It’s funny how language works. Take the word materialism. On the one hand, it means acquiring stuff. On the other hand, it is a vital principle in philosophy and physics having to do with a certain point of view about the world, that the world is completely explicable in terms of physical laws and that nothing else is either needed or allowable.
This point of view is central to one side of the debate between the two camps disagreeing about the correct answer to what is known as “the hard problem”: where does consciousness come from? Is consciousness just an “emergent property” of physical forces or is it something special, different, and basically inexplicable in terms of neurons and synapses?
Let me connect these thoughts to what is known as Pascal’s Wager. The mathematician, physicist, philosopher and theologian Pascal famously opined that a person should live as if God existed, because that was the better bet. If He doesn’t exist, you haven’t lost much—maybe nothing—but if He does exist, he will be very pleased with you, and you have a better shot at Heaven.
Well, this is charming, but begs too many questions to be taken seriously. First of all, the idea that you haven’t lost much is absurd because, if you’ve been living a small life of dogma, well, you’ve been living your one-and-only life in a small, dogmatic way. Second, since it is transparently obvious that the God we are accustomed to hearing about is man-made, you would be living a life-long lie that you yourself know, or ought to know, is a lie. And don’t we have enough lying already?
One might well be much better off opting for the counter-wager, that it is much better not to believe in gods and much better to live a fully human life without fear of retribution and without dogmatic restraints, than to bet on a clearly man-made construct with more holes in it than Swiss cheese. This is naturally called the atheist’s wager, coined by the philosopher Michael Martin three decades ago. Between the two, Pascal’s wager and the atheist’s wager, I believe there is a clear choice.
But what if there is a sensible third wager, which for fun we can call Maisel’s wager, that not only better represents our sense of reality but that also nicely massages the materialism question? Why not wager on an indefinable immortality that matches our sense of the reality of synchronicities and other experienced weirdnesses, that treats materialism as the basic law of the universe and yet not the whole enchilada, and that stays very far away from man-made gods and their terrible minions? The religious will call this blasphemy and the materialists will say that this is wishful thinking, silliness, or religion. But I wonder.
As long as you keep this immortality unnamed and indescribable, you have a beautiful thing. Nor does that make it a null set, as one might call it in math, or meaningless, as a linguistic philosopher might aver. It is neither of these because this immortality represents something that we both see and feel. We see clearly, in our experience of our particular species, immortal goodness and immortal evil. Goodness has always lived and has never died, though it has had countless setbacks and many terrible, terrible moments. And, yes, evil is immortal, too; to say that there were the equivalents of fascists back in the caves is to put it mildly. But the immortality of something we hate shouldn’t cause us to forget or minimize the immortality of something we love.
My flesh-and-blood self is not immortal—granted. Nor do I believe that I will come back as a sprite, a spirit, a spider, or (this would be lovely) a corned beef sandwich—not, at any rate, as a spider or a sandwich with my memories, dreams, and aspirations. Nor do I see myself playing chess with Paul Morphy on a park bench in Heaven (I certainly do not see myself winning.). I do not mean immortality in any of these conventional senses. I mean that we may be participating in something much stranger and weirder than even string theory envisions, something very different from what physics or theology prescribes. We may be participating in something at once so cold and so heartwarming that we may never, ever know whether to put on another sweater or venture a smile.
Forget gods; forget materialism; forget spirit, for that matter. Picture something very different: the thing which cannot be pictured. That might prove a far more comforting picture than a picture where there’s something to be seen. There is no picture; there is not even a canvas; there is nothing to guess at, hope for, or long for. And yet that may feel exactly right to you, as it does to me, as our hint or taste of immortality.
Immortality is not something to name, describe, explain, or picture. It has nothing to do with gods or physics. I could draw analogies, but they would all be false and misleading. To present an analogy is exactly the equivalent of acting like you know something. We do not know in this domain, though the truth of immortal goodness, along with immortal evil, is maybe a hint of something. But, darn, to point there is to point at something—and I shouldn’t point.
To try to point at immortality is to fall into all the old traps. Let me leave it at this. I feel something; you feel something; let’s together be strange attractors, those lovely concepts from chaos theory used to describe the behavior of chaotic systems. Our feelings are proof of nothing—but we aren’t after the mathematical proof of anything. We aren’t even after the truth, which feels like such a small idea nowadays. Let us simply do the following: let 2023 be our best year yet playing our part in the strangeness.