The Fall into Nihilism

It starts with the death of companion animals. Not when you are young and comparatively resilient, but later in adult life when you are personally responsible for all of the decisions and costs, the management of a slow and painful decline. The futile delaying actions, the ugly realizations, the fading away, the lost capacity, the indignities and the pain, and all in an individual fully capable of feeling, but who lacks the ability to comprehend what is happening, or to help resist it. One slowly realizes that this is just a practice run for what will happen to everyone you know, later, and then to you. Ultimately it comes to euthanasia, and one sits there looking down at an animal who is a shadow of his or her previous self, second guessing oneself on degree of suffering, degree of spark and verve remaining. It is rarely a clear-cut choice, as in most companion animals the body fails before the mind. When it is clear, and your companion is dying in front of you, you will rush, and later chew it over for a long time afterwards; did you wait too long, could you have done better?

At some point you will ask yourself: why am I trying to maximize this life span? Why am I playing at balancing capacity against suffering? Why have I not just drawn an end to it? Why does it matter if a dog, a cat, another animal exists until tomorrow? Next year the animal will be gone without trace. In ten thousand years, it is most likely that you will be gone without trace. In a billion years, nothing recognizable will remain of the present state of humanity, regardless of whether there is continuation of intelligence or not. The great span of time before and after cares nothing for a dying companion animal. There is no meaning beyond whatever meaning you give to any of this, and there is a very thin line between that and the belief that there is no meaning at all, the belief that there is no point. If the animal you lived with will be gone, what was the point of it all? If you will be gone, why are you so fixated on being alive now, or tomorrow, or some arbitrary length of time from now?

It starts with companion animals, and it gnaws at you. The first of the cats and dogs you live with as the responsible party, the thinking party, the one motivated to find some meaning in it all, arrive and age to death between your twenties and your forties. That is traumatic at the end, but you find it was only practice, because by the end of that span of time, the first of the people closest to you start to die, in accidents and in the earlier manifestations of age-related disease. The death by aging of companion animals teaches you grief and the search for rationales - meaningless or otherwise - and you will go on to apply those lessons. To your parents, to mentors, to all of those a generation older who suddenly crumple with age, withering into a hospital or last years in a nursing facility. You are drawn into the sorry details of the pain and the futile attempts to hold on for the ones closest to you, a responsible party again. You are left thinking: why all this suffering? Why do we do this? What does it matter that we are alive? The span of a billion years ahead looms large, made stark and empty by the absence of those dying now, no matter how bustling it might in fact prove to be.

Grief and exposure to the slow collapse of aging in others: these are toxins. These are forms of damage. They eat at you. They diminish you, diminish your willingness to engage, to be alive, to go on. I think that this burden, as much as the physical degeneration of age, is why near all people are accepting of an end. The tiredness is in the mind, the weight of unwanted experiences of death by aging and what those experiences have come to mean to the individual. Human nature just doesn't work well under this load. It becomes easy to flip the switch in your view of the world: on the one side there is earnest work to end future suffering by building incrementally better medical technology, while on the other side lies some form of agreement with those who say that sadness and suffering can be cured by ending all life upon this world. Oh, you might recoil from it put so bluntly, but if you accept that existence doesn't matter, then the gentle, kind, persuasive ending of all entities who suffer or might suffer lies at the logical end of that road. It is just a matter of how far along you are today in your considerations of euthanasia and pain. This is the fall into nihilism, driven by the urge to flee from suffering, and the conviction that your own assemblies of meaning are weak and empty in the face of the grief that is past, and the grief that you know lies ahead.

Not all of the costs of the present human condition are visible as lines upon the face.


I've never put one of my pets down and I never will.
Euthanasia is never the answer.

Posted by: Anonymoose at July 25th, 2017 8:42 PM

This is genuinely chilling, Reason.

And insightful. You're postulating a much subtler and more gradual reason for the widespread fatalism about aging and death than the "terror management theory" aspects embedded in Dr. de Grey's "pro-aging trance."

Posted by: Michael at July 25th, 2017 10:14 PM

I think this also makes it easy to understand the power of religion to get us through the dark night.

Posted by: Corbin at July 26th, 2017 12:46 AM

Corbin: Indeed. And when I was reading Reason's article, I felt happy of living in a time when we at last know why we suffer, why we die, why we can think, how we came here, etc. Two centuries ago I would have no explanation at all. And a few decades ago I couldn't see any escape from death.

Posted by: Antonio at July 26th, 2017 3:57 AM

@Anonymoose : What a gratuitious affirmation. Too bad life (and death) ain't dat easy.

Posted by: Spede at July 26th, 2017 4:00 AM

I think you're right, Reason.

But even if I understand the reasoning, I just can't accept many people just let this all happen without actively steering against it. I don't blame the people centuries or even decades ago because I realize they had no realistic chance although they could have been the ones to start research or make progress on aging much earlier for some of which of course this may apply. Even nowadays most approaches regarding defeating aging are pathetic (you know what I'm talking about). So what is wrong with people (not you people, but the majority of society apparently?) We must first dream of a better world and then make it real. We can achieve many great things if we free ourselves from the phsychological burden that drags us down deeper and deeper as we see more suffering.

Posted by: K. at July 26th, 2017 4:06 AM

I went through exactly this recently with an old companion dog I was very close too.

Though interestingly my response was, fuck that shit happening to me any time soon! Let's get this ball rolling!

Posted by: Matthew at July 26th, 2017 4:34 AM

This is why I bought two long-lived turtles.

Posted by: Nicolai at July 26th, 2017 5:13 AM

"In ten thousand years, it is most likely that you will be gone without trace."

Not sure about that IF we manage to survive the next hundred years.

Posted by: Nicolai at July 26th, 2017 5:23 AM

For some of us, its even earlier. At 7, I watched my father die from a wasting cancer for 5 years before he died. Really opens your eyes and poisons the whole 'Life experience'. You never even get to have those young carefree years without feeling the sword of Damocles ever present. I can relate all too well.

Posted by: Mark Borbely at July 26th, 2017 10:17 AM

Yep, life extension research is itself a statement of fundamental human value in the face of a hostile uncaring universe.

Posted by: Jim at July 26th, 2017 12:59 PM

I cleaned up the comments here, as they were deteriorating thanks to unwanted individuals.

Posted by: Reason at July 26th, 2017 5:04 PM

Forget a billion years, it would be amazing to live to 10,000 years as an individual. Right now Its up in the air whether we can survive for the next hundred years or not. first we need human clinical trials and the first set of successful rejuvenation therapies. That will be a great confidence booster to the general populace who will be more excited than ever and speed up the growth of the field. its true that people can easily be discouraged as reason pointed out after seeing their loved ones slowly suffer and die. Then they think they're next and become weak mentally and physically. while things seem hopeless with the current pace of research, development of therapies and funding, our lives are better spent fighting to bring about the first working rejuvenation therapies in humans instead of waiting for death. so the fall into nihilism is very true. Only way to get this mindset is to foster a growth mindset with a positive attitude which takes a lot of willpower and will be hard to do so in face of our current reality but we must develop these traits. Better off fighting than waiting

Posted by: Akschith at July 26th, 2017 10:24 PM

We had to put our dog down two days ago. He broke his leg and was howling and suffering horribly; we were told he would never recover because of his advanced age, and would live life in terrible pain.

I wish I had something that would have enabled him to heal. Aging is horrible and must be stopped.

Posted by: bmack500 at July 26th, 2017 10:39 PM

The resignation into nihilism and desire to live forever, are both part of the same limited perspective. The truth is, even if you can extend your physical body to thousands of years, you will have changed so much physically and mentally, that you might as well have been born again. It is said most atoms in your physical body are replaced every 7 years, so you have in fact died and been reborn many times even in one life. Identity is really an illusion, but this can be a source of comfort, rather than a need to resign to nihilism. Parts of our identity (and the most important parts) already exist in other people, past and present and future. While you physical body may and does die perpetually, through change or through decadence, your identity (your thoughts and ideas) will continue to live on so long as there is consciousness in this or other universes. Someday, and perhaps not a day to far off, we will be able to connect our nervous systems as they are now starting to do in animal experiments, and in that day, I fully expect, we will find we are already existing in other people, and death is as much as illusion as personal identity.

Posted by: John Hamm at July 27th, 2017 7:26 AM

@John Hamm - that's a bit of a 'blank slate' assumption you are falling into there which has been thoroughly rejected by linguists/scientists over recent decades. See "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker for a good text on this subject.

People do change personalities over their lifetimes... a bit. I've often wondered if people wouldn't act and feel like they were in their 20s forever, if they had they health (and appearance) of being in their 20s.

Posted by: Jim at July 27th, 2017 7:50 AM

Just wanted to say thanks for this thought provoking post. I have probably read it five time already and shared with others. This is one of the reasons I look forward to reading your blog first thing each morning and miss it on the weekends.

Posted by: Lloyd Morris at July 27th, 2017 8:30 AM

John Hamm said:

"The truth is, even if you can extend your physical body to thousands of years, you will have changed so much physically and mentally, that you might as well have been born again."

That's not the truth, that's only one possibility. You could, for example, just apply SENS repeately. That would not change you "so much physically and mentally" than you changed from chilhood to now.

"It is said most atoms in your physical body are replaced every 7 years, so you have in fact died and been reborn many times even in one life."

No, that only means that you are not only a bunch of matter, but matter and form.

"Identity is really an illusion"

Do you really think that our identity is the particular set of atoms we are made of? So when we eat and excrete we lose our selves? Do you know that, according to quantum physics, any electron is identical to any other electron, any proton is identical to any other proton, etc.?

Posted by: Antonio at July 27th, 2017 9:02 AM

@John Ham
I am quite sure consciousness is not an illusion.
It is not a result of the work of any specific particle or cell, but the combined work of all of them making up your brain (quite possibly the extended nervous system as well) at the specific moment.
We live in the moment, not in the structure.
Even if our atoms were static entities, our brain cells move around and rearrange their structures so often it would be a hard sell to imply our minds are something concrete and constant.

Your identity doesn't exist in other people because you've exchanged particles. Your identity isn't something concrete, it is a process.

This is the typical hole trans-humanist fall into as well - thinking that copying the physical structure can copy the identity, some of them even go further and say it would copy the consciousness.

I'm not even sure waking up someone cryopreserved would result in the same consciousness being restarted. Though there really isn't any way for us to know that truly. It is an interesting thought experiment but ultimately it doesn't make much of a difference, cryopreservation is the closest we could get to preserving the state of a mind in time.
Or maybe it isn't. Who knows.

But anyway, this is exactly why I'm ok with getting neural stem cell therapies when I need them. Specific cells are irrelevant, it is the process I want to preserve not the structure - our structure is in flux, this is life.

Posted by: Anonymoose at July 27th, 2017 2:35 PM

Anyway, this metaphysical debate has nothing to do with the article.

Posted by: Antonio at July 27th, 2017 3:22 PM

Yeah two days in a roll we've been getting questionable metaphysical discussions in this topic. But this is what happens when you start a philosophical topic - the philosophy hobbyists come out of the woodwork.

If only they could comprehend that there is no "true" philosophy. Unfortunately since most people either use philosophy as makeshift religions or are religious and consider it as a part of religion, it's hard to get that through their thick skulls.

Posted by: Anonymoose at July 27th, 2017 3:31 PM

how amazing that when you reach your older years everything is so much clearer.As a young person i would never accept suicide/euthanasia but now at 76yrs it is euthanasia that makes so much sense.I have had a perfect healthy life,never been in hospital or broken a bone (stress gave me shingles but got over it quickly).I live in an area overloaded with chronic aged people and what i see disgusts me, people in chronic aged conditions, nursing homes filled with these people.I have made up my mind to never allow myself to get to that stage,also there is nothing about life i want to do , no great bucket list,no grand urges, no euthanasia will suit me fine (i hope i die in my sleep)

Posted by: peter aris at July 30th, 2017 11:39 PM

Until Aging is cured then Nihilism will always be around because People will smoke, drink, or eat themselves into an early Grave because in their Minds they figure that sooner or later they're going to imminently get old and die so they don't give a shit and unfortunately you can't tell them that they're wrong because they're right. Nihilists won't be proven wrong until we get even a small Treatment to halt the aging process to where Humans wouldn't further deteriorate any further buying us time until an eventual Rejuvenation Treatment arrives where current elderly People could become young again not having to die (at least not to aging).

Posted by: Yagual at March 21st, 2019 1:05 AM

I literally cannot believe I found this writing. I didn't even look up "nihilism and pet loss". I searched for "how to overcome nihilism".

After fighting with everything I had - emotionally, financially, and spiritually - to save my senior dog from congestive heart failure, I had to euthanize him three weeks ago. Losing animals in my past was deeply painful, but this time, it has affected me at a sun-atomic level. Every atom in my body has a deep, dark nihilistic suntan now. I'm floating in nothingness. I believe in nothing. I don't even feel loss - I am loss. We live in a physical construct of never ending randomness and loss. Karma doesn't exist. I feel like I should be comforted by this knowledge for some reason. But it's as empty as my bank account.

Do I want to go back to feeling and believing that any god damned thing we do or feel or think matters so I can be destroyed all over again? Is that better than this? Or should I just float here and wait to die like everything I have ever loved? In the grand scheme of things, this choice also doesn't matter. Feel, don't feel…choose to live, choose to die…the universe doesn't give a shit. And it never did.

Posted by: Shelby at April 16th, 2023 9:05 PM
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