On Interstellar Death Cults

I have said before that I am resolutely anti-death. I don’t believe death is a good thing, and thus I believe we should do everything to stop it, including attempting to prevent aging. Every so often in reply to my position, I hear variations on this sentiment: “But without death, life has no meaning.” Death, it is said, is what gives the meaning to life, for life is defined by the fact that there is death at the end, and if death were not there, neither would meaning be.

I find these replies hard to discuss, because I do not know what “meaning” means here. It certainly can’t mean what it means to me personally, since I’m a person who wants to stop death and yet I feel my life would still be meaningful even if I managed to do so. But let me give a more vivid example of how these replies make me feel. When I hear the sentence “without death, life has no meaning,” I imagine myself in a Jonestown-esque cult village. I have woken up in this village by mistake and been taken for a member of the cult. I protest that I am nothing more than a lost and weary traveler. They reply that, if this is so, I have arrived just in time, for the mass suicide is about to take place. At this point I am seized and poisoned. Through my final breaths, I protest that this is all an insanity. But I am met with the calm reply: “Insanity, dear lad? It is the opposite! For only death can confer upon life a meaning. Not to die means not to have lived.” And they leave me with those final words ringing in my ears: “Death gives meaning to life… Death gives meaning to life… Death gives meaning to life…”

All of this belief that death is natural and meaningful really does feel, to me, like waking up in a suicide cult. Now, look, I know it doesn’t feel that way to many other people. But from how I myself experience things the two situations are comparable. “But now,” you reply. “There is a gaping and obvious distinction. The suiciders intentionally brought about their premature deaths. Causing death by one’s own hand is completely different from simply resigning oneself to its inevitability.”

Very well. Let me change the scenario. I am born upon a spaceship. I have a happy little childhood, as our community hurtles through the cosmos. But when I reach the age of curiosity, I begin to detect something odd. I had never before asked where our enormous ship was going, but eventually, through hearing people’s discussions, it becomes clear to me that our ship is heading directly for the center of a moderately-sized white dwarf star, which it will hit in approximately fifty years. This seems worth further discussion, and I begin to ask questions about it.

“But if the ship sails into the star, won’t it instantly incinerate us?”

“Oh, yes, absolutely. In a nanosecond!”

“Why on earth are we heading into it then?”

“Oh, we have always been heading for it. For the entire history of this ship, it has been heading on a trajectory straight for the star.”

“Can we change ths ship’s direction?”

“It is unlikely.”

“But do you know for sure?”

“No.”

“Is anybody trying to navigate the ship onto a different course?”

“Oh, no. For, you see, that would be to tamper with nature. The ship’s trajectory is what gives its journey meaning. We define ourselves as the ship on course for collision with a star. If we were not to collide with the star, we would no longer be that ship. Do you see?”

And of course, I do not see at all. I just hear a bunch of interstellar cultists, who again chant “death gives meaning to life” over and over in a way that viscerally horrifies me. Why aren’t we trying to steer the ship away from a path toward certain destruction of our lives? Why are we simply resigning ourselves and then jerry-building a narrative as to why this is both inevitable and desirable? How did I end up in this madness, and why am I the only one to whom it even appears as madness?

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