It’s generally considered morbid or impolitic to talk about death, a subject best left to spiritual leaders, goths, emo bands and crime scene investigators.
Yet a recurring theme of conversation with my friends recently has revolved around the existential issues and the associated dread that comes with pondering life’s meaning and inevitable end.
I’m not sure what’s driven these ponderings to the surface, other than the emerging quarter-life crises hitting my peers in the tail-end of the Millennial generation. And along with uncertainty of finding our place in the world after our college years, death becomes an increasingly frequent visitor as the older generations start to pass away one by one.
Usually I’ll turn to the data, to science, for the answer. As a result, I accept that death is a void experience, a lack of anything, complete and total oblivion. It’s something the living cannot comprehend since life is such an all-encompassing experience. Not even contextualizing it through the frame of what it was like before birth seems to help grasp the concept of nothing.
But there are some places empiricism can’t follow, like what life’s purpose is, whether anything matters and who makes those decisions.
I can already hear the arching of eyebrows from those who argue life’s biological imperative is to survive and reproduce, along with the outraged screams of the religious insisting on their own stack of cosmic answers to the questions mankind has pondered longest.
Despite the ultimate meaninglessness of it all, freedom of thought and expression, along with basic human empathy, are keys to making the most of humanity’s run, and people are entitled to believing whatever they like so long as nobody else is being harmed.
But my sympathies lie with Carl Sagan’s argument that we’re among the cosmos’ ways of knowing itself, especially considering the universe itself has a finite lifespan.
Yes, even if humans somehow cure death (like some Silicon Valley moguls are attempting)1 and conquer the stars, or if we really do achieve singularity, every single prancing immortal at the end of the time is likely subject to the heat death of the universe2.
So when it comes to death, we’re all equal. Nobody will be spared, everyone’s abyss will be the same stretch of infinity. The eternal experience of the first human and the last human are ultimately the same.
It’s thought that all humanity has ever created – art, music, religion, myth, legend, etc – have been mechanisms to cope with the unrelenting subconscious awareness of death.3 What’s more, none of these creations will live past our bubble of existence. It’s not for the posterity of the universe or even other civilizations who might dig us up, since everything ever created is destined to forever be lost.
Rather, it could be argued all the beauty and wonder we’ve created is for us alone, to make our tiny pocket of spacetime bearable.
And existential dread could be my middle name, which is partially responsible for my quenchless need to create. I realize that fears of infinite nothing have a tendency to linger and surge forward unbidden regardless. I’ve found that once one’s awareness of their own mortality escapes into the forefront of the mind, it’s impossible to put it back in the box.
Most days I ping-pong between nihilistic thoughts – those rooted in everything being meaningless – and absurdist ones that insist it’s impossible to really know anything beyond our incredibly limited perceptions. Science can and has taken us far, and might someday produce a clearer, more universally-accepted answer about what happens after our flames flicker out, not to mention what consciousness even is. But science eventually hits a wall when discussing what’s literally beyond our existence.
Philosophically, I land along the median of nihilism and absurdism, where nothing officially means anything and that it’s insane to search for an overarching, common cosmic meaning to it all that we’ll never find. To me, this means worrying about it too much is a senseless waste of our limited lifespan.
We therefore have the power to define what success is for ourselves, individually and as a society, which could be defined as falling under the Venn umbrella of logical positivism.
Life has whatever meaning we assign to it, and that, to me, seems quite empowering.