Do We Need Death?

Homer as DeathA few years back UPN tried unsuccessfully to reincarnate "The Twilight Zone." The premise of one of the few episodes I saw of the series was "what if Death quit?"

In this episode a John Doe shows up at a hospital, apparently for treatment of depression. When the staff inquires about his identity he claims to be Death. Of course the staff is skeptical, but one resident is later convinced after terminal patients and patients suffering from extreme and fatal trauma begin not dying. The hospital within a matter of hours is in a crisis as suffering patients burnt beyond recovery from a house fire begin crying out for release, and others suffering from disease begin longing for the overdue release to their misery.

This is a classic theme that I have even come across on The Simpsons, and there is certainly some truth to it. If we could not die, even from extreme trauma and disease, life could end up being very nasty. Thus the reasoning goes that life without death is a curse, the body would become a prison, and much of life would be needless suffering.

The question I want to pose is not whether or not we need the necessary death that comes when our bodies have been traumatized beyond repair, or even voluntary death when one decides that their life is no longer livable. Those forms of death I expect to always exist and should always exist.

The question is do we need senescence? Does humanity need mortality to be a foregone conclusion? Or could we exist as a species where death occurred only by choice and trauma (typically accident)?

Does the same reasoning apply that life would be unlivable if it were indefinite? That without the natural end our lives would become meaningless?

The usual response to this is that it is our limited lifespan that drive us to create meaning in our lives. It is what encourages us to take risks, explore new things, and to do as much as we can in the time that we have. It is not without reason that many conclude that a society that can only die through trauma may end up being extremely risk averse and hedonistic, focusing on short term pleasure and avoiding any event that might ultimately lead to a traumatic death.

I take the somewhat Heinlein-ian approach that one who learns to live well can live well indefinitely, and that if one can live well indefinitely then there is no reason why they shouldn't. I grew up believing that without the external constraints imposed upon me (and society) by the government school system I would have no impetus to learn and educate myself. Upon getting to college I discovered that "learning" was one of the lowest priorities in college curriculums and that rather than encouraging me to learn it became an impediment to it.

Valuable time and resources that could have been spent in exploring ideas I was instead forced (voluntarily of course) to use performing the same calculations over and over, learning to program computer software that I would never use again using methods that were not useful in adapting to any commonly used computer language, taking labs where the grand experiment was watching an applet online or transcribing data from some website, studying subjects I had already studied in high school and already knew well, and spending an inordinate amount of time analyzing my TA's interpretation of a given set of information rather than the actual and meaningful implications of the data itself.

Some of these activities may be useful and have practical real world applications, but they ran counter to the purpose for which I went to college - to expand my mind and explore ideas. These outside constraints that I believed were a necessary impetus in my own personal growth became instead an impediment to it. I actually came to realize that a far stronger and more reliable impetus for learning and self improvement came from my own desire for growth, and that what I lacked was the belief in myself that I would carry out on that desire without some external pressure to do so.

I think the sentiment that life would be meaningless without death arises from a similar fear. Many individuals think that their friends, neighbors, loved ones, and even their selves will not rise to the occasion and make their lives meaningful and worth living without the certainty of death knocking on the door - as if our natural state is to drift towards a drone-like stupor and only the occasional midlife crisis can knock us out of it. Perhaps this is true for some, but it is not true for all, and I look instead at the valuable amount of time and resources devoted to death.

Without senescence (or rather with negligible senescence) we could save literally billions of dollars per year that is spent on fighting diseases brought on by old-age (various cancers, most type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis etc.).

We could curtail the extremely high prices of funerals, and funerary rituals - when your funeral is a ritual you choose to take on and plan rather than a cost foisted upon a grieving family that simply wants to get it over with, the entire market structure of the industry would change.

We could get rid of the billion dollar industry that sells snake-oil cures to curtail aging. From the makeup that promise to hide "fine lines and wrinkles" to the spa treatments designed to make you look 20 years younger, when senescence is a treatable illness treated by medical professionals instead of a private obsession and a daily gamble on the health and beauty isle, we'll be able to spend more time embracing life rather than searching for a fountain of youth.

These are only a few of the resources we could reclaim from senescence and death and spend instead on living. Some of them could be done without negligible senescence if individuals simply choose to focus on living life rather than focusing on staving off death, and that is part of my point. We do not need mortality as a constraint to make our lives meaningful. Though perhaps it takes a greater faith in oneself and in humanity, we can utilize the strength and desire within ourselves to live well, and to make our lives meaningful indefinitely. I believe that that internal source will ultimately be a far stronger and more reliable impetus for living well than any outside constraint ever could be.

Though it may be idealistic, in the end I would rather live in a society that does not need to stare down death in order to figure out how to live.

Share this

Agree completely. We've

Agree completely. We've rationalized death as being an inevitable necessity (or even a good thing) because we've never had any sign of an alternative until now. I would love living in a world where everybody (mostly) chose how long they wanted to live for.

So, have you read Ray Kurzweil's new book yet? (I haven't.)

I, too, look forward to the

I, too, look forward to the time of negligible senescence. But I don't think it follows that medical expenditures would drop; on the contrary, it might well be the medical expenditures that make negligible senescence possible. People will be spending money to grow cloned organs, get free radicals cleansed from the cells, etc. The same goes for the other old-age treatments you mentioned, like skin lotions. It might be the improvement of such products that helps to extend our enjoyable lifetimes. Since you brought up Heinlein: remember those "rejuve clinics"? I'll bet they cost money!

Do We Need Death? The title

Do We Need Death?
The title of this post is a rhetorical question for many of the readers here. Rainbough Phillips hits most of the necessary points related to this topic in a recent post on healthy life extension: I take the somewhat Heinlein-ian approach that one who ...

Glen says, "I, too, look

Glen says,

"I, too, look forward to the time of negligible senescence. But I don’t think it follows that medical expenditures would drop; on the contrary, it might well be the medical expenditures that make negligible senescence possible. People will be spending money to grow cloned organs, get free radicals cleansed from the cells, etc. The same goes for the other old-age treatments you mentioned, like skin lotions. It might be the improvement of such products that helps to extend our enjoyable lifetimes. Since you brought up Heinlein: remember those “rejuve clinics"? I’ll bet they cost money!"

Of course, it'll all cost money. The profit motive would be a more powerful incentive to eradicate senescence than would any idealisting "escaping death" dream. This is why Rainbough's whole post rings hollow to me.

The main premise of the post ignores the following real issues:

1) Senescence itself would incur costs that would surely surpass any benefits like getting rid of the anti-aging snake-oil industry.

2) The lack of senescence will have an effect on the world population problem

He operates in ignorance of these two problems, which is all well and good, so long as he stays in the abstract ideal...i.e., "one could then devote their life to other things", etc. But, the problem is that he crosses the line from abstract to real by discussing the apparent resources that could be diverted in the absence of senescence (i.e. funerary costs).

I find this post wholly unsettling, because he ignores 2 fundamental real problems, but then goes on to tout several real benefits. If you're going to stay in the abstract, fine...but once you move to the real, then, well, you can no longer ignore such obvious problems as the inevitable population explosion that would result. Right now, world population is exploding, and that is with senescence. In its absence, without strict controls placed on procreation, we would overrun the planet in a matter of months, and completely shatter the community of life on this planet, therefore resulting in an unsustainable habitat for our own species.

How can he talk about "[getting] rid of the billion dollar industry that sells snake-oil cures to curtail aging. From the makeup that promise to hide “fine lines and wrinkles” to the spa treatments designed to make you look 20 years younger, when senescence is a treatable illness treated by medical professionals instead of a private obsession and a daily gamble on the health and beauty isle, we’ll be able to spend more time embracing life rather than searching for a fountain of youth.", but wholly ignore the fundamental problem of population explosion in the absence of natural death?

For clarification, Rainbough

For clarification, Rainbough is a *she*, not a he. Much like the confusion with Micha, except in the reverse.

People aren't the problem, state control is. I've said before that the mark of a tyrant is seeing population as a problem (mouths to feed, people to keep in line, clothe, employ, etc) rather than as a joy. I say this because humans are

I don't know why the profit motive makes a move to ending senescence "ring hollow"- profit is the »

Thanks Brian!!!

Thanks Brian!!! :mrgreen:

Hey I'm all for bringing on the "population explosion." The more the merrier. As for that bit about us overrunning the planet... it would be true if we were ants or deer or some other creature that can only eat and procreate. It amazes me how often people think I'm just ignoring or ignorant of some large often cited issue like "overpopulation."

The problem with (so-called) "overpopulation" is that a rapidly increasing population puts strains on regional infrastructure, so does a shrinking population, so does the increasing use of cell phones...

Any major economic, technological, or cultural change can put strains on the existing infrastructure and that is what is happening in places like india and Japan. India is having a population explosion, and Japan is having a population implosion. Both have proved to be extremely problematic, and stressful economically. But so what? Are we gonna put our hand up and tell the world to stop moving, changing, and growing everytime we bump up against an existing infrastructure?

As a very practical "idealist" I say no. :beatnik: