Baby, You’re a Firework! – Humanism and the Hereafter

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Posted on February 27th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Congregation, Featured, Interfaith, Learning, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Uncategorized
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"I do not know how to prove physically, that we shall meet and know each other in a future state; nor does Revelation, as I can find, give us any positive assurance of such a felicity. My reasons for believing it, as I do most undoubtedly, are that I cannot conceive such a being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God. This Universe, this all would appear, with all of its swelling pomp, a boyish firework."

So said John Adams, second President of the United States, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson following the death of his wife Abigail. In this letter, Adams states clearly his reason for believing in an afterlife: he simply can't imagine that God would create something so wonderful as a human being and allow it do die. To Adams, belief in an afterlife and belief in God are mutually reinforcing. His belief in God is founded on his belief in the afterlife ("If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God"), and at the same time his belief in the afterlife is founded on a conception of God who would not simply allow life to be extinguished like a "boyish firework".

To this, a Humanist reply: in the words of noted philosopher Katy Perry, "Baby, You're a Firework!"

To Humanists, who do not generally believe that anything of a person's personality persists after death, there is little consolation to be found in the idea of an afterlife. However strongly we might wish to believe that we can somehow outlive our own death, our assessment of the facts leads us to what may seem a bleaker place. We are, truly, fireworks. Our fuse is lit at conception; we gather speed through childhood, struggling to lift off the ground; we zoom through adolescence and young adulthood, gathering speed as we learn and grow; we burst into the world as adults in full splendor, lighting the sky with our endeavors; our influence spreads through middle age, the colors of our life radiating from the central explosion; we begin to fade as we age, our sparkles glinting more softly; and we slowly sputter out as we approach death, leaving nothing behind but smoke-trails, wispy memories of our brief existence, an empty shell fallen back to earth far from where we started, and ghostly afterimages in the eyes of those who loved us.

But we see this as no reason to despair. We reject the idea that the understanding of our impending death saps meaning and significance from our lives. Rather, we see this realization as infusing our lives with rich color, stunning beauty, blazing significance. The very brevity of our lives enhances their brightness. Humanists have found many ways to express this. Robert Ingersoll - the most famous orator of his age, and a passionate voice for Humanism in the 19th Century - articulated our belief with characteristic style:

Maybe death gives all there is of worth to life. If those we press and strain within our arms could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. Maybe this common fate treads out from the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness and hate. And I had rather live and love where death is king, than have eternal life where love is not.

Ingersoll, as befits the "Great Agnostic", couched his comments in "maybe" and "perhaps", but I think his reasoning is sound.  The rarity and brevity of life - its firework quality - is what makes it so precious. Every person, like a firework, shines in unique constellation before they are gone forever, never to be recaptured. Thus it is critical that we make our own explosion as beautiful and as light-giving as possible, as we seek to illumine the world with our brilliance. Many of us will even ignite new fireworks, perpetuating human light for another generation, a succession of life in burst upon burst of dazzling color, the greatest firework display that can be imagined.

Toward the end of his life, some doubt seemed to corrode Adams' conviction regarding a "future state". Writing again to Jefferson in his last months, he said "I contemplate [death] without terror or dismay. If finite, which I cannot believe, and do not believe, there is an end of it all but I shall never know it, and why should I dread it, which I do not, if transit I shall ever be under the same constitution and administration of Government in the Universe, and I am not afraid to trust and confide in it." There is something slightly hollow about Adams' reiteration here - "I cannot believe, and do not believe". He protests too much, and seems to be clinging hard to the idea of an afterlife while recognizing the possibility that there is "an end of it all". But Adams, as he recognizes, has no cause for despair even if there is nothing after. More than most, he blazed across the firmament before his light died out, and his afterimage can still be detected on the retina of humankind.

That could be you. You could do great things in service to others, as Adams did, and as many others have. So come on - show 'em what you're worth! Let your colors burst! Make 'em go "Ah, ah, AH!" as you shoot across the sky! Leave them all in awe! And when, inevitably, those colors begin to fade, and your trajectory tilts downward back toward earth, do not despair. Do not seek solace in another life for which we have no evidence. Instead remember that you live on, etched onto the retinas of those who watched your marvelous display.

They will see you when they close their eyes. That is enough.

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24 Responses to “Baby, You’re a Firework! – Humanism and the Hereafter”

  1. Ben DeVan says:

    Delightful essay, James. Of course, as you can guess, I disagree with your (apparently near?) certainty that there is no life after death.

    Whether or not there is life after death, your point about living this life as a firework is well put, and religious people of many stripes can agree with you that we only have one of this life to live, and thus ought to make the absolute beautiful “Dope to the max” (as I heard someone say this morning) use of it. Even those who believe in reincarnation (I am not one of them) can affirm that we ought to make the most of this life. But if there is an afterlife, a “New Creation” (as our fellow columnist Paul likes to often allude to) then this life is the prelude, the spark, and as your fellow countryman C.S. Lewis said at the end of The Last Battle, “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one at earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

    P.S. I think Perry also believes in an afterlife. I remember reading that she (still) considers herself a Christian, if perhaps a weird one.

    • James Croft says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Ben! I am indeed near certain that there is no afterlife. But NEAR certain isn’t ABSOLUTELY certain, and I am open to being convinced. As Jim has pointed out below, I fear that the arguments against are almost overwhelming, though.

      I know nothing of Perry’s beliefs – I just like her song and think it has a positive message! ;)

    • Hey Ben- it was interesting to see your interpretation of my ‘new creation’ sensibility. Really I mean by it not (merely) some future afterlife, but a newness that co-emerges in this present life. Cheers, Paul

      • Ben DeVan says:

        Hi Paul, yes, I think it has both meanings and both are important — renewal in this life and the “New Creation” of the New Heavens and Earth. As also with many sentiments James expresses and a robust religiosity, definitely not mutually exclusive! Creatively, Ben

  2. Isabel says:

    Words I carve into my heart: “I had rather live and love where death is king, than have eternal life where love is not.”

    I love the firework meme. It’s powerful, practical, and poetic, and regardless of one’s system of belief, it creates an irresistible momentum.  …I’ll gloss over the decidedly youthful perception of the trajectory, speaking as a late bloomer in middle age ;-) 

    Beyond this, I won’t bore you with my own view: as life is more complex than to love and die, it’s conceivable that the spark of mind consists of more than one thing. Indeed, each life is unique and each person distinct — but I can say, after treating thousands of bodyminds, the variety of meatsack is definitely finite. It’s like God (insert hysterical laughter here) ran out of ideas. But minds…

    One intensely pragmatic, dogma-less agnostic I’ve known all my life once said, with characteristic terseness, “Nature wastes nothing. Bodies rot when we die, but it doesn’t make sense for our minds to just disappear. They’re too complex, and Nature wastes nothing. They can’t just get thrown away. It doesn’t make sense.”

    She doesn’t believe in God, because she has found no pressing evidence that such a being could exist. But she’s reasonably certain that something of our inward self survives the transmutation of the body’s death. 

    I adore her for many reasons, but that effortless totalling of such a fundamental assumption I had — like Adams, linking an “afterlife” to the existence of “god” — is certainly one of them.

    Love you, James, and I surely do look forward to watching your spectacular arc, as long as I’m able to do so! 

  3. The humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont wrote a decent book which debunked claims that human beings have immortal souls. The title of this book is The Illusion of Immortality, which was based on his doctoral dissertation that he did under John Dewey at Columbia University. One of Lamont’s primary objections to immortality was the argument that human consciousness and mentation requires a physical substrate in the form of our central nervous systems. Echoing earlier philosophers like David Hume, pointed out that it is obvious that our mental states are dependent upon our body states and that when the latter changes, so does the former. Injuries to the brain from accidents or from disease like tumors or strokes can lead to radical changes in personality and/or character. In Lamont’s opinion, there are no real good reasons for believing that consciousness is something that can exist without the body. Therefore, when the body dies, so does the mind.

    • Isabel says:

      Jim, I’ve mulled that relationship a lot. (Lifelong interest in neurology, now with neurologic disorder.) my studies and experience leave me certain that it’s a seductive mutuality, but not an absolute connection. It’s certainly not a simple one.

      While mental states are associated with neuroendocrine activity, the subjective experience is inevitable _only_ to the extent that it’s unaware — or, of course, volitional.

      This seriously disturbs the structure of the “mental state doesn’t exist without physical state.” And that doesn’t even go near the eternal chicken/egg question — whether the chemical shift or the feeling it’s supposed to transmit.

      Go on to look at more organized ways of managing one’s mentation & neuroendocrine flow, like meditation or yoga or “inward” martial arts, and the question of connection and control becomes not just loose, but flaccid.

      The more I think about awareness, and the more I learn about neurophysiology and endocrine behavior, and the further I go on the personal inquiry into how to navigate this neurologic disruption, the less I’m persuadable that the mind depends on the brain. It totally fails in the face of this experience — the clinching argument for me, obviously — but it also fails to describe experiences that are _not_ unaware, uncontrolled, and experienced as irreflectively as those of animals.

      We are richer beings. When my neurochemistry is whacked, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding other ways to hold my mind in a bearable state. And I know I’m not so special that this capacity MUST be rare if I have it.

      I’ve never found a good explanation for that part of the mind that can participate with & respond to neurochemistry, without being pwned by it. It sure is an interesting inquiry, though I don’t need an answer. I just need to continually improve my command of it, since so far this condition is incurable. (We shall see.)

      I’m glad you raised the mind/brain issue. More philosophers should study neuroendocrinology — and meditation.

      • Tim Brauhn says:

        Something something I agree blah something. :)

        These last two comments make me think of all the “quantum immortality” arguments out there in the world of physics and, even greater, the idea that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed.

        I like to think that the electrical signals comprising the idea of “Tim Brauhn” simply become different upon my death – a moment that I have no real intention of reaching, by the by. :)

        Thanks for these comments, folks!

  4. Jesse Christopherson says:

    Great essay, good choice of subject in John Adams, *but*… Alien and Sedition Acts, anyone?

    • James Croft says:

      Yes you’re quite right – I glossed over a LOT in this piece. Perhaps I should have addressed that somewhat. He ruthlessly attacked Jefferson for his “atheism” too =D.

  5. Kaleena says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love this song. I teared up the first couple times listening to it. James, as you know I’ve been on the edge of a big life change for a bit now and I’m really close to going from the girl that has a lot of potential to the women that is accomplishing amazing things. I think this song (and your post) is helping push me over that edge :D

  6. Jim Farmelant says:

    Responding to Isabel. I have always found Hume to be pretty persuasive on this subject, even though he was without the benefit of modern neuroscience. In his essay, “The Immortality of the Soul”, he wrote:


    The Physical arguments from the analogy of nature are strong for the mortality of the soul, and are really the only philosophical arguments which ought to be admitted with regard to this question, or indeed any question of fact. — Where any two objects are so closely connected that all alterations which we have ever seen in the one, are attended with proportionable alterations in the other; we ought to conclude by all rules of analogy, that, when there are still greater alterations produced in the former, and it is totally dissolved, there follows a total dissolution of the latter. — Sleep, a very small effect on the body, is attended with a temporary extinction, at least a great confusion in the soul. — The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned, their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness; their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death. The last symptoms which the mind discovers are disorder, weakness, insensibility, and stupidity, the fore-runners of its annihilation. The farther progress of the same causes increasing, the same effects totally extinguish it. Judging by the usual analogy of nature, no form can continue when transferred to a condition of life very different from the original one, in which it was placed. Trees perish in the water, fishes in the air, animals in the earth. Even so small a difference as that of climate is often fatal. What reason then to imagine, that an immense alteration, such as is made on the soul by the dissolution of its body and all its organs of thought and sensation, can be effected without the dissolution of the whole? Every thing is in common betwixt soul and body. The organs of the one are all of them the organs of the other. The existence therefore of the one must be dependant on that of the other. — The souls of animals are allowed to be mortal; and these bear so near a resemblance to the souls of men, that the analogy from one to the other forms a very strong argument. Their bodies are not more resembling; yet no one rejects the argument drawn from comparative anatomy. The Metempsychosis is therefore the only system of this kind that philosophy can harken to.

    Concerning meditation, Rick Heller has been writing on the neurological basis of meditation in The New Humanism. He is himelf a practioner and teacher of meditation and also a convinced naturalist and physicalist.

    There seem to me a lot of problems with the sort of pschophysical dualism that Isabel seems to be defending. If it is true then this would seem to violate some of the most basic laws oh physics. Maybe such basic laws like the laws of the conservation of energy and of momentum are not completely valid, but most natural scientists are going to requires lots of very strong evidence to be so persuaded. Dualists have yet to come up with a convincing account of how a nonphysical mind can interact with the physical body. Dualistic interactionism therefore seems to violate a general heuristic principle of science: the causal closure of the physical world. And at this point we can invoke Ockam’s Razor to argue that we really have no need to posit any sort of a mental substance that exists apart from the physical organism.

    Returning to Corliss Lamont, one of the other arguments that he made was that even in the Abrahamic religious traditions, there is the tacit assumption that a body is required for conscious existence. Hence, the doctrines concerning the resurrection of the dead that exist in all three of the major Abrahamic religions. Eastern religions likewise have their doctrines concerning reincarnation

    • Isabel says:

      @ Jim — thanks for following up so thoughtfully. Rather than hijacking James’ thread, I’d like to break this out into a blog post on my “life, CRPS & everything” spot, where the intersection of mind & body is a recurring nightma- er, theme :)

      Obviously, you don’t have to come over and discuss, but it would be cool if you did. I’d like to cut & paste our thread so far. I’ll be mulling amongst the mad work of the next couple days, but I’d like to have something up this weekend.

      Cheers/thanks,
      Isabel

    • Isabel says:

      Hi Jim,

      Hume is always delicious to read, but he is ignorant of the better-developed spiritual traditions which characterize the spiritual body as overlapping & interacting with the physical, but not being either a clone or tied into lockstep with it. These (both Asian and European) traditions therefore fundamentally differ from his base assumption about the body-mind relationship.

      Also, the assumption that mind is necessarily physical because the brain is, is a false conclusion. This nonbrain attribute is generally considered to be energetic in nature. Hence the law of conservation is easily observed. Given how the body parts transmute so nothing is wasted, it remains reasonable to suppose that the energetic component transmutes as well, without being list. Unrecognizable, perhaps, as Paul indicated — but not annihilated. That would indeed contravene a number of laws of physics.

      I’ll continue mulling.

    • Isabel says:

      Here’s the link, everyone:

      http://l-c-and-e.blogspot.com/2011/03/mind-brain-spirit-and-impertinence-of.html

      I’ve cut and pasted the neuro/Hume/afterlife part of the thread.

      Particular thanks to Jim F for his incisive comments and thoughtful replies, and to Paul for his witty enthusiasm. Continuing and burgeoning gratitude to James for providing these fascinating discussions!

  7. Tim Brauhn says:

    I am reminded of Jim Morrison, who once said something like:

    “I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps “Oh look at that!” Then- whoosh, and I’m gone…and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me- ever.”

    I quoted this at my high school graduation, and it rocked.

    Thanks!

    Tim

  8. Kile Jones says:

    Great piece Mr. Croft. Insightful, interesting, and another “I” word. I tend to agree with most of what you say. I have heard it as “Between Two Nothings.” We come from nothing (besides sperm and eggs) and go to nothing. We fade into the abyss. There are also connections with the Buddhist notion of nirvana, the “extinguishing of the flame.”

    Your fellow humanist,

  9. So thought-provoking as always. You just can’t help yourself can you?

    Paul Simon sings, “I don’t believe a heart can be filled to the brim /Then vanish like mist as though life were a whim/ Maybe the heart is part of the mist / And that’s all that there is or could ever exist / Maybe and maybe and maybe some more /Maybe’s the exit that I’m looking for.” And Mist isn’t nothing.

    Something cannot become nothing. What is it precisely that we want from an ‘afterlife’? What did the Star that went Supernova ‘want’? It probably wanted to keep being a Star. It could never have imagined its afterlife to be human cogitation, and Happy Meals, because it lacked the vision and imagination to see its new emergence as an afterlife. So maybe the Star thought it had no afterlife. I would disagree. Brian Swimme leads us down this road.

    Alfred North Whitehead joins with Locke in identifying time as ‘perpetual perishing’ but they both seem to ignore the truth of perpetual birthing. Every death is a new birth. Every old creation gives itself up (it perishes) in the flow of time to become something new (it births).

    What’s more, we don’t need to wait till some ‘final’ death (in the way we usually talk about death of a person as a person) to identify our many continuation bodies– the infinite ways that our life, energy, heat, thoughts, words, bodies, breath continue. Just because we are not sensitive enough to identify all of these continuation bodies, teaches Thich Nhat Hanh, does not mean they are not there. It just means that we fail to see. Hanh teaches this because the Buddha teaches that there is no annihilation.

    I think there is no such thing as a final death– and that’s what is meant by afterlife: endless going on, eternal life. But, I agree with Charles Hartshorne who says, eternal life is not some eternal human career after death. To think that is an offense against the lavish exuberance of cosmic creativity. Human beings are not the end. Maybe we are merely embryos, or blastocysts, or zygotes of what is yet to come!

  10. Isabel says:

    Well put, Paul. Yeah.

    Also this helps me frame some of the Big Thoughts I’m trying to cohere into sensible English, so thanks.

    I tend to be comfortable with a degree of uncertainty and willing to go with a weight of probability, rather than refusing to budge until some Great Certainty renders arguments moot. That strikes me as a fundamentally religious mindset, whether it’s used in the service of religious thought, or atheism, or science, or anything. Still learning how to remain resilient when confronted with it, without simply disengaging. Cheers.

  11. […] post originally appeared at State of Formation, an interfaith community […]

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James is a teacher, researcher, actor, singer and a proud, gay Humanist. He teaches and studies toward his Doctorate in Human Development at Harvard University, where he works closely with the Humanist Chaplaincy.


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