There’s an excellent philosophy series on Youtube by Rick Roderick. In one of the lectures, he delivers the narrative of him asking “Why are humans born to suffer and die?” to his therapist.
This question captured my imagination. Roderick is of course talking here about the purpose or the “meaning” of a life and, specifically in this video, how Heidegger approached that question. I want to take a more literal approach however and rephrase this question slightly:
Must humans die? Must humans suffer?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any training in the philosophical tradition. I do have a little experience with proofs and “Technical Rationality” as Roderick put it. Lets rephrase the question again as tautologies
- Humans must die (eventually) or they must live forever (never die)
- Humans must never suffer or they must encounter some suffering
Note that I’m not interested in proving that humans must always suffer, but I do want to know if some amount of suffering is necessary in life.
First, is it necessary that humans must eventually die? Lets start by defining what we mean by life. The criteria for Life are very clearly delineated, there are 7:
- Maintain Homeostasis
- Have levels of organization (complexity)
- Use energy
- Respond to stimuli
- Adapt to their environment
Humans are clearly alive and fulfill all 7 of these criteria, as do many other forms of life.
These criteria are not absolute, you don’t need to fulfill all 7 of them to be considered alive necessarily, but a species should fulfill most of them. In order to die, you must have once been alive. So death is something like “to stop living” or to “become inert after having been alive” Lets now take death out of the picture for humans, every human is now immortal, they will never die.
Immortality has many implications, but lets look at one very narrow path and see what it means for humanity in terms of these 7 conditions. First, consider the universe. There are two possibilities:
- The universe is infinite (and contains finite resources)
- The universe is finite (and contains finite resources)
In the case where the universe is finite, humans continue to reproduce and eventually consume all resources in order to create more humans. They may or may not reach other solar systems depending on if they discover FTL (Faster than light) travel, but inevitably they will convert all available resources into humans. Since humans cannot die, the resources they consume to keep themselves alive will never be returned to their environments. Lets turn back to the conditions to life, what is the outcome for these humans?
Maintain Homeostasis: Individual cells must still be able to function because they are incapable of death. That means they must still be doing their jobs - PASS Organization: Humans will still be made of cells - PASS Reproduction: Humans cannot reproduce because there will not be enough matter in the right proportions to make a new human at some point - FAIL Grow: Humans may not grow because all available resources for physical growth will be locked in separate humans - FAIL Use energy: Energy may not be created through chemical reactions because those reactions would require resources which again are locked in other humans - FAIL Respond to stimuli: This one is a bit unclear. It would depend on exactly how the mechanics of deathlessness work. Can a brain still process stimuli if cells cannot create ATP? - MAYBE Adapt to their environment: Without reproduction, long term adaptation is impossible. Short term adaptation would become impossible when use of energy due to lack of resources fails - FAIL
With only two criteria passing, you can safely argue that humans under immortality are not alive. Lets look at the other case.
An infinite universe does not appear to have the same problems as a finite universe. On first blush, humans should be able to just travel to new solar systems endlessly to harvest new resources and continue proliferating. The current thought in cosmology is that we live in an expanding universe, and that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light. What this means is that supposing humans could reach other galaxies, those galaxies would eventually expand apart from one another (roughly speaking) and continue expanding away at a rate greater than anything we could traverse. This reduces back to the finite universe case. Humans in each individual galaxy would eventually consume all the resources and lock them in existing humans.
In order for humans to live, death is a necessary component.
Addendum: Possible loopholes
This is not an absolutely conclusive proof however, some loopholes off the top of my head:
- We live in an infinite universe and we acquire some kind of point to point travel where we can overcome the expansion problem and keep acquiring resources
- Humans acquire immortality but no longer reproduce and find a way to perfectly recycle materials so as to continue to allow their cells to divide and reproduce forever. This fails at least two of the criteria (adaptation and reproduction), but humans would still be considered alive.
- We live among infinite universes that are all finite and we find a way to jump between them and steal their resources. This assumes that humans are not immortal in the other universes also.
These scenarios don’t correspond to our current understanding of physics or human nature, so I feel quite good about the chances of this simple proof holding.
Death is necessary in order to have life, is suffering necessary? There’s a simple proof that we can build off of death. If you are not a psychopath (I mean that in the technical sense), you are capable of experiencing the emotion “grief”. This is usually experienced when someone close to you dies. Since we know that death is necessary, most humans will experience grief in their lifetimes which will cause some amount of psychic pain or suffering. Therefore for most humans, suffering is a requirement in life.
Note that I emphasize most. It is entirely possible that you live without anybody you are close to or know personally dying. It is entirely possible that you never experience any pain in your life from anything (never get hurt, no traumatic events, not even a parking ticket or getting rained on) however the odds of this are minuscule. You would have to live a perfect life right up until the moment of your death (and you would have to die before anybody else you know of to not experience grief). Moreover you would have to die in a completely painless way and experience no anxiety about your death which means dying from something like a freak accident or a brain aneurysm that kills you immediately. I’m all for technicalities, but this seems like a useless result. The only group of people I can think of this happening to is children, which is a tragedy since you could make the argument that they never got to live a life to begin with.
Roderick phrases his question as “Why are humans born to suffer and die”, but the meaning of suffering is highly debatable. Generally, I think people do suffer, but this does not have to be the case. The Stoics and the Buddhists are examples of groups that agree on the optional nature of suffering. You will feel negative emotions in your life. You will be in psychic pain. What you do with that pain is up to you. You get to decide how to interpret it, and what it means. This is one of the things that Roderick is driving at in his lecture. Heidegger’s idea of the narrative of life is of the utmost importance.
You are going to die. Every living thing has to eventually. It’s simply a necessity of life.
You are going to be in pain sometimes. It’s a necessity of death (among other things).
You get to decide what that means.