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Death and the Meaning of Life

Keith Augustine

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, lines 22-31

n the time scale of the history of the Earth an individual human lifetime is a mere blink of an eye. We're born, we live, and we die--and then we are "heard no more". Death is like a dreamless sleep from which we will never awake, our consciousness snuffed out forever [1]. If this life is all there is, what is the point of living? If we're all going to be dead in the end anyway, what difference does it make what we do with our lives? We may influence the lives of others, but they too are doomed to death. In a few generations most of our accomplishments will be totally forgotten, the memories of our lives reduced to a mere name etched on a tombstone or written on a genealogy chart. In a few centuries even our tombstones will be unreadable due to weathering; our skeletal remains will be all that is left of us. Barring fossilization, these too will be disintegrated into the earth and nothing of us will remain. The matter from which we were made will be absorbed into other organisms-- plants, animals, even other human beings. New species will appear, flourish, and disappear, soon to be replaced by others filling in the niche left by their extinction. Human beings too will succumb to extinction. All life on Earth will be wiped out when our dying sun expands into a red giant, finally engulfing the Earth. Ultimately the universe will be incapable of supporting any life as it expands forever, leaving only residual heat and evaporating black holes, or contracts back on itself, fusing all matter and energy into a final Big Crunch. Either way, all life in the universe will disappear forever.

Such considerations once led Bertrand Russell to conclude that any philosophy worth taking seriously would have to be built upon a "firm foundation of unyielding despair" [2]. Does the finality of death make life meaningless? Although many people feel that it does, a moment's reflection will show that death is irrelevant to the question of the meaning of life: If human beings were naturally immortal--that is, if there was no such thing as death--there would still be a question about whether or not our lives had meaning. The underlying assumption behind the claim that life is meaningless because it ends in death is that for something to be meaningful or worthwhile it must last forever. The fact that many of the things we value (such as relationships with others) and activities that we find worthwhile (such as working on a political campaign or raising a child) do not last forever shows that life does not need to be everlasting to be meaningful. We can also show that everlasting life may not be meaningful by providing examples of lives which last forever yet are meaningless. In Greek mythology Sisyphus is punished by the gods for cheating death by being forced to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill. Just as the stone is about to reach the top of the hill, it rolls back down to the plain. Sisyphus is doomed to repeat this meaningless activity for eternity. The duration of our lives has nothing to do with the meaningfulness of them. It is ironic that so many people have missed this point given that Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus presents Sisyphus' eternal punishment as the archetype of meaningless existence.

Death appears to render life meaningless for many people because they feel that there is no point in developing character or increasing knowledge if our progress is ultimately going to be thwarted by death. However, there is a point in developing character and increasing knowledge before death overtakes us: to provide peace of mind and intellectual satisfaction to our lives and to the lives of those we care about for their own sake because pursuing these goals enriches our lives. From the fact that death is inevitable it does not follow that nothing we do matters now. On the contrary, our lives matter a great deal to us. If they did not, we would not find the idea of our own death so distressing--it wouldn't matter that our lives will come to an end. The fact that we're all eventually going to die has no relevance to whether our activities are worthwhile in the here and now: For an ill patient in a hospital a doctor's efforts to alleviate pain certainly does matter despite the fact that 'in the end' both the doctor and the patient (and ultimately all life in the universe) will be dead.

What is it about our lives that makes so many people feel that life is ultimately meaningless? The fact that we all will eventually die is one reason for this feeling, but it is not the only reason. The other main reason why many people feel that life is ultimately meaningless is that, as far as science can tell, there is no greater purpose for our lives. A scientific picture of the world portrays the origin of human beings as "the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms" [3]. Both individually and collectively, human beings came into existence due to accidents of chance. As individuals our existence was made possible by the reproductive success of our ancestors; as a species our existence was predicated by chance mutations which happened to confer an adaptive advantage to our evolutionary ancestors in the environments in which they found themselves. Because we cannot discern any indications that we were put on this Earth to fulfill a purpose given to us by an intelligent being, our existence does not appear to be part of some greater plan. If the absence of a higher purpose is what makes life ultimately meaningless, our lives would be just as meaningless if they were eternal. Conversely, if being part of a higher purpose gives our lives meaning, then our lives would be meaningful even if death ended them forever.

Is it really the case, however, that the absence of a greater plan for our lives renders life meaningless? Here too, a moment's reflection will show that a lack of greater purpose in life is irrelevant to the meaning of our lives. How would a greater purpose for our lives give meaning to our lives for us? Suppose, for example, that we found out that millions of years ago extraterrestrials genetically manipulated the hominid line in order to produce a species of greater intelligence suited to their needs for slave labor and have not yet returned to the Earth to enslave us. In such a case our existence would be part of a greater plan and would confer meaning to our lives for the extraterrestrials, but it would not give meaning to our lives for us. Our being part of a divine plan can only confer meaning on our lives if we accept our role in that plan as meaningful to us; but, as in the case of extraterrestrial enslavement, what is meaningful to God may not be meaningful to human beings. Furthermore, so long as we are ignorant of a greater plan for our lives--which we certainly are--we cannot know what our role in such a plan is and thus it cannot make life meaningful to us. Our activities are worthwhile for their own sake, not because they fulfill some unknowable transcendental purpose.

These considerations show that we must create our own meaning for our lives regardless of whether or not our lives serve some higher purpose. Whether our lives are meaningful to us depends on how we judge them. The absence or presence of greater purpose is as irrelevant as the finality of death. The claim that our lives are 'ultimately' meaningless does not make sense because there is no sense in which they could be meaningful or meaningless outside of how we regard them. Questions about the meaning of life are questions about values. We attribute values to things in life rather than discovering them. There can be no meaning of life outside of the meaning we create for ourselves because the universe is not a sentient being that can attribute values to things. Even if a sentient God existed, the value that he would attribute to our lives would not be the same as the value that we find in living and thus would be irrelevant.

What makes our lives meaningful is that we find the activities we engage in to be worthwhile. Our determination to carry out projects we have created for ourselves gives our lives meaning. We feel that life is meaningless when most of our desires which we regard as important are frustrated. Whether we regard life as meaningful or meaningless depends on the degree to which our important desires are frustrated. The judgments that we make about our lives on these points are the same regardless of whether one's life is eternal or not or whether it is part of a greater purpose or not. Perhaps the secret to a meaningful life is to focus on those desires which we can fulfill and diminish those which we cannot--provided that we know the difference between the two.

[Keith Augustine is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park]

Footnotes:

[1] We have no more reason to believe that human consciousness continues to exist after death than we have to believe that water buffalo or other animals continue to have experiences after they have died. Furthermore, we have very strong evidence that consciousness depends on brain functioning and thus mental life ends when the brain dies (see The Scientific Case Against Immortality for a survey of this evidence).

[2] Bertrand Russell. "A Free Man's Worship." In Why I Am Not a Christian. Edited Paul Edwards. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957: p. 107.

[3] Ibid.

Published:
  2000-12-02

Categories:
  Immortality

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