Sunday, 13 August 2017

Kai Nielsen on Death and the Meaning of Life

In his 1978 paper “Death and the Meaning of Life”[1] Kai Nielsen argues that our lives can be meaningful even if a) death really is the end of us (i.e. total annihilation with no after-life or eventual resurrection) and b) there is no God, and that they can be just as meaningful as if there were a God or our death were not final. In other words, neither death nor the non-existence of God does in any way undermine or diminish our ability to live a meaningful life.

Nielsen admits that he finds it regrettable that he has to die because he would rather go on living forever. However, our having to die is, in his book, not particularly dreadful either. Regretting the fact that we have to die is one thing, but dreading it quite another. Regret is a reasonable reaction to our mortality, while dread and despair are not. The inevitability of our death does, after all, not devalue anything we do now. So instead of uselessly lamenting our mortality and needlessly letting our future death overshadow and effectively ruin our life, we had better face death stoically when it comes and in the meantime make the most of the life we have got. “Death should only be dreadful if one’s life has been a waste.” (154)

Nielsen objects to the (especially among Christians) common view that if we do not in some way survive our body’s death and if there is no God to make sure that “such a life will have a certain character”, “life will be pointless and morality without significance.” (155) Morality, he argues, is real even if there is no God or eternal life. Some things are wrong, plain and simple, we know them to be wrong, and they will be equally wrong in a godless world. “Torturing human beings is vile; exploiting and degrading human beings is through-and-through evil; cruelty to human beings and animals is, morally speaking, unacceptable; and treating one’s promises lightly or being careless about the truth is wrong.” (155) We do not, therefore, need God or immortality “to make sense of our lives as moral beings” (157). Nor do we need God or immortality to have a purpose in life. Without God there may not be a purpose to life or of life, but that does not mean that we cannot have any purpose or purposes in life. Perhaps there is “no plan for the universe or providential ordering of things in accordance with which we must live our lives”, but there will still be things that matter to us: “things worth achieving, doing or having, (…) things that bring joy, understanding, exhilaration or contentment to ourselves or to others” (157). That we cannot have those things forever does not in any way diminish their worth.

God, of course, promises a final redemption and salvation that we all crave but this world hardly ever grants us. The existence of God justifies our hope in the possibility of a better world, and it may well be thought that without God there is no such hope. Nielsen, however, asks us (not give up such hopes but) to pin them instead on our ability to make rational decisions that will eventually benefit the whole of humanity by bringing forth “a truly human society without exploitation and degradation in which all human beings will flourish” (158).


I have no beef with Nielsen’s overall position. Like him, I happen to believe that death (i.e. the death of the individual) is real and final and that there is no God to save us. I am, however, slightly confused by the details of his argument.

First of all, Nielsen seems to be combining a subjectivist account of meaning with an objectivist account of morality. Life is not pointless, he argues, because there are a lot of things we enjoy and value, even though there is no “providential ordering of things according to which we must live our lives”. I take this to mean that life is valuable to us insofar as there are things in it that we value. Life is valuable because there are things we value, but not because the things that we value are objectively valuable. Because if they were objectively valuable, then clearly there would exist some sort of “providential ordering of things according to which we must live our lives”, which Nielsen expressly denies. What he seems to be saying is, therefore, that it is of no consequence that the things we value are not objectively valuable. On the other hand, however, he does seem to endorse an objectivist account of morality when he insists that certain actions are wrong no matter what God (or anyone else for that matter) thinks about them. According to Nielsen, we do not simply believe they are wrong: we know they are, and while we can believe something that is not true, we cannot know something that is not true.

It seems strange, if not downright contradictory, to claim that meaning is (entirely) subjective, but morality objective, especially since Nielsen fails to distinguish clearly between morality and meaning. He seems to assume that a pointless life is a life in which certain things are not really morally wrong, so he insists that even in a godless world those things would continue to be really morally wrong. But can we not admit that certain things are really morally wrong and still feel that life is, all things considered, pretty pointless? Can we not, without contradicting ourselves, hold that certain things are indeed wrong and still think that there is, ultimately, no point in not doing what is really wrong (or anything else, for that matter)? Can we not concede the (experiential?) reality of morality, but still wonder if there is any point in living a moral life?

And what about the connection between the absence of God and death that for Nielsen is apparently so obvious that he does not even bother to explain how exactly they are connected? Nielsen starts his reflections with the presumed evil of death and denies that death is bad enough to justify despair. In his account, death is rather a minor inconvenience, unpleasant perhaps, but of no great consequence. We can just acknowledge its existence and then get on with our lives. Fair enough, I can accept that. What I don’t quite understand is what God has got to do with that. Despite the paper’s opening section and title, the bulk of it is concerned with God’s existence and how we don’t need God for morality or to find purpose in life. Yet we can imagine a world that is both free of God and of death (or at least a pre-programmed necessity to die), as well as a world where God (or some kind of God) exists and we still have to die. There is no logical connection between God and immortality, or death and godlessness, and it would seem wise to treat these as two separate issues. It seems clear to me that showing that we do not need God to live a meaningful life is different from showing that we can live a meaningful life even though we have to die (just as showing that we don’t need God for morality to be real is different from showing that we don’t need God to live a meaningful life).

Finally, religious hope is very different from the secular hope that Nielsen suggests we replace it with. Nielsen assumes that the hope that our belief in God’s existence allows us to entertain has the same object as the hope that is based on trust in humanity’s ability to get their act together and build a better world in this life rather than the next. However, there is a significant difference between those two scenarios. Part of the hope raised by our belief in God’s existence is that we ourselves will experience that future better world. We will be there to enjoy it. In contrast, when we hope that humanity will one day be able to build a perfect world for themselves, we know we will not have any part in it. Instead, we will still be dead.

[1] Republished in: The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke, New York/ Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 153-159.