It is basic human nature to mourn the death of our loved ones for they are no longer with us. Similarly, death seems to be a loss for the ones who die, at least in the human imagination, since the dead no longer exist for themselves or for others. In this context, death can be considered overwhelmingly ‘bad’ or harmful to human existence. So, if death is ‘bad’, then not dying must be ‘good’. Would this mean immortality is, in some ways, good because life itself is the essence of ‘goodness’ or the antithesis of death?
While the above exposition might be a common assumption where immortality seems desirable, we can answer the question posed above only if we have an accurate evaluation of what is actually good. This essay investigates the metaphysical nature of death and its moral implications only to argue that death is better than an immortal existence.
The Battle of Defining Death
Medical professionals today command consensus over the scientific dogma that “human death is the irreversible cessation of the functioning of the brain including the brainstem”– as argued by Mr Thomas in the journal called Bioethics. But there still exists a vibrancy of contentions that scholars often include in their respective theories of death. One school of thought considers death to be the inevitable end of a person’s existence, while another believes that only the body perishes on dying, for the soul lives forever. Deductions from the latter argument open doors for discussions on salvation, Heaven, Hell and the beyond. But, how much do we actually know about them for us to discuss them fruitfully? Great spiritual gratification may be found in death by those who believe in the latter, however, it is more convincing to approve of the former argument, given the limited knowledge we have about death.
Our current knowledge at least verifies a universal truth that death is the common fate of all human beings, post which they stop existing physically. There is no concrete evidence to support any concept of another life, an after-life, or a reincarnation, among other divine hypotheses. Though a few mythological and religious texts support supernatural theories like these, the scientific age has turned them down on grounds of insufficiency of rationale and absence of proof. Also, even if we were to agree that there is an aftermath to death, it is certainly devoid of one’s original identity, thus terminating that particular life anyhow. The seemingly eternal soul will find a new body to sustain in, and leave that too one day before finding another body for a cycle of death to continue.
Therefore, if we analyse only the knowledge we are certain of, it is easy to accept death as a state of individual non-existence and nothing more. Consequently, it is a permanent annihilation of a person (at least as we know him/her) from the face of the earth.
Nature of Death: The Deprivation Account of Badness
Philosophical discussions surrounding the nature of death – good or bad – has been in a constant argument among diverse schools of thought for several centuries now. My belief resonates with the ideas of deprivation theorists like Thomas Nagel and Shelly Kagan.
The Deprivation Theory elucidates that death is bad because we can no longer experience the good things in life by virtue of our non-existence. When we cease to exist, we are naturally deprived of the good things in life. Therefore, being dead may not be intrinsically bad, but, it is relatively bad when compared to a situation that could allow us to continue watching the sunset, keep playing with our children and keep eating favorite delicacies, among other fortunes. Hence, the state of death makes us worse off than we were alive.
But, some may argue that a person who was suffering when alive is better off once dead. He does not need to feel the pain and agony anymore. While the context of this argument may seem reasonable, even in this case we are worse off dead since we have no knowledge of what awaits us after death. For all we know, one might end up suffering to a greater extent than he already was when alive. A known devil is better than an unknown angel: we are better off being a part of what we know than walking into oblivion.
A second, stronger rebuttal can be drawn from the Epicurean argument that suggests we be indifferent to death. It explains that death cannot be good or bad since there is no existing person who can describe or value its pleasant or harmful nature. However, if an existing person were to be stripped of all the good things in his life, he would curse whoever did that. Similarly, if it were ever possible, he would curse death as well. Just because he exists no more is no reason for us to disregard the harm that death did to him.
Finally, a Roman philosopher named Lucretius offers yet another contention to my viewpoint. He believes that our non-existence after dying is just like the non-existence we underwent before birth. Since the latter is not bad, the former should not be bad either. To answer his claim, it can be expounded that our prenatal period did not involve any loss. On the contrary, death is a result of the loss of our life. Losing the good things in life is attached to a negative connotation. This way, we have proved yet again that death is a bad venture.
A Mortal’s Assessment of Immortality
In the introduction of this essay, I had questioned if life was a good thing, provided death is bad. Now that we have established “death is bad,” we must assess immortality to see what life actually is. In order for immortality to be good, says Bernard Williams, two conditions need to be met simultaneously: the ‘Attractiveness Condition’ and the ‘Identity Condition’. Therefore, in order for immortality to be bad, or worse than death, these two conditions must not get fulfilled simultaneously.
The Attractiveness Condition requires a life to have attractive meaning forever. Imagine doing something you love for one month straight. Then a year. Then a decade. Then a century. Then millions and billions of years. Regardless of how much you love that experience inherently, it will eventually lose its attractiveness when done repeatedly over a significant length of time. Such repetition will only lead to boredom and monotony.
But, a counter-argument could be that an immortal person would have a diverse routine, doing everything immortally possible. So, let Monday be music day, Tuesday – singing day, Wednesday – travelling day, and so on… Furthermore, imagine the schedule changes every week with new activities every day. Still, how long before we exhaust doing the things we like?
To take the argument to an all new level, let us take Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. Even if we were to feel a variety of pleasures, every single day of our lives, over and over again, ultimately all our desires would lose meaning, leaving nothing for us to live for.
We may also delay participating in activities that we were keen to be a part of when mortally alive. Immortality might swing us towards a ‘will-do-it-tomorrow’ attitude because our days are no longer numbered. The ambition that a finite life instills in us would be lost to the drudgery of time, hence compromising the attractiveness of life.
Let us also discuss the Identity Condition, which requires that our personality and uniqueness always stay intact. It is difficult to consciously fulfill this condition, given the human mind is easily prone to tedium and ennui. In order to prevent this, an immortal person could attempt to transform himself in a way that divests him of his real-self and creates an existential crisis. Such attempts could include a ‘removal of higher consciousness’ so as to become ignorant towards an unending life or ‘inducing mental forgetfulness’ so as to experience every activity as if it were the first time, even if it were the millionth. This would artificially preserve the attractiveness of life but compromise our true identity.
Therefore, it can be concluded that the Attractiveness Condition and the Identity Condition cannot be met simultaneously because of a clearly presented dilemma: If we live forever as our true selves, boredom will eventually set in and life would not remain as attractive; and if boredom does not set in, then it is not our true self that is living immortally; in both ways making immortality bad or in fact worse than death. While a finite existence promotes ambition, passion, motivation, and determination, an infinite life endorses dispiritedness, indifference, and lethargy over time. The balance of nature makes sure an unnatural phenomenon like immortality is worse than the natural principle of death. In other words, it is verily because of death that life becomes good, and it is verily because of life that death becomes bad. It is this metaphysical dichotomy and the epistemic limitations to a true understanding of death which makes life better than death. But, at the same time, this is what makes an unending life valueless too, for, without death, life is, quite unironically, pointless.
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