Death and Immortality

One of the interesting questions about the plan of salvation is why we need to think we’re going to die. Clearly death has an important role in our development, but why? I came upon a great interview with Todd May, the philosopher behind the popular TV show The Good Place, on what it means to be a good person. Allow me to quote the segment on death and immortality.

I was trying to press this idea: death is bad, because we live forward in our lives. We project ourselves into the future. Death is an evil for us. But immortality would also be bad.

Why?

Because if we were immortal, our lives would lose their shape. We wouldn’t have the same urgency and commitment to life that we do since we’re mortal creatures. Our mortality doesn’t give us a theory of how we should live. It gives us an urgency to think about what we want the shape of our lives to be. That urgency may lead different people in different directions, but it will give them a sense of commitment to lives that, after all, are temporary. A commitment they wouldn’t have if they had, literally, all the time in the world.

When I started working with Mike Schur, one of the phrases of the book that he found striking was that, “Our mortality gives us a sort of urgency in our living. Our morality helps us navigate all that.”

So death isn’t a bad thing to you?

It doesn’t simply serve in a negative role. It can also serve in a positive role.

Notice how this explains the limit in what we could learn morally in immortality and why in mortality we’d need to forget our knowledge of immortality. That is if we were immortal “our lives would lose their shape.” We simply couldn’t understand the urgency and commitment to life that we experience here. Not only does it give us that urgency but it forces us to think about what we want our life to be – to choose our life.

May is getting a lot of this from Heidegger’s thinking through the problem of death and finitude. There’s actually a lot there in that analysis for thinking through the plan of salvation and its necessity. An other things I’d add to May’s great explanation is the idea of risk. When you are living a short finite life you have to take risks. Urgency is tied up with that idea of risks. It’s hard to recover from a mistake. Effectively life’s shortness forces us to confront the risks of choice. The make a choice and not know the outcome, not know how to repair an outcome. Finitude makes us vulnerable in a fashion we simply couldn’t be as immortal beings. Risk, vulnerability and urgency that arise from the finitude of death. In this being towards death we see possibilities as what they really are – possibilities that forces us to risk and choose one above an other.

Even if we don’t fully understand conceptually what it is to choose, at a gut level we know that every choice collapses opportunities. What was once open with a myriad of choices is collapsed as we follow the path the choice we actually make opens us.[1] That ability simply wasn’t a living option for us as immortal beings aware of our immortality but unable to experience finitude.

1. A great analysis of all this is Hurbert Dreyfus’ explanation of Heidgger. I’d suggest his online forward to the book “Time and Death: Heidegger’s Analysis of Finitude.” It’s a bit more technical but still extremely approachable.

6 comments for “Death and Immortality

  1. Carey F.
    January 20, 2019 at 9:46 am

    What difference do you think it makes to live in a world where life expectancy has increased? We face death much more in stories on tv and movies than in real life too.

  2. Clark
    January 20, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    We no longer expect sudden death. I remember my dad telling me that of the kids who started kindergarten with him by the time everyone graduated high school something like 1/4 were dead. And it was worse in the 19th century. Certainly that affects how we view both death and more importantly risk. I think one problem that probably started with my generation is a certain perception of immortality and an adolescence that goes on decades. That’s ultimately not healthy psychologically I think.

  3. Mark N.
    January 20, 2019 at 10:21 pm

    No longer expecting sudden death depends on your age. It may take longer to get there now, but when you look around you and see people younger than you dying for whatever reason, whether it’s health-related or just plain freakish accidents, the thought comes more and more often: I wonder how much time I have left?

  4. Glenn Thigpen
    January 21, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    Do not quite see that. If we imagine that mortality is all there is, what urgency do we need to respond to?

  5. Clark Goble
    January 22, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    Glenn, you can’t postpone choices. Of course some people do either out of a sense of nihilism (nothing matters) or just denial. But in general there’s a sense of anxiety – particularly once you hit your 30’s – that finitude brings.

    However one choice to that anxiety is nihilism or losing oneself in various kinds of hedonism – which I mean in the classic sense that would include more vacuous pursuits like watching TV/Netflix or video games and nothing else. But that’s still a choice to the anxiety.

  6. Jeremy
    January 29, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    I’ve enjoyed thinking about this for the past week and a half. Thanks for posting that interview. I had the same thoughts when I read “A Short Stay in Hell” by Steven Peck. Eternity is a long time. It really is hard to think about it without considering the idea of life and consciousness losing their shape.

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