By Roland Watson

Since we have been discussing life, we of course also have to talk about death.

In the song by the Doors called Roadhouse Blues, Jim Morrison sang: "The future's uncertain, and the end is always near."

Well, I like the song, but the end isn't actually always near. Most people live quite long lives. Even so, though, death does always seem to be with us, hovering, threatening. It is something that we think about, and dream about, a lot. And, it's not a nice thought, or dream.

We are caught up in the form of death, but what do we really know about it, about an actual, specific, death? The answer is, nothing at all.

We have no idea what happens when we die. For example, a painful death is actually pain in the final moments of life. As to the moment of death, lights at the end of tunnels - and resurrections - notwithstanding, no one has ever returned to tell us what it is like.

What it is

What is death? What can we know about it, in general?

We do know some things about death. To start, it is an ending, to this form of existence.

It is also inevitable. It will happen, and to you. All living things die.

It is an unknown, and unknowable.

And finally, death is serious. The ending of something as original as life is serious. It is truly a significant event.

We also know what death can be. For one thing, it can happen at any time.

It can be a peaceful conclusion to a long and happy life.

Or, it can be premature, tragic, and accompanied by fearful circumstance, terror and great pain.

Or, it can be anything in between.

Finally, we know what death may be. It may be a gateway or transition to a new form of existence, perhaps even one where we are immortal, where we never have to die again.

As part of this, it may also be a reward, or punishment, for our behavior in this world.

Don't bet on an afterlife

Another important consequence of the ant-farm analogy is that you should not make the assumption, indeed, it is highly unlikely, that there is an afterlife, particularly as it has been imagined and described in religious literature. There is no basis whatsoever for assuming that we get more than one life.

What this means is that you should make the most of this one. This is your life, right now. Please don't waste the greatest opportunity of all.

The only other alternative is that when you die, nothing happens. Entropy takes over, your body decomposes, your atoms disperse, and your consciousness ceases to exist. Death is a change, yes, but not from mortal to immortal, instead from animate to inanimate. There is no new beginning, no spiritual transmigration, no reincarnation, no heaven or hell, and no ultimate truth. We die just as ignorant of the true circumstances of our existence as when we are born.

Death is the ultimate form, and, after the unfathomability of the universe, the second fundamental fact defining our existence. We are not immortal. We do not live forever. In fact, we live a very short period of time, especially considering the age of the universe.

The universe is believed to have begun in a "big bang" some fourteen billion of our earth years ago. If you live to be one hundred, which is a very long lifetime, this is less than one hundred millionth of the universe's presumed age, so far.

It's not a lot, really, not very much at all. And, the tragic irony is, after we experience and learn about life, when we reach the point where, from inside the system, we understand it, when we finally reach the state where we fully appreciate it, then we die.

What do you think?

There are many positions on death. Young people barely think about it at all. Some of the elderly seem to think of nothing else.

Of course, this assumes that we are talking about your death, which is the most personal, and isolating, experience of all. But, we could be talking about the death of others, of humans, or of members of other species.

Indeed, many such deaths are of no importance to us, or even interest. One might feel the death of a pet much more strongly than that of a neighbor from down the road.

What this implies is that even when it is not your death that is under consideration, the important thing is its relationship to you.

Fear or embrace?

Another perspective on death is that it can be viewed as evil, or good! One basic position is to avoid it, to put it off as long as possible. The "death as evil" camp seems to have more proponents.

Conversely, a few people choose to reject our form, the pain and suffering and the absurdity that is often part of life, and end it on their own by accelerating their death, by committing suicide. It is important to note, though, that such an act, which the author Dostoyevsky called "logical suicide" in his novel The Possessed, is extremely rare, if it truly exists at all. Almost all suicides are irrational responses to the most extreme forms of existence, which are usually behavioral forms, and which ultimately can prove to be unbearable.

The other basic position on death is to fear it, although this is actually a composite fear. The first part is the fear of the pain of death, of the pain that is often experienced by a dying body.

One small consolation, though, is that the greater the pain, the shorter it usually lasts. Another is that once you are dead, given that pain is a central nervous system response, that's it. It's over. A dead body feels no pain.

The second part is the fear of the unknown, of what happens after you die. If nothing happens, then there is nothing to fear.

If, on the other hand, as some religions say, there is the possibility of endless torture and torment - they are exploiting the idea of infinity here - then there is much to fear.

One other position on death is simply to accept it as inevitable, to hope for a painless death, and to live such that when you die, you do not have any great regrets about how you have lived your life.

You could also put it like this: I know not what comes at the moment of my death, but let me be courageous in the face of it.

When you are the killer

Unfortunately, there is another side of death that we need to address as well, and this is the view of death when you cause it, when you end another life, particularly when you do it violently.

This is a form in its own right, and it is one of the most powerful of all. What greater influence can you have on another life than to cause it to cease to exist?

The range of responses varies as well. You may feel sad, with a sick, hollow feeling in your stomach, and experience regret; or, you might be filled with a sense of power, and even experience happiness; or, you could feel nothing, nothing at all.

It is eminently possible to become conditioned to death, to being surrounded by it and to causing it, as in a war, and this is the worst type of form. The changes it effects on you are irreversible.

When young children kill, such as insects or small animals, they have no real comprehension of what they have done. Such ignorance, thankfully, is lost as one ages.

But many people continue to kill, even in their growing awareness of what it means, or they encourage other people to kill for them.

The fact that death in conflict is common, and also that the militaries and the police forces of the world probably exceed a hundred million people, all of whom are willing to kill on order, means that this terrible form is as present - really, omnipresent - as it has ever been in the human experience.

The consequences of this, on individuals, on society, and also on other life, are so great that they cannot be overestimated.

In the next series, I will review our home - the planet earth.

© Roland Watson 2014