Sunday, 19 December 2010

Death is a Problem to Be Solved

Death is a Problem to Be Solved
by Luke Muehlhauser on December 17, 2010 in General Atheism

Atheists don’t believe in an afterlife. But people are afraid of the finality of death. So, they’re afraid atheism might be true. Even if the evidence supports atheism, they’d prefer to believe something that gives them some hope about death. So atheists have a marketing problem, and they address it by trying to make death look not quite so bad.

And they’re right to do so. Some fears about death are untrue, like the idea that it will be an“eternal blackness.” But some comforting responses to the problem of death are evasive. Consider the claim that eternal life would be thunderously boring, so we should embrace death. Really? I’m not sure I would mind eternal life. Gimme at least a thousand years, then. I’m pretty sure I could entertain myself for a thousand years, if not a trillion trillion trillion.

Or, consider Richard Dawkins’ point that “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” because the vast majority of possible people were never born. But this is beside the point. Everyone who is born will get sick, have moments of joy, have moments of loss, and die. The fact that we’re born doesn’t change the fact that moments of joy are nice, and we’d rather not get sick, have moments of loss, and die. Death remains something we’d very much like to avoid, like cancer.

Nobody says, “We could get cancer, and that makes us the lucky ones, because lots of possible people were never born to experience joy or sorrow.” Screw that. Cancer is terrible. Let’s cure cancer if we can.
The difference is that we can dream of curing cancer, but most people can’t dream of curing death. Cancer might be like smallpox (eradicated in 1977), but more difficult to eradicate. Maybe we can cure cancer. It’s definitely worth a try. But death is just part of the human condition. So we either invent the fantasy that death is not the end, or we rationalize it with statements like “the reality of death makes each day more meaningful” or “we are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

Let’s imagine that every human who had ever lived awoke in the morning with a terrible migraine just behind the eyes for one hour. Nobody could do any work during this time. We just had to endure for one hour, and when it dissipated, go about our business, and dread the next day’s migraine. There was no cure for the morning migraine, and none in sight. It was, unfortunately, fixed into the very nature of being human. I have no doubt we would soon begin to rationalize these morning migraines. We would tell ourselves that they make the rest of each day more wonderful by contrast, and that we would not properly appreciate the rest of each day were it not for the migraines. Someone might even venture to say that it’s the morning migraines which makes the rest of life meaningful. But now imagine that thousands of years pass, and very advanced scientists discover that morning migraines can be cured – with methods inconceivable to previous generations. Post-migraine generations look back on past generations and wonder: “How could they tolerate those awful morning migraines? What a horrible way to live, every day! Thank goodness we found a cure!”

I want to say the same about death. We rationalize death because we don’t think it can be avoided. But death is horrible, like cancer. Death thwarts an awful lot of desires. I don’t think much about death, and I don’t worry much about it, but I’m sure that when I lie on my deathbed I will have lots more I wanted to do with my life, and not being able to do those things will suck.

But here’s the good news. Death can be solved.

The causes of death are pretty well understood, and every year we develop new technologies that can address the problem. Aubrey de Grey and others are working on tissue repair. Medical researchers around the world are solving problems of disease and aging, while cognitive scientists are working to understand how the brain works so that we can augment its capacities with add-on hardware (or maybe “wetware”), or perhaps even transfer consciousness to a less vulnerable substrate, such as silicon. Many successful brain-computer interfaces have already been developed, and have, for example, restored sight to the blind.

Remember, too, that if it wasn’t for a thousand years of Christian Dark Ages, we might have been a thousand years more scientifically advanced right now than we actually are. If we had decided to take science seriously all along, we might have had death solved already. I’ve admitted that death is terrible. That’s rather gloomy. But here’s the good news about death. For the first time in human history, we understand there is a real hope that death can be solved.

What can you do about it? Promote science, not comforting superstitions about an afterlife. Superstition only retards our progress, and therefore commits billions more people to deaths they would give anything to avoid.

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