Monday, 20 February 2017

On Death.

Today is a sad day. I just discovered that one of my internet friends, a well-liked Twitter sceptic, has passed away. I don't have much by way of detail as yet, and I know that quite a few people are, as I am, shocked and saddened by this news.

A few years ago, something similar happened, and somebody I knew from the internet (although we met in real life as well) passed suddenly. I was asked by the members of our internet community to speak at his funeral, and it seems apposite to share what I said for those who are mourning the passing of our friend, @haplesspete.

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Grizby

What is the measure of a life lived? Do we measure it in the passing of years? In the accumulation of material things? In the gathering of knowledge? In the effects we have on the lives of others?

Clearly, we each place different degrees of value on these things. Today, I represent a community for whom the value of the latter two stands above most other considerations. We place knowledge supreme, and devote our time and energy to the garnering and dissemination (and often heated debate) thereof.

Martin was a member of our community, a world-wide internet community of free-thinkers, many of whom would have been here if they could. Known to us variously as Mr. P or Grizby, he was very special to us. I have been enjoined to say a few words on behalf of that community.

I stand before you, and with you, not to mourn the passing, but to celebrate the life, of our brother, our son, our friend. Yes, we mourn; we mourn that which is denied us, the future whose beauty we can never share. Yes, we cry; we cry because our tears are reminders of the laughter that is forever denied us in our experience of the man that was, and the man that could have been. Yes, we grieve; we grieve because grief is what is left to us to fill the void that that laughter represents.

But we also celebrate. We celebrate the life of our brother, our son, our friend. We celebrate the brief time that the universe allowed us to have with him. We celebrate the experience that that time gave to us, and the effect that he had upon us, the most valuable of commodities in our all-too-human experience.

I would like to read something written by Martin himself that is somewhat appropriate:

Everyone knows what happens to us physically when we die: The old "earth to earth, ashes to ashes" mantra from religion is a literal description, i.e. the cohesion of our cellular structure breaks down due to the fact we no longer supply ourselves with the required energy to maintain that cohesion. What we gain instead is the equilibrium with our environment as we rot, degrade (corrode?)

The energy that kept us together is dispersed and continues to have consequences on the world around us, much like the analogy of the ripple effect. If a particular individual hadn't existed who knows what difference that would have made to the universe, but one thing is certain; a difference IS made. We don't exist separate from our environment but rather as an integral part of it and in doing so we have an effect down through the ages... however seemingly trivial it may be.

Personally I think this analogy can be applied to the metaphysical as well as we influence those around us. While we will never get to attend our own funerals and live out the fantasy of being the ultimate centre of attention (potential Reggie Perrins aside), we will leave our mark on those we shared our life with. I'd like to stick around as long as is humanly possible, at least to give myself a chance to make sure the influence is a positive one.

But as a Godless Atheist what of the immortal soul, do we have one, do we need one? The conclusion I've come to is no... But don't despair, I may be breaking one spell but in the process I'll cast a new one for you (hope you're in the mood for a little metaphysical sleight of hand).

So, what happens when we die? I think it's best to establish what "we" are first of all, what is the nature of the Self? (the capital 'S' is intentional).
I think first and foremost we're communicators. We've developed a higher order language than any other species on this planet and as we've become more adept at communicating we've also developed this hunger for information about our environment. The main body of this higher order communication is through the written and spoken word, but also through music, diagrams and pictures (these latter processes also have the benefit of breaking through many language and cultural barriers).

This use of language has assisted us in an on-going explosive evolutionary process that's still going on today, it's paved the way for the development of our particular level of consciousness that allows us to reflect and introspect. This is an important development in the Human psyche that's occurred over the last 40 thousand years or so: Not only can we take our thoughts to a higher order (thinking about thinking), but we can also attribute conscious intent to those around us at a higher level (I know that you know that they know that I know). To lazily paraphrase Dan Dennett "If we couldn't talk to ourselves how would we know what we were thinking?". Try it, try going over your schedule for the day, the things you've got to do and the things you want to do without silently using the English language to order your thoughts... pretty much impossible!

The calming effect language has on our (partially) pandemonious thought processes helps us formulate ideas, concepts, intuitions, hunches etc and organize them into coherent thought patterns, i.e. memes. A meme is defined as a basic unit of cultural information, like a song or rhyme, a fashion trend, a language, a system of belief, even memetics itself can be considered a meme. We use these memes as tools to expand our consciousness right from an early age, but also we develop them as well into new and different ideas as we mature and grow. The conscious acts we commit in changing (or evolving) these memes goes a long way to defining our idea of Self.

Not only are we the sum of our experiences but we are an on-going process of change, an exercise in the application of the free will that consciousness grants us.

But it doesn't end there... not by a long shot!

Not only do we seek information from those around us but they seek the same from us. The boundary between my Self, your Self and the Self of everyone around us isn't as well defined as we think, we share ideas, opinions, agreements and disagreements (all memes) and in doing so we share the psychological tools that define us: we literally share ourselves with the people around us.

And we gift those closest to us with the most of us (good, bad and indifferent).

While we're alive not only do we distribute ourselves (our Self?) to those around us, but we receive part of that Self back in the way people react to us and also in the view other people have of us. That's the factor that blurs the boundaries between us, we are centered in this physical form we occupy but that is only the centre, the edges are less well defined and encompass (to varying degrees) all the people we come into contact with. The opposite also applies, we carry all our loved ones with us as we go through life. Not just the memories we have of them but the influence they have on us, the ideas they pass on that affect our daily routines. A particular turn of phrase we might use or the way we might make a certain gesture will have been inherited from someone around us and modified, by us to make it our own.

Now on to a practical example: I was recently speaking with one of my cousins and we were swapping stories about my late father. Each of us were learning new things about the man and talking as if he were still alive, some phrases and mannerisms came directly from the man himself. Part of his Self is still alive and kicking and continues to have its effect on the environment around us; not in any supernatural way, but in a real physical fashion. The same can be said for anyone we've lost, they gift us with that part of their Self that they want to convey and we're now in the fortunate position where we can recognize this and appreciate the legacy they leave us.

We can carry these people along with us for the journey and take them round our little section of this roller coaster we're all riding. We don't have to speculate what they would have thought if they were here because we bring them with us on the journey, especially the ones closest to us. We do this because we choose to, we do this because the ones we bring with us deserve to be remembered and even though they’re no longer with us (in a physical sense) we can still look to them for comfort. The death of a loved one is always tragic, it hurts and leaves us emotionally scarred but a life shared is a life shared forever and we continue to have influence down the generations, long after we've turned to ashes and dust.

Over the years I've watched good people - family and friends - succumb to various diseases and accidents, but death was only one event in their lives (albeit the last one... if you'll excuse my gallows humour). I prefer to celebrate all the events in their lives prior to that, the influence they had on me, the joy they gave me and the valuable lessons I learned from them... especially the dignity they showed when faced with a terminal diagnosis.
I've watched seemingly ordinary people, who never had that big of an opinion of themselves, display levels of courage that I admit I couldn't even aspire to. It can be a humbling experience listening to jokes being delivered by a relative who knows they only have days left, someone making the most of their last hours and truly appreciating the life they've lived.

The lesson these people taught me was don't take life for granted. Ok so I've not gone snowboarding down Mt Everest or swam with dolphins, but I have started to take a more detailed look at the people around me and learned to appreciate them for who they are, rather than being caught up in my own petty self-obsessions and pity. I've learned that however brief this life may be we don't go through it alone and on those occasions when the outlook has been bleak it's been those around me who've dragged me kicking and screaming back to the real world.

I remember reading an article written after the Virginia Tech shootings in America. One of the professors was criticized by a Christian group for being an Atheist, stating that in his cold universe all the deaths would be just another event for shoulders to be shrugged at. This was part of his response:

“We atheists don’t believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure. We don't believe in a meeting place after all is said and done, where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion during our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by oppressors. We may believe that the universe is indifferent to our plight but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not, then nothing could be wrong. We know the world is cold, and that only people can make it warmer”.

I know full well my experience of life after my death will be the same as that prior to my birth, but that doesn't fill me with despair. What it does do is give me the motivation to leave the place in a better state than when I found it and leave the people around me with at least a few fond memories... just to return the favour.

As Carl Sagan said "to live in the hearts of those we leave behind is to live forever"
I realise that the person who inspired that beautiful piece of writing may be present, but I make no apology for that. It is my hope that this person will introduce him/herself.

So what, in light of all of that, would Martin want me to say on his behalf here? Would he want me to tell you what you should believe (or not)? I don 't think so. Would he want me to tell you that you should question your deepest-held beliefs? Not really, although I know it's what he thought.
I suspect that, were our places reversed, a short lesson in thermodynamics would be the order of the day. He'd want me to tell you that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. He'd want me to tell you that every carbon atom of his body was born in a triple-alpha process during the death throes of a star. He'd want me to tell you that every constituent of Grizby has a great destiny; to be the life-giving material that allows future organisms to live, to have experiences, perchance to love. He'd want me to tell you that he is still here, and in a very real sense he is. Echoing the words of Sagan in his own writing above, nobody can truly die until their last echoes have faded from the world. There are people the world over who genuinely owe their ability to see the universe as it is to Martin. He was witty and erudite and extremely knowledgeable. There are people around the world whose children will grow up in a better place due to the power of critical thought having been imbued in their family line because of Martin and people like him. Those echoes will not fade for generations, so Martin will outlive us all.

What I know he'd want me to do, should anybody not understand any of what I have said here today on behalf of both Martin ad the wider community of which he was such an integral member, is to be available to explain. I am more than happy to do so.

Martin was extremely special to very many people, and he was instrumental in freeing many more from the shackles of doctrinal imperative. His concerns were the concerns that should occupy us all, namely the well-being and contentment of our species. He was our brother, our son, our friend.

Of course, he also kept us massively entertained, with his Poi balls and his wealth of humorous personal anecdotes. To many of us, he was much more than simply a freethinker and an atheist. In the words of one, we got to know the whole person.

We might think it's 'just the internet', but it isn't. The world really is a lesser place without him in it.

Thanks, Griz. We'll take it from here.
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Valé Pete. You'll be missed.