Thursday, January 26, 2012

Do atheists exist?

The TED talks are as good a place to begin your study of humankind as any - all these highly motivated people!  Motivated to do what?  Anything from cure blindness in Africa to swim a specific body of water at age 60.  The first you can certainly understand as a purpose in life, though it's going to run you into grave problems of overpopulation and famine.  The second, well, maybe you can see the point, but I can't.  I just never got into Amazing Feats of the Body.  Yet I've seen a world enthralled by a similarly ridiculous contest of minds, chess between a snotty kid named Bobby Fischer and the world champion, Boris Spassky.  This was decades before the personal computer could beat us all at anything.  You wouldn't believe how interested we all were in this, because it had something symbolic to do with the Cold War.  That doesn't exist now, either.  You could say it never did, just an idea.  Poor Bobby - his Wikipedia entry includes a section called "Sudden Obscurity."  No kidding.

Inflicted as I am with shingles (painful) and depression (worse) - and who knows whether they're related or just different neurons colliding in the mix - I found myself watching a TED talk by someone on whether I exist.  I won't name him or post it, because I've found it a bad policy in life for a little tiny bug to make an implacable enemy of a powerful person.  But really . . . it was a tasteless porridge of Buddhism for Toddlers and modern science.  
But this guy got himself a PhD in philosophy and went on to make a career out of talking about this kind of thing and writing books about the rock-bottom-dumb questions of (Western) philosophy, which must surely be as dead as chess by (snail-) mail.  

In that, a nerd sent another nerd a move on a postcard.  A penny postcard.  Nerd2 thought about it and made his move and sent a postcard.  Try to imagine a world that slow.  That was a world in which long distance calls cost a lot of money, and were only made in the event of a death.  But you knew you existed and so did everything else, and it never changed.  Every Sunday night Dinah Shore came out in what seemed to be the same prom dress and sang "See the USA in your Chevrolet . . . " and blew a kiss.  She does not exist anymore, but are you telling me she didn't?  I saw her. 

You, however.  No, according to this TED talk, you don't exist.  I mean, what made you think you did?  The fact that every night of your life you confront the same stubborn stupid oily skin?  Your exact  cowlick?  The food trap between the  molars on your lower left?

No, you're just a bunch of relationships, the way water is just a couple of hydrogen atoms mingling with an oxygen.  So if you thought there was Evian and Yellowstone and the Baltic Sea, there was rain and ice cubes, think again. 

There are opposing theories about existence, such as the belief that we are all ideas in the mind of God.  I rather like that, but if I were an atheist, it would make me nervous.


  1. I agree. Theorizing about whether we exist or not is all very interesting, sort of, but because ideas are just constructs of our finite brains, they are bound to end in paradox where opposites are both true and false. The same goes for God arguments like "If God is omnipotent, can he create something so heavy even he can't lift it?"

  2. athiests exist...? are you saying that western philosophy and chess contests are both outdated...? are you finding it absurd that thinkers break all matter down to abstract elements... and then declare it all meaningless...? who is the little bug and who is the powerful person? Didn't i see and hear Dinah Shore...? I don't know everything, but it seems to me that when i hear someone argue for an absurd extreem, i like to rest my mind in it's non-dual nature... and hummmmm a patient hummmmm... thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. We exist just as HAL in 2001 existed, and everything we know we learned or was programmed in by our parents. So changing your thought patterns can be a work of art especially when faced with a body that works part-time.
    Do what ever makes you happy, you know you more than any you-tube guru.

  4. thanks to my nearly crippling fear of death, Jeanne, this gave me the heebie jeebies last night.

    Oh well, what about fingerprints and skin cells and DNA left behind and what not? WE ARE TANGIBLE, DAMN IT

  5. Wow, Karen, I never intend to hurt someone, or even make them uncomfortable. And you are obviously quite right; we leave our imprint constantly as long as we're alive, and then the karma keeps flowing from that. It's like me writing in a strange, funny mood, and it giving you the heebie jeebies up there in Canada. And I am sure there are certain cells in my own body that resonate with specific poets of the past, that make them part of me.
    The real question, as I see it, is whether this "I" is a sort of thing that lives on when this body disintegrates, perhaps as a ghost or spirit, or reincarnated in another body, without access to my memories. Or easy access. This is getting long. Maybe I'll make it a post. But also, the fear of death - that "I" will cease to exist . . . or is it fear of stepping alone into the unknown? That you are in touch with your fear puts you one up on most people, who manage to believe they never will die, or at least not for a long, long time until they're ready. You are facing the reality. In Buddhist terms, that's a promising situation.

  6. Ha! My dad used to play chess by snail mail. Talk about something that has gone the way of impermanence. Come on, post the TED link - I can't find it!

  7. Hi Matt -
    Ha, makes you feel old, doesn't it?
    Here is the TED link. It's Julian Baggini, and he has books too. Let me know if this doesn't work for you.