In praise of death
This post isn’t meant to be depressing, but you’ll probably find it a little depressing. You’ll find it depressing because by nature and nurture you are inclined to avoid thinking about death as nothing better than a curse, a cross that humanity must bear.
Stop for a moment. Ask yourself: is that what I really believe, or is it just what I’ve been told? Is the idea of a cross that humanity must bear a reasonable belief, or is it just the legacy of a religion that tried to take the sting of death away by putting something even worse in its place?
One of the things that we’ve lost is a way of dealing with death in a meaningful way. I don’t care that we’ve lost the religious beliefs that helped us to deal with death by imagining that it wasn’t the end, but that we’ve lost the rituals that went along with those beliefs.
Rituals are important, but you can’t create rituals out of thin air.1 Once you’ve lost the religious beliefs, death becomes utterly terrifying, and once you’ve lost the rituals, you no longer have the tools to deal with your terror. Terror becomes your only response.
You should always face your demons down, you should always spit in the face of fear. Some people go in the wrong direction, however, and think of death as a tyrant to be overthrown.2 Unfortunately this is also a legacy of religious thought – death as the last enemy – rather than a rational response.
So maybe you shouldn’t anthropomorphise death, pretty as she might be. I’m in love with narrative. Treating your life as if it was a story that you’re telling is the best way to live, and death is the full stop at the end of the last sentence of the story; the story’s not complete without it, but it’s not the point of the story.
That might not work for you, and there’s another way to think about this. Presumably you believe that life has value, but where does that value come from? Value comes from scarcity: if we have an unlimited supply of something, we don’t place much value on it.
Think of air. We don’t usually think of air, because there’s so damn much of it, and so we don’t value it. Take away somebody’s air supply while maintaining the same level of demand, however, and its value to them goes through the roof. The same goes for pretty much anything.
If we manage to eliminate death, then our supply of life would become infinite, and it would be worth nothing. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t enjoy life, although hedonic adaptation3 suggests that we would enjoy it precisely as much as we currently enjoy life.
It would however mean that the joy we take in this sunset, or that friendship, would be less than it would be if we knew that we only had a certain number of sunsets in our time, or that our friendship would not last forever. This is the curious paradox of immortality: not boredom but banality.
Raging against death is a war without the possibility of a real victory; indeed, the very idea of victory becomes meaningless. It might make you feel better about yourself – reassuring you that at least you’re doing something – but it’s no more reasonable than the religious response.
By all means we should seek to extend peoples’ lives, but more importantly we should seek to improve their quality of life. And it’s here that death plays its role, because it’s only because of death that we are able place any value on life in the first place. Embrace death; although not as a lover.
- Although some people try very hard, as you can see in this Solstice Eve Book of Rituals [pdf] [↩]
- To be fair, I’ m deliberately mischaracterising Bostrom’s argument, which is actually against senescence and not death. However his line of thinking fits right in with the anti-death tendency in rationalist circles, best described by Yudkowsky in his elegy for his brother. [↩]
- More in Hedonic Adaptation to Positive and Negative Experiences [pdf]. [↩]
January 5, 2013