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Dear J,

Let me allow those thoughts about justice, fairness and morality to percolate a while. Perhaps we will agree that they prove a personal universe, perhaps not. Let me suggest a second area to consider: our responses and reactions to death.

Here is a rather personal question for you. Are you scared to die?

If yes, why should you be, in an impersonal universe? Living cells just become dead cells. Sure, your death will cause you to lose things you had in life, but you won’t know it, for consciousness beyond death is impossible in an impersonal universe. Could it be that you fear death because you know you are immortal, and know you’re stepping into eternity with unknown consequences? Or could it be that the things that make life worth living – love, relationships, family, goodness, beauty – are not material and temporal; they are timeless and eternal? You know that these things can’t really end, and therefore the death of our cells is not that same as the death of our persons. Could your fear be an implicit faith that you are more than material?

If you don’t fear death, why not? Is it because you avoid the question? In that case, you’re not really fearless, just ignorant. Is it because you’re certain that nothing bad awaits you on the other side – either complete cessation of existence, or some blissful experience? On what basis do you have that certainty? What kind of evidence or authority are you relying on to assure you that there is nothing to fear after death?

While we are on the topic, we may as well revisit the theme of our last few letter. Why do you think some deaths are unfair? For example, what do you make of the death of a child to cancer or to a serial killer? Is it fair or unfair? First, what do you mean by fair? What would a fair death be? On what do you base your idea of fairness? Who decides what is fair, and when a death is fair or unfair? I do not mean to pummel you with questions, only to find out what you really think on these things.

If we are merely cells, then there is no such thing as fairness, except as a name for an agreement between humans. But fairness is much more than a social contract. Fairness is a kind of intuition we have that somethings should be, and some things should not be. But there seems to be no way to account for this, if we are purely material beings. That feeling that some deaths are unfair not only has no plausible explanation within us, it also flies in the face of Darwinistic determinism. According to Darwinism, nature is a long chain of cause and effect. There is no such thing as a good, bad, fair or unfair death in a dead, sterile cosmos. The universe doesn’t care about four year-olds with terminal diseases, child cancer wards, or the genocide of innocent women and children. But if the universe doesn’t care, we can’t seem to shake the feeling that we do.

If life is pure biology, is it really wrong to kill another human? What makes murder immoral? If one multi-celled organism destroys another multi-celled organism in a game reserve, we don’t call it immoral. But if a neighbour slaughters a neighbour, we call it murder, and call it wrong, even evil. So is a human neighbour more than a multi-cellular organism? Or is human killing a different kind of killing altogether? If we’re nothing more than the sum total of our physical parts, then what is wrong with a stronger, fitter, more adaptable human killing a weaker one? Yes, our advanced civilisation has ethic, rules, codes that enable us to live together. But why do we universally condemn murder, even though it would be a very handy tool for self-advancement?

Finally, since death zeroes out every pursuit, why bother with anything? Whatever path you choose, be it fame, fortune, power, or pleasure, death will bring it to an end. You can’t take it with you. You can’t experience it lasting after you. Even if you leave a legacy, you won’t be around to know it. So why do you live as if you’ll live forever if you won’t? Is it a kind of denial of death? Maybe in a practical way, but none of us denies that we will die. Or is it a mad rush to get what we can before we die, a raiding of the Titanic’s kitchen while we have time? 

Why would a species that has evolved through mortality act as if it is immortal? If consciousness evolved, why would it work in opposition to the very concept of mortality? Wouldn’t it incorporate it as one of its central tenets?

The way we react to death, if I may say it, is that we take it very personally. The fear of death means we fear dying as persons, not as organisms. The belief that some deaths are unfair is a belief about the death of persons, not organisms. The universal ban on murder shows we believe that premeditated, unwarranted and selfish killing is the stealing of another person’s life, not merely the death of a fellow creature. And the pursuit of meaning in life means we resist and reject the necessary nihilism of an impersonal cosmos.

In a word, can you explain all the emotions of a funeral in your purely material universe?



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