Astronomers have predicted that our solar system will end cataclysmically five billion
years from now. What a great way to earn a living! I can’t help wondering if it might
not happen four billion years from now. Or maybe six. If you’re interested, the
disaster will strike when the sun runs out of hydrogen, swells into a red giant
(approximately 200 times the size it is now), destroys the nearest planets, and either
boils us up, or sucks us in. Global warming is peanuts compared to this. But in the
light of our discussion on the nature of the designer, it does raise interesting questions. Things end. What happens after the ending, and if it comes to that, what happened
before the beginning? We don’t know. We can’t know. And so we should not pretend
But if we consider our various alternative explanations of life, we can’t escape the fact that each one has the ending built in: every living thing that we know dies. We can take that one step further back: every living thing that we know changes. The changes may be imperceptible from one second to the next, but look at the photo of yourself twenty years ago, look at the photo of your dog five years ago, hunt for the flower that was in bloom five weeks ago. Things are always on the move. If you want eternal life, you may feel it’s a crying shame that evolution has not perfected the undying gene. After all, it has perfected reproduction, and even self-healing and selfimmunisation. No problem for the atheist, who will simply argue that the chance combinations which brought about life never got round to creating the deathless gene, and it’s “natural” anyway that things should die – as if unconscious nature somehow ordained death. There is a problem, though, for the designer concept. Death has clearly always been an integral part of the design, and we need to know why.
Before human beings came along to bring variety to the spectacle, we assume that other species lived their lives, as mentioned above, and died, leaving the next generation to do precisely the same. When you’ve seen say twenty generations of brachiosauruses munching a thousand or so generations of bananas, even if all these generations are but an evening in thy sight, there must be a degree of boredom. Imagine, then, the tedium of endless generations, or of one endless generation. Variety is essential to any form of entertainment. A symphony with one repeated note, a play with one repeated word, or a football match in which everyone stands stock still for ninety minutes – these will not set the pulses racing.
In general, change and ending are integral to any spectacle. Much though we may regret the fact that our moments of glory or bliss do not last for ever, we would certainly regret it even more if they did. And rather sickeningly, it has to be said that if the daily news consisted of nothing but happy reports of how well everything was going, we would very soon long to hear some bad news. We in England love our sunny summer days, but hot sun 365 days a year? It is the mixture of good and bad that makes even our own lives richer, and since change involves endings and beginnings, we can scarcely complain even on our own behalf that the designer’s work is faulty in this respect. That is not to condone the seemingly needless pain and suffering mentioned earlier, but we are trying to see the whole picture, and to understand it – not to pass judgement. Our hypothetical designer would probably have introduced the concept of endings because it was the only way that the programme could be made interesting, both for it and for us.
Whether the designer will also come to an end in five billion years is a little difficult for a mere agnostic to say, but the line of speculation that I should now like to follow is that of our own ending. If the atheists are right, and we are miraculous descendants of a million astonishing coincidences, then of course there can be nothing after death. If there is/was a designer of a purely physical nature – the colossus whom we cannot see – then the same applies. But if there is/was a designer on a different plane from ourselves, which for want of a better term I have labelled “spirit”, then an afterlife as a spirit cannot be discounted.
Before wandering off into this “undiscover’d country”, I should like for a moment to consider what is life and, for that matter, what is death. Even the vast collection of complex, interconnected organs that make up our bodies are just lumps of matter without the spark, the breath, the lightning that sets them in motion. Darwin talked of life having been “breathed” by the Creator into his “few forms or one”. There is no doubt that when we die, something stops, the engine cuts out, the light goes off, the bubble bursts – but what is it that leaves us? And when it all began, a thousand ages ago, what was it that entered us? We do not know. There is no scientist on earth who can tell us. There is no atheist or theologian on earth who can tell us. Since we do not know, we must keep an open mind about the possibilities.
The third category of originator (chance and a physical designer being the first two) presents the option of another form of life. If it created us in its image, then the body may be the container, and the other form may be the content. What we said earlier about ghosts and mediums comes into operation in this context: if just one story or one “contact” is genuine, then the whole scenario is real. Life on Earth would then be only a chapter in our history.
Some people have been brought back from the dead (so-called Near Death Experiences) and have reported extraordinary things – an amazing light, peace, contact with their loved ones, out-of-body observation of the activities going on around the body they have vacated, a sensation of oneness with the universe. In some cases, clinically dead patients have witnessed scenes or acquired information subsequently confirmed by independent witnesses. You would need to have rock solid faith in your limited tools of perception and comprehension in order to ignore the claims of every single testimony.
Near Death Experiences are perhaps the most powerful evidence we have of Cartesian dualism. If the brain is dead but the mind survives, the inference can only be that instead of producing consciousness, memory, will, identity etc., the brain is a vehicle - a receiver, not a transmitter. Consciousness in all its manifestations remains one of the great mysteries. Despite all the progress made by neuroscience in pinpointing and tracking the electrical processes that go on in the brain, we are still no nearer understanding how chemicals can create self-awareness. Maybe they don't.
Do we want an afterlife? The question is totally irrelevant to our quest for truth, but it is worth asking all the same, since it might influence our beliefs. The answer in most cases would probably be: “It depends…” We certainly don’t want an eternal hell. An eternal heaven sounds attractive, though impossible to visualize without the dreaded element of boredom taking over. What about perfect peace? Well, perfect peace would surely be eternal, dreamless sleep. And that is what we think of as death. Since in this life we are unlikely to know the answers to our most fundamental questions, the agnostic can look forward to death with a degree of enthusiasm (though I’m talking of death itself, and not the act of dying, which may be a dreadful ordeal). Either there will be perfect peace, which can’t do us any harm, or there will be a new life in which we may learn some of the longed-for answers. We should not discount those philosophies and religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism that promise (or threaten) a new life on Earth in another form, or maybe as another person, but even that prospect need not worry us unduly. Only one of the options is really frightening, and that is the much disputed concept of hell. But in order to understand such concepts, and in order to gauge the possible nature of an afterlife, we need to consider exactly who or what it is that will enter it. This is a question of identity.