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Ask an Atheist: Why do we die?

“Death” by Beshef is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ask an Atheist: Why do we die?


By Jim Downward

Q: Why do we die? 

Answer: complex multicellular biological organisms can’t keep up the metabolism indefinitely.  Eventually some things are going to break.  Even with modern medicine to supply a few repair parts for some breakdowns, too much of the internal plumbing isn’t amenable to that.  Keeping that 1905 Buick running is a real pain, ain’t it?

Now if you mean “WHY do we die?” in a teleological sense, you can pick one of the many theological “explanations” for that, or more if you are adept at philosophical juggling acts (“Karmic rebirth cycle Original Sin”, anyone?), or just make up a story of your own (and aren’t all the old stories we retell here just the ones somebody had to make up at some point?  The teleological telephone game goes ever on …).

Anyway, whatever story you settle on, if it makes you feel better about things dying, then it will make you feel better.  If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.  Redo as necessary, your mileage may vary.

The thing that people probably mean here is not, why do our exchange of molecules in the brain synapses grind to a halt at some point and “we” have shut down, but why do our minds eventually stop in our gradually deteriorating bodies, and what (if anything) happens next?  Once again philosophy and religion have piled up “explanations”, some of which may make the believer feel better, others may not.  Some may even be true.  Or not.

Fortunately we loquacious featherless bipeds have the knack for story telling, which allows some of us and our works to achieve a degree of “immortality” few organisms can: they can be remembered.  We can physically touch the fossil of a once living animal that swam or ran hundreds of millions of years ago, and understand a great deal about what that long past live did during its tiny stint alive on Earth.  It is long past the “oh, I’m dying” trauma of its moment, and yet it has a presence of its existence that is extraordinary indeed.  Cherish it.  And do not forget.

And the works of us loquacious featherless bipeds?  Beethoven (and all his genes) have passed into extinction long before dial telephones came and went, and yet the products of his busy neurons remain as alive for us today as they ever were while his metabolism was active.  Maybe even more so, as literally millions of people can interact with the product of his mind, as easily as putting on a CD or clicking on a streaming concert.

Is that not a fist shaking at our mortality and saying, not yet!  Not while the music can be heard?

Let’s keep the fists shaking.  And don’t forget the fossils.  They deserve to be remembered too.  After all, a few of us might become one of that number ourselves.  If we’re “lucky.”

Jim Downard

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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