How Should Rationalists Approach Death?

by Jesse Galef -

“How Should Rationalists Approach Death?” That’s the title of the panel I’m moderating this weekend at Skepticon, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s a big topic – we won’t figure it all out in an hour, but I know we’ll get people to think. Do common beliefs about death make sense? How can we find comfort about our mortality? Should we try to find comfort about death? What should society be doing about death?

I managed to get 4 fantastic panelists, all of whom I respect and admire:

  • Greta Christina is author, blogger, speaker extraordinaire. Her writing has appeared in multiple magazines and newspapers, including Ms., Penthouse, Chicago Sun-Times, On Our Backs, and Skeptical Inquirer. I’ve been thrilled to see her becoming a well-known and respected voice in the secular community. She delivered the keynote address at the Secular Student Alliance’s 2010 Conference, and has been on speaking tours around the country.
  • James Croft is a candidate for an Ed.D at Harvard and works with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. I had the pleasure of meeting James two years ago at American Humanist Association conference, where we talked and argued for hours. Eloquent, gracious, and sharp, he’s a great model of intellectual engagement. He’s able to disagree agreeably, but also change his mind when the occasion calls for it.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky co-founded the nonprofit Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), where he works as a full-time Research Fellow. He’s written must-read essays on Bayes’ Theorem and human rationality as well as great works of fiction. Have you heard me rave about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality? That’s him. His writings, especially on the community blog LessWrong, have influenced my thinking quite a bit.
  • Julia Galef is a science writer with a background in statistics. She’s on the board of the New York City Skeptics, co-hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast, and gives lectures and moderates panels about rationality and critical thinking. She blogs at 3 Quarks Daily, Rationally Speaking, and apparently writes a pretty cool blog with her brother, Jesse, called Measure of Doubt.

To give you a taste of what to expect, I chose two passages about finding hope in death – one from Greta, the other from Eliezer.

Greta:

But we can find ways to frame reality — including the reality of death — that make it easier to deal with. We can find ways to frame reality that do not ignore or deny it and that still give us comfort and solace, meaning and hope. And we can offer these ways of framing reality to people who are considering atheism but have been taught to see it as inevitably frightening, empty, and hopeless.

And I’m genuinely puzzled by atheists who are trying to undercut that.

Eliezer:

I wonder at the strength of non-transhumanist atheists, to accept so terrible a darkness without any hope of changing it. But then most atheists also succumb to comforting lies, and make excuses for death even less defensible than the outright lies of religion. They flinch away, refuse to confront the horror of a hundred and fifty thousand sentient beings annihilated every day. One point eight lives per second, fifty-five million lives per year. Convert the units, time to life, life to time. The World Trade Center killed half an hour. As of today, all cryonics organizations together have suspended one minute. This essay took twenty thousand lives to write. I wonder if there was ever an atheist who accepted the full horror, making no excuses, offering no consolations, who did not also hope for some future dawn. What must it be like to live in this world, seeing it just the way it is, and think that it will never change, never get any better?

If you’re coming to Skepticon – and you should, it’s free! – you need to be there for this panel.

About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • Anonymous

    Sounds really interesting. Since you do have a member of of the we’re-gonna-live-foreveeeeer Kurzweil squad on the panel, I would beg you to not let the entire conversation veer off into the “Singularity”, immortality and the like. At least take our condition as it is now, which is that we are not immortal, and work on how to deal with the emotions around death from the framework of actual reality, not futuristic transhumanist expectations.

    • Anonymous

      To any metaphysical naturalist, death is the only non-arbitrary thing that gives life its high value. The thing I don’t like about trans-humanism is that there is a real problem with limited resources. Living forever is a selfish thing because you are using resources that could be made available to future life. If we got rid of death, we’d probably bring it back via some type of social apoptosis where one can give one’s self back to the universe as a choice upon feeling that one has completed life.

      tl;dr: Only things that are limited in value and sought by everyone are valuable. Death puts a limit on the resource of life, and creates the urgency needed to create meaning and purpose in this life.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      Eliezer may be a transhumanist but he’s very much not in the “we’re-gonna-live-foreveeeeer Kurzweil squad”. Among other things he assigns a not very high probability to the success of cryonics in the long-run, he strongly disagrees with Kurzweil on many issues, including the nature of a Singularity and the chance that it would actually be good for humans. Kurzweil’s Singularity focuses on the idea of exponential growth rates for many technologies. Eliezer considers this sort of Singularity to be unlikely. Eliezer’s notion of a Singularity is the I. J. Good style Singularity where an artificial intelligence that is capable of self-modifying quickly self-modifies so that it is extremely intelligent. Among other issues, much of what Eliezer does focuses on what he sees as the high chance that an AI of that sort will strongly not share goals with humans. 

      The most serious problem with most of the transhumanists is not their goals, but their optimism about a) how soon everything will happen and b) whether those technologies will actually benefit humanity. In that context, Eliezer is by far one of the most reasonable and rational of the transhumanists. He’s wrong about a lot, but he’s generally wrong for interesting and often subtle reasons. I’m not at all sure if cryonics is one of the things he is right or wrong on. Certainly from an information theoretic perspective and from what we understand of how the brain works, it seems likely that modern cryonic procedures do preserve all the relevant information. 

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the information, I learned something. To be clear I’m not objecting to the presence of someone with a radically different point of view concerning death. A very intelligent, knowledgable person with a very different viewpoint is often an essential part of a discussion on a difficult subject, as long as they are intellectually honest (not a shot at Eliezer, only meant to specifically exclude people like William Lane Craig). My comment was meant less as a criticism of transhumanism (which I’ll admit I’m very skeptical about) as a heads up that when transhumanism enters a conversation, you can quickly be derrailed and end up talking about the nature and probability of the Singularity, instead of the subject at hand.

      • Alex SL

        Two points about this AI:

        What these singularitarians never seem to grasp is that you cannot engineer anything just by thinking about it. Computers and AI were and are not built by sitting in an armchair, thinking it through and then building it from scratch; they are built by tinkering with prototypes. Except for pure math, logic and (perhaps) some forms of philosophy,  the speed of progress is severely constrained by the need to do experiments to check ideas against reality. This why there never will be an exponentially self-improving AI; it is really as simple as that, and it is bizarre that somebody supposedly as rational and intelligent as him does not grasp that.

        Second, the AI will not share goals with humans? How would it even get goals in the first place? Essentially, by us putting them into it, admittedly perhaps inadvertently. But if you build a super-sophisticated AI to drive a car, it will have the goal of driving a car. It will not suddenly magically acquire the goal to run over humans. If you build a super-sophisticated AI to build a more sophisticated AI, it will have that goal. Where does the assumption that it may acquire the goal to exterminate humans suddenly come from? Well, from being unable to grasp that our often destructive goals were coded into us by evolution. So to make a Terminator, you would have to evolve AI in an environment where it is beneficial for its procreation to eliminate humans. Everything else amounts to magical thinking.

        • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

          Hmm, interesting in that I disagree with Eliezer also but on very different grounds. Note that computers were to a large extent actually designed well before there was anything like a functioning computer. Alan Turing did most of his work before there were any electronic computers. I agree that making practical machines does generally require really experimentation.

          But it seems to me that one of the main problems with recursive self-improvement is precisely in the area that you seem to think would be easiest. You write:

          . Except for pure math, logic and (perhaps) some forms of philosophy,  the speed of progress is severely constrained by the need to do experiments to check ideas against reality.

          But in fact, this is one of the problems that recursive self-improvement will run into. For extreme recursive self-improvement one thing one needs is software that is able to massively increase its own efficiency by rewriting its code. If current conjectures about computational complexity are believed (e.g. P != NP in a strong sense), then this should be essentially impossible. This will create other issues because even designing hardware (especially efficient circuit design) runs into NP-complete problems like the traveling salesman. 

          However, your last paragraph is one where I disagree with and see pretty eye-to-eye with Eliezer. Goals are extremely complicated and often have subtle aspects. If goals are at all not what we actually want something to do it, won’t care. In fact, if one has any experience working with practical machine learning (especially neutral nets and genetic algorithms) one realizes that machines very frequently “solve” problems in ways that aren’t actually solutions for what one wants at all. Increasing the intelligence and capability of a system makes that more of a problem not less. 

          So the upshot is that I think Eliezer is right about goal issues but wrong about recursive self-improvement. And the reasons he’s wrong about recursive self-improvement seem more interesting and subtle than what one might naively guess. 

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    My wife runs a funeral home. She would be quite cheesed there’s no death industry rep on the panel.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    Am I the only atheist who doesn’t sugarcoat the idea of death, nor believe that we will eventually transcend our brain-contained consciousness? I accept death for what it is: an inevitable end. I’m not sad about it, nor am I afraid of it. I simply accept it. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I wasn’t concerned with my lack of existence before I was born, so why should I worry about my lack of existence after I die?

    • Trace

      No, you are not ;)

    • Paul Iannacone

      Personally, I am not concerned with death.  It does not worry me in the least.  My big problem is that I have 3 small children who have already experienced death in the family.  The comfort of a “heaven” (as told to them by my wife) has so far worked for them, but my older child (8) may not be as accepting of this if we experience it in the near future.  So, how do other atheists deal with death (especially premature death of someone close), specifically in regards to children?

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      No, you’re not. There was a topic over at WEIT a while back that stretched into some 400 comments about death, and the majority view seemed to agree with you (and that Mark Twain thing got trotted out a lot). There were only 2-3 people (if I remember right) that didn’t find Twain comforting, and who found death annoying at best, terrifying at worst. For the record, I was (and remain) one of those 2-3 people. I find your attitude extraordinarily difficult to understand on any level, even intellectually. However, anecdotally I seem to be in a minority. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. 

      • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

        To be fair, I really can’t explain how or why I’m OK with death. I guess at some point I just happened to accept death and the fact that I will die someday. I can understand people being worried about how they will die, the pain (if any) they may suffer before the end, etc. But death itself? It’s an absence of existence. To me, there’s nothing to be concerned about. I really can’t explain it any better than that.

        • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

          I know. I’ve tried explaining my perspective, and it doesn’t seem to work very well. I can come up with all sorts of reasons, but in the end it seems to just be emotional, from either side of it. Frankly, I hesitate to even mention it, in order to avoid fueling the theists fire against us. I would rather fear a reality, than be comforted by an illusion — but I don’t think everyone gets that.

          • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

            “I would rather fear a reality, than be comforted by an illusion.” Truer words have never been spoken. Agreed completely. :)

            • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

              :D Always nice to be appreciated. Feel free to steal, or preferably quote with proper attribution. :D

            • Ndonnan

              you are so right nathan,,but the illusion is nothing is there,the reality is ,well you need to have that figured out before then, when ever that is,a near death experiance or terminal illness will help you focus.an accident on the other hand ,,,well,,too late

              • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

                Ok, I *think* you’re trying to tell me (and anyone else reading this public forum) that there actually is an afterlife. If so, then what’s your evidence (and try to make it readable, it is not difficult)?

      • Ndonnan

        nathan ,what you are not is a denialist or wishfull thinker,you are a conscious being with a spirit,your intellect tells you that,thats your issue,this is what you need to resolve.

        • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

          Huh? Not sure what you’re trying to say to me here. Define “spirit”? My intellect tells me what now? What exactly do you think my issue is that I need to resolve?

        • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

          Also, proper punctuation, capitalization, and syntax are not just snobbish, “elitist” things. They exist to assist with clarity and understanding. In other words, if you used such things more, I would have an easier time understanding you, as would others. Punctuation and capitalization help in setting out complete thoughts and ideas, while syntax helps to clarify what context sensitive words like “that” refer to. I’m sure everything you said made perfect sense in your head, and maybe even if you said it out loud, but you don’t currently have the advantage of body language and inflection to assist your words, like you would if this were face to face. 

          • jrw

            You are and idiot….

    • Ndonnan

      deep mr.twain, but hardly relevant,i dont think i would be relaxed on my death bed beliving in his philosophy

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Eliezer Yudkowsky needs to separate the facts from the emotional reaction. People die on a regular basis. That’s a fact. Viewing it as “so terrible a darkness”, and a “horror” is an emotional stance. I’m disappointed that Mr. Uber-rationalist cannot distinguish between those two things.

    • Spencer

      I love how when somebody doesn’t explicitly state that something is xyr opinion, it automatically gets labeled as being intended as fact by some people.

  • http://twitter.com/PeteHullah Peter Hullah

    How to approach death? Preferably with a glass of champagne in hand, and your beautiful partner on your knee, enjoying post-coital highs.

  • Anonymous

    Reginald seems to share my sentiments (posted over on Measure of Doubt, where this post first appeared). Eliezer seems to be saying that he’s a transhumanist because it makes him feel better.

  • Denis Robert


    Death is nothing to us; for what has disintegrated lacks awareness, and what lacks awareness is nothing to us.” Epicurus, Principal Doctrine #2

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    As someone that hears about death every day, I would like to share that most people, no matter how religious, still do not accept it as easily as you might think. Preachers and priests have the canned things they have to say, but it does not help as much as you’d think. In a lot of cases it actually makes people leave the church. People think their church and its leader will be there for them when confronted with death and it’s just not the case. No one wants to be lied to when they’re grieving and that is essentially what the church leader is doing. You’d be surprised how rational irrational people can get when hit with the reality of death.

    Denial is the first stage of grief, and thinking that the deceased is not “really” dead but waiting for them in heaven goes along quite nicely for most churchfolk, but it is extremely detrimental to the grief process.

    If any group of people has the right idea about death it’s rationalists, but like most people rationalists don’t try to think about it too much. I’m probably too comfortable with death, but this whole idea makes me think that it’s definitely something we should be talking about at every conference. Nonbelievers could really bring out some good ideas for helping societies accept death in a healthier way, because the things (lies) that we assume are working are not.

  • Anonymous

    Death is unimportant, the method of dying is very important, at least it is to me! When I die it will be because my body is no longer able to function and thereafter I will cease to exist….. simple! NOW; the method of death is the scary part:
    ->A gory accident where my body is horribly mutilated…… errrr, no thanks!
    ->Old age which brings on dementia, failing limbs and bladder retention, having someone wipe your bottom……. thanks but no thanks!
    ->Debilitating illness ending in much of the previous problems… no, not that either!
    ->Heart attach and death withing moments……. Yep, that will do, no pain or embarrassment, thank you and good night!

    Seriously, who gives a damn as long as it doesn’t hurt.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, and another thing, disposal of the body, put me down as a burner and then throw the ashes in the dumpster at the crematorium.

  • http://twitter.com/TortugaSkeptic A secret red slider

    Is the panel to discuss how the person dying handles it or how we who are left deal with it, because those are two different things.  For example, my own death, provided it is relatively quick and not too terribly painful, does not fuss me too much. What does worry me is how my husband and son would handle the transition. On the other side, having seen parents lose children, it seems to be an unbearable grief and it is beyond my current imagining how one would move past that. 
    All of those seem more interesting than ‘how to try and live forever’ which seems more like avoidance and an easy way to derail the conversation.  Can Mr. Lawson’s wife sub. for that one? ;)

    • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

      We’ll work on something for next year. ;)

  • Trace

    New Age Atheism!

  • Anonymous

    How atheists face death? The most beautiful expression of that was once communicated by the freethinker, poet and blogger known as Cuttlefish, in a comment during a discussion on the Pharyngula blog. 

    “How does an atheist face death? By facing it, not by denying or diminishing it. Not by turning it into a transition to some other reality. Not by making up a story to make themselves feel better. It hurts because it’s real, it’s permanent, it’s the end. It should hurt.” 
    read the rest here (captured for posterity’s sake): http://ohthehumanityofitall.blogspot.com/2010/08/beautiful-sentiments.html 

  • http://twitter.com/dartigen Dartigen

    I’m not so much worried about death as the methods of death. A lot of them are rather drawn-out and painful. I’m hoping I get one of the less-painful ways of dying, or at least one that’s quick so I don’t have to be in too much pain for too long. (With that being said, I still have a goal of getting to 100. Just ’cause.)
    But heck, who would want to live forever anyway? It’s easy enough to get bored as it is, I wouldn’t want to drag things on and on until life stops being worth living. And when you get well into old age, you tend to start getting things like arthritis, and you start to lose your hearing, and if you’re really unlucky you could start to lose your eyesight too. Oh, and there’s also Alzheimer’s, dementia, various heart and blood issues, strokes, osteoporosis…yeah, I wouldn’t want to live through too much of that.
    So I guess you could say I’m resigned to the reality of death and I’ve learned to stop worrying over it.

    With that being said, we’ll all be scared when we do die, because nobody *wants* to die. And our bodies put every effort possible into not dying, which means that pre-death it tends to have some absolute freak-out moments which sound like they’d be pretty scary. But hey, then you’ll be dead, no biggie.

    As for other people? Well…I’ll be dead so it’s not like I can do much about how they’ll cope besides, you know, be dead. It’s up to them to come to terms with it on their own; I won’t be able to do anything about it, and that’s just fine. Everyone is different psychologically, and everyone handles grief differently, so there’s no one-size-fits-all way to cope. People have to figure it out on their own.

  • JoshDCarp

    From reading Bernard Cornwell’s books, I’ve always thought the best way to die would be while attacking a cannon emplacement loaded with canister shot. Wouldn’t feel a thing. Wouldn’t know how to accomplish this death nowadays, absent a time machine.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    Death is not about the dead, it’s about the living. If you plan on dying alone, fine, box and burn, but somebody might miss you, so unless you make concrete plans it’s their call. What you should be afraid of is being buried as a theist.

    If you’re proud of your beliefs, then you should make sure your legacy as an atheist isn’t swept under the rug. Too many atheists are given religious funerals by family members out of embarrassment. 

    Everyone doesn’t necessarily have to know you lived as an atheist, but make sure they know that you died as one. It’s just another way religion thrives – the dead atheists can’t defend themselves from the grave. That is, unless you make sure they can. A dead atheist, with a headstone or mausoleum plaque that says ATHEIST, speaks volumes.

  • http://kpharri.wordpress.com/ Keith

    Looks like a great panel Jesse! Any chance it will be filmed and uploaded to YouTube?

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I’ve always thought that most of the problems could be avoided simply by not teaching children that they’re immortal in the first place. I never expected to live forever, so the idea of death being final didn’t come as a big shock.

    I’m probably a minority among atheists, but I find death rituals incredibly morbid and creepy. I know I’ll be compelled to attend more funerals in my life (I’ve been to two so far), and I’m definitely not looking forward to it. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go, but you can hardly not show up when it’s an immediate family member.

    • Anonymous

      Most funerals are quite morbid but I’ve been to one (my unwife’s father) that really was a celebration of his life.  Dare I say that I thought it was fun and an excellent way to deal with the grief of losing a loved one.

      • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

        That doesn’t sound too bad, but still not something I would want to attend.

        The main thing that bothers me about funerals is the fact that our society seems to think it is required to trot out the person’s corpse or ashes, both of which I just find disgusting. Hearing that the deceased is in an afterlife also upsets me, although since the only funerals I’ve attended have been Jewish and Sikh, I was spared that part. The Sikh funeral was in Punjabi so I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, and the other funeral was for a secular Jew. Still hated the cemetery, though.

        • Anonymous

          When someone dies we don’t want to keep the body around because it will start to smell and will eventually be a health hazard.  We have to dispose of the body.  It makes sense to keep corpses away from farm land or anything useful so a cremation or communal graveyard is practical.

          We form emotional attachments to people and when they die we need a way to deal with the grief of this broken attachment, of never seeing them again or talking to them.  A funeral allows people to work through their grief while in the company of friends and family who all knew the dead person and can relate to the grief and offer communal comfort.  It is a ritualised way of dealing with loss.Religion has unfortunately hijacked funerals as an excuse to control and preach to vulnerable people.  I’d much rather they kept their greedy little paws out of people’s lives and deaths.  People need to work through grief in their own ways.  Religious control holds people back from this.  Religious false promises limit a person’s ability to process grief.  Nobody should force you to go to a funeral if you really can’t stand them but they are really their to help the living to move on with their lives.  If you have your own preferred way of dealing with grief then go with that.  Whatever works for you.

          • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

            I don’t disagree that most people find funerals comforting. I’m just not one of those people, and I wish that there wasn’t a social obligation to attend funerals. If you don’t go, especially if it’s someone close to you, it looks really, really bad. My parents are still living, but one day I know I will have to attend their funerals, even though I absolutely don’t want to.

            The memorial part isn’t what bothers me. As long as they’re not talking about the afterlife, the actual service should be fine. It’s the whole dead body thing that I can’t stand. I don’t find it comforting to know that someone’s dead body is in a coffin at the front of the building, and especially if they insist on having the casket open, with people coming by and touching the corpse. Even with cremation, people often  display the cremated remains in their homes, or they scatter them to the wind. I just don’t want anything to do with my loved ones’ remains, ever. I don’t want to see them or even think about them. That bothers me far more than silly platitudes about heaven. 

            I hate cemeteries, but I recognize that they are
            useful places, especially given the fact the burial is the more acceptable social practice in Western culture. I just find them morbid. The thought of going to a place full of corpses bothers me.  I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts, so they’re not frightening. They’re just depressing. I don’t find them comforting or peaceful. I recognize that this makes me an extreme minority among nearly everyone, atheist or not.

            • Anonymous

              We get comfort from different things.  Your opinion differs from the majority view but honestly how can an atheist have a problem with that when there is no harm to anyone.

              At least we don’t have a tradition of eating the remains of our loved ones.  Plenty of cultures used to do that.

              • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                True. I guess I can be grateful that we’re not in the habit of cannibalizing people anymore, LOL.

            • Ndonnan

              anna thats because death is so confrounting,and rightly so,atheism has nothing to offer you more than live your life for you because theres nothing after death.a corpse is rather graphic a reminder of your mortality.you know in your conciouness if your funeral isnt a celebration of your life,which it should be,then your fearing you will have somthing to answer for or worst still,somone to answer too.

              • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                Sorry, I don’t follow. Death doesn’t frighten me. I’m not in the least worried about having “something to answer for” or “someone to answer to.” I’m a lifelong atheist, and I’ve never believed in any sort of afterlife. I find the idea of gods and the Christian fantasy of heaven ridiculous, to say the least.

                I don’t care about being reminded of my own mortality. I accept the finality of death, and I always have. I just find corpses disgusting. I can’t understand why anyone would want to see or touch the dead body of a loved one. I don’t find cemeteries comforting because I don’t feel any attachment to their bodily remains. Quite the contrary.  

                By the way, of course atheism has “nothing to offer” me. It’s not supposed to. It’s not designed to give anyone anything. The reality is that there is absolutely no evidence of an afterlife, and I prefer to deal with reality instead of fiction. Besides, I don’t think Christians even believe their own stories, certainly not on a subconscious level. If they did, there would be no grief associated with death at all. But wouldn’t you know it, Christians grieve just as much as anyone else.

  • Ronlawhouston

    I actually like the secular Buddhist perspective.  It is not so much death that is the problem since it is a reality that everyone must face.  One problem is fear of death.  The way to deal with that fear is to confront it within ourselves.  Another problem is our general feelings of dissatisfaction over the fact that our bodies like things in life are impermanent.   Death is only “terrible” or “dark” if we make it so.  Otherwise it’s just another reality that simply must be dealt with by the person and their family.

    • Anonymous

      Fear of death is one of the major reasons why religion exists in the first place why it persists so strongly

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish Cuttlefish

    suirauqa–as it happens, I’ve actually just written a bit more about death.
    Not like last time–I was in the middle of it at that point–but still…
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2011/11/15/over-my-dead-body/

  • http://twitter.com/fester60613 I May Be Crazy

    Even before I became an atheist I always loved these (perhaps) overly sentimental lines from William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”:
    “… approach thy grave,
    Like one who wraps the drapery of his couchAbout him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    “How Should Rationalists Approach Death?”

    That’s a ambiguous normative question.      Not exactly the kind of question a rationalist asks.   Not a question that has an answer.   Care to rephrase, or is it an invitation to make up my own question(s) to answer?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    Perhaps the panel should treat this as a meta question and argue about which is the least and most important questions about death, without actually answering them.      I vote “How Should Rationalists Approach [the question of avoiding] Death?” as most important, and “How Should Rationalist Approach [what to do after] Death?” as the least important.

  • Garren openID

    I had the best possible preparation for accepting death under a naturalist worldview:  a fundamentalist Christian upbringing which taught that almost everyone would be in excruciating pain forever and ever.

    Gray looks white next to black.

  • 59 Norris

    A bit off topic, but this thread reminds me of something I read a few weeks back:

    A healthy life is simply the slowest rate at which one can die.

  • Chantelle Petersen

    Having been diagnosed with a terminal illness death is something that crosses my mind fairly often. I’m not afriad of dying, mostly I’m pissed off about the things I won’t be able to do with my life (though that won’t stop me from trying to squeeze every last bit of enjoymeny out of life while I can).

  • Bevidence

    “I’m gonna be sitting on my backporch, I’m gonna have a Cuban cigar in one hand and a big glass of Scotch in the other and a belly full of barbequed ribs with a ton of sauce.  That’s why I don’t have insurance – and my money is tied up in a trust fund that prevents anybody from using it for healthcare – pretty smart, heh?  If I get sick, no doctor on this planet is gonna come within 10 ft. of me. They talk about a living will…you don’t need a living will.  You just need to make sure you don’t have any money and you’ll die a happy fella with a big smile on your face in your own king size bed”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLSNtVpJr0Q

  • Dcovill

    As “secret red slider” points out, discussing someone else’s death is a lot different from discussing your own.  And the prospect of your own death looks a lot different at age 80 than it did at 40!    And what to do ‘in remembrance’ is a whole ‘nother issue.  Some thoughts:

    I’m 81 now, and I have a fatal disease (Chronic Leukemia) that I’ve had for 9 years now.  I get treatments, and life goes on, but I have to face facts like the next car I buy will be the last one, I probably won’t get to see my granddaughters get married, and what am I saving all this junk for?  When your own death is no longer in the far distance, but probably a little way  over the next hill, it definitely changes your point of view.  In particular, it changes your priorities.  (I lost my urge to dance naked long ago!)   I find my bullshit detector has turned up its sensitivity so that it’s hard to listen to the news, and I had never really realized what fools we mostly are.  At least, I don’t have to pretend to believe in some Albanian Disneyland called “Heaven”.  Thank God I’m an Atheist!

    My father died in 1996 at age 95.  He was a Bible-toting Christian, but he belonged to a sect that has no churches, no property, and no paid ministry.  We contacted one of the group leaders, and she came to my brothers’ house and led a ‘Remembrance Celebration’.  My wife and I and our grown children flew up (to Montana) from California for it, and we were all hugely impressed.  We just sat in a circle and traded stories of what we remembered about my Dad.  (I learned a few things.)  There were a few prayers, but nothing heavy-handed.  Everybody there was someone he knew that cared about him.  Can’t do any better than that.

    I’m fortunate that I’ve never lost someone close to me “before their time”.  Losing a child in particular would be really hard.  And you can build a whole discussion on that.  But it’s not the same discussion as the one about your own death.

    Oh yes, if you are going to discuss attitudes about one’s own death, it might be interesting to have someone over 30 years old on the panel!  Just sayin, …

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Greta’s hitting 50 this year, if I’m not mistaken. So, there’s your “over 30 years old.”

  • Anonymous

    There are two issues with death with different approaches.  The first is being dead which for me is nothing to worry about.  I’ll be dead and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Nor will it cause me the slightest inconvenience.  Then there is dying which I’m not looking forward to and I’d quite like to put off.  It’s the last thing I’m ever going to do so I want to make it interesting.  

    How we approach dying and how we approach the idea of being dead are two different questions.

  • Lurker111

    “How Should Rationalists Approach Death?”

    If I can still lift a glass of wine at the time, my answer would be, “Mildly drunk.”

  • Alex SL

    Whoa. I knew that Eliezer was kinda obsessed with forming a cult around Bayesian statistics, and that he believes the nerd rapture is imminent. But the link you gave? Whoa.

    If my daughter, brother or wife die, I will be seriously depressed, but I would never have thought it possible that an atheist would be able to have such an exaggerated and inflated view of the relevance of human beings, or such a blindness towards the implications of immortality. I am fairly sure that a human who even lived only a thousand years would become utterly insane in that time.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2C6XFSMIUYAZUDZ4CWUWLV7CEY Josh Pearson

    I have been surmounted with death since I was four years old. I have seen my great-grandmother, grandmother, uncle, and mother all die. Literally my whole family.

    I have seen countless animals die, or seen their bloated corpses. From insects to mammals, I’ve seen a lot of death.

    As a rationalist this is how I cope with all the death in the world.

    I’m a vegan. I don’t enjoy the idea of my existence bringing the end of another. This is also why I catch and release insects that journey into my home. I am actually quite adept at snatching flies out of the air without harming them.

    But I feel the only way to truly cope with death, and the resulting loss one feels, is to be honest about the situation. Death is inevitable and once it happens we are forever removed, consciously, from the universe. Our human form will never exist again, and neither will our unique cognition. Dead is dead.

    That isn’t a depressing thought when you take into account a simple fact: energy can neither be created nor destroyed. We are just energy. When we die that energy transfers back into the universe. Into the soil, air, water, or smoke. It disperses and fuels other things. Be it grass growing, CO2 in the atmosphere, or just electrons moving along to other molecules. We never leave the universe, we just are only aware of it for a very brief time.

    The only thing that any of us can do for the ones that have died is this: we remember them. That’s the only solace one can have in this world. That maybe, hopefully, you’ll be remembered. Even that, though, will eventually fade. Humans aren’t going to be around forever, our species will go extinct someday.

    Every animal I have held as they died, or watched die, or even just the corpse I make a promise to all of them: I will remember you. Even though I won’t be here forever, in that brief glimpse of time I experience I will always keep you in mind. You will be remembered.

    I say this to every animal I find dead. I say this to every animal I may have to, or accidentally, kill. While I can’t remember each perfectly, after all one dead Rock Dove looks a lot like any other Rock Dove. But I remember them as best I can.

    I do the same for my mother. I remember her flaws, the mistakes she made, the life she had, and the amazing things she did for me. I don’t idealize her, I remember her as she was. A human being that had  a glimpse of life, a life that was never kind, never fair, and never what she deserved. But she had it. And it’s my obligation to remember her chestnut hair, the smell of coffee and cigarettes on her breath, and the love she felt for me.

    And that’s all any of us can do. We remember. We move on. We live our lives so we can share them with other people, so we too can be remembered; if only briefly. Knowing full well that when we too die, we remain a part of this universe in energy and thought. Some of us get the chance to be remembered by scores of people, through generations, like Leonardo DaVinci, Nikola Tesla, Genghis Khan, and others who will be a part of humanity until we go extinct.

    This is how this one rationalist copes with death, by seeing it for what it really is. It’s the cost we bear for getting the chance to see, to hear, to feel, and to think. And frankly it’s a debt that I am glad to have, even if it means someday I have to pay it back.

  • Lorin Kinney

    I don’t believe people who claim to not be concerned with death. Just try to imagine the moments that lead up to the infinite nothing. It’s really disconcerting. Every once in a while I start to think about what it would be like to slip away, and how it may not be pleasant. I assume pleasant calm accompanies death, but that is only because that is was it looks like to those who are still alive and watching. Imagine non-consciousness. Imagine not waking up one of these days to another set of environmental stimuli. I think most of the fear stems from having no experience with anything but consciousness, and so I imagine death being like eternally having my eyes closed, with ear plugs in, and being loaded to the gills with morphine until I could no longer feel. It could be just me and my thoughts… Luckily the thoughts are reliant upon my brain being alive.

    • hoverFrog

      I’m not conscious when I’m asleep. That’s hardly cause for concern. I wasn’t conscious before I was born and that doesn’t fill me with terror. Dying worries me, death is a stranger that I know nothing about. Being dead holds no fear.


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