Humans only last for so long. Then a little thing called time happens and we all move on. Or do we?
Humans don’t last long. Obviously. We last for 70, 80, 90 years and then we pass on. We leave this world, and (according to atheists) then there is nothing. We start, and then we stop. And when we stop, we stop. There is no going back, once we have stopped. We do not continue beyond that stop, we do not go on. We reach the end.
I heard the newest episode of Welcome To Night Vale, and there was a passage that caught my attention.
We are eternal! We will not last!
Obviously, you know that when you die, the matter that is your matter will just become matter, no article attached. That matter will belong to any number of things. That matter is not you. That matter was never you.
We are eternal! We will not last!
But there is more to you than matter. When you die, you will not disappear until everyone who remembers you, and whose actions are affected – however slightly – by your memory, until all of those people die, and you are completely forgotten.
We are eternal! We will not last!
But even then, you are not gone. Not until all the people who remember and are affected by those people who remembered, and were affected by you, are gone.
We will not last!
But even then, you are not gone. Not until all the people who remember and are affected by those people who remembered, and were affected by those people who…and so on, and so on, and on.
We are eternal!
You will persist, ever so faintly, ever so slightly, on into perpetuity. Long after everything about you no longer matters. Your life is so small. But, in the setting sun of this universe, its shadow is cast down through generation after generation, until it gets blurry and hard to see…but still there. A breath of a wisp of a thread stretching out before you.
We are eternal! But we will not last!
Kind of beautiful, kind of poetic, totally weird. Just like WtNV always is. But it made me think – we are all eternal. While we may seem totally mortal, totally ethereal. But in two very real ways I can think of, we are not. We are transcendent, immortal, above our fragile and organic world. I’ll try and put them down in adequate terms, so all those reading can – at least, sort of – understand them.
No.1. – Our influences spread onwards through time.
Beyond death, beyond mortality, beyond time. This is the idea from the quote above. When we die, we are remembered by people who know us, and our influence also extends to those who we affect. So if I work at a financial company, and I give someone a bonus. If they go and donate that money to a charity which saves the life of a child in India, that child was one of the people who I influenced. They might not know it, but they are part of my circle.
And then I die. It’s not a nice thought, but it happens to all of us eventually. But those people in my circle, the people I influenced, remember me. So in that way, a piece of me is still alive. And then another 50 years pass, and those people in my circle die. But they each have their own circles, who remember them. And they remember a person who remembered me. So, two generations after my death, I am still in part alive. And so I am passed down, generation to generation. We remember our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents if we are lucky. But the ‘them’ that we remember was at some point, remembering their grandparents. And the remembered grandparents that the remembered grandparents are remembering are in turn remembering their own grandparents – and those remembered remembered remembered grandparents are in turn remembering…. And I just broke the world record for most ‘remember’s in a legible sentence – 8. Go ahead and try to beat it. But in this very disparate way, the memory of a person or their actions can be passed from generation to generation, slipping effortlessly through time and ultimately, transcending mortality itself. In a way, the moment you die, you are rendered immortal. Which is irritating.
No.2. – Our atoms are far older than the span of human existence, and will far outlast us too.
I know that it’s kinda dehumanizing to say that we are only our atoms. As any true psychologist will tell you, we are so much more than the sum of our parts. So maybe we shouldn’t consider ourselves better than rocks (if there are any psychologists reading, sorry. At least you beat sociologists. If there are any sociologists reading – what the hell were you thinking when you started a university course in sociology?). But our atoms are definitely (probably) much more impressive than anything we can build over our tiny lifetimes. Given that our body is 70% water, and water is 66% hydrogen, and all hydrogen was formed in the time after the Big Bang, at least 46.2% of our body is 13.7 billion years old – that figure not including all the complex organic molecules containing hydrogen, which I guess would be most of them. And every single atom in our body (excluding hydrogen) was forged in the hearts of stars and supernovas, billions of years before the birth of our solar system. To quote Brian Cox “blah blah something something star stuff”. Indirect quote.
And after we die, our atoms and even our molecules will live on for many, many, many years. If you are buried in a wooden coffin (and this has been proven with evidence) your body takes over 50 years to decay to a skeleton. Those natural compounds in your body – the very large ones (a single chromosome contains over 10 billion atoms) flow out into the soil and are either absorbed by plants or settle deep into layers of sedimentary rock. If you are turned into plant food, that cycle can last many thousands of years (and pass through thousands of generations of plants or animals) before you end up deep in a sedimentary rock layer. And then you will last another hundred million years (or so) in that state before you are eroded into soil or sand and taken through the whole cycle all over again.
Either way, you end up as part of the Earth itself. And for a few billion years, you hang around. Cycling from the depths of the Earth to the surface, from inorganic rock to part of a future biosphere. And then the Sun goes and ruins everything. Typical.
In around 4.8 billion years the Sun will run out of hydrogen at its core and will start to pull in fusion material from its outer layers. This will (due to physics) make the Sun expand to approximately 200 times its current size, engulfing the Earth and spitting the remains into interstellar space. But before that ever happens, the Earth goes through a phase that is (undoubtedly) frikkin’ awesome. To quote Wikipedia:Before this happens, most of Earth’s atmosphere will have been lost to space and its surface will consist of a magma ocean with floating continents of metals and metal oxides as well as icebergs of refractory materials, with its surface temperature reaching more than 2,400 K (2,130 °C).
And then we are spat out into the Solar System, joining the Oort Cloud as a medley of rock and metal fragments. Or we leave the Solar System all together, to travel the Universe as a cloud of disparate, dispersed dust. And that is how we end. Maybe we are sucked into another nebula, into another planet that might, might, one day support life. Or we just wander between the stars for eternity, entirely devoid of sentience but still there, persisting for a gradual, sweeping, always.
How’s that for an afterlife?