According to Steve Jobs, death is such a great benefit to mankind that it would have to be invented if it did not exist:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

As the baby boomers age, we can be sure to hear a lot more of what the cryonicist Mark Plus has called, ‘Humanist Death Apologetics.’ Never mind the horror, the destruction, and the suffering that comes with death, because, “it clears out the old to make way for the new.” Fortunately, a more enlightening perspective on death has been offered by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse:

It is remarkable to what extent the notion of death as not only biological but ontological necessity has permeated Western philosophy–remarkable because the overcoming and mastery of mere natural necessity has otherwise been regarded as the distinction of human existence and endeavor…

A brute biological fact, permeated with pain, horror, and despair, is transformed into an existential privilege. From the beginning to the end, philosophy has exhibited this strange masochism–and sadism, for the exaltation of one’s own death involved the exaltation of the death of others…

Modern market economies demonstrate on a daily basis that death is not necessary for the old to make way for the new. Neither do people have to be faced with death to have a meaningful life. Steve Jobs invites us not to be “trapped by dogma” but, unfortunately, he embraced the biggest dogma of all; the idea that human mortality is a good thing and gives meaning to life.

The reader is encouraged to explore some alternative views about death and aging:

Robert Freitas Jr – Death is an Outrage

Ben Best – Why Life Extension?

Aubrey de Grey – Old People Are People Too: Why It Is Our Duty to Fight Aging to the Death

Some contemporary atheists and secular humanists do not stop at debunking the idea of God but seem to think that making a persuasive case against religion requires them to refute all of its associated ideas as well; including the desire for immortality. Paula Kirby is not the first secular person praising our limited lifespan and glorifying death:

For atheists it is the very transience of life that helps to give it its meaning: for it prompts us to live it to the full, to try to make the most of each day, each hour, and to savour every experience along the way. It is the acceptance of the finality of death that spurs us to live our lives to the full, thereby ensuring they are as meaningful as we can possibly make them. It is also what makes it matter that for too many people life really is a vale of tears, and why it is so important to take practical steps now to alleviate their suffering wherever possible, for there is no afterlife in which all wrongs will be righted and all tears will be dried.

Kirby does not just repeat the hollow non-empirical cliché that life can only have meaning in the face of death but she also pretends to speak on behalf of all atheists. As can be expected, she cannot imagine an extremely long lifespan to be anything else than unspeakable boredom. When she writes that “Susan Ertz got it spot on with her witty remark that ‘Millions yearn for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon” one cannot help thinking that she is conveying more information about herself and Susan Ertz than about humans in general.

It is unfortunate to see an apparently reasonable person like Kirby arguing against the desire for immortality to make the case against religion. As the secular philosopher Herbert Marcuse once noted about this ideology of death, “It is remarkable to what extent the notion of death as not only biological but ontological necessity has permeated Western philosophy–remarkable because the overcoming and mastery of mere natural necessity has otherwise been regarded as the distinction of human existence and endeavor…”

When Kirby states that it is “so important to take practical steps now to alleviate …suffering wherever possible, for there is no afterlife in which all wrongs will be righted and all tears will be dried” she is exactly promoting the kind of  fanatical pursuit of “justice in our lifetime” that is a major source of ideological struggle and ill-conceived public policies. One of the major advantages of a vastly expanded lifespan is that it will reduce this desire for immediate moral gratification and stimulate a culture with more consideration for  the long-term unintended consequences of our actions. One might even go further and claim that it is exactly the prospect of being around for a long time that will foster a culture of moral responsibility and rational decision making.

HT Mark Plus

One question that is going to be of great interest is how aging baby boomers will confront aging and death. Where previous generations have found peace in religion and silent resignation, there are reasons to believe that this generation will not be so complacent. The baby boom generation, or at least those who have shaped contemporary culture and politics, have been more secular and less inclined to accept the constraints of nature (as evidenced by the obligatory contempt for views that allow some degree of biological determinism). In a review for the Financial Times, Stephen Cave reports on no fewer than four new books on the topic of death:

In universities around the world, professors are now arguing that the Dark Angel deserves more respect. Contrary to Epicurus, Death is justly to be feared, say today’s academicians – the common folk had it right all along; we should humbly hand him back his scythe and then run for our lives. Four new books insist that we are right to panic when the reaper comes – and that our very civilisation depends upon it.

There is a lot at stake here. Will the dominant opinion become that death gives “meaning” to life, or will death be seen as an outrage that can be pushed back by modern science? As is evident from this review, both perspectives are represented in these books. It almost seems obligatory for philosophers who write about death to present a-priori scholastic arguments against immortality.  Stephen Cave even talks about the “paradox of immortality,” “the fact of death imbues our life with passion and urgency, but it is that very passion for life that makes death tragic.” But what is a paradox  (even a “fact”) to some, is the lack of imagination of a rationalist philosopher to others. It is hard to imagine that (secular) academic pro-death views will persist when medical science has advanced enough to make these rationalizations less important, but it cannot hurt to be vigilant and turn the tools of logic against them.

Herbert Marcuse, one of the heroes of the protest generation that is currently ruling America, made an astute observation about the “ideology of death”:

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man.

The authoritarian economic and political ideas of Marxists like Marcuse have little to offer to those inclined to critical thinking, but it is time for baby boomers to face the prospect of radical life extension and engage in direct action to fight the grim reaper.

31. July 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Death, Society · Tags: , , ,

Although critical philosophers like Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) are not known for their contributions to economics or analytic philosophy, Marcuse’s essay “The Ideology of Death” (1952) should appeal to those who think that death is not a necessary part of existence, let alone something to celebrate. In this essay, the author discusses the phenomenon that prominent Western philosophers (Plato, Hegel, Heidegger) have not just accepted death as a biological fact that may be overcome, but have elevated its status to something that gives meaning to life. Unfortunately, this line of thinking persists today.  Although Herbert Marcuse lived through the 60’s and 70’s, he did not seem to have an interest in investigating scientific means to prolong life and overcome death.

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man…

It is remarkable to what extent the notion of death as not only biological but ontological necessity has permeated Western philosophy–remarkable because the overcoming and mastery of mere natural necessity has otherwise been regarded as the distinction of human existence and endeavor…

A brute biological fact, permeated with pain, horror, and despair, is transformed into an existential privilege. From the beginning to the end, philosophy has exhibited this strange masochism–and sadism, for the exaltation of one’s own death involved the exaltation of the death of others…

How can one protest against death, fight for its delay and conquest, when Christ died willingly on the cross so that mankind might be redeemed from sin? The death of the son of God bestows final sanction on the death of the son of man…

The fight against disease is not identical with the fight against death. There seems to be a point at which the former ceases to continue into the latter. Some deep-rooted mental barrier seems to arrest the will before the technical barrier is reached. Man seems to bow before the inevitable without really being convinced that it is inevitable.

Published in The Meaning of Death, Herman Feifel, Editor (1959)