Review of Andrew Stark’s, “The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death”

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.

People who reject the option of not dying also suffer from a lack of imagination. Since they don’t think they can have it, they reject it. This is an example of “adaptive preferences,” when you adapt your preferences to what you can get. I can’t get a date with Scarlett Johannson, so I say I don’t want her anyway. I can’t get a billion dollars, so I say I don’t want it anyway.

Death is like having a time bomb strapped to your chest; it will eventually go off, we just don’t know when. Actually its worse since we might die quite slowly. So, you really don’t want the option of having it turned off, even if you have the option of setting it off yourself if you get tired of living?

Here’s one thing you can bet your life on. When an effective anti-aging pill becomes available at the drug store … it will be popular! When the dying are given the option to take a shot which makes them completely healthy, many will take the shot! 

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.

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6 thoughts on “Review of Andrew Stark’s, “The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death”

  1. “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.”

    To me, those two sentences pretty much say it all regarding “death”. If one accepts that fact and consolation, then the real challenge is how to live “life” in the most satisfying way, even as one gets closer to the end. I often take inspiration from your post on Longfellow’s Poem “Morituri Salutamas”, which in my simple-minded interpretation means: Hey, I’m not dead yet! I’m going to keep on living, doing something, accomplishing something, helping somebody else, etc., until I’m not.

  2. Yes, I actually think that Epricurus or the Buddhists offer the best consolation to be found but Stark rejects them for his attack on immortality.

  3. I have a rather odd take on the acknowledgement of death. It arises from two experiences. The first is my ongoing effort to understand the world, now nearly 60 years long. I have studied a wide range of material and have slowly started to see something like a big picture. I’ll never see the entire big picture — it’s too humongous for any human mind to comprehend. But I occasionally catch glimpses of portions of it. Those glimpses combine with the second factor:

    Living on 40 acres of forestland has brought me closer to nature. When so many of the artifices of civilization are stripped away, one learns to surrender part of life to nature. It’s just too big to fight. Sure, the suburbanite can mow his lawn and plant his petunias, but out here I’m in a constant battle against fire danger, dying trees, bears, skunks, invasive weeds, failing water pumps, lost electricity, and many other assaults. I can never beat them, and that realization grants a deep insight: I am part of a bigger world, and my death is a natural and necessary part of that world. I just wrote an essay on an element of this process:

    Here’s another oddball concept:

  4. Going back and re-reading your post, I better understand your comments about immortality. Not having read Stark’s book, I can only conjecture, but perhaps it’s a mistake to even try to compare characteristics like boredom in a mortal human to anything similar in some future immortal being. When one makes such a comparison, the immortal being is conceived of as a normal human, but with a life span that is suddenly lengthened in a step-function-like fashion to immortality, resulting in sudden excruciating boredom for the newly immortal individual.

    In my view, “immortality” won’t be achieved by science in some step-function fashion but rather through a very gradual lengthening of life span as new technologies and therapies are developed, tested and applied to the human species. A gradual process means that the species will evolve or adapt to longer life spans. If true immortality is reached, our species will have evolved to the point where boredom, if it exists, does not mean the same thing as to a current mortal human. We will have adapted; and it’s fair to say that our species will have become transhuman at that point.

  5. Chris – thanks for the comments and I’ll check out the essays. Like you I understand almost nothing of the big picture but unlike you I don’t live in the forest! Of course I don’t think death is necessary but we can agree to disagree. John

  6. Thanks as always for the thoughtful comments Jim. I agree that many people assume that the experiences of immortals and mortals will be similar. But they may be vastly different. So we can’t say that immortals will be bored like we often are, or will want to have children, or whatever.

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