Monday, January 28, 2013

The Meaning of Death

What’s the meaning of death? What’s the role played by death in our existential situation? Is there an escape from the horror of death, at least in our imagination or in a spiritual sense if we live up to certain ideals? I’ll address these questions in what follows.

Death as the Great Equalizer

The horror of death is personal for each of us who prefers not to die, since we’re forced to accept the inevitability of our end and there are different ways of dealing with that knowledge. But the philosophical importance of death as a natural phenomenon transcends any such idiosyncrasy. According to the aphorism, death is the great equalizer, and this tells us the essence of the philosophical problem of death. Death isn’t just the end of each of our worlds, of every individual’s accumulation of memories and experiences, of every personality and living body. Death is the sameness of that end despite the astonishing diversity of living things, including our body types, abilities (swimming, running, flying, digging, and so on), accomplishments, moral qualities, and positions in space and time.

Think of the variety of organisms that have lived on this planet, the trillions of differences between species and between members of those species, and even between the stages of each member’s life as it passes through its life cycle. There are surely more such differences than there are grains of sand, so they are in fact unimaginable: besides the broad differences between dinosaurs, insects, fish, birds, and mammals, no two individual lives are the same. To take an example that’s near and dear to most people, some individuals try to be selfless and decent while others become selfish and cruel. But while the manner of our dying may be just as heterogeneous as our lives, the outcome of those lives is practically identical: all lives end in death. No apparent recognition of our distinguishing features, no necessary continuation of our plans or positions in our social hierarchies, no validation of our efforts. We try to cheat death in two ways: genetically, we pass on part of our essence that outlives us, and socially we influence our families, friends, coworkers, and fellow citizens, and their memories can outlive us. But Death has the last laugh, because it’s not just individuals who die; whole species are extinguished as well, and in fact just as death is inevitable for each individual, so too extinction seems inevitable for each species. 

What, then, is the meaning of death? I think the value of death fixes the value of life. Take an adequate description of any possible or actual organic pattern, no matter how simple or complex, such as a pattern that might be expressed by a convoluted mathematical formula that would fill hundreds of pages were it to be written down. That description is rendered pointless by the uniformity of all of that variety’s result. Tibetan Buddhists illustrate this with their sand mandalas, which are intricate, unique and beautiful geometric patterns built up by coloured grains of sand which the Buddhist ritualistically destroys upon completion. Death is the great equalizer in that our end point is identical whereas our lives are characterized by myriad differences. No matter how unique you are in life, your destination is exactly the same as that of all other living things. Theistic religions maintain that this isn’t so, that our station in life is echoed in eternity, as in Dante’s circles of hell, for example. There’s no good reason to believe in that continuity between biological life and a spiritual afterlife, but the reality of biological death has clearly given most of us reason to hope that life isn't in some ways reducible to death.

This still, however, only scratches the surface of the meaning of death, because the above pattern is found throughout the universe. All organisms die in the sense that they end, but so too do all cultural expressions, for example. Songs, stories, computer games, movies, paintings, prayers, sexual unions, meals, showers, vacations, elections, businesses, and on and on and on. In each case and in a million more cultural patterns than anyone would care to list, there’s a great variety that must be extinguished. Think of all the subjects of paintings and also of the many styles of painting, and now reflect on the facts not only that paintings tend to be destroyed in time, but that they’re also limited in space, meaning that a painting is always effectively framed as opposed to being infinitely large. You could try to fill a canvas as large as the world, but there’s only so much anyone can paint, which means that a painting’s finitude can symbolize that of an organism or of a species. Of course, all cultural products are finite, but so is everything in spacetime. Think of the variety of stars and galaxies. Or think of the waves in the sea, each one surfacing and falling back into the ocean. Wind blows different parts of the sea’s surface from many different directions and at many different temperatures. There are the current waves, but there were also the waves that would have been seen when Socrates or the Buddha walked the earth. Again, unfathomable richness and variety are contrasted with the sameness of the outcome.

So death is just an example of finitude, and finitude is a feature of all material things. These things can take up only so much space, and because there are very many material things, they tend to collide and thus to change each other. Time is the dimension in which those changes happen. All natural things change and when we understand those changes by applying categories such as stages, phases, species, or individuals, we distinguish between beginnings and endings, and so in the biological cases we have lives and deaths. What’s so special about biological finitude? Well, when a wave in the ocean vanishes, the wave doesn’t embody its surroundings by mentally representing them, which is to say that the wave is relatively simple. But when a person dies, the person takes with her memories and ideas of many other things in the world, so that much of the world symbolically ends with her. That is, a worldview ends with each person’s death, and so by taking a life the world seems to negate itself as well.

I really want to fix this meaning of death in your mind, so here’s another metaphor. Picture all the texts that could be written, as illustrated, for example, by Borges’s Library of Babel short story. Take the variety of all the novels, poems, plays, scripts, essays, blogs, letters, tweets, recipes, memos, scriptures, computer program codes, and so on. Now ensure that each piece of paper in the physical manifestation of each of those texts is shredded in a paper shredder so that the text becomes unreadable and lost forever. That’s the relationship between life and death: infinite variety on the one hand and the oneness of nullity on the other. Clearly, death contributes to our existential predicament by making life absurd. 

On the contrary, you sometimes hear, without death life would be meaningless since it’s only the threat of death that makes the moments you’re alive precious. Our time has worth because our life has a limited span. If we lived forever, there would be no risk in any of our endeavours and so we’d become bored. This point about the value of life is valid, and as I’ll show later, the point rests on the fact that our conception of immortality is actually of another form of death! Immortality wouldn’t be lively. So life has value only because of life’s relation to death and yet we should reflect on what value death therefore brings to the table.

Yes, life is made precious because of our limited span, but what is this preciousness? It’s like being stranded on a tiny island in a sea full of sharks, holding your armpits and curling up in a ball at night so as not to let your vital heat escape; life is precious not just because it’s rare, but because life doesn’t belong in nature. We’re precious in the same way that a lost and motherless child, wandering the streets with puppy dog eyes and tousled hair is adorable: we’re pitiful in our homelessness; our inevitable death entails that the value of our lives is akin to that of childishness. Just as a child’s efforts are relatively pathetic, so too are an adult’s, given the inevitable oneness of death; just as a child’s hand is too small to hold a paintbrush effectively and so that hand splatters paint everywhere, so too an adult is powerless to escape death; just as a child defecates in her diaper and doesn’t understand why the onlookers feel awkward and embarrassed, so too an adult’s strivings to establish herself, to experience a rich, full life, to rise to the top of a social hierarchy are foolish in light of the equal emptiness of our ultimate destination. At least when childhood ends as children become adults, our early follies are practice runs for our more mature life, but when adults die there's not even any instrumental value of our adult follies. Death gives life meaning and that meaning is one of absurdity--not in the sense of total meaninglessness, since that would be contradictory, but in the sense that, existentially speaking, death reduces all adults to ridiculous children. Our greatest achievements, our skyscrapers and WMDs, our lessons learned, dangers avoided, and evils conquered are comparable to a child’s playtime flounderings, given that the value of life is dependent on death's value. Childhood is ridiculous relative to adult perceptions and adulthood is ridiculous relative to the existential appreciation of the common emptiness of our end as finite beings. 

Mysticism and the Illusion of Death

The mystic responds to this melancholic existentialism by saying that death is an illusion, because so is individuality, and that our deaths are not the same after all. On the contrary, when we die our bodies decompose and are recycled by the earth, interacting with different parts of the planet, because matter and energy are only transformed rather than destroyed. Our bodies are not independent, but are part of the totality of the universe, and that universe may have no ultimate beginning or end. Thus, when we identify ourselves with the eternal whole of nature, we needn’t fear or despise biological death.

To the extent that the relations between things unify them, we may indeed be parts of a greater whole, as the mystic says. But the rational analysis of the whole remains valid and necessary for understanding the patterns in that whole. And that analysis proceeds by dividing the whole into parts, and so we’re left with the concepts of life and death. The fact is that even if we can appreciate the oneness of the cosmos, in so far as everything is united by causal and logical laws, by circumstantial relationships, by the spatiotemporal dimensions, and so on, the whole clearly isn’t simple or inert even if it appears so in an altered state of consciousness, as in meditation. There are patterns and processes in nature, and reason enables us to understand them by applying concepts which draw distinctions. There’s no understanding without distinctions, and once you start distinguishing between things, you’ll appreciate the utility of conceptualizing the difference between individual bodies and minds, and between life and death, and indeed between any finite types or instances. Reason may be insufficient as a method of grappling with ultimate philosophical questions, in which case we may need to turn to myths and other fictions or even to transcendent modes of perception. But the parts of the whole picked out by cognitive distinctions are as real as the whole. If “illusory” means only relative to a perspective, then the oneness of nature might just as well be called illusory relative to ordinary, rational perception.

Moreover, the mystic here just shifts the sameness of our end from death to the cosmic wholeness. As long as that wholeness is impersonal, the mystic implies that the apparent variety within nature is ultimately identical with an impersonal homogeneity. This is as good as conceding that all finite things end in a way that wipes out their distinguishing features. The reason mysticism comforts many people is that the mystic tends to identify the whole of reality, on the contrary, with something personal such as Atman or some other deity. If you find this metaphysical idealism hard to believe, you won’t take much comfort just in our being part of a much greater whole, since this would amount to saying, again, that all finite things end up being not just something other than themselves but the very same something so that the motley complexities of natural processes, levels, dimensions, worlds, and universes are destined to be rendered null and void. Whether it’s the state of death that replaces each individual thing or the whole of nature that transcends the apparent independence of those things, life still normatively depends on death.

The Fantasy of the Deathless Life

When we consider this idea of death as a part of change and finitude, we might think the opposite of death is some immutable, eternally frozen state. This is Plato’s idea of immortality, of a godlike, perfect inflexibility, of a sort of static blueprint with all the pieces perfectly in place for all time so that any alteration of the arrangement would amount to an imperfection. This is the idea of the eternal, abstract Forms of things, of the perfect dog, tree, or number existing in a heavenly realm of archetypes which are imperfectly copied by  finite instances of them in the material world.

What’s curious about this conception of eternal life is that it’s actually another conception of death. We get a sense of this when we think of whether heaven or hell is more exciting and dynamic. Plato’s philosophy of abstract Forms influenced the Christian notion of heaven and so spirits in heaven came to be conceived in the West as frozen in time, as changeless and thus as lifeless in the sense of being the opposite of lively. For all the suffering that’s thought to occur in hell, any domain pictured as the opposite of Plato’s heaven is vigorous, animated, active, and exciting. We get a hint of this preference too when we’re reminded of the cliché of the woman who’s more attracted to the bad guy, the alpha male who treats her badly, who’s selfish, arrogant, and cruel but also thrilling for those same reasons. The bag guy takes her to hell, but that’s where she secretly wants to be because you feel more alive in hell than in a stable, boring marriage, which is conventionally praised as a heavenly goal in the platonic mold but which is actually a deathly condition, a frozenness and inertness in which the adventures that make life worth living tend not to happen. This theme is played out in innumerable novels and movies.

So there are these two conceptions of death. There’s death as a result of finitude: all finite things change and thus are marked by beginning and end points. Where there’s change, there’s death, extinction, and limitation. But there’s also deathliness in the absence of change, in the platonic idea of perfect life as the mere form or blueprint of a thing which is perfect as it stands and so need never change, grow, or live in the sense of being lively.

Another way of thinking of the opposite of death and thus of the perfect life, of true immortality is the transhuman one. Suppose your body could be modified by technology so that it’s impervious to disease or to any other external or internal threat to its survival, and suppose your mind isn’t frozen in a state of hibernation but is allowed to evolve for all time. Wouldn’t this godlike combination amount to eternal life? Notice, though, that evolution is change, and change requires end points. So were the person who enjoys the security of that superhuman body to evolve to such an extent that she loses any mental connection between her earlier and later mental states, such as the connection of memory, that break would effectively be the death of her earlier self. However gradually or suddenly this might happen, she’d transform from one self into another. Likewise, each person's infantile stage of several months dies as soon as the child prunes all memories of those earliest mental states. So even were your body made invulnerable, as long as your mind were allowed to change forever, we’d still be imagining here a self that dies over and over again.

So suppose that along with the body of Superman, the transhuman is given an infinite memory so that there are no breaks between any two stages in the person’s mental life. Wouldn’t such a person be truly deathless? Notice now, though, that this person would be in danger of the inertness of the platonic Form. As this mind is allowed to change, she must remember at least some experiences from every stage of her life, so that eventually her memory would consist of a vast amount of information that would have to remain frozen throughout time. Any change in that memory would kill the earlier self, and the more her mind is filled with a permanent store of information, the more she’s effectively mummified, locked into the same patterns of behaviour; that is, the more her “life” resembles that of someone following a perfect, timeless blueprint. So although her body could move from place to place and interact with its surroundings, the person would become dead inside, frozen in a set way of thinking by the vastness of her memories. To escape that fate, she’d have to edit those memories and so die and be reborn.

What, then, is my point here? It’s that we lack an escape from death even in our fantasy of the immortal being. Death truly has the last laugh on us: death gives life meaning but only by adding to our existential predicament, by trivializing our efforts, mocking our accomplishments, and infantilizing the lot of us; moreover, death surrounds us even in our imagination, in our fantasy of a deathless life. The life of that so-called immortal, godlike transhuman isn’t lively and so the best we can do in imagining a deathless life is to picture a deathly one.

Death and the Existential Hero

Does existential cosmicism offer a way out of this absurdity? (For background on this philosophy, see here, here and here.) Suppose someone appreciates this existential pickle we’re in and responds by attempting to live up to aesthetic standards, boldly creating an original way of life with just a minimum of clichés or delusions. Such a hero will still die, of course, but will she somehow spiritually escape death? Will she ennoble her life, making its meaning less ridiculous by her rebellion? Will she be elevated above the folly of the unknowing herd? In some ways, yes. Return to the analogy of the child. Suppose that child who’s forced to splash paint everywhere, to defecate in her diaper, and to babble because she can’t yet speak happens also to know she’s in such a foolish position. Suppose, for example, this is one of those children in a horror movie that has scary, super-intelligence, and yet she’s still a child so she’s forced to behave like one. Nevertheless, when she poops in her pants and the adults standing around look knowingly at each other and pity the poor child, saying, “There, there, you’ll get to that toilet next time,” every so often the child shoots those adults a terrifying glance, revealing that even though she must live effectively as a clown, she’s not duped; she understands she’s forced into one foolish situation after another, but although she must surrender some of her dignity she retains the right to look askance at the world, at all its barbarism for torturing a child in the first place. The existential hero is rather like that creepy child.

Still, death has the last laugh! Each creative act makes our life more unique, but that only increases the variety and complexity of life, and so adds to death’s triumph. If all living things were very simple organisms, death wouldn’t be so tragic because that which death would eliminate could be reconstructed with relative ease. But when you have sentient, self-guiding beings that carry mental representations and that can even discover the horror of the real world and rebel in however doomed and tragic a fashion, the nullification of all of those subtle interactions, meaningful coincidences, and sandcastle social hierarchies is all the more egregious. Thus, by rebelling against nature, the existential hero serves ironically as a champion of Death, ultimately intensifying life’s absurdity.

Perhaps the only real vindication to be found here is in the suspicion that Death has no sting, after all, not because there’s an afterlife, but because all of nature is undead. Even if the cosmos is a machine bent on disposing of all possibilities so that God’s infinite being might finally be exhausted, this is still an energetic machine that feigns vitality and purpose. Only after the Big Rip, after the cauldron of quantum fluctuations stops bubbling over with actualizations, would Death truly reign as absolute nothingness. But until then, the world that takes every life and ends every finite thing is forced to throw up ever more creations, because the world is an undead, evolving god (creator of all things). This means that while we live, at least, the deadly world must laugh at itself, as it were, if it’s going to mock the pseudo-independence of all the parts of itself that end. Nature brings all things to naught, but the forces that guarantee those infinite endings have just as much appearance of vitality as does a person’s material body. There are no spirits but only zombies, only naturally selected bodies that simulate supernatural life, so we can die knowing both that the variety and richness of what ends in nature are only so many ways for the cosmic whole to decay, and that our executioner is likewise infected with the spark of pseudo-life. Cold comfort, I know, but you’re a zombie after all.


  1. "Death gives life meaning and that meaning is one of absurdity--not in the sense of total meaninglessness, since that would be contradictory, but in the sense that death reduces all adults to ridiculous children. Our greatest achievements, our spires that rise high above the trees, our lessons learned, dangers avoided, and evils conquered are comparable to a child’s inconsequential playtime flounderings, given that the value of life is dependent on death's value."

    Would you say that this philosophy about the absurdity of life goes along with your ideas about the need for "gallows humor"? I feel like it does. I'm not sure what you are into, but there is this British show called Green Wing and I feel like it really exemplifies this quote and the whole gallows humor thing. It only had two seasons but it is amazingly absurd (I have never seen a show where adults act so incredibly insane!) and surreal and reminds me of this philosophy quite a bit. Have you seen it? I would be interested to know if you have any suggestions for books/movies, etc. that are similar in this genre of the absurd.

    1. Sure, gallows humour is needed as a sort of battle marching song to keep our spirits up in light of the curse of reason, which is our knowledge of our existential predicament, death being a big part of the latter.

      I like different kinds of comedy. It doesn't have to be the silly kind, but it's usually politically incorrect, smart, and raunchy all at once. I haven't seen Green Wing, but I'll check it out. I think Doug Stanhope is hilarious. Check him out on YouTube (or live, if he's in your area). I like Ricky Gervais, especially his TV series. Bill Hicks is funny. Chris Rock's standup makes me laugh. The Comedy Central roasts usually amuse me, and some of my favourite roasters are Gilbert Gottfried, Patrice O'Neal, and Anthony Jeselnik. I like Bill Maher, although I find myself nodding instead of laughing out loud when he speaks.

      At the moment I'm watching the first season of Community, which I think is an unusually smart and funny TV show. South Park is great, although again I find myself admiring its satirical points rather than laughing much when I watch it.

      I've seen a lot of comedy movies, but they rarely make me laugh out loud. Probably the funniest one I've seen is Bad Santa. I love the Monty Python movies. I don't really read funny books, but if you know of a good one I'd appreciate a recommendation.

      You know, my blog's getting to be a bit of a downer in terms of its content, so I've been thinking of trying to write some standup comedy of my own here, putting it out through characters or dialogues.

      By the way, I've edited the paragraph you quote from. I added a few sentences.

  2. Wow I really like how you changed it (the paragraph). Yeah I think it would be great to see some comedy writing from you! In my opinion the funniest comedy comes from those who see the world as it really is, all of the bleakness included. And, like you say, your blog certainly doesn't sugarcoat reality, so I bet you would produce some pretty funny material. Also, I've read some of the samples of your comics and I thought those were pretty funny. Yeah Community and Bill Hicks are great. I'll have to check out the other things you list there. I saw that you liked Punch Drunk Love, so I watched that one day. Good movie!