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The Meaning of Death
Laszlo Makay, George Marosan Jr. and David Vatai consider whether death destroys meaning or creates it.
Unsurprisingly, people are obsessed with the meaning of their lives. Many also think that death is the antithesis of meaning – the single greatest obstacle to a meaningful life. However, what if this is a misunderstanding? Moreover, if we discovered the meaning of death (if any exists), would it cast light on the meaning of life?
All of us have heard things like “Everyone dies, so life is meaningless.” Or taking this logic to a higher level, someone may say: “The unavoidable destruction of the universe – via heat death, the big crunch, or the big rip, you name it – makes the existence of the entire human race meaningless.” These simple reasonings seem correct. Our own deepest fears only serve to help them appear realistic.
Things have meaning because they are meaningful to somebody. Once that person dies then nothing matters to them any more, so surely the things in their life that had meaning no longer do? Hasty conclusions are usually misleading, and in this case, the conclusions are incorrect. Some meanings or their bearers can survive our own individual deaths – such as our own children or our contribution to society. Many external goals and achievements may continue to exist after our death. And in some special cases – for example, sacrificing oneself for a noble cause – death may even be necessary to fully realise a meaningful individual life.
What about the meaninglessness of humanity on a cosmic scale? It doesn’t hurt to know that science tells us that the longer the forecasting period, the less reliable the prediction. Any prognosis in the range of billions of years is uncertain at best. If we do not know what comprises 95% of the universe, we cannot be confident of our predictions about it. We cannot even be certain that the universe will ever be destroyed. Consequently, it would be a long shot to find our existence meaningless just because of some uncertain end-of-the-cosmos scenarios set untold billions of years in the future.
Image © Cecilia Mou 2020. To see more art, please Instagram her at @mouceciliaart
Life and Death Issues
If we want to be correct about the meaning of life in the face of death, we should first understand some basics about death.
‘Life’ has different definitions depending on the perspective and approach. Someone may say that the basic criteria for life are the utilization of free energy, reproduction, and the capacity for metabolism; but there is no single correct definition. Philosophy, biology, even astronomy, have divergent descriptions.
The situation with death is similar. Until recently, people who did not breathe were considered dead. This criterion was so unreliable that being buried alive occurred so often that fear of it was common enough to get its own name: taphophobia. The methods to establish death slowly became more trustworthy: a lack of pulse or heartbeat, then observing the non-functioning of the brain.
While biology and the medical sciences have their various definitions of life and death, we should dig even deeper, to account for the viewpoint of physics. After all, biology is essentially based on chemistry, and chemistry is based on physics. At the most fundamental level of physics, we find the law of conservation of energy and matter. This law does not allow annihilation in the literal sense, only the transformation of matter and energy. Matter/energy cannot be destroyed and it cannot disappear; it can only change.
If there is no fundamental physics-level manifestation of ‘death’, how should we interpret the concept? According to biology, physics, and systems theory together, death is a so-called ‘emergent phenomenon’ within the systems of life or the biosphere. For instance, death can be narrowly interpreted as the end of vital signs of an organism, so there would be no death without biological life. Consequently, death is something that needs life first.
The relationship is unidirectional, since death cannot happen without life – but life can exist without death. Yes: according to physics, death is not a necessity. At a fundamental physical level, all living organisms could rejuvenate their bodies by using free energy in their environment; and there is no fundamental physical cause preventing organisms doing this indefinitely. Many proliferating unicellular organisms (such as the HeLa immortal cell line) do not die because of ‘old age’; death only occurs due to environmental influences or accidents. The unicellular organisms living today are the same line as those that started fission billions of years ago, continuously dividing and surviving. Immortality, or more precisely, negligible senescence – a lack of symptoms of aging in organisms – may even exist in case of multicellular organisms such as hydras, which do not grow old. Many quite complex organisms such as trees live for thousands of years. Of course, in the long term, the likelihood of death for the individuals of even these species rises to 100%, due to accidents, disasters, illness, or predators. However, that can take a comparatively long time, and does not explain the usual death due to old age for individuals of most species. We could even say that there is something strange with common inevitable death through old age. For example, species have different typical lifespans. The normal timing of the ‘unavoidable’ death from old age of the mayfly, mouse, elephant, and tree varies species-by-species in an extremely wide range, from days to thousands of years. Therefore, death from old age is not the result of being alive in general, but due to species-specific factors. In other words, natural death is a function of their biological structure, their behavior, and their environment. Dying after a mating ritual enables reproduction; or the further life of the individual helps to support offspring.
This shows the efficiency of the life-cycles of organisms. Death starts to show evolutionarily benefits. A genetically-programmed, species-specific, timely death frees up natural resources. In every species, offspring, requiring living space and resources, represent the capacity for mutations, and so enable evolutionary adaptation. It would be hugely restrictive to the offspring if all the ancestors remained alive: it would cause them to run out of resources and space in the short term, thereby obstructing adaptation in the long term. Thus on the larger scale, death serves life rather than ruins it. The evolutionary advantages of the eventual programmed death of organisms has usually proved to be greater than the non-dying seen in their unaging counterparts, so evolution has favored congenital mortality in most cases. That is exactly what we can see in nature: there are far more mortal organisms in multicellular species than immortal ones.
So death does not happen out of physical, chemical, or biochemical necessity, but because of its useful effects. Death does not simply depend on life (since only the living can die); rather, life – more precisely, evolutionary processes – gave birth to death for its own ‘purposes’, with the genesis of the first complex organisms, about seven hundred million years ago or so. Nevertheless, we as individuals consider death a catastrophe because of our personal involvement, fear, and loss. We can see death coming, but we cannot see its useful effects after our demise.
Life and Death Reconsidered
So what is death’s meaning? The meaning is its contribution to the success, survival, adaptation, and development of life. The fact that life is present almost everywhere on our planet in such a great diversity today is only made possible by death. By the same token, death has also contributed to the emergence of humanity.
Furthermore, immortality would not itself absolve life of apparent meaninglessness. In fact, a lack of death would make life unbearable in the long run, as well as unsustainable. Immortality would likely lead to an overcrowded Earth with societies full of inequalities and social tensions in a collapsing ecosystem. Powerful leaders and wealthy individuals would strive to maintain and increase their power and wealth; fewer new minds being born would bring about less innovation; and immortality’s impact on our already overstretched natural resources and environment would be catastrophic.
Does the meaning of death lead to the meaning of life, too? We have seen that death is not an obstacle to a meaningful life. Besides, it has its own meaning, by contributing to life. Therefore, life is meaningful too, is it not?
Unfortunately, death having a purpose does not automatically give meaning to life. And if life turns out to be meaningless, then death, even if it were evolutionarily valuable, would also be meaningless. We have simply removed some common misconceptions regarding death and its effect on the meaning of life. Therefore, we have somewhat reduced the likelihood of negative answers to whether life has a meaning. But giving a positive answer to the ancient question, if possible at all, requires further research.
© Laszlo Makay, George Marosan Jr., David Vatai 2020
Laszlo Makay obtained his MSc. in Finance and Management at the Budapest University of Economics. George Marosan Jr obtained a PhD in Philosophy in 1978. He has been a university professor since 1992. David Vatai obtained his MSc in English in 2016 and a minor in Philosophy in 2012 at the University of Szeged.