What Pretension, Everlasting Peace

My grandfather lived a long life, well into his eighties. In his later years, he was caught in the grip of full-blown Parkinson’s dementia, and doctors suspected Alzheimer’s disease. He didn’t recognize people he had known all his life. He generally couldn’t hold a conversation, not even a snippet of one. Toward the end, he simply was not the same Grandpa Bill that I had known as a child. Those more recent memories are perhaps the most vivid, but I try to treasure the older memories as more representative of whom I refer to when I talk about Grandpa Bill.

The funeral was hard, just as it had been for Grandma Deanie (a quick descent following stroke) and just as it would be later for Grandma Etta (Alzheimer’s again). I had to face the reality that I would never see these people again, that all I had left were the memories.

My mom, Bill’s daughter, is an ardent Christian and strongly convinced she will see her dad again in Heaven. Being convinced of that fact doesn’t make everything better for her – she took it all so hard – but it means that she can wait for a time when she’ll be with him again, for eternity, along with all the other relatives who’ve died or will die. I can tell it’s a comforting thought to her, as it is to most everyone who believes in a Heaven.

In the famous song ‘Imagine’, John Lennon asked us to imagine there’s no Heaven – it’s easy if you try, he said. What’s long been more difficulty for me is imagining that there is a Heaven.

How would it work, I wonder? Which Grandpa Bill is in Heaven? The most recent version, with dementia and sadness and confusion? Surely not, if Heaven is the wonderful place it’s supposed to be. So perhaps an earlier instantiation of him? But if a younger Bill is in Heaven, then we’re deprived of the memories and personal development (for better or worse) that happened in all those intervening years. We’re faced with the opposite problem: again it doesn’t feel like the Grandpa Bill I remember from childhood, if he’s just a young man who hasn’t had a fraction of the life experience that older fellow had.

imagine there’s no heaven

So maybe the Grandpa Bill in Heaven is the one that fits my memory? This doesn’t make a lot of sense, not only because my memories extend through time (and thus different versions of him) and are faulty (as all memories are), but because there are countless other people who remember him in many different ways from many different times. If we’re all to meet up in the same Heaven, then we need to know which Bill will be instantiated there, waiting for all his past relatives and acquaintances.

Frankly, no solution makes sense to me. I can’t imagine a Heaven that makes sense, and that’s because in a broader way, I can’t imagine a fundamentally unitary concept of identity that applies to people. We aren’t a static, well-defined thing that never changes. We are dynamic: we grow, we adapt, we make mistakes and we learn from them. Day after day we are reshaped, by our world, our experiences, our interpretation of those experience, and sometimes by sheer will to change and better ourselves.

There is no Absolute and Eternal “Me”. The kid who went by my name many years ago is fundamentally not the same person as the self that wears that name now; and surely by middle-age, the person going by my name will not entirely, not completely and 100% be identical to me-now.

This is a major issue in the philosophy of identity, called “The Ship of Theseus Problem”. The ancient Athenians tried for many, many years to preserve the famous ship in which Theseus returned from Crete as a sort of historical treasure. Of course, some planks of the ship decayed with time, so the caretakers would carefully replace them with new planks as it became necessary, but certainly over all those years the same ship sat in the waters – replacing one plank did not make it no longer the ship of Theseus.

Of course, eventually every plank of the entire ship had been replaced, and in fact we can imagine that not a single molecule of the original ship was still there. Would we still consider the ship floating in the harbor all those years later to be the same ship, the ship of Theseus? Some people contend ‘yes’, that the specific materials don’t matter, so much as the structure and continuity with the original.

Ship of Theseus

But then, asked Thomas Hobbes much later, what if we’d kept all the old planks that had been replaced and used them to make a second ship? It is now a ship of the same design, made of the exact same parts, all of those parts continuous with the original. Which ship is the ship of Theseus? There’s no simple answer.

The same problem applies to us, not just in terms of personality, but even in terms of the physical makeup of our body. As Richard Feynman said, our brains are last week’s potatoes, made up of the dust of stars long before us, and it appears that something like 98% of our bodies’ atoms are completely replaced each year, on top of the constant structural reorganization. Whatever I am, “I” am a moving target.

I’ve thought about this issue for a long time and I’m not sure there’s a good answer. Maybe I’m just not thinking of it right. Maybe a person, an identity, is not something that can be pinpointed down at a particular moment in time. Maybe a person is more like a 4-dimensional object, a long, extended hyper-body with a child-size form at one end, growing as you follow it to an adult-size form in its middle, and finally an elderly form at its other tail, each ‘slice’ a full 3D person at a particular moment in time.

This may at first seem like a solution to the problem of Heaven. Maybe there’s not a young or an old or a Parkinson’s-ridden Grandpa Bill “up there”, but a 4D hyper-object that encompasses all that is and was Grandpa Bill. It makes for a nice story in the abstract, but it isn’t very comforting to think about in the concrete. Such a Heaven would not be Grandpa and me sitting in the living room watching Yankees games together; and maybe that’s okay.

But then I wonder, if Heaven holds these 4D hyper-objects of people from their entire lives, then do they interact when they get to Heaven? Do they change and adapt and grow? Can they make mistakes? (Surely a creature that makes no mistakes is not identical to the creature that is “me”!) If so, what kind of perfect world is Heaven?

And that’s where the idea really breaks down, in my mind. It just doesn’t make sense. As Greg Graffin put it:

“What pretension, everlasting peace / Everything must cease”
–Bad Religion, ‘Cease’

Part of what makes life interesting and worth living is that it is not static, but ever-changing. And at a fundamental level, change is mutually exclusive with perfection or permanence. If Heaven is, as various religions tell us, perfect and eternal, then it isn’t a place where dynamic things can exist. It isn’t a place where I or you could exist, without it becoming just another place, just another Earth.

The same problem applies to reincarnation. What comes back? Me-as-a-child instantiated in another body? Me-as-an-adult instantiated in another body? Or, if memory and personality are wiped, then how is it me being reincarnated at all, rather than just a completely different and unrelated person coming into being?

We either come to an end because we evolve into something different and the old form ceases to exist, or we come to an end because we become frozen in a static void of Heavenly permanence that is the very opposite of being. In that sense, the traditional conception of Heaven just seems impossible. Maybe we just need to learn to live with the idea of impermanence, and enjoy the moment we’re in, the slice of a hyper-life that we currently occupy and the only perspective from which we see able to experience.

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5 Responses to What Pretension, Everlasting Peace

  1. Mary says:

    Wonderful, thank you! I don’t believe in an afterlife, although after my mother died nine years ago I tried to understand how an afterlife might work. I also can’t get it to make sense, and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on why it doesn’t work for you and what that says about identity, change, and permanence. I’m all for learning to live with impermanence.

  2. Edi says:

    Yea, goood. You have a stream of thought, but I’m wondering isn’t it sad and even painful to think like that. I would feel crushed to think, wow there is nothing after all this. Then why was I here? Why there isn’t anyone else anywhere around? There must have been an intentionality of me or us being here. But this intentionality stops after a few years of life? Why? That’s the most absurd thing ever. Let me share with you what I think. I also read the article on the problem of suffering. Well, that’s not an easy one, but you see, first of all, we are very small in all areas, thought included. So, if we decide we don’t want to buy the Christian God, then we think even smaller. BEcause Christianity is not only an option, not only the way my old grandma thinks or fools herself with notions that she cannot understand either. Well, God provided a way for everyone, you see. NOt only the cleverest ones are to be saved. You can be as dumb as you can tell. We had someone a mental guy in our church. Faith provides a way which is far shorter than understading by mere reasonings. Faith is a gift and you will get it from God freely. Then, you don’t have to be clever to understand some of the difficult problems of the universe. Because, let me tell you, even the cleverest have not understood them by their brilliant minds (let alone, a brilliant mind is also a gift from God). So, I would say you jump to very hard problems far to easily and then straight to conclusions. BUt what is my mind or your mind compared to that of the Creator. I mean look up to the sky and that speaks for itself. There is a way that all His glorious qualities may be joined. BUt you are biased I would say. You look to things from one perspective – a human perspective. You can’t be in GOd’s shoes. If you look at the stars how perfect they are and they don’t jump into one another in a chaotic way…. then you start to understand about omnipotence. But you have to judge things as a greater picture. God created man. But He created man for a relationship. Man cannot function with that relationship broken, you see. Free will he has all right. You say there can be a free will without evil. Then where is your option. You choose from good and what? But, there is a different free will, in heaven. The first angel fell without being tempted, so without having an external temptation. That was a different kind of free will, wasn’t it. But, I mean. Why do you want to discuss such difficult matters when the personal ones are not resolved? You, see, who am I or you to judge GOd. We will understand the more difficult things up there. But I am just explaining a little from my perspective. So, man was the one to say stop to this relationship. So, it’s easy. From here you have all sorts of consequences. If you want to come closer to God, you would understand such fascinating things. Don’t be so bitter. God told man that he was created to function in a relationship with him, a relationship of love. See, that’s where free will comes in place. How can you make your wife love you? Will you force her to do that? Well, if you’re talking of sincere love, I think she has a choice in this, doesn’t she? So, wow, GOd is so big, but still he gives me, who am smaller than the smallest particle in His universe, the choice to say no to his love. Isn’t that sincere LOVE?
    Everything good happened to Adam and Eve while being in love with GOd. Please read in Genesis. Does it say they had any disease? NO. Does it say they had any suffering? No. Thirsty, hungry? Never. Disruption to this relationship broke the channel of everyhing good coming their way. You see? An d not only they were affected by this, but all the generations to come. Was it irrevocable? NO, but man chose again to be separated from God. He suffered for our decision, because He anticipated all the evils you listed there. Did man change his mind, then? NO. He went on with his experiment of being on his own. Now, things went from bad to worse. Then GOd gave them natural catastrophes to warn or to shake their unbelief. Nothing. Man went on with his disobedience. You ask for judgement of all murderers, rapers etc. Yes, but here comes a misunderstanding of God. You see, God is an absolute Being, he cannot just act at your will. What would you like HIm to do, kill your enemies etc.? Well, that would be possible, theoretically, but He cannot act just arbitrarily and at random, He will then judge the whole mankind. ARE YOU PREPARED FOR THAT? Honestly. NOw, if you say, well I haven’t done anything bad (meaning of course the things you listed). Well, yea, GOd doesn’t judge like you judge. He will judge everyone according to perfect justice and according to His holiness, and His standards. Do you know His standards? Well, are you reconciled with Jesus, who was sent to die on our behalf? Well, you see, that’s the point. Let’s say you are a perfectly honorable man etc for the people around you. Well, that is not enough. God sent His only begotten Son to die for us. If that sacrifice applied to you, then you are covered by His blood and are justified. In other words GOd (as a Judge) will say AQuitted! on your case. Now, I don’t want to push into anything you wouldn’t want. But I just told you how things work. Of course, there are many things to discuss or that may see improbable, but that’s all for now. I don’t want to be boring. I just wanted to enlighten some aspects, at least the way I see things. I am not saying you or anybody should think how I think. PLease forgive me if I bothered you or if I troubled you in any way. I don’t want to be presumptious or boring.

  3. Chris says:

    I think what you don’t consider here is that in a theoretical heaven your existence wouldn’t have to be defined by a “slice” of you in a given time (currently we exist in the “present” but this would not necessarily be a requirement in heaven). You’re already restricting the parameters of what heaven is or isn’t before dissecting it in your thought experiment. Without these restrictions, you could imagine your grandfather as having a young body, a sharp mind, and all the memories of the good experiences he had on Earth, even as an old man. But of course, even that is to assume that he would have a body at all and a mind or memory as we know it. Just some thoughts.

  4. Yeah, obviously I’m limited by my own imagination, and certainly things could be the case which aren’t even imaginable by me. I could just say “Well, Heaven is beyond my comprehension, but I bet it’s great”…however, it’s hard to make myself really believe in something I can’t understand at all.

    I mean, we can talk about myself (or my grandfather, or whoever) existing “without a mind or memory as we know it,” but that’s incomprehensible to me. Whatever it is that exists at that point may be something interesting, and may even have some relation to me (or grandpa), but it is not *me* (or grandpa) in the same way that I am a thinking, existing, feeling, experiencing person right now.

    For the same reason, I don’t really see the appeal of trying to upload my consciousness into a fancy future computer. Sure, it might start out really similar to me, but it’s not immortality because either it will change and alter and grow (i.e. become not-me), or it will stay exactly the same (i.e. be static, and basically non-living).

    I guess the larger point is that whatever makes me *me* does change, by necessity, and eventually become distinct enough that it’s meaningful to say I’m not me anymore (like it’s meaningful to say that the ship has changed if you alter it one step at a time until it’s gone from an old wooden sailing vessel to a metal steam-boat five hundred years later — despite the continuity from beginning to end, in some meaningful way, it’s not *the same boat*).

    But, again, it could all just be a lack of imagination or understanding on my part. We’re always stuck with some skepticism, realizing that our reasoning and even the logic that applies in our universe might not work how we think, or might not apply at some higher or other level. *shrug* Kind of hard to base your life decisions or beliefs on that, but it is good to keep in mind and maintain a healthy humility.

  5. Doron says:

    An excellent read. Personally for me, the movie “What Dreams May Come” is a good start into trying to imagine an “Afterlife” I could live with.

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