Saturday, August 13, 2011

'Unless Experience Lasts Forever, It Is Meaningless'

~Sam Harris, paraphrasing the complaint of religious folk who say 'if there is no heaven and hell, there's no point to life'(in a way that the weirdness of their claim becomes apparent) , from his Ask Anything part 2.

The answer to that first question alone was worth the time it took to watch this video. Harris basically highlights the fact that knowing our life has a definite endpoint makes it so much more important to savor the brief moment that we have, and suggests that believing we will live forever dilutes the attention we pay to our life. He brings the absurdity of this position to the surface by comparing life to other things that end; meals. movies. relationships. Are none of these things important since they have an ending? No. They're even more important because of that. An illustration that was particularly resonant with me is where he reminds us that there will be a last time we pick up our children. Not something I think about all the time (ever, actually), but it's true; I haven't carried my 10 year old in awhile. Pretty soon, I won't be able to carry my 6 year old. It will only be a matter of years before I can no longer carry my 7 month old. Harris suggests that by remembering every activity (and even life itself) has a 'last ticket', we are more likely to savor these things, and treat them with adequate respect.

I agree with all of this, and am grateful that Harris put it the way he did. But--from experience--I can add that trading a worldview that has a person living forever and ever for one that only gives us 80 or so years if we're lucky, is not as clear of a trade-off as Dr. Harris depicts. At least it wasn't for me.

I am definitely a better person as an atheist. Living under the illusion that someday we would all be in the kingdom of god together, and all of life's many mysteries would be made clear, allowed me to behave somewhat indulgently towards the people I loved. It was easier to brush off making apologies or explanations, because I could just explain myself to God, and work things out with him knowing that in the end, the other person would come to understand what I understood too. It was also easier to justify inaction in certain instances, for similar reasons. Religious belief comes with it's own struggles (the self loathing of 'if it's good it came from god, and if it's bad it came from me', as well as the insecurity that comes with always straining to make yourself as open and subservient to god as possible), but overall, it's a matter of 'everything will come out in the wash'.

When I was religious, I was living under a general anesthesia of sorts. I would compare it to the person who needs a beer or two to get through the day. I was a little more comfortable, but I was also a little crazier*, and definitely more disconnected.

As I said earlier,I believe I am a better person as an atheist; and a more honest one.

But the price of being free from religious delusion is an occasional increase in anxiety: When you realize that this is the only shot you get, you really want to make sure you do it right. When you realize that it's virtually impossible to always do it right, or to even know if you're doing it close to right half of the time, things can get a little overwhelming.

So I get what Harris's religious questioner was insinuating; freedom is daunting. There is no referee, and there is no after-party. This is fucking it. That's a big pill to swallow.

But, in the end, Harris is right: sobriety can be hard, but the beautiful moments--and knowing that you did your best (at least) most of the time--is worth it. Even if I only live 80 years (or 70 years, or 60 years), at least now I'll be able to say at the end that I was actually there. 60 years of real living beats 100 living under a fog of delusion.

worth watching:

*it's crazy to communicate with invisible people and try to divine their will for your life by reading goose bumps and random turns of events as signs.


Lodo Grdzak said...

The word "religion," comes from the latin "religio," which means to bind together. If that's true, so many of the so-called religions are anything but that. They simply cause divisions. You shouldn't say you're not religious--you're more religious than most who practice. You're "together." And you seem to want to be bound together with like-minded people. Unlike the big religions that have morphed into not much more than political institutions; and thus, have to create as many "out" groups as they create relationships.

Spencer Troxell said...

It's always interesting to explore root words.

I don't know how together I am, Lodo; sometimes I feel like I'm lucky to just perform basic functions. but I appreciate the compliment.

I think you might like what Harris says about free will in his answer to the second question on this video. It reminded me of that old disagreement of ours.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Working on getting it together is being together. At least in my book Spence.

Willie Y said...

Since I can only be serious for 3 seconds.

Ryan Reynolds is a psittalinguist — a person who interprets budgie-speak. Since 1999, he has invested thousands of hours slowing down and deconstructing recordings of his beloved budgie, Victor, who died five years ago at the young age of 3, as well as other talking budgies.

Victor had a vocabulary of 1,000 words, which he used in context, Reynolds says. So what are budgies saying?

"This is going to sound crazy, but they talk about spiritual things: God, the afterlife, a better world for them," Reynolds says.