Secularism and Physics on Death and Immortality

The premise: a problem

It has been said over and over again, as a defense or even as a backlash, by religious men and women that religion has a curative and comforting utility to humankind like no other. It has also been said over and over again by secular people and rationalists that however comforting some belief or idea is, it nevertheless adds nothing to the truth value of the belief or idea. That secularism offers nothing more than a skinny comfort blanket amidst the cold and pouring rain at best. That may well be true, and indeed it leads me to believe that it all boils down to what we really want: happiness or the truth. Happiness may not necessarily be true or what’s really happening, and having the truth may not necessarily make one happy. This conflict reminds me of the doggedly proverbial “The truth hurts” and The X-Files’ “The truth is out there”. This conflict also reminds me of the struggle in the movie The Matrix, wherein to know the truth, one has to be ‘removed’ from the confines of the complacency brought about by the virtual reality of the machines who have taken over. Once one has learned the truth, which involves living as a fugitive or freedom fighter wearing mostly ragged clothing near the center of the Earth, one is left to wonder if it would have been better to have stayed in the fantasy reality, even though it’s all make-believe. I guess it wouldn’t be so surprising considering the fact that human beings, like almost every other animal, are predisposed to follow what is certain to help in the continuation of its species. After all, speaking in ageological time scalehomo sapiens are but cells that have just fertilized, and are beginning to undergo cell division to form a larger animal.

The question

So then, if you will humor my ponderings, what could secularism possibly offer as an answer to one of the most profound questions we humans have asked since the dawn of our consciousness: What is death or what happens when we die? Do we survive death in some form or is there nothing after it?

Setting the mood

Quite a mouthful of questions, and ones that have plagued thinkers or philosophers for centuries upon centuries. But I think before I even begin to give my answer to those questions, a little ‘mood setter’ is in need. Some questions are too frank or too blunt in manner, which sometimes has the effect on the listener or the questioner of making one lose focus on the more relevant and apparent details. The mood setting quote is from the book Unweaving The Rainbow by prof.Richard Dawkins. It’s his reply to people who keep on ranting or complaining or fussing about their deaths. Everytime I read it, especially when I watched and heard prof. Dawkins read it with emotions in a talk at UC Berkeley, I cannot help but be moved by it’s message, wrapped around in romantic scientific prose:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

And continuing this passage in his talk:

We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state, from which the vast majority have never stirred.

Makes one (or at least myself) wonder if we even have the right to feel anger or guilt or even sadness by our undeniable demise.

Physics on death

An episode of The X-Files has agent Mulder talking to agent Scully about starlight. He says that starlight as we see it here on Earth is already billions of years old, and has traveled unimaginable distances (light-years). Stars that are now long dead, but whose light is still traveling through time. Mulder continues that perhaps that’s where souls (our souls, after we die) reside. Today, we know from physicists that the premise is correct (that starlight is very old and still keeps on traveling), but we can’t be certain (or perhaps not at all) about the succeeding statement of Mulder (about souls). Scully, Mulder’s partner, continues Mulder’s statements by saying that the light doesn’t die, and that maybe that’s the only thing that never does. Speaking in a purely Einsteinian fashion when dealing with spirituality and such, perhaps our ’souls’ do reside in starlight, and in that sense our ’souls’ do continue on forever.

Mulder’s statement

Taking the first statement into consideration, that ’souls’ do reside in starlight, to be technical about it, we can probably say that it’s actually not starlight in our case but ‘planetlight’. We know that in order to see an object we have to shine light on it, after which the light bounces back, illuminating the object, back to our eyes. In the same sense, the Sun illuminates Earth at daytime, and at nighttime the Moon or our electrical/electronic devices light us up and our surroundings. In that sense light is shined on us, and so it is reflected back, which eventually reaches outer space and into the vast cosmos. In this way our ’souls’ which in this case means our whole lifetime under some source of light, is ‘framed’ in a ‘wave’ of light cruising the universe. If there are intelligent lifeforms out there in the universe and they can’t come here due to technological constraints (same as our case), once they try viewing our part of the universe, what they’ll be seeing is planetlight (which is reflected starlight, the star being our Sun or light from some other source) containing us, our lifetimes, and our history. What they’ll be seeing of course depends on many factors such as how far they are from us, how sensitive their viewing instruments are, what time they tried viewing us, among other things.

Scully’s statement

As for Scully’s statement, that starlight doesn’t die, technically speaking that can be true, since as long as photons don’t get smashed or absorbed, they keep on travelling in space, most likely till the edge of the universe and (our) time itself. However there is a limit to how long light can travel for one to be able to ‘reconstruct’ the data (in this case our ’souls’) it carries with it. This is because as light travels, similar to a wave, it spreads across time and space. As the light spreads, at some point in the universe very distant from the light source, it will be nearly to absolutely impossible to know what information that light brought with it. In a word, the light will be too ’stretched’ to make any sense out of it. This is similar to research being done on the Big bang. We are in an epoch of the universe where we can still study ‘cosmic background radiation’ (electromagnetic radiation, same as light) leading back to the Big bang. If we were a few millions of years late, we might not be able to analyze the data that comes along with the cosmic background radiation. And so Scully is partially correct since light can possibly not die, but the information in the light may become lost to us or someone viewing us.

Finally, physics on immortality

In essence, our ’souls’, most of our memories, achievements, feats, and other things in our light-stricken lives continue to propagate into inter-stellar space. The propagation duration many orders of magnitude longer than any of our lifetimes combined, which could be treated as practically infinity, and in some ways, immortality.

Originally posted last September 16, 2008 at f241vc15.wordpress.com.

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19 comments

  1. in the x-files, the story line was never about happiness and stuff. it was about their search for that elusive answer concerning the paranormal-extra-terrestrial events in their area. this means that when the x-files used the phrase "the truth is out there," they were using it in a quite different context. you argue that the statement was used to dichotomize the relationship between truth and happiness but that isn't so. "the truth is out there" essentially means that the "truth" is something that we can't completely grasp, hence "out there." what we can get though is the real – a close approximation of the truth. think of this as something very slavoj zizek or jacques lacan.

    • @paranoidpluto

      Thanks for the nice comment and observation. I, however, agree with you that the 'truth is out there' tagline of The X-Files concerned itself mainly with the existence of the paranormal or of ETs. BUT I disagree with you that that's the whole of it. If you look closely at the level of the characters, it is also a struggle against happiness.

      For Mulder, he so desperately wanted to know the truth on many things: the government conspiracy, existence of ETs, and whatever happened to his sister and so on. All of those were personal to him. Finding out the truth, did it really make him happy? And even if he did somewhat find it/them, why does he still seem to seek it (as referenced in the latest movie)?

      For Scully, the truth mainly concerns her belief in her religion and her being a scientist/rationalist/doctor. How does she tackle the fact that those two sides of her have different truths? She still has to resolve that in order to be really happy, again as seen in the latest movie.

  2. @GabbyD

    I'm not sure how transporter got in (as in Star Trek matter transporter) ? I don't think I mentioned anything regarding transporters. Light does transport information, but not in the same league as a matter transporter in Trek.

    I think you got confused by the post. In the opening paragraph I was merely comparing the truth as revealed by science and truth as revealed by religion/superstition. The light-immortality part in the succeeding paragraphs don't necessarily deal with the truth mentioned earlier, as I was metaphorically relating immortality with the persistence of light as it moves across the universe.

    The only connections of the first paragraph with the succeeding ones are the X-Files part and the science part. The first opening paragraph doesn't even mention light or immortality, right? 🙂

    Regarding the silent 'movie' so far our limited technology can't figure in sound via light. But I think there are possible workarounds in the future. For example, based on the reflected object's structural makeup, scientists now are beginning to infer the smell of a distant object via its reflected light. So sound may come soon. 🙂

    • ok. so its not truth, as uv defined it.

      i suppose i was confused, but i gotta say, your paragraph subtitles sorta lead to a deep connection between the paragraphs.

      the first subtitle is "the problem", and i thought the problem, as you see it, was religion is about happiness while secularism/ science is about truth…

      the next subtitle is "the question" and write:

      "So then, if you will humor my ponderings, what could secularism possibly offer as an answer to one of the most profound questions we humans"

      and i thought that the answer, which is the truth, is found in the succeeding paragraphs.

      • @GabbyD

        It is the truth as I've defined it, since the light discussion is based on current science. Let me elaborate further.

        If you look closely at this post it could have easily been 2 posts: one talking about truth as revealed by science and by religion/superstition. The other, is a pondering of death and immortality and the current understanding of physics on light and the universe, coupled with a secularist's view. The latter part, that of light, muddles up the meaning and metaphorically relates death and immortality to the phenomena that is light. So the reader then has to distinguish at some point, the relation of death and immortality with regards to the physics of light, which I was playfully trying to establish.

        I think I've made it quite clear in the post that things such as souls do not constitute scientific truth, but the propagation of light with information encoded in it, is.

        • "It is the truth as I’ve defined it, since the light discussion is based on current science. Let me elaborate further."

          but uv just said that "Regarding the silent ‘movie’ so far our limited technology can’t figure in sound via light. But I think there are possible workarounds in the future. "…

          in the future means, not yet here. hence its not 'current'. what am i missing?

          also, u said: "The latter part, that of light, muddles up the meaning and metaphorically relates death and immortality to the phenomena that is light. "

          so it is metaphor or science fiction. thats fine by me. but what i wanted to point out, if that its not "the truth" as u orginally defined
          @"December 16, 2009 at 11:02 am"…

          again, thats fine by me. i love metaphors. they are fantastic. religion is full of metaphors. poetry is metaphors. literature is metaphors. science fiction is metaphor. i just wanted to be fair to ur original definition.

          • @GabbyD

            Regarding the silent movie, that is as we've mentioned, a metaphorical extension. That's muddled with the physics of light. Again, the article could have easily been 2 separate posts: truth according to science and religion, and the take of physics + secularism on death and immortality. So what you're actually trying to clarify is pretty clear in my first paragraph, while I wasn't necessarily talking about the truth as I defined it, in the succeeding paragraphs with Mulder and Scully and light. 🙂

            Again, there is a connection as well as a certain disconnect with my first paragraph (truth, religion, science) and the succeeding ones (secularism, physics of light, Mulder and Scully).

            I also fancy metaphors, and hopefully I can try to do more articles like this in the future, whether in prose or poetry form. You can search around this site or my own blog to find a number of similar metaphorical posts. 😉

            Btw regarding the 2nd X-Files movie, I Want To Believe, I can't say I hate it, since aside from my being a Phile, I think it's an acceptable aside from the arc/myth established by the 1st movie. Sure it didn't have enough excitement and conspiracy and aliens as the 1st one, but it gave a glimpse and update on M & S, after the series ended, and as well as their relationship and how they've changed. I see it as being similar to those non mytharc episodes in the series, which are small digressions from the real story. So I'm patiently/impatiently waiting for the 3rd movie about the alien invasion. 😉

  3. " That may well be true, and indeed it leads me to believe that it all boils down to what we really want: happiness or the truth. "

    what is truth? how do u know if something is true?

    • @GabbyD: What is truth you ask? If I have not made it clear in the post, I will do so now. By truth in this case I mean physical truths, truths that can more or less be revealed by science or scientific inquiry. This I've taken from Carl Sagan, specifically in his book 'The Varieties of Scientific Experience'.
      I do not mean here metaphysical truths such as existence, or love, or other abstract human concepts.

      How do I know if something is true, in the sense that I have outlined above? Again, one has to apply scientific inquiry and reasoning here i.e. it has to be reasonable and logical, and, preferably after that, it withstands rigorous testing, most likely performed several times, by independent observers. Religion, superstition, and other irrational or illogical search for 'truths' (as Car Sagan mentions them) are far from this.

      • so this : "what they’ll be seeing is planetlight (which is reflected starlight, the star being our Sun or light from some other source) containing us, our lifetimes, and our history. "

        is not truth? its you being fanciful then?

        • i dont think light contains "us" in any meaningful/physical way. nor does it contain our "lifetimes". it possibly contains our history, but only in the basic sense of an image of history unfolding, assuming there's a sensor that is that powerful that can interpret images in the same way our eyes can.

          but thats it. its just reflected light. light, captured by our eyes (or via a lens of any type) is just an image, and it requires a machine/brain to interpret it. unless light has other properties i havent heard of such that it can transmit things other than images.

          does it?

          • @GabbyD

            Light can transmit information, and images (pictures and so on) are only a few among many types of information that can be encoded in a light beam. From a light beam you can watch video and chat with somebody else across the world (that's how the Internet is operated nowadays), you can discern the molecular makeup of an object or animal from where the light was reflected from, distance of the light source, time it was sent, and so on. Perhaps in the future when we learn new science we can extract much more information from a simple 'beam of light'.

            You have to be more specific, as I think I have, when you say 'us'. What do you mean by 'us'? Our individuality? Given enough time and computer processing power, I think one can more or less say that it's quite easy to rebuild 'you' or anybody else for that matter. Our brains, though biological, are still machines, made up of electrical impulses that store and retrieve data in a way we don't fully comprehend yet. But in the future it is likely we will.

            Of course a light beam couldn't contain us materially, but as I mentioned above, it can give alien beings a sort of a 'movie' of our lives unfolding, as they peer through their telescopes or instruments. Our eyes are very crude, and so to answer your question about a sensor that can better our eyes, there are quite a lot of sophisticated equipment so much better than our eyes. 🙂

            The aliens will be able to watch our lives unfold, like a television drama. And so with that, they can more or less give a detailed account of who you were, depending on what time they started viewing you from their telescopes: your mannerisms, hobbies, etc. all those that have been reflected with light.

          • ok. thats fair. but to be clear, "us" and "lifetimes" this is either 1) theorizing; science fiction if you will, or 2) metaphorical.

            at this point, as far as we know/can prove, reflected light has none of the properties, save for images/silent movies.

            i'm fine with using one's speculative imagination. i like the X-files as much as the next guy (btw, hated the second movie tho!),

            but to call it truth, as how u've defined it above as things u can be proved by scientific inquiry, is not particularly accurate.

            by "us", i was quoting you. here, you say that some kind of transporter tech is possible. maybe. but with reflected light from the sun? really? to get light to transmit more than light, you need special equipment. and thats just to transmit; we're not talking reception yet.

            finally, from ur last paragraph, u mention movies, hence the images of us are a metaphor for us/lifetimes…. it doesnt really contain us, just images of us. and its silent too!

            thats fine. as u've mentioned, the one thing we know for sure is that it sends images. we know this, coz WE see images from space all the time with our eyes. hell, the SETI program is listening for some sentient signal of intelligent life, and every deep space probe the US has sent has a "we are humans" sign on it.

        • @GabbyD

          Truth in the sense that I described and defined it in my earlier reply above? Yes I think it is truth. We know for a fact that the starlight from the distant stars and bodies we're observing have been traveling for a significant time over a significant distance, before arriving here on Earth. It's not me being fanciful in the sense that I imagine and wish it to be so.

          May I inquire what are you driving at here? 🙂

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