By Dr Anthony Lewis, Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network.
It is a brutal truth that all living creatures have their lives taken away from them by illness, violence or accident. Anthony explores how using our embodied capabilities can provide us with life-enhancing fulfilment and existential succour without the need to believe in an afterlife.
Our birth is contingent and our eventual death is certain. Each one of us is an infinitely improbable collection of atoms and a seething complex of organic biochemistry. There never was, and never will be through eons of time, another entity like you or me anywhere in the universe. We are all made of star dust and each one of us is unique and special. But despite this, the brutal truth is that every single living being has its life taken from it at some point either through illness, violence or by accident. It is an unavoidable consequence of being alive. All our lives are book-ended by our non-existence.
'None of us can truly touch our own non-existence... it is as impossible as being able "to kiss your own elbow".'
When I was an altar boy in rural Ireland, I noticed that most religious people often did not cope any better than the rest of us during the funeral of someone close to them. My 11-year-old self concluded that even the faithful did not really believe in an everlasting afterlife. By watching the behaviour of people in the congregation, I realised that everyone appeared to know that death was final and the end. The brutality of bereavement to my child’s eye was clearly not assuaged very much at all by faith, or by promises of a continued heavenly existence after death. The subsequent discussions I tried to have with the priests, about what I thought were my rather important insights, brought my ecclesiastical career to an abrupt early end. My wise Irish granny advised me at the time that none of us can truly 'touch our own non-existence'. She demonstrated to me that it was as impossible as being able ‘to kiss your own elbow’. As far as she was concerned, that was the end of the matter. It was to her something to accept as an impossibility, and she suggested I took up fishing as a perhaps more useful pastime for a wee boy.
But how do we as humanists cope with the great brute absurdity of our own non-existence without the solace of the promise of an afterlife? Since my early and unsuccessful intellectual tussle with the Catholic clergy, I have had a lifetime obsession with the whole concept of non-existence. So here are some of my insights into non-existence based on my life experience, my background in the geosciences, and extensive reading (see the links below for some of the best books on the subject). I am certain that most humanists, and many people with a religious faith, will have similar thoughts.
Mortality Salience and Existential Terrors
Humans are probably the first organisms to have evolved both an awareness of our mortality and the means to talk to each other about the absurdity of our inevitable non-existence. The conscious realisation that our embodied existence is contingent, and our inevitable demise a certainty, is a scary thing for all of us at the individual level. This ‘mortality salience’ is an unsettling side effect of our evolved cognitive abilities and probably represents a unique cognitive singularity in the evolution of life on earth.
As embodied creatures, we are intricately linked to our senses and emotions. The oldest parts of our brains (brain stem and the amygdala) control our emotions and our autonomic bodily systems. This powerful system, which is often termed the ‘Chimp Brain’ by scientists, controls our flight, fight or freeze responses. These primitive emotions are like a herd of wild horses. Corralled and tamed they can be a force for good; untamed they can destroy us. Over-contemplating our own non-existence can trigger powerful responses in these deep, primitive systems. The resulting ‘existential terrors’ have provided fertile ground for our superstitions, religions, and various mental health conditions throughout the ages in all human societies.
'I doubt anyone has the answers to the great brute absurdity of our insignificance.'
It seems that my Irish granny was correct after all. We appear to have not yet evolved the cognitive capabilities required to fully touch our own personal non-existence at a deep, meaningful and emotional level. I suspect this is to protect us from the existential despair and mental anguish which might result if we thought too much about our inevitable demise. Nature has equipped us with the mental faculties required to survive in an indifferent and dangerous natural world, where we have to face the awful truth that we are all insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I doubt anyone has the answers to this great, brute absurdity of insignificance. I have always considered those who claim to have the answers as possibly deluded, probably liars and most definitely charlatans.
In search of meaning
Humanism is a belief framework that accepts that we are all mortal creatures and that our lives are not a rehearsal for an uncertain afterlife. Instead, humanists face squarely the mystery of existence. Humanists are thus freed from the existential burden of over-contemplating our own mortality and inevitable demise so that we can find our own meaning and significance and live life to the full, both for ourselves and others. Humanists choose to focus on this one precious life that we experience directly, and strive to live authentically with good grace and humour. So how do humanists find purpose and meaning to life without the promise of an afterlife?
As embodied creatures we derive enormous existential fulfilment through using our natural physical and mental capabilities. These have co-evolved, together with our ‘Chimp Brain' described earlier, so that we can experience reality around us and react appropriately to enhance our chances of survival in the wild. These corporeal abilities consist of three main interlocking systems which reward us with a profound sense of well-being and existential succour when suitably activated. These are our social brain, our cognitive brain, and our physical body.
Humans are a social species and our social lives are important to all of us. Our need for human contact is so basic that putting prisoners into solitary confinement is considered a powerful punishment. Anthropologists have demonstrated that humans have evolved a brain that allows us to keeps tabs on all our social relationships, including norms of behaviour, hierarchies and fairness, for up to 150 close relationships with other humans – the so called Dunbar Number (see references below). Neuroscientists estimate that up to 80 per cent of our brain activity is used to manage our emotions and social relationships. Scientists have discovered specialised 'mirror neurons' that help us to empathise with the feelings of other human beings. This evolved sense of empathy allows us to connect deeply with each other and form profound bonds of friendship and love. We have developed the most complex behaviours of reciprocal altruism that are observable in nature, but which are also observed in other social species such as dolphins, apes, and elephants to lesser degrees. Reciprocal altruism is nothing more than the scientific term for the Golden Rule – treat others as you want to be treated yourself.
'Developing meaningful connections with other humans is deeply life-enhancing.'
Connecting with our fellow human beings at a deep and authentic level is a 'magical' experience. It is one of the strongest drivers of human behaviour, as testified by the importance of all our artistic and social endeavours, and the enduring primacy of our familial bonds of love. As a humanist, I believe our innate altruism and evolved sense of empathy will always endure over our more violent and primitive instincts, otherwise we would not have survived as a species. I believe in the unlimited power of human love, kindness and compassion to carry us through times of distress and suffering. To put it simply, developing meaningful connections with other humans during our lives makes life worth living and is a deeply life-enhancing purpose all to itself.
Our higher cognitive functions and conscious awareness are located in our cerebral cortex within the frontal lobes of our brain. This is where we build mental models of reality through our senses, observations, interactions and experiences. These mental models and beliefs about reality allow us continually to adapt to our circumstances and environment to increase our chances of survival in the wild, and to look after our personal best interests. As conscious and embodied creatures, we live and interact with others in the real world. This creates a lifelong dynamic interplay between our subjective beliefs and mental models, and the hard realities of an indifferent natural world. The instinctive drive to understand reality and the natural world we live in based on our experiences and observations is what differentiates humans from other living creatures. Using these higher cognitive abilities, humans have been able to flourish by inventing things, developing new technologies, and building increasingly complex interdependent societies. These shield us to some extent from the worst vicissitudes of the natural world, and the worst aspects of our own nature through the rule of law.
'Connecting with the intellectual and cultural life of our communities is also a deeply fulfilling end in itself.'
The cumulative deployment of humanity's cognitive abilities over time has led to the invention of writing, reading, money, and the development of sophisticated literature, art, music, sciences, engineering, architecture, business, the internet and so on. All of these have enabled us to explore and mould the natural and social worlds around us. We tether our ideas and beliefs to reality, using evidence and reason. Our cultural, economic and technological innovations have allowed us to connect in increasingly sophisticated ways with each other, to build our collective knowledge and know-how about reality so that we can progressively improve the quality of life for everyone. Exercising and developing our own cognitive and intellectual abilities through education, learning, and science is a deeply rewarding activity for all of us. Connecting with the intellectual and cultural life of our communities and societies is a dominant pursuit in the lives of most of us, and is also another deeply fulfilling end in itself.
As mobile living creatures, we experience and interact with reality through our five senses, and through the movement of our physical bodies. We are our bodies. Experiencing the natural world mediated through our senses allows us to really connect with existence. We can use our bodies to play sports, play musical instruments, dance, paint, cook delicious meals, enjoy physical intimacy with other living things through hugs and physical contact. As reproductive animals, we are able to enjoy the carnal pleasures of the flesh to ensure that we procreate and survive as a species! Our physiology is deeply integrated with our brains, especially our ‘Chimp Brains’, which, together, can provide powerful biochemical rewards for us when using our physical bodies. For example, the runner's high or the euphoria experienced when dancing till dawn, with or without artificial chemical stimulation!
'Enjoying the physical experiences of being embodied is probably the most powerful driver of life fulfilment.'
We all experience moments of 'satori' (a concept in Japanese Zen Buddhism referring to a state of sudden enlightenment or awakening), for example when watching a beautiful sunset, being present at the birth of a child, listening to music, or hugging and embracing our loved ones. The list is endless. These are moments when our bodies are flooded with endorphins and other pleasure hormones that help connect us, albeit fleetingly, with the myriad of complex natural systems of which we are an integral part as embodied creatures. These fleeting, ephemeral, almost transcendental physical moments are profound and often psychologically transformative. Interacting with reality and the natural world through our physiology and bodily senses is, therefore, also profoundly life-enhancing for us as living creatures. Fully enjoying the physical experiences of being embodied is probably the most powerful driver of life fulfilment of all, given that our bodies have evolved solely to secure our survival as a species.
Inverting Pascal's Wager
In 1662, just before his death, French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal presented his famous 'Wager'. He argued that, even if there was a small chance that a God and an afterlife existed, then given the enormous potential loss of an everlasting afterlife, it made logical sense to believe in both at the cost of some relatively inconsequential pleasures during life, as dictated by religious doctrines. As a humanist, I prefer to invert the Wager and argue that it is very unlikely that an afterlife exists based on what we now know about the universe through science. I believe we should, instead, focus on making the most of this one life we actually know about, whilst the lightbulb of our consciousness shines brightly against the ever-present and dark shadow of our inevitable non-existence. All of us are endowed with powerful, corporeal capabilities that can provide us with many ways to create life-enhancing purpose and fulfilment. We can forge meaningful relationships with other human beings using our social brains. We can engage our cognitive abilities in the pursuit of intellectual understanding and get involved in a whole raft of cultural pursuits. We can enjoy the full range of sensory experiences provided by our physical bodies and senses throughout our lives. All are ends, and meanings, in themselves and they bring their own existential rewards – independently of any speculative afterlife. And finally, I have to ask, were you able to kiss your elbow? I suspect not!
Links to some sources
John Holt Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story (2012) – reviewed in Wikipedia
Lewis Wolpert Six Impossible Things before Breakfast (2006)
Giulio Tonini Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul (2012)
Stephen Peters The Chimp Paradox (2012) Robin Dunbar How Religion Evolved And Why it Endures (2022), Human Evolution (2014) reviewed in https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191001-dunbars-number-why-we-can-only-maintain-150-relationships
One view about the origin of the phrase ‘Kissing your own elbow’: http://www.rhondasescape.com/2018/04/kiss-your-elbow.html Pascal's Wager - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_wager