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It is often said that death giveth meaning and taketh it away. Death is thought to give life meaning by lending our lives stages, a shape, and the coherence of a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. This helps us make sense of our lives and helps us see each of us as a person with an identity that develops over the course of a lifetime. But death supposedly also undercuts life’s meaning by annihilating us, limiting the impact and significance of our efforts, and eventually wiping all vestiges of our lives away. Why bother working so hard when we and everything we’ve done will disappear sooner or later? Even if some of our efforts have impact beyond our lives, eventually it all dissipates and disappears. Death is like the tide that comes in and sweeps away not only the sandcastles you built, but you – the very self – that built them. In this way, death undermines meaning. It has therefore become a truism to call death both a taker and giver of meaning. Yet, notice what happens if we take death out of the equation. Say we lived forever, were as immortal as the gods. Then what? I think we would notice that it’s not death but time that is both necessary for meaning yet undermines meaning.
Many argue that, by providing an end point, death gives our lives narrative structure, coherence, and meaning. But time alone gives shape sufficient for meaning to our lives by allowing for sequence, which allows for a meaningful narrative. Before, during, after; yesterday, today, tomorrow. A story that unfolds in time. Without time marking out our lives, it’s hard to fathom life at all because we live in the fundamentals of the present, the past, and the future. It’s nearly impossible to imagine timeless meaningfulness. One might conjure up a hazy vision of existing in a timeless state of pure joy, or a more dystopian vision of unmitigated sorrow. Could we exist in a timeless state of both joy and sorrow? Only if the two contradictory emotions occurred simultaneously since there cannot be a sequence without time. Yet even a state of pure joy sounds more like a drug trip than a meaningful life. How meaningful can it be if that’s all that’s going on? No striving, no hoping, no succeeding, no failing – some of the crucial markers of meaning could not occur without time because they are oriented in the past as it relates to the present as it relates to the future. Even love loses much of its meaning in the absence of time because love without time would lack the element of faithfulness that characterizes deep and enduring love, which shows itself by persisting for better or for worse through time. Without time, it’s hard to conceive of much of what we take to make our lives meaningful. However, so long as we live in time, even if we lived forever, much of what makes our everyday lives meaningful could remain. Without death, we wouldn’t have a final narrative of our lives, with a final ending, but we might still have something like a serial or, if you keep it exciting enough, a soap opera. A very long and unending story, but still, a story, with a narrative structure, and day-to-day meaning.
Without death, we wouldn’t have a final narrative of our lives, with a final ending, but we might still have something like a serial or, if you keep it exciting enough, a soap opera.
Some have argued that death is needed for the background meaning conditions of risk, reward, and limited resources. Without death, they argue, there would be no urgency to our projects, no particular reason to follow through on things that would still be there for you tomorrow, no reason to cherish the love you have today. Yet these conclusions overlook the role that time plays in providing us with these conditions. Time is needed for the backdrop of risk, reward, and the forward motion so connected to meaningful activity. Without death, love would still be a risk: Will she love me back? Will it end in heartbreak? What will become of our children, if we are lucky enough to birth them? Starting a project would remain risky: Will it play out as planned, will it end in humiliation or fulfilment? Will it have been worth our efforts? You don’t need death to have time pressure or motivation: you need to hire a band in time for the wedding; you need to show your children how much you love them while they’re still growing up; you need to ask the girl out before she leaves the train station… Similarly, the rewards of the risks we take and the things we do with our time would remain meaningful because we would continue to reap those rewards and they would continue to be at risk, not to be taken for granted. We would still have many limitations on our resources, quite possibly more so than we do now since human consumers would persist indefinitely. We would still have to take care to preserve our planet, to grow sufficient food to avoid hunger and malnutrition, to decide what to attend to now and what can be put off without undue cost. Both risk and reward would remain meaningful without death, and perhaps become even more significant since their effects might last a lot longer and thereby have a deeper, more meaningful, impact. Time is the background condition for meaning.
Yet time also erodes meaning, as we can see by considering what would become of us if we never died. If we lived forever, we would live to see what time does to our accomplishments, commitments, and efforts. That might be a fate worse than death. Whatever we put so much care and effort into a hundred, or a hundred thousand, years ago would be hardly a memory now, with the added torment of watching this process play out and knowing that it would be the future of our current engagements and passions. The paintings burned, the books forgotten, the love lost, the symphony no one has played in ten thousand years, the friendships petered out.
Both risk and reward would remain meaningful without death, and perhaps become even more significant since their effects might last a lot longer and thereby have a deeper, more meaningful, impact.
Furthermore, if we lived forever, we might have a hard time maintaining the psychological memory and continuity that provide the scaffolding for our sense of personal identity. Eventually, time itself could annihilate us. We would watch as each of our “selves” faded over time, again and again. The sands of time themselves might do us in, if we lived long enough. Endless time presents meaning problems. I suspect that’s why many religions have views of the eternal afterlife as not subject to time, not in time; absent the element of time at all. It’s very hard to imagine what that sort of existence would be like or whether it would be a way we might want to exist. Religion has not convinced me of its supernatural promises, but at least it knows what the problem is.
Living in the moment has been suggested as way to cope with the meaning problems posed by death, and perhaps it is worth considering that as a way of coping with the meaning problems posed by time as well. But there is a limit to how well this approach can work. Focusing only on the present can cost us, because the future is coming, whether we attend to it or not, so best be prepared. Even if umbrellas would miraculously show up in time for the rain, existing in the present would present its own meaning conundrums. Meaningfulness and timelessness – the constant-present – are not natural bedfellows. Conjure up again that timeless state of pure love, picture floating on a sea of downy clouds. Dreamy! For a bit. It’s hard to see these states that sound sort of like pleasant drug trips being pleasant forever, and nearly impossible to imagine them as meaningful. We need time for what most of us can recognize as meaning, even if time itself eventually turns ourselves and all we ever cared about to dust. (This aspect of the meaning problem seems unnoticed by religious descriptions of the afterlife).
Regarding meaning, death just does what time would do eventually anyway, but perhaps more mercifully.
Its star billing notwithstanding, death is not the ghost that haunts our meaningful ambitions. We would have our meaning possibilities and our meaning problems whether we were mortal or not. It is time, and not death, that lends life its shape yet eventually wipes us and our deeds out, undercutting the meaning of our lives. Oddly enough, death may be the easier way to have to face our meaning limitations because, although we know it’s coming, we are spared having to watch as our identities and past projects, loves, passions, and accomplishments spin out into meaninglessness. So don’t blame or laud death as a meaning-maker or a meaning-slayer. Regarding meaning, death just does what time would do eventually anyway, but perhaps more mercifully. If you’re going to be annihilated and have your efforts eventually come to nothing, it’s easier if you don’t have to watch. It’s less agonizing to die. Death is just a marker of time: it tells you when your time is up, and takes you out of time and into nothingness. Time’s the bitch, my friends: can’t have meaning with her, can’t have meaning without her either. Recognizing that time is what makes life both meaningful and not meaningful allows us to obsess a little less about death and reconcile with the fundamental element of our lives: the time we have to live.
Rivka Weinberg is Professor of Philosophy at Scripps College, Claremont. She specializes in ethics, bioethics, and the metaphysics of birth, death, and meaning. Homepage: https://www.scrippscollege.edu/offices/profile/rivka-weinberg
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