Facing death-10: Dying without illusions

In post #9 in this series, I discussed the fear that people have of dying while the rest of the world continues without them. I think it is better to face death without illusions. This does not mean that one has no regrets. I do not like the thought of dying, however much I am aware that it is inevitable and that nothing exists after it and will feel regrets when the end is near.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell had such an unflinching view of dying and his own anticipated nonexistence and found it satisfying. In his essay What I Believe (1925) Russell says:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end, the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.

Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, p. 355) adds:

By disclaiming the idea of a next life we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say, “There must be more than just this world, than just this life.” But how much more do you want? (my italics)

Russell’s and Dawkin’s words are truly bracing because they are based on the truth, that when we die we cease to exist but that does not mean that life loses its purpose . I enjoy reading books and learning new things, just for its own sake, not because it brings with it any rewards or is required by my work. Some might wonder why I bother. After all, I will eventually die and all that knowledge in my head will die with me, leaving only the words that I have written and left behind, which will also soon disappear. But the real joy in life is living in the here and now, doing things for their own sake, not for the sake of leaving a permanent mark or for the sake of heavenly rewards or avoiding hellish punishments. To repeat Russell, “Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”

In the British TV program The Root of All Evil, writer Ian McEwan says:

We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. We cannot rely, as Christians or Muslims do, on a world elsewhere, a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, or crucially make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvelous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.

If you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity or the other major religions.

Charles Darwin also had little use for these kinds of illusions. His own work on evolution had convinced him that there was no god. In his autobiography Charles Darwin wrote that “disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.” About his disbelief he “felt no distress . . . and had never since doubted for even a single second that my conclusion was correct.” (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 118)

Darwin was plagued by bad health for the second half of his life and his last few days were very difficult for him. Despite claims that Darwin had embraced Jesus on his deathbed, the truth is that he died an unwavering unbeliever. He knew that people would wonder what his views were towards death, given that he was a self-proclaimed disbeliever in god. He knew people were curious as to whether he became fearful that his disbelief would result him ending up in hell. To reassure his family, he told them towards the very end, “I am not the least afraid to die.” (Quammen, p. 250)

Some might think that the reason Darwin did not fear death was because he knew that his work was immortal and that he would never be forgotten. But it was not clear at that time of his death in 1882 that his ideas would be perceived the way it is now: as one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time. While Darwin’s theory initially caused a stir and caused the fact of evolution to be accepted more universally, his proposed mechanism of natural selection for evolution, which was his main distinguishing idea, was not universally accepted in his own lifetime, due to a lack of knowledge about its underlying mechanism, unease with its undirected nature, and the rise of competing theories that promised to provide a sense of purpose and progress to evolution. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983.)

In fact, natural selection went into a period of eclipse in the two decades bracketing the centennial year 1900 and had a resurgence only around 1910, after the re-discovery of Mendel’s work in 1901 and the mathematical work done on the Darwin-Mendel synthesis by people like R. A. Fisher, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane. It was only by the 1930s that the theory became the dominant paradigm in biology, and since then it has never relinquished that primacy. (William B. Provine, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, 2001).

So Darwin did not die secure in the knowledge of his place in history. I like to think that Darwin’s equanimity in the face of death arose from his awareness of the consequences of his theory. His central idea was that all organisms are connected by the tree of life that sprang from one source and repeatedly branched out as new species in all directions. According to his theory all existing species are twigs at the extremities of this tree of life. But we don’t have to stop at the species level. The twigs themselves repeatedly branch out into smaller and smaller twiglets (so to speak) and the end points of these are each and every organism. So I am one twiglet at an extremity of this tree of life and so are you.

Since all living things are connected by the tree of life, we are all, in a very real and literal sense, biologically connected to every single organism that ever lived in the past, lives now, and will ever live in the future. So I am not only linked to Darwin, Einstein, and Newton but will also be linked to the great scientists to come. I am also biologically linked to every insect and blade of grass. The tree of life will continue to grow and branch out long after I am dead but I will always be a part of it. That is true immortality.

So paradoxically, Darwin’s theory of evolution of natural selection and its associated tree of life, while making god redundant and the idea of an eternal soul to be revealed as the childish fantasies they are, is also the source of true immortality.

If that does not remove the fear of death, then I don’t know what will.


  1. kevinalexander says

    If a rose had consciousness would it scorn itself because it knew that its beauty must fade? So why do we do that?

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