Fear of Death Is Immature

Question: Why do human beings have so much trouble embracing death?

Tyler Volk
: We have a lot of trouble embracing death because we know it’s going to happen and this really flies in the face of our urge to live which we’re coming out of billions of years of organisms being successful at living and passing on progeny and suddenly in the last 30,000 years, 100,000 years, we don’t’ really know, some of the earliest detailed elaborate burials were 30,000 years ago. Human beings not only died, but they know they’re going to die. Of course, the world’s religions have not liked this fact and so try to build up various mythologies about afterlife. But I think the basic reason is just it’s abhorrent to us. We’ve built up the self. We’ve had, for the most part, enjoyable experiences. There’s more to experience. We have loved ones, we have roles in life and suddenly to know that that’s all going to ending; to be snuffed out at some point, really puts in a primal dilemma to our minds 

QuestionHow do you explain scientific movements to end death

Tyler Volk: Yeah. I think some of these urges to conquer death, or to live a long time, have to do with this primal fear of death itself. Of course, we want to stay healthy, it’s painful to get ill, it’s painful to get old, to have injuries that don’t heal so well, to have permanent pain. So, some of that is overcoming just the sense of un-wellbeing that happens to us. We want medicine to make progress and keep up healthy. 

But the other factor is wanting to live for a long time and maybe forever. It’s not clear what we would do, or how that would affect our lives. Sometimes science fiction writers explore those kinds of themes. But I see that as incredibly natural and I do think it’s going to – not that we’re going to live forever necessarily, I don’t have an informed opinion about that. But from my reading, typically in nature magazines, science magazines and some of the biological findings and also what I see happening with genetics and genomics research in my own Biology Department at NYU, it’s clear that advances are going to be coming to help us fulfill some of these dreams we have had since the upper Paleolithic of living for a long time. 

QuestionAfter researching death for so long, how do you address your own mortality

Tyler Volk: I don’t believe in any afterlife for myself. I don’t think my mind continues after I die. That doesn’t feel particularly good. So, my recourse is to go by who I am, what we have, see myself as a product of billions of years of evolution and during which time this evolutionary process has discovered and utilized in various ways forms of death in support of life. It doesn’t make it something that I look forward to, I definitely do not, but I can see myself part of a larger picture. And I think there’s a lot of gratitude I’ve developed as a result of understanding how death and life are intertwined and doing some of my investigations that I’ve written about in how death and life are closely coupled with each other in the support of life that we know. 

Humans have developed elaborate rituals, institutions and even theories of immortality to lessen the life-long shock that is knowledge of death. What’s behind this primal urge and how does an expert on the biology of death respond to it?

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

Ultracold gas exhibits bizarre quantum behavior

New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Experiments on an ultracold gas show strange quantum behavior.
  • The observations point to applications in quantum computing.
  • The find may also advance chaos theory and explain the butterfly effect.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

    Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.

    Big Think LIVE

    Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.

    Keep reading Show less

    3 cognitive biases perpetuating racism at work — and how to overcome them

    Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."

    Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
    Personal Growth

    Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.

    Keep reading Show less

    Should you grow a beard? Here's how women perceive bearded men

    Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"

    Photo Credit: Frank Marino / Unsplash
    Sex & Relationships
    • A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
    • Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
    • Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
    Keep reading Show less

    Only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

    Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.

    Photo: Lightspring / Shutterstock
    Mind & Brain
    • A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
    • Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
    • An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast