The Mortality and Immortality of an Atheist

For most of the 5.4 billion years that the cosmos has existed, there was no one to ponder the question, “to be or not to be.” While quarks evolved into atoms, atoms, into molecules, and molecules into cells, consciousness of being did not exist. Each new step of evolution has brought about new entities and new properties. Only in the most recent evolutionary phase, when brain mass outstripped comparative body mass and created the human mind, did the property of “being,” that is, the property of thought and consciousness, emerge. Only in this brief, minuscule sub-moment of cosmic evolution has the sense of being existed. Only in this small window of time have humans been the source of conscious being; only now have we recognized, as Descartes put it, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am).

It is safe to say that for most of the past billions of cosmic years I, as and individual, did not exist. It is also reasonable to believe that in billions of future cosmic years after my death I, as and individual, will not exist. Only during a brief, transient flash do individual people exist. Certainly I was not before the zygote was formed by the union of cells from my parents. And certainly the development of an embryo from that zygote, by chemical and biological means, did not have the property of independent action and conscious thought. It is also clear that when I drew my first breath at birth, I was not the evolved being that I was slated to become. The question, “to be or not to be?” was not in my mind. Most of the process of becoming a human being lay before me.

It is clearly impossible to identify all of the experiences in one’s life that contributed to one’s development into a unique being. Everyone is learning every moment from birth to death, from waking to sleeping. Each moment is a step in becoming. Our bodies, brains, and minds slowly evolve from the nothingness of birth to the to the final passage back into dust. If there is no heaven or nirvana into which to pass it is reasonable to say that we, as individuals, come to an end.

So far I have written about only two aspects of being — the body and the mind. There is a third aspect. It’s probably more the essence of who we are than the other two. It’s more ethereal and more everlasting. I’m not sure what I should call it. But for lack of a better word I’ll call it soul. By soul I don’t mean anything mystic, magical, divine, or other worldly. The soul is the essence of who we are. It is who we are more that either our minds or our bodies.

This soul, the true center of one’s being, is not easy to circumscribe. It, like the mind and body, evolves. But its evolution is over all of time. I’m not saying that the past will be embodied in one’s physical and mental being. But from the beginning of time to the end of time, whom we become involves the whole cosmos. We have a birth date and a death date. But whom we become is already, in part, predetermined by the world around us. The essence of our being — our “soul” — is absorbed slowly from the preexisting world of ideas and actions, of nature and technologies, of awe and wonder, of beauty and mystery that exists in, and is, the cosmos. It’s the “universal cosmic soul.” It is similar to the “Noosphere” of Teilhard de Chardin, the “collective unconscious” of Carl Jung, the ‘ideosphere’ of Douglas Hofstadter and others. It is the totality of the physical, biological, technological, and cultural worlds and more. It is the knowledge, the beliefs, the feelings, as well as the written word and the passed on memories of everyone who has ever lived. It is inherited from our ancestors and from the evolving physical, biological, mental, technological, and social spheres.

It might as well be called the “cosmic memory.”

This cosmic soul or memory has been evolving since the Big Bang. Each step in evolution — quarks to particles, particles to atoms, atoms to molecules, molecules to cells, cells to life-forms, life-forms to humans, and humans to cultures — has created a new part of the cosmic memory. It includes Mount Fuji, the Johnston flood, the ice ages, the Crusades, and all other happenings. Each individual at birth is enmeshed in the cosmic memory or cosmic soul of the time.

A simple example of this idea of soul is a flock of birds. The soul of the flock evolves as a unit. It includes migration patterns, eating resources, nesting places, and other characteristics, The flock follows certain patterns for centuries. Individual birds live for but a short time, but the memory (the soul) of the flock transcends new birds as they are born, join the flock, participate, and learn by doing. The soul of the flock evolves as it continually finds new opportunities and faces new challenges. Each bird gains its individual soul and passes its know-how on to other new birds that join. The soul of the flock is passed from individual to individual as it evolves to meet contingencies of the time.

Humans are likewise born into a cosmic memory or cosmic soul. We are embedded in the essence of all that exists. Whom we become depends upon what we absorb into ourselves from everything that is. Each “soul” is immortal in that it is part of the whole cosmic memory. Everything that anybody, makes, says, writes, or does becomes part of this cosmic memory and is everlasting to some extent. Shakespeare, Edison, Einstein, Jesus, Marx, Smith, and others are still with us. So is Joe Blow, Anna Finkelstein, and other common people. All have left their marks for eternity. Each act or expressed idea is like dropping a stone in a mill pond. The stone may sink to the bottom never to be seen again. But its ripples spread out and may join other ripples to produce an overwhelming wave of social transformation. The origins of any act of social change may be lost in the myriad of its sources. Once we begin to recognize this, we are generally driven to live a positive, creative life — a life of value of value — to be one of the sources of what will become. Whether anyone remembers the name of any individual, everything we’ve done, said, or written is part of the evolving cosmic soul.

Each person’s soul is formed by every experience and every thought they ever have. It is passed on in the same way. Each “unexpected act of kindness or senseless act of beauty” is a ripple made by grain of sand dropped in the cosmic mill pond. Every kind word that someone utters is a pebble’s ripple that will be passed on. More telling will be some of the memos, papers, and posts that are written. These are rocks that make a bit bigger splash, or at least are guaranteed a longer lifespan. Most important are the interactions among people who are close to one another: families, friends, and communities. In a person’s children, friends, and colleagues there is a “rubbing off,” particularly of the good stuff. It is passed through them into the cosmic memory in that it becomes real in the future and assures, in one sense, the immortality of everyone who ever lives.

Recognizing the immortality of our “souls” suggests a new emphasis on morality. Every act thought or word we utter should be in the context or their impact on the cosmic memory. They will be remembered and they will affect cosmic evolution for ages into the future.

That’s the way I see it.


Last updated by Morgan Matthew Jul 30, 2008.

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