Death and the Meaning of Life
“We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! — yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever.”
Few of the great questions of philosophy are of greater universal concern than those concerning death. Death is something which faces us all, whether imminently or dimly in the horizon, and hence is something we must all come to terms with. And, of course, the most natural way to come to terms with death is simply to deny it: to believe that there is some kind of afterlife, or a “life after life” over which death has no dominion. In the words of John Donne, “Death, be not proud”.
It will not be my purpose here to address the question of whether there is any truth to such beliefs. Rather, it is to address the common notion that the belief in an afterlife is the only way to come to terms with death — that is, that without this belief, life itself is rendered meaningless. Most have probably seen the issue stated this way: “if we don’t believe in an afterlife, then life is eventually going to end. So, what’s the point in living at all?”
My rebuttal to this can also be phrased, initially, as a question: “what is the value of an afterlife, that it should render life itself meaningful?” A life after life, after all, would just be life itself infinitely extended. The only possible answer would seem to be the obvious one: that life itself is intrinsically valuable.
But if life indeed does have intrinsic value, then its value cannot be dependent on any other factor — including the afterlife. This means that, if one supposes that an afterlife is in some way “worth living”, this life too must be worthwhile. Phrased differently, if life is not meaningful in and of itself, then an afterlife (or a life infinitely extended) cannot be of any value either.
Now, this does not in any sense disprove any general or particular notions of the afterlife. But it does remove the foundation for the notion that an afterlife must be believed. And similarly, nothing here can prove that life itself must be meaningful for all humans. These are questions too obscure to be addressed by an essay of such narrow scope, and perhaps by their very nature unanswerable.