Saturday, March 23, 2013

Random Thought - A Funeral: Infinity and Meaning

Today I went to a memorial service for a man I never met. He was the husband of a woman I worked with for several years before she recently left the agency where I work to go to a position with a government owned corporation. Until his death, I don't think I even knew his name. I knew she was married, and I had met her daughters, but the mental space he occupied in my head was simply "Laura's husband". I don't know for certain, but I would guess that he probably never heard my name or knew who I was. If our paths had crossed while walking on the street, we wouldn't have known each other. So why did I spend most of my Saturday at a Unitarian Universalist church at his memorial service? Because funerals and memorial services aren't for the dead, they are for the living.

One question that I have seen posed by believers to atheists is why we would mourn the dead. Why, they ask, would you hold a service for someone who is dead if you don't believe in any kind of afterlife? And I have to wonder how warped their minds truly are. Even if one believed in an "afterlife", such a function is clearly not for the deceased. Whether there is a "life eternal" or not, they aren't affected by what we do any more. If there is actually an afterlife, then they know it, and they've headed off to whatever existence such an afterlife entails, whether we sit around and think about them or not. No, a service for the dead is to help those who are left behind to cope with the loss. And even if you don't believe in a life after death, that doesn't mean you can't feel for the loss of a life, or offer support to those who have suffered as a result. I wasn't there for Dan, who I didn't know and as far as I can tell, is beyond caring about such things, but for Laura, who has to deal with being a relatively young widow with three teenage daughters.

During the service, one of the speakers told a story about how Dan, who apparently had some musical talent, had taken up the saxophone relatively recently because one of his daughters was learning to play the saxophone and he wanted to be able to help her. And this reminded me of the most important thing about a memorial service: it reminds us that we are finite, and as a result, our lives have meaning. Because infinity renders life meaningless.

This is what I consider to be one of the great tragedies of the religious idea of an eternal afterlife - it robs us of our mortality, and as a result it robs us of our ability to make our lives have meaning. Because meaning comes from choice, and eternity eliminates choice. Dan chose to spend time learning how to play another instrument in order to connect with his daughter. By doing this, he made a choice to do that and not something else. He made a sacrifice of his time to show that he cared about his child. But if his life were infinite, as many religions promise, then his choice has no import at all. He could spend any amount of time learning the saxophone and still have just as much time left to do something else. Anything you wanted to do, you could do, take as much time as you wanted doing it, and still have an eternity of time ahead of you. Spend a hundred years learning an instrument? You still have an infinite amount of time left. Spend a thousand years mastering all of the intricacies of quantum mechanics? You still have an infinite amount of time left. Spend a hundred thousand years dancing? You still have an infinite amount of time left. Spend an infinity of time playing video games? You still have an infinite amount of time left. No choice has any consequence, so no choice has any meaning. If you read a book now, or read a book ten thousand years from now, it is all the same.

Eternal life, in short, eliminates all possible meaning to anything that we could ever do. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in The Last Answer, the only conundrum that has any content that matters is "how do you end eternal life", because that's the only thing that would require a real investment of ourselves. Any other question would be trivial, because no matter how long it took to find an answer, no matter how long it took to accomplish something, no matter how long we took to do something, we would always have the same amount of time left stretching out before us: eternity. Our decisions have meaning, our lives have meaning because we will die. Where does an atheist get meaning from? From the realization that this is all we have, and as a result, the decisions we make matter.

Every person has roughly twenty-two thousand days allotted to us. Every decision that we make eats up a little bit of your time available. Choose to do one thing, choose to spend time with one person, and you are closing off other options. It's like we all have a pile of coins in our hand, and every day we spend one coin. And once we are out of coins, we are finished, and our run is complete. And we don't know how many coins we have. So every coin is important. Every choice matters. Every decision has meaning.

How will you spend your coins?

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  1. I actually find that the notion of eternal life adds meaning to every single second of every single day. However my father taught me to be a good person without hope of reward or fear of punishment - as if there was nothing more than this one life. Guess I believe both at the same time.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: People are strange aren't they? We can hold two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time and fervently believe them both.

    I don't see how anything can have any meaning when stretched out to eternity, because everything becomes equally costly (actually, costless). But I don't understand a lot of things that other people believe.