On death and dying

As much as I'm sure everyone is eager to keep talking about Aristotle, Thomism, model-dependent realism and metaphysics, I want to take a break from all that stuff and talk about something that's been on my mind a bit: death.

Contemplating our mortality isn't the most uplifting of topics, but I think it's one that's important to discuss, especially for atheists. Death – or rather, the denial of death – is at the center of virtually every major world religion today, most certainly in Western Monotheism. Because I'm a nerd, I'm reminded of the dialogue between Gandalf and Pippin in Return of the King as the siege of Minas Tirith looms:
Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.
Pippin: What, Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores... And beyond. A far green country, under a swift sunrise. 
Pippin: Well... That isn't so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn't.
It's undoubtedly consoling, in the face of our own annihilation, to believe that our conscious soul will survive our bodily death. It's similarly consoling to believe, in the face of the cruel injustices of the world, that the rights will be wronged – the good rewarded, the wicked punished, and God's Divine Plan come to fruition. And I've no doubt that many a person has been consoled by the thought that someone they have loved and lost has not been lost forever, but will be reunited with them in the hereafter. In his debate with Shelly Kagan, theologian William Lane Craig argued that if our lives don't have a transcendent, cosmic purpose, then there must be no purpose to it all – it just seems so futile in the face of the annihilation of ourselves and the heat death of the universe far, far in the future.

Atheism takes all of that away. You don't have a soul. You don't have a purpose here beyond that which you make for yourself. When you die, you may be remembered for a time; if you do something extraordinary, maybe decades or maybe centuries. But eventually you'll be forgotten – most of us sooner rather than later. The world will go on without you, and people will live out their lives more concerned with their own affairs than your contribution to the world. The injustices of the world will not be righted in another life, and all those who are lost are lost forever.

If you've grown up, as I have, in a religiously inclined culture that treats death not as finality but as a transition, the loss of that perspective can certainly seem depressing. But I think, even if you're devoutly religious, it's worthwhile to consider the atheist's point of view, for one simple reason: you could be wrong. Perhaps you have a deeply and firmly held hope that you will see your loved ones after you die. Perhaps you believe you'll live in eternal peace, in God's presence. But no matter how fervent your religious conviction may be, you'll never truly be able to know what lies beyond death. So why not at least consider the perspective of someone who is at peace with the finality of death?


I think there are two major issues to confront: the annihilation of the self in death, and the meaning we find in our lives without the promise of eternity. 

The latter is certainly the easier of the two to deal with; while the prospect of eternity may sound enticing at first, it's not without its difficulties. Do you really want to live forever? What happens when you've experienced all possible experiences that a disembodied soul can (whatever those may be)? Do you just repeat them an infinite number of times? Wouldn't that get boring after trillions and trillions of years? Do you spend eternity mourning the loss those who are not in the Good Place with you? Will you not feel deprived of challenges, of hardship overcome, of loss, of failure, and all the ways those experiences make us grow? I'm no fan of Deepak Chopra, but I'm quite fond of an old quote of his from an appearance on The Colbert Report: "In heaven, you would be doomed to eternal senility".

My point here isn't to argue against the possibility of an eternal afterlife, since I obviously can't 'disprove it'; rather, I just want to point out that the idea may not, upon reflection, be as appealing as it superficially seems to be. Similarly, the annihilation of the self, though superficially somewhat terrifying, is truly nothing to fear. It's inconceivable to us that our phenomenological experience will end. We might imagine such a death as an eternity of silent darkness, but that is not the case. In the annihilation of the self, we are truly gone. There are no memories, no experiences, not even blackness or silence. Truly the best way to conceive of our own death is to try and imagine what it was like before we were born. Perhaps an even better way to think about it is to ask "What was before time?" The answer is inconceivable, since 'before' connotes the existence of time. Our births and deaths are like the opening and closing of our own universes, with no 'other side' through which to pass.

The view of death as annihilation frees us from worries about what will come next, and forces us to turn our sights on the here and now. The more interesting question then is whether our annihilation in death somehow detracts from the purpose we have in our (relatively) short lives. What's the point of living if we're just going to die and be forgotten? Why not be as cruel as we want to be if there are no eternal consequences?


I'm reminded of a quote from the titular character in the latest season of the TV show Hannibal:
"I’ve always found the idea of death comforting. The thought that my life could end at any moment frees me to fully appreciate the beauty and art and horror of everything this world has to offer."
Last night I went for a walk with my fiance. We walked through one of the nicer neighborhoods in town, a block of which surrounds a beautiful pond. We paused and looked out over the water, and when I looked at her, it was a perfect moment — a cool breeze, a starry sky, a beautiful park, holding hands with the love of my life.

If that moment could somehow be frozen in time, that I could live it for all eternity, it would lose its value. It's precious precisely because of its fleeting impermanence. I have no desire whatsoever to hang on to any one moment, no matter how perfect it might seem; there are too many other such moments that await us.

The impermanence of our existence is precisely what frees us to fully appreciate such moments. Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Living a Life That Matters, once remarked that death is tragic only if life is worth living. And indeed, while we may not wish for the end to come swiftly, for life to continue on indefinitely, dooming us to relive the same experiences or, as in Heaven, condemning us to idle contentment, is surely a far worse fate than a mortal life filled with those fleeting but beautiful moments.

Similarly, it is difficulty, strife, and suffering in this life which free us to fully appreciate its more sublime moments. The Chinese have long recognized this as Yin and Yang, but Western Monotheism is tainted by an almost perverse fixation on the total alleviation of all suffering in the hereafter. But we would not fully appreciate the importance of our friends and family in our lives without the knowledge that they will not be around forever, and that tragedy could befall any of them. It's the ever-present threat of suffering and death that compels us to continually better our lives — to work, to innovate, to specialize, to trade, to share, to learn.


What about purpose and morality? The absence of some grand, cosmic, transcendent purpose to our existence in no way detracts from the purpose we make for ourselves in the here and now. I do not need to be told that the moment by the pond with my fiance was a part of some transcendent purpose to my life to fully appreciate the its beauty. On the contrary, it was a powerful moment precisely because it cannot last — because it was a moment. Only when we're mortal is each act we take important and each moment precious, since we don't have eternity to relive them. 

Morality, too, is meaningless without pressing social concerns. If we want moral autonomy, it's easy enough — we can just head out into the woods and live alone. That way there are no responsibilities to others, no obligations to anyone but ourselves. Of course, there are high costs to living totally alone — we'd have to hunt or grow our own food, build our own shelter, and we could never experience simple joys of human companionship. We'd die alone, likely of some disease (since we'd have no medicine), predation, hunger, or exposure.

We are, by nature, self-interested. But we're also gregarious, social, bonded, and interdependent. Virtually every aspect of our happiness and well-being is in some way dependent on other human beings. The very fact that you are reading this post on a computer is a testament to centuries of scientific progress through social cooperation. It goes without saying that if I do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no obligation to respect my needs and interests. In an interdependent society, we must cooperate in order to thrive, and that means living by a 'social contract'. A society in which we could all freely kill, steal, lie and cheat would be a short-lived society indeed.

Given these basic facts of human nature, it's clear that the promise of eternal reward or the threat of eternal punishment adds nothing to our moral enlightenment. Think of the 'great commandment' in Christianity: Love your neighbor as yourself. Why would God command such a thing? Is it just some arbitrary 'test' we need to pass to get into Heaven? I think most Christians would agree that the whole point of such a commandment is that living by such a principle creates a better world for all. But if that's the case, then it does not need to be commanded — we can arrive at such a moral obligation through reason alone. 

But what if we don't desire a better world for all? In that case, we're doomed. Importantly, though, the theistic notion of divine commands cannot save us, because threats of eternal punishment or reward cannot sway us if we do not value our own survival and well-being. And if we do value those things, then we do not need eternity to reason that living by certain norms will allow our well-being to flourish.


This brief reflection on morality leads to an inescapable conclusion: morality itself is utterly dependent on our mortality. If we can live forever, we have no reason to value the short time in our lives or improve our well-being. We can procrastinate a trillion years and still have eternity to get around to it. Since there would be no threat of suffering or death, we don't have to cooperate if we don't want to. We don't have to trade, specialize, or innovate, and we wouldn't be forced to come together in communities to raise children and pass on our genes. We can just live on, indefinitely, in isolation and senility — never aging, never being challenged, never cooperating, never raising children, never experiencing anything new, never fully appreciating a fleeting moment, and never valuing our time since we would never run out of it.

The idea of objective, transcendent purpose faces another problem: the infinite regress. We can always ask, What is the purpose of this? Some say that the purpose of our lives is to prepare for Heaven. But what's the purpose of an eternity in Heaven? At some point, we simply have to agree: this is special. This is precious. This gives me purpose.
I remember as a child, there was an elderly woman who lived down the street from us, and she was an outspoken atheist. I remember my mother remarking once that it was so depressing — the idea that when we die, that's just it. But as I got older and went through the process of deconversion, I came to view death in the opposite way. It seems rather depressing to me, particularly given that we live in an age in which we can live twice as long as our ancestors, have access to vastly more knowledge than they did, and have greater leisure and luxury than they could have imagined, that this life is just not good enough. How depressing it would have been for me to stand there on a starlit night with my fiance, gazing into her eyes and thinking, If only life were better

I don't need the promise of eternity to fully appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this life — on the contrary, I believe eternity would rob us of the very things that make us appreciate this life and compel us to live each day to its fullest. Take away the allure of that promise, and what does religion really have to offer? A religious person is like a door to door salesman selling freezers to Eskimos. We don't need the promise of eternity to have meaning and purpose; we already have it here, in abundance. Once it becomes clear that the product they're selling isn't worth anything, their entire venture is exposed for the folly that it is.


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