Why Do We Die?

Question from Casey:
How do you comprehend death? How do manage to remain sane knowing that someone has been ripped from your lives for what you believe to be no reason?

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Casey,

I don’t see death as being “no reason.” As a science buff/journalist, I see it more as the natural order of things, as far as old age goes (please see the law of entropy).

If death is due to sickness or murder (not that I can speak from experience in latter case), I find it much more comforting to think of it as being a random event that we have no control over, rather than some capricious god who chose to “off” someone “just because.”

My dear grandmother passed away from old age and she often told me she was afraid of dying alone. There was not much I could do, since my life is not in Europe, but what I did do was visit for the summers and write a postcard to her every 1-2 weeks. I think it helped.

Often we say to ourselves, we’ll do this and that with this person sometime. But in my case, I did what I could then, and when she passed away I felt awful and missed her very much, but it made me feel so much better that I did what I could while she was alive.
And that’s all you can do.

I’m not sure what your situation is with respect to this question, but please accept my sympathies if they are warranted, and I’m so sorry there’s probably nothing I can say that time won’t eventually take care of.

Best to you,

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s always a reason why people die. There may not be any purpose to it, but there’s always a reason: they were old, or they were murdered, or there was an accident, or their immune system failed them. When we ask why someone has died, this kind of answer is always available to some extent. Furthermore, this kind of answer is often useful in the prevention of other deaths, for example by catching the killer, fencing off the cliff edge or preventing the disease.

To my mind, knowing that there’s no purpose to a loved one’s death is no worse that believing there is a purpose but having no idea what it is, and no hope of ever knowing. The suffering and death of a good person is hard to explain in a world with an all-powerful, benevolent guardian watching over us (though that doesn’t stop people from explaining it…in many different ways), but it’s really very easy to explain in a world with no such being: it happened because of this and this, and it’s sad that the person is gone but they left their mark on the world.

If you imagine that atheists are completely at a loss when confronted with death then you imagine that our worldviews are simply the Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole in it. (This is becoming a catchphrase with me.) It sounds obvious but it’s worth specifically considering that when one doesn’t believe in a god, one also doesn’t believe that meaning and purpose in life depend entirely on a god. Therefore the common existential challenge of comprehending death, while certainly a challenge (see this earlier question), does not automatically shatter an atheist.

If a recent death affecting your life is the reason you asked this question, I sympathise along with Andrea.

3 thoughts on “Why Do We Die?”

  1. The absurd is always difficult to explain.
    One moment you see your 24 year old mentally retarded cousin happy in his own world, playing with himself and talking to himself. Within hours he has disappeared – and after a few days his body is found 50 or so miles across from where you live. They tell you he walked all the distance in the sun without food and water and died of dehydration. (This is an event from my life).
    Its absurd – he was loved, his mother believed in God. Yet the family suffered. And his death was pointless.

    There is nothing that can give one comfort when such events transpire – not even a belief in god. How does one draw comfort from god belief in the above case for example? Does one believe that god took him to put him out of his misery? Could god not have thought of a more humane way? And was it a misery for my cousin to begin with at all – he always seemed happy in his own world and he always was protected by his family at all times.

    Absurd, random things happen in the world. Its a fact of life, its a part of life.
    If you have a mathematical bent of mind, you can think about it through chaos theory – in a non-linear dynamical system with many complex variables interacting you can write down the equations (read – laws, rules, guides, regulations, typical rules of engagement, normal ways things happen) but you cannot predict how the system will unfurl and evolve with time. A small change here or there leads to a decidedly different outcome. A five minute difference in the timing of your stroll in the park can be the difference between being robbed at gun-point and a healthy stroll.

    God belief or any belief will not help. Bad things happen – its a hard fact of life. You have to face it, become accustomed to it. And the biggest challenge – you have to keep your humanity while getting fully accustomed to it, you have to keep yourself from becoming emotionally numb while getting accustomed to this brutal fact. Its a big ask – but it is probably a part of being what we are – human.

  2. Actually, I can speak for both Casey and myself when I say that belief in God definately helped in our situation. No, it doesn’t explain things fully but it definately helps.
    We had a friend who was killed recently by a truck when he was crossing the road. His death was instantaneous. To me this shows incredible mercy and love on God’s behalf. He would have died otherwise of cerebral palsy (and other problems) which would have been an incredibly painful and slow death. He was also one of the happiest people I know and lightened up everyone’s day. Basically he was supposed to die at birth but for some reason he was given an extra 18 years more than he should have had. He did what he was here to do and then it was time for him to go.

  3. …and as for the thousands or millions of others who do die the slow death he avoided? And those who have full, healthy lives left to live but get hit by trucks anyway, and either die or live broken lives thereafter? If this one mercy killing is evidence of God’s love, how are the countless tragedies not evidence of His cruelty? How do you know God’s hand is only in the positive aspects of these events, other than by asserting to begin with that He’s benevolent?

    I do realise, and agree, that faith in God can be comforting in the event of a tragedy. Of all the possible implications of the idea that an all-powerful being watched (or made) something horrible happen, you can focus on the implication that there must be a positive purpose to it, and thank God despite not actually knowing what His purpose was.

    Convincing oneself that everything’s all right, however, is not necessarily as important or useful as treating the tragedy as a tragedy and moving to prevent others. If we really believed that people only die in traffic when it’s their time, there would be no stop signs.

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