Spoiler Alert: One Day We Will All Die

Not on the same day, of course. At least, I hope not.

Philosophers Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer have started a project called Help! My Child is a Philosopher! All children are, of course, just as all children are scientists. The issue is to nurture children’s natural curiosity, rather than let it be squelched.

On their forum they shared an anecdote from Daniel Ogilvie:

“When one of my daughters was four years old, she came charging out of her bedroom and down the staircase well after she would normally have been asleep. She was crying. She stood before her mother and me and through her sobs announced that she did not want to be a thing that dies. I was astonished by her announcement. Clearly she was calling out for help. It occurred to me to tell her to shut up and go back to bed. I had enough sense not to act on that impulse and was relieved when my wife responded, “Don’t worry dear, you have a long life ahead of you” and gave her a hug. The words worked wonders. Her emotional pain subsided and she was sound asleep in 15-minutes.”

I had precisely the same experience as a kid myself; one of my earliest childhood memories is of lying in bed and crying at the realization that my grandmother and everyone else I knew was someday going to die. (Apparently it’s a somewhat-common occurrence?)

The fear of death doesn’t go away for most of us, and it’s one of the major motivating factors for people choosing to believe in the supernatural. (Ricky Gervais’s underappreciated movie The Invention of Lying does a great job with this theme.) Even I will admit that the shortness of our lives here on Earth is one of the least attractive parts of a naturalistic worldview. That’s not an argument against it, of course; when we want something to be true, we should take that as a reason to be extra suspicious, not as a justification for believing it. But accepting it is crucially important for constructing a meaningful life in the real world. Might as well start young.

This is not a dress rehearsal, this is the performance. Make it count.

  1. Well, to die is not such a bad option after all. As it is, I am quite fed up with all this sheeeet!

  2. I was telling my friend’s son (he was 5 at the time) about the life of the sun and how someday it will possibly envelope the Earth and make it inhospitable for life. He became really worried by then I tried to comfort him by saying “Don’t worry we’ll all be dead for a long time before that happens.”
    At which point he looked up at me and said “I’m going to die?”
    Childhood ruined.

  3. I have been having some acute death anxiety the last few days. With all the speculations of Kurzweil, Bostrom, and many others about the prospects for naturalistic immortality, it’s just hard to cope with the crushing oblivion of mortality. The only thing I find that gets me over it is reminding myself that if it truly is an immutable fact of life, as it has been for all the humans who have lived previously, then it’s not worthwhile worrying about it while I’m alive. It’s like worrying you will get cancer or some other terminal disease: worrying about it now just means that if/when it happens, you will have lived it twice. Or in the case of death, you will have spent your whole life dying.

  4. I remember doing the same thing when i was quite young, lying in bed and getting frantic with fear about my parents dying, and ran downstairs finally crying and of course was reassured-
    But I also think one could also say that all things not die, but change–I was reading somewhere about the dying of our universe, and this may not be exactly right and you know better than I, but the way i read it was somehow our universe dies by a bubble appearing of a new universe, and it comes into being and our universe disappears? faster than the speed of light. What i wasn’t clear on was, is the new universe made up of completely different matter or whatever it would be, or does our present universe change and become part of the new universe but changed? Because the nature of our universe is to “die” and change, I wondered, if I was reading the article right, if the bubble appears in our universe, does our universe morph into part of the new one–or do we know? That’s as far as I’ve gotten with our universe disappearing and the new one appearing faster than the speed of light .

  5. From someone who studies what smarter people than me have learned by studying why we fear some things more than we should, and fail to fear some things as MUCH as we ought to, this fun little bit I came across a while ago…
    “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100%” http://onion.com/Vwlqos

  6. I found Jim Holt’s recent book “Why Does the World Exist?” helpful in dealing with death. The idea is that death is just a process whereby we return to the state we were in before we were conceived – i.e. non-existence. That doesn’t seem too bad to me. Its the dying that has me worried – incapacitated in a nursing home or whatever. As Richard Feynman said on his deathbed “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring”

  7. I draw some measure of comfort believing there is at least one parallel universe where I live forever. Should that make me believe less in the MWI?

  8. The shortness of our lives on Earth (why did you add the “on Earth”? – could we have life elsewhere) might be a good argument against the naturalistic worldview.

  9. I agree 100% with Bob. For myself I fear not dying way more than dying quickly and painlessly. Our sense of self didn’t exist before birth and will be totally gone after death. Strangely enough, I find that the more religious my acquaintances are, the more they fear death. They must all imagine they will be spending all eternity in hell.

  10. Four closed ones died this year. When my 3 and half year old kid asked about it we told him two key things that actually have not much to do with religion (and we repeated it every time he asked). In his own way, I think he understood them pretty well, because after all are fairly simple things: 1) Yes, we die, it might not happen for a while, but it can also happen at any time, therefore, we have to enjoy every day, all the time we can. 2) When someone dies, he/she dissolves within everything else. Dead ones´ parts will become part of worms, grass, air, water.

  11. FWIW, Freeman Dyson opined quite a while ago now that the only rationale for death is to make the future different form the past.

  12. James, that could also be said to be the only rationale for life. Not that there is a rationale for life or death. It just is part of the world we live in and the way things have evolved.

  13. Death is just a violation of the laws of conservation, which depresses me, no pun intended. That’s just number one.

    When I think about death, it’s much similar to the little girl in the italic story in the sense that an individual’s life isn’t a concern for math or science, and that’s a drag for sure. You also can’t expect a law to be human, either. Human perception is a gift taken for granted by so many people, so it hurts to think you’re only given the perception you have once. That’s a drag, too.

    Believe me when I say I love to see things, just generally, so the very idea that I have my eyes once is the biggest bummer of all. In the end, all that really does matter is fulfilling your part of being a human being: Progress. Pursuit of the truth. That’s all we’re here for. To make things better as people as best as we can.

  14. God, are you going to kill me today?
    God, how are you going to kill me?

    Two questions I saw in an article since lost and nothing else remembered from it.

  15. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.
    —Robert Green Ingersoll

  16. It has seemed to me for quite some time that belief in an afterlife cheapens the only life we have and know for sure that we have. It cheapens it while we’re alive and it cheapens the grief we feel when someone we love dies.

    Here’s Mark Twain’s feelings about death:

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

  17. When my own children where young, I was out on the sidewalk and was keeping my eye on a 2.5 year old named Loki. A car passed our condo at the very respectful speed of about 10-miles an hour. Even as slow as the car was going, a Monarch butterfly impacted the bumper of the car and gently floated down to the pavement. Loki reached out touched the butterfly and paused briefly. Then his legs shook and he sort of crumpled to the ground. I wondered if I had witnessed first hand the Ontological Crisis of Being all humans experience at some point . . . and then spend the rest of their life trying to ignore. – Dan

  18. I just finished listening to Sean Carroll’s lecture series “Mysteries of Modern Physics – Time” and if I understand the nature of time any better than I did before, I must admit that I find it hard to believe that death equals non-existence. While we surely die at one “present” moment in time how that event would erase all previous occurrences of me in space and time is a mystery to me.

  19. Someone once said that if time extends into the infinite future, we will all be doing this again. That might mean that if time also extends into the infinite past, we have done this all before. See you next time.

  20. Hecky:

    “it’s just hard to cope with the crushing oblivion of mortality”

    Not to worry, oblivion (eternal nothingness) isn’t something we face after death, see http://www.naturalism.org/death.htm . In “Why Does the World Exist?” Jim Holt makes this mistake over and over again in the last chapter of an otherwise very smart and amusing book.

    And Andy has it right: we exist in some parts of the 4-D spacetime block universe so in that sense we never stop existing even though we die – very strange!

  21. I am pleased to know about this website. The quote below by Peter Singer serves as the epigraph to a paper by Karin Murris “Can Children Do Philosophy?” It is one I like. She makes a point in that paper to separate philosophy with children (PwC) from philosophy for children (P4C), a program at Montclair State College developed by Matthew Lipman.

    “Philosophy is often thought of as a body of knowledge; but this idea makes little sense, because for virtually every significant statement that one philosopher makes, it is possible to find another who will disagree with it. It is better to consider philosophy as a method of enquiring into very fundamental questions that do not yield to the methods of science. In the Western tradition, since the time of Plato, this method can be characterised by a form of relentless questioning, in which the answer to one question only leads to a further question, and so on, and on and on. Readers of Plato will know what I mean. And so will parents of small children.”
    Peter Singer

    The reference and abstract may be found here ( ) and the full paper is on the web ( )

    If this gives you trouble do a search (murris can children… did it for me).

    The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy has a useful, perhaps dated entry on philosophy for children with some great references and an overview. ( )

    When I read your entry Sean, I thought of the work of Robert Coles whose conversations with children on deep issues are wonderful. Alison Gopnik, a cognitive psychologist, whose work into the minds of very small children is revealing wrote an interesting book titled “The Philosophical Child” (I hope that is right. It might be “baby”!

  22. The most amazing dreams are about future happenings (déjà vu). I really believe about connections of our brains with the future.

  23. My fear of the death itself is minimal, what I do fear is old age disability and the process of dying.

  24. When my 3-year-old’s great-grandmother died, somebody tried to console him by saying that GGM had gone to heaven. My son replied sadly, “No! GGM is no more!”
    Kids doing philosophy.

  25. There is nothing more about death than it is just a transition from a physical state 1 (we call it “living”) do psysical state 2 (we call it “death”). And it maybe possible to prevent this change completely. Now we know how to slow it down but what about future…

  26. Thanks Tom. Your argument is interesting, if a bit too a priori (about the nature of subjectivity, the symmetry of pre-birth/post-death, etc.) to be much comfort.

    Would someone be so kind as to explain in plain language exactly what scientific laws entail the immutability of biological death?

    A lot of the usual cliches are already dominating this thread. Please have a look at the “moral” at the end of this story before sounding off with any more of them.


  27. This reminded me some quotes from Woody Allen:

    My relationship with death remains the same – I’m strongly against it,
    All I can do is wait for it.

    I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.

    It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune.

    Ctrl-F-ing in this link http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Woody_Allen does shows some more such. Enjoy/ reflect/ … (delete whichever is inapplicable -Courtsy NEEPLPHUT).

    Also, as Bob was reminded of Richard Feynman so here is an exceprt of him about his son Carl Feynman being interested in Philosophy:

    I find myself asking, “How can you be a good philosopher?” I see now that, like the poet son who never thinks of money (because he expects his old man to pay) you have chosen philosophy, over clear thought (and so your old man goes on with his clear thoughts) so that you can fly above common sense to far higher and more beautiful aspects of the intellect.
    “Well,” he added sarcastically, “it must be wonderful to be able to do that.”

    -from Genius-The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick.

  28. GW – Even though Feynman is well known for dissing philosophy, he is still my favorite philosopher!

  29. @Hecky: “Would someone be so kind as to explain in plain language exactly what scientific laws entail the immutability of biological death?”

    While all the mechanisms of aging and death are not yet completely understood what we do know about them is enough to prove death is inevitable.

    The primary reason we die is to make room for future generations.

    Evolution of all multicellular organisms only happens through reproduction. Due to limitations of the environmental capacity reproduction requires that older generations be replaced with newer ones. Any species which doesn’t reproduce and evolve is doomed in the evolutionary arms race – other evolving species will evolve to take advantage of it and eliminate it.

    Another crucial function of sexual reproduction is purification of the genome. Our genetic material is constantly mutating due to natural radiation, reactive byproducts of metabolism and such. Cells are very good at fixing most of those mutations nevertheless sometimes mutations happen which are beyond their capabilities. If it weren’t for sexual reproduction (which by randomly partitioning genes to offspring allows some of them to get mostly undamaged genes and pass them on) accumulating mutations would eventually kill every last member of the species.

    Apart from all those biological reasons there are also other problems, assuming biology were somehow circumvented once you attain the potential to live eternally your chance of dying to a random accident approaches 1. All the low probability or distant future cataclysms suddenly become real threats. And even if earthquakes, meteorite impacts, or nearby supernovas don’t kill you the Sun will run out of fuel pretty quick (from an eternal life perspective), and if by some spectacular feat of engineering you somehow manage to survive that you still have the entropic heat death of the Universe to worry about. And that’s only the known dangers.

    All in all the chances of an eternal life are pretty damn slim.

    It is just as well however since eternal life is overrated anyway. Even assuming you had unlimited memory things would get pretty boring fast – once you learned all there is to learn and experienced all there is to experience what would you do? But in reality our biological memory is not unlimited so you would be doomed to repeat the same experiences over and over a la Sisyphus.

  30. Yes, we will all die, but is that the end for us? Does this “preposterous universe” consist “in truth” of “only atoms and the void”? My philosopher-scientist daughter, now age 35, told me that she first realized she was mortal while watching, at about age 5, the movie Blade Runner, the scene where Roy Batty, the replicant played by Rutger Hauer, is dying on the roof in the rain after saving Rick Deckard/Harrison Ford from certain death. This realization disturbed her at the time, but she seems to have accepted her assumed fate, and has since thrown in her lot with the naturalists/humanists. My 40-year-old son likewise. It is not my job as a parent to indoctrinate them one way or the other about such matters because I have found that some people I have talked to feel that believing in their mortality makes life seem more meaningful to them. I am not among them. When I was about 35 years old, coincidentally about the time Blade Runner was released, I found these unpremeditated words pop out of my mouth as my co-workers were discussing the untimely death of one of our coworkers: “If there is life after death, then death is meaningless, so it does not matter when you die. If there is no life after death, then life is meaningless, so it does not matter when you die.” Observing humanity for decades and noticing such a wide variety of belief and value systems, my perception is that some people are predisposed to believe in an afterlife, and others are predisposed to disbelieve in an afterlife; for most people it seems to be not so much a matter of scrupulously examining the evidence as it is a matter of innate personality.
    So regardless of any natural or supernatural bias, what is the scientific evidence, if any? When my mother almost died of a brain aneurysm some 15 years ago, this event impelled me to seriously confront my issues about my mortality. Subsequently I read several books about the so-called out-of-body (OBE) and near-death experience (NDE), and watched numerous videos available on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet. Millions of people have had this experience, and thousands have recorded their story. It is so common that, without looking for them, I have met more than half a dozen in my circle of friends and acquaintances. Regardless of their predisposition and belief before the OBE or NDE, they tell us that now they “know” consciousness is not limited to a brain and “know” that there is an afterlife. Do I “know” that there isn’t? Of course not, but the point is: Should I believe or disbelieve them because of some prejudice provided by my brain wiring or indoctrination from wherever? As it so happens, some of their OBE stories include “evidence”, stuff they allegedly experienced while the body was unconscious but the roaming mind was not, evidence allegedly confirmed when they related to others what they experienced. Being of scientific inclination, I also read what the debunkers of these stories have to say, that the dying or otherwise compromised brain produces hallucinations. Weighing both sides of the controversy, it looks to me like the preponderance of evidence and argument actually favors an afterlife. At least it is no more unscientific a belief than other ideas being proposed and investigated at the frontiers of knowledge. This subjective science of an afterlife explains and gives meaning and understanding to my inner universe as much as objective science explains and gives meaning and understanding to my outer universe. Based on what I have seen so far, belief in an afterlife is not necessarily irrational; it is not just wishful thinking or superstition. I find comfort and meaningfulness in this reasonable hope for some form of continuity.
    Personally, being myself a very scientific-minded individual who did a career in engineering and who reads lots of mainstream science stuff such as this blog, I find the idea of an afterlife to be preposterous, especially of the sort these OBE/NDE people tell stories about. However, preposterosity is not necessarily a measure of veracity, for me at least. For instance, I am also astonished at the preposterosity of this universe — and the stories that physicists and cosmologists tell about it. My first seeming preposterosity is that something exists rather than nothing, yet obviously something does exist. My second preposterosity is that what does exist is not just chaos – it appears to be an elegant mixture of order and chaos. My third preposterosity is that this chaos/order evolves to greater elegant complexity, yet it obviously does. My fourth preposterosity is that this evolution has lead to life, yet it certainly has. My fifth preposterosity is that this life has lead to consciousness, even self-consciousness, but it indubitably has. In view of these preceding preposterosities (and “scientific” speculations about an abundant plenitude of superstrings vibrating in a superabundant plenitude of multiverses that supposedly make these other preposterosities seem less preposterous in the minds of some people who are thus predisposed), my sixth preposterosity — that self-consciousness might outlive the demise of the body — does not seem so astonishing to me in comparison.

  31. About the MWI – So, suppose that our perception of time/free-will (or to be more exact suppose time/free-will itself) is precisely equal to our consciousness moving through the various branches of the MWI. So now, what is it that ‘keeps-us-on-track’? In other words, why can not we exercise/experience that oh so improbable act of walking through a wall which supposedly could be one of the branches of the MWI? Also, if you are still ‘alive’ after being exposed all these many years to the things that could end you existence the you have, necessarily, experienced those branches in the MWI where you do persist. And since if you cease to persist then you experience some branch in which you go ‘out-like-a-light’ then is it the case that we all are therefore imortal since in some branch we do continue?

    Another way to look at the MWI is to say that time does not exist but instead all the branches of the MWI exist at the same instant, and that instant is the only instant there is and the concept of time is our way of interpreting our conscious experience of the branches. Those branches are all automatically sequenced in the order of increasing entropy because that is all our minds are sensitive to.

  32. I was a weird child, apparently. I was aware of death as long as I can remember . . . memory. When I was 7 my grandfather, a farmer from Texas, died while visiting us in suburban Los Angeles. He took a pre-dawn constitutional through the concrete jungle. He and a speeding car tragically occupied the same space. His death fascinated me because the survivors — my mother, aunts, uncles et al — were terribly absorbed yet they refused to discuss Grandpa’s death with me. I felt not the least affected other than ongoing puzzlement. (No emotional attachment had developed between me and Gramps. I did not know him from Adam.)

    The odd silences during those days between the accident and the funeral (Gramps lay in state in our house but . . . don’t go in there! You’re too young!) impressed me: what are they hiding from me, and why? I stole a look at the newspaper’s account of the accident which included an artful photograph of a single shoe in the foreground (he was knocked plumb out of his shoes!) with the grave emergency-vehicle hubbub in the background.

    I spent my youth beginning every day with one thought: is this the day I die? Sounds morbid but in fact death’s inevitability inspired me. I was a snot-nosed kid loaded to the gills with carpe diem. All sadnesses seemed to pass. Our pets died, life went on. By the time I was 12 I figured out that religions, those ghostly authorities, were made up for who-knows-why.

    Being comfortable with my mortality ended up making life all the more fun, what with the motorcycle racing, the mountaineering and whatnot. Four near-death experiences, all of which I met with calm. At 64, I can’t say my lifetime of existential blasé has hurt the big picture.

    My son, who is now 16, gave me a long rambling talk on death when he was 7. Basically, he was outraged that he had to die to find out “the answers” (is there a heaven? among others) and, dammit, that’s just not fair. The topic of death was triggered by Jesus freaks at school. He’s since worked through all that nicely.

  33. @AI 4:30:

    You seem to be talking about evolution in illicit normative terms. Does it seem to you that our species is or will be at risk from some new variant? From here on out I’m fairly certain that evolution as it acts upon humans (in the sense of the acquisition and fixation of new traits) will be directed according to intentional selection.

    Your point about resource scarcity is practical, but it strikes me as little more than a technical obstacle. Who’s to say our current mining of environmental resources is optimal? Maybe it could be made efficient enough for 10 billion immortals to occupy the planet for the foreseeable future. If we all became vegetarians, plant matter plus solar energy (from any star) would be enough to sustain us indefinitely.

    Accumulating mutations: why can’t these simply be repaired on a molecular level as they arise? What’s the basis in physics for your objection here?

    The point about increased risk from catastrophic brain trauma etc. over an indefinite period is well taken. But I’m confident many of these risks could be minimized.

    Heat death of the universe is perhaps the most likely scenario, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion. What if the cyclical universe turns out to be the one we inhabit, and furthermore that it is possible to transport individuals from one iteration into the next? Or what if a multiverse scenario is correct, and it turns out people can pass between parallel worlds, in and out to escape cataclysms? These are highly speculative, long-term worries, but exactly what law of physics known today would rule them out?

  34. Meister: I would agree with Sean Carroll that we actually do know there is no afterlife in the usual spiritual sense of that term. It’s ruled out by Occam’s razor.

  35. Hecky: Can you point me to the place where Sean (or anyone else) argues that Occam’s Razor rules out an afterlife? Thanks! I am new here and I might have missed it. And when I tried to Search the term in the box provided at top-right of webpage, I got a “403 Permission Denied” response. I am somewhat familiar with the idea, but it never occurred to me that the Occam’s Razor argument (or is it a “law”?) would override good evidence … for anything. Perhaps I need to study up on it.

  36. I think there’s a strong argument to be made in favour of cryonics in light of all this. It’s basically a Pascal’s wager on the medical sciences. A very simple formulation of the original wager is that it’s better to accept God and belief in an afterlife because it covers you either way: if it’s false, you’ve lived a happy life and are too dead for it to matter anyway; if it’s true, you actually get to go to the afterlife. But the sciences have eroded the basic agnosticism behind the premises of the original wager. We now know, or can at least reasonably infer, that there is no afterlife, because IF it were true it would imply that far too much of what we DO know about reality must be false.

    However, you can run the exact same argument for cryonics. Sure it’s pseudo-science today to think that preserving your vitrified brain in liquid nitrogen will enable your resurrection untold centuries from now. But nothing about the idea would seem to violate current physics. You are a brain, and a brain is an organic chemistry machine, and perhaps there will be enough nanotech and medical engineering at some future date to restart your engines if enough of you is preserved at your death now. Obviously the chances are slim, but the point in common with the wager is that we don’t know the chances to be zero. Whereas if you get cremated or buried, the chances are absolutely zero. It’s a bet on the medical technology of the future, and since no one can predict the future very well, it’s not an obviously bad bet.

  37. Most likely, this fear will continue after old age is cured, but should subside when multiple, secured sites become available to backup the information required to reconstruct our bodies.

  38. You asked if it is a quite common occurrence.
    It happened to one of my siblings, in the forgotten past, so my father added a last sentence to our good night prayer wishing us all a happy long life.