The Relic

by Miriam English

Her doorbell rang. The viewscreen showed a young man, not actually fat, but rounded, soft, what they used to call a tenderfoot. The name underneath the image didn't mean anything to her. She was a little curious since she didn't usually get visitors. She opened the door. "Hello?"

He smiled, "Hi, I was told you take people out to see the Relic."

"Uh-huh. What do you have that might convince me to give up my busy morning?"

"Oh..." he hadn't expected that he'd need to barter something. "I... uh... don't have anything." Since the era of plenty began, after currency ended, most people just did what they wanted and helped each other.

"Let me guess. A tall woman with red hair told you this, right?"

He nodded, looking a little crestfallen, realising he was being used to play a joke on her. He started to turn away, "I'm sorry to have bothered you, Miss."

"Hang on. Tell me why you want to see the Relic. You can read everything known about it. You can see and touch it in 3D-sims. That's enough for most people." She noticed the slight awkwardness in his movements that you see in people unused to one third gravity, "You've come all the way from Earth, haven't you." She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

"Yes, I have. I've wanted to see it ever since I first heard about it, the day it was discovered." Enthusiasm was creeping into his voice and his eyes.

"You must have been still in diapers. Uh, sorry. No offense intended."

"No I was older than that. I was in school and the teacher turned on the big screen and hushed us all." He had a dreamy look and his voice became softer. "There it was. Still being uncovered by the scientists. All black, and shiny, and mysterious. Made me think of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey."

"Kiddo, it made everybody think of that. But it isn't. It's been sampled and scanned every way imaginable. It's probably just a piece of space trash accidentally left here by visitors roughly 500 million years ago."

He looked like nothing could convince him of that.

She sighed. "Well, screw it. I was only going to settle down and watch a movie. I might as well take you." She grabbed her overalls from the peg next to the door, pulled them on over her shorts and t-shirt, then she took him to the local garage to get a vehicle.

About ten minutes later they exited one of the city's old northern lava tubes in one of the heavily shielded rovers that are used for surface work. One day the Council would finish getting the artificial dynamo running in Mars' core. In the meantime it was dangerous to spend much time on the surface unshielded. She didn't need to steer the vehicle, of course. It had AI for that, but she watched the viewscreen carefully anyway. She never entirely trusted their judgement. She knew AIs were supposed to be better drivers than humans, but if a human was driving she'd still watch the viewscreen. She didn't trust people's judgement either.

He tried to start up a conversation by asking what she did.

She didn't want to talk about herself. "Boring crap. You wouldn't be interested." In fact she thought what she did was really cool and she loved doing it. She just didn't like discussing it. "Tell me what you do and why you want to see the Relic... if the two are connected, that is."

He nodded eagerly. "They are connected actually. I need to see the Relic because I think it holds special meaning for me, and all of life. I'm a Buddhist monk."

She put her hand on her face. Oh crap. And here she was, stuck in a rover with him for the next half hour or so. She'd have to think up some exquisite payback for her red-headed, so-called friend, Barbara.

"Didn't anybody ever tell you that no gods exist?"

"Absolutely. We Buddhists don't believe in gods."

That had her stumped for a moment until she remembered, "Oh, that's right. You guys believe in reincarnation." She chuckled. "Sorry. Didn't mean to laugh."

"That's okay. You have your beliefs, I have mine. And we both believe in atheism." He smiled pleasantly.

She clenched her teeth. That always bugged her when religious people said that. "Umm, no. First, atheism is not a belief. It is the absence of a belief in gods. Absence of a boat is not a kind of boat. Secondly, I don't have beliefs. I accept information provisionally, but certain things are truths that have been proved. Reincarnation can't happen because it has been well proved that there is no soul. All religions depend upon a soul, so they are all wrong."

He looked unperturbed and continued to smile. "It's impossible to prove the soul doesn't exist."

She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead, considering whether to rise to the bait. She exhaled noisily, "Listen, kid. I don't know what garbage they've been teaching you, but it does you no favors to just accept what people say. It's easy to prove the soul doesn't exist."

He shook his head, "No, there are certain classes of things that simply can't be proved or disproved. A soul is one. A negative is another. And whether I have an intangible, invisible, flying dragon is another."

"Whoa. The invisible, intangible dragon is Carl Sagan's example of unfalsifiability. It doesn't mean what you think it does."

"Yes. It's unfalsifiable. It can't be disproved."

She frowned. "That's not what's meant by unfalsifiable. In order for something to be taken seriously it has to be falsifiable."

He looked skeptical, "What? But that doesn't make sense. Why would anybody believe something that can be shown to be false?"

"You don't understand. What it means for something to be falsifiable is that you can suggest tests for it to pass or fail. If there is no way to test it, then it can't really be taken seriously. Something untestable can be dismissed as imaginary. So skip Sagan's dragon."

Grudgingly, he said, "Okay... what about a negative? I was taught that you can't prove or disprove a negative."

She shook her head. "I don't know why so many people think this. It's completely wrong. We prove and disprove negatives all the time. For one thing, any proposition can be posed as a negative. The positive proposition, a ball will fall down in gravity. is easy to prove. It can be restated as a negative: a ball won't fall up in gravity. Equally easy to prove. Or, as a different negative, a ball won't fall down in gravity, is easy to disprove."

He looked puzzled. "The way I was told is that you can't prove something doesn't exist."

She laughed, "Yeah you can. Again, we do it all the time." She leaned over and grabbed the first aid kit from the wall and opened it. "It's easy to prove there is not an elephant in here. It's too big to fit in, and I can see there's no elephant there, and I can feel with my hands there's no elephant there."

He was frowning.

She asked, "Following me so far, kid?"

He nodded, still frowning.

"Okay, next... the soul... from two different angles." She held up a finger, "Part one." She paused for a moment, getting the argument straight in her head. "Would you agree that the soul is the consciousness behind your eyes, the pilot that decides what to do next, that weighs moral choices?"

He nodded cautiously.

She continued, "Okay. Drugs, like alcohol, hallucinogens, and others change that consciousness, so your consciousness is distorted by chemicals. You sleep every night. For most of that period your consciousness stops, and during other parts your consciousness is weird when you're dreaming. Under anaesthetic, during an operation, your consciousness ceases. A whack on the head stuns the nerves in your brain, ending consciousness, until they recover... if they recover. A brain injury can change a person's entire personality, making a pleasant person become prone to fits of anger, or making them unable to comprehend things they previously had no difficulty with. These things show that consciousness is a physical action of the brain. Therefore consciousness — the soul — can't survive the death of the brain."

He said, "But consciousness is energy, and energy can't be created nor destroyed."

She sighed, "You're trying to make energy into something mystical. Consciousness is the specific pattern of actions the nerves of our brains perform. It isn't the dissipating heat that's a byproduct of that. A rock rolling down a hill stops when it gets to the bottom. The energy from that movement gets converted to heat and sound, which dissipate, but the roll doesn't exist anymore. It doesn't go anywhere. It just doesn't exist."

He was frowning again.

She held up two fingers, "Part two. What qualities or capabilities do you imagine a soul to have? Can the soul see? No. The existence of people who can't see is evidence that the soul can't see. If the soul could see, then even if you lost the ability to use your eyes, you would still be able to see. So, no. If the soul exists, it can't see. Can the soul hear? No. Deaf people show that. Can it feel pain? Temperature? Touch? Can it smell or taste? No. All these can be lost in people who presumably still have a soul. Can it feel emotions? No. Brain injuries can selectively eliminate the ability to feel various emotions. Can a soul retain memories? We forget things all the time, but even worse, brain injuries can destroy large amounts of memory, and Alzheimer's victims gradually lose all their memory. If a soul could retain memories this wouldn't happen. So, no. The soul could not remember things. Could it be conscious? No. We lose consciousness each night when we sleep. I would love to remain conscious, to think about things each night while my body slept. If I lose consciousness while retaining a soul then that soul can't be conscious. A seeing, hearing, feeling, remembering, conscious soul doesn't exist."

He wasn't frowning anymore. He looked a little lost.

He asked, "What if the brain, the physical being, is a kind of filter? What if the soul is non-physical, above that, informed by it, controlling it?"

She sighed. "A non-physical soul can't affect the physical brain, nor can it be affected by the physical. If it could, it would be, by definition, physical." She dismissed that with a wave of her hand, "But anyway, we still get the same result. We can still show that consciousness is in the physical brain. Damage it and we damage consciousness. If consciousness was in some 'higher' non-physical thing then we would still be conscious when the brain is stunned by concussion. And all our memories are kept in the physical brain anyway. An immaterial soul becomes entirely useless. It doesn't learn, feel, think, or do anything. In fact nobody has ever given any evidence that the soul might exist. It's purely wishful thinking. Without considering the implications fully, believers think it gives them a shot at immortality. But it doesn't do that, because it can't exist."

He looked deflated. She had to hand it to him. He followed the logic. Most believers simply refused to listen and continued to insist that wrong was somehow still right. They couldn't follow the logic. Not because they were stupid, but the belief simply prevented them. She'd met some very smart believers with very agile minds who were surprisingly unable to follow this simple chain of logic. In many people, belief seems to have a kind of mental inertia; it is extremely difficult to reverse it, no matter what the strength of evidence against it is. Often belief makes it impossible for people to consider anything else. It blinds them to entire areas of reality.

"I've devoted my life to a lie." His voice was flat, empty.

She patted him on the shoulder, "Nah. You made a mistake and to your very great credit you can see that. Most believers are unable to admit it to themselves. They spend the rest of their lives still captured by it. Heck, you had the courage to come all the way to Mars to see the Relic."

"A piece of space junk," he said gloomily.

She laughed loudly at that, and saw a glimmer of a smile on his face.

"Well, yeah, but a very cool piece of space junk. You'll be able to tell people you actually came and saw it for real, and they'll go 'Ooh!'"

He chuckled at that, then sighed. "But without a soul, all of life, all of the universe has no purpose, no meaning."

"Don't be an ass. Of course it does. It's just that you no longer believe in a fake one."

This surprised him. "How could we have a purpose if there is no soul?"

"If you think about it for a moment you'll realise that's a stupid question. Let's begin by asking, why would there be a purpose if there was a soul?"

"To become enlightened, reach nirvana."

She smiled, "But why? What's the purpose in becoming enlightened? Why attain nirvana? Why do that? Nobody ever talked to you about why, did they? It was just accepted, right? It felt like a purpose, but it never really was. It's the same with people who believe in gods. I've heard them say that their god gives them purpose, but when you really question them, there's never really any purpose there. They rationalise it with, 'Nobody can know the mind of god and his purpose' but that just means they're doing the same thing. They still have no actual purpose; they're just leaving it up to their imaginary god."

He was frowning again, "What possible purpose could our lives have, then?"

On the screen she could see the Relic was just ahead. The rover slowed and stopped next to it.

"We're here. Put on your suit." She stood and grabbed hers from the wall and wriggled her way into it.

She said, "Life is special. No other way of arranging matter has a purpose. Life's purpose is to propagate, to make more life, to enhance life. Some life develops a nervous system and a brain to help it survive. That brings another purpose: to learn. Some living things form societies, where they work together and look after each other to further enhance their survival. Did you know we now have ants on Mars? Not out there." She pointed to the viewscreen. "Back in Pavonis City. Must have stowed away in something."

He said, "Or maybe they were deliberately brought as part of the ecology for the gardens."

"Huh. I hadn't thought of that possibility." She put on her helmet and latched it down, and helped him do likewise. "Can you hear the suit radio?"


She asked the rover's AI to open the inner airlock door. "Open the pod bay door Hal."

There was just enough room for one person in it. As he stepped in, he asked, "Its name is Hal?"

"Nah. Just my little 2001 joke. It's smart enough to understand what I want."

The AI closed the inner door, pumped out most of the air, then opened the outer door for him to step out. When he was clear, it closed the outer door and went through the procedure for her. While this was happening she continued talking to him, with the rover relaying her radio signal outside past its shielding.

"We humans have gigantic, oversized brains. This grants us many expanded purposes. We can learn about far more than just the things our survival depends upon, and in that learning we can see that all life is interwoven and that we depend upon all those around us, so we need to look after all life, not just our own. We can see beyond ourselves, and our family, and our tribe or clan, beyond our village or city, past state and national borders, even past species boundaries to realise we are all brothers and sisters — not just all humans, but all the other mammals, even all other vertebrates, all other animals, and even all life."

He had walked the few steps to the artifact and was feeling its shiny, smooth, flat surface with his gloved hands. "It's smaller than I thought. Smaller than a person." his voice was soft, almost a whisper.

She said, "Many decades ago, Carl Sagan gave a talk about how the atoms that make up our bodies, the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, iron, calcium, and more, actually come from exploded stars. He said one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. 'We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.'"

He turned. "That is beautiful."

They didn't stay outside for long, so as to minimise their radiation dose from the sun and the cosmos. On the way back they talked about what he might do now that he was no longer Buddhist. Surprisingly, he felt happy that a load had been lifted from his shoulders. He'd realised some years earlier that he was gay, which Buddhism disapproved of. Now that he was free of religion he could live his life more fully. They had a pleasant conversation and she decided she wouldn't take revenge on Barbara for sending him her way.

~~ END ~~

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