Death, the missing ingredient

We are all going to die. That is a fact. And, even if you have particular religious beliefs, you would have to admit that there is at least a good chance we are not coming back or going somewhere after that. So my question is, how is it that we live our lives in such a state of denial of this incredibly sure fact, death? How, maybe what is the mechanism that allows us to think, believe, act and love in a way that leaves out this missing ingredient? Sure there are moments that it really strikes us, perhaps when a parent dies, or when you reach a certain age, or when a tremendous news event happens, but that knowledge acts like a drop of oil in water. It just floats there, not integrating. And yes there are larger beliefs that one might have that seem to address this fact, but they somehow feel like abstractions when compared to our deepest motivations. Would you have done anything you did today, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? How does knowing you are going to die eventually rather than tomorrow change that dynamic? It is a big mystery to me that particularly in the West, the biggest fact of all somehow has disappeared from daily consciousness, like an elephant that some magician threw a sheet over to make vanish. As much as I have thought about it, I am mystified by the degree to which death as a fact seems not to be included in our daily awareness. I am amazed how difficult it is to make it the central thought even. How resistant it is. I’m not sure that this is a philosophical question, or maybe it is the philosophical question, but any thoughts on this would be welcome.


yea, no problem

Our brains are high on drugs.
They inhibit our fear of death.
When particular chemicals are depleted we loose the perc and get depressed when we realise we are living an apparent pointless life.
Of course life isn’t pointless but most human beings aren’t intelligent enough to realise that.

The reason why we don’t fear death is that our brain tries to opress those emotions. There’s probably a whole topic in phsychology on it.
I would suggest looking in a comprehensive library.

My theory on the meaning of life may be of interest to you.


“Our brains are high on drugs.
They inhibit our fear of death”

I don’t think that fear is the issue. You don’t really have to fear death, but only act in such a way that the fact of it is acknowledged. We act, plan, save as if forever is part of the plan. If a movie is going to end in 2hrs. we don’t have to fear it’s end, but certainly how we watch the movie is effected by fact of its ending.


true, death is inevitable… how we handle it is a cultural thing more than anything… in the west, we run from it… remember ponce de leon? we are still searching for the fountain of youth… but only inventing it in plastic surgery and viagra and other medicines…

is fear of death there? sure, and it always has been…

why do today what you can do tomorrow?

as the immortal bard quipped:

“eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die…”



I do agree that a large portion of this is cultural, but what amazes me is the resilience of our culture to that fact. I am wondering as well if there is something natural to consciousness, human and animal, or human as animal, that is unable to integrate the abstract fact of its own death into the equation. Perhaps there is an irreducible immortality perspective to life.


We just go on with our lives- what else can we do? Perhaps with stranger eons even death itself may die (as Lovecraft said), but until then all we can do is just live our lives. Many of us believe in an afterlife, many in reincarnation. Some of believe that in death we merely revert back to our state previous to our birth (a la Schopenhauer). We live with the crushing weight of mortality and the absurdity of all human endeavor quite easily for the most part. Everyday life has enough challenges and concerns to occupy us. We’re distracted from the philosophy of existence by the simple act of living.

For me it’s in “the small hours,” late at night or early in the morning, while I lie awake, that the chilling inexoribility of it grips me. I think of how my father will, then my mother, then perhaps me, perhaps my siblings. I think of how we’ll scarcely be missed- a few lines in the paper, a few friends and relatives will mourn us, then speak fondly of us for a few years. And then die themselves. And on and on and on. Then eventually, the sun swells to a red giant and swallows the inner planets, boiling the Earths oceans dry. Maybe “we” as a species are still around, possibly on other planets. But even then, one day the stars wink out one by one as the universe flies apart. Or collapses again in a Big Crush. However the end comes, it will come, and all traces of our existence are gone.

At that point I vow to myself that I’ll stop reading ILP right before bedtime. :wink:


“We just go on with our lives- what else can we do?”

I suppose what I am asking is about how we live our lives, and how that might be different if the fact of our death were foremost in our mind. Some might live their lives recklessly, some might live them depressingly, some might live them more impactfully, some more communicatively, but it seems that most would live them differently.


you have to ask, who makes the culture? no longer the priest and the community elders, but the fast youth oriented media calls the shots…

natural? for the black widow? for the lemmings? I am not certain that animals “know” anything, especially their mortality… be careful of the anthropomorphic fallacy…


if I may suggest enlisting in the military…




Huh? Why do have to admit that “there is at least a good chance we are not coming back or going somewhere after that”? I have a particular set of religious beliefs: Christianity.

Why would I want to be a Christian if I thought that it was very probable that heaven really didn’t exist? The full belief in afterlife/re-incarnation is the core-essential belief of most of the popular religions. :confused:

We entertain ourselves with everything we can possibly imagine for our entire lifetime. We are allways finding new ways to distract ourselves from thinking about our impending death.

And, when we are “forced” to look at death in the face (i.e. when we happen to be best friends/relatives with someone who is terminally ill, etc.), we attempt to make death appear to be “noble” ---- or more often, we make death look like a “happy”/peacefull experience.

I also think that we have a tendency to deny our coming death because we have a very frail understanding of it (death). All we can know through experience is the “act” living. We are more often put into situations where life is more prevalent than death. We see young children, babies, young families, teenagers, etc. all the time…these are all icons of life in its most vivid state.

We have speacial stores (or, at the very least, departments within stores) that sell items specifically designed to raise, cloth, entertain, & educate young people.

My point is: On any given day, we see more of life than we do of “death”. We don’t allways hear about a personal friend or relative’s death on a daily basis.

Death, on the otherhand, is mostly unkawable to us. We cannot return from the dead to describe what really occurs during & after death. We can only know about death from a medical perspective – and this, itself, is still extremely limited.

Death is the “ultimate unknown”. Death affects everyone, and death is completely un-escapable. We have absolutely no power over death (at the very most, we can delay death temporarily in some cases, but only for a short while). Mankind is so used to having the ability to comprehend or understand everything else around us in at least some way…but as for death, all we know for sure is we will experience it at somepoint.

In conclusion, how we live our daily lives (our activities, occupatuion, entertainment, etc.) causes death to sort of fade into the background. At times, death is easly forgetton, or it seems far off.

And, as far as I’m concerned, most people would prefer to forget about death as much as they could.

…just my 2 cents anyways. :wink:


You seem to contradict yourself in a way. Firstly you find it questionable that someone with religious beliefs would still grant it a good chance that there is no afterlife:

”Why would I want to be a Christian if I thought that it was very probable that heaven really didn’t exist? The full belief in afterlife/re-incarnation is the core-essential belief of most of the popular religions.”

Yet you then say,

“Death, on the other hand, is mostly unknowable to us.

”Death is the “ultimate unknown”.

suggesting that the power of your beliefs is not enough to give you a sense of assurance as to its state. My point is that even if you have beliefs, and I do, there is still the fact of death which seems to hover outside of them. Even in beliefs we often act as if we are not going to die here on this earth. Perhaps you are different and because of the power of your beliefs you have no doubts that death is but a hiccup, and you live that way, but I suspect this would not be due to your beliefs, but rather the general way we all avoid the fact of death. In fact beliefs in the afterlife in some ways seem sometimes to be simple projections in to the future of this very common sense that death is not coming.


In terms of factual information, death is virtually unknowable. However, with religion, you are not basing your beliefs on factual data, but rather on faith that those beilfs (religion beliefs), are in fact, the truth.

Of course, at times, I sometimes wonder if my religious beliefs will ever truly pan-out in time, but then I must choose to either deny my religious beliefs about life-after-death (and hence, deny my religion’s teachings any credibilty), or I must put aside factual knowledge and continue having faith in my religion’s teachings.

In the end, I will end up sticking more to one of the two sides: the beliefs of my religion, or the factual information. I can never, at one single given point, give equal consent to both the factual data and my faith. I can often combine some of the factual information with my religious belifs, but I will still always support one more than the other.

My religious beliefs offer explantions of death and life thereafter that I cannot obtain merely by factual means that can be physically proved. And, in order to take-on the religious explanations, I must willingly accept the reality that my religious beilfs can never be proved.

and, in my own personal case, I rest in faith that my religious belifs of the after life will, indeed, come true.

Sorry if this is kinda confussing…I seem to be having a difficult time in putting my many thoughts into words effectively. Thanks. :wink: :slight_smile:


“In the end, I will end up sticking more to one of the two sides: the beliefs of my religion, or the factual information. I can never, at one single given point, give equal consent to both the factual data and my faith.”

But, regardless of religious beliefs, the things you are doing here, on this earth, will end. Finished. Over. Even if we are to go and lie on puffy white clouds after, the way we conduct our business here seems not to incorporate the fact that those things are over in a handful of decades. The things that were most important to us this week, if you made a list of ten, none of them will matter to you in 30 years probably. In fact they probably won’t matter to you in 1 year.

I respect your religious beliefs and your talking about them.

I’m not really arguing about the meaning of life, but rather only about the way a very real fact seems not to enter into our picture of reality on a daily level


I totally agree with this. At my age, my interests change almost monthly. When I was younger, they changed even more frequently than that…

…and when I’m older, they probably will not cease to change any less often than they do now.

On a positive note, I’ve seemed to keep my interest in philosophy alive for a year and three months… :sunglasses: :slight_smile:

I allways appreciate this, and will allways grant you the same respect. :slight_smile:

Who told you that you were going to die???


Hume objected to it, but then he died. (Sorry Imp).


If you haven’t read James Clavell’s Shogun, I highly recommend it. It’s about 16th or 17th century Japan, and presents a cultural attitude towards death which is almost fearless.

I don’t know that people in the West today are completely unaware of their own mortality. I think they just try to avoid dealing with the subject. It’s not exactly encouraged as a topic of general concern. It might even be considered rude to casually bring up mortality at work, or in many social circumstances.

To answer one of your questions, Dunamis: what allows us to ignore the fact of our own mortality? I would say there are two basic answers: first, pleasure; second, hope. In the case of pleasure, we can easily be distracted from the most dire thoughts by a highly pleasurable experience. In the case of hope, sometimes the effects of our lives seem more important than the fact of our lives. Having children, writing books, helping others–these are things which are meaningful to us because they can be valued by others even after we die.

So, why do things today which I might not have done if I knew I were going to die tomorrow? Because if I literally treat today as though it were my last, then I’d have nothing to work with tomorrow. By treating today as one step in an indefinite process of growth and betterment, I can work towards the dual goals of pleasing myself and influencing others. Of course, if I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would still have these same goals–I’d just act on them differently.

Freud psychoanalyzed man’s creation of religion and an afterlife as parts of the same wish. In The Future of an Illusion he said:

For the individual, and mankind, life is hard to endure. Culture imposes some privations. Other people may inflict sufferings. Unvanquished Nature (“Fate”) imposes further evils.

One can develop resistance and hostility toward his culture’s institutions. But what can one do about Fate? “Culture relieves him of this task: it performs it in the same way for everyone. … pretty well all cultures are the same in this respect. … This is a complex business; man’s seriously menaced self-esteem craves for consolation, life and the universe must be rid of their terrors, and incidentally man’s curiousity, reinforced it is true, by the strongest practical motives, demands an answer.”

“With the first step, which is the humanization of nature, much is already won.”

The anthropomorphic gods are parent-like, and can be appeased, bribed, and influenced. In return they: (1) exorcise the terrors of nature, (2) reconcile one to fate (esp. death), and (3) make amends for the suffering and privations of communal life.

“And so a rich store of ideas is formed, born of the need to make tolerable the helplessness of man, and built out of the material offered by memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race.” Namely:

  1. Life in this world serves a higher purpose (which may be obscure, but involves the perfecting of human culture.)
  2. Everything reflects a higher and benevolent intelligence.
  3. Death marks the beginning of a new existence.
  4. Moral laws govern the whole universe.
  5. All good is rewarded, all evil punished.

For me, the above explains how a primitive people, living a precarious existence, might come to have religious beliefs. But it does not explain how non-primitives do.


“…what allows us to ignore the fact of our own mortality? I would say there are two basic answers: first, pleasure; second, hope.”

I kind of know what you are talking about, but really there is an erasure of the fact that is so complete that pleasure and hope don’t seem enough to account for it. Perhaps I am different from most, but when I examine the context of nearly every one of my actions, they are framed in a deathless reality, one that does not even consider that death is very near, and absolutely certain.

I do understand the theoretical/practical problems of living each day as your last, but suspect that it is not practicality, or even over-arching meaning that makes us not do so. I suspect that the onerous responsibility of limited hours, the weight of having to make things count “now” is perhaps too much for the average person, including myself to take.


Yes, many of those opinions have long made theoretical sense, but I am amazed at their effectiveness, the ability insulate everyone from a very prominent fact. A fact more sure than any that can be said of the future.