A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 4 – Death and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. Is There A Heaven?

Belief in personal immortality is widespread, yet there is little if any evidence for it. We don’t personally know of anyone coming back from the dead to tell us about an afterlife, and after people die they appear, well, dead. Yet people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near-death experiences, reincarnation and ghost stories, communication with the dead, etc. However, none of this so-called evidence withstands critical scrutiny.

Modern science generally ignores this supposed evidence for an afterlife for multiple reasons. First, the idea of an immortal soul plays no explanatory or predictive role in the scientific study of human beings. Second, overwhelming evidence supports the view that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts, souls, or disembodied spirits exist, then some of the most basic ideas of modern science are mistaken—which is very unlikely.

Now this cursory treatment of the issue doesn’t show that an afterlife is impossible. For that, we would need to answer complicated philosophical questions about personal identity and the mind-body problem. Suffice it to say that explaining either the dualistic theory of life after death—where a soul separates from the body at death and lives forever—or the monist theory—where a new body related to the earthly body lives on forever—is extraordinarily difficult. In the first case substance dualism must be defended and in the second case, the miraculous idea of the new body must be explained. Either way, the philosophical task is daunting. Clearly, the scientific winds are blowing against these ancient beliefs.

So while personal immortality based on supernatural considerations is logically possible, it’s easy to see that it isn’t very plausible. In the end, wishful thinking best explains belief in immortality, not reason and evidence. Therefore, I live under the assumption that my consciousness depends on a functioning brain and when my brain ceases to functions so will I. When I die, I doubt that I’ll move to a better neighborhood.

  1.  Death Is Bad For Us

But maybe death isn’t so bad. After all, there are undoubtedly fates worse than death. An indefinite hell is much worse and more meaningless than oblivion, and I prefer death to relatively short intervals of incarceration, dementia, or pain.

Nonetheless, death is bad because being dead deprives us of the good things of life. If life is on balance a good thing, then we are harmed by being dead even if death is devoid of experience. Note too that our aversion to death isn’t motivated exclusively by selfish concerns. We also don’t want others to die because we don’t want their value to be lost. In other words, our protestation against death reveals our fidelity to the intrinsic value of those we love.

Some people gainsay our worries about death, arguing that we should care no more about not existing after death than we now do about not having existed before death. But those situations aren’t symmetrical. While most of us want to live indefinitely into the future, almost no one wants their lives extended indefinitely into the past. We just care more about the future. We prefer a day’s suffering in the past to an hour’s suffering in the future; we prefer an hour’s pleasure in the future to a day’s pleasure in the past. Death doesn’t mirror prenatal nonexistence.

Others, including many intellectuals, claim that death is really good for us because immortality would be boring, hopeless, or meaningless. But people who say such things either really want to die or they deceive themselves. I think it’s generally the latter—they adapt their preferences to what seems inescapable. Happy, healthy people almost never want to die and are despondent upon receiving a death sentence. People cry at the funerals of their loved ones, accepting death only because they think it’s inevitable. I doubt they would be so accepting if they thought death avoidable.

So here’s our situation. After all the books and knowledge, memories and dreams, cares and concerns, effort and struggle, voices and places and faces, then suddenly … nothing. Is that really desirable? No, it isn’t. Death is bad. Death should be optional.

  1. Individual Death and Meaning

What makes death especially bad is that being dead deprives us of the possibility of any future meaning. While death may not completely extinguish the meaning we find and create in life, it detracts significantly from that meaning by limiting the duration of our lives. This is easy to see. A life of a thousand years provides the possibility for more meaning than a life of fifty years, and the latter provides the possibility for more meaning than a life of five years. All other things being equal, a longer life holds the possibility for more meaning than a shorter one. And, needless to say, our deaths limit the amount of meaning we can contribute to other’s lives.

Nonetheless, many people claim that the prospect of our deaths actually makes life more meaningful by creating in us an urgency to live meaningfully now. But this isn’t true for everyone. Some people know their lives will be short and still live meaningless lives while others have good reasons to believe they will live long lives and still live meaningfully. Moreover, even if our imminent deaths focused us in this way that doesn’t justify all the meaning lost by our being dead.

However, while our individual deaths limit the meaning we can find and create in our lives, it’s still possible for there to be a meaning of life even if we die. If what ultimately matters isn’t our little egos but some larger purpose, and if our deaths somehow serve that purpose, then death may be acceptable. If this is true, then we could take comfort knowing that, after we’ve gone, others will pick up where we left off. By contrast, note how we recoil at the thought that shortly after we die all life will end or get worse. It seems then that some things do matter to us besides ourselves. Thus our deaths—while bad for us and others—don’t necessarily undermine the possibility of there being a meaning of life.

  1. Cosmic Death and Meaning

However, cosmic death seemingly eliminates both meaning in and of life. The meaning we find in life might have had some small significance while we were living but cosmic death largely if not completely undermines that meaning. As for the meaning of life, it’s impossible to see how there can be one if everything fades into nothingness.

Now we might avoid our cosmic descent into nothingness and its implications if one of these conjectures is true: the death of our universe brings about the birth of another one; the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true; other universes exist in a multiverse; or, if all descends into nothingness, a quantum fluctuation brings about something from this nothing. Or maybe nothingness is impossible as Parmenides argued long ago.

Such speculative scenarios lead us back to the idea that something must be eternal for there to be a meaning of life. For if nothingness—no space, no time, nothing for all eternity—is our fate then all seems futile. We may have experienced meaning while we lived, and the cosmos may have been slightly meaningful while it existed, but if everything vanishes for eternity isn’t it all pointless? And, unfortunately, death appears inevitable for both ourselves and the cosmos. How then do we avoid feeling forlorn?

  1. Scientific Immortality: Individual and Cosmic

Science is the most powerful method of gaining knowledge that humans have ever discovered; it is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science is provisional, always open to new evidence, but therein lies its power. Like an asymptote where a line continually approaches a curve, scientific ideas slowly get closer to the truth as they advance. The practice of science winnows out bad ideas, leaving behind ever more robust ideas and the technologies they spawn. The entire technological world surrounding us attests to the truth of science. Put simply, if you want to fly, use an airplane; if you want to compute, use a computer; if you want to kill your infection, take an antibiotic; and if you want to protect your children, get them vaccinated.

One implication of all this is that, while a supernatural afterlife is highly unlikely, science and technology (sci-tech) may eventually conquer death. It’s possible that future generations will possess the computing power to run ancestor simulations; that my cryogenically preserved brain can be reanimated; that my consciousness can be uploaded into a robotic body or computer-driven virtual reality; or that some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics will defeat death. Individual immortality is plausible, maybe even inevitable, if sci-tech continues to progress. Perhaps our deaths aren’t inevitable after all.

As for the cosmos, our posthuman descendants may be able to use their superintelligence to avoid cosmic death by altering the laws of physics or escaping to other universes. And even if we fail other intelligent creatures in the universe or multiverse might be able to perpetuate life indefinitely. If superintelligence pervades the universe, it may become so powerful as to ultimately decide the fate of the cosmos. Perhaps then cosmic death isn’t foreordained either.

to be continued next week …

14 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 4 – Death and Meaning

  1. Death holds no terror for me. I certainly don’t want to die; I want to live a long and productive life. Yet I dismiss the belief in an afterlife as a hopeful self-delusion. People are so terrified of death that they concoct this fantasy of an afterlife. If there’s an afterlife for people, then why not chimpanzees? Lemurs? Dogs? Grasshoppers? Elms? Weeds? Bacteria? Viruses? Oh, yes, we humans have souls — that’s the immortal part, right? But why is there a cut-off with Homo sapiens? Did Homo Neanderthalis have a soul? How about Homo Ergaster? Homo Rudolfensis? Australopithicus? Where was the point when a soulless mother gave birth to a child endowed with a soul? Is there a gene for a soul?

    Living in the forest for decades has given me a greater sense of just how close I am to the other living systems around me. There really isn’t that much difference between me and the skunk or the red-tailed hawk. For that matter, I have a great deal in common with the Douglas firs and bunch grasses on my land. It’s all a system of processes; I’m just one of the processes, and my goal is to execute the processes that most enrich the system.

    A comparison of Eastern and Western styles of thinking illuminates this problem. While the Westerner sees reality as a collection of distinct objects, the Easterner sees relationships. We have plenty of psychological research demonstrating this difference in perception. Thus, the Westerner sees himself as an isolated individual with a beginning and an ending. The Easterner sees himself as a part of a never-ending system. That’s why Easterners have no need for belief in an afterlife.

  2. As always I appreciate your comments. Chris, you are modern day sage. Hope to see that forest someday. JGM

  3. I might be in a simulation. My current consciousness might arise directly from the code or, possibly, my present awareness constitutes a reduced intelligence resulting from my immersion in a “toy universe.”
    What happens after death in a simulation?
    In the former scenario, I’m not sure there is a distinction between a simulation and a “base” universe operating on probabilistic math. Given the implications of a multiverse due to indeterminacy, if the simulators “pull the plug”, I would expect my consciousness to continue in a “base” reality identical to conditions of the simulation.
    If I’m a mentally limited amnesiac playing a game, then “leaving the game” could be like waking from a confused dream. Much like many concepts of salvation.
    Here’s the kicker: if it is true that we reside in a perpetually branching multiverse, then EVERY scenario will happen to a version of me — sandbox, game, and base reality. If I CARE about my chances of ending up in a more desirable immortality versus a bleak one, I should act like I’m in a base reality, and do what I can right now to load the dice.
    That’s why it makes sense to me to live a quiet life, with the goal of dying in my sleep of organ failure, mid-century, and crossing my fingers that my instructions to have my head frozen are honored.
    If I wake from the game being mocked by my friends for my timidness (“You beat cancer and went BACK to the carpet store?! BOO!!”), so be it. In other scenarios, I’m improving my chances of avoiding an indeterminate period of misery, and hopefully graduating to an advantageous “higher plane.”
    Or, if lights out really is the end, my quiet mortal life in a developed society straddling the 20th and 21st centuries wasn’t SO bad. Just pump me full of opiates when I’m bed-ridden, please, and my frozen head will be my legacy.

  4. Mr. Crawford:
    I am certainly aware I am irrevocably part of a system. The question is “how much will this hurt, and for how long?”

  5. I agree that there is little scientific evidence for an afterlife. However I’m not certain that your claim that no evidence passes scientific scrutiny is correct. There seem to be a few unexplainable cases in NDEs where some knowledge is retained of actual events and verified by the surgeons while there is NO brain function at all. And many very great men such as Jung and others have held out the belief that something continues after death even if it’s not the current personality. We do have an unconscious mind that we really are unable to account for and some like Jung believed that the conscious mind was the tiny tip of the iceberg for each individual.

    It’s really difficult not to believe in an afterlife. Especially if you were raised up with superstitious religions or fairy tales. I got both. I’ve tried my best to logically access this situation. I now lean and hope towards no life after death. I think the NDE very possibly is something dreamlike as our brains shut down in death and that the evidence that is brought back by those revived may be due to the fact that there is some brain function that is still happening while science tells us it’s all shut down. It’s very easy to believe in science like we do religion and think that the current scientific beliefs are final truth when in actuality we likely never get to any final truth and so the current evidence of reality is incomplete. Anyone studying the history of science or medicine will see that in the past we believed things to be true that were totally backwards.

    So in the end we are thrown back on our own best guesses trying to take into account all our conscious and unconscious prejudices, which is very difficult, and come to our own belief on what is true. My logic tells me that if smart people line up on both sides of this debate it would be best to be prepared for anything. So if there is something after death how we deal with that reality might be important for what happens to us within that realm or what happens if , like some systems believe, we get recycled or reincarnated.

    I personally would not care either way but for one important thing. This world seems to be a world of much suffering, evil and woe on so many levels beyond just the fact that we all live by killing and digesting and shitting out other life forms that want to live on just like we do. If great amounts of pain and suffering are not happening that seriously to us it certainly is to many others. So if this is how this world works I would not expect an afterlife to be any different. So I plan on doing whatever I can to be prepared to deal with that possible eventuality. There is nothing lost in being prepared and something greatly gained if the unthinkable turns out in fact to be the case. A simple example would be the Buddhists Bardo experience. If we in fear of our own demonic thought forms run to hide in the first dark cave we find (think womb) we could end up being reborn as the child of a crack whore and being born addicted to crack. Or much worse things which this world is full of. I see no reason not to take a few precautions and look at what seems to me the more likely possibilities if an afterlife were to exist in spite of my current belief that it is very unlikely. Forearmed is forewarned. If you look at this existence logically it seems like something impossible or highly unlikely that it would happen at all so I say keep your mind open for more of that.

  6. Many interesting things here and I agree with most of them. The multiverse or many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics really changes a lot of things. I’ll discuss some of this in future posts. And do think a cryonics policy is a good idea if you can afford it. JGM

  7. Thanks as usual for the perceptive comments. Just a comment. You say:

    “It’s very easy to believe in science like we do religion and think that the current scientific beliefs are final truth when in actuality we likely never get to any final truth and so the current evidence of reality is incomplete. Anyone studying the history of science or medicine will see that in the past we believed things to be true that were totally backwards.”

    Any good scientist or philosopher of science knows that scientific ideas are always provisional, capable of being adjusted based on new evidence. So no good thinker believes that a scientific idea is the final truth. But science evolves and gets closer to the truth as best as we can determine. For example, we have a fuller understanding of reality that supplied by Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics thanks to non-euclidean geometry and Einsteinian relativity. Not also that Euclid and Newton weren’t mistaken they just didn’t have the full truth. And no doubt Riemann and Einstein didn’t have the final truth either. But this is not to say that the relativistic interpretation of Thomas Kuhn (that science changes by radical revolutions) is correct. At least that’ my view and the majority view among philosophers of science.

  8. I would echo John’s description of Chris Crawford as a modern-day sage. His comments not only provide insight as to how one should view death, but they also provide a prescription for living one’s life before reaching that end point.

    Very well stated, Chris.

  9. “Others claim that death is really good for us because immortality would be boring, hopeless, or meaningless.”

    This has always been the worst defense of death.

    “This idea is promoted constantly by intellectuals.”

    Boring hopeless and meaningless intellectuals.

    “But people who say such things either really want to die[…]”

    People don’t want to die, yet they want things not to change too much– which is quite understandable. Unrestrained change can be the enemy of life.
    Plus when people think of the future, they think of the present but more so. 2000 years ago those we call ‘ancient’ (they thought of themselves as contemporaries) dreamers might have thought of the future as a prospect for chariots made of gold; everyone owning their own acres of fig and date trees.
    Today, a gullible dreamer might think the future holds for their families vacation homes on Mars, where they can read the Bible.
    If only!
    It may not enter their heads that by the time they got to Mars– if they ever did– their families could be gone, and the Bible would not mean anything.

    “or they deceive themselves”

    And they want to deceive others. Don’t forget that little detail.

  10. In a limited sense, we already have an ‘afterlife’. People live twice as long as they did in the past– a second life as been given to seniors, by science. Since the final segment of your article deals with scientific prospects for ‘afterlife’, want to continue with an anecdote that illustrates something earlier in the piece:

    “Others claim that death is really good for us”

    Fifty years ago I accidentally came across an unexpected title, ‘The Immortalist’, a hype ridden ’60s popular science paperback, that made a memorably cynical prediction:

    *people will try to keep immortalism to themselves and, you know, they may be right in doing so*

    Without knowing anything about the subject, at the time it appeared to be a valid prediction; and it is more valid today as vague knowledge of transhumanism spreads. Probably the majority– being increasingly aware of the disruptions of tech– assume correctly that indefinite lifespans will magnify the turmoil.
    Nonetheless, respect for loved ones compels them to spend enormous sums (not infrequently at public expense) to keep their elders alive for only a brief time longer.. often only succeeding to prolong anguish both to the soul and budget.

    Such mirrors an intense longing, both mystical and scientific, for an afterlife. Any afterlife.

  11. “Reason itself does not work instinctively, but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order to gradually progress from one level of insight to another. Therefore a single man would have to live excessively long in order to learn to make full use of all his natural capacities.” —Immanuel Kant, 1784

    This is the epigraph for my next novel, tentatively titled “The Vitanauts”, which I’ve told you about before. It follows a Chief Philosophy Officer of a San Francisco biotech firm as he searches for the first and best test subjects to receive a cure for ageing that his company has developed. It’s a speculative work of fiction that — based on the billions of dollars of research being thrown at this engineering problem — is very possibly not that far off in the future.

    I believe that our biggest existential crises arise from short-term thinking, and our relatively short-lived bodies condemn us to repeat this problem generation after generation. To focus our minds on the truly cosmic long-term, our bodies may need to feel the possibility of experiencing it. To expect otherwise is probably a violation of the mind-body connection. But if we make a sudden biological leap in durability….I expect our minds to leap as well. My hope is that fiction can help our minds want this leap to happen, therefore getting the biology done faster too.

    I’m working with a new, local publisher of philosophical books to prepare The Vitanautas for a 2019 release (hopefully!) and I can’t wait to share it with you, John. So many of your thoughts expressed in this series on the meaning of life fit comfortably in my fictional world. It’s good to find someone who shares these perspectives. So thanks as always for sharing them.

  12. One caveat: we both remember the end of the ’60s well; as much hype then as there is today- though it was not quite as commercialized as now with the Great Businessman in the Oval Office.
    Back then, it was theorized people would live forever and space would be colonized by 2020. [Only a little more than a year to go!] And if you smoked Virginia Slim cigarettes, you’d be invited to ALL the best parties. ‘The Immortalist’ had that hype, but enough cynicism to balance it. A blurb by a reviewer on the cover of the edition I purchased read, “a wickedly funny book…”

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