It happened again tonight.
The instinctive shaking of my head, as my mind tries to wake my body up, trying to awake from a nightmare that unfortunately is only too real, trying to reject the logical conclusion it is faced with.
I am going to die.
However, dying does not particularly scare me per se.
I am going to cease to exist. From my perspective… There won’t be anything to perceive. I won’t even be aware of the fact. There’ll be nothing left of me to perceive the finality of my death.
And I will never come back again. After I die – that’s it. The clock is ticking, and when time runs out, from my personal and limited perspective, the entire universe will end – as I will end.
However, I am not writing this purely to be depressing. I don’t want to throw others deep into the pits of this despair, although inevitably this post may cause that for some. But rather, this is my rationalization of the situation – along with how, indeed, there may actually be some hope, however slim.
To give background about myself: I am a former Christian who lost faith in Christianity, dabbled a little in other religions, and then fell out of religion completely. This happened through a combination of my own doubts and realizations, with the coup de grace on my faith being delivered by a quote from Richard Dawkins: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
After reading that line out of The God Delusion, I could not go back. I already “knew” this to be the case, and was troubled that any religion could claim to have a monopoly on truth, but this basically broke me out of religious thought altogether and made me become an agnostic if not completely an atheist.
Now, this presents a problem: I was raised Christian with the believe that we all either will live forever in heaven or burn forever in hell. But having completely turned away from religion, that basically left science as the best reasonable explanation. Occam’s Razor cuts sharply. The universe doesn’t have any obligation to care about what happens for us. Assuming that it doesn’t, based on current evidence, when we die, we truly die.
Now, I would love for this not to be true. If I knew for a fact I would be reincarnated: sign me up for the army! It’s a pretty long respawn time if I die, but at least I’d know I’d come back eventually! …But, jokes aside, I don’t know this. And if I knew for a fact I would go to heaven because of my beliefs: well, then I wouldn’t be having this agonizing terror. But, the problem there is the need to rely on “faith”, which by definition is to not conclusively know. (Yes, I’m ignoring religious definitions of faith.) Faith can’t be faked. It won’t fool God if he/she/it exists, and it won’t fool yourself in the end. You’ll still find your mind occasionally wander to this topic and have to cope with this in some way.
If I am honest with myself, the best science can give me is that I will die and that will be that. …And that is not something I can accept. But simultaneously, I can’t just force myself into believing a religion; I can go through the motions and hope to brainwash myself, but likely the problem will be masked at best, and likely still there.
Facing the Abyss
I’ve heard some people say that their secret to success is to meditate upon their own death daily, to keep awareness that they are going to die anyway, so they should not hold back on trying to fulfill their goals or desires, as in the end, we are all destined to return to dust.
I think some of these people have a religious background which makes this easier. Some may not, which certainly is more difficult since if you accept “true death” with no life afterwards, it’s either much harder to consider taking risks, or you risk removing even your own personal meaning from your life.
How I wish I could just “not care”. But that’s not how I work. I care very much.
I read a “Change My View” thread on Reddit the other day about this topic, and the responses were generally well intentioned, but not satisfying. Which I would expect: it was a “Change My View”. So many people were trying to convince the author that indeed death is desireable or a good thing for reasons X, Y, and Z.
I can’t completely disagree, but nor can I accept it.
So, how do I cope? …Basically by trying to find a way out. This is arguably my animal brain at work here, working for my survival, but it’s the only logical answer I have other than just, well, rolling over and dying essentially.
How I’ve found respite in the past is to consider some of the things that could change which makes death less inevitable. That’s allowed me to generally live a happy life without too much of this type of terror occurring. And while I’ve had a bit of recurring terror as of late, I think my brain is settling down yet again into a pattern which will give me peace and perhaps lead to “salvation” of sorts.
Breaking the problem down
For anyone visiting who hasn’t read my other blog posts: I’m a software engineer by profession. My job is to analyze problems, propose solutions to those problems, and implement those solutions.
One of the ideas in modern software engineering is the idea of “agile” development. Basically: rather than trying to fully design a solution up front which completely meets the needs of the customer, we can provide a solution part-by-part much faster. (Some may call this “deliver crap quickly”, but it can be a pretty good model to get solutions out into the world quicker without waiting for them to be perfect.)
When facing arguably the biggest of all problems, human mortality, I think we basically must take this approach.
From here, a lot of what I will say is pulling from ideas of others; I will try to tie this together in my own way. Just note, I’m not claiming all of this as my own ideas. Indeed, a lot of this can be classified as ideas covered by “transhumanism”, which countless other authors have written about, likely much more elegantly than I have.
Basically, here is what I see as being the hope for escaping inevitable death.
First, there are radical ideas in the rejuvenative medicine field. A great example is SENS. Basically, the idea is to treat aging itself as a disease and to try to “cure” aging. This is obviously radical due to our limited success with other diseases: we’ve been fighting cancer for quite some time, but it’s still claiming countless lives. But, this is one path, and I would argue it is a realistic one whether or not you the reader agree with their proposed timeframes. If we can keep using our same body indefinitely, that’s a very direct path to “immortality”.
However, if we are hit by a bus, a bullet, or a meteorite, we may be dead anyway. SENS doesn’t address accidental death. That might be enough for me personally, or it might not; I’m not really sure. It may have to be enough.
Another approach is the Ray Kurzweil approach: we merge with our technology to become “immortal”. We can become cyborgs, or we can upload our consciousness to computers, etc. To me, this seems further “out there”, although still within the realm of possibility. I’d be quite scared of uploading myself to a computer, knowing as well as I do how fragile they are, and there’s the whole ontological problem of “is it me, or is it another me and I personally am still going to die?” I don’t know how or if that problem can ever be solved – but it too is at least a path, another possible way of escaping mortality.
So: problem solved, right? …Not quite.
And then, there is entropy, the idea that the universe moves from an ordered state into a gradually more and more disordered state, with no way of reversing it. The ultimate consequence, with an unbounded universe as we are believed to live in, is the “heat death” of the universe.
Yes, how silly – a human, a being destined to live no longer than 80ish, perhaps 120ish years at most, is worried about the far distant future destiny of the universe? One which I am highly, highly unlikely to see?
Yes. I do. And that ultimate end, as an intelligent being which wants to stay alive, is itself also terrifying, although certainly much less immediate.
But, returning to the “agile” principle: we don’t need to solve this right now. We need to solve our immediate problems first (our current ridiculously short lifespan), after which we will have much more time to continue working on these larger problems.
It may be that this is indeed something we can’t resolve. For example, perhaps escaping to a parallel universe is the only option, but there’s no way for us to really “survive” in the process; we can perhaps share some information in some obscure way but can’t really save ourselves.
Or it may be that we can resolve it. And if we have thousands or millions of years, maybe even longer, perhaps we can. Again, we don’t need a complete solution right now. And that allows for hope, however slim.
A glimmer of hope
So, there is my current view: we may be able to extend biological human lifespans indefinitely, if we work at it. We may be able to transcend our biology in some way, if we work at it. We may be able to back ourselves up and survive accidental death, if we work at it (and if it is ontologically possible). And perhaps sometime in the deep future, we can address humanity’s (and the universe’s) ultimate fate.
This gives me, personally: a very, very slim chance of escaping my current “normal” human lifespan.
But that is better than nothing.
And that glimmer, that sliver of hope, is what we should be working for.
Here’s where I ruffle some feathers.
There are some great things about religion. There are some great religious people. Some of these people are my friends or my mentors. I cannot say that religion is categorically bad. I think some of the teachings in religion are good.
However, religion undeniably has its bad side. When religion is followed blindly, it can cause problems when the religion is not based in reality and is not willing to flex to meet reality.
But particularly, the stories of life after death and reincarnation are too comforting. Again, I’d love to be able to convince myself to believe them, but I find I cannot. Their problem though is: they allow us to ignore the problem of death by pretending true death doesn’t really exist, or pretending that it won’t happen to us. Or they contribute to the idea that death should be accepted. (Although yes, this is not the only factor contributing to the beliefe that we should accept death.)
It is important to realize that we are at a unique time in our history as a species. Our technology has advanced to a point where the idea of immortality is not a blind search for the fountain of youth. It’s a long shot, the moonshot of moonshots, but we may be able to affect real change. It may happen within our lifetimes. Or it may happen in our children’s.
I don’t have evidence to show that death is final. But I also don’t have evidence to the contrary. So by accepting that death may indeed be final, that puts the importance of solving this problem that much higher. …And while it may cause people pain to think of this, it is probably good for others to face this fear sooner rather than later in hopes they will see the importance in a similar way.
I hang my hopes of not dying on essentially the ideas of the transhumanist community. Curing aging, upgrading or replacing the body… Perhaps cryogenically preserving the body if it looks like death is nearing inevitability… And then, when over the cusp and once life expectancy is no longer a number of years but simply a question mark, we may be able to address many of the deeper issues that face humanity.
I don’t deny that reducing the death rate may have unintended or perhaps negative consequences. These have been discussed elsewhere by other authors. Nonetheless, I cannot find any single one of these arguments compelling enough to say that we should give up and just accept death. Our world my change – it always does, and will continue to do so. But sentencing every man, woman, and child to death just because we’re not willing to potentially face some of these consequences strikes me as the height of immorality, not morality.
Finally, wrapping back to how I opened this post: “The Terror”. I would propose that the terror encountered when thinking directly about true death is perhaps in part a type of evolutionary pressure: to overcome a threat to our existence. Rather than merely accepting death, or dressing it up via religions and making it out to be “not bad” or even positive, we should listen to that inner scream. We must overcome this threat. It is our destiny as humans to continue to push ourselves and to overcome our limitations: our current short lifespan is one such challenge.
I’ll wrap up with an appropriate quote commonly used by other transhumanist authors:
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.
— Dylan Thomas
Postscript: I have deliberately only touched lightly on many of the ideas in this post. For those who don’t know about these ideas and are legitimately interested, Google is your friend.