10 “Unanswerable” questions #2

Despite TodayChristian’s claim that atheists can’t really, honestly answer these questions, I think yesterday’s post did a pretty good job, overall. The question was “Why did you become an atheist,” and being somewhat of a subject-matter expert in that regard, I had no problems with it. On to the next question:

2.       What happens when we die?

Hmm, another easy one.

The short and perfectly accurate answer is that when we die, we stop living. That pretty much sums it up, but it might be worthwhile to go into a little more detail. What is life? We know that it is a material process that depends on a number of physical prerequisites. There has to be a reasonably steady source of physical nutrients. Most organisms also require a steady supply of oxygen. Certain physical structures are also necessary (i.e. the organism must be uninjured). As long as these physical requirements are met, and as long as the organism has not accumulated too much damage from the wear-and-tear of aging, life can continue.

This much is uncontroversial and common knowledge. The difference between a live organism and a dead one is a physical difference, and we can distinguish between the two by making material observations, subject to a certain margin of error. What happens when we die is that the physical processes of life cease.

No doubt TodayChristian won’t be satisfied with an answer like that, no matter how accurate it is. TodayChristian probably wants to know, “Yeah, but what happens to us?” It’s a nonsensical question, like asking where does a flame go when you blow out the candle, or where does the sound of the symphony go when the orchestra stops playing. Processes only exist for as long as they are happening. When they stop, they’re gone.

The problem is that TodayChristian believes things that are based on stories told by men, rather than on the facts as we can observe and verify them. We know that consciousness is a physical process that can be impaired or halted by physical influences such as drugs, lack of oxygen, injury, disease, malnutrition, genetics, and so on. We observe this all the time. It’s why people pass out if they drink too much ethanol, and why people feel fuzzy-brained when they’re extremely fatigued. It’s why lead poisoning can make you more prone to violence, and why brain damage can leave you unable to function. Consciousness and thinking are physical processes with physical requirements, subject to physical limits and influences.

The same is true of memories, emotions, desires, fears, sensations, and so on. A concussion can cause you to lose your memory. Certain drugs can make you paranoid. Alcohol can dull your senses. All of these things are physical processes that continue for a certain time, and then end.

This is well-known fact, and uncontroversial. We know that life and consciousness are physical processes, and that when the organism dies, these processes cease. The candle goes out. The orchestra falls silent. There is no “it” to be the subject of the question, “What happens to it after the process stops?”

Now, TodayChristian would likely prefer to assert that they have some kind of special, spiritual knowledge (à la The Emperor’s New Clothes) that informs them there is something more to man than just material processes. But there’s two problems with making such a claim. First of all, my beliefs are based on easily verifiable real-world facts, and nothing more. TodayChristian’s beliefs are derived from stories told by men. They’re not based on reality. You can believe that kind of stuff if you want to, but the other name for that kind of faith is “gullibility.”

But secondly, suppose there were some kind of “it,” some kind of “soul,” above and beyond the material processes of human life. What would this “soul” consist of? It would not be consciousness, or memory, or perception, or feelings, or desire. We know all those things are material processes, subject to material limits. If the soul is something different, then what is it? Some weird, other “it” entirely outside of human perception and experience? If so, then on what basis does TodayChristian claim to have knowledge of it?

But of course, what we find when reading Christian literature, is that Christians envision the soul as being some kind of continuation of consciousness, perception, memory, sensation, and so on. In other words, the Christian concept of “soul” is a mere imitation of the material processes of human biological life. “Afterlife” is envisioned in Christian stories as being a continuation of material existence, only without the material components. It’s a great source of material for wish-fulfillment fantasies, but unfortunately it’s all faith-based faith, unrelated to what we can actually observe about the processes that make up the human mind in the real world.

So really, Question #2 is no harder to answer than #1 was. In Question #1 the answer was easy because I only needed to refer to my own personal experience, about which I doubt there is anyone more expert than I. Question #2 is equally easy, because the evidence is all around us, and can be casually verified just by sitting down with a case of beer and drinking until you experience firsthand the fact that physical substances can have an impact on consciousness. (IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: DON’T REALLY DO THIS!)

So the first two questions are really pretty softball questions. But—wait for it—Question #3 is the bombshell:

What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

Hah! Take that, atheists!


  1. Naked Bunny with a Whip says

    This question is profoundly self-centered. We know what happens after people die. It’s been studied and documented thoroughly. It’s not really a mystery. But TodayChristian’s readers “know” — they insist — that the universe must make an exception for them and for those they care about. The world got along just fine for billions of years before they came along, but now that they are here, they are simply too important to be dissolved away by entropy like everything else, despite all appearances to the contrary.

  2. Holms says

    As a lifelong non-believer, I still recall learning about the concept of death at age four, when the family dog died. What I find most instructive even to this day, was that fact that that sudden introduction to the concept led to fear, and that fear led to a desperate hope: after dying, can you come back? In other words, a small scared child independantly invented the concept of reincarnation out of fear of death.

    I never did convince myself that reincarnation was true, and my mum did not try to convince me beyond a non-commital “maybe.” Hence, I have been aware of the permanence of death for quite literally the entire span of my memory, but here is another memory that I also find instructive to this day: later in childhood / adolescence, when arguments amongst friends and other silly melodramas could drastically alter my outlook on life, I found the concept of a universal maker and carer ofhumanity – i.e. God / ‘buddy Jesus’ – to be very comforting. The idea that the maker of the entire universe was keeping an eye on me, had good outcome in store for me and all that, was a nice daydream from which I drew comfort despite knowing that it was a mere daydream.

    So, if a non-believer could draw comfort from religion as a sort of ‘happy place’ daydream during youthful melodrama, I can very easily believe that a religious person could experience something even more significant, and so I can very easily see that a person tearfully proclaiming to have been in the presence of Jesus himself is being entirely sincere… and yet I also know that drawing comfort from something is very possible even if that thing is fantasy. Not that this should be very controversial; I’m sure many people have had dreams that were fanciful and obviously afactual, and yet awoke with a smile at the rosy glow it imparted.

    I can only imagine what it must be like, to be a lifelong believer contemplating the possibility that the guarantee of eternal bliss might be false after all. It provides such comfort, such warmth, to imagine oneself being cradled by the maker of the universe; it does not surprise me that such a person must imagine the life of an atheist to be one of cold cynicism and existential dread. I also does not surprise me that such a person, having lived with that security into adulthood, would recoil in dismay at the creeping doubt that it might be fantasy, and hence push back against the smarmy atheist with the annoying arguments in anger.

    But of course it is not actually a bad thing to live without that security, and I should know: I have knowingly lived without it since I was four.

  3. Menyambal says

    I am a process of existing, as you say. A being, something that is. As such, it is difficult for me to imagine the opposite of that, me in a state of not-being, me not is. (It is even hard to write coherently.)

    But I just woke up from several hours of not-being. I was asleep. My consciousness was gone. I did not exist. I do that every night, and take that for granted. (Okay, the dreams are something, but they aren’t happening all the time, and they only make sense at the time.)

    And before I was about four years old, I didn’t exist. I find that hard to understand, but we all had a beginning. Of course, we all learn history, so we know there was a world before us, and Christians learn prophecy, so they know there is a world after them. It gives us the illusion of always existing.

    But yes, when we cease to be, there is nothing left of the process that is us. And there is nothing left to know that there is nothing.

    I try to avoid phrases like “is dead” and “has been dead”. “They died” is okay, but I’m going to try for something like “died away” after this article.

  4. Catlyn says

    My answer will be overly simplistic, but – when we die, the organic matter which comprises our body stops functioning and begins decaying. Eventually, our body disintegrates into little more than dust. Consciousness is a byproduct of our organic matter. When the organic matter ceases functioning, there is no longer consciousness, as you described in the apt metaphors of the flame or the music.

  5. says

    We know that life and consciousness are physical processes, and that when the organism dies, these processes cease. The candle goes out. The orchestra falls silent. There is no “it” to be the subject of the question, “What happens to it after the process stops?

    It’s certainly going to be a slow process (relatively) of disintegration. The experience will probably be disorienting at first – like being extremely drunk – then rapidly loss of consciousness (since most models of consciousness acknowledge that self-awareness is an emergent property of a certain amount and type of brain activity) So…

    You mentioned orchestras. That’s a good metaphor.

    When the orchestra ends on the correct note, under direction of the conductor, it ends neatly and all that’s left is silence and the audience has the memory of the performance but the performance is gone. Sometimes, the orchestra ends because the concert hall is plunged into darkness and some musicians play on a few beats while others stop immediately and a few trail off notes in weird unexpected sounds. But the performance is gone somewhere between where the orchestra dissolved into chaos and the sound stopped completely.

    The christians imagine that the performance continues after the orchestra and the audience have gone home. The music still exists – copies and memories of the performance – in an abstract sense, but the performance is over and gone and will never appear exactly the same way no matter how hard one might try.

  6. Menyambal says

    One thing that gets me about ghosts, is how they suddenly have psychic powers. I can see walking through walls, if there is no physical body, but all the other stuff that used to require a body, still happens, and even more develops.

    And in the more traditional Christian afterlife, we immediately get questions about the spiritual body and what it looks like. If we get perfect bodies, what age are they, and do they poop? If they don’t poop, do they eat? If we no longer need food, and no longer want sex, and don’t need exercise, what are we?

    So tbere are all kinds of questions we could be asking the Christians, for which they have no answers. They have no call to be playing “gotcha” with atheists.

    I long ago figured that God could just make a Heaven, and fill it with brand-new spirits who think they have memories of Earth.

      • Nick Gotts says

        If the movies I’ve seen are accurate representations of real ghosts, some of them at least walk some distance above the floor – where it used to be when they were alive, I suppose.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        This reminds me of an obscure objection I have to both ghost stories and time travel stories: the motion of the earth through space. If a ghost re-appears in the spot where they died, or if a time-traveller journeys backwards to some moment in the distant past, both ought to find themselves drifting in empty space looking for an Earth that has either moved on or not yet arrived, respectively.

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