Last night's viewing - Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, More4

 

Richard Chell, dying of motor neurone disease, thinks that not believing in life after death is like only having "half a meal", it leaves the human appetite dissatisfied. Richard Dawkins, dying of life in general (like all of us), thinks that appetite doesn't have anything to do with it: "The existence of hunger doesn't mean there's food," he countered last night in Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life.

 But Dawkins is interested both in the hunger and what might appease it in a world without God: "How does someone like me who has no religion face death?" he asked, at the beginning of the second of his examinations of how life might be lived without faith to underpin it.

I wouldn't recommend his first step to the faint-hearted. He went off to Varanasi in India, where devout Hindus depart this world with a bracing lack of squeamishness. Nobody very much seemed to mind that a wild dog was treating one of the funeral pyres as an impromptu barbecue or that the water in which they were conducting their devotions also contained a bloated corpse. I wouldn't advise his second step either, which was to visit a Kansas hospice for babies bound to die within hours of birth. And curiously it wasn't easy to fit either of these scenes directly into Dawkins' argumentative ambition. "Reality may be raw," he said in Kansas, "but we have to face it." But all the evidence, of thousands of years of human culture and these two sequences as well, is that we don't have to, at least not face-on.

I'm with Dawkins in believing we should, but it's not hard to see why people find the alternative attractive. A young couple in Kansas talked with great serenity about the recent death of their baby, born without kidneys, and were utterly convinced that they would one day be reunited. "They sincerely think they're gaining reassurance from their faith," concluded Dawkins sympathetically. But the flat truth was that they were reassured. They might be entirely wrong about what happens next, but since they're not going to be in a position to kick themselves for their credulity, it's hard to argue that they've lost out.

Dawkins also has a way of conflating "sentiment" with "illogic", which sometimes feels as if it's missing the point, because sentiment isn't dismayed by accusations of irrationality. It takes pride in it. That's partly what sentiment is for – to fill the gaps in our rational understanding that would otherwise let a chill wind blow around us. Again, I'm with Dawkins in preferring the breeze to the insulation, but I'm not optimistic about the prospects of getting everyone to give it up. You could argue (Dawkins almost certainly would) that evolution has just done too good a job in embedding such consolations within us.

He's certainly up to the task of offering an alternative, though. The second half of this thoughtful film concentrated on a scientific account of why we might have such a strong intuition that there is something in us besides physical matter and an exploration of genetic immortality. Dawkins had his own genome mapped (revealing, incidentally, that he's prone to runny earwax and can smell asparagus in his pee the day after eating it) and ended standing by the Dawkins family tomb in an English church, the inscription on the wall listing the ancestors who had contributed to his own unique collection of genes. He would like, he confessed, for the hard drive containing his own gene code to lie alongside his familial predecessors. A slightly illogical impulse that, but a reminder that we do get a kind of immortality in what we pass on to our children and they pass on to theirs. "I" might not be around to be aware of it – as in more well-established forms of afterlife – but it's enough for me.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works