God (cont.)

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Now, granted, all this talk about the eternal significance of our lives might be fine for addressing the question of meaning, but it still doesn’t change the fact that our lifespans are so short and transient from a first-person perspective. We all still have to face the prospect of death at some point; and just knowing that the memory of our lives will always remain etched into eternity doesn’t provide much comfort in terms of dealing with the reality of death directly. It’s hard to appreciate life’s deep meaning when you’re no longer alive yourself.

This difficult fact of our mortality is one of the other big reasons why people sometimes argue that religious belief might be a good thing even if the doctrines themselves are untrue. If people can take refuge in the idea of an eternal afterlife (the argument goes), it can soften death’s sting and make people feel more comfortable with the prospect of death.

And I actually agree with the premises of this argument; believing in an afterlife can take the sting out of death and make people more comfortable with it. But the thing is, I don’t think death is something we should be comfortable with. It’s a genuine tragedy, and it should be treated accordingly. By acting like it’s no big deal – like it’s merely a transition from one part of life to another – we not only deny ourselves the ability to properly mourn the loved ones we’ve lost, we also deny ourselves the ability to see our own mortality with the appropriate amount of perspective. If death really is the end of life, then we should deal with it on those terms.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, mind you, that we should just let it drive us mad with terror until we finally succumb to it. There are a few different ways that nonbelievers can deal with death. One such approach, practiced by Mark Twain and others, is to try and think about death not as a horrible experience of annihilation, but simply as a state in which experience itself no longer exists. Sure, it might be deeply distressing to contemplate your death while you’re still alive – but once you die, you’ll no longer exist, so you won’t be experiencing any distress or discomfort at all. You’ll suffer no more unpleasantness than you did in all your years of nonexistence before you were born; and if not existing for all those years before your birth never bothered you at the time, then why feel bothered by the prospect of not existing after you die? As Twain put it:

Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born – a hundred million years – and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together.

A lot of nonbelievers find this perspective deeply helpful, even comforting. And certainly, it’s a lot better than just pretending that death isn’t real. Personally, though, I find that I’m not entirely satisfied with this approach alone, for the same reason that I’m not satisfied with the religious approach. Again, I don’t think death is something that we should just resign ourselves to (unless we absolutely have to); I think that death is the most tragic thing in the world. True, when I’m dead I won’t be able to appreciate the fact that I’m missing out on life’s wonderful experiences – but I will still be missing out on them, and that’s what I want to avoid. So accordingly, I don’t think that the appropriate response to death is acceptance; I think it’s defiance, in the spirit of Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

…or Edna St. Vincent Millay:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, – but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, –
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

In fairness to Twain, his more accepting attitude toward death made perfect sense in his own era, back when death was much harder to stave off and everyone knew for a fact that their lifespans would be limited to a century at most. In fact, for most people nowadays, his insight is still valuable; the vast majority of us, unfortunately, have no good reason to expect that we’ll survive beyond the next few decades. That being said, though, for the first time in human history, the possibility is beginning to emerge that some of us actually could extend our lifespans well beyond that natural limit. Medicine and biotechnology are constantly advancing and giving us new cures for diseases, new treatments for disabilities, and so on – and researchers are even coming closer to figuring out how to reverse the process of aging. Before long – maybe even within our lifetimes – our species might very well discover a way to fight off death itself, in the same way that we fight off every other malady. If we really are as tantalizingly close to such a game-changer as we appear to be, then, shouldn’t we make that our central focus? Shouldn’t we, as a species, immediately start putting all of our energy into conquering death, rather than just passively accepting it as an inevitability? I for one think that the sooner we can all adopt this attitude, the better. We shouldn’t just accept death – the worst thing there is – as a natural part of life; we should fight it, and we should do so as aggressively as possible.

CGP Grey’s video sums up my thoughts on the subject perfectly:

Bostrom delivers the bottom line on the subject:

Searching for a cure for aging [and “natural” death] is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an urgent, screaming moral imperative. The sooner we start a focused research program, the sooner we will get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years rather than in 24 years: a population greater than that of Canada would die as a result. In this matter, time equals life, at a rate of approximately 70 lives per minute. With the meter ticking at such a furious rate, we should stop faffing about.

Now, naturally, this question of how long it will actually take us to reach the point of being able to stave off death indefinitely (whether via biomedical breakthroughs or via some other novel method like brain uploading) is a crucial one, and one which raises further questions. Surely it’ll be quite a bit longer than 25 years before this whole process finally comes to fruition, right? Well actually, maybe not (see below). But assuming it does, how should we deal with the significant likelihood that we’ll die before then? What hope is there for those of us who don’t expect to live long enough to reach what Aubrey de Grey calls “longevity escape velocity” – the future point at which improvements in life extension technologies start to outpace our natural rate of aging and we can keep ourselves alive indefinitely?

Unfortunately, there’s no guaranteed way of ensuring that any of us as individuals will make it to that critical moment in the future (whether it be 20 years from now or 200) when we finally achieve victory over death. However, there might be one tiny ray of hope that does currently exist in our time: cryonics. If you’re not familiar with this technology, it’s basically a way of having yourself preserved after you die (your body is vitrified and placed in super-cold liquid nitrogen) and then stored by a cryonics company for the next few decades (or centuries, or however long it takes) until future generations have reached a point where their technology is advanced enough to be able to revive you and restore you to full health. Obviously, the ultimate success of this technique isn’t guaranteed; there’s no way of knowing in advance whether humanity ever actually will develop such advanced technology, whether the cryonics companies will be able to survive until then, and so on – so even its most optimistic proponents consider the whole venture to be far from a sure thing. Most people’s reaction to the idea is to dismiss it entirely as pure sci-fi fantasy (and if you aren’t familiar with many of the projections of what future technologies should be capable of, I can certainly understand why it might strike you as a fairly far-out concept). Personally, though, given the pace at which technology continues to advance, I think it would be a mistake not to take the idea seriously. The way I see it, even a small chance of surviving your own death is better than none at all. So if you can afford it (and it is expensive, but usually your life insurance company will pay the majority of the cost if you decide to sign up), cryonics seems like a better bet to me than just crossing your fingers and hoping that there’s a religious afterlife.

If you want to learn more (or if you’re still skeptical), Tim Urban has an outstanding post here breaking down the whole process; I can’t recommend it enough. In fact, if you want to avoid death as much as I do, I’d go so far as to say that it might be one of the most important things you ever read. In terms of maximizing your long-term well-being, it’s this technology of cryonics – not religious belief – that might very well be the winning lottery ticket you’ve been looking for. Although it might not be able to offer the promise of infinite perfect happiness that religious conceptions of Heaven offer, it does offer something even more promising – a legitimate chance that it might actually be for real – and that alone makes it worth paying attention to, as far as I’m concerned.

Continued on next page →