Monday, May 16, 2005

Reducibility in Life Forms and the Afterlife

First off, I want to apologize for the time it took to submit another post. Work, school, and my car have all required a considerable amount of time and attention from me as of late. I want to update this blog at least twice a week if not more frequently, and I am rearranging my schedule to help accomplish that.

Most afterlife beliefs exclude life forms that are not Homo sapiens from passing onto the afterlife. I contend that these particular beliefs employ double standards and intellectual dishonesty by way of emotional exclusivity for humans. But to properly discuss and analyze the afterlife, one must know what comprises a living entity. Wikipedia has a great entry about the meaning of biological life.

Lets look at a few points in this Wikipedia article to get an idea of what biological life is:

In biology, an entity has traditionally been considered to be alive if it exhibits all the following phenomena at least once during its existence:

1. Growth
2. Metabolism, consuming, transforming and storing energy/mass; growing by absorbing and reorganizing mass; excreting waste
3. Motion, either moving itself, or having internal motion
4. Reproduction, the ability to create entities that are similar to itself
5. Response to stimuli - the ability to measure properties of its surrounding environment, and act upon certain conditions.

This is a good starting point for biological life, but Wikipedia also notes that this list is somewhat lacking:

These criteria are not without their uses, but their disparate nature makes them unsatisfactory from a number of perspectives; in fact, it is not difficult to find counterexamples and examples that require further elaboration. For example, according to the above definition, one could say:

-Fire is alive (this could be remedied by adding the requirement of locality, where there is an obvious feature that delineates the spatial extension of the living being, such as a cell membrane, although this would then discount fungi, and grasses from being alive).
-Stars could be considered living beings (for the same reasons as fire).
-Male mules are not alive as they are sterile and cannot reproduce.
-Viruses are not alive as they do not grow and cannot reproduce outside of a host cell.
-People who are impotent are not alive

Wikipedia then gets more specific regarding the definition of life by referring to biologists and terrestrial (Earth) life:

Biologists who are content to focus on terrestrial organisms often note some additional signs of a "living organism", including these:

1. Living organisms contain molecular components such as: carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids, and proteins.
2. Living organisms require both energy and matter in order to continue living.
3. Living organisms are composed of at least one cell.
4. Living organisms maintain homeostasis.
5. Species of living organisms will evolve.

All life on Earth is based on the chemistry of carbon compounds. Some assert that this must be the case for all possible forms of life throughout the universe; others describe this position as 'carbon chauvinism'.

For simplicity’s sake, lets confine our discussion of life to Earth-based, carbon life (all Earth life is carbon-based). Now that we have a good idea of what life is, lets compare specific examples. In case you don’t know, all organisms on Earth are divided into 5 "kingdoms": Bacteria, Protozoa, Fungus, Plants, and Animals. Despite the cries of many religious people, human beings (Homo sapiens) belong in the "animal" kingdom.

Let's compare humans to the Wikipedia criteria for being alive. It is pretty obvious that humans meet each requirement. What about jellyfish? Well, they meet all these requirements as well. Lets get a bit more basic. What about a tree? A tree meets these requirements just as well as a human does. What about mushrooms? So do they. What about bacteria, say, of the flesh-eating variety? Well, flesh-eating bacteria meet the "life" requirements just as well as humans do. All of these entities I mentioned share many of the same things: They all have DNA, they all reproduce, they all consume food and produce waste, they all meet the requirements for life equally.

Now that I've pounded that point home, I can make the connection to the afterlife. Why am I so concerned with what is and is not alive? Simple! To support a statement about the afterlife, which is:

To honestly support an afterlife-belief, one must do so for all entities that meet the "life" requirements. If an afterlife exists for humans, it must also exist for all bacteria, protozoa, fungus, plants, and animals.

The phrase "afterlife" means that a consciousness or soul will continue to exist after the physical death of a body. Life is defined as above thanks to a wonderful Wikipedia article. Therefore, there is no reason to think that Homo sapiens exclusively pass on to the afterlife. Indeed, there is no reason to think that any life form would not pass onto the afterlife.

From the animals and plants we eat, to the fungus we top our pizzas with, to the bacteria we massacre with every breath we take, to the dust mites that live and die on our skin, to the yeast we cook with and consume, all of these entities are equally qualified for afterlife membership if we are to think that humans are destined for an afterlife.

And here is the reductionist portion: All life forms are either single-celled or multi-celled. A single blood cell from a human is alive in that it, along with its counterparts (other human cells), works cooperatively to form a complete life form.

If a skin cell on a human dies, wouldn't it also qualify for afterlife-passage all by itself? If not, then what about an independent single bacteria cell? What about a single human embryo cell (before the cell division begins)?

I have heard of religious arguments (especially Christian arguments) that state that only humans go into the afterlife because only humans have sentience or a consciousness or soul. These arguments are not only unevidenced, but when the religious person submits criteria for the qualification of such a "soul" or "sentience," their assertion of human exclusivity can be proved demonstrably false. What I mean is, the criteria that a religious person can submit for the existence of a human "soul" or "sentience" can also be met by most, if not all, living species. And if any non-sapien members of the homo genus still existed, they would likely meet the criteria as well.

In addition, the "humans-only" afterlife argument looses strength when one looks at the pro-afterlifer's views on stem cell research or single-cell human embryo research. To destroy a stem cell or another form of single (not yet divided) human embryo cell is, according to pro-afterlifers, the murder of a human being, and that human (single cell) is imagined to pass on to the afterlife. This is a blatant double-standard and a complete violation of the religious person's previous criteria for having a soul or sentience, because these "human" cells are no more complex than the single celled bacteria found in everything from food, to snot, to breath. In addition, I contend that a dolphin (which would not qualify for afterlife existence according to most religions), meets the "soul" and "sentience" criteria much better than a human stem cell or embryo.

Multi-celled life is reducible to single cells, and therefore, the afterlife belief cannot be restricted to a given species of life form without the use of intellectual dishonesty and/or a double standard. Religious pro-afterlifers concede this point when they fight for the rights of human stem cells and embryos, but they turn around and deny this point when you ask them which life forms qualify for passage into the afterlife.


GeneralZod said...

WOW! Heaven must be clogged with the souls of misquitos and bacteria! I hope it is big enough!

I always wondered who or how it was decided which animals get into heaven. (I was told that souls of pets would be waiting for me in heaven by some, and others said, no, only people).

Aaron Kinney said...

Hi generalzod!

Yes. Some religions believe that all life forms will get into heaven. But according to most Christians and Muslims (indeed, mostly all versions of Abrahamic religions) insist that only HUMANS qualify.

The blatant changing around of qualifying criteria from them only further exposes the fact that their afterlife beliefs are nothing more than bullshit emotional desires. They sacrifice all facts and knowledge, when convenient, to feed their egos and emotional insecurities about death.

GeneralZod said...

Hi AK,
One of my favorite things I used to say to religious folks (before I realized I was an atheist) was "what kind of paradise is heaven if it does not have dogs?" (i am a dog lover.)

They usually said either pets' souls WILL be there (but never mentioned whether beetles or algae would be there as well), or that being in god's presence will make us all too happy to notice there were no souls of pets or some such garbage.

I was never very happy with the lame explanations, especially since, surprise surprise, I frequently got conflicting accounts!

Francois Tremblay said...

Here's my simple definition of life : organism possessing self-directed movement.

That answers nicely to most objections, although it means that a fan is alive. This would seem counter-intuitive to most people, but not to me. I think most people are organo-centric and refuse to recognize life and intelligence in man-made devices out of prejudice.

Apart from this pet peeve of mine, I basically agree with the blog entry, with the exception that believers may attribute "souls" to any category they want, since souls are a pure invention. A more productive line of inquiry would be to get into the "soul" angle, I think. Then again, there is little reason to restrict the "after-life" to specific categories of life, except as a further rationalization.

breakerslion said...

There are no other life forms in heaven because it's a magic kingdom, and can be anything it wants to be. Besides, the animals have Disneyland. Seriously, the separation of humankind from the rest of the life on earth is necessary to perpetuate the myth that the Christian god spends all day and night poking its nose into your business.

Aaron Kinney said...

Theres a good protest angle to use here when arguing with Christians, if just for kicks.

Athiest: Does my (dog, turtle, or other pet) get into heaven too?

Christian: npe, only humans get in.

Atheist: Well, your heaven is my hell. To be in the afterlife without my pet is to be in hell

Anonymous said...

People are egocentric. The whole point of organized religions is that humans have a special reason for existence;hence, a soul. It makes us special( why we need to feel special, I don't know). Every other creature is for our use or amusement. I think that since humans have what we believe to be a unique and superior consciuos to everything else, it makes us look special. I don't subscribe to this idea, but I think that is what you are up against. By the way, this is boywonder. I still can't comment as a blogger, so I just put this under anonymous. Here I am talking about the superiority of the human intellect and I'm too stupid to operate a computer efficiently!

Aaron Kinney said...

lol thanx for the comments boywonder. I swear I have it set up here so that you can post with a name of your choice without registering but I guess it doesnt work for you...

GeneralZod said...

Yes, it does work for non-bloggers. just select "Other" and just put in your name and leave "your web page" blank.

Bahnsen Burner said...


I just saw this article on Yahoo news

Researchers Pinpoint Brain's Sarcasm Sensor

The first paragraph reads as follows:

"No, it's true -- many of you don't go a day without dishing out several doses of sarcasm. But some brain-damaged people can't comprehend sarcasm, and Israeli researchers think it's because a specific brain region has gone dark."

Now if our personal conscious experience were not based on a material brain, how could this be? And yet we're continually told that "the personal" cannot be accounted for in "an impersonal universe" or some such nonsense. Time to turn the tables on the presuppers. How does the non-physical give rise to the physical? How does the supernatural give rise to the natural? How does the infinite give rise to the finite? How does the perfect give rise to the imperfect? How does the infallible give rise to the fallible?

Lots of questions. Just no answers from theists.

boywonder said...

It's a miracle! Praise god! (Is your sarcasm detector working?)I chose 'other' and typed boywonder as my name and it worked. Praise jebus. thanks GeneralZod.

Anonymous said...

in 1990 pope john paul II said that pets have a soul too and can go to heaven.

Gord said...

Great. I wonder if Spanish flu and ebola and HIV have a soul. Wonder what the Pop will say.

Really, you know who decided whether animals get into heaven?

It depends on the function of heaven. If heaven's a nice namby-pamby idea you bat around, then of course pets go to heaven. That's what the consumers, er, I mean, believers want to hear.

But if heaven's the place where people go on the basis of moral decisions, then no, animals would not go there since animals do not possess the sentience to make moral judgments or act in ways that are morally good or evil. (Never mind that tons of humans also seem to lack this capacity... many CEOs, for example.) For that version of heaven, cats and dogs getting in would make very little sense. And thus, and exclusive, humans-only heaven.

What wonderful fun one can have when concocting reality for the purposes of social control and money-collection.