Life and The Afterlife

Apparently the purpose of life is to perpetuate life.

At first, that may not seem like much of a purpose.  It becomes more interesting when you dress it up.  Living things don’t just want to live.  Once they’ve achieved that toehold, they want more.  The “life” that living things (humans, in particular) want to perpetuate comes to include not only food, water, shelter, sleep, and reproduction, but also good sex, love, fine food, righteousness, and double-pane insulating windows.

In fact, the “life” that people want to perpetuate can become conditioned by experience.  If survival is all you’ve ever had, you’ll probably settle for perpetuating that.  But if you’ve experienced fantastic circumstances, and are then rudely pared back to loneliness, pointlessness, rejection, or other adverse mental states, you may be tempted to kill yourself, and some actually will – even if they still enjoy food, shelter, and other basic needs far above the average.

People generally want to stay alive as long as their present experience is at least as good as what they had before.  Not everybody believes in progress, and not everyone who believes in it can have it.  Moreover, what looks like progress may not really be.  Just holding your own, breaking even, can be good enough.  Not fantastic, possibly disappointing, but tolerable.  The life that people perpetuate can be like a seed:  just keeping on, without much change, for years and even centuries – but always being ready to burst forth into much more, when circumstances permit.

The other side of it, just noted, is that signs of weakness in this life project can trigger harsh internal and external forces designed to get you out of the way.  Along with your own self-critical and possibly self-destructive responses to failure, others who see you as a loser will often exclude you or drive you away, or will ridicule or otherwise try to get you to remove yourself.  At best, if you are not in the mainstream of the drive forward, you are likely to be ignored.  Such outcomes may not unfold within all families, neighborhoods, or cultures; but the larger trend over time favors those who succeed – who stay attractive, relevant, and on top.

The purpose of life is to perpetuate life, then, where “life” is defined as status quo plus.  You’ve got to at least hold it together, and if you really want to be protected against the harsher elements of life you may also need to be moving forward.  In some settings you hardly dare to slip at all; in others, you can halfway fall apart, before someone or something catches you and gobbles you up.  Sometimes “slipping” itself consists of not moving forward fast enough, but you get the basic idea.

So when I say that life is defined as status quo plus, I mean that half of the picture is the seedlike propensity for self-preservation and potential growth; the other half is this efficient elimination of unproductive resources, so as to focus the life project on the most promising candidates.  Most get to experience at least a bit of the upside; all eventually experience the downside.

You could say that death is status quo minus.  Just as the consummate life experience is to have everything going your way, to be enjoying the best that life can offer, so also the consummate death experience is to reach the complete opposite, the cessation of anything resembling life.  At any given moment, some physical or nonphysical parts of you are growing, toward a more perfect form of life, while others have died or are becoming more dead.  In this sense, life and death are processes, engaged in a constant give-and-take.

Death is essentially life’s partner in the process of distinguishing what’s working from what’s not.  A person, a part of a person, a way of thinking – all of these things are constantly susceptible to change, be it net improvement or deterioration.  Death is a way of keeping things tidy.  It helps life to shift resources toward those most able to use them.  Debilitation and death for some facilitate life and growth for others.

Death is life’s antithesis, in the limited sense of pulling in the opposite direction.  But at least life and death are on the same page.  They interact, as just described; they make sense because of one another.  You have to have life in order to have death.  On a different level, however, there is something opposite to both life and death:  nonexistence, or barrenness, where something never did live in the first place.  An example would be the children of a girl who died at the age of seven:  such children could never die because they were never born.  In sporting terms, the difference between death and barrenness is that death is the opposing team, from which life’s team is trying to capture territory on the playing field, while barrenness is the universe outside of the playing field.

Many people talk about life after death, but that is a confusing concept.  Few seriously believe in any such thing:  they fight against death as determinedly as anyone else, they mourn their dead the same as everyone else, they seem to have only a dim idea of what a life without death would be like.  They are not clear on whether the person who would experience this afterlife would be me at age 15, or age 40, or age 85 – would I get to choose a self that I prefer, or will I have to accept what they give me? – or what would happen to those who died on their first day of life, or whose brains were never properly formed or that were injured or became diseased during life.

People who speculate about an afterlife may be able to imagine things that would keep them busy in such an existence for ten years, or 50, or even 500.  But human experience suggests that no pleasure is going to endure forever – that people will eventually want to break out and do some traveling, even from Heaven.  No matter how vast it is, at some point they will find the border and want to cross it.  That is the very nature of life:  to keep striving, growing, grasping.  If crossing the border is not possible, then many people in the afterlife may eventually wish to go to sleep, indeed to be unconscious, for centuries on end.  No matter what the vision may be, a million years of any experiences are likely to get boring.

The force of life – to keep growing and thriving – makes us want to believe that its energies can continue forever.  It inclines us to believe in an afterlife, where we can live forever and can enjoy the best of life.  Dogs dream of things that are not; even the cockroach indulges the hope that I will not switch on the light and catch him in the wrong place.  The inclination to invent an afterlife does not prove it is false.  There may be such an existence; in fact, the force of life may itself be designed to point us toward it.  But there are certainly grounds for doubt.

In this life, the afterlife is little more than a rumor.  That hasn’t prevented its believers from killing those who deny it.  To stop the killing, we would need for the afterlife to become more like Kansas:  maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but indisputably there.  We don’t have that kind of knowledge, and apparently never will, not in this lifetime.  If there is an afterlife, it is evidently so alien that word from there cannot reach us – or, to the same effect, maybe it reaches us constantly, but in a form we cannot perceive.  Or perhaps the gods who created it, or the people who have gone there before us, have their own reasons for declining to communicate with us about it.

In our ignorance of the afterlife, we have been left with religions that make extraordinary decisions about life and people.  More than one religion has decided, for example, that horrible people with odd beliefs will fare better, in the afterlife, than wonderful, honest, sensible people.  Some are quite certain that animals with personalities and character qualities superior to those of some humans will be excluded.  As in other regards, religions are inclined to invent stories about such things, and to insist on their truth, even when such stories go beyond nonsense to hatred and horror.

The invention and/or embellishment of an afterlife tends to suffer from a key defect:  people are tempted to extrapolate from the known to the unknown.  We have a life; therefore, whatever comes next must be something like it.  We will have inequality, as some fare better than others; we will have punishments and pain, and rewards and pleasures; we will have God or gods or other beings as our rulers and subordinates.  This apparent extrapolation does not prove that the afterlife is not as promised.  But, again, without Kansas-like reality, this tends to look like nothing more than an arbitrary compilation of interpretations from preferred passages within scriptures that cannot and do not possess, or even claim, divine authority.

There is the possibility that the afterlife is not an invention based on this life, but rather that this life is a copy, possibly corrupt, of what comes afterwards.  Either way, though, it seems odd to guess that the gods or other forces creating and shaping these two realms, before and after death, would tend to make them similar.  Death seems, to the contrary, to be a wall firmly dividing them.  Our bodies go away; all traces of us eventually vanish.  What, within this reality, would support a hypothesis that this life and the afterlife are similar?

The more likely view is that, if there is an afterlife, it must be extraordinarily different from this life.  Indeed, it probably entails a substantial rejection of what this life is about.  It would have to, or else it would make no sense unless it had its own form of death, separating it from yet another afterlife.

That becomes clearer when you think about what life is.  With all due regard to those who occupy privileged or protected conditions, life is overwhelmingly not a placid, sweet state that could be simply amplified into a lovely afterlife.  To the contrary, life is a restless, struggling force.  It does not know when to quit.  People to whom life grants an excess of money, social support, power, or other resources tend to keep right on going — acquiring more, spreading their tentacles, corrupting and killing to suit their whims, becoming ever uglier as they age.  Growth promotes growths; the healthy cell becomes a cancer.

To the extent that life is beautiful, what keeps it that way is death, that trimming force that ultimately excises even the most horrendous malignancy.  Death helps life to pose as a sphere of glorious, positive achievements.  The observer, taken in by the charade, naturally wishes that such things could continue forever, becoming ever more splendid versions of themselves. We want, eternally, to enjoy the thrill of overcoming our limits and defeating our adversaries, to rear children and grandchildren to the nth degree, to sleep blissful sleep, to enjoy perfect afternoons without end.

Yet humans are not equipped to handle an eternal life with enormous resources.  The closest we can get may be fantasy (e.g., book- or computer-generated) experiences that provide a sense of the possibilities without too much attention to the implications.  Heaven becomes less winsome if we visualize it as a place overrun with disgusting growths spurting endlessly from grotesquely undisciplined life forms.

It seems, in other words, that life after death must also be life after life:  it must be very unlike life as we know it.  By definition, it lacks a disciplining struggle against death.  We seem to be talking, rather, of something opposed to living existence, right down to the level of forgetting or dismissing the things that seem important in this world.  Using the former analogy, this story cannot develop on the playing field, but must rather unfold up in the bleachers of nonexistence, with the infinitely many things that have never been.  What that means – if it can mean anything at all – is a mystery, and apparently it shall so remain, for us, at least until our dying breath.

The afterlife, particularly in the Christian sense, is a fairly obvious counterpart to the old notions of the Earth as the center of the universe, surrounded by a sphere in which the stars moved.  The demise of this discredited cosmology takes, with it, the notion of ourselves as the main attraction in an afterlife.  We may simply cease to exist forever, at death, or we may go into some unknown form of existence, awareness, or participation in something larger.  Again, either way, we are perhaps well advised to expect something other than a simpleminded perpetuation of life in its best forms, shorn of its worst.  This point becomes more compelling as one considers in more detail what life is.

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As always, if you find this post interesting, please comment and/or click the “like” button.  Note that this post consolidates 1 2 3 4 5 earlier posts in another blog.

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