own life in desperation, when my great grandmother passed away, I know for a fact that each and everyone of my Christian and Muslim friends casually believe that these people I cared about are currently being tortured sadistically in Hell without respite by their All-Loving, All-Forgiving, All-Merciful God. Religion, I learned a long time ago, make monsters out of us all.

The idea of an immortal soul was borne out of the elemental fear of death. I remember that when I was a kid, death was so terrifying a notion that whenever I stared into its abyss, I felt like screaming my head off. There was one time when my little sister woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, weeping piteously and saying over and over again that she doesn't want to die. My parents told her not to worry because death is simply a milestone, that there's a whole new world waiting for her on the Other Side. It's not hard to see that that was how it all began in the first place. To comfort her, they would have told her any number of absurdities.

I am an atheist and all I have to look forward to after I die is nothing. I know, as far as I am able to ascertain, that this is the only life I have. I know that at the end of my own line, the light of my consciousness will be snuffed out for ever. I don't believe that the people I love are destined to be in any place better than Here and Now. When they go, I accept that they will be gone forever. I accept that I will never see them again - not in another life, not in another reality. This is difficult to admit to oneself, but loss is suppose to be painful. This is how I face death, not by denying or cheapening it; not by turning it into a passage to a different state of existence; not by swallowing or making up some childish fairy-story to make myself feel better. It should hurt because it's real and permanent. It should hurt because it's the end.

For all accusations of atheists being cowards who are simply afraid of judgment after dying, it's ironic that we are really the only ones who have the courage to face death and bear the high cost it demands. Here, allow me to reverse the accusation. It's religious people who are really the true cowards; so afraid of death's price that they would believe in anything.


It was one of the darkest and narrowest stretches of road on the North South Highway. Snaking through the chalky mountains between Ipoh and Butterworth, it's one of the windiest too. With every passing second, the car banked ever so much closer to the steel barrier on the right. The driver, no longer driving, was slowly spiralling into a fatal sleep. At the speed he was going, there was no way the inevitable collision could end well.

"KRNG!" A loud cracking noise pierced his ears like a gunshot and his wandering mind rushed back into his head at the speed of thought. In reflex, he jerked the steering wheel to the left and away from the barrier. He felt adrenaline flooding his blood and began shaking violently from the terror of his close brush with his doom, his drowsiness having dissipated without a trace. You can't go through something like that without reacting strongly to it. His ride didn't seem to be too damaged, but it was hard to tell from the inside.

Before long, he reached a truck stop where he pulled over and alighted to inspect the part which he thought made contact. There was nothing there - not a dent, not even the slightest scratch. Puzzled, he examined the rest of the vehicle. Nothing. There was absolutely no evidence that the car ever touched the barrier. He checked the tires, wondering if one of them had burst. Not the case there either. He circled the Suzuki Vitara several more times, feeling more and more bewildered and frustrated with the passing minute. Something must have made that noise which startled him from his incredibly mistimed nap, but what? Was it an artifact of a dream, a passing benevolent spirit or god forbid, divine intervention? Then, shining a beam into the backseat, he spotted his answer - and laughed long and hard. The reason why jokes are funny is because their punchlines tend to be something wholly unexpected, and laughter is simply how people react to it when their brains make the new connection. Or maybe, he's just laughing from the sheer overwhelming joy of being alive. It wasn't clear.

He saw that the hinged front of his CPU was swinging ajar. When the car pitched right, the weight of the backpack resting on it must have gotten great enough to pop it open - cue popping noise, cue near miraculous escape from the fate of a burning wreck and being the morning headline. He marvelled at the wildly improbable circumstances which saved his life. What are the chances of this happening, he wondered as he climbed back onto his seat, closed the door and reignited the engine.

He gave no thanks to any god because he believed in none.

P.S. Yes, the title of this article is a Neil Gaiman reference.

Faced death and will face her again,
k0k s3n w4i


-hui- said...

Hmm... I believe when we die, we disintegrate into particles and somehow become one with the world, in some matter or so. In a way, it's somewhat like reincarnation? Something like energy can't be destroyed but it can be converted to other stuff right?hehe.. btw, weren't you scared when you drove so late at night alone?

and.. did you by any chance draw that adorable cartoon?

Zzzyun said...

that was pretty scary!! u shld try to be safer leh!!

and it's funny how you mention the fact that children think abt death and are scared.. coz i was really scared when i was a child... now i know i was not alone :P

Azygous said...

No one can be sure of what is waiting for us after life.

That's why I always believe in embracing our present life as much as we can.

Only recently I got to know there are people conducting scientific studies on reincarnation. Leading figures like Carol Bowman, Erlendur Haraldsson, Satwant Pasricha, Ian Stevenson, Jim B. Tucker, etc.

Perhaps there might be a scientific way of explaining it in the future?
Have a look if you got the time :)

Phoebs said...

Death has a very cool scythe :D

nis said...

Most probably, DEATH feels like eternal general anaesthesia.

Nice cartoon you have there.

seasongoer said...

I hope you do not mind me dropping into this topic. :O)

Those are good values to have.

One should not agree to anything, due to being enticed by reward (heaven) or threat (hell). No Christian I know, though.... this is going to get lengthy, please feel free to drop by my blog to read more/converse on this. Thank you.

k0k s3n w4i said...

-hui-: that's remarkably similar to how i interpreted buddhist rebirth back when i was one - since the reincarnation of the consciousness is suppose to be result in a new aggregate that's neither identical to nor entirely different from the original consciousness. then, i realise that i was really just trying to make the more mystical side of buddhist beliefs sound rational. cycles are abundant in nature and in artificial constructs, and the concept of rebirth/reincarnation only bears a superficial resemblance to those cyclic systems, and to the law of conservation of energy. you can just as easily liken it to a four-stroke cycle in a car engine. reincarnation/rebirth talks about the cycle and conservation of consciousness - and there's no objective scientific proof it occurs at all, to my knowledge.

and no, why should i be afraid of driving at night? as for the cartoon, it's either i created it or i'm someone who would randomly stick his blog url on images that don't belong to him. your guess ;)

Zzzyun: i probably could have tried to be safer, but i don't really know how. falling asleep at the wheel is not something i'm able to notice myself doing. and i think the only kids who weren't afraid of death are those who never really thought about what it means.

Azygous: i'm an agnostic atheist - i'll never be 100% sure of anything (unlike religious people who are frequently immovably certain of their claims of god and the afterlife) but one can draw some logical conclusions. the mind and consciousness are expressions of a fully material brain - no need for a "soul". we have a good idea for example, that specific damage to certain regions of the brain will produce very idiosyncratic disabilities. depending on which bit is eliminated, you might lose the control of your limbs, your knowledge of a particular language, your memories, your executive functions or even your personality. consider an anencephalic child. where is this child's soul? where are its higher mental functions?

now, consider a man with his brain functions depressed. consider a sleeping man. consider a man under the dreamless state of general anaesthesia when he cannot even note the passage of time or feel pain. everything we know about neurology tells us that the less active the brain is, the less consciousness we get. consider death and the cessation of all brain functions.

like i said, all "scientific" studies on reincarnation as a phenomenon are anecdotal. and as a member of the medical fraternity, i'm sure you know just how reliable anecdotal evidence is. read instead of how much criticism is levelled against such studies by the researchers' peers. not every paper which got published is science. peer review is an important part of the scientific process to vet out poorly designed - and fraudulent - studies. and their use of quantum mechanics to propose a mechanism for reincarnation have been met with derision from physicists who said they simply misunderstood how quantum mechanics work.

i do not rule out the possibility that reincarnation might be vindicated as an actual phenom in some very distant future. but i don't think so and the preponderance of evidence certainly doesn't point that direction.


nis: thanks. and yeah, save for a minor quibble i have on the use of the word "feel, i agree with you.

-hui- said...

hahaha.. well. the cartoon looks really really good. It's like some professional artist's work.. But i saw the your blog url there so i decided to ask. =) Looks really good !!

k0k s3n w4i said...

-hui-: really? thanks! i thought it's pretty amateurish and i only did it so this post wouldn't end up being just this solid wall o' text.

seasongoer: i don't mind at all. i like disagreements.

i dropped by your blog and read your post. you claim that there are studies done on near death experiences which scientifically PROVED that there's an afterlife. wow. according to you, the matter is resolved. you are making a claim, in no uncertain terms, that the afterlife does in fact exist.

so show me. if you have the proof, bring it on. if you know any studies which make that claim, give me the links and i'll examine them. we can discuss them together.

forgive me for not taking your word for it. you see, i learned a long time ago that theists such as yourself are very fond of making extraordinary assertions without extraordinary evidence to back them up. one moment, some burning bush parted the red sea. the next moment, some rabbi died for our sins because someone listened to a talking snake.

i'm sure you can see why i have to ask you to validate this wild and sensational claim of yours.

i am not holding my breath here.

p.s. my comment section here have a 4096-character limit per comment. feel free to be as lengthy as you want.

seasongoer said...

hmmm...please calm down... :O)

Responded in my blog.

(It's okay if you reject NDEs, continue to be atheist/agnostic, etc. I am not here to 'convert' anyone.)

k0k s3n w4i said...

seasongoer: this is me calm, mate. i do not reject NDE's. they are well-known scientific entities but what i object to is your fantastic claim that they PROVE that the afterlife exist. i am not going to your blog again (you seem to be only interested in trying to drum up traffic, since all you do is reply to me in your own blog and kept trying to make me go there). if you have proof, bring them here. if such studies are as readily available as you claim they are, give me the links. show me and my readers what amazing evidence you have.

if you can't produce any, i'll just have to dismiss you as a liar. that is all. nothing personal.

nicoletta said...

Be careful...if you place such high value on life as it is and if there is no afterlife you might want to treat yourself a little better =)

Certainly, a reason a great deal of people turn to religion is due to the inability to fathom the abrupt termination of existence, with no extension or continuation whatsoever. In a sense, it is more consoling to comprehend an eternity of existence rather than complete annihilation. People will look for solutions, and if they come across undesirable answers, they might make up their own ones. Perhaps the rise of consumerism and materialism in these contemporary times can be linked to the increasing secularity of society - a great deal of people also have lost faith in religion and have consigned their entire lives to gratifying every whim and fancy, where previously it was occupied by the dictates of religious and social conventions. I'm not so sure this is such a great substitute to spending a whole lifetime worrying about an afterlife whose existence is a hypothesis. Well, I suppose it's up to everyone how they live their lives - they can be as superficial as possible and still be happy, and hope that moments of clarity (such as realising the finite nature of their existence) never strike. Or they can be as religious as possible and expend all their energies into preparing for a yet-unproven extension of life.

I however think, if there is truly no afterlife, then it makes no difference how people live their individual lives, or what they believe in. As long as they do not affect each other and forcibly impose their beliefs on others.

PS: your little narrative enclosing the main blog entry reminded me of an extract I read from Primo Levi's (an atheist) book The Drowned and the Saved - something of going through a concentration camp during the Holocaust as an unbeliever and coming out the same

seasongoer said...

Well...let me put it this way; it does not really faze me if anyone does not follow up on the guideposts I put up eg NDE proves an afterlife, and there are medical/scientific researches/books on this.

The subject is too trite for me to put up all the references, etc - anyone serious about the subject - please do your own searching - I have already put up the guideposts.

Let me put it this way - if I were to lecture on pregnancy, I will just put up broad topics ie it takes some months from conception, there are a few common complications, etc - now go find out how many months, those links and subject matter, and come back to discuss after you have boned up on the basics...or law, on contracts - please read up on the basic concepts of torts, common law before coming to class.

(Btw, I am not driving traffic to my blog - I don't need traffic - I have turned off the option of being found by search engines. I just don't do getting into a long, protracted argument on someone else's blog, that's all.)

Anyways, keep well...and have a good life, believing in an afterlife..or not. You and everyone else is always welcome to revisit this topic, anytime.

@ Nicoletta: There are as many reasons as there are individuals who accept that there is an afterlife. In any case, I will be putting up a post on my blog on 'facing mortality' - no worries, no fire and brimstone - even a person who does not accept an afterlife can take away those principles. :O)

@ any reader: whether one accepts or not an afterlife, be good, and do the right thing - always.

The important thing is - it will always be harder too, to do the right thing, but the right thing is, always, the thing to be done.

Anonymous said...

Don't bother with seasongoer. He's definitely a crank. All he can do is claim that there's a loooooot of evidence somewhere out there, but can't even produce a single one even when he's repeatedly requested to do so. C'mon, you don't need to post every paper on the subject here. Just present the most concrete and convincing one.

He just kept making vague references because the only "proof" he has won't be able to stand up to scrutiny.

Mr. Farnsworth said...

Every reader of this blog should read this :

Very well explained why there shouldn't be any afterlife.

Like the last paragraph the most :

"Though we may wish that death were not a reality, the very ability to make that wish was given to us by death herself. If what created life is rightly called God, death surely is that God. For this reason, I refuse to think or say that God exists.

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: well, another way of looking at it is: if i do die and there is indeed no afterlife, i wouldn't have the consciousness to hold any regrets ;)

personally, i credit the rise of secularism in the world today to the increasing ease of acquiring information, to differing opinions and to news of religiously inspired follies and atrocities. hedonism is certainly not a terribly good substitute to religiousity, but i would argue that at least we are certain that worldly pleasures are real. and besides, hedonism is not the only substitute either. i believe there is no inherent meaning to life, just the meanings we make up for ourselves. we are all very temporary guests in the hotel of life - the best i can hope for is that no one ruin the other guests' stay.

actually, the narrative was the main post. the screed's a bit of a tumour that got out of hand, really, haha.

seasongoer: oh no, i refuse to be sent on a pseudoscientific snipe hunt by you. i can tell you that not a single thing i've read on the subject of NDE conclusively proved that there's an afterlife - but you can just as easily dismiss that i have not been reading the right literature. besides, no "proof" i have ever read goes beyond parascientific hypotheses base on subjective, unreliable evidence of anecdotes and made on flawed understanding of real sciences. but you sir, are claiming that the afterlife had been proven conclusively - the onus of that bold, daring statement of fact is on you, and i ask you to present to me objective positive proof to support your ridiculous assertion. i want a rigorously designed and unbiased study which have passed the muster of peer review, one which the scientific community now holds a consensus on. carl sagan said, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." where is your extraordinary evidence? where is the proof that the afterlife exists aside from subjective misinterpretation of NDEs that can't be explained away by hallucinations or lucid dreaming? i am confident you have none whatsoever, but i gave you a chance to vindicate yourself. i was willing to hear you out, but all you give me is some condescending bullshit that i'm not up to speed on the subject and that i should go hunt for your evidence for you. you sir, is a liar. what i find most disgusting about your species of theist is that you would freely claim that your position has been proven by science when no such thing had occurred (if the afterlife was indeed proven, it would win the scientist who proved it the nobel award for physics at the very least, every respectable science magazine will run an exclusive on it and it would be all over the global news network). you attempted to steal the credibility of science because your religion has none. pathetic.

Anonymous: i engaged him because i wanted to call his bullshit. i want everyone to see that he has nothing to back his claims up aside from hot air. and that's all we've gotten out of him so far :/

Mr. Farnsworth: i still think the best reason to reject the existence of the afterlife is that there's absolutely no objective proof of it. and the last bit is a bit of a non sequitur, innit? death is god, therefore god does not exist?

lovealynna said...

Take care of yourself, and don't forget your Pepsi.

And I just read this:

Have you read any of Dawkins' books?

k0k s3n w4i said...

lovealynna: i have heard good things about julia sweeney's monologue on letting go of god; also available in audio and dvd (which i did not check out) - but wow. the transcript's really something. i went through many of the same beats.

and no, i have not read a single one of prof dawkin's books (even the ones he published in his capacity as an evolutionary biologist). i became an atheist long before discovering the man, and i suspect his writings would pretty much be the preach to my choir. i did read a chapter in the god delusion on the subject of agnosticism though. pretty good. he and i are both agnostic atheists in the same sense we understand the concept. are you thinking of checking him out?

Anonymous said...

hey sen wai, as much as i understand that u r an atheist n believe in evolution, and i also have been reading up n questioning about God n religions. At the moment, i cant take religions, but as to God exists, i m thinking on the line of who created God then? and why is he playing SIMs the pc game wit humans...i was reading abt the irreducible complexity and the biochemical challenge that says that darwin's theory is inconsistent n flawed..n many claim that the only thing we shld turn to is i would like to hear ur take from this n learn from u as well :)


k0k s3n w4i said...

Kel: well, let's look at irreducible complexity and what it claims. the originator of the theory, Michael Behe, defined an irreducibly complex system as a system "composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning" in his book, Darwin's Black Box.

it is essentially one big argument from ignorance - specifically an argument from incredulity. what he's basically saying is "i have no idea how these systems came about - therefore goddidit." he is confusing the unexplained with the unexplainable.

the funny thing is, some of the systems he claimed to be irreducibly complex... turned out to be NOT irreducibly complex after all. i'll use the poster child of irreducible complexity as an example: a bacterial flagellum. behe claimed that the absence of any of its complex interacting protein parts would result in a non-functional organ (or rather, organelle).

this is bullshit. the basal body of the flagellum is found to be homologous to the type iii secretion system, a needle-like structure that pathogenic such as salmonella spp. and yersinia pestis use to secrete toxins into living eukaryotic cells. so, taking bits off a flagellum will not result in a functionless bacterial machine. the flagellum can conceivably evolve from this secretion system. my citations are,

the flagellum unspun

or if you want a much more scientific explanation,

evolution in (brownian) space: a model for the origin of the bacterial flagellum

the author of the first paper, ken miller, also had a youtube vid on the subject if you're predisposed to consuming information that way. i recommend that you check this out before reading the literature ;)

now, you do the same with all the other things that behe and proponents of intelligent design claim to be irreducibly complex. go poke around the internet and see if those claims have already been answered (they have).

all these might be a bit hard to grasp if you're not a science student or familiar with the jargon. maybe it would help if i tell you that irreducible complexity is considered by the scientific community as a pseudoscientific concept which had been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large? hope i answered your question.

Anonymous said...

Hey, thks for sharing i have learnt a lot, and i m actually watching the videos now...hmm, i actually major in accounts n finance at uni now, but i have to done biology till my A lvls..and some life science engineering mods, so i can do graps some of it, tho kinda rusty..just an interesting point, ken miller said he's a roman catholic and a theist...its juz so ironical that yet he believes tt its very possible that we evovle for it? :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

kel: we did not evolve from primates. we are primates. both chimpanzees and us share a common ancestor (which was also a primate) 4 million years ago before we split on the evolutionary tree. and it's not at all ironic that ken miller's a catholic. the vatican pretty much okayed evolution in the mid 20th century. and you're welcome :)

Anonymous said...

ooooh..ok..i tort we are considered homosapiens instead? lol..all this jargons are confusing me at times..ahhh..i learnt something new, so catholics accept evolution, n yet christians dont rite? they are all so totally against seems..well, it kinda makes me think tt when catholics are so against abortion, contraception and homosexuality, but yet they accept evolution..doesnt really make sense tho..And since christianity was a branch of catholic thanks to martin luther king, i find it strange tt they cant accept it..

Dr.Vishaal Bhat said...

Hey! Please do not be this stupid again. Life is important!

k0k s3n w4i said...

kel: homo sapiens are primates. catholics are christians. the protestants (also christians) split from the catholic church during the protestant reformation in the 16th century initiated by martin luther and his ninety-five theses. martin luther king is someone entirely different.

Dr.Vishaal Bhat: yessuh! but in my defense, i wasn't drinking. it was just a really long journey and in spite of all the coffee (and pseudoephedrine) in my system, i just nodded off. i wasn't even aware i was sleepy :/

lovealynna said...

Yup, I am! I've watched a few snippets of his TV show or whatever it was? It was quite interesting. :) I'll probably try to get my hands on The God Delusion.

Teabie said...

silly, silly!

i am a lurker, but i need to respond this time because of your near-death incident! i still want to read your blog entries for a looooong time to come... well, until you start having babies, haha.

i'm a christian, but i feel no obligation to refute you nor defend my beliefs. to each their own. your entry makes perfect sense to me.

k0k s3n w4i said...

lovealynna: it's the british accent. very hypnotic, haha. personally, i prefer christopher hitchens (also brit, now struggling with oesophageal cancer). he's a lot better at rhetorics, and orders of magnitude funnier and more scathing.

Teabie: aw c'mon! anyone could have fallen asleep at the wheel! and i don't think i'm ever going to have kids. i have no use for them, personally - but i see the appeal these miniature humanoids hold for most :P