N O R E S U R R E C T I O N ?
O N L Y E N D L E S S
S L E E P ?
(Prolegomena of "Doubt, Hope and Love")
Of all dogmas of Christianity and other religions the most exalted has been the claim that eternal happiness is awaiting men and women, if they have been good in their lives, and eternal pain, if they have been evil or, more precisely, if they died with unforgiven deadly sins. What eternal happiness would be like, theologians have been unable to say, but that men and women will be very close to God, that it will be delightful and utterly exhilarating, they seem to know. When questioned how they came to know, they refer to historic people, who had been told so unmistakably. The exact wording of such prophecy -is not up for discussion. A written text is all, that's left for us to consider, which concretely may often be one of several versions in its original language or a translation from another language or two. Such circumstances may jeopardize its unmistakeability and put it in question. While acknowledging the authenticity or beauty and accomplishment of their texts, the naive, vague and magically infiltrated thinking of our forebears and their low sensitivity for logic and avoidance of ambiguity, inconsistency and contradiction in their statements make even their consensus about life after death in heaven not too trustworthy. That's how some contemporaries of our forebears felt already. Basically, we know nothing about the state of posthumous eternal happiness, whatever some prophets in their trances or ecstasies or auras kept exclaiming or chanting.
To visualize the state of eternal pain and condemnation we have images and examples of injuries in accidents and wars and illnesses and plagues and all their sufferings to our avail, plus the hells that men have inflicted upon each other, like breaking upon the wheel, impaling, hanging, decapitating, cutting up, tearing up, piercing, dragging on the ground, crucifying, drowning or burning, letting people starve, go thirsty, freeze or suffocate, whipping, scourging or jailing with or without torture. The victim dies in jail or of the torture. Either way the pain would end. In order for the victim not to die prematurely, the torturers might stop the act, let the victim recover and go on with it. In Hell the torturer or a built-in mechanism would prevent the victim's death. Some theologians, however, declare Hell or eternal pain a state of "being far away from God", in contrast to the infinitely exhilarating closeness to God in Heaven. At any rate, even eternal condemnation or pain must be endurable. In that case, there is a chance that the victim gets used to it. That seems to apply to the devils whom we have thought up ourselves as fallen and condemned angels. They don't suffer. Unless eternal condemnation or pain or Hell is a fairytale. That would save us the question.
If the prognoses of an eternal life after death are so poorly founded empirically and theoretically, men and women who take issue with this should be entitled and authorized to think up their own version of a life after death by their own wits and life experience and relevant scientific knowledge that they can get hold of.
Right at the beginning there is the recognition that all dead people can no longer influence events and actions of the living people. Their bodies decay, if they have not been burned to ashes before, and scientifically there is no way to reawaken them back to life. As individuals they are gone forever. They belong to the set of all human beings who have (once) lived (and do so no longer). Some day there will be no more to say of them with certainty, and of the yet living too, and even that only until the last human being has died. With him or her all retrospection and all memories will have ended also. A few surviving animals may possibly remember some human beings for a little while, but they can't tell anybody. They are unfit as witnesses. Basically, many believers of all religions know that, and they arrange their lives accordingly. Whatever they want to reach and accomplish, they try to get in their lifetimes. After that nothing goes any more. They sing and dream of an eternal life after death - it would be nice if there were one - but they don't rely on it.
Next comes the recognition of the beginning of one's own individual life. Observably for other people, it starts with birth, and gradually becomes recognizable for the individual. The individual has begun to experience it in the womb of the mother and begun to exist with conception. Besides the existence of the universe, which extends from the microcosm of atomic parts to the macrocosm of the entire world in which our Earth is macrocosmically a speck of dust and microcosmically a tremendously complex subuniverse, well, besides the existence of the universe only life and its ability to be passed on are real miracles. Both of them required billions of years for their evolution, the universe at least twelve, the incredibly rarely scattered event of life in the universe three billion years on our earth to get started and another billion to reach its current immeasurable multitude and variety. All other miracles derive from those two. They shine less and are of secondary and tertiary significance. Many miracles, to which our religions refer, are purely human hocuspocus or fairytales or lies. God has not created man in his own image, no, men ( and women), these very recent biological novelties quite late in the evolution, have thought up God in their own absolutely human image. That's why religions insist upon incessant religious indoctrination and activity without breaks - that's their only way to prevent scientific education and enlightenment of human beings - and why they fight each other irreconcilably. 0n our small planet Earth religions want to absorb other religions or displace them by their own growth. With that in mind, almost all of them advocate unchecked birthrates for their believers.
With the conception in mother's womb, the fusion of a male spermatozoon and a female ovum, the individual existence of a human being begins. The secondary miracle of the genes (about 100.000 in the haploid genome of each germ cell) located in 23 chromosomes respectively, as before in trillions of repetitions during the evolution, directs our intrauterine growth, our birth and our individual somatic and intellectual development. Before conception we have not existed yet, visibly and audibly for others we do after we were born. A state of nonexistence preceded our life, but we get aware of this fact only during our personal development. In our sleep we regularily lose our consciousness. We need sleep to regenerate our energies that we use up while we are awake. In our deep sleep we do not even dream. Without technical instruments (like clocks) or human observers we cannot tell, how long we have slept deeply or at all. In our early deep sleep subjectively we experience a state of non-existence. We might say, we stay in steady rapport with it, with a state we were in before our conception and birth, when we did not exist yet and it was not sure at all whether we would ever exist and eventually have existed.
Next is the recognition that our consciousness is a complicated, delicate and very essential phenomenon of human personality, one we became increasingly familiar with during our childhood and youth. Our consciousness, that are we ourselves. Through our consciousness we experience and learn about our existence. We can communicate with other men and women about different degrees of conscious awareness including feeling giddy or dizzy or numb. Our vigilance can suffer when we have been awake too long without relaxation or sleep, or staying in sticky air, in prolonged deprivations or strains like hunger, thirst, physical over-exertion, heat, cold, social isolation or sensory deprivation, being sick with fever or having taken solid, fluid or gaseous drugs. During the day we experience various degrees of consciousness, its brightest phases coming in the morning with some people, in the afternoon or evening with others. Some feel most alert when they are with a crowd, others when they are alone or when they read, do handymen's work, art, music or science, or when they are being instructed or entertained. Affects of anxiety or fear, of anger, irritation or sadness and resignation can influence or dim consciousness. Joy and all activities that we love to engage in and that satisfy us sharpen our consciousness.
Closely related is the realization, that our consciousness requires memory in order to function. Even in our intrauterine life, but more extensively and more easily observable from birth on we are learning all kinds of things about our environment and skills of our own that we store automatically in our memory and use successfully in recurring or similar situations. That way we improve our actions, our dealings with other people and our recall of recurring and new situations and of caretaking persons, friends, neighbors and strangers. Our knowledge about all of them grows. We are building increasingly complicated memories of and ideas about our environment, our fellow-men and -women and ourselves, that are naive and phantastic in early childhood, but turning more realistic and factual as we grow up. There is a reality, we conclude and enjoy grasping it faster and understanding it ever better. And there are phantasy worlds composed of images of reality and transformed in their relations. In their coherence, complexity and implications for our survival they do not match reality, even if they are beautiful and don't bore us. Only those imaginary worlds in which their authors and creators are unerringly striving for utmost proximity to reality, for understanding all the facts involved, or at least as many as possible, compare well with reality. They are the imaginary worlds of the sciences. Their goal is the exploration and intellectual reconstruction to its remotest and innermost parts in all directions and dimensions, and to do so in principally testable, maximally unambiguous objective statements that will be revised whenever new discoveries and facts so require. Individual scientists can only know portions of reality thoroughly, but a number of different scientists taken together know all research about reality, and new scientists steadily keep joining them.
All those states of consciousness and their environments, the processes of perception, memory, ideas and imagined worlds, during waking times, dreams and dreamless sleep, depend on an intact brain, in order to go on. We owe its size to our phylogenesis, to our ontogenesis the individual development of our states of consciousness, of our memories and our imagined worlds. Disease or injury of our brain disturbs and endangers our states of consciousness, our experiences and ideas, our feelings and affects and perceptions of reality in everyday life and in its specific (social, cultural, athletic, technical, economic and scientific) realms. A concussion or injury of the brain usually renders its victim unconscious and may generate a more or less farreaching retroactive amnesia. When we wake up from it, we remember only part or nothing of the event that caused the injury. In more severe cases we may not even remember what happened seconds, minutes or hours before that event, depending on the severity of brain injury. In very grave instances this retroactive forgetting may extend to days and weeks and change the entire personality of the injured person. He or she may not know any more who he / she is. Even in cases of light brain injuries with retroactive amnesias of seconds or minutes, those cerebral processes that lead to storing impressions and experiences and need time to occur, were disrupted. Because of the injury no memory was generated.
The brain contains at least twenty billion neurons and about five times as many supportive cells for their metabolism. At different locations in the brain neurons have different functions, but all of them operate by common principles of nerve conduction. Stimulations of sense organs are passed on over several synapses or nervous switches to the brain, a few synapses within the brain and out to the periphery of the body and its executive organs, the striped muscles moving our skeleton, the smooth muscles of our intestines and bloodvessels and glands. These processes are involved in all our perceptions, feelings, ideas and thoughts, motives, decisions and actions, simple reflexes and reactions as well as complicated acts of great significance to other people and our environment. Important artistic, technical or scientific achievements, athletic or economic careers, religious, military and criminal exercises all arise from brain processes. The respective people are responsible for what their brains make them do.
The brain is a tremendously complicated organ with greater overall capabilities than any computer, yet working similar to a computer or computer system. With animal and man the brain is the most important of all their organs, one that will not suffer even a slight undersupply of blood. Even a short lack of oxygen, which the blood, together with nutritive material from the intestinal tract, constantly carries from the lungs to all organs and parts of the body and their cells, even a short lack of oxygen in the brain can lead to the death of regions of the brain or all of it. Other organs can tolerate such lacks much longer without suffering damage.
Brain death means loss of consciousness forever. Mechanical lifesaving efforts applied to the body may keep it alive for a while, but the victim will never wake up. If only parts of the brain have died, as might happen after strokes, patients may wake up to a somewhat reduced consciousness. One half of the body may be paralyzed. Some patients cannot speak and / or understand the spoken word. A portion of the brain has stopped working. Some patients cannot concentrate themselves on matters, forget what they just wanted to do, cannot remember certain things of the past or become more egocentric or childish than they were before the stroke. Neurologically, the affected regions of the brain are known. Through special exercises patients may recover some of the functions they have lost. In contrast with other organs of the human body, which can heal losses of tissue by developing new cells, the brain can help itself only by redirecting nervous pathways. Intact neurons take on additional or new functions for the parts that have dropped out. The supportive cells in the brain can help them. They are able to provide new cells of their own kind, if any of them have been knocked out.
Death terminates the life of the entire body including its brain, and we will never wake up again. Like all life, we have returned to the state of non-existence. However, we living humans have become so accustomed to life, we have learned to love it and developed such phantastic and entertaining ideas of the world and ourselves, that we do not want to accept such a trivial end with no choir or fanfare. During the last million of years our brain has grown so much and differentiated itself so exuberantly, that our ideas and imagination have run out of bounds. We can't stop indulging in it, whether we want to or not. We cannot believe that some day the world will have to make do without us, and that even our material, cultural and scientific works and structures and everything we have thought up and put down in writing or other forms of documentation will not endure forever. All those things have assumed an intellectual or spiritual form of existence in the minds of many of us that does not seem tied to our material and physical existence. How else could we possibly have grown into our existing culture and eventually begun even to shape it ourselves?
In their mythologies and religions our forebears got trapped by all those irresistible impressions and experiences. Abundantly they created goddesses and gods of nature, heavenly and terrestrial kingdoms of ghosts, God Allmighty, God Mother, angels, devils, elves and gnomes, fairies and witches and sorcerers, the holy, the blessed and the spooks in their imaginations and concluded that we humans would continue to live as souls or spirits, when our bodies had died. Idealistic philosophers have joined them. They believe in Plato's realm of ideas and in a "world spirit or specter" as their true or real form of existence in which thinking people automatically participate. Only their bodies pass away. Material reality is an ephemeral dream. Ideas and the Spirit are forever.
What our forebears devised in their mythologies and religions as moral principles and forms of education, was often laudable and within the evolution probably lifesaving and survival-prone, but their philosophical position can hardly withstand scientific analysis, logic or mere common sense. Religions impose a time-consuming and cumbersome introduction into their "spiritual world" on all newborn humans under their jurisdiction, and those should come adequately prepared for it biologically and genetically. Otherwise the spiritual world, the culture, the art and the sciences that they are able to acquire and talk about with other humans - and only with humans - may not grow very far, possibly not even guarantee their survival. If no other humans hurry to their rescue, mankind's end could come about sooner than expected by cosmical and geophysical circumstances on earth. Somewhere in the future, say in one or two billion years, human life and perhaps all life may no longer be sustainable on our small planet. The earth may have been swallowed by the sun that has turned into a "red giant".
In the entire universe that we can see there may be 10 or 100 sufficiently cooled off heavenly bodies close to a star or sun (going to burn at least a billion years longer) where life could originate or already have originated or even ended. Serious possibilities of such islands of life in our universe seem to be so rare and scattered, that we cannot hope realistically to reach one of them if our island of life has disappeared. Our cosmological Science Fiction talks and acts as if this would be easy, but in their phantasies and plots they have stayed childishly earthbound. They grossly underestimate the inhabitability of cosmic space in the universe. We owe to our religions the conviction of life's and particularly mankind's uniqueness and are so delighted by it that we cannot imagine a world without us. In this enthusiasm and pride we may have improved our short-term survival chances. In the long run the truths of the sciences have greater validity, life on earth is probably not the only one and man not unique among terrestrial living beings. There is not one of them, however small and insignificant, with which we have nothing in common. In the biological evolution on Earth we humans are about three million years old. Our cultural acceleration began about 100.000 years ago, we started booming 10.000 years past, and since several hundred years we have been buzzing all over and toppling over ourselves. We are the only living beings that have thought up God and Heaven for themselves and are discussing a possible life in Heaven, but if we seriously collect our senses and our thoughts, as happens in the sciences, this possibility must be considered extremely unlikely.
Why should we, therefore, expect another kind of death than the one all living beings are inescapably heading for: A death of non-existence? All of us have come from it, viruses, microbes, infusorians, mollusks, insects, fish, amphibia, reptiles, birds and mammals, not only good and bad people, but all living beings in their entirety including the incredible variety of plants. We all return to the time- and painless quiet of non-existence. It is a state that we have tried and experienced gladly in our deep sleep many, many times, in a long life up to 35.000 times and more. We always came out of it again. One day we will fail to do so. Then we have died in our sleep. With less good luck we may suffer while dying, before death relieves us. Poetically we might call death our savior. It even relieved Jesus Christ from his dying pains.
In this everlasting equality of eventual non-existence of all living beings man is no more and no less than any other living being. It is also an equality of all human beings among themselves. That's the only way any bookkeeping over good and evil among fellowmen and -women might work. Only now do we become not merely the brothers and sisters of all human beings including those we were particularly fond of in life, but of all creatures altogether. In the state of non-existence we all meet, and that way we can permanently tolerate ourselves and all, all the others, and they can tolerate us.
This is not an announcement of the end of our religions. They cannot be extrapolated from our history of mankind, just as our dreams and daydreams and our artistic and literary and musical works and phantasies can't. Religions are more or less concerted and articulated attempts at viewing and interpreting life and the world at any respective period of history, even though some of our ancestors and increasing numbers of people during the last five centuries have evaluated those attempts as philosophically and scientifically inadequate, even as superstitious and fairytales. Usually, children don't mind them, but in late childhood and early youth intelligence, consciousness and their sense of reality can already reach the critical level of the sciences. If religions do not want to lose those young people, they would have to tolerate their doubts of religious truths and dogmas, discuss them and find more serious and democratic forms of dialogue than they have done so far. Religions and their churches cannot continue to expect that scientifically enlightened adolescents would want to curb or maim their own intellectual development. Religions might have to adjust and change their teachings, if they take their youngsters doubts seriously.
How do religions know that one cannot feel, think and act in a religious or christian manner without believing in Heaven and an eternal life there after death. What would change in the courageous, caring and lovable image of Christ, if he should not have been the natural son of God nor have risen from death soon after his crucifixion, but living on in our memories and minds like other important and famous people, he perhaps the kindest and most significant among them? Other religions consider him at least a prophet, and many folks belonging to none of the established religions think of him as a human being of great poetic, social and psychotherapeutic gifts. Many of his deeds and works have been recorded in writing. Even today they still convey their charme, fascination and contageous power in everyday life and do not depend on the promise of an afterlife in Heaven to be accepted by the people. Christ has occasionally spoken of Heaven but revealed no details. That he may perhaps have said too much, he might have realized on the cross during the last minutes of his conscious life. Supposedly he called out: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!"
Many people cannot imagine death any other way than as
non-existence. They feel that way, not only free thinkers, but also a majority
of the believers in all religions. This is at least how they behave in
reality. They want to reach all their goals in their lifetime. After that
nothing works any more, they tell you confidentially. That does not prevent
some of them to wager small stakes on an afterlife in Heaven. It won't
help, they fear, but it can do no harm either. In non-existence all is
Distrusting the romantic, but objectively inconclusive prophecies of religions about life after death, drawing instead on scientific evidence and one's own experiences in life, the following thoughts were offered for consideration:
All persons of history whom or about whom we have known, had no more direct influence on the living after they had died and never showed up again in person.
The human organism begins to exist when a male and a female germ cell with haploid genomes fuse in a woman's womb into a single cell with diploid genome in its nucleus. With nutritive material taken from the womb it begins and continues to divide itself and somatically grow.
In that process, well observable after birth, an individual human consciousness forms gradually. It is based on a growing memory capacity, and the somatic base for that is the developing central nervous system with the brain. All our human life and action depends on an intact brain. So does all work ever done anywhere and all human culture including religions and sciences, both in their creation as well as in their experience and consummation.
With the death of the brain every individual changes from the (theoretical or imagined) set of all living human beings to the set of human beings who have once lived and do so no longer. Their existence, their consciousness, memory and brain began with conception in mother's belly and ended irrevocably with their death. During life they stayed in lifelong rapport with the state of non-existence before birth through their recurrent subjectively timeless, dreamless and unconscious deep sleep into which every human being sinks at least once a day for his regeneration. Psychologically and biologically men have been prepared for death quite well and most intimately, though not necessarily for dying.
This is no announcement of the end of religions. They have done some good for mankind, particularly for man's civilization. However, they will have to cope with intelligent criticism and doubt of growing young people in different ways than they have so far. Their skeptical youngsters and young adults should not be expelled from their religions or have to swear off their doubts. Humiliations will rather reinforce their doubts.
|Dr. Walter Toman, Prof. emer.
A-1130 Vienna, Austria
Tel. & Fax: 0043-1-8893709
|Dr. Walter Toman, Prof. emer.
Department of Psychology
D-91054 Erlangen, Germany