Death is not what Gives Life Meaning

Everyone who advocates for far longer and far healthier human lives, a goal to be achieved through progress in medicine, sooner or later runs into the "death is necessary to give life meaning" objection. It sounds deep, but turns out to be complete nonsense once you start to break it down into its component parts for examination. The meaning of your life is what you decide it to be, and that is determined while living, while being alive to think, plan, and achieve. Living is what is necessary to give a life meaning for the person who lives it, and it isn't as though other opinions really count in this matter. This strangely nonsensical argument for death is really just another facet of the naturalistic fallacy coupled with the lazy conservatism inherent in human nature. It is painting what happens to be the state of the world now as the best of all possibilities, because it is easier to do that than to set forth to change it. There is no state of the world so terrible that you would not find the majority talking themselves into accepting it as the status quo.

It is not uncommon for people to accept, rather uncritically, the stale cliché according to which life gets its meaning from death, and without the latter, it would not have meaning. If rejuvenation can stave off death and extend lives indefinitely, will these extended lives be utterly meaningless? No. Time and time again have I said this before, but I still fear that this misconception may be one of the worst enemies of rejuvenation; consequently, I spend much time thinking about its roots and how to debunk it. Whether life gets its meaning from death or not, people who think it does implicitly admit that life has no meaning per se. In a general sense, this is correct. Meaning is not an intrinsic property of anything. To paraphrase a common adage, meaning lies in the head of the beholder, and that's where you should expect to find the meaning - if any - of anything, life included. In other words, it is up to you to find meaning in your life, and you should neither expect it to have meaning by default, nor let others decide for you what the meaning of your life is.

It is obvious why a strong wish to live exists: if I fear death and try to avoid it by all possible means, I stand a better chance to live long enough to reproduce than somebody who isn't so afraid. Therefore, evolution has penalised creatures who did not have a strong survival instinct, and rewarded those who did. This is why we hold our lives so dear. Human intelligence made us extremely fit for survival; our curiosity and drive to answer questions that we ourselves ask are among the things that make us unique on this planet. Eventually, they made us wonder why we die. Evolution has made us fear death and wish to live indefinitely, but at the same time, it has not given us the means to fulfill that wish.

The first and most evident sign of our attempts to address this problem are religions. Yes, we fear death and don't want it, but we don't really die, only the body does, or so is the claim. Some of us have resorted to accepting it, which seems to boil down to convincing yourself there's nothing to fear in death and you're okay with it. The final way to circumvent the death paradox is the fabled 'meaning of life'. What better way can there be to rationalise death and escape our mortal fear of it than making it what gives life itself its meaning? Far from being something we should fear or avoid, death becomes thus essential, for without it, life would have no point.

What does it even mean, to give meaning to life? Most would probably agree that filling your life with activities, people, and things you love and enjoy is a valid candidate for the meaning of life; so is helping others, or doing something for the common good; something that we feel is appreciated by others, and are thus gratified by. Giving meaning to life might mean doing some of these things, and clearly, none of these potential meanings is given to life by death. However, these are viable options but aren't the answer, because there is no single answer. You decide what is the meaning of your life; not old legends, not old myths, not clichés, not other people; you do. Thus, the only way death could be the meaning of your life would be if you decided so, which I hope you won't do. Ultimately, there's nothing especially wise in accepting death. The natural length of our lifespans is the result of a meaningless, purposeless process that happened for no other reason than the fact it could.



I was afraid of death when I was a child, until 10 or so. Then I slowly put death out of my mind, until I discovered SENS and cryonics, and then the fear returned, but this time with hope to defeat death too. On the whole, I prefer the current situation than the previous, absent-minded one.

Posted by: Antonio at July 3rd, 2017 9:33 AM

@Antonio: Wise words.

Posted by: Norse at July 3rd, 2017 9:45 AM

Life gives life meaning!

Posted by: Steve Hill at July 3rd, 2017 11:22 AM

I fully agree with you. I still somewhat can't believe this isn't consensus among all people and I feel like born in the wrong times.

Posted by: K. at July 3rd, 2017 3:24 PM

Well, I suppose to many types of people any type of attention that raises awareness can be perceived as a success. Perceived negative attention (attention that serves to castigate a series of values) raises the hackles of the non-believers/dedicated-non-interested. Positive attention (attention that serves to reinforce ones values) raises the cheers of the pre-converted. And everyone in-between is simply mildly annoyed to somewhat fascinated/ distracted. But awareness has been raised. I suppose attention such as that helps sell media for if one cannot find success in simply informing, first educate then incite. But does this emotional manipulation really last? - evidence seems to support that occasionally it does - witness current politics. But does it facilitate actual support? Possibly - witness the never-ending ad campaigns that stick in peoples mind - most likely those with the greatest emotional impact with a bit of unceasing repetition and captive audience thrown in - many of these products and companies still exist, if they are not currently flourishing. But what about a research type of environment? Does a populist (or anti- as the case may be) message with an ideological thrust promote those ingredients to a successful solution to what is essentially a technological problem? Depends. I think that the best open-populist (though admittedly with significant government funding) research movement that was so openly competing with a closed, information-limited research facility where we could compare 'research cultures' was in the early 2000s - of course this was the 'race to map the human genome'. And the private company was headed by a truly ruthless but markedly brilliant researcher Craig Venter. The private research company apparently 'won' though it is likely that the open nature of the research available in the public 'side' couldn't help but assist the private side. But was that the difference? I would suggest that, like with most private enterprise, that the strengths of the 'productivity bubble' tends to focus quality minds on a goal with both stick and carrot, however you list those common workplace 'devices', will always win. Combining proprietary and heavily protected knowledge with a dedicated and essentially closed productivity ecosystem will likely always win over an open and allegedly-collaborative 'public' system - even with similar resources and research talent. So what is the difference? Leadership and tightly guarded intellectual property. So, when resources within a collaborative environment are limited, what are the chances of success? Less, but not non-existent. So how to proceed if timeliness are a goal? Protections, incentives (financial, authorship, and intellectual) and limited knowledge release/ sharing - essentially mini-corporations, heavily legally defined - similar to the restrictions VCs put onto start-ups in say, Silicon valley. Very ruthless, competitive, and private -- but oh so productive and innovative. Crushing, though, to the cheering followers having to be kept out of the loop. So the participants in the various research groupings may need to accept a culture shift. A culture free of sharing/ cheer-leading to closed, intense, and predatory. Success most likely inhabits the chaotic edge of a research 'wave' - often more destruction than production. But this is the way forward - assembling private groupings bent on bringing product to trials rather than shouting encouragement and shame from the research blog rooftops - in the hopes of swaying a temporarily indifferent public.

Posted by: Jer at July 3rd, 2017 3:42 PM

Here are some speculations and ramblings of mine. In brief, maybe the idea of "good" death was historically more beneficial for a survival of a group rather than an individual, which mattered in a competition between groups of humans?

Death gives meaning to life - deathists say.
Life gives meaning to life - anti-deathists say.

But letting other person to take over from you (to replace you, to let you go away, or simply to die) may be an ultimate sign of love of other people and therefore love of the group by an individual. A sign of you valuing others more than yourself, so much more that you are even willing to let others take over from you, to take over your position in the group.

Maybe this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling about letting yourself to go away, to be replaced, is a part of the strategy of a group that allows the group to be more competitive than other groups. A statement which may be similar to a statement that capitalism historically seems to be a better strategy than socialism/communism for organizing economy of a group that is competing with other groups.

Going even further, one might say death caused by old age or disease so far in history was a "natural" way to provide this mechanism of replacing people in a group, so people did not have to kill each other.

Maybe most of the social networks were historically limited in growth by their resources, i.e. if all people in the network (the group) never go away (die), then there would be a fight between the people (elements of the group) for scares resources within the group. But then if a group is able to expand without a limit, then killing its elements would not be a competitive strategy since a bigger group should be able to outcompete a smaller group most of the time. (Would that lead us to the solution of humanity expanding beyond the Earth?)

I don't know if that makes any sense. And if it does, then if this type of speculation is true. So maybe the only way to solve the problem here is to run some models to find out if one belief is better than the other, or even if one belief is true or not. Complex system/chaotic system models can not often be solved by other means than by simply running them since their outcome is sensitive to (extremely dependent on) their initial conditions. Using emotions or some golden rules (like "death gives meaning…" or "live gives meaning...") does not bring a (scientific) proof that one strategy is better over the other. It may be good for convincing people, but not really proving the idea. (Yes, I do not know how to run such model.)

Posted by: veriti at July 4th, 2017 12:09 AM

Using competition and evolution as an argument is not at all rational - both processes are self solving. If one group is better than the other you will know either way.

Just let em at it.

Posted by: Anonymoose at July 4th, 2017 12:50 AM

I used to accept death, and to a lesser extent aging (I was too young to have noticed it yet), and basically signed up to the 'make the most of the time you have' mantra. It even got me through the sudden death of my mother through cancer. But then, partly from reading up about cancer, I discovered the life extension movement. Sometimes I wish I could take The Matrix 'blue pill' and go back to sleep! But I can't, so now I must fight death and research and support Life Extension until it is achieved or until I die.

I've noticed that many LE supporters are childless, and therefore fully committed to saving their own lives rather than ushering a new generation. I myself am a father of two and would die to save them (if I had to make that choice). This is love. But then I would prefer to stay 'young' and healthy and be able to fully share in their lives, rather than wither away with one or more dreadful diseases of aging. The idea that I could live many lives, reinvent myself, and participate in my children's future and the exciting world only they will experience (as things stand), is the attraction of LE for me.

Posted by: Mark at July 5th, 2017 8:18 AM

What do you think of the argument that indefinite life is pointless because "eventually probability will make you die?"

I've heard that argument from some people before, or some variation of it, and would like to know what kind of response or counter-arguments should be brought up against it, if any?

Posted by: Coby Dupre at September 11th, 2019 2:18 AM

@Coby Dupre
It is simple. The chances of living 2 billion years while leading the current lifestyle with many small but not negligible risks is extremely small. But nevertheless being able to live on average to 800 to to 2000 years has quite a value. Besides after a few hundred years the society will shift to less riskier practices and the selection bias will lead to people with risk affinity during much earlier then the rest. If you fo stupid and really things eventually you will win a stupid prise

Posted by: Cuberat at September 11th, 2019 5:31 AM

I think from a Christian viewpoint, biological immortality won't be achieved and death will always be a thing, and so there will be meaning derived from the context of a living a good life knowing that death is coming.

But, also from a Christian standpoint, meaning can exist without death: heaven is supposed to be a place of meaning, that never ends (there is no death there). Some could say that such meaning still is in the context of the death that happened in the past leading up to this eternity, but once that death is over it would be thought of much less, I assume, and meaning would be tied to some present moment activity in heaven.

Posted by: Tim at March 25th, 2021 11:14 AM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.