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. In my humble opinion, though, it’s a pile of sh—oh, well, you know what.

If death gives meaning to life, I suppose diseases give meaning to being healthy, and thus we should leave some diseases around so that people can appreciate not being sick, right? How often do you say yourself, ‘Hmm… I haven’t been sick in a while… I should get one of those nasty cancers, before I stop appreciating how it feels being healthy. Where’s my emergency plutonium bar?’ Personally, I don’t say that to myself very often. I mean, I can totally appreciate the feeling of not being kicked in the nuts even without ever being kicked in the nuts, really. And I can appreciate not having a certain disease even if I’m not aware the disease exists. I can totally enjoy life without dying, and I could still enjoy it even if it were impossible for me to die.

People reason by analogies. They know there are some concepts that would be more difficult to grasp without their opposite, and think the analogy can be extended to ANYTHING AT ALL. For example, if you’ve never been sad, you can’t be sure just how different it is from being happy. I’m not sure how you can get from this to ‘you need to be mortal to enjoy life’, especially when there are no real-life examples of immortal people incapable to enjoy life because of their immortality. Can you smell the pungent aroma of foxes disdaining grapes?

But that’s not it, is it? That’s not what people mean when they say death gives meaning to life. What they mean is, 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 are. 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 advocates of death say that knowing you have only limited time in your hands motivates you to do things instead of slacking off. That’s another typical, vague deathist argument with a distinct flavour of appeal to folk wisdom. There are people who wouldn’t do anything with their life even if they had millennia to live, and there are people who 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. There are people (like me) who would really love the extra time, because their list of things they’d like to do is way longer than what a presently normal lifespan allows. Being forced to choose because of lack of time results more often than not in poor choices.

The limited-time argument, let’s call it that way, reveals beyond doubt the way of thinking of their proponents. What they’re saying is that what gives them motivation in life aren’t their passions or interests, but rush. They do things because they’re in a rush. If they weren’t in a rush, they wouldn’t be doing anything at all. Now just what kind of lazy asses are we talking about? If one is really passionated about something, one will do it regardless of whether he or she has 40 or 400 years to dedicate to it. Doing something you like (say, studying biology) 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 get it done. If the only way to get people to do things is 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 passionated about whatever they were supposed to do, but they’d probably also do a very poor job, as things done in a rush tend to be.

Death doesn’t give life meaning. 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. The universe itself could have never existed from your perspective, because you don’t perceive anything any more to begin with. Sure, your existence may have contributed to give meaning to other people’s lives, for example, but it is indeed your existence that did it, not the fact you died. 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 to kill you. 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.

The experiences you make and the things you do, ultimately, 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, because no one has ever lived forever, so no one can testify the assumption is 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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One thought 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

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