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.