The life force is a gift that yearns to pay itself forward. But as a twenty-first-century person without a religious belief, my experience of this yearning to self-perpetuate has encountered two existential obstacles. The first relates to the meaning of my own existence: How do I live when I know I must die? The second relates to the meaning of humanity’s existence: How do I live when I know that my actions today could either help secure, or permanently destroy, the future potential of humanity?
That death comes for us all is not a novel realization for a self-aware primate. For example, around 2,500 years ago in Athens, Socrates is said to have proposed that “in truth, those who practice philosophy correctly, practice dying.” And a few hundred years after he chose to drink hemlock—rather than go into exile or renounce his belief in the futility of living an unexamined life—the Socratic-inspired Stoics meditated on their own mortality. “Soon you’ll be ashes or bones,” writes the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, referring to himself. In the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, humanity’s oldest surviving written story—dating from at least 4,000 years ago—Gilgamesh experiences mortal terror upon witnessing the death of his friend Enkidu:
Because of my brother I am afraid of death,
because of my brother I stray through the wilderness
and cannot rest. But now … do not let me see the face of death
which I dread so much … How can I be silent, how can I rest,
when Enkidu whom I love is dust, and I too shall die
and be laid in the earth for ever.
Some philosophers and psychologists have suggested that the foreknowledge of our own death may be what most widely separates us from other mammals. Perhaps we might even be more aptly called Homo mortalis rather than Homo sapiens. The researchers who originated terror management theory—Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski—write,
There is now compelling evidence that, as William James suggested a century ago, death is indeed the worm at the core of the human condition. The awareness that we humans will die has a profound and pervasive effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in almost every domain of human life—whether we are conscious of it or not.
So there’s nothing new about a personal crisis arising from the question, What does it mean to exist when I know I must die? However, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon to also have a personal crisis arising from the realization that there are risks that threaten the existence of my species. True, ancient humans may have felt something similar while watching the last members of their tribe die of starvation or some natural disaster, but they would not have been aware that there were other people, perhaps thousands of miles away, who had full bellies and warm campfires and would survive to pass on their genes. By contrast, today, we know that there are people in the world of whose existence we aren’t personally aware, and recognize that the future of their descendants hangs in the same balance as the future of our own.
In the past, when a civilisation in, say, South America, collapsed, Western European or Asian or Levantine societies could go on, largely or entirely unaffected. But since the development of nuclear weapons and the discovery of natural threats such as asteroid impacts and supervolcano eruptions, the biggest threats that face us are global—supranational.
What are the chances that any of these global threats will materialise? In The Precipice, Toby Ord reckons that, even if we make heroic collective efforts to meet those threats, there’s about a one in six chance that our species will not make it out of the current century with our future intact; these are the same odds faced by someone playing Russian roulette. Ord estimates that, if we don’t make such efforts, the odds of catastrophe are closer to two out of three. Martin Rees estimates that there is a 50% chance that all human civilizations will collapse by the end of the century. Phil Torres has written in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that, if Rees’s estimate is correct, “the average US citizen is nearly 4,000 times more likely to encounter the ruination of modern civilization than to perish in an aviation disaster” and “almost 50 times more likely to see civilization collapse than to die in a vehicular accident.”
If these threats to our future are so likely to materialise, why are they not front and centre in our public discourse—especially during a pandemic? The answer is probably that our evolved psychological intuitions are not designed to comprehend the scale of our predicament. Benjamin Seitz and colleagues published a fascinating paper on this topic in late 2020: “The Pandemic Exposes Human Nature: 10 Evolutionary Insights.” In it, they note some key failures of intuition that reduce our ability to grasp the reality of these existential threats:
Unfortunately, most of us are terrible at weighing risks presented as abstract probabilities. We also heavily discount the well-being of our future selves, along with that of distant strangers and future generations, and in ways that are both psychologically strange and, in a modern environment, ethically indefensible. We’re highly susceptible to conspiracy thinking, and display an impressive capacity to deceive ourselves, before doing the hard work of deceiving others. These predispositions likely endowed our ancestors with advantages, but they also suggest that our species is not wired for seeking a precise understanding of the world as it actually is.
Of course, many people have managed to circumvent our cognitive biases enough to recognise the scale of the problem. Unsurprisingly, some of them have been among the wealthiest people in the world. City University of New York’s Douglas Rushkoff has described how billionaires have consulted him on how they might maintain control over their security forces after a catastrophic global collapse:
“The Event.” That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down. This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers—if that technology could be developed in time.
All of humanity is in this together, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not and regardless of where our loyalties lie. No matter if we are black or white, Muslim or Christian, Brahmin or Dalit, Marxist or fascist, Magastan or Wokestan, we are all dependent on the same pale blue dot. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
We are trapped, then, between a rock and a hard place. Humankind now constitutes a single civilization, and problems such as nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption can only be solved on the global level. On the other hand, nationalism and religion still divide our human civilization into different and often hostile camps.
Like all humans, I am a temporarily assembled cluster of homeostasis-orientated space dust that originated from a transmutation process in countless exploded stars. I am a finite, limited, fallible, irrational primate thrown into a thing called life—an infinite-regress-flavoured enigma. I am provided with an unexplainable consciousness that allows me to contemplate all of that. And there are about 7.8 billion of us. As Michel de Montaigne notes in his essay On Repenting: “You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life just as well as to one of richer stuff. Every man bears the whole form of the human condition.”
Given such absurd and mind-boggling circumstances, why on Earth do we allow fleeting parochial indoctrinations, such as nationalistic fictions or dogmatic metaphysics, to sew hateful division and strife?
We are self-conscious manifestations of cosmic self-expression. We fumble about as best we can, trying to make sense of our existentially bizarre situation—our status as what Ernest Becker has called “gods with anuses.” The shudder-inducing incomprehensibility of the void from which we emerge (and to which we will return) can leave us desperately seeking lifeboat-like narratives that offer the illusion of certainty about reality and our place in it.
No wonder we grab onto whatever ideology or tribal affiliation happens to float by in order to keep our heads above water. After all, creation itself is, on one level, a “nightmare spectacular” as Becker puts it in The Denial of Death:
What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer bees attacking with a fury and demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out—not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in “natural” accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the U.S. alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer.
Think carefully before reading Becker, because you can’t unread him. Likewise, Alan Moore’s classic novel Watchmen features an oddly affable criminal called Rorschach. After Moore relates how Rorschach tells his prison psychiatrist about having burned a man to death (the man had murdered a little girl and fed her to his German shepherds), Moore writes:
Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, Hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.
While the planet may subjectively be what Becker calls a “nightmare spectacular,” and objectively what Rorschach calls “morally blank,” the life force that drives us to survive and reproduce is strong enough to override those realisations and compel us to go on living.
Given the terror of an ultimately fatal mortal existence, given the inevitable suffering and doom to which we subject our children simply by bringing them into the world (for a brief sojourn of guaranteed toil and struggle), it seems totally irrational for us to still find hope, as Becker puts it, in our “comfort and expansiveness.” Yet we do.
The solution to both existential crises—knowledge of our own death and knowledge of the threats to humanity’s existence—may be to explore our human potential and the impact our actions may have on the future of humanity. As ecologist and philosopher Matthijs Schouten has put it, we “cannot not matter.” Each of us is responsible to some degree for how humanity’s future unfolds—and how it unfolds will in turn influence our own experience.
Each person’s choices may contribute to making humanity’s future either horrendous or stupendous. Because of the incomprehensible complexity and randomness of nature, we cannot know what effects our actions will have on the world. Yet we experience a sense of agentic freedom—whether illusory or not—and we still need to make decisions about what to do next. Even if we try to avoid taking responsibility for the future by chasing after pleasure, or by retreating from the world, or by committing suicide, we cannot avoid casting a pebble onto the surface of reality. And that pebble will create a ripple that has effects we can never know. Every individual decision is more important than we can comprehend.
When we recognise our inextricable interconnection, our sense that there is meaning in life starts to blend with our sense of the meaning of life. As Elton Trueblood has observed, “A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.” As Becker puts it:
Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.
Even if I am simply “lacking anything better to do” as Rorschach puts it, and tossing things “into the confusion” as Becker says, there is an experiential meaningfulness in trying to keep the show on the road so that future people might get a stint on stage—just as the way past generations acted resulted in our existence today. In having children, we place a bet (on their behalf) that life will be worth the suffering it entails. We also bring into existence beings whom we hope may flourish, but whom we know must perish.
As David Whyte writes in his book Consolations: “No matter the self-conceited importance of our labours we are all compost for worlds we cannot yet imagine.”