• Christopher Tanner

On Dealing with the Mystery of Death and the Inevitability of Extinction

(Written on my goddamn sixty-fifth birthday)

I’m going to begin this uncharacteristically brief essay with a bit of personal disclosure: I am a philosophy-program dropout. If William Lane Craig is reading this (and he isn’t), I’m sure he’s sneering at me. That’s fair: I certainly sneer at him often enough.

The degrees I managed to accrue (four at last count) while wending my way through various academic programs over the course of more than three decades are all in music. But I did spend a couple of years in a graduate program in philosophy and accumulated almost enough course credit for a masters-level degree in a field for which I was and am surely unsuited. Thinking appeals to me: mind games don’t. (To paraphrase the sorely-missed George Carlin, if I’m going to spend my time masturbating, I want to have a little something to show for it when I’m done.)

For this onetime student of philosophy, Edmund Husserl was the lion at the gate. About midway through my fourth semester in the program, as I slogged my way through Husserl’s opaque, byzantine, parenthetic prose larded with specialized terminology apparently shared by no one, it occurred to me that what I was reading shed far more heat than light on the problems that I found interesting, and that my brain was hurting not because it was growing but because it was under assault. I lost interest in making the effort and walked away.

Some see in that a sign of laziness – but I am not lazy. It was my native impatience that drove me from the program: I decided I’d do my own thinking, thank you very much. This means that I sometimes retrace territory that was blazed long ago (often without knowing it), and in my reinventing of the wheel I occasionally get things wrong. Nevertheless, for whatever they’re worth, my conclusions are my conclusions, and there is value in that sense of ownership.

It may seem odd of me to have begun this missive with what must appear to be a digression; I hope the reason for that apparent digression will become clear as I proceed. Now, to the point of today’s essay:


As a child, I was terrified of death. I think I was not unusual in that respect, but I may have gotten a stiffer dose of the macabre than most: growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, that dreadful prospect was called to my attention every time I attended church services, which was three times per week minimum. Every mention of that grim eventuality was accompanied by dire warnings to the unregenerate, compounding my terror manifold. Even though I no longer find the prospect of death terrifying, a never-to-be-shaken-off residuum of horror from those awful formative years still haunts me, and every time I learn of the passing of someone I love, or admire, or even despise, those antique feelings rise again into my consciousness and demand reckoning afresh. That’s happened to me several times during the past few months, and I want to spill a bit of metaphorical ink concerning it. (That’s a technique I find useful: I often don’t know what I really think about a matter until I’ve written about it. In this case, writing might also serve a purgative function.) I hope this essay will be of interest to fellow atheists who from time to time find themselves “whistling past the graveyard.”

I have to set this up: please bear with me. It seems to me that every societal arrangement that humans have struck has been blundered into. Like music theory vis-à-vis the music it describes, the rationalizations that are given for those civic arrangements are concocted after the fact, and those ex post facto explanations often include stories of gods who ordained the arrangements: the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible is Exhibit A. But there’s actually no teleology in the process: no society consciously aimed at some end point. The apparent exceptions to that rule – Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich,” for instance – are just that: exceptions. And as is often the case with exceptions, they tend to enjoy only the briefest of moments in the sun before reality beats them down.

The same is true of human language: no one invented it; it arose in various human communities in such a gradualistic way that no one noticed. It is only after the fact that linguists try to make sense of it all, and no linguist I know sees any teleology in it. (This is of course in high contrast to the Babel story that I addressed last week.)

The language conventions that have arisen in various cultures both reflect the emerging worldview of that culture, and help to shape it (or, better, formalize it): the process is dialectic. The end result is that it is almost impossible to think outside one’s language: the mechanics of that language alone impose strict limits on what thoughts may be thunk. I’m not talking about vocabulary, which may be coined at will (as witness Husserl): I have in mind the structure of language, especially its grammatical conventions.

I think it would be a good idea to notice some of those conventions and do a little musing about them. Since I am writing in English for an English-speaking audience, I will address some vagaries of the English language. And I should mention in passing that there are ways of thinking that are available to native English-speakers, which simply are not available to those whose native language is Mandarin or Cherokee, and vice-versa. Like European languages in general, the English language is inherently dualistic, and it is filled with “ghosts.” Let’s consider the latter before tackling the former head-on.

What, exactly, is the subject of the sentence “It’s raining?” What is that spectral “it” that’s raining? Is this an echo of a bygone culture whose members saw the hand of a sky deity in every phenomenon of nature, including rainfall? As we see both in ancient texts and in contemporary practice (especially in states with governors like Rick Perry and Mary Fallin), people will pray to an imaginary sky-god for rain to break the drought. Is that what’s captured in that curious active-voice construction, “It’s raining?”

The proposition could of course be rephrased in a grammatically unambiguous way by using the passive voice: “Rain is falling.” But the use of the former construction is so ubiquitous that the use of the latter would strike many as peculiar.

That ghostly “it” (or “It”) in “It’s raining” exudes a whiff of dualism; the implication is that the rain that is falling is the result of some other action that is not the falling of the rain itself. Well, in a sense that’s true: every drop of rain that falls has an antecedent in the hydrologic cycle; but that’s not really what that sentence means, is it?

Now let’s consider the implications of our dualistic language when it’s marshaled to try to make sense of the mystery of death. (For clarity and convenience I will use the masculine pronoun, intending no slight in so doing; by all means, substitute “she” for “he” and “her” for “his” if you wish.)

The atheist’s claim that “after I die I will know nothing” is grammatically problematic in a way that the Christian’s “after I die I will live with Jesus” is not. The Christian believes that the subject “I” will continue to live on after his body dies (dualism triumphs!) so his sentence is perfectly sensible, while the atheist understands that the “I” he references will cease to exist at his death – yet there it persists in his claim, stubbornly insisting on itself and muddying the waters of clear expression (and worse, clear thought). The atheist discovers to his chagrin that there is no clear (or at least concise) way to express what he is trying to say; and after he makes the attempt, the Christian with whom he is trying to converse struts away self-satisfied thinking “gotcha!”


The atheist’s problem lies in the fact that the language he shares with the Christian is the gradual invention of a theistic culture not an atheistic one. The only way an atheist can express himself clearly on this point is with a winding, prolix construction such as “After my death, the ‘I’ which acts and thinks, to which experiences happen and with which I identify, will no longer exist; and insofar as one may even think in terms of continued experience, it will be as though I never existed.” The Christian’s “After I die I will live with Jesus” is so much cleaner, so much more concise. Christians no doubt find this satisfying; I find it aggravating.

If the only difficulties we atheists experienced were in trying to communicate with Christians, the problem would hardly be worth thinking about. But the difficulties go much deeper than that: the dualism of our language haunts our thinking, strikes an often unrecognized blow to our equanimity (a blow experienced only subconsciously) and sometimes cheats us out of the joy that might otherwise be ours.

It seems axiomatic to me that, while we witness the death of others and often experience it as a loss, one cannot experience one’s own death: at the moment of death, there ceases to be an “experiencer.” This means that death is not in any sense a fact of life much less a profound fact of life: it is simply a termination point, like the dot at the end of this sentence. To “lose one’s life” makes a kind of grammatical sense (in a grammatical system that was invented by believers in an afterlife), but from an atheistic viewpoint it hardly makes sense at all, for the one who has “lost his life” does not in any sense experience his death as a loss. One can anticipate the end of one’s life to be sure, but that is all one can do.

My insight here is certainly not new: Socrates argued that death is simply unconsciousness, and observed that there is nothing to fear in oblivion. And as many others have pointed out, this planet was teeming with life for at least 3.8 billion years before we arrived on the scene, and we do not experience that great expanse of time prior to our birth as something we “missed out on” – we do not regret that we were not alive to experience the Ordovician. Our lives may be thought of as a brief interlude between incomprehensibly vast periods of nothingness: Shakespeare’s “candle” metaphor seems apt to me.

The default state of the universe is unconsciousness: not only does the universe not know that we exist (and therefore cares not a whit what we are or do or suffer), it doesn’t know that it exists. The universe’s indifference extends much farther than our personal trials and tribulations, our joys and sorrows: the looming extinction of the human species is of no more importance in the grand scheme of things (well, truth be told there is no “grand scheme of things” for there is no “grand schemer”) than the death of any one of us individually, and the fact that we are that species that will most likely drive all the others extinct even as we snuff out our own brief candle is a matter of supreme indifference.

It is this awful truth (if indeed this truth is awful) that believers simply cannot come to terms with (or will not make the attempt), but every atheist has had to make his peace with it – or at least struggles to do so. And as with all struggles, this one too will cease at the moment of death. To carry that a step farther: if we humans succeed in wiping out all complex life on Earth – and it seems to me not at all unthinkable that we will end up doing that very thing – what we will have done is return this planet to that peaceful state that all the other planets in our solar system enjoy: a state where there is no eating and being eaten, no suffering made possible by complex, finely-tuned nervous systems, no pain, fear, rage, dread, frustration or exhaustion. Extinction can be seen as a blessing, if one is willing to think the unthinkable. Better that, I suppose, than impotently wringing one’s hands in anguish over a process that lies completely outside our control.

There was a time when religion offered not only consolation but explanation. But that latter function has been usurped by science, and thanks to four centuries’ worth of assiduous research we now have better explanations than any available to our Bronze-Age forebears: we know that Yahweh doesn’t cause rain to fall or volcanoes to erupt or the ground beneath our feet to quake. The pseudoscientific fabrications of creationists notwithstanding, the only role left for religion in our time is that of consolation, which makes the stubborn embrace of religion look cowardly to me.

To paraphrase the eminent Finnish composer Jean Sibelius: other commentators serve up brightly-colored cocktails; I offer only ice water.

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