Andrew Stark’s new book, The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death, addresses those who disavow belief in an afterlife. So what consolation might these non-believers find when confronting death? Stark argues that traditionally there are “four distinct ways of persuading us to accept, maybe even appreciate, the fact that we will die.” (1)The book investigates and defends of each of these four consolations. (Stark knows that science may eventually defeat death, but he says that for most of us alive today that won’t happen soon enough—perhaps not for centuries.)
The first consolation says that “death itself is actually a benign or even a good thing.” (2) Many have made such an argument. For example, Epicurus famously said that when we are alive death is not present, and when we are dead we are not alive to suffer from it. Consolation arises from understanding that we never encounter death. In addition, most existentialists claim that only if we are aware of our finitude we will feel the urgency to make the choices that define a true self. If we dawdle we won’t create our selves, so death is essential for having a self. And Buddhism tells us there is no self, so death is really nothing. If the self is just conscious experiences, then those will continue on in others after we die. So these disparate philosophies all share the idea that death is basically benign.
The second consolation states that “within mortal life as it is, we can acquire all the intimations of immortality we could ever desire.” (3)The idea is that all the good things of death’s alternative, immortality, are available now, so death doesn’t deprive us of anything. Most importantly, we want to preserve the contents of our consciousness, and we want to help shape the future. But we have consciousness and we can shape the future now. So, even if we were immortal, we wouldn’t gain anything that we don’t have now, or so the argument goes.
The third consolation states that “immortality itself would actually be an awful fate … ” (4) For example, if we have memories of all our experiences, then we might become bored after having done and seen everything. But if your oldest memories slowly vanished, and your character continually changed, then it would be as if you were periodically dying and being reborn, which is like being mortal. Now suppose your immortal self retained its memories and character, and continual novelty eliminated boredom. Yet then you might find that your self became antiquated as time moved on. And, if your memories and character continually disappear, then that hardly seems like an enviable immoral life. Perhaps we’re lucky we don’t have to be forever.
The fourth consolation claims that “life, with its losses, is itself nothing but an intimation of death.” (6) In other words, life already gives us all the bad things we associate with death, so death isn’t worse that life. For example, we dread leaving behind all the people and things that we love. But we lose homes, keepsakes, places, comforting ideas, and people we love throughout life–goodbyes are part of life. Of course death also means that our own consciousness vanishes, but that happens when we sleep too.
Stark begins his discussion with two aveats. First, he will discuss whether death is a good thing for relatively healthy people who have lived a normal lifespan of about 80 years, not whether death might be a welcome relief to suffering. And second, he won’t discuss whether lives of two hundred or two thousand years are bad; he is talking about an endless life, or at least one long enough to feel that way to the person living it. With these caveats in place the rest of the book explores whether the four consolations are sufficient.
Stark rejects the first consolation—death is benign, good for us, nothing to us—because Epicurean, existential, and Buddhist notions of self all deny “the reality that cries out for consolation; we are selves who move inexorably through time … while the moments of our lives flow incessantly through our fingers … back into the past.” (95) Rejecting these conceptions of self, he necessarily rejects the consolations they offer.
He also rejects the second consolation—mortal life provides the good things that immorality does. Technology might allow us to record our entire lives for others to view, or we might learn to be so connected with others that the continuation of their lives provides comfort. But none of this is enough. For “to believe that our mortal selves and mortal lives could even begin to give us the good things that their immortal versions would, we have to pretend that those selves and lives are bare shadows of what they actually are. We have to pretend that they are already half-dead.” (147)
Stark agrees that even the best immortality scenarios are unappealing, so he finds solace in the third consolation. Dissolving in time, subsisting in time, uniting with time, or uniting with a great ocean of being—none of this satisfies. For we “unavoidably see our selves as moving forward relentlessly in time … while the experiences of our lives flow remorselessly backward in time …” (189) So mortality is a blessing after all, if for no other reason than that immortality seems like a curse.
At this point in the text Stark addresses the issue of optional immortality, where we could live forever, but could opt out if we wanted to. But he rejects this option. If immortal life were so bad that we would want to opt out, wouldn’t that mean that such a life wasn’t a good one? Of course most mortals think their lives are worth it even they will end unpleasantly. But, according to Stark, option immortals would end their lives because they were bored, their memories prevented them from experiencing novelty, or for other reasons that made immortality unbearable. Stark doubts that option immortals would, in retrospect, value a life that had become so pointless that they wanted to end it.
Stark now investigates the final consolation—that life already gives us all the bad things that death does. Every second we move forward in time while the moments of our lives slowly slip away from us. It seems we are losing our lives every moment. But, surprisingly, he says this comforting because the alternative is being immortal and watching others die. And if events persisted longer then, when they ended, the grief over their loss would be greater than if events and experiences were more fleeting. Summarizing Stark says, “these two features of mortal existence—that our selves move together relentlessly into the future while the events of our life ceaselessly disappear into the past—are finally what bar life’s losses from ever resembling death’s. And while that fact doesn’t console me about death, it does console me about life.” (225) In short, it is good that life is fleeting.
Stark now reiterates that immortality isn’t desirable—we would either grow bored, if we remained the same, or our selves would die continually by always changing—and in this he finds consolation. As he concludes:
Either we die or we are immortal. And either our selves move relentlessly forward in time while the moments of our lives slip continually backward out of reach, or else we gain the capacities to stop moving forward in time and to keep the precious moments of our lives from flowing backward in time beyond our grasp. Of all the possibilities, none is better than the one we have. We die, and our selves move inexorably forward in time while the moments of our lives ineluctably vanish into the past. In fact, it may be the option that contains the least amount of death.
At that most fundamental level, the bundle of ego and anxiety that dwells within me feels consoled about our mortal condition. Not cheered. But consoled. I—you, we, humankind—got the best deal imaginable. (231)
Reflections – I am a transhumanist who has argued vehemently that death is an ultimate evil and that death should be optional. ( I have written almost 50 posts on various aspects of death.) So it is hard to put aside some of my preconceived ideas, and give Stark’s book a fair hearing. But I have tried. Still, while I find many of Stark’s arguments puzzling or unconvincing, there is a big problem with the book that undermines its basic argument.
The book suffers from a shocking lack of imagination. If we must either die or live forever, and if living forever is terrible, then dying is preferable. That’s his argument in a nutshell. But his conceptions of immortality are so limited. He offers but a few immortality scenarios which compare unfavorably with dying, when we cannot even comprehend what immortality might be like or how many immortality scenarios there may be. So yes, dying is better than living forever in hell or being infinitely bored, but there are an infinite number of other possibilites, many now unimaginable.
His argument against optional immortality perfectly displays this lack of imagination. Somehow the lives of beings for whom death is optional would be so bad that they would be better off without that option. Really? He feels so good about life transitoriness that he doesn’t even want the option to live longer? If he were given a death sentence and were otherwise healthy, he wouldn’t want the option to have the order rescinded? I doubt it.
Finally, this lack of imagination reveals itself most clearly in the book’s final lines. It is hard not to choke when reading: “Of all the possibilities, none is better than the one we have … I—you, we, humankind—got the best deal imaginable.” This is Leibniz’ assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds without Voltaire to lampoon it. But I can. Stark simply can’t believe dying and the loss it entails is “the best deal imaginable.” The only way to honestly draw this conclusion is if you can’t realistically imagine anything better. But I can. And so can many others.