In the final decade of the 19th century, the French painter Paul Gauguin fled from the entanglements of European life to the then-remote and undeveloped island of Tahiti. With the sobering perspective that comes with one's middle years, he was increasingly drawn to the most pressing questions about life. As the final decade of that century closed he produced a painting that he considered his masterpiece. He captioned it simply, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
These are traditionally the big questions of philosophy, packaged here in a beautiful visual perspective.
Birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Any personal significance that we discover or create must happen between these two event horizons. But considering the frenetic nature of daily life and the endless diversions and distractions it has on offer, many people - - certainly most of us who aren't artists, philosophers or in religious vocations - - are only sporadically drawn to reflect on what it is that makes life worth living, and on why we want to keep on living as long as possible. Simple pleasures and regular holidays punctuate the otherwise satisfying routine of daily duties and social obligations, and this state of affairs seems to be wholly sufficient justification to keep on going.
Nor are we disposed to reflect much on just what it is that makes the idea of our eventual disappearance seem so gloomy - - and death is a discomforting if inevitable conclusion, as we well know. Maybe our avoidance is understandable - - to die is just obviously undesirable (except perhaps to people who are deeply religious people, or are in unremitting pain) and no further explanation for our unease would seem necessary.
So for issues of both life and death, when we are not facing immediate and pressing circumstances, the human prospect is just what it is, and life's busy-ness and daily demands are sufficient to hold our attention.
But when by necessity or predilection we do find ourselves confronting questions of purpose, significance and meaning, when we must ask a la Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?", then we find that these issues really aren't as straightforward or as easily resolved as we thought.
Of what does personhood consist? What does our life signify? How should we live and treat others? The editor's choices for this wide-ranging collection of chapters addresses both obvious and less-obvious issues from all possible angles. The three questions that Gaugin represented in his painting can be distilled even more compactly into the question of the meaning of our life and its ending, the most salient issues addressed by the philosophies of any age (e.g., Solomon, 2010;Frankl, 2006). And this Companion collection of essays on life and death both addresses the issue of meaning directly, and shows it to be necessarily accompanied by many other closely-related philosophical concerns.
As editor and contributor Steven Luper introduces it, this book is divided into three broad categories. Part One is concerned what he terms the metaphysics of life and death - - that is, questions about the nature of life itself; about the personhood of human beings; the experience of continuity in a world where the passage of time seems pressing; the possibility and nature of our continuing survival; and most practically, how we can describe the life of individuals in a physical sense.
The chapters in Part Two of this collection "concerns the significance of life and death" -- an issue readers might consider to be still in the province of metaphysics. Here, the chapters consider questions such as what criteria define a life worth living? What is moral goodness? Are longer lives more worthy than shorter ones? Is death really harmful? And if so, to whom? Further, is it conceivable that we might be harmed by things that happen after our own deaths? And in the group of chapters is the very interesting one by Luper - - what can make a life meaningful?
I found this to be the most interesting chapter, since it deals with the conundrum of human significance, and the significance of our own lived life. One of the most common and troubling challenges addressed in this chapter is the charge that life - - human life - - is absurd or pointless. For animals, the issue of meaning or purpose isn't really relevant, as they don't (presumably) live lives of self-reflection or intentionality. But the absurdist claim is that most of what we humans plan for and intend to accomplish comes to naught in the short run, and all of it will obviously come to naught in the end no matter what, since the universe is doomed to wither away or explode into nothingness, and this is what makes the human life of seeking and striving so absurd.
Not to despair though. There are ways of experiencing our lives that counter these charges. Despite our seemingly hardwired apprehension that all things that are time-bound must necessarily be ultimately pointless, some philosophers (e.g. Nagel) point out that this is an unfounded concern. For example, if how we live our lives now might not matter in the far-distant future - - or even if there is no far-distant future because the universe might collapse and disappear entirely - - then by the same rationale, nothing that happens (or doesn't happen) in the future should matter now. In addition, we subjectively experience meaning, even if there is no objective standard by which to judge its validity. This is one possible answer, and the chapter offers a few other interesting possible ways to address the challenge of pointlessness and absurdity.
Thus having touched so far on the nature of life and personhood, and the point of living, the book moves on. Part Three concerns "the ethics of bringing living things into existence and the ethics of killing them." The chapters in this final section range from the implications of technological enhancements of our bodies or brains, to the ethical issues of choosing to bring new human beings into this world, to the moral implications of abortion, the rights or wrongs of self-preservation that causes harm or death to others, the dilemma of euthanasia, and finally the complexities of our relationships to other animals.
This collection highlights many interesting issues related, more or less fundamentally, to the issues of life and death, from contextual definitions of terms, to meaning, and to ethics. It will be quite understandable even to those without academic backgrounds in these ideas. Many readers may find that the ideas touched on here will call for further reading and reflection, as the philosophic issues discussed are shown to be much more than abstract arguments; these are issues that relate to our own lives and the way we choose to live them.
© 2014 Keith Harris
Keith Harris, Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.