Chapter 18 – Does Death Give Meaning to Life?

In chapter 18, Michael has an existential crisis followed by a midlife crisis.  This was caused by Chidi trying to help Michael understand ethics.  According to Chidi, Michael being immortal could be the problem.  In explaining this to Eleanor, Chidi said, “life has an end; therefore our actions have meaning.”  However, how does the fact that life has an end lead to our actions, or our lives having meaning?  If fact, it is usually because we will die that our actions and lives are argued to not have meaning.

I believe writers of the episode are appealing to a view held by Victor Frankyl.  Frankyl wrote, “death itself is what makes life meaningful.”  The reason being “What would our lives be like if they were not finite in time, but infinite?  If we were immortal, we could legitimately postpone every action forever.  It would be of no consequence whether or not we did a thing now; every act might just as well be done tomorrow or the day after or a year from now or ten years hence.  But in the face of death as an absolute finis to our future and boundary to our possibilities, we are under the imperative of utilizing our lifetimes to the utmost, not letting the singular opportunities – whose ‘finite’ sum constitutes the whole of life – pass by unused.”

Fundamentally, we have a desire achieve certain things and order our lives before we die.  Mortality forces us to order our lives while we have the time.  We cannot put off things until tomorrow because we might not get them done.  The following seems to be Frankyl’s argument:

  1. We have limited time.
  2. Limited time makes time valuable.
  3. Not using time appropriately is a waste.
  4. It is wrong to waste time.
  5. Therefore, one must utilize our lives to the utmost.
  6. Utilizing our time to the utmost requires that we get things done.
  7. Therefore, we should get to the task of completing life’s task while we have the time.

There are obvious flaws with Frankyl’s argument.  For example, I may be immortal, but I can be hungry.  Therefore, it does matter that I eat now rather than 10 years from now.  Immortality does not mean infinite fertility.  Therefore, if a woman wants to have children, she needs to do so before menopause.  Thus, just because a person’s life does not have an expiration date, it does not mean that there are not other reasons to have an action done sooner rather than later.

In Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick critiques Frankyl as well.  First, our desires may not be simply to have some things accomplished.  Frankyl treats them as a list to be checked off.  However, it may be to experience the act of doing the action instead of a list of actions to complete before death.  For example, people seldom have sex once.  It is something people continually experience throughout their life.

Second, if we had an infinite life, we might view our infinite life as something to organize, shape, accomplish, etc.  Hence, being finite does not preclude one from doing the same types of activities.

Third, being immortal could open up more possibilities/desires to fulfill than we can comprehend being finite.  If we were immortal beings, perhaps this opens us up to many other possibilities.  We just cannot think of them because we are finite,

Finally, Frankyl’s view presents a problem for God.  If being finite allows us to have a meaningful existence, and God is infinite, then God’s existence has no meaning.  This is not an issue for an atheists, but for a religious person like Frankyl, this raises serious concerns.  What we have to imagine is that human life has meaning because we are mortal, but God’s existence has no meaning because God is immortal.  If we believe that if God does exist that God’s existence is meaningful, then this demonstrates that it is possible for us to be immortal and still have a meaningful life.

Nozick concludes his section on Frankyl by writing, “The dual assumption that some limitation is necessary for meaning, and limitation in time is the only one that can serve, is surely too ill established to convince anyone that mortality is good for him – unless he is willing to grasp at any straw.  If we are going to grasp at things, let them not be straws.”

So, if you were confused about the connection between morality and actions or life having meaning, you probably should be.  There does not seem to be any good connection between those concepts.  In fact, based on Chidi’s statement, none of the immortal beings lives or actions have meaning.  I am not sure that is a position one would find reasonable.