What Does it Mean to Die?


Image by Tom Hole

Thomas Moller-Nielsen

“Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death.” So said Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. And in its most important respect this is true. Death is not like anything else: it is a ceasing-to-be, an end. It happens outside of life. You do not experience it.

But people often forget this. They claim they are afraid of death, afraid of this ceasing-to-be. Yet I believe that they are confusing death with dying. The act of dying may quite possibly be an unimaginably painful experience. In fact it is likely that in most cases it is so, especially for humans: for not only does the act of dying take place within life, and hence is experienceable, but it is a common consensus among evolutionary biologists that the ability for an organism to feel pain is proportional to that organism’s ability to escape from whatever is hurting it. Thus a tree cannot feel pain, because it is a very costly procedure to evolve a highly developed nervous system, and it would be pointless for an organism which is by its very nature immobile to acquire such a “warning” system.

Humans, on the other hand, are mobile, and very good at avoiding things that hurt them. Thus it makes sense for the species to have evolved a highly effective nervous system, so that it is able to avoid whatever is hurting it. And by this reasoning, the process of dying, which is by definition the end of an organism’s life, is very probably going to hurt. The nervous system will pull out all the stops trying to get the body up and running, trying to make it do something….but to no avail.

We can hammer in the nail still further: to die means the end of your life cycle, but from this evolutionary perspective, your benefit is not exactly what your genes had in mind when they and the proteins they code for built you. Adopting the intentional stance* towards genes, and treating them like rational selfish agents, we see that all they “care about” is there own reproduction and propagation throughout subsequent generations. You are a “vehicle”, a “survival machine”, built with the sole purpose of making more copies of the genes which inhabit every cell in your body. Thus your death is not their death: they will continue to live on, in your children, or your brothers and sisters, in their children, or your cousins…

There is seemingly no solace to be found in such a viewpoint, no comforting lesson to be learned. “I don’t care about my genes!” you cry. And I don’t blame you. So what do we care about? Can we find another meaning for death, another way to look at it, a different, less brutal perspective?

I believe that we can. I believe that we can find a good, virtuous meaning in death. We can find it in our loved ones, in the ones we care about, in our children, in our relatives. We take comfort in the knowledge that, while we die, they, the people we love, may go on living for a while longer, and that, while inevitably they too will die, their loved ones will go on living… In short, and I apologise for the cliché, we can die for love. As Plato said in The Symposium, we want what is best, which is love, to go on forever.

Now there is an obvious rejoinder to such a meaning of death. “But we only love them because they share our genes!” Or, “We only love them because, ultimately, we have shared genetic interest in our progeny! That isn’t love!” Yes, this is true, and I will not deny it. But, as you said yourself, only ultimately is this true. To say this is like saying that we play football to express our natural human competitive instincts, or that we eat food in order to survive, or that we sleep to avoid harm and conserve energy. This is the confusion between ultimate and proximate explanation, as Steven Pinker has said. Ultimately, we play football to give free reign to our natural human competitive instincts, ultimately we eat food in order to survive, or we sleep to avoid harm and conserve energy. But proximately, we play football because it is fun, proximately we eat food because we’re hungry and the food tastes good, proximately we sleep because we are tired. Similarly, we ultimately love people, and in particular our close members of family, because we have a shared genetic interest. But proximately, we love them because…well, we love them. We can’t help it. And I think this is all that really matters. I don’t care what love is ultimately: it could be a feeling that evolved for no reason at all, and I still wouldn’t care. It is the confusion of these two types of explanation that confuses people.

What does it mean to die? In truth, as Sartre noted, it is we who eventually give meanings to things, because meanings do not on exist on their own. We can choose what it means for us to die. No one is there to decide for us: in truth, I don’t think we want anyone to decide for us. And what better way to die than for that which has continually mystified generations of scholars, poets, philosophers, even scientists: to die for love.


Thomas Moller-Nielsen is an undergraduate in philosophy at the University of Bristol.

* Daniel Dennett formulates the notion of the intentional stance to describe the way in which we can increase the efficiency of our predictions of a physical system – consequently lessening the strict accuracy of our description of that system – by thinking of it as having some kind of deliberate, intelligent plan. Cf. Dennett’s Intentional Stance, MIT Press, 1989. (Ed.)


  1. Jose Lopez-Marron · ·

    Thank you for your thoughts Thomas. You have the mind of a thinker and the sensitivity of a poet.

  2. Plants do not commit suicide because they do not feel pain. Most humans do not commit suicide because they can move away from pain inducers.But some people commit suicide because they cannot move away from pain inducers.

  3. You’re a good write and death is an important topic to think about. Thank you for your article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: