Afterlife

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

It is a shared opinion among those who are sometimes called the “New Atheists” that there is no life after the material death of the body. Being an atheist myself, I find very convincing the argument that, in the absence of any evidence of the continuation of life after death, or of the existence of life separated from its bodily existence, the very possibility of the question regarding afterlife stands on shaky ground. Why then not be agnostic or surrender to skepticism? Because I don’t take the problem of afterlife as a matter of ignorance in front of a certain question, since the question’s validity itself can be doubted in the first place. And if the question is doubtful, we need either to better formulate it or to abandon it. I chose to abandon the theoretical question about the existence of an afterlife, but that does not mean, from my perspective, that it is impossible to formulate it in a meaningful way.

In order to argue for this possibility, I invite you to take a step back and try to understand why the problem of afterlife is so interesting. When our intellect glances at the expanse of the universe and at the natural laws governing it, we are assaulted by the thought of being little and insignificant. But more than our limitation in space, what scares us the most is our limitation in time. We all must die, and death comes with the question of the sense of life. What is the meaning of life? Many religions, like the Christian one, have tried to answer by saying that our lives don’t find an end with death. I take this solution, read as a theoretical approach to the question, to be quite spooky and unconvincing.

On the other hand, the New Atheists are used to answer that the meaning of life (if there is one at all) is in the possibility of leaving a trace of our presence for the future generations or, more poetically, to do something to change the world that will continue after our deaths. But also this solution is problematic, for at least two reasons: (1) what meaning is there for the life of the subject who dies? It can be said that the world has a meaning insofar as there’s human life, or that the lasting things one discovers or creates have meanings for others in the future, but not for a single life: the individual life, from the individual perspective, stays meaningless from its point of view; (2) the new atheists’ solution is quite elitist: who can really leave a meaningful trace of one’s presence on this earth? Aren’t we approximately seven bilions currently? There are influential politicians, famous artists and writers, international pop stars, but the rest? Would we say that only certain lives have meaning and not others? Or that some lives are more meaningful than others?

In my opinion, all these problems are originated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the theoretical question regarding afterlife with the practical one. The theoretical question is meaningless from an atheist perspective, not yet the practical one. With the concept of an afterlife, religion gives hope to people, and the possibility to hold on through the struggles of life. But the New Atheists are doing precisely the same: they depict some sort of “idealistic immortality” based on being remembered, which gives hope and, through hope, meaning.

The practical question about afterlife is not only meaningful, but it looks like as if religious people as well as New Atheists give pretty much the same practical solution!

When we talk about the practical domain regarding the meaning of life, we enter a universe of relativisms, where the most different philosophies and religions try to sell their brand in the most creative and equally valid ways. However, if and only if we are willing to give a practical meaning to our lives that is coherent with atheist demands, it seems that the New Atheists’ solution is quite out of track. An atheist practical solution must take into account the limitation of our individual existence and give meaning only within the perspective of a single life, because with the end of that life, we encounter the end of that life’s meaning from the individual’s perspective. Even with such constrains, the practical solutions appear to be almost infinite: from hedonism to stoicism, from oriental religions to western utilitarianism, and so on. So far, the most convincing and inclusive solution I have personally found, follows somewhat the old-but-gold Aristotelian teaching, namely that meaning is given by the endless attempt to become a better version of ourselves, from as many reasonable perspectives as possible. Do you think it’s trivial? Maybe so, but as long as it doesn’t contemplate hell, I will be willing to embrace any more original solution you would like to offer!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Abstraction

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Try to pick the intruder among the following group of things: glass, bottle, stock cube, vase. I don’t really want you to solve this elementary puzzle of abstraction. Instead, I would like to tell you about the original solution my sister gave to it, when she still was at the beginning of secondary school.

The faculty to abstract the general from the particular is an amazing capacity of the human mind. Its discovery goes back at least to Aristotle, and had enormous impact on the way we think about the functioning of our mind.

Abstraction enables us to categorize things in the world and give them an order. It is the fundamental ability underlying the very possibility of scientific research, which aims at giving general laws of nature (if not universal). You couldn’t say anything informative about movement, molecules or cells if all you could talk about were single movements, single molecules and single cells. Abstraction makes it possible to say how every single movement works according to the laws of physics, and how all molecules and cells behave according respectively to chemistry and biology.

The merits of abstraction are countless. One could even claim that there would be no human intellectual progress without the capacity of finding the common property among many individual things. The world would look like a chaotic ensemble of particular entities, precluding any possibility of orientation.

Luckily, all humans share abstraction. Or so I thought, until my sister ruthlessly smashed my convictions.

A questionnaire was given to all schoolchildren of her year. Its purpose was to test their logical abilities with respect to public education, I guess. When confronted with the “intruder’s puzzle”, they were expected to abstract the common property of most of the items presented and pick the exception. Of course, there is one evident property shared by glass, bottle and vase, which stock cube doesn’t present, namely the property of being a container. Apparently, that was not evident enough, since my sister answered “vase”.

Should we worry about my sister’s intelligence back then? Where on earth did she find the property common to glass, bottle and stock cube, vase doesn’t present? The best way to counter my apprehension was to ask her directly. Her response was along these lines: “you don’t necessarily find a vase in the kitchen, do you?”

What she did when confronted with the puzzle, wasn’t to abstract the shared property. She rather asked herself if there were contextual similarities among those objects of common usage. And the first thing that came to her mind was that you never find a kitchen devoid of glasses, bottles and, when available, stock cubes. Vases, on the contrary, are not necessarily part of the kitchen’s furniture.

My sister’s thought was contextual rather than abstractive. And, to a certain extent, that was more appropriate, insofar as the term “intruder” comes with a feeling  of disappointment rather than logical rigour. In a certain sense, you would have good reasons to be disappointed if you weren’t to find glasses, bottles and stock cubes in someone’s kitchen (when available). On the contrary, you just don’t go to someone’s place asking “why aren’t your vases in the kitchen?”

Of course, my sister’s way of thinking was not as rigorous and general as abstraction would have been. But instead of wondering how contextual thought is less reliable than abstractive thought, we should ask ourselves if the intruder’s puzzle was rigorous enough in the first place! Indeed, it seems that the puzzle was already expecting a certain kind of answer there was no precise criterion to expect. And my sister involuntarily showed the flaw in the formulation: one needn’t necessarily use abstraction to give a pondered answer to certain questions.

It was very stupid of me to have fun of her when I first heard that answer. I share part of the blame with those who formulated the intruder’s puzzle first, presuming that people who think, need thinking in a certain way. But my sister proved us wrong.

Indeed, she taught me a very important lesson: don’t expect people to act and think always upon the best theoretical principles because, in practice, abstraction might be of no use in everyday activities, like having dinner or the like. A stock cube might help instead.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha