Love and Death


Many people believe that dying is like moving to a better neighborhood. This is not surprising, as belief in the afterlife is widespread. To sustain this belief, people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near-death experiences, tales of reincarnation, stories of ancient miracles, supposed communication with the dead, pseudo-scientific studies, and the like. But none of this so-called evidence stands up to critical scrutiny. Many believe, not because there’s good evidence, but because they want to.

Yet such faith is hard to sustain. Every single moment we are alive confirms at least one truth—those who are dead are dead. We may hear the voices of the deceased in our heads, but we don’t take the departed out to lunch. We could live in a world with evidence for the afterlife—for example, one where the dead regularly appeared and described post-mortem existence—but we don’t. Belief in the afterlife is probably just wishful thinking.

As for science, it generally ignores the so-called evidence of an afterlife for many reasons. First, the idea of an immortal soul plays no explanatory or predictive role in the modern scientific study of human beings. For instance, doctors no longer attribute mental illness to demonic possession of our souls—only Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the scientifically illiterate do that.

Second, the overwhelming evidence suggests that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts or disembodied spirits exist, then we would have to abandon scientific ideas that we hold with great confidence—like the notion that brains generate consciousness. In fact, the idea of a soul is incompatible with everything we know about modern physics—best-selling books to contrary just prey on human credulity.

Professional philosophers also tend to be skeptical of the afterlife, as good arguments for it are virtually non-existent. Moreover, almost all philosophers today are physicalists
regarding the mind. This means that mind—or soul if it even exists—depends on the body. In other words, when the body dies our consciousness is extinguished; there is no ghost in the machine.

Of course, this cursory treatment doesn’t establish the impossibility of an afterlife; after all, reality is mysterious. Still, given what we know about how our brains work, disembodied consciousness is unlikely. Clearly, the scientific and philosophical winds blow against such ancient beliefs, and people increasingly reject belief in god, miracles, and the afterlife.

But if death is the end, how should we feel about it? We might be undisturbed by death, finding consolation in the words of the Greek philosopher Epicurus: “When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not.” Epicurus taught that fear of the gods and death is irrational. If we think about death, we will see that it’s not bad for us since we have no sensations when we are dead. Yes, the process of dying can be bad, and our deaths may hurt others, but Epicurus argued that death can’t be bad for the deceased. For how can what we don’t know hurt us?

We could reject this argument, claiming that we can be harmed by something without being aware of it. For example, intelligent adults reduced to the state of infancy by a brain injury suffer great misfortune, even if unaware of their injurious state. Perhaps the dead are similarly harmed. But we can still ask, how can the dead be harmed? Perhaps Epicurus is right, death shouldn’t trouble us.

Yet despite Epicurus’ argument, we may still find the idea of our death unsettling. For one day the sun will set for the very last time for us, and every thought and memory we have ever had will … vanish. When we are gone we will no longer read books, take trips, or hear familiar voices. We will never take another walk, catch another baseball, or play in the snow. We won’t know about new music, inventions, ideas, or what will happen to our children or grandchildren. This is why we don’t want to die.

In response, we could hope that science and technology save us, and there are plausible scientific scenarios whereby death might be overcome. Still, such technology probably won’t be developed in time to avoid our own deaths. We could also buy a cryonics policy, but there are no guarantees this would work, or that we would wake up in a reality that we would want to live in.

Moreover, even if we did extend our lives indefinitely, the universe itself is doomed. In that case, life seems pointless. For how can anything matter if all ends in nothingness?  The only way around this conclusion is if our descendants become gods and somehow escape the death of the cosmos. Unfortunately, such fantastic futures aren’t only unlikely, they also don’t comfort us when we look at our spouse or our children and realize that someday we’ll never see them again. Never. Death doesn’t care about our desires; our attitude toward death appears irrelevant; raging against death seems futile. As Philip Larkin wrote:

… Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

For now, with the reality of death looming, resignation and acceptance probably serve us best. Yet we can find some consolation—all is not lost. For if our interests are large enough, if we detach ourselves from the concerns of our little egos, if we identify with something large like the future of cosmic evolution, then there is a good chance that what we care about will continue. Maybe such thoughts can lessen the sting of death.

Most importantly, if we truly feel the reality of death, we might be kinder to each other. If the thought of our non-existence has any value, this may be it. For all the pain we cause each other is pointless against the backdrop of eternal nothingness. If we are all dying together, why not be nicer to each other, why not fill our little time with less pain? Maybe, if we could see ourselves from this cosmic point of view, we could even say with the poets, that “what survives of us is love.”

This may be too poetic, and it may not be all we want. But love is remarkable. It appears in a world of cruelty and savagery, in a species whose roots are “red in tooth and claw.” Love brings the peace of knowing that someone cares for us, waits for us, listens to us. In the unfathomable infinity of space and time, in the infinite cold and darkness which surrounds us … love relieves loneliness, love connects us, love sustains us. And perhaps the traces of our love do somehow reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us. Perhaps love doesn’t disappear into nothingness; perhaps love can be perfected; perhaps love is stronger than death.

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11 thoughts on “Love and Death

  1. Science and technology have not and are incapable of revealing ultimate truth. They are not infallible. One must decide for oneself relying on reason and intuition. I found Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia insightful on belief in Rebirth expressed by the Buddha’s explanation of previous association with Princess Yasodhara “ And as the Wheel of Birth and Death turns round
    That which hath been must be between us two”
    It’s right to think that loving kindness to all is what matters.

  2. IMO the future is with bots, not other people. Not merely religionists, but everyone is conning themselves regarding the future.
    Not only no afterlife, but no justice can be reached—thus progressives are only ‘shooting for the Moon’.
    Morality can no longer be attained, thus ‘conservatives’ are ‘shooting for the Moon’.
    Libertarians think they can be free, but they can’t: people can be bought-out all the time.
    Libertarians and anarchists, too, are ‘shooting for the Moon’. No wonder there’re so many craters on the Moon!
    Not to say we can’t love others, but we are loving murderous hominids—WMDs are a reminder of such. We’re not red in tooth and claw, we are even worse.

  3. “So you have had to bury someone you have loved, now go look for someone to love ”
    Seneca Epistles

    Farewell……..

  4. This is a broad topic. Will write in one brief paragraph what I think of this:
    there’s no consensus on the definition of love. To the Taliban, love can be decapitating an infidel who is perceived to be rebelling against Allah’s Love.

  5. Don’t know what will happen after death: Nothingness? An after life? Surprise me! I do know our DNA passed on through our offspring will give us the closest thing to immortality we can hopefully expect, as long as our line lasts. In the end, all that will be left of us will be the elements that made up us. These will be distributed by some future solar wind after life on earth ends in an explosion, I suppose. The chances we will be reconstituted as US is beyond my pay grade to comprehend.

  6. There can indeed be a techno-afterlife;
    but then we return to ‘placing a bagel on Saturn’.
    When people think of an afterlife, they presume it (excluding ‘Hell’) is positive. Yet an afterlife is merely an afterlife—with parameters unknown and neutral, not positive.

  7. This is just lovely, and perhaps it’s that my kids are recently graduated from high school and off to college, but I’ve been reflecting on the nature of life and death more these days. Surprisingly, the older I get, the less upsetting the idea of death is.

  8. Everyone seems to worry so about What happens next, but you have already been born, where were you before you came here? You don’t know, and you don’t know what happens next. I’m told that Marcus Aurelius once advised that; We should embrace our fate, as it is the only one we will ever have! Trust Fate, it brought you here and the future will unfold as it should!
    A reply to Al Brooks, you don’t need a definition of ‘Love’ Al, everyone feels ‘Love’ it in their own way, relax and let it happen to you!

  9. @John Russell:

    Why do so many love, and often marry, the wrong people? There’s no answer to that—is there?

  10. @ Al Brooks
    There are no answers to a lot of things Al, we can never know everything, never be completely protected from hurt feelings, never guaranteed a Happy life! Never even really know, for sure, what is going to happen tomorrow.
    Love is an expression of ‘instinct’, the Mother holds her baby, looks at it, and instantly loves it, the baby sees mommy and reaches for her and loves her back, this is the way of nature at least for natural mammals and birds.
    Now this idyllic scene doesn’t always happen, particularly among the Humans, people sometimes have experiences that damage their ability to feel empathy or other higher emotions, in these circumstances life is an unhappy experience for both Mother and child!
    Find someone, of the opposite sex Al, someone to talk to, not to argue with, but to talk to and you have to let them talk also!
    You may find that there is someone who has been waiting for you to come along and talk to them!

  11. Yes, talk increasingly insincere words at cross-purposes. No thanks, Mr. Russell, the writing on the wall is clear: tech improves, people worsen. Politics—merely for one example—is turning into pure propaganda.
    As things become more complicated, there’re more layers of obfuscation added, thus candor declines.
    But the best prediction I’ve heard was from a student who said prosaically-yet-profoundly:
    “in the future, unintelligent people won’t understand what is going on, and will become violent.”
    Thus I want to be with robots and not people. But do what you want; I want to hide away and let others do the fighting. If you wish to be on the front lines (or in the Reserves) in a world of diminishing candor, good for you. However I do guarantee that you will be quite surprised at the intensity of dislocation. In that, we DO know what is going to happen in the future—we just do not want to think about it excessively. Too unpleasant.

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