Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I will miss you Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is dead.  Despite never knowing him personally, indeed never coming within a thousand kilometers of him, it does make me a little sad to know he is gone.  He was atheism's rabid dog, the crazy, impassioned debater and writer who was willing to fly across the world any time to debate religion with anybody.  I read his most famous book on religion, God Is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything and blogged about it, comparing Hitchens to a salesman while comparing Dawkins and Stenger to a mad scientist and a force of nature respectively.  Hitchens was hilarious to watch or read because he was so talented at writing eloquently and forcefully but he would never be accused of being the most meticulous debater in the world; he often ignored his opponent's arguments, dismissing them as ridiculous, and simply charged ahead in his inimitable way.  He was the sort you would set on someone you wanted to confuse and demoralize because he refused to engage on any but his own terms and was savage and dangerous in his prose.

I read some of his later written works in Vanity Fair talking about his illness and the various reactions to it.  He talked about how some religious people suggested that his cancer of the esophagus was a direct punishment from God for his blasphemous statements, to which he replied that he was surprised that God had not struck him in other body parts which he used to sin very regularly.  One might also question why God waited so long to punish him and why God chose a method that could so easily be predicted by lifestyle and circumstance...  Hitchens even talked about how he hoped that he would not become so weak and confused that he repented his atheism at the end and insisted that if by some chance he did that everyone ignore it as the person that did so was not really Christopher Hitchens.  Of course other folks simply said that they were not praying for Hitchens because he wouldn't want them to, or that they were praying for him even though he wouldn't want them to.  I wonder if it is enjoyable or terrible to have so many people so interested in one's own imminent death.

Of course although his body is gone Hitchens is not vanished forever.  His debates, his books and his cutting remarks stay with us and as such a big part of what Hitchens was will live a very long time indeed.  This is true for anyone, and the memories of us and the way we change the world is the only real immortality we have.  Though some may find it terrifying or insufficient I see it as a far greater form of immortality than the fictional kind.  Awareness is a wonderful thing but the knowledge that even though I will someday be gone my thoughts and actions will continue to echo across the world is a more wonderful thing yet.


  1. Honest Question: Does it terrify you to know that one day in the further future your thoughts and actions will have ceased to echo and everything will be identical to what it would have been had you never existed at all?

  2. I assume you mean the eventual heat death of the universe when entropy becomes maximum in some tens of billions of years?

    If so... no. The idea that everything I do will be irrelevant in that circumstance bothers me not in the slightest.

    That probably isn't a rational response, mind you, but things that far in the future simply don't get a visceral reaction from me. If I knew nothing mattered 2 years from now it would influence me greatly but 20 billions years not so much. Call it a very human weakness that probably is a good survival and happiness adaptation. :)

  3. Well it will probably happen before the heat death of the universe. If you consider how you regard yourself - you are first and foremost a collection of information, you are also a body, you are not so much a chemical composition - it is pretty safe to say that the majority of dinosaurs and other pre-historic animals have been completely erased at this point. Oil deposits might tell us that they were here as a collective, but as individuals they are long gone (except for the fossilized and even then they are largely gone).

    Of course in contemporary times the markers we leave on the world feel like they have a lot more durability, but unless you are notably famous in your life (or shortly after your death as some artists and authors have been) it is pretty hard for me to imagine surviving more than a few thousand years, and I wouldn't be surprised to survive less than a few hundred.

    Entropy overtakes everything, and so the "immortal" legacy you talk about is really a longer-lived legacy. I think that's what makes the immortal fantasies so appealing - they involve actual immortality. As someone who clearly isn't obsessed with or terrified by mortality, that might not resonate very much with you.

  4. I doubt that the universe will somehow arrive at the same state as if I had never lived any time before heat death. "If a butterly flaps its wings in Africa...."

    I would certainly agree that nobody will likely be able to find any sign of my presence a few hundred years from now by normal human standards. That does not concern me in the slightest.

  5. Now quibbling over details that are beside the point: "Arriving at the same state it would have" doesn't strike me as the correct test any more than "Still actively conscious" is the correct test for still being around.

    If you alphabetize the letters in a novel then clearly you can't say that the novel made no difference at all to the outcome. But if only the alphabetized version of a novel remained 200 years from now then we would be forced to say that the novel was lost forever.

    The butterfly effect is a happy myth to make us think that we are making a difference. For the most part I tend to think that even the very great changes that people make in the world aren't nearly as big a deal as we make them out to be - Marconi proved that.

  6. I tend to think that we won't be able to predict or control our effects on the world over time. I might try to stop war, for example, but there is no particular reason to think anything I do actually forwards that end. I completely agree that our contributions will be so randomized that they will be unrecognizable in a few hundred years. Of course, this is often true even in the short term.

    Regardless I answered the question in the way I thought you asked it - I don't actually think anything I do will have predictable, noticeable effects in anything approaching the timeframe of the heat death of the universe!