Death gives meaning to life

You’ve probably heard this sentence a bagillion times. It’s the kind of statement people assume to be deeply philosophical and meaningful by default. You probably won’t be shocked to know I disagree.

There are some concepts that would be more difficult to grasp without their opposite, such as bright and dark, happy and sad. For example, if you’ve never been sad, you can’t be sure just how different it is from being happy. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t enjoy happiness without sadness, and what’s more, this concept doesn’t necessarily apply to everything. Would you say you can’t appreciate being healthy without having been sick first? Worse still, would we better not cure some diseases, so that we could get sick every now and again and we wouldn’t end up forgetting to appreciate health? I have a hunch you don’t think so, and you probably can appreciate not having a certain disease even if you never had it—probably even if you’re not aware the disease exists. I mean, I know I can appreciate the feeling of not being kicked in the nuts even without ever being kicked in the nuts, really. Similarly, I can totally enjoy life without dying, and I could still enjoy it even if it were impossible for me to die. Besides, there are no real-life examples of immortal people incapable to enjoy life because of their immortality, so I am really not sure of how we’d come to the conclusion that you need death to enjoy life.

But maybe that’s not what people mean when they say death gives meaning to life. Maybe they mean that, like any other experience, life will lose its novelty value if you carry it on long enough, and at some point you’ll stop enjoying it with no hope of making it enjoyable again. Well, I beg to differ.

Life is not an experience. It’s a collection of experiences. What you can get bored of is any finite number of experiences you can make in your life, but you can’t get tired of an infinite number of them, because you can’t make an infinite number of experiences. Not even if you lived forever. (Whether or not there’s an infinite number of experiences that can be made is debatable, but I just can’t see anyone going, ‘Well, shit. I went through the entire list of all possible things one could possibly ever do, and now I’m out of options.’) You don’t get bored of life; you get bored of things you do in life, and they can be changed.

Well, but perhaps, at some point, you could feel like you don’t even want to explore new things and just want to die. It happens. We call it ‘severe depression’, it’s generally regarded as a pretty nasty disease, and I don’t think there’s any age when it’s good for you. Anyone in their right mind would be worried for you if you told them you wanted to die, no matter how old you were. When people answer the question, ‘When do you want to die?’ with ‘When I’m old,’ they’re implicitly admitting that, as things stand, the life of an elderly is so sucky they could just as well die, but this wouldn’t hold true any more if we rejuvenated people, because they’d be healthy again and perfectly able to keep enjoying their life. You don’t ‘want’ to die old because you’re old; you do (if you do) because presently being old implies being more sick than one can tolerate. (And, let’s face it, because you’d rather die later than sooner.)

Some say that knowing you have only limited time in your hands motivates you to do things instead of slacking off. That’s a rather typical but very vague argument to rationalise death, with a distinct flavour of appeal to folk wisdom. First, it’s not universally true. Some people wouldn’t do anything with their life even if they had millennia to live; others cram all they can in just five minutes of time. It depends on the specific people, and not on how much time they have available. Some people (like me) would really love the extra time, because their list of things they’d like to do is much longer than what one can do in a presently normal lifespan. Being forced to choose because of lack of time results more often than not in poor choices.

Second, if we accepted the argument above, we’d be saying that our passions or interests would be insufficient to give us motivation in life; we would also need rush. According to this argument, being in a rush is a necessary condition to do things. If we weren’t in a rush, we wouldn’t be doing anything at all. Hang on—we’re not that kind of lazy arses, are we? If you are really passionate about something, you will do it regardless of how much time you can dedicate to it. Doing something you enjoy is not the same as having to mown the lawn. You tend to procrastinate when the thing to do is something you don’t like; hardly anyone would postpone doing something they love just because they’ve got a long time to do it. If the only way to get people to do something was threatening them with the spectre of their limited amount of time, then it’d probably be better if they didn’t do anything at all. Not only they clearly weren’t that passionate about whatever they were supposed to do, but they’d probably also do a very poor job, as one often does when in a rush.

Death doesn’t give life meaning. Rather, I’d say it deprives life of meaning. Meaning isn’t an intrinsic property of anything. Meaning depends on an observer who attributes meaning to something. On their own, things and events don’t mean anything at all. The moment you die, an observer ceases to exist. From your point of view, whether you were born and then died or were never born at all are exactly the same thing—you’re dead, you’re not there, you can’t remember things you’ve done, you can’t feel, you can’t see, you are not. From your perspective, the universe itself could well have never existed in the first place, because you don’t perceive anything any more. Certainly, even if you’re dead, your existence may have helped to give meaning to other people’s lives, for example, but it was indeed your existence that did so, not your death. I appreciate that being mortal makes you see things in a different light than if you were immortal, but you can be mortal forever without ever dying—it’s the difference between can’t and don’t. If you’re immortal you can’t die; if you live forever you just don’t die, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to die. You’re being lucky/good enough to avoid death for a seriously long time, but you still don’t know if you’re ever going to die or not.

Ultimately, the experiences you make and the things you do give meaning to your life, not the fact one day you will cease to exist. Claiming you wouldn’t be able to appreciate these things if you were to live forever is a groundless assumption which no one can prove true. The reason people make this assumption is that it lets them treat death as a non-issue: If it’s okay to die at some point, then I don’t have to worry that I’ll die at some point. And people love not having issues.

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4 thoughts on “Death gives meaning to life

  1. Great post. I agree. It’s just something people like to say to make themselves feel better about it, but it’s definitely a foxes and grapes situation, and a lot of rubbish

  2. While I fully agree that life extension is a noble goal—and that life far preferable to death, I disagree that others are disingenuous in accepting death or even citing it as ballast and a motive for attaining a richer life.

    I love life and I have feared death even as a young child. If I could have health, mobility, friendships and intact senses (even, perhaps without mobility), I would prefer to live indefinitely. But I believe those who cite death as part of their purpose for living and part of their personal “circle of life”. I realize that they may be conditioned into acceptance by religious belief or the certainty of mortality. But, whatever the reason, their acceptance of death gives a peace that I shall never know. I wish that we were not limited to a single century or less on this beautiful planet. I wish… I wish…

    • To each their own purpose. I am not part of the death-gives-purpose brigade. If the world had been populated exclusively of people who preferred to accept the previously inevitable in exchange for a fleeting sense of peace (if they do get it), we would still be living in caves, with no technologies or medicines whatsoever, trying to enjoy our peace while trying to avoid predators. Just not my kind of peace.

  3. Great stuff. Another point: each human has already been subjected to billions of years of non-existence before birth. So, if someone argues that death is necessary for contrast with life or similar, one can essentially say that everyone already “experienced” death before being born – so there is no need for a second spell of non-existence, because it’s already been taken care of.

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