Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Epicurus and the Afterlife

This is something I posted on a yahoo groups forum a few minutes ago and thought might be of interest...


So, to the point. About your post about the afterlife, I think it's very helpful to read Lucretius/Epicurus. If you're not into Philosophy, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher, several hundred years before Aristotle, Plato, and the other "masters" of the field. Though no complete pieces of his work still exist, there are many fragments, and most importantly is Lucretius's work, "On The Nature of Things," an incredibly long poem explaining the ideas of Epicurus. I believe this is the origin of the phrase "epic poem," but I'm not completely certain on that. It's a very interesting read for any atheist, especially considering that up until the 1500s many atheists and skeptics were referred to as "Epicureans" -- you may have even heard this comment yourself, so that's where it comes from. If you want to read his work, check out http://classics.mit.edu/Carus/nature_things.html .

For those of you not wanting to read the 250 pages or so of poetry about Epicurus's view of the universe and life, the pertinent info regarding the "afterlife" concept boils down to a few simple concepts.

Imagine you are floating in a suspension tank, surrounded on all sides by water. You can't feel gravity acting upon you, you can't smell, and there's no light, so you can't see anything. There is no noise, so your ears perceive nothing. Imagine complete sensory deprivation. Like floating in outer space (minus the whole imploding thing) or in a suspension tank, this is similar to what happens when you die. Similar, but not the whole story. As Descartes said, "cogito ergo sum" -- I think therefore I am. In death, the "I am" part is gone, so you have to realize so is the "I think" part. The human brain processes over 4 billion bits of information per second. Even when you aren't thinking about thinking, you're still thinking. For me personally, the only time I've ever been able to clear my brain of a constant stream of thoughts has been through meditation, and even then, there's still some level of thinking going on. This is what religious folk refer to as "the soul" -- others call it "consciousness" -- it's the unending stream of thoughts that you identify are your "self" -- since every cell in the body dies and is replaced in the span of 7 years, this stream of thought is the only thing that identifies us as ourselves. I can't stress the importance of this stream of thought enough.

But now imagine that were to end as well. But consciousness is not like rational time -- If it ends, it's as if it never existed. So all the experiences you've had in your life, all your memories, all your thoughts you barely recognized in yourself but still impacted your personality and life -- all these things disappear, and it's as if you never existed. It is pure, complete, total nonexistence. The opposite of everything you know.

Consider this -- heaven and hell, the concepts we're taught by our Judeo-Christian society, are based on right and wrong. But right and wrong, as we know them, are more aptly called guilt and pride. Guilt results when you do something you believe to be contradictory to your beliefs. Something you believe to be immoral. Pride results with the alignment of your actions and your self-defined morality. Heaven and hell are thus eternal guilt or eternal pride, based upon self-reflection and determination of self-value. Many philosophers have said that hell is nothing more than looking back with regret upon your life, and repeating that thought forever, thus inflicting upon yourself the worst of pain imaginable -- the kind a pitchfork can't do, the kind that can only be done by our own feelings of failure and inadequacy.

But, if consciousness ceases to exist upon death, so do guilt and pride. Heaven and hell are negated by the disappearance of consciousness. One might call it freedom, but freedom implies existence to enjoy that freedom. In truth, it is nothing.

I've extrapolated quite a bit from the Epicurean point of view, but it's basically what he said with some modern science and consciousness updates.


...I'll probably add some more later on this subject, but this should placate you for now.

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