Doing the right things for the wrong reasons

Some time ago, I bumped into a short excerpt of a video interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Larry King. After I watched it, I was sadly surprised by what deGrasse Tyson said. Before you read further, you should take a minute to watch the interview. If you can’t see the video or can’t be bothered to watch it, here’s a transcript.

NdGT: If you could live forever, would you?

LK: Yes!

NdGT: [laughs] OK, We’re done of the interview!

LK: [incomprehensible]

NdGT: Yes! No, OK, sure. That’s an attractive idea, but the way I look at it is, it is the knowledge that I’m going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive. The urgency of accomplishment; the need to express love now, not later. If we live forever, why ever even get out of bed in the morning? Because you always have tomorrow. That’s not the kind of life I want to lead.

LK: But why? Don’t you fear not being around?

NdGT: I fear living a life where I could have accomplished something I didn’t. That’s what I fear. I don’t fear death.

LK: Don’t you fear the unknown?

NdGT: I love the unknown! I loved it—You know what I want on my tombstone? My sister has this in her notes, just in case I can’t tell anyone after I die. On my tombstone, a quote from Horace Mann, great educator: “Be ashamed to die, until you have scored some victory for humanity.” That’s what I want on my tombstone.

Superficially, this might sound right, and if it does, I think it’s because it does one thing: It appeases our fear of death saying that there’s nothing to fear, and that death should instead be cherished as a motivator.
Stick with me, and I’ll show you why I think this is profoundly wrong.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a cosmologist. He’s written several books, won many awards, and indeed accomplished a lot in his life, just like he wished he would. That’s great. What motivated all these accomplishments? According to what he himself said, the ‘urgency’ of accomplishment was a consequence of the knowledge that he’s going to die. This is not the picture of a passionate man who loves what he does. Rather, it is more like the picture of a man who’s stuffing his face with whatever he can grab from the buffet before they take it away. To my shame, I haven’t read anything he’s written, or watched any other videos featuring him, and I know that I should. From what I gathered through other people’s opinions, he’s a brilliant man with a lot to teach, and I refuse to believe that the reason behind all his remarkable accomplishments is the fear of dying without having done anything with his life. Sure as hell he must love physics and science, he must be enraptured by the mysteries of the cosmos and all they can teach us. He must be deeply passionate about the science he has contributed to advance.

I sincerely do not doubt his passion. But what he’s saying in this interview is that his passion alone isn’t enough. If he could live forever, his passion about stars wouldn’t be sufficient to get him out of bed every morning and study them, because he could always postpone that to tomorrow. What kind of a passion is that, for heaven’s sake? I certainly grant everyone the right to choose how intense their passions should be, but if you ask me, a passion is something that, alone, is enough to get me out of bed every morning with the very specific intent of pursuing it, regardless of how much time I have left to dedicate to it. If anything, knowing that my time on this Earth could be limited makes me depressed, because it means I only have so much time to dedicate to the things I love; I only have so much time to express love for the important people in my life. On this subject, I assure you I need no special motivators to express love, and in particular I think the pressure imposed by one’s limited time is the worst of all potential such motivators. I don’t express love for people dear to me because one day I’ll lose them; I express love for them because they deserve it and I need it. That’s all the motivation I need. Screw death. If you don’t want to lead a life where you don’t accomplish anything or never express love for others, all you need to do is decide to love and accomplish and get to it. You don’t need any sucker in a black cloak and a scythe to push you; if you think you do, I argue you need to rethink your approach to life, and perhaps have a closer look at what you’re pursuing and the people you’re spending your life with.

Even if I was willing to accept deGrasse Tyson’s motivator in life as such (and I most definitely am not), I think he’s confusing death with mortality. They’re not at all the same thing. Not even close. Mortality is the ‘ability’—for lack of a better word—to die; death is the act of actually dying. Even if our life was not limited in time—for example, because we developed rejuvenation biotechnologies to eliminate age-related death, as we are indeed doing—this wouldn’t make us immortal. Death would still be possible, by accident or by diseases we can’t yet cure, for example. You would still be unsure if you’ll wake up tomorrow, and would thus still have this highly questionable motivator.

I suggest a better motivator, one that a man of science like deGrasse Tyson should appreciate. If we lived forever—or indefinitely, as I find more correct to say—we could accomplish much more. Instead of cramming all we can in our miserably short lives, we could learn for centuries and experience much more of what the universe has to offer. We would no longer be forced to choose between equally worthy goals because of lack of time: We could fully master one skill thanks to decades of practice, and then move on to the next, never afraid that our bodies will fail us or that the reaper will prevent us from continuing to enrich ourselves and the rest of the world. We could witness as science unravels the marvels of the universe, instead of dying thinking that there’s a lot we’re going to miss out on in the future we’ll never see.

Wouldn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson love to see what cosmology will be like in the future? Wouldn’t he want to live to see the day we become a spacefaring civilisation? Wouldn’t he love to see his great-grandchildren grow into adults, and perhaps become scientists themselves? Wouldn’t he want to be there the day we make contact with an alien civilisation? Wouldn’t he be even a little bit curious to see what’s become of humanity thanks to the very victories he himself scored for it?

I know I would.