On Death: A Humanistic Perspective

by Massimo Pigliucci

When I was fifteen I was having serious doubts about the existence of a supernatural entity benevolently looking over me, and—perhaps even more disturbingly—about the possibility of an afterlife in which I would again see my friends and relatives and exist happily ever after. It was at that point that I started reading the writings of Bertrand Russell, one of the most controversial philosophers and political activists of the twentieth century. Those writings made a lasting impression on me, especially these words:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.

It took me more than twenty years to really understand what Russell meant, and I’d like to share it with you, with the optimistic hope of perhaps providing other people with somewhat of a shortcut through their philosophical and emotional journey.

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive.” People often refer to death as a mystery, the greatest mystery of existence. But in fact, there is very little mysterious about death. Death is the cessation of all biological functions, the moment in which the living goes back to the non-living. A human being, while alive, is much, much more precious to his or her fellow human beings than the pounds of mostly water (with some carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and a few other things thrown in for good measure) that he or she physically is. After death the water quickly evaporates and the rest gradually meshes again with the rest of the universe. We are literally made of stardust, so perhaps it is only fitting that our atoms shall provide the building blocks for new beings, human or not.

However, we have no reason to believe that anything at all of what makes us conscious will survive our death. Of course, we don’t know that for sure, but this lack of knowledge is of little help to a rational thinker: it is quite obvious that the only reason to hope for life after death is our own wishful thinking. We don’t want to face the prospect of complete annihilation, so we make up stories to feel better while pushing the specter as far back as we can.

This fear is perhaps misplaced, as philosopher Epicurus wisely admonished us. He said that there is no reason to fear death, since where it is, we are not, and where we are, it is not. Perhaps, but my guts still tighten every time that I go through a moment of turbulence on an airplane, and I don’t enjoy thinking of a moment in time in which I will not exist. Nevertheless I think with Russell that our ego, even one as big as mine, does not in fact survive the death of our body. The question is, what are we going to do in the meantime?

“I am not young, and I love life.” Well, I actually am a bit younger than Russell when he wrote those words. But I am sure that I love life as much as he did, and in fact as much as anyone else. Sometimes people think that a skeptic or atheist must be a very cynical and unhappy person who, with no prospect of an everlasting existence, is miserable and resentful at the rest of the universe. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I am a very happy person (though the degree to which this shows depends highly on the weather), an incurable optimist about the future of humanity (despite all the evidence to the contrary), and a firm believer in the human spirit (by which I mean the resilience, ingenuity, and love for each other that our species can display in its best moments).

Where does this love of life come from? Biologically, from our genes: simply put, organisms that did not have a zest for life perished earlier than others, and probably left fewer progeny. Which means that only the optimists are left standing. From a human perspective, love for life comes from the knowledge of other people’s love for us, from the ability to make our way through the world, from the chance to decide what is meaningful for us.

It is a precious gift from nature, and one that is unfortunately increasingly rare in some parts of the world. I cannot imagine the desperation that leads a young Palestinian to volunteer as a suicide bomber. The combination of not seeing a future for one’s own family, and the religion-instilled illusion of an eternal reward in the afterlife, result in a deadly cocktail that after September 11, 2001, has become an all-too familiar feature of our own existence.

Love for life is not something that we can take for granted. We have to create the conditions for it, for ourselves as well as for other people. This means that it is not with coercion or weapons that we will defeat our enemies, here or abroad. It is by taking away the reasons for other people to despise life to the point of taking the lives of their fellow human beings, of being willing to give up their own life at the push of a button. The war against crime is a perpetual failure, and so is the war against terror. We will overcome crime and terror only by realizing that people don’t go around stealing and killing if they have something to live for, if they can provide food, education, and a future to their children; if, in other words, we make it possible for them as well as for us to love life.

“But I scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation.” Actually, here I disagree with Russell: I really do not like the prospect of annihilation (though I’m surely not spending most of my time shivering with terror while thinking about it). As another of my favorite philosophers, Woody Allen, said, “I don’t want to be immortal through my work, I want to be immortal through not dying.” In this, the believer has an apparent advantage over the atheist. But I truly think that this is only illusory, an advantage bought at the price of refusing to accept reality, always a dangerous habit to cultivate, and which has brought terrible wreck upon humankind.

Indeed, I think it is this willingness to face our own permanent annihilation that makes being an atheist a particularly brave choice in life. You are faced with hard decisions that are not even a consideration for the believer. Why should I be moral? Why should I live a life of work and sacrifice? Make no mistake about it: atheists are, on the whole, at least as moral and good as believers, but they rarely get the extra credit for it. In some sense, the difference is like the one between two kinds of soldiers: the ones who don’t fear death, and the ones who fear it but go into battle nevertheless. While they may both be regarded as heroes because of their actions, certainly the fearful one had to overcome much more than his fearless comrade. If you don’t fear death (or you don’t believe it will happen to you), it is much easier to face the bullets. But it takes real guts to do what you have to do even though you are terrorized by the consequences.

“Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end.” This was perhaps the most difficult part of what Russell said for me to understand. I can accept that happiness has to come to an end, but why is it true happiness because of its fleeting existence? Why is it that “all good things must come to an end,” as the saying goes?

Well, imagine that you are watching a movie—a good movie, perhaps the best movie you’ve ever seen. It is so good that when the titles roll you are a bit upset with the director: couldn’t she have given you a few more scenes? It surely would have been nice to see how the life of the main characters would have turned out beyond the timeframe of the movie. I guess this is the primary motivation behind the persistence of sequels in the movie industry. And yet you know what the critics say: a sequel is seldom as good as the original.

Imagine that you could in fact protract that movie for a bit longer, and then again a bit longer than that. Initially you will feel satisfaction, perhaps. (Of course, that will actually depend on what is going to happen to your favorite characters: what if one of them soon dies or her life takes a bad turn and she becomes somebody you can no longer admire?) But you will soon realize that you can’t take that movie forever. No matter how good it was, it has to end some time or situations will start repeating themselves, dialogues will become stale, and boredom will settle in.

I think the same is true for life, and Russell was right on the mark. If we really did live forever we would simply die of boredom. Except, of course, that we couldn’t die, because we would be immortal! This, I suspect, is a true image of Hell for human beings: like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, condemned to repeat every motion and every word after we have exhausted them all eons ago. A similar situation was described by the genius that was Douglas Adams in his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: one of the characters in that book is an alien that happens to be immortal, a very unfortunate condition, which he copes with by inventing all sorts of ways to pass his endless time. At the moment he appears in the book he is involved in the project of personally insulting every sentient organism in the universe, in its own tongue. But, of course, it is a desperate (and meaningless) attempt to retard the inevitable: eventually he’ll run out of beings to insult, and out of insults to hurl at them. No, ladies and gentlemen, happiness is truly such only because it must come to and end.

“Nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.” Indeed they don’t, quite the contrary. The meaning of my life extends beyond my life because (hopefully) what I do will still affect people in a positive way when I am gone. This thought is more than enough to keep me happy and active. It is, I think, a grave fallacy to believe that meaning has to be universal and everlasting in order to have value. I am often asked, “But if you don’t believe in an afterlife, or a god, what gives meaning to your existence?”

Besides the fact that I never understood why the existence of a god would give any more meaning to my life (I don’t consider worshipping somebody, no matter how powerful, a meaning-enhancing activity), I simply don’t have the time to worry about it. I have my wife and my child to take care of; I have my parents to comfort through their declining years; I have my brothers, sister, and friends to nurture and grow old together. I also have my students, to whom I can perhaps communicate my enthusiasm for knowledge and reason, which will possibly help them in their own lives. I have the readers of my columns and books, with whom I can share whatever experience or insight I may have been able to gather in the course of my reflections. Moreover, I have billions of fellow human beings that I hope my country will help live a long and meaningful life. And you can be sure that I will vote in the next elections so that those who are supposed to represent me will get that simple message!

What I am trying to say is that the meaning of it all is in you, which is a wonderfully liberating realization. Knowing that there is an end in sight gives you a sense of urgency to make a difference while you can. Again, as Woody Allen said in one of his movies, “It’s later than you think.” Another of my favorite movie directors, the Italian Nanni Moretti, put the point eloquently in his April. The main character has been playing around with his life for a bit, without being able to bring himself to do what he really wants to do (which happens to be a musical, which has for main character a Trotskyite pastry maker, but never mind that…). A friend asks him how long he imagines he will live. The character (played by Moretti) answers, “until eighty.” His friend then asks how old Moretti is. He answers forty-six. The friend takes a measure tape, indicates the length of eighty centimeters, then one the length of thirty-four (eighty minus forty-six). “That is how long you still have to go.” Moretti understands the message, smiles, and decides to finally do something with the rest of his life before it’s too late. He also recriminates himself for not having answered “one hundred” instead of eighty.

Death is a serious issue, even though it is not mysterious. In the last two years I have seen its specter two times, when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer and both had to struggle to survive and add a few more years to my pleasure of seeing them in this world. I still am not completely over the death of two of my grandparents with whom I grew up. I regularly see them in my dreams, talk to them, and wish very hard that they could still be with me. But I know they won’t, and what I need to do is to take care of those who love me now and are still around to see that I love them.

When it comes to death, it is hard to walk the rope between the rational and the emotional, the scientific and the philosophical, to understand how death can be faced without the belief in a god or in an afterlife, to inquire into how human dignity and moral strength can be maintained even in a universe that doesn’t care about us, though it is our only home. Nonetheless, it is our choice and privilege to make that home as pleasant for us and for our fellow creatures as we possibly can. There is much to be done, and Moretti’s meter is getting shorter every day.

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he teaches ecology and evolutionary biology. This article was originally published on Massimo Pigliucci’s Skeptic website at www.rationallyspeaking.org.