Life, purpose and dealing with death
If you are reading this, you might be alive. You might be a computer program, simulating my life to me. We never know. To me, cogito ergo sum, to you, not so much. I think, therefore I am. But I don’t know that you think, so you might not be. This applies to our entire environment. And should it be true that our entire environment, the way we perceive others and the universe, be simulated, do we even classify as ‘alive’?
Because we are the rational human, homo sapiens, or at least because we can contemplate abstract principles, we can contemplate our lives. It is a blessing. It has made us able to build bridges and estimate their maximum carry weight beforehand, make increasingly complex buildings and objects and increasingly useful, safe and complex products. Our abstract mind is a great thing, which has enabled us to adapt like no other species before us; to the point of cultivating and maintaining our own ecosystem, the cityscape. But like many great things, it has its downsides. Because it enables us to contemplate our lives and objects around us, we can have fears. Fears of objects and/or concepts, people or death.
Especially this last one, the fear of death, is one that wreaks havoc, to this day, on human freedom. This is why I am writing this article; to clear up misconceptions around the concepts of life and death. To do this, we will start by handling the presumed current affairs; life. We will look at how close we can come to getting to a purpose for being alive. After that, we will look at the question ‘what to do with life in the face of death?’, at the hand of a few examples, such as Abortion, Euthanasia and Suicide and the Death Penalty.
Regardless the fact that most of us know intuitively how to separate life from non-life or death fairly flawlessly, there is quite some contention on what ‘life’ means. There are various definitions in contention. In the light of being inclusive, I will use the present biological definition: ‘an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction’. It is important to note, that this definition is under contention, because some forms of plants, and animals -including humans with certain diseases-, though alive, show no reaction to stimuli. The same goes for reproduction; a dog that is neutered is nonetheless alive. Even while the dog is temporarily unconscious after getting neutered, he is not dead. So we have established that our definition is lacking. Therefore, I would ask the honored reader to attach this baggage to my starting definition, so that we may adequately and completely discuss the concept of life.
Many people say the value life, implying -purposefully or not- that they value life intrinsically. They have a good point in this. After all, it is a spectacular occurrence. The way each animal and human have their own goals, go on their own ways to survive is very impressive, as are the high trees. But, so too are the high, inanimate mountains and deep seas.
That being said, we don’t treat other lifeforms like we care about life itself, do we? If we set aside the fact that literally all of our food was once alive are killed for the express purpose of feeding us- we have no choice but to. But we cut up our house plants, squash bugs and hunt. These don’t really seem indicative of valuing life itself, do they? Moreover; when our home is infested with life, we call in an exterminator. So, at the most we can say that we “value life as long it conforms to the desires we have for it.” That is to say, that while we value life, we don’t necessarily consider life life when we want to make alterations to, or use of it. In cutting the plant, we don’t stop to think we are mutilating it. Yet, we are. In squashing the bug, we don’t stop to think we are ending a life. Yet, we are.
It is for this reason that I am convinced that, instead of life itself, we actually value awareness, or at least the potential of awareness. What do I mean with awareness, exactly? Awareness, as I mean to define it, is: “the state of being able to perceive, react upon and sensually experience one’s surroundings and to remember these experiences”. For a formal layout of the idea of awareness I am getting at, I will refer you to my earlier article; Cognicism; a secular moral system, I will here layout only the rudimentary case as it pertains to this article.
For any stimulus to have an effect on an organism, a certain processing of these stimuli should be present. If it isn’t, the stimulus wouldn’t have an effect, simply because the organism isn’t aware of the fact that a stimulus has occurred.
For any stimulus to an organism to have an effect on the moral status of the stimulus, there must be a certain processing of the stimulus so that the organism can take notice. This means that the organism shouldn’t only be able to process the stimulus, but it must be able to notice the results. If, for instance you hurt an animal, but it has no capacity for memory, it will have forgotten the pain right after the incident, leaving there be no pain.
In short, awareness is what we value about our own lives and the lives of others, because it is what we empathize with and what we base ourselves, our own actions and personality, on.
Purpose of life
Now that we established what it is that we value about life and about living creatures, it is time to start exploring what the purpose of life is. By ‘purpose of life’, I mean something similar to, yet completely different from the classic-theistic approach. The difference here, is mainly one of cause. In the classic-theistic sense, we typically start out (re-)affirming that we were made by god. (Re-)affirming of faith is significant, in this instance, as you can make the argument that purpose follows the intent of the creator, leading us to the conclusion that the purpose of life, is simply to live according to god’s plan, whatever that may be.
Let us stop for a minute, to acknowledge that; “to live according to god’s plan, whatever that may be.” It seems interesting, but is actually entirely vacuous. God is often silent, apart from the manual he left centuries, if not millennia ago. To make matters worse; most gods are omniscient and omnipotent, so you can’t not live according to god’s plan.
There’s not such an easy way out for us, here. If we want to get a satisfying answer, we’re going to have to look around. We do this by finding other things or beings in our environment that do have an established purpose. The first thing that comes to mind, are objects designed for use. They are designed for a certain use and they fulfill this use as a purpose. Knives and scissors, for instance, have the purpose of inflicting controlled damage on an object/individual, cars are meant to transport human beings and their belongings with a relatively high speed at a very specific location.
We can notice here, that purpose is a result of design. So, what does our design, or form, tell us about ourselves? A bit too much, I am afraid. We have a form that enables us to do almost everything. And it has enabled us to do everything we have done so far. But, does this mean that simply ‘being human’ is the purpose of human life? This does brush on what many non-religious people will give as an answer to the question. They will say: “to be” or “to live”. This is essentially a good answer. It takes into account all that we feel when trying to answer this question; the fact that there is no discernible god, the fact that no purpose is given beforehand and that we experience both good and bad things. But this fails to take into account that ‘being’ or ‘living’ itself has no purpose without an environment, so our purpose must have something to do with our environment. Not to mention that ‘living to live’ seems unsatisfying and circular, so we must keep on looking. If we take the car, mentioned above, we see a similar problem. A car, too, has many different functions and abilities. It typically has air conditioning, radio, mirrors etc. Yet, we do not consider the purpose of the car to be providing air conditioning, radio and reflections to be the purpose of the car. This is because we separate the primary functions from the secondary and tertiary functions; we only use these features when we are in the car, using it already. This, of course begs the question; how do we separate the different grades of functions.
I am convinced that we can find the answer to this question in the use of fuels. When we look at a car, we see that it has many functions, as laid out above. But, we might also notice that uses the majority of the energy its fuel supplies in motion. When we consider humans, then, science tells us that 20-30% of our fuel is used to provide our brains with sufficient energy. Of this energy, most goes to recognizing, simulating and traversing our environment and surroundings. Thus, we have established our link to our surroundings. The rest of the energy that goes to our brains, that is not used for staying alive or knowing our surroundings, are used for contemplation of life or questions in life.
In conclusion, we can now show a hierarchy in purposes for life, which we can apply not only to human life, but to all forms of life:
- To sustain life through procreation and nourishment
- To experience life and the world
- To contemplate life and the world
These all follow from our reasoning about awareness and function, in addition to having the neat attribute of connecting what we value about life with a sense of objective purpose.
This purpose to life is of course very universal and this probably makes it not very helpful in your day to day life. Alas, No one can be expected to craft you a personal purpose for life. But, the upside is that we are entirely free to shape our own personal purpose and legacy in this world. For me, I just try to spread compassion and understanding so that we might stop arguing. But you are free to do whatever you think best suits you.
All of this; life, our reasoning… our purpose… leads to the question of what we should do with life, considering death. The value of life and the inevitability of death combined, lead to a plethora of interesting dilemma’s. In this article, to avoid endlessly considering different kinds of medical dilemma’s, we will limit ourselves to the best known examples of these dilemma’s, known to be Abortion VS the right to life, Suicide VS Right/will to live, The death penalty VS the right to life and Euthanasia VS the sanctity of life.
Before we do this, however, let’s discuss the concept of death.
Death is, as we all know, the loss of life and/or the status of no longer being alive. Death is often considered an unpleasant or even scary subject to talk about, because we are confronted head-on that at a certain time, a certain day in the future, we too will die. This makes people anxious, because life is all we know. In this respect, death is the ‘great unknown’.
This also explains that many people, apart from being anxious about death, have an inexplicable fascination with it. Things that are unknown but (at the time) harmless, are very interesting. They challenge us to think outside the box, confront our fears and challenge our minds. It has done this to the point that we have significantly raised the age expectancy over just a few decades. But, alas, death remains inevitable.
Why exactly death is inevitable, or if it will in the far future remain to be, is unclear. But for the time being, it seems that we will all die. So why, if it is a fate we all share, are we so afraid of it?
One of the reasons, I have already mentioned, albeit briefly. “Death is the great unknown.” All we know, all we love, is in this life. Our stuff, our friends and family, but even the sun and the greater universe. These things make sense to us, give us a reason to get up in the morning. Parting with it, gives us a sense of alienation and insecurity. We are going into the unknown, and we never know what horrors or joys we might encounter.
A second reason is the process of dying. The fact that we will all die, doesn’t mean that the way we die is universal. Rather, there are quite different ways to die. We might die in our sleep, but we can also catch a piece of space junk on our head, and everything in between is a more or less viable way to die. So, too do the degrees of lain in this all vary. We might assume that we feel next to nothing when we die in our sleep, while when we die from a disease that slowly eats away at our body is likely near unbearable. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel; death in the sense of being dead and no longer feeling the pain of disease and existence. So, how do we handle this mixture of suffering and angst? Let’s examine this.
Abortion is the first kind of death we might encounter in our lives. Namely, when we reside safely in our mother’s womb. Or well, in case of abortion, perhaps not so safely. Many atheists fight what they consider the good fight to legalize abortion, and are quite easily done with the topic after that. This I find regrettable, since many haven’t gotten their perceptions about life and death clearly in order and abortion is -in my opinion- one of the cornerstone-tools in finding clarity about life and death. Abortion is a good tool in this respect, because it contains elements not only of life and death, but personal bodily integrity, different facets of consciousness, legislation and autonomy. We find ourselves considering whether autonomy trumps the right to life or not. This is in and of itself a fascinating question, in which both sides have valid and good arguments.
For instance, the argument of deprival of choice for the fetus resonates with most people and initially rings true. A human baby and indeed a fetus, might not yet have the awareness to make this decision, but as I argued above, it is not so much ‘life’ or ‘awareness’ that we value, but the ‘potential for awareness’ and certainly a fetus has this potential.
However, it is only a potential for awareness (this will be further explained in the next section of this article). Up until a certain point, a developing baby isn’t conscious. This means that, though it is alive, it doesn’t know it’s alive. Because it isn’t aware that it’s alive, and abortion is a tough-to-grasp concept, it isn’t aware that there is a choice to be made, until long after the choice has been made, if it will ever be aware of the choice. Of course, this lack of awareness also impacts the moral status of the fetus; because it has little to no awareness, it has little to no ability to notice its environment, much less to interpret and remember any suffering inflicted upon it.
It may be noted that this argument does little to allow the removal of the fetus. The fact that committing an act leads to little to no damage, doesn’t mean you should commit it. If swatting a fly doesn’t do much damage, that doesn’t mean you should go out and kill every fly you encounter. In fact, depending on its location, this might be quite a dangerous undertaking. This is in effect the same when it comes to abortion, if you change ‘location’ to ‘state of development’ and ‘dangerous’ to ‘immoral’. At the stage of development (I say state of development instead of naming it, because this might shift) where we have significant reason to assume that the developing baby does have the ability to feel and remember joy or suffering, its moral status, and thus the moral status of abortion, change entirely. It is at that point, as we have clarified above, it becomes a creature that we have to morally account for beyond its potential for awareness.
The argument about the sanctity of life is also one that resonates. After all, we are here because life exists and removing the special ‘sacred’ status, might expose it to danger by ruthless treatment. The facts that our planet has life is barely short of miraculous and that we, as diverse life, sustain each other significantly on most every level, make life one of the most praiseworthy things. However, this only means that the preservation of life as a whole should be morally accounted for. This doesn’t mean every individual is worthy of such consideration. We can value the machine without valuing every part. And we seem to know this intuitively, as most of us eat animals.
But, at the end of things, abortion will always be a weighing of the values attached to the potential for awareness of the fetus versus the bodily autonomy of the woman in question. It will come as no surprise, that I find the ready awareness of the woman to be of higher moral status than the not-yet-existent awareness of the developing child. And as the woman’s awareness and experience of life are inseparably connected to her bodily autonomy, we must conclude that she is entitled to make such a decision in her best judgments
Suicide and Euthanasia
Sooner or later, most of us will confront ourselves with a great question, that might have even greater consequences. “Should I just end it all?” The brunt of people who entertain this thought don’t seriously intend to do so and a greater number refrains from both suicide and euthanasia. But some people do commit suicide, and it’s understandable. We have never chosen to live and should we have had the choice before conception or birth, many of us might well have refused the offer. Living hurts. We might get hurt ourselves or be hurt by others, there’s wars, famine, slavery and disease. Not to even talk about the troubles money and love may cause. And because we have the power of contemplation, we might estimate the impact of these troubles in our life. They can seem insurmountable and sometimes, they are.
When troubles are severe and insurmountable, by which I mean that they cause great suffering that shows no reasonable sign of halting, suicide or euthanasia might be a viable option. However, aside from abstractly thinking, we are also an emotional species. This leads us to often make our problems seem bigger than they are. This is why, before one goes through with suicide or euthanasia, they ought to be sure they have sufficient reason to. After all, it is a hefty trade. We leave behind all we know and all we love. Everything that we can be sure of, and trade it for something we can’t be sure of. We can’t be sure about how it is to lose awareness permanently. In this sense, suicide and euthanasia are like making an all-in wager at an international casino; you cash in your chips, but you don’t know in which currency they’ll pay you back.
We should thus conclude that both suicide and euthanasia should be acts that are only committed after lengthy and intense reflection as well as seeking psychological or otherwise professional help. And when and if we reach the conclusion that they are the best course of action, our thoughts ought to immediately go out to those we have during our lives surrounded ourselves with; friends, family and other loved ones. The ways people get to know about a death can be of great influence on their life. To minimize their suffering, arrangements ought to be made to keep trauma at a minimum. In the case of euthanasia, this is often the case. People who apply for euthanasia often share their plans with their loved ones. Their deaths will be professionally assisted and the body equally professionally taken care of. In suicide, this is often not the case. It are often loved ones who find the body, in all kinds of compromising positions and conditions. This is why euthanasia ought to be available to everyone who has been deemed to have sufficient reason to want to give up life. These reasons can vary from being terminally ill and severely suffering, to just not wanting to live.
The Death Penalty
Of the many forms of death we humans can succumb to, the death penalty might well be the hardest to reach a definitive conclusion on. This is in part because we hear a lot about the death penalty in our daily lives. We hear about a murderer who killed one person getting the death sentence, while those who have killed entire families may get life in prison and the other way around. My opinion about the death penalty is an unpopular one, simply because I don’t explicitly side with one side or the other.
Let’s start by setting up a framework for this discussion.
The death penalty should be considered in a reasonable context. That is to say that subjects who undergo the death penalty ought to be rightfully convicted in a fair trial with sufficient evidence, of a crime that is proportional to the penalty. The desired amount of evidence ought to be left to be derived from what is scientifically acceptable to reach consensus, as science has proven to be the most trustworthy way to determine reality, and that proportionality ought to be established in all moral reasonableness. This in turn means that we use good reasoning to determine when someone is eligible for the death penalty. Certainly, we don’t want to hang people for throwing their cigarette on the ground.
If we consider the death penalty this way, we see that it is a very viable option. It becomes a viable option, if -rather than punishment- we see it as a means of increasing utility (utility, in philosophy, is the amount of ‘usefulness’ in a resulting situation, varying from the amount of options that result to the amount of happiness and/or contentment), as long as you do it humanely.
The first reason for this, I regret having to mention it, money. People who pose a danger to society and can’t be rehabilitated, will otherwise spend their lives in jail. Jails, which are either publicly owned, or publicly funded in most cases. This means tax dollars would be spent on a ‘hopeless matter’.
A second reason, is the criminal himself. Many who pose a danger to society, and can’t be reasonably rehabilitated, will otherwise spend their lives in jail, where they will have little meaning in their life and constant threat of violence. As long as they are executed humanely, it seems that at least a choice must be given to these people.
However, the above is almost never the case. Juries and judges get the assignment to establish ‘beyond the shadow of a doubt’ that the defendant did it, but estimations (since courts don’t usually entertain the possibility of innocence after the fact) range between 20-30% of people who were executed being innocent. So clearly, there was a shadow of doubt looming over the conviction. We see, in many countries, that dissidents are silenced using the death penalty and/or undue sentencing. In short, we “get the wrong guys” too often.
The implications are severe. When we kill the wrong person, we are slaying an innocent person. In doing this, our system itself commits murder. Now, depending on the legislation for when exactly someone becomes eligible for the death penalty, this may quickly mean that the system that enacts the death penalty must itself be charged with murder and sentenced accordingly. But this is not all. If we consider the murderer a danger to society, how do we treat the executioner, who by all means has killed at least one, but may very well have killed multiple people. Do we consider him a threat to society? at the very least, he has killed innocents, which means he directly participated in murder. At the very least he ought to be considered an accessory to murder. So do we sentence him? And what about the judges and/or juries? surely, they gave the order for the execution. Do we charge them with a criminal conspiracy?
Of course, this would be both ridiculous and untenable. So though the value of life is not to be too highly estimated, we must also consider our state’s and nation’s practical moral implications. These show us that the death penalty isn’t the best course of action, though it has some very strong arguments in favor of it. These arguments, however, are insufficient when compared with the chance for committing a moral evil inadvertently. We must err on the side of life, rather than the side of death.
What then, do we do with natural death? Medical science has evolved rapidly over the course of the past 150 or so years. We have managed to -in large numbers- abandon the relative quackery of herbs and spices and get to pills, supplements, scans and vaccinations. this has allowed us to increase our lifespan significantly. However, the same can’t be said for our bodily health, which is collectively dropping. We eat a lot of strange, sweet and fatty foods, which makes our bodies ever fatter, our immune systems lacking.
It is truly a beautiful thing, what we have accomplished. I consider it a moral blessing that we have been able to elongate our most precious asset; awareness. This allows us to fulfill more of both our objective and our subjective, personal purposes. However, we must also acknowledge the fact that the age at which our body starts seriously deteriorating has largely remained that same, between the ages of 55 and 65. This is when many chronic disabilities and illnesses start to set in. Alzheimer’s becomes a real concern, but so do several forms of cancer, arthritis and sight-, hearing- and motion problems. These problems, though precautionary and preventative measures are in place and exceedingly prominent, persevere.
So what do we make of this? Firstly, we must understand that these problems, though life threatening, may be experienced as a threat to life. For many old people (especially those who have Alzheimer’s) any problem with the functions they used to have function as a premonition of their inevitable death. On the other hand, there are also older people who fare fairly well in these kinds of circumstances. Some, on the other hand, don’t very much mind, but would choose a younger body should they have the possibility. At any rate, getting older can be a serious burden, but it can also *just* be a burden. What we are effectively doing by elongating human life, is stretching this period of suffering and decline. This seems fairly damning at first hand, but we must also realize that, in saying this, it is the last of such periods a person will experience. In fact, from beginning to end, it might be their last experiences.
This makes the situation profoundly complicated, as on one hand, you would want to end the suffering, but doing that entails ending the awareness of the person suffering. The only reasonable option I see in this is to simply allow euthanasia for these people and keep on working on enhancing the medication we have available for these people, in whichever way that may come. In this way, we make it possible of those who are not ready to leave life to exit it with dignity, surrounded by the people they love or in any other way they see fit. On the other hand, we allow those who are not yet ready to leave life to continue going on, all the while reducing their suffering by introducing new ways to avoid, adapt to or numbing it.
What I have tried to argue in this text, is that though life is valuable in and of itself, we mustn’t apply that to every organism. The value of life is often made to out be sacred, while we all know -as I have shown- that life itself isn’t the quality from which we gather that position, but that it is rather awareness as seen in animals and humans. Taking this, I have shown you that an objective purpose can be found in life by investigating its forms and circumstances.
Using this, I have tried to show you how we can use the notion of life being less than sacred to actually reach conclusions that are very much in line with the intuitions many of us have when it comes to life and dealing with death, at the hand of Abortion, Suicide and euthanasia, the Death Penalty and Natural Death.