I have, in an earlier post, made a passing reference to transience. It got no traction at all, and now I want to talk about transience in the sense of atheism and, more correctly, humanism; transience is the very thing that endows us with value and worth. I want to compare that to a world without transience; a place where we are promised eternity.
There is an obvious and, I think, beautiful sentiment behind the title ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’; I allude to this when I talk about writing my own post-apocalyptic “Bible” under the title ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide’ (I hope the subtlety is not lost on my readers, especially now I’ve drawn attention to it). That sentiment is that we are hitchhiking; we are on a journey; we are sharing this adventure. Our destination is death, but in the book Arthur Dent spends time making a journey to a highly litigious and organised colony just to fill out paper work (a much worse fate, I’m sure you’ll agree); the destination does not have to be excellent for the journey to be beautiful. Outside the world of fiction, I have done this: I have hitchhiked across Western Europe to get to a non-glamorous teaching job in Austria (I cheated once or twice by paying for transport, but that didn’t kill my analogy). And I had an adventure getting to Einsenstadt, Austria; an unremarkable little place in of itself. The journey was the experience.
Life, in any view not footnoted by an afterlife, is like these journeys. There is a short time between origin and destination in which we get to thrive and experience and fill our brief journey with all the things we love. Now is the time to embrace someone in the rain; now is when you can fix problems; and now is when problems matter; now is your opportunity to share wonder; now is when you can find beauty. If you think eternity is coming, then now barely matters. Sam Harris said it: “even if you live to be a hundred there simply aren’t that many days… there better be an afterlife if we’re going to waste our time like this”. And we do waste our time: look at me, I’m writing a blog for strangers about topics my friends don’t care about; what am I doing? The very finity*of the number of days I will live means I can spare very few to waste. (As a parenthetical point—he says in parenthesis—this is the mentality that means I don’t like to waste days to hangovers, hence not drinking a lot… any more.)
* finity is a peculiar word because it doesn’t exist; “infinity” exists, but for some reason “finity”—to have a limit—doesn’t make the cut.
But I can invert Sam Harris’ point: if we’re going to live forever, why not waste today? In economic terms, it’s obvious: low supply, high price; high supply, low price; infinitely high supply, infinitely low price. Waste today because it is more worthless than one in a million. It’s one in infinity. Even looking from outside the perspective of economics, if life is actually infinite and everyone lives forever, when do you actually miss an opportunity to get to know someone or make amends and apologise for that thing you did? That is never a missed opportunity, so why would you ever get around to it?
There are two rebuttals I can foresee: God gives us a purpose or we want to go to Heaven. I’ll deal with the latter first; of course we want to go to Heaven. By definition we cannot be dissatisfied with Heaven or disappointed to discover that it is there; Heaven is necessarily blissful and involves your safeguarded wellbeing. It would be great if it were there. But it is a superficial and self-absorbed explanation for objective purpose. My objective purpose is to safeguard my wellbeing. I’m not sure that hedonism is an objective purpose, over the tautological statement that I want what I want. And the broad promise to be given what you want is you want is not an objective purpose.
The second, of course, was that God gives us our objective purpose, and that is alluded to in the promise of Heaven. It makes the purpose of life, according to the Abrahamic religions and many interpretations of reincarnation and karma, to follow some moral rules. In Buddhism the followers are taught to try and learn what morality is, to realise the sanctity of life (with some exception), and to act accordingly; this in undermined by the promise of a reward. But that undercutting of what it means to be moral (doing something for a reward is hedonism, even if it does mean noble results) is nothing compared to God giving you the rights and wrongs and commanding you to obey with the carrot and the stick. Where is your incentive to do something because it is right, if you’re already commanded to do it? This isn’t a post about morality, but if God commands our objective purpose then it becomes to follow moral rules—and issue I’ll come back to –and so the failure to be moral is an important issue.
The last problem is with the concept of God building objective morality from things He happens to think. Everyone knows this issue; He could think that beating children and subjugating women is okay—as arguably He does—and thus that is moral and we’re all mislead in the modern-day. Not only that, but although we can objectively confirm that God thinks something (we could do an fMRI scan on Him, if it weren’t for the fact He is incorporeal) how can we objectively confirm that what God thinks is the objective measure? If you are calling on God to give you objective purpose you are turning to one mind and asking for an opinion. What is objective about that? (Alternatively, God is merely telling us what is moral, and therefore the morality and purpose is a truth that is independent of God.)
A finite number of days imbues each day with value and the urgency of our opportunity; infinity pushes everything, including the question of purpose, to the backs of our minds and gives us a superficial illusion of having answered the question.