Life’s a beach

Life can be really tough at times – everyone knows this. Illness and death can strike unexpectedly, as can financial and relationship trouble. The list is long.

A naturalist view of the universe can help in this regard. First, it tells us that suffering is exactly what we should expect given the world we live in and the evolutionary process by which we came to be here. We do not need to agonize over why a god would allow us to suffer, because no such god exists. This is not to say that we should be indifferent to suffering – if we dislike it (and we do), then it’s in our own best interests to mitigate it to the greatest extent possible.

Second, there is a certain peace in knowing that the stresses of an uncertain afterlife do not need to be added to the stresses we already have here on earth. When I was a Christian, I don’t think I ever really believed I was going to hell (I’ll bet no Christian does), but the thought of Judgment Day looming ahead was nonetheless a little unsettling. It was a bit like a really, really important exam that I thought I was well prepared for, but which made me nervous anyway.

The evidence, though, indicates that there are no menacing supernatural forces trying to claw us into hell. There is no pending apocalypse. There is just us and our fellow animals, eking out what living we can on this bizarrely wonderful planet.

Life is a beach. Beautiful but indifferent. And death is as natural as the sweep of a wave as it erases a footprint in the sand. There is no fear in that. Just peace.

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14 Responses to Life’s a beach

  1. I agree. There is something very peaceful about it. One of my favorite quotes if from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

    “…So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks Atticus – great quote.

  3. “There is no fear in that. Just peace….”

    Unless you’re wrong, of course. (shrug)

  4. Ruedi says:

    No fear? Maybe. No justice? Certainly.

  5. Keith says:

    Warrioress: You could be wrong too, no?

    Ruedi: Yes, the evidence points to the conclusion that there is no cosmic justice that will settle everything after we’re dead. Why should there be? Just because we *want* it to exist? As you know, I’m not into wishful thinking.

    And the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a grand cosmic system of justice is, frankly, all the more reason to make sure our actual justice system works as well as it possibly can.

    • Ruedi says:

      Keith, I completely agree that wishing don’t make it so..

      Without any “cosmic justice,” I’m left with two questions, though. First, If there is no cosmic justice, why should there be temporal justice?

      And more pragmatically, if our justice systems are anywhere near “working as well as they possibly can,” we are either doing a lousy job or maybe I just don’t believe in that justice. Examples: Enron’s Skilling sends thousands to the poorhouse and gets a few years in minimum security; his boss Lay dies before he’s indicted. Or Anders Breivik – butchers 80 kids in cold blood, and gets the rest of his life with minimum human interaction but in quite a nice environment. I cannot see any of this deserving the name “justice.”

      But again, my unhappiness with what we call justice doesn’t mean that there is cosmic justice. But it does explain why I’m quite willing to give a concept that includes both cosmic justice and cosmic love more than the time of day.

  6. Keith says:

    Ruedi:

    “Without any “cosmic justice,” I’m left with two questions, though. First, If there is no cosmic justice, why should there be temporal justice?”

    Life is short, so it’s important to get the most out of it – to enjoy it – as much as possible. A system of justice promotes this goal in several ways, including setting up deterrents and keeping society safe from dangerous people. In short, it discourages people from causing unnecessary suffering to others, so that they can live their life to its fullest.

    “And more pragmatically, if our justice systems are anywhere near ‘working as well as they possibly can,’ we are either doing a lousy job or maybe I just don’t believe in that justice.”

    I agree. There are many flaws in our justice systems, and we should, of course, lobby to have these flaws removed, and to have the system improved.

    “Or Anders Breivik – butchers 80 kids in cold blood, and gets the rest of his life with minimum human interaction but in quite a nice environment.”

    Hmmm…, killing Breivik might have been more merciful to him than putting him in jail. Better let him live out the rest of his life in a jail cell. And “quite a nice environment” hardly begins to describe prison. Taking someone’s freedom of movement away from them is a tragic blow to their quality of life.

    • RuediG says:

      Keith,
      “Life is short, so it’s important to get the most out of it – to enjoy it – as much as possible.”
      That seems to ethics what the FSM is to theology. A lightweight adhoc rationalization.

      Breivik? I don’t think that letting him live out his live in a Norwegian prison comes anywhere near to the tragic blow that he struck to 80 kids and their families. On the other hand, I agree that killing him also comes nowhere near that. You’re kind of establishing the need and opportunity for a cosmic justice system here, where one person can experience a commensurate punishment for 80 murders… 🙂

  7. Keith, yes, of course I could be wrong; I know you’ve heard of Pascal’s Wager. I don’t believe or subscribe to it, but I reference it because the fact of the matter is that if I am wrong, I don’t have that much to lose really. If, however, you are wrong… you have a lot to lose.

    An eternity separated from God is a lot to lose.

  8. Keith says:

    Ruedi;

    “A lightweight adhoc rationalization.”

    Call it what you will. An overarching approach to ethics doesn’t have to be complicated.

    “You’re kind of establishing the need and opportunity for a cosmic justice system here, where one person can experience a commensurate punishment for 80 murders… ”

    No I’m not. I don’t actually think it’s about an eye for an eye. There is no point in measuring the suffering a person causes, and inflicting that same measure of suffering on them. The only good this does is satisfy our lust for vengeance.

    In fact, the authors of the Bible, in a moment of unenlightened thinking, wrote the words that sound like they come right out of the Godfather: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19).

    I think we should move past that.

    • RuediG says:

      So in what sense is “justice” still a meaningful concept? Sounds like you’ve redefined it beyond usefulness.

  9. Keith says:

    Ruedi:

    For a start, the idea of punishment needs to be seen in an entirely different light. The purpose of punishment should not be to balance the ledger of justice. This doesn’t do anyone any good – it only satisfies our desire for vengeance. The purpose of punishment should be directed toward deterrence. If the threat of punishment doesn’t deter further crime, then I think it’s essentially pointless.

    Community service is far better than punishment as a way of balancing the ledger. It requires criminals to make a positive contribution to society that, at least to some small degree, makes up for the suffering they have caused. Community service also avoids treating criminals as nonhuman pariahs, but attempts to reintegrate them into society. This strikes me as something Jesus himself would approve of – it’s a more compassionate approach.

    Furthermore, justice should also include means by which victims and their families can deal with their anger toward the person responsible for their suffering. Good examples include existing programs that bring victims and criminals face-to-face, and allow the victims to express directly to the criminal how much suffering he has caused them. From what I can tell, these programs are not only extremely cathartic for the victims, but they drive home to the criminal the severity of an act which he in all likelihood committed without any serious consideration for its ramifications. This is far more productive than throwing someone in jail for thirty years, with the obvious exception of those criminals who pose a continuing threat to their community.

    • Ruedi says:

      It’ a complex issue: The idea of “restitution” is quite biblical; I have no problem with it.
      The idea of “deterrence” doesn’t seem to work; for example, I think research has shown that increased punishment does not result in increased deterrence.
      As for a keeping threats behind bars – yes, of course, but considering that we are all potential threats to society, shutting the barn door after the cows have escaped seems a bit weak.

      • Keith says:

        Ruedi – yes, there’s not an awful lot going for deterrence, but it might still play a small but valuable role.

        I also agree about the barn door being shut after the cows have escaped, which reminds me of another point I meant to put into my previous reply, namely that much of our effort needs to be put into crime prevention rather than “treatment”.

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