Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Have You Ever Thought About Your Eulogy?

            One of the biggest things that bothers me about the idea of being dead someday, from a perspective of someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, is all the stuff I will never get to know. The thought of actually being dead doesn’t bother me all that much, though the process of dying seems a bit scary. But the big thing that looms in my thoughts is that I won’t ever get to know “the rest of the story.” I won’t know how my children or grandchildren, or my wife should she outlive me, get on without me. I won’t get to know whether my descendants continue on or what their lives will be like. I won’t know whether we, the collective human race, finally get off this planet, or whether we manage to solve any of our vast array of remaining problems. I just won’t get to know, and that’s kind of frustrating.

            And I won’t get to know about my eulogy.

            That may seem like a weird thing to think about. Considering the huge amount of much more important stuff I could fret over, why worry about that one little speech about one insignificant person? Isn’t it a tad self-absorbed to dwell on that?

            Well, yeah, it probably is a tad self-absorbed. But I never claimed that I wasn’t.

            As for why I should even care, well, I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s because it’s very likely to be the only speech anyone ever gives about me, and I will never hear it or know its contents. I won’t know who actually makes the speech, or how it is received. I’ve said before that I don’t believe that the meaning of my life will ever be something objectively known or even knowable, nor would I want it to be. And I stand by that. But on the occasion of my eulogy, someone will be trying to express to a roomful of people who knew me what my life meant to them. At a time when I will have done all that I will ever do, said all that I will ever say, held all whom I will ever hold, and learned all that I will ever learn, someone will be looking back on the sum total of my existence and trying to put into words what effect it has had on them for better or for worse. I think that would be a pretty powerful thing to know.

            But I won’t know. I’ll be gone. The best I can do is hope.

            I can hope that whoever has to stand up and give that speech will be someone who I loved, and who knows that I loved them. I can hope that they will be able to say, in all honesty, that their life is better for having known me than it would have been if they hadn’t. I can hope that they learned something from me, and can say that they taught me something in return. I can hope they have stories to tell of the life we shared, and that those will bring the speaker and those who hear them some measure of joy. And I can hope that their life goes on long afterwards, a little richer for my contribution, and giving richness of their own to those with whom they share their lives.

            I won’t know, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled about that. But I think that if - when my time comes - that hope remains intact, then it will be OK.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How Are We Better than Animals?

            “If you think we’re just animals, why isn’t it OK to act like animals?” “If God doesn’t exist, how are we any better than animals?” These are fairly typical questions from religious people in debate with atheists. Both use the example of animals to make a point: the first is one about morality, the second about justifying the special status of humans in the universe. They’re bad questions, in my opinion, because they have built into them assumptions that are probably not valid in the first place and grossly oversimplify the actual situation in misleading ways. But since they’re kinda thematically related, I figured I’d talk about them both together.

            To answer the second question first: we’re not. We are not better than animals, because we are animals by every measurable definition. There’s no need for an atheist to try and find an answer to this question that justifies humanity’s special place in the universe, because there’s nothing to suggest we have a special place in the universe. The idea that we do is a lie we tell ourselves, either to make ourselves feel special or because we’re just too enamored with ourselves for it even to occur to us that we might not have special intrinsic significance. Humans may be the most central thing to humans, but that perspective need not extend to anything outside of us.

            As for the first question… it’s almost too nonsensical to parse. What animal is the questioner even talking about, to suggest we should behave like? No two animals behave exactly the same, after all.  Many behave in manners that plenty of people regard as more ethical than humans, while others behave in ways that we find repulsive. Shall we behave like ants? Like planaria? Or like sharks, or hyenas, or lions, or horseshoe crabs, or flamingoes, or dung beetles, or... well, hopefully you get the point.

            But in actual fact, we do behave like animals. We behave like human animals. Part of the behavior of human animals is to experience empathy for other human animals, and to construct systems of morality and ethics that allow us to interact successfully with other human animals in ways that balance that empathy with our own needs. There are clear and obvious benefits to cooperation within human societies, so it’s not even all that surprising that emotional mechanisms which encourage that behavior would arise naturally. Of course, there are also occasionally advantages to acting selfishly and destructively, so it’s also not terribly surprising that such emotions are also a part of human make-up.

            See, this question is built around the assumption that “like an animal,” is synonymous with brutishness, selfishness, short-sightedness, and violence. But that’s cultural baggage built on how the phrase is used metaphorically in colloquial speech, and is actually quite divorced from what being an animal actually is. The question is nonsensical because it pretends that the literal definition of the word “animal,” in classifying organisms is identical to the metaphorical usage in describing behavior. They’re not the same thing.

            But I know that when people raise this particular question, they aren’t asking “Why do we behave the way we do?” They’re asking “Why should we?” Or more to the point: “Why should we choose the cooperative and empathetic behaviors over the selfish and destructive?”

            There are a multitude of reasons to make such a choice. Among them being “because we want to,” and “because it’s usually better for us in the long run,” and “because it’s the nature of humans in general to be pleased by the wellbeing of other humans they care about,” and “because it’s often necessary in order to enjoy the benefits of human societies,” and “because I take pleasure in taking steps to improve my myself.” Those may not sound terribly lofty to some, perhaps even a bit self-serving, but they’re good, practical reasons that anybody who thinks about can see put into practice every day. And are they any more self-serving than being “good” for the sake of avoiding torture at the hands of supernatural entities? Is there any practical difference between suggesting we should pursue goodness because it’s part of our spiritual nature, and saying that we should pursue it because it’s a part of human nature, period?

            The fact of the matter is that atheists find all kinds of reasons to want to be better than the worst parts of our nature. Just as other people do. The desire to be better, to do better, may be an urge that religions frequently try to coopt as their own domain. But they’re human desires, as much a part of those who don’t have religion as they’re part of those who do. We may not be better than animals, but there’s no need for us to be. It’s not a meaningful distinction.