Warning! There is a risk that as you read our essay you may think that we are suggesting that there is no “reason to live”. That is not what we are saying at all! In fact we are saying the opposite, we have abundant hope that you will find in yourself the reason for living. If you are discouraged or depressed, please finish reading all of this essay. Anyone who is, or becomes, seriously depressed should always seek immediate medical help. See Distress & Depression at the end of our notes.
If in fact you do exercise meaningful freedom of choice, what good is it to be a unique human being if at your death you cease to exist? If you do not continue to exist in some form after death, what good are all the experiences, decisions, triumphs, defeats, all the moments of your life? If you do not survive the grave, if you return to the state of being that preceded your birth, then we suggest to you that nothing in fact does matter. While over the ages men and women have sought to perpetuate themselves through their children, their place in history, their role in society, and through intricate philosophical webs of existentialism and other essays on physical human beings’ importance, the fact of physical death remains. If each generation’s death means the end of those individuals, then we are all faced with an endless cycle of creation and destruction, the meaning of which, if any, is beyond comprehension.
If there is anything in life we can count on occurring without fail it is physical death. The successful bank president, the champion athlete, the homemaker, the famous, the unknown, every human being, you, die. While all acknowledge the certainty of their eventual demise, few think about death until they are faced with it. The simple fact of death is not news to anyone, yet the reality of its impending occurrence is ignored by virtually every living person.
The very nature of human life denies death and shrouds it in the cloak of future events, events that are not yet real and do not need to be dealt with in the present. Living is too important and time consuming to be concerned with mortality. The fact that you are moving steadily toward your death is most likely, and literally, to be the last thing on your mind.
Observing the inevitable death of every creature that inhabits the earth, we may have a recurrent feeling that death is the end. On the other hand, it is virtually inconceivable to us that all we are, all we have been, all we will be, may be rendered void in that moment of death. It goes against human nature to visualize the effective destruction of our past, present, and future, which may accompany death without existence beyond death. Yet if each human being does cease to exist, then all human beings are, or in the case of generations yet unborn will be, waiting their turn to cease existing. If each and every human being ceases to be, then the feeling of continuity that pervades the human race may be false (please note, we do not believe that life is in fact destroyed by physical death).
In their arguments for humanism, existentialism, etc., philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to construct a difference between the apparent continuity of humankind, and the periodic death of individual humans. Most of us think of our ancestors as a link to the past, and our children as a link to the future, yet if we do not survive the grave each generation may die an isolated death that mocks any assertion that humankind has a continuing existence apart from its individual members. If each person’s death results in their no longer existing, then no manner of historical recording, social progression, or other remembrance in the minds of those whose time to die is yet to come, can in any way affect, preserve, or make any difference whatsoever to those who no longer are. No one will survive to remember. If each of us ceases to be, then your life may have no meaning and your choices may make no difference.
We admit that this logic seems counter intuitive, and even wrong, but if we are willing to dissociate ourselves from the incredible biologic urge for self-preservation, both of the individual and the species, and are willing to apply purely objective reasoning, the logical conclusions, while discomforting, are perhaps inevitable (there are several possible logical loopholes that might give permanent meaning and value to a finite physical life, we discuss them in more detail in our books). This is a very difficult conclusion to accept, it goes against our intuitive feelings about human life, and against our assumptions that individual physical lives have meaning and value.
Yet if we are little more than doomed animals, our intuitive feeling of meaning and value would not be surprising. From the very beginning, to assure survival of any species, evolution would certainly have instilled in living creatures the feeling that there is a reason for them to exist, a reason for them to crawl out of the ocean and build cities. If there is no life after death, and our lives are in fact consumed by “nothing”, it is no wonder that our genetic heritage argues so strongly against that possibility.
Think about it. If each person’s consciousness is the product of their physical brain, then it seems logical to assume that individual physical consciousness exists only during that person’s physical life on earth. If each of our physical lives proceeds from birth to death, then the consequence of each person’s death necessarily follows their death. Who can be affected by that death? Certainly those who survive may be affected, but here is the “problem”, the death cannot be of any consequence to the purely physical human being who no longer exists. The moment before the death of a human being it can be said that their impending death affects them, but the very moment after the person dies, he or she is no longer around to be affected!
Most agree that cause and effect, action and consequence, occur in a fixed order, the former always “preceding” the latter. Let us assume, for example, that a comet hits the Earth and all life is annihilated. It is very hard to accept, but if consciousness, our mind, is nothing more than a physical phenomenon, if there is no non-physical continuation of life after death, then the most logical conclusion is that the complete annihilation of humankind is of absolutely no consequence to humankind!
While the words may sound bizarre and counter intuitive, in fact they may not be. The moment after the total destruction of humankind there is no humankind left to be affected. Indeed, there is no humankind around that is conscious of the fact that the comet struck the earth!
The same logic applies to the history of individuals not visited by a catastrophic event (note that our logic may be questioned by those who think we live in a block universe, we believe it is correct even in static block models). If you believe that each human being is nothing more than an individual physical entity, and therefore that there is no life after death, then at the time of their death each human being experiences the identical individual annihilation that all humankind would experience together if the earth was “destroyed” by a comet.
If a human being named Bill dies at 12:00 noon, and there is no life after death, at 12:01 Bill is not “around” to be affected by his death. After 12:00 noon you could search the entire universe for Bill and you would not find him. If there is no life after death, the very moment after the event known as Bill’s death, Bill no longer exists, and Bill cannot be affected by anything, including his death.
The logic goes even further. If you do not believe that human consciousness continues to exist after physical death, then death not only annihilates each individual’s present and future, but also annihilates their past. Most people would agree that for an object to have a present and a future the object must exist. Many would make the distinction that while an object cannot have a present and a future if it does not exist, it somehow can have a past. It is clear that the present and future of an object are bound to the existence of the object, but so too is the object’s past. Much of the problem lies in the use of the words past, present, and future both to describe that which is part of an object (a “past” which belongs to the object, like a person’s memories that “belong” to the living individual from birth to death), and to describe the existence of the object from a third party’s view (a “past” which is a chronological description of an object, like a photo album containing a lifetime collection of pictures of an individual who has died).
It is a misconception to equate the fact that there is a “history” of all beings or objects which is set in the “past”, with the statement that a being or object that no longer exists has a “past”. The first idea simply says that the being or object existed over a finite period that is apparent to those who currently exist. The second idea is different, there is a “history” set in the past that is the sum of all lifetimes, but a person who no longer exists has no “past” that is their past, unique to and dependent on their existence. A person who has died has no physical past, present, or future for the simple reason that the person no longer exists.
Admittedly, our conclusions about physical death are totally opposite to our “common sense” understanding of life. There are many arguments that purport to counter our logic, including assertions that a person’s life before physical death has “existential” meaning (we use “existential” in the sense of having meaning and purpose “in and of itself”). Yet most or all of the relevant alternative arguments are based on the biophysics of existence before physical death. They are set in the time before death, within the causal sequence of events that precede death. We believe that none of the arguments adequately address the period after physical death, and therefore none adequately answer the question of how a person who no longer exists can be conscious of, and be said to possess, a past, a present, or a future.