Category Archives: Death & Philosophy

The Denial of Death

The Denial of Death is a 1973 work by Ernest Becker. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974,  a few months after his death. (In the above scene Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer buys the book for Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall in the Academy award-winning movie “Annie Hall.”)

The book’s basic premise is that human civilization is a defense mechanism against the knowledge that we will die. Becker argues that humans live in both a physical world of objects and a symbolic world of meaning. The symbolic part of human life engages in what Becker calls an “immortality project.” People try to create or become part of something which they believe will last forever—art, music, literature, religion, political movements, institutions, nations, etc. This connection with the eternal, they believe, gives their lives meaning.

Becker argued that mental illness, especially depression, results from lacking a project that gives people lives meaning. Without one we are reminded of mortality and meaninglessness. He also argued that schizophrenia results from a lack of defense mechanisms against mortality, causing sufferers to create their own reality. These notions are reminiscent of Victor Frankl’s claim in Man’s Search for Meaning that mental illness often results from a lack of meaning.

Moreover Becker believed that conflicts between contradictory immortality projects, especially religious ones, is the main cause of wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism. Our particular immortality projects are so important to us, that we can’t tolerate others suggesting that they are misguided. He also believed that religion no longer offers convincing arguments for immortality or meaning in life. But science does little better.

So Becker suggests that we need new comforting “illusions” to enable us to feel eternally important. He doesn’t tell us what these new illusions will be, but he hoped that an honest look at our innate motivations might help to create a better world. For now though we feel mortality deep in our bones. As Becker put it:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

Death Is Like A Ticking Time Bomb

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, November 20, 2014)

I have written extensively on why death: 1) should be overcome; 2) is one of the greatest tragedies to befall us; and 3) makes completely meaningful lives impossible. In a recent post I summarized Nick Bostrom’s fable about the dragon-tyrant that makes similar points. In response I received this perceptive comment:

Love that story. Given that we now see death as a result of genetic programming. Literally, programmed cell death. You could tell a similar story but have everyone born with a ticking time bomb strapped to them—same point but more accurate. People of the religious or “death gives life meaning” crowd would be arguing against disarming this bomb.

The “ticking time bomb” conveys the sense in which death is always with us, not merely at the end of the road like the dragon-tyrant. In Bostrom’s image you stand in line awaiting your fate—which is bad enough—but strapped to a ticking time bomb you can blow up anytime. This is a more accurate description of our situation—death is always near.

The deathists—the lovers of death—often don’t disarm the bomb because they believe that dying transports you to a better address—from a slum to a mansion. And in the mansion your mind and body are eternally bathed in a salve of peace, love, and joy. That is a prominent justification for opposing the bomb’s removal.

The problem is the story that dying is moving to a better neighborhood  is that it is almost certainly fictional. And most people agree because, as I’ve said many times in my blog and books, when humans conquer death—learn to remove the bomb—they will. Those who have the option to live forever will be eternally grateful that they have the real thing, instead of the empty promises they now pay for in church.

Consciousness has come a long way from its beginnings in a primordial soup … but there is so much farther to go. Let’s put our childhood behind us, and make something of ourselves.

I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough;
None has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough;
None has begun to think how divine he himself is,
And how certain the future is.

O strain, musical, flowing through the ages—now reaching hither!
I take to your reckless and composite chords—I add to them,
And cheerfully pass them forward.

~ Walt Whitman

The Fear of Death

Last month the American comedian and actor Robin Williams died. A massive outpouring of public grief followed but now, a little more than a month later, it has all but vanished. What then, I wondered, was all that grief about? And for someone we didn’t even really know.

While thinking about this I came across an insightful article on by Peter Finocchiaro. He first considers the idea that much of this grief was not earnest—that it was more about the person expressing the grief. All the twitter and Facebook activity was mostly about one’s favorite films and how much one was grieving. Finocchiaro thinks egotism is part of the explanation for the public outpouring. After all how many of our lives were really changed by a Robin Williams movie? Still Finocchiaro thinks there is more to it. “Why, exactly, are we making it about us?”

He next considers that our concern for celebrities is a manifestation of the psychological phenomenon called “Basking in Reflective Glory.” By associating with celebrities we feel special, and when they die some of that specialness disappears. Thus we cling to them as best we can by telling everyone how much we loved them or their work. Again Finocchiaro thinks this is a part, but not all of the answer.

At the deepest level Finocchiaro believes this grief is about something deeper—it is about our own fear of death. And I think he is right. In this context Finocchiaro reminds us of the main thesis of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker‘s 1973 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, “The Denial of Death.” There Becker argues:

that the refusal to accept our mortality—a fundamental but nearly invisible pathology, baked right into the human condition—is the literal cause of all evil in the world … This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

In response, Becker contends, we make heroes of famous people and cling fanatically to the ideas of religion, nationalism, sports teams, alma maters, and other group loyalties. Becker also argues that while deifying our heroes and social structures may ameliorate our existential dread, it also leads to prejudice, inequality, and war—our attraction to celebrities and ideologies is a double-edge sword. But all of this emanates from our desire to transcend death, and this is why we feel grief when kings or presidents or celebrities die—it reminds us of the existential dread we all feel but don’t want to talk about.

Finocchiaro concludes by talking about his own death in an honest and moving way.

Something I don’t like to admit about myself, except in the company of very close and trusted relations, is that over the past few years I have become increasingly obsessed with the prospect of death, and regularly consumed by the terror of it.

As the influence of my parents’ Catholicism has ebbed over time and drifted into the resignation of a mostly unspoken atheism, the gravity of that change has slowly come into focus: Someday I will be dead, and my subjective self lost forever. That same fact holds true for all of us, and eventually for the prospect for any life, anywhere. Over time, the universe will eventually rend itself apart, piece by piece, one final prolonged act of atomic torsion borne out over the course of eons. When all is said and done, we won’t just be gone; any trace of us will as well.

Reflections

I have stated my own desire to live forever—to experience infinite being, consciousness, and bliss—in many posts and in my most recent book on the meaning of life. As I’ve said many times I believe that death is an ultimate evil and should be optional. Thus we should strive to enhance and preserve human and post-human consciousness. I also agree that the fear of death is the source of much of the evil in the world. I do recognize that this desire for immortality may be narcissistic, and that we do best to overcome the fear of death by realizing that we are not that important and that life will go on without us. We need to allow the walls of our ego to recede as Bertrand Russell taught me long ago. Still death is such a waste of consciousness, and in an ideal world we wouldn’t need to be resigned to our extinction, to nothingness.

I’ll finish with a moving quote by that wonderful African-American novelist James Baldwin. It captures some of the deepest feeling I have about death.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.[i]

[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).

The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

Nick Bostrom is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now called Humanity+) and co–founder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He is currently Professor, Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School; Director, Future of Humanity Institute; and Director, Program on the Impacts of Future Technology; all at Oxford University.

Bostrom’s article, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” tells the story of a planet ravaged by a dragon (death) that demands a tribute which is satisfied only by consuming thousands of people each day. Neither priests with curses, warriors with weapons, or chemists with concoctions could defeat the dragon. The elders were selected to be sacrificed, although they were often wiser than the young, because they had at least lived longer than the youth. Here is a description of their situation:

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.1

Given the ceaselessness of the dragon’s consumption, most people did not fight it and accepted the inevitable. A whole industry grew up to study and delay the process of being eaten by the dragon, and a large portion of the society’s wealth was used for these purposes. As their technology grew, some suggested that they would one day build flying machines, communicate over great distances without wires, or even be able to slay the dragon. Most dismissed these ideas.

Finally, a group of iconoclastic scientists figured out that a projectile could be built to pierce the dragon’s scales. However, to build this technology would cost vast sums of money and they would need the king’s support. (Unfortunately, the king was busy raging war killing tigers, which cost the society vast sums of wealth and accomplished little.) The scientists then began to educate the public about their proposals and the people became excited about the prospect of killing the dragon. In response the king convened a conference to discuss the options.

First to speak was a scientist who explained carefully how research should yield a solution to the problem of killing the dragon in about twenty years. But the king’s moral advisors said that it is presumptuous to think you have a right not to be eaten by the dragon; they said that finitude is a blessing and removing it would remove human dignity and debase life. Nature decries, they said, that dragons eat people and people should be eaten. Next to speak was a spiritual sage who told the people not to be afraid of the dragon, but a little boy crying about his grandma’s death moved most toward the anti-dragon position.

However, when the people realized that millions would die before the research was completed, they frantically sought out financing for anti-dragon research and the king complied. This started a technological race to kill the dragon, although the process was painstakingly slow, and filled with many mishaps. Finally, after twelve years of research the king launch a successful dragon-killing missile. The people were happy but the king saddened that they had not started their research years earlier—millions had died unnecessarily. As to what was next for his civilization, the king proclaimed:

Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future and try to do better than we have done in the past. We have time now—time to get things right, time to grow up, time to learn from our mistakes, time for the slow process of building a better world…2

I agree, we should try to overcome the tyranny of death with technology.

1. Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” Journal of Medical Ethics (2005) Vol. 31, No. 5: 273.
2. Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” 277.

Death Should Be Optional

(This article was reprinted Salon, November 10, 2014 and in the online magazine of the “Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies,” November 6, 2014)

There are serious thinkers—Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Michio Kaku, Marshall Brain, Aubrey de Grey and others—who foresee that technology may enable humans to defeat death. There are also dissenters who argue that this is exceedingly unlikely. And there are those like Bill Joy who think that such technologies are technologically feasible but morally reprehensible.

As a non-scientist I am not qualified to evaluate scientific claims about what science can and cannot do. What I can say is that plausible scenarios for overcoming death have now appeared. This leads to the following questions: If individuals could choose immortality, should they? Should societies fund and promote research to defeat death?

The question regarding individuals has a straightforward answer—we should respect the right of autonomous individuals to choose for themselves. If an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy, then you should be free to use it. My guess is that such a pill would be wildly popular! (Consider what people spend on vitamins and other elixirs on the basis of little or no evidence of their efficacy.) Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your consciousness transferred to your younger cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or into a virtual reality, you should be free to do so. I believe that nearly everyone will use such technologies once they are demonstrated effective. But if individuals prefer to die in the hope that the gods will revive them in a paradise, thereby granting them reprieve from everlasting torment, then we should respect that too. Individuals should be free to end their lives even after death has become optional for them.

The argument about whether a society should fund and promote the research relevant to eliminating death is more complex. Societies currently invest vast sums on entertainment rather than scientific research; although the latter is a clearly a better societal investment. Ultimately the arguments for and against immortality must speak for themselves, but we reiterate that once science and technology have extended life significantly, or defeated death altogether, the point will be moot. By then almost everyone will choose to live as long as possible. In fact many people do that now, at great cost, and often gaining only a few additional months of bad health. Imagine then how quickly they will choose life over death when the techniques are proven to lead to longer, healthier lives. As for the naysayers, they will get used to new technologies just like they did to previous ones.

Nonetheless the virtual inevitability of advanced technologies to extend life does not imply their desirability, and many thinkers have campaigned actively and vehemently against utilizing such options. The defenders of death advocate maintaining the status quo with its daily dose of 150,000 deaths worldwide. Prominent among such thinkers are Leon Kass, who chaired George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics from 2001-2005, Francis Fukuyama, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford, and Bill McKibbon, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College.

Kass opposes euthanasia, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research and was an early opponent of in vitro fertilization, which he thought would obscure truths about human life and society. (IVF had none of the dire consequences that Kass predicted; in fact, the technology now goes mostly unnoticed now.) One of Kass’ main concerns is with the enhancement capability of biotechnology, which he fears will become a substitute for traditional human virtues in the quest to perfect the species. His concerns about modifying our biological inheritance extend to his worries about life extension. He values the natural cycle of life and views death as a desirable end—mortality, he says, is a blessing in disguise.[i]

Fukuyama argues that biotechnology will alter human nature beyond recognition with terrible consequences. One would be the undermining of liberal democracy due to radical inequality between those who had access to such technologies and those who did not. (Although there is plenty of social and economic inequality around today.) At an even more fundamental level, Fukuyama worries that the consequences of modifying humans is unknown. Should human beings really want to control their very natures? Fukuyama argues that we should be humble about such matters or “we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.[ii]

McKibbon admits the allure of technological utopia, knowing that it will be hard to resist, but he fears that the richness of human life would be lost in a post-human world. Even if we were godlike, spending our time meditating on the meaning of the cosmos or reflecting on our own consciousness like Aristotle’s god, McKibbon says he would not trade his life for such an existence. He wouldn’t want to be godlike, preferring instead to smell the fragrant leaves, feel the cool breeze, and see the fall colors. Yes there is pain, suffering, cruelty, and death in the world, but this world is enough. “To call this world enough is not to call it perfect or fair or complete or easy. But enough, just enough. And us in it.”[iii]

There is a lot to say against all these views, but one wonders why these thinkers see human nature as sacrosanct. Is our nature so sacred that we should be apologists for it? Isn’t it arrogant to think so highly of ourselves? This human nature produced what Hegel lampooned as “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized.” Surely we can do a better than what was created through genetic mutations and environmental selection.

Still we must concede something to these warnings. The same technologies that may make us immortal are also the ones that bring robotic police and unmanned planes. Yet there is no way to assure that we will not suffer a nightmarish future no matter how we proceed. There is no risk-free way to proceed. With greater knowledge comes greater power; and with greater power comes the possibility of making life better or worse. The future with all its promises and perils will come regardless—all we can do is do our best.

The defense of immortality against such attacks has been undertaken most thoroughly by the recent intellectual and cultural movement known as transhumanism, which affirms the possibility and desirability of using technology to eliminate aging and overcome all other human limitations. Adopting an evolutionary perspective, transhumanists maintain that humans are in a relatively early phase of their development. They agree with humanism—that human beings matter and that reason, freedom, and tolerance make the world better—but emphasizes that we can become more than human by changing ourselves. This involves employing high-tech methods to transform the species and direct our own evolution, as opposed to relying on biological evolution or low-tech methods like education and training.

If science and technology develop sufficiently, this would lead to a stage where humans would no longer be recognized as human, but better described as post-human. But why would people want to transcend human nature? Because

they yearn to reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates; to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods, and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access. It seems likely that the simple fact of living an indefinitely long, healthy, active life would take anyone to posthumanity if they went on accumulating memories, skills, and intelligence.[iv]

And why would one want these experiences to last forever? Transhumanists answer that they would like to do, think, feel, experience, mature, discover, create, enjoy, and love beyond what one can do in seventy or eighty years. All of us would benefit from the wisdom and love that come with time.

The conduct of life and the wisdom of the heart are based upon time; in the last quartets of Beethoven, the last words and works of ‘old men’ like Sophocles and Russell and Shaw, we see glimpses of a maturity and substance, an experience and understanding, a grace and a humanity, that isn’t present in children or in teenagers. They attained it because they lived long; because they had time to experience and develop and reflect; time that we might all have. Imagine such individuals—a Benjamin Franklin, a Lincoln, a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Goethe, an Einstein— enriching our world not for a few decades but for centuries. Imagine a world made of such individuals. It would truly be what Arthur C. Clarke called “Childhood’s End”—the beginning of the adulthood of humanity.[v]

As for the charge that creating infinitely long life spans tamper with nature, remember that something is not good or bad because it’s natural. Some natural things are bad and some are good; some artificial things are bad and some are good. (Assuming we can even make an intelligible distinction between the natural and the unnatural.) As for the charge that long lives undermine humanity, the key is to be humane, and merely being human does not guarantee that you are humane. As for the claim that death is natural, again, that does not make it good. Moreover it was natural to die before the age of thirty for most of human history, so we live unnaturally long lives now by comparison. And few people complain about this. But even if death is natural, so too is the desire for immortality. Yes people had to accept death when it was inevitable, but now such acceptance impede progress in eradicating death. Death should be optional.

Additionally there are important reasons to be suspicious about the anti-immortality arguments—many are made by those who profit from death. For example if a church sells immortality its business model is threatened by a competitor offering the real thing. Persons no longer need to join an institution if its promise of immortality is actually delivered elsewhere for a comparable cost. Anti-technology arguments may be motivated by self-interest and, as we all know, most people hesitate to believe anything that is inconsistent with how they make money. Just look at the historical opposition to the rise of modern science and the accompanying real miracles it brought. Or to tobacco companies opposition to the evidence linking smoking with cancer, or to the oil companies opposition to the evidence linking burning fossil fuels with global climate change.

A connected reason to be suspicious of the defenders of death is that death is so interwoven into their world-view, that rejecting it would essentially destabilize that world-view, thereby undercutting their psychological stability. If one has invested a lifetime in a world-view in which dying and an afterlife are an integral part, a challenge to that world-view will almost always be rejected. The great American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce captured this point perfectly:

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.[vi]

The defeat of death completely obliterates most world-views that have supported humans for millennia; no wonder it undermines psychological stability and arouses fierce opposition. Thus monetary and psychological reasons help to explain much opposition to life-extending therapies. Still people do change their minds. We now no longer accept dying at age thirty and think it a great tragedy when it happens; I argue that our descendents will feel similarly about our dying at eighty. Eighty years may be a relatively long lifespan compared with those of our ancestors, but it may be exceedingly brief when compared to those of our descendents. Our mind children may shed the robotic equivalent of tears at our short and painful lifespans, as we do for the short, difficult lives of our forbearers.

In the end death eradicates the possibility of complete meaning for individuals; surely that is reason enough to desire immortality for all conscious beings. Still, for those who do not want immortality, they should be free to die. But for those of us that long to live forever, we should free to do so. I want more freedom. I want death to be optional.

__________________________________________________________________________

[i] Leon Kass, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).
[ii] Francis Fukuyama, “Transhumanism,” Foreign Policy (September-October 2004).
[iii] Bill McKibbon, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York: Henry Hold & Company, 2003), 227.
[iv] http://humanityplus.org/learn/transhumanist-faq/#answer_20
[v] http://humanityplus.org/learn/transhumanist-faq/#answer_40
[vi] Charles Sanders Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12, (November 1877).