Death and the meaning(lessness) of life

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Today I wanted to write about how immigration has effected the welfare state, but the discussion of �The Economics of Woody Allen� is so interesting I leave immigration for another day. Bryan Caplan wonders why people enjoy each life year less if it is finite. Suggestions:


1. Nonseparabality in preferences

For the same reason the victim on death row will not enjoy his lobster dinner it is harder to enjoy life since we are also forced to consume death and meaninglessness (unless we apply self-denial)

That we have strong disutility for death is without a doubt biological. I am not sure if the preferences for �meaning� also are, but the universality seems to suggest it. Most would rather have a true purpose with life than not. Just like computer games are more fun if you get to save the princess rather than wander around aimlessly. Sure we can �create our own meaning�, but knowing it is fake makes it worth less.


2. Longer time horizons impacts effort and accumulation.

Economics suggests that religious people with the idea of an afterlife are more successful, working harder and saving more. I think this not only applies to financial and human capital, but also to social capital. This accumulation is rational when you fool yourself into having longer time horizons, infinity with some probability.

Now you might argue that this raises wealth, but lowers their utility. If they knew they would die they would allocate leisure and consumption more effectively. But somehow this doesn�t convince me: it seems that the problem of self-command is so important it outweighs it. Most people work less hard than they would like to (can I say �should�?), religion helps them counteract this.

Not surprisingly, religious people are happier. 64% of weekly churchgoers are very happy, vs. 38% of those who rarely or never attend church). So unlike what Dawkins says religion may not be best viewed as a brain virus but an acquired antibody.


3. Collective-action problems and morality

At a social level: If life is truly meaningless the case for morality is instantly reduced. Since the software of morality is programmed into most of the population, is easy to hardwire the content at childhood. We don�t only rely on outside punishment to deter undesired behaviour, but also internal costs of breaking the rules (conscience).

But abstractly realizing morality is simply a mental program can be dangerous, because identifying it we might decide to override it. This is roughly what Nietzsche was trying to say when he warned that god was dead. His correctly predicted that the belief in god would be replaced with the �barbaric brotherhood of men�, with catastrophic results. The R-square of his parsimonious theory would make any economist jealous, fitting the nihilist Nazis and atheists communists and their uninhibited deeds 50 years later.

Atheist�s societies have since done a better job of maintaining morality, replacing religion with humanism. Nevertheless we would have many fewer sociopath, genocidal dictators and common criminals if the belief in the meaning of life were stronger. I suspect this is part of the explanation why Saddam had no problem murdering 1 million civilians whereas the mullahs in Iran didn�t go beyond some 10 000 (most ordered dead by one mediumranked mullah).

Personal note

I used to be crazy about accumulating knowledge, reading thousands of pages each month in various subjects in addition to my own field. This completely stopped when the unavoidability of oblivion fully hit me. What was the point of learning or achieving success? The paths of Glory leave but to the Grave, all the knowledge would be lost. For the next year or two my productivity plummeted, I was also quite miserable.

The only reason I eventually recuperated was realizing that some true ideas should be suppressed (I also tried to make myself religious, with no luck). I never reached the same level, and have become permanently lazyer, dumber and less succesfull. Can't imagine any area where rational self-denial is more important than death, for both achivement and happiness.

3 Comments

You're on a tear!

I read so many pages a month unrelated to my own field, I wonder what the cure for this is and whether people are usually happy or unhappy that they've done it?

Yes, we�re mortals , but we pass on our genes plus our cultural,scientific and social achievements to the next generation and thereby
can be classified as "immortal" , pure & simple!

You are more religious than any Bishop or Ayatollah , since religion is a purely personal
thing and not necessarily connected to Jesus ,
Moses , Budda or Muhammad.(organised religion)

Tino
Before you were born the Universe had existed for billions of years. Homo Sapiens had existed for about 200,000 years and the Hominids for between 4 and 6 million years. Before you were born you were not conscious of these events - that is much like being dead. It all goes on with or without you but while alive you can become aware for your remaining trips round the Sun, until you are 90 perhaps but likely before that. Afterwards, the Sun and its planets will continue circulating with the galaxy and it will take 64 million years to bring it back to where it is now.
Being alive for a short while enables you to do what the non-living cannot and once you are dead you will never be able to do so again, ever.
That gives meaning to your life. For the rest of eternity there is nothing more for you. While you are here there is everything to live for, to the full if you wish, or in depressive sloth if you choose.
Your birth was a unique event. Before and afterwards billions of sperm and scores of eggs never made it. They have had a chance to be depressed or to be aware of the Universe for a few years. Death will come soon enough and once it does there is nothing to be depessed about or to enjoy.
You do not need religious myths and fantasies to give you meaning, but if you do, good luck. You only need to look at life around you, be happy to can see, hear and smell it - there are many who cannot.

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This page contains a single entry by published on June 30, 2005 5:11 PM.

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