Death and meaningfulness (II)

Why do some of us think death implies meaninglessness? One plausible explanation is that when we are deeply unnerved by the unavoidability of our death, we may confuse the end of our lives with the end of everything. Of course we all know that the world continues to exist after we die, but it is easy to go from the thought that we will no longer see the world after we die to the thought that for us the world does not exist after we die. Surely ‘for us the world does not exist’ is still different from ‘the world does not exist’, but it is just a small step to go from there to the thought that for us there is no difference between the two. If for us the world does not exist after we die, and if we see meaningfulness as part of the world, then for us meaningfulness does not exist after we die. Again, ‘for us meaningfulness does not exist’ is different from ‘meaningfulness does not exist’, but it is also just a small step to arrive at the depressing thought that for us there is no difference between the two.

The problem with this series of thoughts is that there is no ‘for us’ after we die. ‘For us the word does not exist’ is nothing but a confused way of thinking about our death: ‘For us the world does not exist after we die’ does not say anything more than the trivial truth ‘We are dead after we die’.  For those who believe that we continue to exist consciously in some form after we die (i.e., after our earthly lives end), it does make sense to speak of ‘for us’ after we die. But if we believe that we live on after death, we should not believe also that for us the world does not exist after we die, though we do not live in the earthly world any more. In either case, there is no reason for us to think that death implies that our lives are meaningless.

Another plausible explanation of why we may conclude that life is meaningless when we think about death is that we may confuse the end of our lives with the end of everything about our lives. Tolstoy seemed to be having such a confusion when he wrote that death “obliterates everything: myself, my works and the memory of both” (A Confession and Other Religious Writings, p.33). Of course Tolstoy knew that his death would not obliterate everything; what he meant was presumably that his death would obliterate everything about his life. But even that, as I have already pointed out, is not true: his works were not obliterated by his death and we still read them today. Let us, however, imagine that Tolstoy’s works (and everything that belonged to him or was created by him) were obliterated at the very moment of his death and that no one remembered him or his works after he died. Tolstoy seemed to think that his life would be meaningless if that happened, but he did not explain why he thought so. Perhaps it was because for him the thought was obviously true; after all he did say that “once sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere trick, and a stupid trick” (p.31, italics added).  But in fact it is far from obvious.

Tolstoy’s works still exist and are read by many people; would his pessimistic view that death implies meaninglessness have been changed had he known that his works and the memory of him would not be obliterated by his death? The answer seems to be ‘No’, for he had every reason to believe, and did believe, that his works and the memory of him would last for a long time, but he still held that pessimistic view. What really bothered him was the fact that eventually his works and the memory of him will be obliterated. Now we should see that according to Tolstoy what is necessary for meaningfulness is immortality --- even if his works would not last forever, if he lasted forever, his life could still be meaningful.

Again, Tolstoy did not explain why he thought immortality is necessary for meaningfulness. Some of us would agree with Tolstoy on this or even think Tolstoy was obviously right, but we have to keep in mind that without offering any justification for believing that immortality is necessary for meaningfulness, the belief may simply be a rationalization of our desire to continue to live. At the very least we cannot simply take the belief to be obviously true.  Indeed, some philosophers argue for the opposite. Bernard Williams, for example, argues in his brilliant essay ‘The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality’ that “[i]mmortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless, … in a sense, death gives the meaning to life” (Williams, Problems of the Self, p.82). If we find it hard to accept that immortality is undesirable, that, as Williams also puts it, “an eternal life would be unliveable” (p.100), it is at least reasonable to think that a life can be meaningful without being immortal. In any case, instead of arguing directly for this reasonable view of the relation between meaningfulness and immortality, I am going to present a dilemma to those who think that immortality is necessary for meaningfulness.

The dilemma is this: either we understand immortality in terms of human life as we live it, in which case we have no reason to believe that the meaningfulness of life of this kind requires that the life be endless; or we understand immortality in other terms, such as in terms of disembodied existence, in which case it is not clear that we have any idea of what it is for that kind of life to be meaningful. If an earthly human life cannot be meaningful, why would lengthening it (endlessly) make any difference as far as meaningfulness is concerned? In fact, it seems more reasonable to think that if human life as we live it is meaningless, then living such a life endlessly is equally meaningless, if not more so. The other horn of the dilemma is even more intractable. For we can at least understand the idea of an immortal human life in which we continue to do the kinds of things human being are in fact doing or capable of doing, but if an immortal life is supposed to be utterly different from human life as we live it (and it is undeniable that a disembodied life is utterly different from an earthly human life), then we simply do not understand what it is like to live such a life, and hence do not understand what would make such a life meaningful.

It should be noted that none of what I have said suggests that death is not a bad thing. There are cases in which we can reasonably say that death is not necessarily a bad thing to happen to the person involved, but this certainly does not imply that death is always not a bad thing to happen to a person. In fact, it usually is a bad thing. But even if it is bad for a person to die now given the person she is and given the life she is living, it does not follow that it is bad that she will die later. And even if it is necessarily a bad thing for her to die, no matter when, it does not follow that her life before she dies is meaningless.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of Nagel's deprivation account of death, in which death is always a bad because it inevitably deprive the person the possibility to do things. And your reasoning in the last paragraph seems to confirm this intuition. Then, why is it bad if she dies now and not bad if she dies later, for natural or accidental causes. Is it plausible to assume that death is no more a bad if the person grows tedious with her life? Which seems intuitive at first glance, but we are usually comfortable to allow old people to accept this reason for a good death and feel obligated to steer young people away from the thought of it (not necessary suicidal thoughts but one may enjoys the very thought of never having been born.)