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Dec 16 2009

Atheist Meme of the Day: Being Dead Is Like Not Being Born Yet

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death. Among other things, it offers the idea that death is not to be feared: being dead will be just like it was before we were born, and that wasn’t frightening or painful. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Ramel

    Things were not painful or frightening before we were born because we did not exist as concious people with thoughts and feelings. Being dead won’t hurt or scare me for the same reason, however as someone who happens to like existing I confess that I don’t find this fact to be all that comforting.

  2. 2
    Valhar2000

    Yeah, I agree, I don’t really expect the absence of an afterlife to provide comfort for anybody, even though it does not bother me at all.

  3. 3
    jason

    “…being dead will be just like it was before we were born…”
    and you know this with absolute certainty…how? or perhaps this is just simply what you faithfully believe.

  4. 4
    Ramel

    Did jason just ask how we know that not existing would be very similar to not existing?

  5. 5
    Moxiequz

    Ug. I strongly dislike this meme.
    Among other things, it offers the idea that death is not to be feared: being dead will be just like it was before we were born, and that wasn’t frightening or painful.
    I have to confess this really isn’t a comfort to me either. I don’t want to die and not because I fear pain or Hell or whatever. I don’t want to die because I like existing. The whole “there’s nothing after death” may be the truth (and to be clear I do believe it IS the truth based on the evidence we have so far) but that doesn’t mean everyone finds that idea comforting. Maybe if I reach an age or a circumstance where non-existence would be preferable to a painful existence I’ll change my mind but right now I still fear death. Or maybe I should say I fear losing the life (consciousness) I have here on Earth.

  6. 6
    Greta Christina

    Moxiequz and others: I understand that not everyone finds this idea comforting. I like life, too, and I don’t love the fact that I’m going to miss out on a lot of it. But for a lot of people — maybe especially for people brought up to believe in hell — the idea that death will just be like not having been born yet is very comforting indeed.
    This meme by itself can’t remove the sting of death. Nothing can — including belief in God. I’m just putting up an assortment of ideas that some people may find useful or informative. Not every meme is for everybody.
    And Jason: I don’t know this with absolute certainty. But it seems to be where all the available evidence is pointing. In any case, I think you may be missing the point of today’s meme. It isn’t an argument for why atheism is correct. It’s an attempt to offer reassurance to atheists — and to people who are on the fence about atheism but are afraid to take that step. Given how much time I spend trying to persuade people out of their religious beliefs, I think it’s important and responsible to try to provide a safe place to land when they jump.

  7. 7
    jason

    @ramel -
    your question presupposes that consciousness terminates at the moment of death. since you haven’t died and dead people aren’t very conversational anymore, you can’t know this as a certainty.
    btw – in the future, you can address me directly if you like but you should bring with you a valid defense of your position instead of just some snarky dismissive statements. those just serve to make your position look weak.

  8. 8
    Ramel

    I don’t think dismissing the same tired old arguments that have been thrown out over and over really weakens or stregnthens my position.
    Provide a half decent reason to take the idea of consciousness continuing after the brain stops functioning and I will consider it, until then you only rate snarky dismissivness. Until you provide good evidence for your position it is in fact completely indistinguishable from something that some guy just made up, and I see no good reason to treat it as anything else.

  9. 9
    jason

    @greta
    “I don’t know this with absolute certainty. But it seems to be where all the available evidence is pointing.’
    what a refreshingly honest answer. i like that.
    and i do understand the point of the post. you must understand that, respectfully, i disagree with it. as a theist and a rationalist i feel obligated to raise some valid objections to your position. please know that i only do this in the spirit of the potential of one or both of us coming away with a better understanding of ourselves and each other.
    on a side note -
    have you honestly – honestly – considered the possibility that you have not interpreted the evidence correctly? evidence in and of itself does not reveal truth. as i’m sure you know, it can only be interpreted and conclusions drawn from that analysis. sometimes those conclusions, either through faulty analysis, or false presuppositions, or pure human error, do not lead one to truth.

  10. 10
    Greta Christina

    since you haven’t died and dead people aren’t very conversational anymore, you can’t know this as a certainty.

    And for what seems like the eighty billionth time in this blog:
    There is almost nothing that we can know as a certainty. We can’t even know as a certainty that the earth orbits the sun. But there are things we can know with a reasonable degree of certainty; hypotheses that are currently supported by a massive body of evidence, hypotheses that it’s entirely reasonable to assume are true unless we see strong evidence to the contrary.
    And the idea that consciousness is a physical, biological process that stops when we die is one of those ideas. All the current data is pointing to that idea. And there is not one piece of strong, rigorously gathered and tested data to suggest otherwise.
    Besides, once again, you’re missing the point of this meme. This isn’t meant to be an argument for atheism being correct. This is meant to be a helping hand to people who have already accepted that atheism is probably correct — and to people who are considering whether atheism is probably correct but are fearful of the consequences of that conclusion. I don’t think people should believe in religion based purely on wishful thinking. I’m trying to offer an emotional safety net to people without religion. Do you have a problem with that?

  11. 11
    jason

    @ramen,
    “Provide a half decent reason to take the idea of consciousness continuing after the brain stops functioning and I will consider it”
    sure. http://www.iands.org/journal.html
    the question is, however, is it evidence you’re willing to accept?

  12. 12
    jason

    “And there is not one piece of strong, rigorously gathered and tested data to suggest otherwise.”
    nor is there any to suggest that your mother loves you. or not as the case may be. or that beauty exists. or that physics, mathematics, reason, and logic are universally immutable and true. or that you should behave in a “good” manner rather in an “evil” one. if that is the standard by which ALL truth is determined – i would have to say it is sorely lacking.
    and, no, i don’t have a problem with it. i only disagree as people are wont to do from time to time.

  13. 13
    Ramel

    Near death experiences? Really? Are you honestly calling those evidence of life continuing after death? Is this evidence that I’m willing to accept?
    Well the short answer to that last one is a resounding no. Anecdotes of the experiences of people who are undergoing anethesia or experiencing extreme trauma are not even almost credible evidence for an afterlife.
    My own mother claimed such an experience in the aftermath of her car crash ten years ago, she maintains to this day that she had a near death experience and the spirit of her long dead grandmother was there to tell her it wasn’t her time.
    Let’s apply Occam’s razor to this one, during surgery my mother left her body for a spiritual form and had a chat with a woman who had been in her grave for almost 20 years, or a she had hallucinations caused by heavy duty meds and massive head trauma… Hmmmm, hard to work out which is more likely isn’t it?
    Not to mention that in all those near death experiances the brain still worked to some degree, so this is in fact irrelevent to the question of consciousness continuing after the brain stops functioning, but thanks for playing.
    P.S. I am not a noodle.

  14. 14
    Greta Christina

    nor is there any [evidence] to suggest that your mother loves you.

    Actually, there is substantial evidence of this. When she was alive, my mother behaved in most respects as a woman who loved her daughter: she cared for my needs, she expressed empathy when I was unhappy, she listened to my concerns and gave me (usually) good advice, she expressed pleasure in my company, she gave me physical affection, she told me many times that I was special and that she loved me, etc. etc. etc. I suppose it’s hypothetically possible that she was faking it really well — but again, 100% certainty is not a reasonable expectation, and the most plausible explanation by far of the available evidence is that she loved me.

    or that beauty exists.

    And again — yes, there is ample evidence of this. “Beauty” is a human experience/ concept, and there is plenty of evidence to think that this experience/ concept is one that does in fact take place in people’s minds. (If you mean “that beauty exists” as some abstract Platonic substance or entity… I don’t think it does.)

    or that physics, mathematics, reason, and logic are universally immutable and true.

    I don’t claim that they are. I don’t know if they are. (Except for mathematics and logic, which are true by definition: if you define your axioms and your terms in such-and-such a way, you’ll get such and such a result, by nature of the way you’ve defined them.)
    “Universally immutable and true” is an almost impossible thing to prove. “True as far as all the available evidence shows” is all we can really expect.

    or that you should behave in a “good” manner rather in an “evil” one.

    This is a subjective moral value, not a truth claim, so I don’t see how it’s relevant. (Although in fact, I do think there’s good evidence for this proposition. When people behave ethically, on the whole life improves for both themselves and others. With many exceptions, of course.) Again, though, what one “should” do is to some extent a subjective question, subject to how you define terms like “good,” “evil,” and “should” — it’s not a truth claim, like “there is a non-material soul animating our consciousness which lives on after we die.” And non-subjective truth claims are exactly the sort of questions we should expect evidence for.
    You’re making some common mistakes here. You’re mistaking “strong evidence” for “absolute certain proof.” You’re assuming that all truth claims that can’t be proven with 100% certainty are therefore all equally likely. And you’re confusing subjective experiences with truth claims about the external, non-subjective world.
    Oh, and Ramel is right — near death experiences have been thoroughly debunked as anything other than an altered state of consciousness brought on by loss of oxygen to the brain and so on. When investigated rigorously, any claims that they’re a supernatural experience of the immaterial soul leaving the body have been entirely discredited.
    You’re actually making yourself into Exhibit A of a point I made in Show Me the Money: Religion, Evidence, and the Parade of Excuses. On the one hand, you really want there to be solid, external evidence of your beliefs, and are trying to suggest that there is. Then literally ten minutes later, you’re arguing for why that sort of evidence is not a reasonable expectation.

  15. 15
    jason

    “Well the short answer to that last one is a resounding no. Anecdotes of the experiences of people who are…”
    i thought as much. you have in your mind already dismissed every case of nde (tens of thousands of cases worldwide) as bunk because it doesn’t comport with your worldview.
    “Not to mention that in all those near death experiances (sic) the brain still worked to some degree…”
    not true. you’ve made an assumption there. there are many reported cases of nde experiences when clinical brain death was pronounced. a neuropsychiatrist, peter fenwick, has seen it firsthand.
    “The brain isn’t functioning. It’s not there. It’s destroyed. It’s abnormal. But, yet, it can produce these very clear experiences … an unconscious state is when the brain ceases to function. For example, if you faint, you fall to the floor, you don’t know what’s happening and the brain isn’t working. The memory systems are particularly sensitive to unconsciousness. So, you won’t remember anything. But, yet, after one of these experiences [a NDE], you come out with clear, lucid memories … This is a real puzzle for science. I have not yet seen any good scientific explanation which can explain that fact.”
    some of these cases have come during brain operations that use a procedure that cool’s the body’s core temperature to about 60 degrees causing heart failure and in a few instances brain death. fascinating stuff really.
    its okay to be skeptical – but keep in mind that in the not too far removed past, there hasn’t been strong evidence for many, many things that are commonplace knowledge today.
    btw – i’ not a noodle either.

  16. 16
    jason

    @greta
    “Actually, there is substantial evidence of this. When she was alive, my mother behaved…”
    really? i’d like to see the “rigorously gathered and tested data” on this if you don’t mind.
    “”Beauty” is a human experience/ concept, and there is plenty of evidence to think that this experience/ concept…”
    again, if its not too much trouble, the rigorously gathered and tested data if you would.
    “I don’t claim that they are. I don’t know if they are.”
    well, that makes sense since you don’t have a basis from your worldview to make such claims.
    “This is a subjective moral value, not a truth claim…”
    i disagree. i believe that it is an objective moral value and as such well within the parameters of a truth claim. the rape and murder of a child, i’m sure you would agree, would not be something that is only subjectively wrong. everyone knows that universally it is an evil act – even the perpetrator.
    “Oh, and Ramel is right — near death experiences have been thoroughly debunked…”
    yes. thoroughly. which is why there are dr’s (such as the aforementioned peter fenwick) worldwide still studying the phenomenon and trying to understand what it is and why it occurs. i guess they haven’t heard about said debunking yet.
    “Then literally ten minutes later, you’re arguing for why that sort of evidence is not a reasonable expectation.”
    no. i was actually pointing out that the scientific method fails to validate ALL truth claims. not every truth is subject to empirical testing.

  17. 17
    Greta Christina

    you have in your mind already dismissed every case of nde (tens of thousands of cases worldwide) as bunk because it doesn’t comport with your worldview.

    No. That’s not correct. We reject near-death experiences as evidence of an immaterial soul because that conclusion is not consistent with many basic facts we have about how the mind works; because the studies that supposedly support the idea of NDEs were poorly done with terrible methodology; because when subjected to more careful and rigorous testing the claims fell apart; and because there’s a better explanation of these phenomena that’s more consistent with the other evidence we have about the brain and the mind — the explanation that NDEs are simply altered states of consciousness caused by oxygen deprivation and so on. (Here’s a link to just some of the work done on this subject.)
    And the fact that a few doctors still believe in it doesn’t make it true. That’s what’s called “arguing from authority.” The fact that some authority figures believe something doesn’t make it true. The question is: What evidence do they have?

    really? i’d like to see the “rigorously gathered and tested data” on this if you don’t mind.

    Have you heard the concept, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”? The claim that a mother loves her child or that human beings have a way of experiencing the world that we call “beauty” are not extraordinary claims. They are entirely ordinary. That being said, there is carefully done research in the fields of psychology and neurology, both on maternal love and on how humans experience beauty. Ten seconds of Googling found hundreds of thousands of hits on the former question; here’s just one. And read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia for a wonderful exploration of the latter question.
    But the claim that there’s an immaterial soul animating consciousness is an extraordinary claim. It runs counter to a massive body of evidence pointing to the conclusion that consciousness is a physical, biological process of cause and effect. Therefore, it needs to substantiate itself with much better evidence than “some people had some weird experiences when they were close to death.”
    Oh, and re morality: There is, in fact, active and extensive scientific research being done on what basic human moral values are: what they have in common across different cultures, and why they differ when they do differ. The claim that human morality is common across humanity (if not entirely universal) is a testable claim, and it’s one that’s being researched.
    Every one of the hypotheses that you claim can’t be tested empirically are, in fact, very testable indeed. They can’t be known with 100% certainty; but they can be supported with a reasonable degree of certainty.
    And yes, when we make claims about how the external, non-subjective world works, we need to be able to back those claims up with evidence. If we can’t, if our claims are entirely untestable and unfalsifiable, we have no way of distinguishing between the thousands upon thousands of competing claims — none of which has any more evidence to support it than any other.
    Finally, I will again point out: On the one hand, you’re trying to say “Not every truth is subject to empirical testing” and it’s unfair to expect religion to be verified by evidence. Then on the other hand, you’re trying to support your religious belief with the notoriously poor “evidence” of NDEs. Which is it? Is your claim falsifiable and supported by evidence — or isn’t it? If it is supported by evidence… then do you have better evidence than NDEs? And if it’s not falisifiable, if there is literally no evidence that would make you change your mind… then why should we bother debating you?

  18. 18
    Stephen Frug

    Do you know the opening paragraph to Nabokov’s (wonderful) memoir Speak, Memory?
    “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heart-beats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first-time at home-made movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby-carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.”

  19. 19
    Libby

    You know, I’ve always thought this and told people this, but no one ever seemed to understand it. I’m glad someone gets it.

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