While listening to an old radio drama, I glanced at the program interface to read the title of the show: “Creeps by Night – the Walking Dead.” “The Walking Dead” is of course also the title of a currently running television series. I noted in passing that one can generate a whole host of scary titles for zombie stories just by using the adjectival form of an active verb, followed by the word “dead” (as a noun): The Weeping Dead; The Sneezing Dead; The Masturbating Dead; the Toileting Dead; and so on. The reason for this is obvious: we expect the dead, that is, inanimate corpses – to be incapable of any agency or act, but the active verb derived adjective assures us that such inanimate objects can – frighteningly – get up and take themselves to the toilet.
Except there’s a problem here: referring to a corpse as ‘the dead’ is actually a figure of speech, a trope. ‘The dead,’ as such, do not exist. (I suppose one can paraphrase George Lakatos here and say, ‘it is a metaphor we die by.’)
Thomas Aquinas put the matter bluntly: Once the spirit leaves, the body is just so much meat (and one doesn’t have to buy his theory of the soul to see the truth of it). Even for Aquinas (for whom the disembodied soul would still have a life), reference to any ‘dead’ qua object of reference, would be nonsense. The body would not be ‘the dead,’ it would just no longer be alive; and the soul could not literally be the soul of the dead, it would now have an independent existence. What we really wish to refer to as ‘the dead’ is the person who was not dead; but this person having died, is no more. Thus the word ‘dead’ actually refers to a negation of the state of being alive: E.g., “Leslie is dead” really refers to the fact that ‘Leslie is no longer alive.’ There cannot be any state or condition that can be referred to with ‘dead’ as a noun, nor can the term be used, properly, to refer to any entity as even a modification: There are no ‘dead human beings,’ a human being to be remarked as such must be alive.
(How many people are buried in any cemetery? Precisely none. There can only be found, in any tomb, rotting meat, degenerating chemical compounds, or just plain dirt.)
So, what are zombies? Well, to borrow a phrase from the strict determinists of our day, they are nothing more than animated meat puppets. But unlike strict determinists, they lack even the illusion of a consciousness. Fortunately for them, they are entirely fictional. (But a movie title like “Attack of the Animated Meat Puppets” probably wouldn’t sell any tickets, so….)
As for us, the living – once we’re dead, we’re dead (we ain’t living anymore), so we don’t have to worry about digging our way out of the grave to eat anyone we might have cared about when we were alive. Our ‘mortal remains’ are not mortal anymore, they’re just remains. Rather like what we flush down the toilet every morning.
But, what about this ‘spirit’ that is supposed to have fled? Surely, it can expect a continued life, or another life, in a realm of the spiritual?
Well, I certainly hope not.
In thinking about the possibility of an afterlife recently, I’ve identified five categories of possible heavens or re-births that most of the world’s religions share; and I must admit that none of them appeal to me.
Let’s check this list:
After we die, our consciousness, or soul, or spirit, or life-force (whatever) is said to face the following choices:
1. Becoming god; this is to be found in Mormonism and more sophisticated forms of Hinduism.
– This sounds tempting – who wouldn’t want to be all powerful and all knowing (all etc.)?
Well, I for one wouldn’t! Think of the responsibility! And the loneliness! And the inevitably corrupting narcissism of getting eternally worshiped by those inferior mortals. No wonder the Hindu deity finally falls asleep and dreams of its own dis-articulation into the myriad entities of its own creation.
To be honest, this is just a very stupid idea. If what we want is an afterlife for our own individuated personal consciousness, this isn’t getting us there. Whatever god-consciousness might be like, it ain’t going to be anything like this consciousness, so the transmigration into godhead doesn’t get us any afterlife, it just gets god a new life. Personally, I would feel cheated.
2. Incarnation into its original body, but on a re-created paradisaical earth where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. One gets to eat, drink, fornicate, laugh, stay stoned all the time – throughout all time. This afterlife can be found in Orthodox Judaism, Islam, certain sects of Hinduism.
– That ‘through all times’ gives me problems here, and will continue to haunt us in this discussion. I can’t think of any existence more boring (well, yes I can, and we’ll discuss that).
I mean, I like eating, drinking, fornicating, etc., as much as anyone, and more than some, but try to imagine having sex with your favorite sex partner throughout eternity. One doesn’t even get an orgasm, since orgasms have specific biological functions which would be nullified on a perfected earth. So ‘the old in-out’ literally just goes on and on… and on…. In out in out in out in out, etc., to infinity. Pleasure doesn’t look like so much fun anymore.
3. Civitas Dei; as imagined by Augustine and articulated by Aquinas: The saved soul enters a community of scholars and they float around communicating their knowledge with one another.
– Again, for all time; and, again, boring.
Aquinas seems to depend on the temporal contingency of the earth to provide ever new knowledge from recently released souls, to mitigate this boredom. In other words, just when the community has fully shared all the knowledge it has, and every soul knows what every other soul knows, another soul pops up to announce, ‘hey guys, guess what I learned while still in a material body?’ City of God becomes an eternal library where every newly arriving soul is the new best-seller added to the shelves.
Unfortunately, as Aquinas knows, and as Augustine explains, eternity is not forever. ‘Eternity’ is a reference to a quantity of time, and time itself has a beginning and an end. On Judgment Day, the great library shuts its doors, and the souls are brought to their final destination in the next category of afterlife:
4. Unending worship of the divine. There isn’t anything other to do there. It is happy happy joy joy unceasing, through practice of contemplating the Lord directly. As David Byrne once sang, ‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.’
– Frankly, I’d rather have hell. At least there I would feel something, and in order to make the pain more painful, the damned would have to experience some sort of time. I.e., one gets used to sustained pain; pain, to be emphasized so as to remain painful, must be intermittently experienced – pain/ no pain, pain/ no pain, etc. Boring; but at least certainly more interesting than unceasing worship of the guy who supposedly created us into a life full of discontent and disappointment, just as a matter of petty revenge.
5. Speaking about disappointment, we at last come to the afterlife that I once accepted as a Buddhist, but now no longer find any interest in: Reincarnation into another life form. Now, the reason I no longer accept this, is because there can be no evidence for it, and one doesn’t have to accept it to derive the good to be found in the Buddha’s message.
– However, it should be noted that even among believing Buddhists, this form of afterlife is not a good thing. The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. So when the life force gets re-born, guess what it gets to do for another life-time? That’s right, suffer. And we don’t want to do this! The path of Dharma that leads to Nirvana is precisely the effort not to get re-incarnated!
Even among Hindus who hold to a similar idea, re-incarnation is really an unpleasant necessity to be borne until one becomes (or awakens into) godhood. After all, if one lives a bad life, one can find one’s self re-born as a fly, and get swatted as soon as one sprouts wings.
So this is a bad afterlife. We don’t want this afterlife, no matter what we choose to do to avoid it.
So, to sum up: The possibilities for an afterlife are: Stupid; boring; boring; boring; bad.
The religious faithful, many of whom don’t believe that atheists exist (we all really must somewhere have the god-virus in us, even if its dormant for a time, according to them), sometimes ask whether I might change my mind on my death-bed, just to play it safe. But my health is not very good, and I’m getting on in years, so there’s no point in putting off the gamble. My money is on the high probability that my consciousness after death will pretty much be the same as it was before birth – indeed, before conception – and I have no memory of that at all; which awareness can be reduced to the single negation: No.