An atheist’s case for life and what we can do about it

Reimagining humans as qualia machines populating the universe with unique mathematics and balancing all concerns against a harsh and ugly world

Many people believe that atheists have an unsatisfying view of the world.  Humans reduced to survival machines, crawling on the surface of an insignificant rock, revolving around a merely average star, located in a random section of a minor galaxy, a literal speck floating around a universe too large and uncaring to comprehend.

What, in this vision, could be worth preserving?

There is another, much more positive way of looking at the human condition, however.  One that makes us much more special than the dim view would seem on the surface, and one that affirms the sanctity of human life.

We’ve searched the stars for billions of miles in every direction, and have yet to find anything like us crawling around any other planet.  Indeed, we haven’t found anything quite like us crawling around Earth.  What makes humans special in this regard has been the subject of endless debate, both before the scientific revolution and after.

If I may be so bold as to posit my own opinion:  Humans are the only known being in the universe able to describe their experience of the universe.  While this may sound like an unremarkable statement, the implications for science and philosophy are profound.

Philosophers and psychologists use the term “qualia” to describe our perception of a conscious experience.  The neuroscientist Antony Damasio describes qualia as “the feeling of what happens.”  The sunlight on your skin on a specific summer afternoon, the crisp taste of a fresh apple just picked with your significant other, or the nagging pain of a headache the morning after your high school reunion.

No one knows how or why we experience qualia, but we do know they have a few very interesting properties.

First, no person can have the same qualia twice.  Qualia are the experience of an event as the event is unfolding.  The sunlight on your skin at 3.45 PM on August 22, 2020 in your backyard by the pool, not the generalized feel of sunlight.

Second, similar to the first point, no two people can share the same qualia.  The experience of a moment is the result of the interactions between billions of neurons and nerve cells in response to an environmental stimulus, things that are unique to each person.  Your qualia are not the same as mine, even for experiences we share.

The first two points combine to mean that each qualia is mathematically unique, distinct from all others. 

Third, we generate qualia every conscious moment of our lives, though we only tend to focus on the extreme positives or negatives.  Each of our individual brains and nervous systems will produce millions of unique qualia in our lifetime; multiply that by the world population, and billions upon billions of unique qualia are generated every single day.

While we don’t yet know the specifics of how qualia work, indeed some say our current understanding of physics can’t even begin to describe qualia, we can imagine some future mathematics where each individual qualia can be captured, fractal-like in all its unique glory.

Therefore, instead of thinking of ourselves as survival machines, we can better think of ourselves as qualia machines, producing an almost limitless number of mathematically unique experiences.  Literally:  Each human adds their own math to the world, math so advanced we don’t even have the tools to describe it, more on that in the footnote below.

It follows then that the unborn are a vast reservoir of qualia, and every aborted fetus reduces the amount of unique and beautiful mathematics in the universe.  As our humanity is uniquely defined by our DNA, this potential must begin at conception.

The question then becomes what steps we should take to preserve this beauty.

Personally, I am pro-life, but I understand that fair-minded, morally-conscious people can come to a different conclusion.  I also accept the reality that there are horrible things in this world, whatever I may think, and some of those horrible things can be experienced as qualia.

This leads me to a few (admittedly subjective) conclusions.

First, whatever I may wish, there will always be abortions.  We’ve had a war on drugs and a war on poverty, and neither has gone away.  If we were to outlaw abortion, they would still happen in more dangerous situations that negatively affect the health and safety of the mother.  We might say illegal abortions would increase the negative qualia in the universe.

Second, there are horrors a person can experience, qualia so terrible, they shouldn’t be expected to endure them any further.  Victims of rape and incest should not be forced to relive the experience through an extended, unwanted outcome.  At the same time, it also seems reasonable that the experience of an abortion is a negative qualia in and of itself, and should be avoided if possible.

Third, neither of the first two points, especially in light of the potential negative experience of an abortion, preclude seeking to reduce the number of abortions or to restrict abortions to the early stages of a pregnancy.  In fact, when we talk about “abortion” we’re aren’t talking about one thing.  We’re referring to multiple medical procedures.  Late term abortions require partially birthing the fetus, early term do not.  That’s a distinction with a difference.

Where does that leave us?

I believe we should seek to minimize the number of abortions and implement some reasonable restrictions on abortion based on the type of procedure used.  This would include some combination of banning partial birth abortions, focusing on preventing unwanted pregnancies, and education on the procedures available, include abortifacients like the morning after pill.

Abortifacients should be an essential part of reducing abortions in this formulation.  There is little need for women to endure the negative qualia associated with the traditional procedure.  There are other safe, legal, and far less intrusive methods for the majority of unwanted pregnancies. 

This education should also acknowledge the loss inherent in an abortion.  Everyone should fully understand that an abortion isn’t a desirable thing, either personally  as an experience or for the world at large deprived of the qualia the future person will experience.  The phrase “necessary evil” is overused, but it certainly comes to mind here.

I know this is a long-winded way of arriving at “safe, legal, and rare,” and I understand that this is not likely to be considered ideal by anyone with strong beliefs on either side of the issue.  At the same time, it’s not clear to me what other conclusions can be reached if the situation is approached with both a respect for the sanctity of life (the preservation of qualia) and an acknowledgement of the reality of a world with no shortage of suffering (the reality of negative qualia).

If you outlaw abortion, you will not eliminate it, in fact you are likely to increase the pain and suffering of desparate women, introducing more negative qualia in the world.  If you eliminate restrictions on abortion of any kind, you also eliminate the qualia the unborn will generate.

It seems to me the only option is to try to preserve some balance, though that is likely to be unsatisfying to many.

There is one other, albeit less precise, point to be made:  Human behavior occurs on a spectrum, changes in one area necessarily shift the spectrum and lead to changes in another area.  If we accept partial birth abortion, we will necessarily accept other devaluations of life.

A note on the physics of qualia

I mentioned above that qualia can’t be described by our current physics.  While there are physicists who would likely disagree, the dispute stems from the treatment of time in both relativity and quantum theory.

I’m oversimplifying, but it is believed that qualia are time-specific whereas modern physics does not have a preference for time.  According to our latest theories, time can flow forward or backward, and it’s almost an accident that we perceive it as forward.

Some theorists do not think qualia can work this way.  They believe qualia is entirely contingent on the events before, and cannot run backward.

It’s not an easy read but check out The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time:  A Proposal in Natural Philosophy by Roberto Magabeira Unger and Lee Smolin to learn more.


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