The Case Against Death
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury:
My learned colleague has told you quite eloquently about all the benefits we derive from death – making room for more people, lest the planet become over-populated, putting an end to suffering, rounding out the natural cycle of life, and, because we know our earthly existence is not endless, making it more meaningful.
But not long ago, he might have argued just as convincingly in defense of pain, or of polio or smallpox – evils which people had to accept, because there was no reasonable alternative. But science has found means of conquering, and sometimes virtually eliminating such scourges. And I say unto you (if I may adopt a somewhat prophetic tone) that what we call death may also be on the way out.
Of course, it is true that entities like our bodies and brains wear out, and medicine is still struggling to keep those current organisms together and functioning for as long as possible. But new discoveries are constantly being made, and there are occasional “breakthroughs,” which seem to promise types and methods of rejuvenation and regeneration which, within the foreseeable future, may make our entire present approach to the problems of aging and dying seem antiquated and primitive.
Already there are tantalizing indications, in the fact, for example, that the average human lifespan is increasing, and it is now no longer quite so remarkable for people to live beyond their hundredth birthday. But that may be only a foretaste, resulting, not so much from new scientific advances, as simply from the more widespread application of techniques of nutrition and hygiene, whose principles have been well-known for generations.
What I expect is that a time is coming when people will no longer fear dying at all, because – regardless of any religious or spiritual beliefs – there will be no precise demarcation between life and non-life. Already, as we all know, that distinction is in certain ways fading. Not so long ago, when a person died, their living, speaking image was also irretrievably gone. But, thanks to modern recording techniques, that no longer need be the case at all.
The one big hurdle still to overcome is what we call “consciousness” – the knowledge and feeling that we are alive. Of course, even now, for a third of our lives, we are not fully conscious, but in a state of trance called sleep. And all of this has to do with a bodily organ called the brain, which, like most of our other organs, is ordinarily invisible.
So, to my mind, the most important people in the world are those little-known, under-funded scientists who are exploring the workings of the brain. One factor which limits their work is the popular prejudice against experimentation on human subjects – even volunteers, or criminals who are otherwise going to be executed.
So, for the most part, they’re restricted to the use of animals, who cannot volunteer or communicate, and don’t deserve to be punished.
But now you are going to say, “Suppose we don’t die – what are we going to do with all that time?” Need I remind you that we have a whole universe to explore – and that one drawback to such exploration is the time it would take to reach even the nearest objects beyond our own solar system. Time itself will come to have new and different meanings when our human lifespan is no longer the standard of reference.
If this all begins to sound like science fiction, I make no apology. Much of yesterday’s science fiction has, as we all know, become fact.
But in the meantime, it is also obviously true that Death is not what it used to be. Funerary customs, compared with earlier eras, have somehow lost much of their importance. Rites are abbreviated. Mourning and grieving are coming to be seen as psychological problems, rather than as part of a necessary process.
The fading and disappearing of loved ones, because of some built-in mechanism which causes us to fall apart, is of course still mysterious and hard to bear – and the hardest part is contemplating it happening to oneself.
But the case for death, as we know it, is becoming constantly less defensible. There is no greater or more widespread cause of human unhappiness. (All other creatures, not forgetting micro-organisms, are, of course, part of the picture – but let’s deal first with the species we know best.) I call for a verdict of unforgivable guilt.