Death and Meaning in Life

A painting of an autopsy, by Rembrandt, entitled "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

Death causes many to doubt life’s meaning. It isn’t surprising that the connection between death and meaninglessness pervades the pages of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or that death figures prominently in much the world’s literature about the meaning of life. For instance, consider these haunting lines from James Baldwin:

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]

Something binds the topics of death and meaning. The thought of oblivion arouses even the non-philosophical among us. What then is the relationship between death and meaning? Death is variously said to:

  1. render life meaningless;
  2. detract from life’s meaning;
  3. add to life’s meaning;
  4. render life meaningful.

Death has always been inevitable, but the idea that science will eventually conquer death has taken root—achieved through some combination of future technologies like nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Some think the possibility of technological immortality renders human life meaningless, others that life can only attain its full meaning if death is overcome.

But whatever view one takes about the relationship between death and meaning, the two are joined. If we had three arms or six fingers, our analysis of the meaning of life wouldn’t change; but if we didn’t die our analysis would be vastly different. If our concerns with annihilation vanished, a good part of what seems to undermine meaning would disappear. To understand the issue of the meaning of life, we must think about death. Pascal’s words echo across the centuries:

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

Can we find meaning in this picture?


(Note. The post originally appeared on this blog on December 29, 2014.)

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2 thoughts on “Death and Meaning in Life

  1. Let’s use “radical life extension” as a catch-all. Skeptics have a reason to be so. As the majority in the world are old fashioned, attempting to convince them that RLE is worthy is a thankless task.
    Also, obviously, there are unforeseeable consequences involving RLE. However since families want their elders to live as long as possible, RLE is here to stay.
    I don’t wish to hide behind objectivity, and do not like change, yet am compelled to accept even radical change. We seniors may have little to lose; whereas youth might thoroughly revel in such radical change as RLE.
    Also, transhumanism is an umbrella term, offering much. A conjecture is: religious immortalists creating their own reality via AI; or, conceivably, religious space colonies. Or merely intentional communities on Earth.

  2. Death causes many to doubt life’s meaning!

    I think ‘ the concept of ‘meaning’ is totally a Human construct, humans enjoy the agony of trying to construct verbal edifices that can define the meaning of things that have no object meaning, at least not in the context of Humans and our limited intellectual power!
    The purpose of life is more easily defined and verified; The Purpose of life is to live, when the first cell appeared in the ancient sea instinct commanded it to split and multiply, since we now have the knowledge of DNA we know that all the life forms on Earth share some DNA this seems to suggest that we, and all the life we see, are all descendants of that first cell. So our purpose as Thinking Creatures who are, ‘De-facto’ the representatives of all the other life we share kinship and the World with, should be to enhance Nature and live from it’s bounty, if we could live that way I think we could have some satisfaction in our lives, but when I walk through the streets I don’t see many contented faces, so what ever people are getting from Modernity it isn’t internal peace and satisfaction!

    Hello Al, the poster above, Radical Life Extension is a Meme that has captured the imagination of the Super Wealthy, who imagine that their Wealth can somehow interrupt the growing old and dying part of life, and even if they can’t live forever perhaps they can stretch it out for Five hundred years or so, I wish them well, Unless you are one of the Super Wealthy I don’t think there is any plan to share the good fortune downward, there is a dark side to RLE but this isn’t the time to discuss it!
    Humans are expressing themselves differently politically because Humanity it’s self is changing Mentally and Physically, what is it changing into? Of course I don’t know, Nothing good I fear but that is an expression of my anxiety for the Future!

    History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes, it is often said, this Quote from ‘A World Lit only by Fire” with a few changes, expresses where I think we are and reflects our attitude to the unknown future that awaits us!

    “Excerpt from, A World lit only by fire”

    The mighty storm was swiftly approaching, but Europeans were not only unaware of it,
    they were convinced that such a phenomena could not exist, shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear, and sheathed in superstition, they trudged into the Sixteenth century in the clumsy, hunched, pigeon toed gait of rickets’s victims, their vacant faces, pocked by Small pox, turned towards a future they thought they knew — gullible, pitiful, innocents who were about to be swept up in the most powerful, incomprehensible, irresistible vortex since Alaric had led his Visigoths and Huns across the Alps, fallen on Rome, and extinguished the lamps of learning for a thousand years before.

    William James Manchester (1991)
    ( We are now the trudge-rs, trudging into the future our vacant faces swathed in Masques, thinking we known the future or at least our Leaders do, but they don’t, because no one does,, but we all can sense that something big comes our way!

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