The meaning of death?

The point of this blog is to advocate for rejuvenation therapies. In principle, it could be written without ever typing the word ‘death’, because rejuvenation is about keeping people healthy, and the indefinite postponement of death is merely a possible consequence of constant good health. In this sense, this and many other posts and articles on Rejuvenaction could be considered off-topic. However, it is not uncommon for people to accept, rather uncritically, the stale cliché according to which life gets its meaning from death, and without the latter, it would not have meaning. If rejuvenation can stave off death and extend lives indefinitely, will these extended lives be utterly meaningless?

No. Time and time again have I said this before, but I still fear that this misconception may be one of the worst enemies of rejuvenation; consequently, I spend much time thinking about its roots and how to debunk it.

Whether life gets its meaning from death or not, people who think it does implicitly admit that life has no meaning per se. In a general sense, this is correct. Life is meaningless, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is no reason to be depressed, and I have explained why many times: Meaning is not an intrinsic property of anything. To paraphrase a common adage, meaning lies in the head of the beholder, and that’s where you should expect to find the meaning—if any—of anything, life included. In other words, it is up to you to find meaning in your life, and you should neither expect it to have meaning by default, nor let others decide for you what the meaning of your life is. This applies to everything else too. Whenever the meaning of X is being discussed, one should always ask to whom X means what, or who meant what when they did or said X. It goes without saying that, just like life, death has no intrinsic meaning either. My view is that, up to this point in time, finding the meaning of death has been an even more pressing problem for humans than finding the meaning of life; the reasons of this urgency stem from an evolutionary paradox. However, the meaning of death is much more difficult to find than other meanings. It is for these reasons, I argue, that the meaning of death ended up being that of giving meaning to life itself.

The blow inflicted by the discovery of biological evolution to the idea of an intrinsic meaning of life was arguably the worst. Far from being carefully designed by a loving creator, life is the product of random mutations and the blind force of natural selection, indirectly weeding out genes less fit to their environment through the death of their unfortunate carriers. Evolution has no meaning, no purpose, and no goal: Creatures that we see today evolved because they could; it was not meant, it was no one’s goal. The conditions on Earth were such that some lifeforms were more suitable to the environment and managed to pass on their genes to future generations; others were not as lucky and did not survive to tell the tale.

Random mutations, one little change at a time, gave these creatures certain features. If these features made the creatures more fit for reproduction, they would thrive more than other creatures without the same features. Eventually, creatures with these ‘good’ features became the only game in town. In the case of humans, two of these features were their intelligence and their innate desire to live and avoid death. (Much many more species than just us possess the latter feature, though perhaps it is ‘just’ an instinct without conscious desire.)

It is obvious why a strong wish to live makes an individual more fit for reproduction: If I fear death and try to avoid it by all possible means, I stand better chances to live long enough to reproduce than somebody who isn’t so afraid; this somebody is likely to put less effort in avoiding death and is thus more likely to die before having children than I am. Therefore, evolution has ‘penalised’ creatures who did not have a strong survival instinct, and ‘rewarded’ those who did. This is why we hold our lives so dear.

Human intelligence made us extremely fit for survival; our curiosity and drive to answer questions that we ourselves ask are among the things that make us unique on this planet. However, there’s a flip side: Eventually, they made us wonder why we die. While today we have a rather good idea of the answer, back in the days of the first human societies this was no trivial question. Since evolution has made us so afraid of death, it was inevitable that we’d start wondering about our mortality and looking for more and more clever ways to cheat death.

However, evolution ‘cares’ for the survival of the genes, not of their carrier; the carrier only needs to live long enough to pass on the genes. What happens to them past that point is none of evolution’s concern. We have evolved brilliant self-repair machinery that blesses us which such long lives only because it gave us better chances to have children. Suppose that, back in the days of our early ancestors—and I am talking of non-human lifeforms that might well have lived in the abysses—there were two groups of creatures, group A and group B. Creatures in group A had a ‘normal’ longevity; on average, they would reach reproductive age just fine and have children; ageing would then kill them after a certain time. Members of group B were just like those in group A, except that they lived much longer past reproductive age, because a set of lucky mutations gave them better self-repair machinery. In terms of ability to pass on their genes, group A had no disadvantage compared to group B. There was no reason why group A should have been outcompeted by group B so badly that, eventually, group B would have taken over. This is why evolution hasn’t bothered eliminating ageing: Assuming the necessary conditions were ever present, there has been no evolutionary pressure to eliminate ageing creatures from the pool. Any ‘anti-ageing genes’, or genes that significantly slowed down ageing, if they ever existed, were diluted in the rest of the pool, so that today we observe creatures that age to death and whose lifespans don’t vary too wildly among members of the same species.

This is the paradox that I was talking about: Evolution has made us fear death and wish to live indefinitely, but at the same time, it has not given us the means to fulfill that wish. Strictly speaking this is not a paradox; I just mean that we’re caught between a rock and a hard place—the fear of death and its apparent inevitability.

Whether death is really inevitable will be a matter for another post; for now, we’ll assume it is and focus on what this ‘death paradox’ has led us to.

The first and most evident sign of our attempts to solve the paradox are religions. With their promises of an afterlife, religions sidestep the problem entirely: Yes, we fear death and don’t want it; Nonetheless, die we do. But we don’t really die; only the body does. We will live on as pure spirits, or through reincarnation, or something like that. In ancient times, thanks to our ignorance of how the world works and their intrinsic unfalsifiability and appeal, religions and hopes of an afterlife spread like wildfire, and are still alive and well today. However, secularisation is taking its toll on all sorts of religious or magical thinking; the result is that, in terms of the death paradox, we’re getting back to square one. As our ever-growing understanding of the world started undermining the very idea of afterlife more and more, we needed to find other ways to put death out of our minds.

Some of us have resorted to accepting it: I am not sure I fully understand the concept, but it seems to boil down to convincing yourself there’s nothing to fear in death and you’re okay with it, and in some cases, giving yourself a certain air of superiority because of it. It is no mystery that accepting the inevitability death is largely regarded as a sign of wisdom; in part, this is because there would be little point in fighting the inevitable, but there is another reason, which is possibly even more important. Some accept death because, they say, it is better than the alternative, i.e. never dying. No one has first-hand, irrefutable evidence of this, of course, but our literature is full of entirely made-up stories on the misery of immortal creatures or the terrible price you pay for eternal life on Earth. Take zombies, or vampires, for example. They’re immortal alright—or at least they don’t die as long as they are not physically destroyed with weapons or rituals—but they were either possessed by an evil spirit, or infected by a terrible plague, or they sold their soul to the devil, or something. The moral of the story is always the same: The only ways you could avoid death are not something you’d like.

I’m sure there must be exceptions to the rule, but how many of you have ever heard of a story about an immortal creature, or a creature who can live indefinitely, that is not largely about how horrible or difficult this must be? More generally, do you know any stories where the ability to live for an indefinite timespan is seen as something positive, or at least not portrayed in negative light? Or—God forbid!—a story where indefinite lifespans are simply normal, and the plot is about something else than moralising on how long life should be? (Doctor Who could be an example if it wasn’t for the recurring theme of his bearing the weight of solitude as the last member of his species, not to mention the Doctor’s manifest hypocrisy about undoing ageing in the episode The Lazarus Experiment. That episode was a collection of the worst logical fallacies and clichés about life, death, and what is or isn’t human. The Doctor, an ageless being, regenerates back to life each and every time he’s about to die—as he attempts to in the very next episode—and yet he had the effrontery to claim that ‘It’s not the time that matters, it’s the person’. I could have bought that if his first incarnation, rather than the tenth, had said it.)

It is impossible not suspect a fox-and-grapes situation and think that scary stories about creatures who have the alleged misfortune of never dying are nothing but a way to make death more acceptable: If never dying is bad, then we can be at least a little bit less upset about the fact we all die. I am in no position to claim that everyone who says they accept death lies about it; this is quite probably not true. However, I remain sceptical.

Then there are the ‘adventurists’: Death, they say, is an adventure, which they’re excited to… live through. (Though this might be true only for the ‘well-organised mind’—whatever that means—according to another fictional character.) The reason why death would be an adventure, as I understand, is that we cannot be entirely sure of what lies beyond it. Even though we have very cogent reasons to think that beyond death there is absolutely nothing—as ‘nothing’ as it gets, in fact. In an hour, I’ll go to the mall. There’s no reason at all to think that anything but absolutely regular shopping will happen then, and yet, since I can’t be completely sure of it, in an hour I’ll live an ‘adventure’, at least according to this logic. I apologise if I come off cynical, but this sounds like yet another attempt to sugarcoat death in order to better cope with it and thus escape the death paradox.

Another way around the death paradox is the ‘death is part of life’ philosophy. Whether this is true or not is arguable: At least of one’s own death, I’m inclined to think that it is not, because death occurs precisely when life ends; rather than being part of life, I’d say death comes right after it. But this is, admittedly, just pointless nitpicking. The real issue is that whether death is or not part of life is irrelevant, just as it is irrelevant whether or not something is ‘natural’ to decide if it is good for you. Getting sick or being bullied are part of life for the vast majority of people. High child mortality used to be a very real part of life until we changed that. Yet these indisputable facts do not mean that any of these things are good for you or should remain a part of life. This way of thinking is a reasonably effective way to avoid losing one’s wits because of an unchangeable, undesirable reality—such as high child mortality—at least so long as this reality is indeed unchangeable. The claim that ‘child mortality is part of life’ might have consoled parents of their children’s death 200 years ago, but today it would console no one and probably outrage everyone. As soon as undoing ageing and postponing death indefinitely will become possible, the ‘part of life’ excuse will lose its efficacy.

The final way to circumvent the death paradox is the fabled ‘meaning of life’. This is the central problem of this post. What better way can there be to rationalise death and escape our mortal (pun intended) fear of it than making it what gives life itself its meaning? Far from being something we should fear or avoid, death becomes thus essential, for without it, life would have no point. That appears to be a great argument, at least up to the point where everyone nods approvingly without getting down to the nitty-gritty of it.

We have established at the very beginning of this post that meaning is not an absolute. Meaning is something we, the observers give to things. Death is nothing more than the name we gave to the status of a creature whose body is damaged beyond its ability to function; it most definitely is not an observer, and it cannot give meaning to anything, let alone life.

What does it even mean, to give meaning to life? We are, again, investigating a meaning, and thus there is no absolute answer. I may think that the meaning of… giving meaning to life is X; you might think it is Y. Neither of us is wrong. It’s a subjective matter. Most would probably agree that filling your life with activities, people, and things you love and enjoy is a valid candidate for the meaning of life; so is helping others, or doing something for the common good; something that we feel is appreciated by others, and are thus gratified by. Giving meaning to life might mean doing some of these things, and clearly, none of these potential meanings is given to life by death. However, these are viable options but aren’t the answer, because there is no single answer. You decide what is the meaning of your life; not old legends, not old myths, not clichés, not other people; you do. Thus, the only way death could be the meaning of your life would be if you decided so, which I hope you won’t do.

Not even being mortal gives more meaning or value to life, as some seem to think. Your mortality does nothing for you: It’s just the ‘ability’ to lose your life. It’s more of a potential problem than anything else. On the other hand, knowing of your mortality does do something for you: It makes you more careful not to lose your life. Mortality isn’t precious or valuable; being aware of mortality is.

Ultimately, there’s nothing especially wise in accepting death. In my opinion, the only exception is if you know for a fact that you will die within a time so short that nothing can be done to prevent it. At that point it may be sensible to play the ‘accepting card’, if you can, and enjoy whatever time you have left as best as you can. There is no meaning that death can give life, especially not death by ageing. The length of our lifespans is the result of a meaningless, purposeless process that happened for no other reason than the fact it could. Accepting that result as it is would be accepting that very meaninglessness—which, when you think that the intent was to give life meaning, would be sadly ironic.

Please, stop.

Last Saturday night I went to see Doctor Strange. It requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief—especially if spiritual poppycock is among your pet peeves, like in my case—but that’s not really a problem for me. I’ll hardly be waiting for a sequel, and I still prefer Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, but all in all it was an entertaining movie.

However, there were two clichés that really ruined the experience for me: the implied, groundless cliché that ‘living forever is not as nice as you think, it’s something only bad guys would want and it comes at a high price’ creeping up throughout the entire movie, and the inevitable ‘death gives life its meaning’ cliché. This is the sort of stuff that would generally fly me into a rage and push me to write a venomous, demolishing article about the movie, but not this time.

I am really tired of hearing this false mantra being mindlessly repeated over and over. Books, movies, newspaper articles, people—everyone seems to be persuaded that without death, life would have no meaning. No one, though, bothers explaining why this depressing claim would hold true, and if they do, their arguments boil down to unconvincing, carelessly generalised hand-waving about how you couldn’t properly appreciate a good thing without its opposite. That’s like saying that in order to appreciate not having cancer, you need to have had cancer first. As I said in an admittedly much less diplomatic article, I appreciate how being mortal may make you see things differently from how an immortal being might see them, but that is not the same as death being mandatory to appreciate life. 

So, please, stop. Stop repeating this dangerous and foolish mantra. Don’t let movies, books, or anyone tell you that death gives life its meaning. Don’t let anyone decide for you what is the meaning of life, or what gives meaning to it, because in general there is no such thing. Meaning is relative, not absolute, and you get to decide for yourself what gives meaning to your life, not an age-old piece of nonsense people perpetuate merely to sugarcoat death. Death is nothing special. It is not a monster. It is not a foe, no more than the status of ‘broken’ is for an inanimate object. Death is the name we give to the status of a biological creature whose body is too damaged to keep functioning. That’s all it is. Nothing more, nothing less. When our bodies function properly, we live. When they don’t—when they’re ‘broken’—we die. Like all living creatures, we like it better when we function than when we don’t. Species wouldn’t last very long if they weren’t wired this way.

I don’t know what gives meaning to your life, but I can tell you what gives meaning to mine. People I love. Things I like doing. Music I like listening to. Playing piano. Drawing. Writing. Learning new things. Having fun with friends. Discussing science. Enjoying a beautiful landscape. Wondering about the countless mysteries of nature we haven’t solved yet—and many, many other things. Maybe none of these things gives meaning to your life, and they don’t have to. As said, you can find your own—and if it turned out to be death, well, so be it, but find out for yourself, do not let others tell you that without death life has no meaning. That is not a universal truth, and quite frankly, it is a statement that is contradicted every day by our very actions.

We have hospitals to cure sick people. We have international organisations trying to save people in poor countries from starvation, to put an end to war and help its victims. Why all these initiatives aimed at preserving our lives, if death is what gives them meaning? If death gives meaning to life, why do Doctor Strange and his superhero friends strive so hard to save the lives of the people on Earth? Why deprive all those lives of their meaning? If you are struck by a fatal illness, why turn to doctors to save your life? Perhaps the time has come for death to give it meaning.

Do you see the nonsense yet? The very idea that death gives meaning to life, when we’ve tried so very hard from time immemorial to stave off death for as long as possible, is absurd—or perhaps, a hint that we don’t care that much for our lives to have a meaning after all. Does all that you do, feel, and care for, magically become worthless if you don’t die? Are the people you love dear to you only because one day you won’t have them any more? What about the things they have done for you, or the fact they understand you like no one else does?

No, I don’t think death gives meaning to life. Things I fill my life with give it meaning, and all my death is going to accomplish is taking those things away from me. (Or rather, it’s going to take me away from those things.) Ageing is the worst example of this: It gradually makes you more and more unable to dedicate yourself to the things that give your life meaning, thus making your life more and more meaningless. Eventually, it deprives you of life entirely.

So please, stop repeating the death mantra. Stop believing in this crazy nonsense. I understand where it comes from, and I understand our need to rationalise death, but it is time to move on. It is time to look at death for what it is and keep on refining our tools to stave it off indefinitely, so that people can live in perfect health for as long as they wish.

Stop repeating the death mantra, or progress of medical science runs the risk of being hindered by cohorts of people thinking that death is necessary and thus we should not cure all diseases. Think about it for a moment: Should we not cure Alzheimer’s disease, or cardiovascular diseases, or cancer, to make sure that something will kill us and give our lives ‘meaning’? Are we really going to put the brakes on medicine for fear that too long a life might be boring? How many more excuses are we going to make up?

Please, no more excuses. Please, stop.