Death Is Like A Ticking Time Bomb

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.1 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


  1. I thank my son Joshua for suggesting the image of the ticking time bomb.
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8 thoughts on “Death Is Like A Ticking Time Bomb

  1. Good post. Yes, our lives are ticking away. While it is possible that some other world awaits us after death, there is absolutely no proof of this, so it certainly makes sense to postpone death until we know what death actually means. Pretending in fairy tales is not proof. Further, I can’t understand why the rich and powerful of the world do not put their wealth and power into finding a cure for aging. Instead, they doom themselves. Dumb.

  2. “Cogito ergo sum” — the death we care about is the death of the mind.

    The death of the body matters only to the degree that it destroys the mind, or worse, traps the mind in an irrevocably undesirable condition (immortality with Alzheimer’s is NOT ideal).

    Suppose we replace the brain, neuron by neuron, with a matrix that is more durable but functionally identical to biological matter. Now, the mind floats free of the body.

    However, this is sustainable only as long as the new matrix isn’t corrupted by malicious forces or mechanical error.

    Increasing entropy is an element of the entire universe. What we describe colloquially as “immortality” is really mortality on a different timescale. Heat death awaits even the most indestructible of us.

    Some may prefer to hold out hope for a discovery in physics that allows us to escape the entropic universe, and attain “true” immortality, but that doesn’t seem far removed from having faith in an afterlife. What if the mind, through cumulative damage, comes unhinged before such a date arrives?

    I would imagine there are far more ways to end up with a chronically damaged mind than a catastrophically annihilated mind. And the longer one exists, the greater the chances of damage.

    So isn’t a proactive “pleasant death” the more plausible goal? And dying sooner, rather than later? Like, at the earliest opportunity one has to procure a guaranteed-lethal cocktail of MDMA and morphine?

    I’m sure this brings ethical discomfort even greater than the proposition that to never exist is preferable to existing. You have no choice in existing; a pleasant death is generally achievable.

    Sorry to be a downer.

  3. Aristotle argued that the best death is one at the peak of one’s life. You are correct there are fates worse than death, as is argued elsewhere in the blog.

  4. There is already an anti-entropy system – it is called life. Living organisms repair decay and replace energy with new energy. The problem is that our bodies were programmed to die and to stop this process. It is a useless and outdated programming from a past that no longer exists; we have surpassed that reality and now live in a different one. We will re-program our genetic material soon, but will it be during your lifetime? The difference could be a small push from you and others who will otherwise die.

  5. It is true that before the emergence of the thought that we could control our fate, everyone thought that death was inevitable. I do agree that death is a ticking time bomb and that some people have a more advanced time bomb, with exception of unexpected, fatal incidents, but if we were able to take away that ticking time bomb, how many people would be willing to do that? In my guess, I would say many. In fact, I believe that immortality will become somewhat of a cultural trend for those able to afford immortality. I do believe that it will create an even larger social gap between the rich and poor and soon enough, natural selection will occur, but it won’t be so natural. Soon enough, the rich who are able to control their fate will control all fate and those who are not able to do so, will eventually die off leaving the most wealthy and fortunate left. When powerful people say they will live forever, it is completely relevant now.

  6. Thoughtful comments. Your worries about income inequality are addressed in the FAQ sections of the Humanity+ website. You are correct this is a real concern. Your worries about only an elite few being left were expressed clearly in the Unabomber’s Manifesto, which was summarized by Bill Joy in his Wired Magazine essay: “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” He worried though about a technological elite who could run the machines rather than a monied elite. Either way you are correct there are worries. But worries about the future aren’t limited to worries about TH. There are worries no matter what we do or don’t do.

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