Hey Bill Nye! Do You Think about Your Mortality?

The days may seem long, but life itself is rather short. Bill Nye the Science Guy puts the human lifespan into perspective with a hard look at the numbers that define our time on Earth.

Josh: Hey Bill. Do you ever think about your mortality? Does it ever bother you to think that one day you just won't exist? I know you're not religious but do you think anything happens when we die or is it just over, no thoughts, nothing like that? And if given the choice to live longer in an artificial body would you take that or not? Thanks. Bye.

Bill Nye: What a question. That was Josh? Josh, fabulous question. Yes I think about mortality continually man. I won't say constantly but everyday. So I'd like to just give you something to think about. If you lived to be 82 and seven weeks, depends on leap years as to the exact number of weeks, you get 30,000 days on earth, 30,000. When you're in kindergarten 30,000 sounds like a lot, almost an unimaginably big number. When you are my age, I'm 61, you start to see that 30,000 really isn't that many. And to show you it's not that many I encourage you to imagine a National Football League stadium. They typically hold way more than 70,000 people, certainly way more than 60,000 people. So imagine sitting in a different seat every day of your life and watching your life take place down on the field, imagine this. Sit in a different seat everyday. Day-to-day it looks about the same right? But with 30,000 you don't get halfway around, halfway around and you're dead. It sucks man. So it's why it's important to do your best to live your life as best as you can every day. This doesn't mean you become a hedonist and just have a joyride everyday, you're working too big goals but no one appreciate that everybody is going to die. I have never met anyone who is not going to die. I've never met anyone who's of a certain age who is not already dead. It sucks.

Now here's the evidence for why I don't believe in an afterlife. It would be a fine thing if I could have the capabilities athletically that I had when I was say 23 with the life experience and intellect that I have right now. That would be fantastic and then live forever, I say bring it on. But my beloved grandmother, who was brilliant, didn't have that happen. She faded away losing her faculties as she went. People my age have a lot of grandparents and parents who are not as sharp, certainly not as athletically capable or physically capable as they were when they were younger. And so watching ourselves die is to me overwhelming evidence that there is no life after death. There doesn't seem to be any reason to think that when you die you go back to your optimum age at your optimum athletic ability and your optimum intellectual sharpness. And if it turns out that that's true, that you do die and have all this intellectual sharpness and athletic ability, cool. Bring it on. That will be great, but what would you do differently? What would you do differently if you knew for sure that you were going to be immortal when you died somehow?

Would you start committing crimes? Would you jump off a cliff so that you can hurry to your immortality optimal state? I just don't think so. Instead, the finite length of our life is what drives us, it's what makes us go and it's what makes you try to accomplish things or decide to have kids or not have kids or decided to live in another country on another continent or not or decide how to invest your money or what you're going to do with your resources. All this is driven by the limited length of life we have. So furthermore, if evolution is in fact how the world works, and it absolutely sure seems to be from my point of view, one of the fundamental things about evolution that is so troubling is this whole idea of survival of the fittest. That's really a 19th century usage, a British usage of that expression fit-est. It doesn't mean that you're able to do the most weightlifting or run the fastest 1500 meters or something, it means you fit in the best. And the troubling, troubling consequence of this is you don't have to be perfect or super person, you just have to be good enough from an evolutionary standpoint. You just have to be good enough to pass your genes on. After that evolution, if it were an entity, doesn't really care about you man. You had your kids, your genes are passed on and you expire, you lose your faculties as you run out of steam and that's just how it is.

Evolution, certain diseases catch up with you, certain auto immune problems show up, certain viruses and bacteria, parasites get you. Nature doesn't care. You were good enough. And so I encourage you to live your life as best you can everyday. And as far as putting my brain in an electronic receptacle for all time it sounds great, but I will valuate it on a case-by-case basis. Do you want to be stuck in an Apple product the rest of your life or do you want to be stuck in a Microsoft product? That's a tough call. I'm sure books will be written. We'll see. Great question. Carry on.

The days may seem long, but life itself is rather short. As Bill Nye the Science Guy explains, an average human life will span about 30,000 days. That may seem long, but consider that the typical professional football stadium holds twice as many seats. If you sat in a new seat each day of your life, you would not visit even half of the seats in the sport stadium. In order to make the most of our lives, we would do well to meditate on our own mortality as a way to understand just how precious and limited our existence is.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.