Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Death, be not proud

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. ... then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? -St. Paul
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. -John Donne
On this point, christian theology is absolutely correct. Death is the last enemy. I'm so pedantic that I'll divide this into two things I agree with:


First, death absolutely is an enemy. It is evil; it is to be resisted. People everywhere work towards extending their own life. The only time when it seems justifiable to accept one's death, to not take every measure possible to stay alive, is when the alternative is suffering through the last few months of a terminal disease. Modern technology has created a problem, in that we can often extend a life by a few months, but only at the cost of great suffering to the individual. Still, many people find this a highly debatable reason for terminating a life. (And anyway, it's a temporary problem that will decrease as medicine advances.)

"But," some say, "death gives meaning to life." I maintain that this is a rationalization. If the universe hit people on the head with hammers every Tuesday at 3:00 PM, people would soon be saying that getting hit on the head with a hammer helps you appreciate all the time when you're not getting hit on the head with a hammer. But I don't think anyone would agree to start getting hit on the head with a hammer for that reason. If no one had to die, I don't believe anyone would choose to die in order to give their life meaning.

As an example, the late Steve Jobs claimed this, but he did everything he could to avoid his untimely fate, including using his considerable resources to obtain a liver that would have been unavailable to anyone else with his condition. People think this is a Wise Saying; but (barring debilitating illness) no one will want to die tomorrow if you offer to perform the deed. Sure, not-dying would cause a few problems that we don't have now, but they aren't worse or harder problems than death itself.

Second, that death is the last enemy is, I think, also true. Science has fixed many things. Polio is gone. Smallpox is gone. The mortality rate of cancer has declined. Everywhere, we advance upon death, defeating diseases that used to kill us, saying to Death, "Not today, and never again like this." However, we still have progress to make. Many cancers are still death sentences. They can, in theory, be defeated with properly engineered viruses, but it's a major challenge to execute. Alzheimer's is another difficult challenge; perhaps the scariest disease possible, it will not only kill you, it will destroy your very identity in the process. This horrifying disease ought not to exist, and given time, we will unmake it.

That death may be defeated we have no reason to doubt. A couple centuries ago powered flight and the elimination of smallpox didn't seem likely; today they are routine facts. Always we have found another puzzle after the one we just solved; but in the process we've pushed death back. The list of things that will reliably kill us continues to shrink. There is no reason to think that the remaining items are unsolvable. But they aren't easy, and I expect that when we do fix death, it will mark the end of the current age of humanity, and the beginning of the next: hence, it is the last enemy--the last one we'll face in this age, the adolescence of humanity.

Finally, note the words "...then shall be brought to pass..." in the quote from St. Paul. He and I agree that this hasn't happened yet. And that, as you may well guess, is where our agreement draws to a close. But that is a topic for another post...

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