There is a philosophical argument that first arose in Western thought in the Seventeenth Century:
- God exists or does not exist. We cannot determine which is true by thought alone.
- There are two outcomes at death: Heaven or Hell
- You must choose one or the other ahead of time.
- If you choose Heaven, you lose a few earthly pleasures, but you gain eternal life; if you choose the other then you may have a fun time on earth, but you will be tortured for eternity
- Logically, there is no other choice but Heaven: whatever pleasures or not are available on earth are finite, but after death, infinity awaits, and infinite pleasure is a greater prize than finite pleasure, and conversely, infinite unpleasantness is a greater evil than finite discomfort.
The argument is attractive to those without much knowledge or reasoning capacity (neither is true of the most notable exponent of this argument, but there is no record that he ever took it seriously), but it is flawed in many respects.
The easiest counter is to consider that the deity handing out rewards and punishments may not be the one you think it is. You might spend your life doing all that is required in the Christian tradition, only to find at death that it is Ahura Mazda who is judging your life, and he is mightily pissed off that you have spent your life worshipping a false god. Bango, eternal damnation for you!
My own counter is that there is no such concept as life and death. Our bodies – and those of every creature we have encountered – run on purely physical processes of chemistry and electricity. There is nothing within us that is not the result of a chemical reaction or an electrical current. Our thought activity may be discerned by recording the electric impulses passing along neurons, in the same way as we might look at the flow of electricity within a computer. Or a thunderstorm.
We may assign the labels of living and dead to a body easily enough, but even a dead body has chemical processes progressing until it is at the point of turning into a fossil, and rock itself is not immune to chemistry or physics. If life is defined as brain activity, then what is the mechanism for progressing life beyond the confines of a brain that has been destroyed ?
Stand next to an atomic bomb going off, and in a moment your brain is an expanding cloud of plasma. It is difficult to think of any physical mechanism that could identify the moment of death and collect the current brain state. If we posit instead that our real existence is held elsewhere and our bodies are just shadows, then what’s the point of manipulating our bodies and their enclosed brains to worship a deity in some form of puppetry?
And how would that work, anyway?
I say that there is no way for our limited thinking apparatus to comprehend more than a sketchy abstract of the nature of the cosmos. We cannot fit infinite reality into our heads. There are problems we cannot solve with our brains, and things we cannot grasp because of their complexity or scale.
Whatever we are capable of believing or disbelieving is not what actually is. Any concept or system we can fit into our large but limited number of neurones is no more than a laughably simplistic representation. A child’s outline drawing of a house and family.
The Tao Te Ching tells us that if we think we know the whole truth, we are wrong, and I follow that precept.