There’s been a good debate this week over whether people who don’t believe in any god lose anything by not believing; in particular, “How do you feel about death with no prospect of an afterlife?” For me and Kevin Drum of Mother Jones (linked), we believe nothing happens: you fade to black, that’s the end, and yes, it can be an unpleasant thought. The Christians and spiritualists on the other side of the debate contend that atheists lose something by giving up the comfort of an afterlife. The exchange is less about “does an afterlife exist?” and more about “is it better to live as if an afterlife exists does exist, even if it doesn’t?” I find the whole thing interesting.
Until I get to this:
But either way, does this really reveal something essential about what it means to be human? In one sense, yes: a knowledge that someday we’ll die is unique to humans (though fear of death plainly isn’t), and our response to that knowledge has been a defining feature of human cultures for millennia.
Is it? Is the understanding of death uniquely human? Like funerals or game theory or cities or tools or self-awareness or grief? Because the more we learn about how animals think, the more we realize how similar we are. What if empathy and self-awareness and fear of death are all pieces of the same puzzle? If the entire purpose of life is to survive, then why wouldn’t some base understanding of what it means to not survive be encoded in the DNA of every living thing?
“Only humans do this” is just another way of declaring our dominion over all life on earth. If only our kind and no one else is capable of considering death on any level, then killing animals for our own use requires no justification. Wouldn’t that be so much easier?
∞ posted at 10:24 by stevesimitzis