Monday, 13 September 2010

Pain, Death, and Heaven

While I reject the entirety of the structure and mode of all irrational human religions (with a soft spot for Deism), Christianity offers little towards rationality even compared with its bizarre cousins, Judaism and Islam (of which the latter is simply crude plagiarism of the former).

The least coherent of the foundational promises of Christianity must be the vague notion of Heaven; an idea usually so not much different to - although one is consistently assured by the faithful that it is indeed different from - ancient and very-human dreams of an afterlife. Our ancestors pondered as deeply as ourselves about the hereafter, conjuring anthropocentric worlds presumably for human's continued benefit (at the expense of every other organism of course).

Each inevitably had curiously human expectancies such as love, food, shelter, company, the presence of their particular god or gods. And of course: the absence of pain and death. This last set is especially remarkable, although not entirely unexpected, as it uncovers the insidious reaches to which human greed can soak. Not sated to be cast aside in this world, greed follows us like a cold lingering draft.

According to the Christian religion, souls float heavenwards once their human vehicle beats a final heartbeat. Once the two are separated the body falls prey to decay and returns whence it came; dust to dust, ashes to ashes as the good book states.

This part at least the writers got correct. How could they not? The average lifespan of their fellow nomads was probably only in the mid to high 20’s! Death would have surrounded them, suffocating growth, stifling progress. But another thing was evident too. The spark of life disappeared once the final heartbeat pulsed, yet it was not in the least bit clear to them what was happening. The trauma, emotional and mental, of losing a fellow traveller is difficult enough, but to accept their eternal absence must have seemed overwhelming much as it still does today.

A comforting hand, a grieving shoulder, and consoling words do ease bereavement. So how much more, to a person bereft, would the concept of a perfect world be where a loved one now awaits in peace? A model of such charity would surely spread, ultimately producing the ideas of heaven, paradise, an afterlife, the happy hunting grounds, Valhalla, etc. As a profound social tool, the invention of heaven came of age from a deep human need to believe things don't just end at death.

That heaven offers consolation to those in grief is undeniable, but what of the Christian claim that heaven is without pain or that one survives death? Are these promises even coherent let alone physically possible? Perhaps. After all, can’t an ultimate being or a perfect world be just that? But what would such a world resemble? If the Christian is correct and the Bible is portentous, then believers and non-believers alike can expect some sort of resurrection to an afterlife.

Foul or frolicking, miserable humans expect a second wind. Some believers interpret a recreation of our physical bodies in their ‘perfect form’. Other views are vague but essentially similar. Yet for a concept of painlessness to be truly appreciated by its inhabitants, I contend that heaven must have basic human sensory outputs and feedbacks, much like the current world.

The concept of any existence without pain is fraught with difficulties. First, pain is integral to daily living for any sentient being. Those born with the rare genetic disorder of muted or zero pain awareness live short, stunted, and unenviable lives. Not because they have disastrous accidents causing early death, but because pain is the body’s way of requesting a favourable change in posture or alignment and the indication of stress on joints and bones.

Without pain, this disorder causes rapid and premature wear on an otherwise healthy skeleton. If we are resurrected after death in any way resembling our previous human forms, our “lives” would be as unenviable without pain as those who suffer (yes, we call being afflicted with zero pain a disease) from this condition today. Pain is not something to be afraid of or rebelled against. Our nerves give us feeling, yet when sufficiently stimulated they also register pain. It's just an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise useful biological tool. A world without pain surely removes the need for nerves resulting in a sensation-less existence. Which is not at all a hopeful outcome.

Second, our bodies are they way they are, look the way they do, and function the way they do for a particular reason: to survive to procreation. Some are keener on this than others, but nevertheless the blunt fact remains that the true yardstick of personal success, biologically speaking, is the succession of ones genes in subsequent generations (if one wishes to pander Richard Dawkins ideas).

Our large brains allow humans to ponder this factor consciously but it follows that if resurrection occurs, as in the Christians promise, and we are humans once more, whence then becomes the need to procreate? Why continue in this veil of tears, or indeed bring other, wretched humans into it, when resurrection is immanent and a perfect world lies shortly ahead? Surely if one believes that on death they depart for an infinitely better world, of what use is this one? Are not such people to be despised for employing their body’s sole earthly function if these new arrivals will likely only experience all the trouble and strife involved with existence?

On the other hand if this world is all there is then procreation makes perfect sense without recourse to fussy questioning.

Third, if procreation is so integral to our existence in this world, what would its use be in the next? After all, the Christian asserts that we will receive perfect bodies, but bodies nonetheless. Some very important body parts would become suddenly redundant, one does not need to think strenuously as to which.

Take the next problem of our body’s daily habits: survival. Much of what is human is an organic machine for metabolising carbon-based structures for assimilation and repair. Without the threat of death or pain for negligence of this job the human body suddenly starts to resemble a redundant sack of meat, or a useless shell once more.

Following this train of thought, any perfect world surely has abundant sweet or fatty foods, but the partiality to these foods has been evolutionarily helpful in this world only, and mostly for our less well-off ancestor’s survival on the plains of Africa. We retain these traits because they assisted their survival. They were important because of sugar's rarity and were fruits difficult to gather and seasonal, so their inclusion in a view of heaven is natural but misguided. Human bodies are especially good at storing such foods and an insatiable biological craving coupled with unlimited supply would lead to catastrophe (as we are discovering today in first-world countries which, ironically, most resemble a perfect world).

Fourth, the wishful-thinking and greed of a perfect world where death is banished fails as easily, if not easier, as previous Christian promises. If Christian promises are forthcoming then the concept of salvation hopes for victory over death. Together with the guarantee of a resurrected body or a heaven where sensory responses are obtained by ‘living’ things (however ethereal this ‘life’ is), the notion of the absence of death hits a wall with even a moment’s thought.

Zero chance of death is an impossibility for anything resembling life. Is not the body composed entirely of living structures called cells? These cells die, generally through no conscious fault of the organism as a whole. Cells depend on such things as: sunlight, oxygen, and nutrients for survival. Yet these will eventually kill the cells they supply.

Not only that, cells are extremely vulnerable to most objects harder than themselves (this includes other groups of cells). Meaning that even slight application of physics to cells - be that a soft bump, a mindless scratch, or perhaps heavy trauma - commonly result in cellular death. Humans are a collection of many cells working together and it would be impossible to protect every cell from death and still retain human life or form. On Earth we shed our cells at a fast and messy pace and the entire body’s cells are replaced multiple times during an average lifespan. If our bodies somehow continue after death, then one can only expect that existence to be no different to the one we currently experience.

Heaven as a thought consoles those in grief and despair, but under cold scrutiny the Christian concept is incoherent and reveals the true wishful thinking and greed of the humans who invented it. The promises of heaven are unattractive with inspection and reflect ignorance rather than revelation.

The compromises and concessions such a participant in this theme-park must undergo leave much to be desired. The inhabitants of such a place - if one were to end up there - would be so different from what we know today as you can imagine that there seems to be little point in holding any realistic hope for it. What exactly are we wishing for if we can't even imagine it correctly? Better not to forfeit this life in hollow expectation of the unimaginable.

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