In this episode of X10, we discuss what gives life meaning and exactly what role that the ending of life plays in that meaning.
Check out the Dog Aging Project, which is run by cool people trying to give our pets longer, healthy lives: http://www.dogagingproject.org
Do any of these quotes sound familiar to you? <different short clips talking about death as the source of meaning of life and stuff like that> You’ve probably heard these and many similar things. The idea that death, or mortality, is what gives life meaning is not particularly new, and it has been presented in all sorts of variations in movies, literature, philosophy, you name it.
The basic idea is that, no matter how much we may fear it, death is necessary to give life meaning and even to make things enjoyable. It’s such an old and well-established trope that it has become common wisdom; it sounds deep and wise. It’s the kind of stuff that you can write on the picture of a sunset, share it on your social media, and get showered with likes.
All right, fine, but is it true? Does death give life meaning?
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Before we can answer it, we should agree on what “meaning”, you know, means. I guess it’s obvious, but just to be on the same page, the “meaning” we’re talking about is not a message you want to convey with words or actions, but, rather, it’s something that is important to you, something worthwhile that gives you a sense of purpose.
So, people looking for the meaning of life are looking for something that makes it worth living, that makes it worth their while. Something that gives them purpose, satisfaction, happiness, a reason to be. You get the idea.
When you put it like that, saying that death gives life meaning immediately sounds super weird. If you told me that death gave your life purpose, satisfaction, happiness, and a reason to be, frankly, I’d think you were a serial killer and call the police on you right away.
Seriously, though: the fact one day you will no longer exist is what makes your existence right now worthwhile? That’s the kind of stuff I would say about a movie I really hate—the good thing about it is that it’s going to end eventually.
I know: the point is supposed to be that knowing that you only have so much time available motivates you to make the best of it. I totally disagree with that, and I’ll explain why in a minute, but this leads me to a very important point.
There is no such thing as the meaning of life, and there are no specific things that can make everybody’s life meaningful. That’s because meaning is not a property of anything; people see meaning in things, and different people can see different meaning in different things, or even none at all.
Some might find that free-climbing, or having children, or being a political activist, or going to church, give meaning to their lives, while others might not find any of these things meaningful at all. I don’t, for example, and similarly, there must be tons of people who would find no meaning whatsoever in what I find meaningful.
That’s not a problem, it’s perfectly alright, but it does mean that there is no such thing as the “true” meaning of life, and it’s kind of arrogant to say that death, or anything else, really, is in general what gives life its meaning.
This quote: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not plan to sit.” is BS, sorry. I can totally see why it can be meaningful to do things whose benefits are for others and not for ourselves, and it is meaningful to me too, but that’s not the true meaning of life because there isn’t one. We each have our own meaning of life, and many different things, not just one, can give meaning to our lives.
However, if different things can give meaning to the lives of different people, then maybe somebody does find that death gives meaning to their life. Sure, that’s possible, and I can’t argue with that for the same reason that there’s no true meaning of life: it depends on the observer, so if you say that death gives meaning to your life, I can’t dispute it. Maybe it’s true for you.
I can be skeptical that it’s true, though, and I am. Here’s why.
We are all painfully aware of our mortality. We all learn fairly early on that we exist for some time and then no more, that all the people we love will be gone one day. Humanity itself has been aware of death from its own early days. We had to deal with the horror of our own non-existence from the beginning, and we had to find ways to cope with it, because as far as we knew, death was inevitable.
And what’s the best way to cope with something horrible and inevitable? Sugarcoating, which is just a form of denial. It’s sad that you and everybody you know will die, but you cheer up by telling yourself that, if life never ended, you couldn’t really appreciate it or that it would become meaningless. Except you don’t really know if it is true, because there are no examples of people who lived forever, or even centuries, and found that life had lost its meaning.
So we made up stories. Stories of immortal people whose eternal lives only brought them misery and afflictions. Paradoxically, we also made up stories about different kinds of afterlife, places where you go after death and can live forever in some form. This is just my opinion, of course, but to me, these things scream that nobody actually likes death or finds that it gives life meaning. We just tell ourselves otherwise to feel better. We’re very much whistling through the graveyard.
Important detour: the thought that death may be inevitable is what makes some people think that medicine against aging, which is the main subject of this channel, is pointless. Why bother, if you’re going to die anyway? Well, because dying later is better than dying sooner, especially if you’re in perfect health for longer.
There are other reasons why I think that the idea of death or mortality giving meaning to life makes no sense. Have a look at this clip from Star Trek: Picard.
So if you’re mortal, all those things are precious and life is meaningful, but if you’re immortal, they’re not? Say you met some kind of troll genie who kept turning you from mortal to immortal and vice-versa; would you also keep changing your mind with every switch about how meaningful your life was?
Jokes apart, I think Data’s got it totally backwards. Peace, love, and friendship are not precious because we know they cannot last, but because they make us feel good; they give us somebody to rely on, to spend time with. Somebody who understands us, whom we can have fun with, and so on, and frankly, the longer I could have these things, the better. I don’t like my friends because they’re mortal, I like them because we get along well, and I don’t see why we wouldn’t if we weren’t mortal and could be friends literally forever.
In my opinion, people and things that make your life meaningful have qualities that others don’t and that are important to you. That’s why they give meaning to your life, not because they might not last. Of course, people and things can change in such a way that they might no longer be meaningful to you, but others may come along, and you’d find new meaning.
If people that gave your life meaning die, death just took meaning away from your life. If you die, everything and everyone that gave meaning to your life will be taken away from you (or rather, you from them). The way I see it, death deprives life of meaning. It doesn’t give it any, and frankly, to say otherwise belittles the good things in our life. It’s kinda like when children want to play with a toy not because they actually like it but because you just took it away from them.
Meaning of life aside, I mentioned before how I also disagree that death may at least be necessary to motivate people to make the best of life. This concept was expressed by Neil deGrasse Tyson in this interview with Larry King.
Honestly, I was shocked that a scientist, of all people, needs the thought of his own death to motivate him to do science. What about passion, interest, thirst for knowledge? Aren’t they reason enough to get out of bed every day and do science or whatever it is you love doing? The question is not why get out of bed in the morning if there’s always tomorrow to do things; the question is, why postpone to tomorrow things that you love doing?
It gets worse. Does it really take the bugaboo of death for you to feel the need to express love now rather than later? “Oh, honey, I really love you, but if we weren’t mortals I wouldn’t have any reason to tell you.” That’s insta-breakup material right there.
And this is not just about people. This is Woffles. He’s my dog. He’s cute, sweet, affectionate, and funny, and he has his quirks. I love waking him up early in the morning to go for a walk, because he’s especially cuddly and sweet at that time. (Yes, I wake up my dog, not vice-versa. I did tell you he has his quirks.) He drives me mad sometimes, but I love him anyway. And that’s why I go and rub his belly, play games with him, and train him, and so on. It’s most definitely not because we’re both mortal.
The thought that one day he might die doesn’t make him any more or less dear to me than he already is, and in fact, I’m petrified to think that I might lose him one day. Right now, he’s still young, but the clock is ticking for him too. I really hope that the guys working on the Dog Aging Project make significant progress soon, because it’s Woffles’ existence that adds meaning to my life, not his mortality nor his death.
As a side note, the Dog Aging Project is a really cool research initiative to study aging in pet animals so that we can hopefully slow it down or reverse it. This is definitely worth a future episode, but for now, you’ll find a few links in the description.
Also, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked by Larry King if he doesn’t fear the unknown, he kind of interpreted the question to mean what is yet to discover rather than death, which is what Larry King obviously meant. That allowed him to move away from the subject of death, which in my opinion betrays how he’s afraid of it even though he says he’s not. (That, or when he said he loves the unknown, he actually meant that he loves death. Which would be a lot worse.)
I really don’t buy it when people say they don’t fear death. If they really don’t, I suppose they shouldn’t be afraid of a painless lethal injection, and yet something tells me that they’d rightfully freak out at the thought. The mantra that death shouldn’t be feared is just a universal bluff, and there’s a silent agreement not to call each other out on it.
And speaking of bluffing, what better example of it is there than Dr. Who? First, he said this: <clip where he says that it’s not the time that matters, it’s the person> and in the very next episode… <clip where he’s about to die and talks about regeneration> He’s talking about regeneration, something that individuals of his species are able to do to escape death. Yeah, I suppose he’s totally not afraid of death and totally convinced that the time doesn’t matter. He’d just like his own to be a little, you know, longer.
Oh, and he also said this: <clip where a guy says he could do a lot more with two or three lifetimes, and Dr. Who replies “it doesn’t work like that”> Yes it does! That’s precisely how it works! You have more time, you can do more things! Whether you will is a different story, but you certainly could, if you had extra time in good health, which is exactly the goal of rejuvenation therapies.
Of course the guy the Doctor was talking to in the clip turns into a horrible monster after entering his own fanciful rejuvenation machine—because, you know, only bad people want to extend their lives, wink wink—but thankfully, in the real world, clichés don’t take the place of the laws of physics. All we can expect from rejuvenation treatments is better health and longer lives, to fill with whatever meaning we see fit. No monsters involved.
All right, that’s about all I had to share with you for this episode. I realise this was basically just me telling you my opinion for a good fifteen minutes, so now I’d like to hear yours: what is it that gives meaning to your life? Do you think death adds any? Let me know in the comments.
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