continued from a previous entry
- 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, proclamations from preachers, 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 (if there are such things) 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 (the orthodox Christian view)—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.
- Death Is Bad
But maybe death isn’t so bad. After all, there are undoubtedly fates worse than death. An indefinite hell is a much worse and more meaningless state than oblivion, and I prefer death to even some relatively short intervals of incarceration, dementia, or pain.
Nonetheless, death is usually 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 here 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, among other things, 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 our deaths than we now do about not having existed before our births. But those situations aren’t symmetrical. While many of us want to live indefinitely into the future, almost no one cares that they weren’t alive in the long-ago past. We just care more about the future than the past. 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. Our past non-existence doesn’t matter to us as much as our future death does.
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 usually 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 was 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.
- 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.
- Cosmic Death and Meaning
However, cosmic death seemingly eliminates both the 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 descend 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?
- 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 destroy 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 in ways we can’t even imagine. 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.