The Fear of Death

These remarks address death and the fear of it.  Being an infidel, I address these remarks to my fellow infidels.  One might expect us to have a particular fear of dying, as we have no hope of a life in the hereafter.  In general, however, that seems not to be the case.  In fact, it seems to me there is little rational basis for fearing death.  However, fear is an emotion, and our emotions, like almost everything else about us, exist because, at least at some point, they helped us to survive.  I think the survival value of fearing death is obvious.  The problem with humans is that, because of our big brains, we can imagine our own death, and are aware of its inevitability.  As a result, we can become obsessed with the fear of death, to the point that it poisons our lives, and makes us miserable.  Being miserable is a terrible way to waste the time that we do have, so we need to control the fear.  To do that we need to understand who and what we are in the context of existence.


In the first place, we need to put ourselves in perspective.  We perceive ourselves as conscious, thinking minds.  Our consciousness is what we know about ourselves, so that is what we consider “us,” the essence of what we are.  Now, consider for a moment whether it is logical for a conscious, intelligent mind as complex ours to suddenly spring into existence, and then die without a trace.  In fact, it is illogical, and no more reasonable than belief in a supreme being.  The death of that which is really essential about us would be an absurdity.  Therein lies the problem.  We experience ourselves through our consciousness, and therefore naturally regard our consciousness as the essential “us.”  Suppose, however, that we define the “essential” us as that which does not, illogically, spring into existence, remain for an instant, and then disappear.  In that case, “we” cannot be our conscious selves. 


There is, in fact, something about us that is essential in the sense referred to above.  There is something about us that doesn’t come and go in an instant, but has, in fact, been alive for eons, and is, potentially, immortal.  That is our genetic material, and our genetic material is, again, in the sense noted above, that which is essential about us.  If the genetic material we carry had ever died, in the billions of years life has existed on our planet, we and our consciousness wouldn’t exist. 


The train of thought above helps me, at least, to put my fear of death aside, to avoid being constantly preoccupied with it, and to love and enjoy life.  It puts “me” into perspective by revealing that conscious “me” as merely an ancillary existence.  What I perceive as “me,” my conscious self, is merely an evolved construct of my genetic material.  It exists because it has promoted the survival of that genetic material.  In fact, if “we” is defined as that essential thing about us that has existed for many hundreds of millions of years, and is potentially immortal, then “we” are our genetic material.  “We” are not our conscious selves.  Rather, our conscious selves are just secondary constructs, evolved to promote the survival of the real, essential “us.” 


Anyone bothered by the thought of dying, then, should keep in mind the fact that what is really essential about us has been alive for countless ages.  For anyone worried about the death, the solution is obvious.  Have children.  In that way, while the ancillary consciousness that existed in the first place solely because it promoted the propagation of the essential about us may die, the essential, potentially immortal essence of what we are will live on, potentially, forever.  I am by no means suggesting that, according to some universal morality or ethic, everyone “ought” to have children.  The fact of anyone’s procreation would, in no sense, be an absolute or universal good, as far as I, or anyone else, am concerned.  It would simply be a way of avoiding the death of what is essential about that individual.  It would be a rational response to the realization that consciousness is not the essential “us,” but exists because it promotes the survival and continued existence of the real “us,” our genetic material.  It would seem then, that passing on that genetic material to another generation is, at least, a healthy and reasonable thing to do, although, again, there is certainly no moral imperative connected with it. 


If we fear death, then, we must begin to perceive the consciousness whose dissolution we fear as “death,” as the secondary thing it really is.  We must realize the absurdity of anything that is really essential about us suddenly springing into existence and then quickly dying, leaving no lasting trace of its existence, apparently without purpose.  We must grasp the reason.  We must ask, “What for?” 


Regardless, it is a wonderful, astounding, improbable truth that consciousness exists at all, even if it doesn’t go on forever.  As a consequence, we get to go along for the ride in this complex, stimulating, and highly enjoyable world, for however brief a time.  Enjoy the ride!  Don’t moan and complain because it is too short.  Be glad that you’ve had the incredible good fortune to experience the ride at all, and experience it to the fullest.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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