Closure, Of A Sort

Posted on October 24th, 2021 in Personal | No Comments »

Recently I found myself alone with a deceased person, in their house. The occasion was the loss of a close family member, someone I had grown up with. They passed away suddenly and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I ended up spending nearly 24 hours at their home with their cremated remains. It was somewhat surreal. First, I arrived at their house in the dead of night after a long transatlantic flight and had to almost break into their house when I found I only had one of the two keys needed for the front door. As luck would have it, the side door into the garage was unlocked and then the door into the house only had a single lock – the key I had.

So I spent the night alone and would remain so until nearly midnight of the following day – almost a full 24 hours with only memories and ashes for company.

I should explain that once upon a time, I also lived in that house, along with other family members, all of whom have now passed away. I was the sole survivor, even though I was not the youngest (the recently departed was). Every room, every drawer held a memory of a much happier time, when we were all together and looking towards the future. Now I stood in the middle of a building with no more tomorrows for anyone other than myself.

It was a difficult thing, and felt like I was invading their privacy by going through closets and opening bedroom drawers. I found many things that surprised me, and would have to remind myself that the owners were all dead and gone; I had every right, and indeed a need to go through their most intimate keepsakes. Other family members had been there before me and started to sort through paperwork, etc., so the house was disheveled. But a great many personal items were untouched and had been for some time – a watch on a nightstand, a razor still in place, a toothbrush, worn from use. Despite the untidiness, it felt like the former occupants could come back at any time and resume their lives, even though I knew that was never going to happen.

The experience left me sad, and tears were frequent. I miss them all terribly and always will. But it was also a transformative experience. I began to see this house as a place where time had stopped at the moment of the last death. In many ways, the person whose passing had brought me back to this place had refused to accept the loss of the rest of the family and tried to preserve the place as a shrine or a museum to their memory. Deep in my heart I felt the same way and understood the feeling. I too wished to keep it all as it was, as I remembered it from when I lived there. But the more I looked into drawers and cabinets, the more I examined the piles of receipts and small objects d’art, the more I came to realize I could not do that. I had no desire to be the custodian of dusty relics of days past. I was alive and had my own path to follow.

Many of the objects I found scattered on endtables and countertops were things like nail clippers or bottles of pills; remote controls or key fobs, etc. Items that all of us have in our own homes. And these are the things we use as we live our lives. But when we are gone, these items serve no further purpose, other than as remnants of our need to keep moving forward in time. Now they had no use, and no function other than as clutter. The entire house and all of its contents were static, unchanging and waiting for a future that had ceased to be.

I knew then that I could not keep things as they were. It was time to let it go, all of it. I would take some items as mementos, such as photo albums or small keepsakes, but the rest would have to be sold, donated or thrown away. It pains me to think that someone’s memories or personal treasures could wind up in the trash, but it will happen to almost everything all of us own someday. I can’t burden my descendants with the care of things that belonged to people they’ll never know. And that includes the house itself. For decades, it was a home, a happy place, a refuge for us from the trials of life. Somewhere to return to, someplace to entertain visitors or escape from the world. Now it was just a house, a structure falling into disrepair. It needs to go to a new family who will turn it into a home once again. My heart will always be there, but with the passing of the last inhabitant, it’s time to let it go, as it once came to us.

And then there were the cremains. I admit that my morbid curiosity got the better of me. If I didn’t look, I’d wonder for the rest of my life about it. The ashes were placed with no ceremony upon the TV stand, in a rather well-made cloth bag from the funeral home. I took it into the kitchen and placed it on the counter. Inside was a cardboard box with an identifying card naming the deceased. Taking the box out and opening it, I found a clear plastic bag closed with a golden tag. The remains were clearly visible through the thick plastic. Lifting it out, I was surprised at the heft. I had never seen cremated human bones in person before and marveled at the view. The ashes themselves were a light colour, slightly tan with a light pink appearance. No sign of burning or singeing anywhere, with sizes from grains of sand up to small rough-edged granules. It was hard to believe this was a person I had known nearly all my life and had spoken to only a few months previously. Now there they were, dead; burnt, crushed and ground into a near-powder, bagged and tagged, ready to be placed in the urn (which was in a box on the dining room table). I poked the bag and wondered what part of the body this or that large particle of bone once was.

Eventually I put the bag back into the box, the box back into the cloth bag and returned it to the TV stand as I had found it. I would take it out again later and look once more, as well as take a few photographs. But often as I would wander around the house, I would also lovingly pat the bag and speak to it. Several days later I would be back, possibly for the last time, and leave flowers next to the bag, in the deceased’s favourite colour (the same colour as the urn). I also visited the cemetery where the ashes would ultimately be interred, with the other former occupants of the house.

I don’t regret looking; it can’t be any more odd than seeing the body of a loved one at a viewing while they lie in repose in a casket. I mourned and will feel the pain of loss for some time to come. As everyone who has lost someone will know, the pain never really goes away; you just keep going on with it as a part of you. It’s all that can be done. You cannot live in the past. As I mentioned previously, you would become the curator of a museum of memories. The family I grew up with is gone; I have a new family now and share my life with them.

Relating my experiences to the people around me, the word “closure” came up over and over again. I don’t know if I really have a sense of it. A life interrupted feels unfinished; it’s hard to button that up and put it away in the mind. Although I can say I did make my peace with some aspects of it, such as coming to terms with giving up the house, and the cold reality of seeing a loved one as really and truly dead. I definitely turned a page (if not a chapter) in my life. But is that “closure”? It’s uncertain; perhaps in the long run it will turn out to be just that. But for now, I know I am still grieving over the loss of not only a close relative, but a huge part of my own life, also gone forever.

Since my return, I’ve thought a lot about that day, that entire trip. I can recall the smell of the house, the silence, the feeling of emptiness in rooms full of ‘things’. And the memories, everywhere. It was the busiest empty space I’ve ever known. I have deep existential dread about my own demise and leaving so much behind. It makes me look at my own collection of nail files or scribbled notes and wonder about the day when someone will have to decide what to keep and what to throw away. I wonder if they will also find closure, of a sort. I hope so. I hope I do, too.

The Path to Enlightenment, Maybe

Posted on January 30th, 2014 in Religion | No Comments »

I was ruminating about how many people who believe in god have no qualms about totally dismissing evidence that would seem to contradict their position. I won’t rehash the well-known arguments that go on between believers and nonbelievers, but eventually it comes down to them saying “I don’t believe in your proof”. It’s a bit like dropping something very heavy on your foot, and telling yourself that you don’t believe in gravity.

When you attempt to have a discussion or debate about issues like these, any point you try to make is overruled by appealing to a supernatural deity as the prime mover, or first cause of whatever phenomena is being considered. I recently had such a discussion with two late middle-aged ladies who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and rang my doorbell. It turned into a twenty-minute mini debate in which neither side was able to move the other. They were adamant that god designed the world around us. I tried to explain that instead, natural forces did it all without any apparent help from a creator. My main point was the ‘god of the gaps’ argument – god is used to fill in knowledge that we do not have about any particular physical process. When we have a natural explanation, god is summarily dismissed from the scene. As our knowledge about the world grows, the domain over which god can pull levers behind the curtain diminishes. But they persisted, nonetheless:

Me: What causes the tides?

Them: God!

Me: The Moon!

Them: Ah, but who created the Moon?

It was clear that we were not going to find any common ground. Several weeks later, I was thinking about this discussion, and many others I’ve read or heard about that ran along similar lines. I was struck by the fact that no matter what kind of proof you can offer that does not require a god, it can be summarily dismissed by believers. Of course, if you’re going to have ‘faith’ in something without proof, it’s probably easy to ignore anything that appears contrary to what you want to believe in. Why be swayed by facts if you don’t want to be? Although I find that sort of deceptive and a bit of a cheat.

Turning it over in my mind, I realized that what’s really going on here is not so much refusing to believe in something that can be demonstrated to be true, but denying the idea that ‘chance’ or ‘random’ occurrences can even exist. Many people believe evolution means plants and animals turning into new species or adding new features in a willy-nilly fashion; Biogenesis is often described as inert chemicals thrown together to suddenly become bacteria (both scenarios being grossly oversimplified and described in misleading terms to make the argument more credible to anyone without a scientific background). To people who believe in a created Universe, everything that happens in it, from the radioactive decay of Beta particles, to the outcome of a game of roulette, is the direct and conscious result of god deciding what happens next, according to his divine plan. Complexity, according to them, must arise from a mind, not by ‘blind chance’.

This should sound familiar to most people; it’s Determinism, and the last gasp of Newton’s Clockwork Universe. If we knew the location and movement of every particle in the Universe, we would in theory be able to track where those particles are at a later point in time, in effect knowing the future (or by working backwards, the past). And god of course, would be more than able to do so.  This also has implications for the concept of Free Will, but we’ll leave that can of worms for another time. Let’s stick with why god has to be in charge of this, instead of an unconscious unguided natural Universe.

I think the kind of people who believe in this, and accept faith over evidence, are afraid. They are terrified of existing in a world where nobody is in charge, because then life may not have any true meaning. Atheism is often accused of advocating anarchy because it’s seen as removing any moral weight behind the concepts of social order, justice, even the concepts of good and evil themselves. A random Universe would be one in which hedonism and chaos would dominate. Life would not be sacred, and existence would be meaningless (the fact that many atheists live perfectly moral, meaningful lives is often not noted).  So it’s not really the evidence itself against the existence of god that’s rejected; it’s the idea that the world around us could arise unaided by a creator to direct things. Chance and randomness are concepts that must be avoided at all costs. Thus, it’s not the moon that ‘just happens’ to cause tides; it’s god creating the moon that causes tides. If your worldview is that everything is ultimately traceable back to god, then obviously the entire notion of happenstance occurrences must implicitly be ruled out.

But there’s a problem with this. We know now that ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ are built into our reality at the deepest levels. The Newtonian Universe has been overthrown by the amazing realization that there are aspects of existence that not even an omniscient god would be able to divine. I’m speaking of course of Quantum Mechanics, the most successful scientific theory every devised, and an aspect of it that contains a locked door not even you-know-who can get into: the Uncertainty Principle.

As we know, the Uncertainty Principle means that by selecting an aspect of an elementary particle to measure, we cannot know with precision anything about a related aspect of the same particle. You can measure the exact position, but by doing so, you are unable to determine the exact velocity. Or vice-versa; if you measure the velocity, you cannot know the precise position. The best you can do is to make a statistical guess about the most likely value you can’t measure. But there is no way to know for sure. In a very real and literal sense, the property you cannot measure does not exist (as opposed to having a real value that can’t be determined, which is not the same thing). So you cannot ascertain the precise location and speed of any particle; Newton’s mechanistic Universe cannot be realized. It is slightly chaotic, and eventually unpredictable, even by god.

Position vs. velocity is the most often-cited aspect pair, but also spin axises and other properties fall under the umbrella of uncertainty. This made me try to recall the famous debate against the UP, and then I remembered: the EPR Paradox. A paper published in 1935 by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen argued that particles may have ‘hidden variables’ that Quantum Mechanics failed to account for. This led to many years of intense debate and thought experiments until 1964, when John Stewart Bell came up with a statistical method of measuring whether or not entangled particles did have hidden variables. The details of the method Bell came up with may be too complex to explain within the context of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the original paradox involved a way of trying to ascertain the properties of a particle indirectly, without actually disturbing it. Bell found a way to determine if the properties were built into the particles or not. It was not physically possible to run the experiment until the early 70’s, but eventually, it (and subsequently more sophisticated and detailed experiments) proved that particles do not have hidden variables. The information is not ‘pre-programmed’ into the particle from the beginning. You can approximate the speed, location, spin axis, etc., but the precise attribute is for all intents and purposes not there until you measure it. And once you determine one variable, the corresponding one (location vs. velocity, for example) cannot be known with the same level of precision. Therefore it is impossible (not just unknowable) to ascertain precise details about some aspects of a particle. Uncertainty rules in our Universe, and god cannot know enough to make the Cosmos a giant clockwork mechanism.

Of course, the ladies who come to my door to give me a copy of the Watchtower don’t know any of that, and wouldn’t accept it anyway. They need the idea of a creator, if only to keep anarchy at bay; but the Uncertainty Principle and the EPR Paradox would strongly suggest that we inhabit a Universe where a god could not track the path of even a single elementary particle. And amazingly enough, things seems to be running just fine without anyone in charge. Order from chaos, and not nearly as much hedonism as one might think. Whether that’s a good thing or not I will leave to the reader.

Moving Closer To The Edge

Posted on October 20th, 2012 in Religion | No Comments »

For many years I have considered myself an agnostic. While I had little or no doubt that religion is a waste of time, I still carried around a nagging ‘possible’ belief in God. But I couldn’t anthropomorphize ‘him’ as an individual. I focused on the idea of ‘All That Is’ from the Seth books by Jane Roberts. Here, God is seen as a gestalt of everything that exists. Energy is God and Energy is Consciousness, no matter how inert something appeared to be. Even rocks had a rudimentary awareness since they possessed energy. As for an afterlife, I grew to embrace the idea that there is either nothing, or something far beyond what most people would conceive of. Here again, the Jane Roberts/Seth material seemed to offer the best potential.

But there were flaws in this  worldview that I was never comfortable with.  The concept of Atlantis for example, and how the natives would use sound waves to move large rocks around. There’s clearly no evidence for any of this, and while I found much to admire, details like this always made me squirm in my seat. But for a long while I was content to stick with it in lieu of anything better. Eventually however, I stumbled upon the British Humanist Association. It was a revelation to find an organization with like-minded individuals who had deep-seated reservations about God. I quickly joined the BHA as a member, and I’m proud to be associated with it. I have since taken part in many letter-writing campaigns, to add my voice to the calls for a more secular society.

Also, I have a child, and living in a country without a separation between church and state, I intensely disliked having my child coming home from school singing about how ‘God is great’.

These experiences led to me buying and reading Richard Dawkin’s bestselling book The God Delusion. I found this to be a polarizing experience, and while there are parts of the book that I think are somewhat obtuse, it began a process of ‘politicizing’ me in regards to religious belief. I turned to YouTube for videos of Dawkins engaging with believers. This led to my introduction to Christopher Hitchens, and his in-your-face method of slamming those who insist of pushing their faith on other people. Some who don’t like this call it new atheism. My feeling is that after all these years of having Christian values pushed on me (and others), it’s time we stood up and starting fighting back (in a peaceful method – religious warfare has an extremely bloody history, and I don’t intend on contributing to the carnage).

This in turn, led to the Austin, Texas cable show The Atheist Experience:

And the excellent series of videos from AronRa regarding the nonsense of creationism:

What these videos (and others) do is help show and explain the arguments regarding atheism and the claims used by those who espouse God as the creator of the Universe. It’s also a great comfort to know that other people think along similar lines to myself. On a recent trip back to my hometown (and country), I was dismayed to see the strident jingoism and holy fervor on evidence throughout the media, as well as made concrete (literally) by the number of churches lining the boulevards. It was all very depressing. The work of the Atheist Experience and AronRa helps balance the scales back towards reason and logic.

So where am I now? I’m still learning, still absorbing. I feel less inclined to stay silent, and more and more able to state my position if pressed. I am encouraged to stand up for my lack of belief. I don’t have any trouble stating that I am a Humanist. Am I able to say that I am an atheist? My viewpoint certainly is in line with atheism, but I’m still not quite ready to cross that Rubicon, at least in my mind, and declare myself one. At least not yet. I certainly do not believe in religion, and most emphatically not organized religion. I believe there is no convincing proof of God’s existence. Could God exist in a method that we have not been able to ascertain? Obviously I can’t answer that. It’s certainly a possibility, but I concede that the window on that possibility is getting smaller all the time.

I have moved closer to the edge of atheism, but am I caught in a Zeno-like paradox, never quite able to get all the way there? Maybe applying a label to myself isn’t that important. Rejecting a worldview is a big step, and one not to be taken lightly, for whatever reason. In my case it means having to admit that there really is no afterlife; my loved ones are gone forever, and one day I too will simply cease to exist. It’s tough to just give all that up, but if that’s the price for accepting reality over superstition, then it has to be. Perhaps I just need more time to dress myself up in the garb of an atheist, and eventually I’ll feel comfortable in those clothes. I know in my heart that I’m nearly there now. Maybe I’ve been closer than I would have admitted all along. Maybe resolving my paradox means going over that edge instead of just drawing nearer. It’s scary, but also liberating at the same time.

I’m almost an atheist. Almost.

Lennon Right Again!

Posted on April 12th, 2007 in Comedy | No Comments »

A senior scientist with the Ministry of Thought revealed today that the world as we know it does not exist, as prophesied by John Lennon forty years ago. Dr. Ian Lize announced that “Basically John Lennon was correct, as the lyric of the Beatles’ song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ said: Nothing is real.”

Dr. Lize outlined the results of a five-year research project by the Ministry, which discovered that everything we see, hear, experience or otherwise believe to be external stimuli is in fact, illusionary. “Imagine our surprise when we found that despite all human experience to the contrary, it’s all unreal. We’ve double-checked our research and there can be no doubt – it’s all a sham!”

“The implications are tremendous. Religion, love, weather, our daily lives, the whole of existence is basically not there at all. We’re still working on what, if anything, really is there instead, but so far we’ve got many more questions than answers.”

At the press conference, Dr. Lize was asked if this also extended to such mundane things as breakfast, stubbed toes, and the conference itself. “Yes; as far as we can tell, you did not have breakfast, you have never stubbed your toe, if you even have toes, and even this press conference does not exist.”

An official at Downing Street said that the Prime Minister is saddened to find that there is no reality. The cabinet is expected to send an envoy to the United Nations next month to discuss what this may mean to ongoing concerns world-wide. International leaders from around the globe expressed everything from shock to disbelief when they were briefed earlier in the week, ahead of today’s general announcement.

The Ministry is expected to release a website later in the week where the whole of the research results will be available. In keeping with the amazing findings of the group, the website will also not exist.