In my experience, people across the world think about death in two ways.
The first is that they ignore it, and they do their utmost to not think about it, discuss it, and it is seen as something abstract and remote. As people get older, they then tend to get more exposed to death as loved ones and friends around them die, and they may also get a health scare which bring an initial confrontation with death.
Still, people will do anything not to think about such macabre thoughts, and they live their life eating, drinking, entertaining themselves. The thought of death lingers in the back of their mind, and is not something that they want to think about. With this approach, thinking about death is a way to ruin a perfectly good day.
The second, is to deny that death is the end. This is what most religions do, via their intricate stories. Perhaps after death you’ll go to heaven where everyone else that has already died is there, waiting for you. You’ll be able to then spend eternity with them in a place that is perfect and does not have any of the limitations that can be found on planet earth. Or, perhaps you’ll be reincarnated and life another round of life, in a different place and as a different person.
Let’s discuss the issues with this second approach to thinking about death, and then discuss the issue of simply not thinking about death at all.
The problems with the religious approach is that it really doesn’t make any sense, unless of course you accept the entire religious framework that surrounds the ideas about death, regardless of whether that is Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other religion. But, then again, this is something that is to be expected. We would need to accept the basic tenets of Christianity for us to believe in heaven.
The issue I have is that even if we were to accept all the tenets, something like heaven still would not make sense, just by knowing what we know about human psychology and using our logic. So, everyone that has ever died is there, assuming they haven’t gone to hell. Do they have bodies or some type of representation of a body? If they don’t have a body, how would we recognize them when we are there? What would the experience of being in heaven be like? And if they do have bodies, are those bodies frozen in a particular state and age? Is that the moment when they died? I hope for the sake of car crash victims, or anyone who fell from a high place, that this would not be the case!
And apart from these logistical considerations, what about the idea of being there for eternity? That’s a long time and not something to be underestimated. Even the most pleasurable and interesting place may become a prison if you stay there long enough, unable to leave. And I assume that heaven is not a place that we can leave. And we should not underestimate eternity, i.e. infinity.
I am not sure our psychology can handle such a concept in reality. If we had infinite time, eventually everything would be accomplished. Every possible permutation of conversation that you could have with the loved ones that you were reunited with, you would have had. There would be nothing left to speak about, nothing left to write about, and no football match left to play because every possible variation of football would have been repeated.
Eventually, every possible experience that you could have, you would already have had. There would be no point doing anything today if the concept of today even has any meaning anymore. Is there sunrise and sunset in heaven? Do we sleep?
Reincarnation does not get off lightly, either. What happens at the end of the earth when it is swallowed whole by the expanding Sun? What happens when the universe finally collapses on itself or becomes a stale place with evenly distributed energy, a place where there is no life?
And also, if we do reincarnate into another life, but we are not aware of it, then what exactly is reincarnation? If there is no continuity between one round of life and the next, is that not the equivalent of two completely separate lives?
Putting the stories we tell ourselves about death aside, let’s critically review the initial approach: ignoring death.
This is a common way to live, even for religious people. Nobody wants to think about death, but they are actually missing a great opportunity. A lot of philosophers, ancient as well as modern, have realized this.
Because death provides a final boundary for experience, it provides meaning to the experiences that we do have. Think of this, there will be the last time that you will wake up. That feeling of getting out of bed, stretching, having the sun hit your face and feeling that warmth. There is a finite number of times that you will experience this.
The hard part is that we do not know when the last time will be, and we have to live our lives within this radical uncertainty somehow. But just because we could die tomorrow does not mean we have to live as if next week is never going to happen.
On any given day, you are more likely to live to the next day than to die, so it is rational to make plans and live life with some semblance of long-term goals.
But why set goals in the first place? After all, we will all die, and nothing of what we are doing right now will matter in the future. Well, that is a fool’s argument. On a long enough timespan, the survival rate and the meaning of everything go to zero. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, but the fact is that you exist. You are conscious, and you are having some type of experience.
In fact, consciousness is the only thing you can be sure cannot be fake. You could just be a brain in a vat, and everything that you have ever experienced could be a simulation. Still, the fact there is something that is experiencing that simulation, that you can experience being you, that cannot be faked, because consciousness is subjectivity in itself.
I think, therefore I am.
So you will die, and everything you know will go up in flames.
How do we live a meaningful life in this context? Perhaps just trying to forget about this and live our lives is the rational approach. Or having some story, or set of stories, that enough people believe can make us feel better.
Or do we stare death in the face and accept it for what it is? Eventually, your subjective experience of the world will end. But, there was a time that you didn’t have any subjective experience: before you were born.
In my opinion, before I was born, my life wasn’t too bad. It is a strange way to phrase things, but my lack of experience before I existed was not painful or negative in any way. It just was. And likely, after death, it will just be. That’s it.
So let’s consider death, think about it, and use it as a tool to remind ourselves that the conscious moments that we do have are precious and that it is incredible that we have consciousness at all.
Strangely, a particular collection of atoms has no feeling of “I” while a different collection of atoms does. As far as we know, a chair or a table does not have any sense that it exists. But change that set of atoms into a configuration of billions of neurons, and suddenly these atoms do have awareness. They can use that awareness to study other atoms.
Most of the configurations of atoms in the universe do not lead to consciousness. So we should hold ourselves very lucky that the configuration of atoms that we happen to form does enable consciousness.
And regarding creating meaning out of it all, I always ask myself: why get out of bed?
There are a lot of potential answers here, and a lot of it depends on your passions and aptitude.
But have you ever tried not getting out of bed? This is equally difficult, and only genuinely depressed people can achieve this state. For everyone else, you will eventually find it more challenging to stay in bed and to get out and face the world, death or otherwise.