“Nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed” – Lavoisier
Before I discuss this in any significant detail, let me make myself perfectly clear on where I’m coming from: I am an atheist; I always have been an atheist; and I am quite certain that I always will be an atheist. I have no supernatural beliefs of any kind, nor do I have any kind of ‘faith’ that does not stand up to scientific, logical or common sense appraisal. In challenging the popular notion of death (that we do indeed die, and oblivion lies thereafter), I am not seeking to argue the existence of an afterlife, or some kind of divine being, or any other fallible idea like that. I am seeking merely to explain in simple terms that our ideas of birth and death are myths. We do not die, and neither are we born – and I say this for scientific reasons in the purest sense.
To explain this fully, we’re going to have see first what our concepts of death are, then consider what we think ‘dies’, and then see what actually happens. I’ll try and do this as briefly and straightforwardly as possible.
- The Mistake Modern Atheism has made with Death
In the old Christian societies of the West, such as here in the UK, our ideas of death have come almost exclusively from Christianity. In the Christian schema of life, time moves from left to right, from start to finish, from Creation to Judgement. It moves linearly. Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam) asserts that our current existence is just a short period of linear time in between two gaping spaces of utter oblivion. God created you, gave you a life on Planet Earth in order to test you, then, if you did well enough, he would collect you at the end and take you to Heaven for the rest of eternity. Or, if you weren’t so lucky, you went to hell.
There are a couple of assumptions made in order for this way of seeing existence to be true. The first is the assumption that you are ‘born original’; that is to say, that you are born with an absolute, inherent identity (or ‘soul’), and you will keep that identity for both this life and eternity thereafter. This means that I was born as Benjamin Tunwell, and I was always going to be Benjamin Tunwell and always will be, and the traits and characteristics I have were totally determined by God and I’m more or less stuck with them. You also have Original Sin, which was inherited from Adam and Eve and means that human beings are inherently bad and they have to be kept on the straight and narrow in order to stop them from doing bad things. You might as well surrender to God because everything’s so terrible and if you don’t then you’ll really suffer.
I really hope quite sincerely that it is clear these ideas are just that: ideas. They are fallible, each one of them. They are human creations. I’d like to discuss each one individually, but the one we’re really interested in here is the concept of birth and death, which is that we came from somewhere else, and we’re going somewhere else when we die.
This, for reasons I will explain, is nonsense. But the problem at the moment is that modern atheism has not got rid of it. Speaking as an atheist, I think modern atheism has totally shot itself in the foot by failing to create its own healthy worldview after toppling religion. It has kept the essential ideas listed above, but taken God out of the equation; in other words, we still believe that we are heading for eternity elsewhere when we die, but now there is no longer a God to make life worthwhile. The life choices presented in our time are naïve religious faith on the one hand, and black-hearted nihilism on the other.*
This is wrong. I am neither a believer in the supernatural, and neither do I believe in the nihilistic worldview now presented to us in the modern age. I do not, for instance, believe that you leave this planet when you die, and the reason behind that lies in the question of what ‘you’ are.
- What Are ‘You’?
You might have spotted a consequence of the idea that you were created independently and arrived on this earth from somewhere else. The suggestion is that you do not belong here. Instead, we feel as if we are confronting the universe as an alien from somewhere else, afraid and confused by it. I will make clear here that you did not come from somewhere else, and the reason you feel like that is because you haven’t understood that, short of being an alien from elsewhere, you are an intrinsic part of this world.
The question of your identity is the important thing here, and to explain it I’ll use the analogy of a book.
When you think of a book, you probably think of an individual object that appears to be separate from the rest of the world around it. You might think that the moment the book was ‘born’ was when it was deemed ready to sell, and the moment it will ‘die’ will be the moment it falls apart. Therefore the book appears to have a life-span similar to ours – it is born, it exists independent of the world around it, and then it dies.
But this, with a little thought, is untrue for one major reason: the book is not separate to the rest of the universe. In fact, the book exists as a direct consequence of the universe – without the universe, it could not exist. For example, the book can only exist because of the tree it came from, and the sun that fed the tree, and the air the tree breathed and the water it sucked up, and the person who cut the tree down, and the book-binder and the ink-maker and the distributor and so on. In fact, a book is made up entirely of what we could call ‘non-book’ elements – everything that makes a book what it is has come from somewhere else. Since these things are intrinsic to the book’s identity, then we can see really very clearly that the book was not ‘born’ as an independent entity sent here from somewhere else, but was produced by lots of different elements of the universe. Therefore the book was never ‘born’, and the book will never ‘die’, because it already existed in different forms. All the elements that make it up will simply go on assuming different forms.
To understand this in more depth, we’ve got to see that the moments at which we think ‘birth’ and ‘death’ occur are moments we humans have arbitrarily decided on. Similarly, we have decided that the identity of the book is restricted to its physical mass, when surely all the ‘non-book’ elements listed above are equally as intrinsic to its existence as the pages that make it up. By looking into this we can see that our ideas of life and identity are very narrow indeed.
Consider, for example, this question: how big is the sun? Well, to answer that we need to define the sun somehow. But by what criteria do we define it? Do we define it as limited by the extent of its fire? How about the extent of its heat, or its light? But, then, surely if the sun is dependent on lots of other things in the universe (such as the Big Bang, space and the gases it consists of), then those things are just as much the sun as the fire we see in the sky? Yet we have arbitrarily agreed to define it by the limit of its visible fire.
Again we can see how our need to define things is inadequate. There is nothing in this universe that can be defined by consistent criteria, because all phenomena are too multi-dimensional and too dependent on other phenomena to be compartmentalsed. Everything in this universe is a part of a very intimately connected system of interdependence. In this way, ‘identity’ as we understand it cannot exist.
Having understood this, let’s apply this to ourselves.
When exactly did you begin? Was it the moment you left the womb? Or was it the moment you were conceived? Or, in fact, was it the moment your parents achieved puberty and generated sperm and eggs? Or was it when your parents were born, or their parents? The question of when you began is much more complicated than it first appears. But essentially for the sake of simplicity and legality we all agree that the moment you began was when you emerged from your mother. This, as I hope I’m demonstrating, is an invention. You were not ‘born’ when you exited your mother, in the sense that that was when you began; in a sense, you never ‘began’ at all, because the complex nexus of things that have led to your existence stretch almost infinitely throughout both time and space. There’s no way you can adequately say that ‘you’ began at a certain point, other than possibly at the Big Bang – but even then, something caused that didn’t it?
When you consider what everything in this universe really is, we can see immediately that nothing has an inherent identity that is independent of everything else. Every single last thing in this universe, from you, to the floor, to the sky, is entirely dependent on everything else in this universe. The universe is an extremely intimately connected network of independent systems, and you are one of those things. For you to exist, you need the universe to exist. And in this way, our conception of our individual identity tends to be extremely narrow, because, as I explained above, we tend to believe that we are independent of the rest of the universe, that we came into being when we left the womb, and that we will die when our body ‘stops working’.
So what ‘you’ are is no less than the entire universe. This is difficult to get your head round, because it seems to go against deeply ingrained ideas that are absolutely fundamental to our culture. Still, I hope I’m starting to make clear how wrong we are to think this way.
- So why won’t you die?
This still does not entirely explain why you won’t die. At this point you’re probably thinking: ‘I can accept that I am connected to the rest of the universe, but I don’t see how that stops me dying. I have a body that was given to me after conception, and this body will stop working. Death still exists.’
The only reason you still come to that conclusion is because you haven’t understood the real nature of your identity. You see, just like the book described above, ‘you’ are entirely dependent on an almost infinite number of phenomena throughout time and space. And – and this is the important part – if you are dependent on them – if your existence could not be without them – then you are not separate from them. Because you rely on the sun for your food, you are the sun; because you rely on the air to breathe, you are the air; because you require the universe to exist, you are the universe.
This is a vital acknowledgement to make, and one that answers in one fell swoop the otherwise impossible question of identity. You see, you are something the universe is doing, and you are quite literally changing from moment to moment along with everything else within it. One moment you are angry, the next moment you are sad; one moment you have one set of skin cells, the next moment they have died and you have a new set. Saying at the age of 50 that you are the same thing that existed at 21 is almost entirely incorrect.
Take the example of a car. Say that over the course of time since you have owned the car, every single last piece of it has been removed and a new piece put in. Is it the same car that you had before? In one sense yes, in another sense no.
The best analogy I can think of is that of a whirlpool. The water in the stream is the universe, and the whirlpool is you; therefore you are something the universe is doing, and although the shape of the whirlpool is maintained, the water flowing through it is different from moment to moment. So, although the particular whirlpool you think of as yourself may appear to stop existing at some point, in fact the sheer reality beneath is the water. The message here is that we must not identify with the whirlpool, because in reality we are the water. We are a part of the constant flow of the universe.
There is nothing even vaguely ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ about this. It may sound like wishy-washy language, but applied literally it rings true. Your body does not move into non-existence, it merely changes. It does not ‘stop working’ when it dies in the sense that it stops being a part of things – it goes back into nature. This is literally what reincarnation means. There is a reason that flowers grow on graves.
The thing that you will most likely find troubling in this analysis of events is the idea of your loss of consciousness. Human beings become very attached to ideas of themselves, and your consciousness, including things like your experience and memory, is just one of those things. This is why we must let go of our attachments, because if you don’t then the idea of dying becomes a very painful one indeed.
I’m not going to claim I’m some kind of expert in matters of the universe, but I’d like to think that something in the argument made above rings true for most people who read it. I don’t know the argument inside out, so for my part I’m still learning and piecing it together. I’m sure I’ll receive plenty of very strong rebuttals, and I hope this happens because the only way you can really get to understand something is by interrogating it.
Nevertheless I hope I’ve shown that our ideas of birth and death are too often based on deeply ingrained cultural conceptions, and they need to be challenged.
Again, I’d like to stress that there is nothing religious, spiritual or immaterial in this analysis, and neither is it a hopefully optimistic view of things. It is simply a straightforward appraisal of how things occur. The only reason you might think it’s a naïvely hopeful view is because we’re so inclined in this post-God age to believe that we really are not a part of our environment, that everything is unconnected and that our lives are simply a flash in the existential pan. As I say, I do not see a need to believe in God to feel connected to the universe; after all, I am the universe. So are you.
For one last thought, think of a cloud. When we look at a cloud in the sky, we think: ‘there is a cloud.’ Then, when it rains, the cloud seems to disappear, and we think: ‘the cloud has died.’ But it has not died – it has changed into rain. There is no such thing as birth, and there is no such thing as death: there is only continuation.