What keeps an individual alive?

If we make the following assumptions:

  • There is nothing after death, only black. No heaven, no hell, no rebirth.
  • So we don't take anything with us after death and therefore don't remember our life
  • Life includes suffering for each individual

Why should an animal/human/whatever live at all? The individual uses its lifetime only to kill time and fill it with pleasant moments before it gets erased. However, it takes nothing of these moments after death, so it would be the same if they had never existed. Suffering, on the other hand, inflicts pain on it, which it has to endure during its lifetime.

So why does it endure suffering in any form instead of striving for early death and one-time suffering, and thus cease any effort that costs energy?

Sure, there are instincts like reproduction but in the end, only the next generation enters the cycle without any way out. Even if it continues to evolve, in the end, there is the prospect of the species becoming extinct.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 9:48
  • See similar question: 'If everything ends one day why don't we end it today?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/90072/… TLDR: "The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance." -Alan Watts
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 15:57
  • 1
    We don't want the game to end.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 18:30
  • Why do you consider suffering a problem? There are more ways to live other than simply being subject to your feelings.
    – user67504
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 9:40

20 Answers 20


In purely psychological terms, all the behaviours that keep us alive are controlled or driven by the unconscious brain. That is, most of the time, we don't need to reflect on the course of actions necessary for us to stay alive. We just do it, most of the time unaware that we are doing it and unaware of what is causing our behaviour. We eat because we are hungry, not because we understand that if we don't eat we are going to die.

We can call this behaviour "instinctive" in the sense that they are part of our nature. They are part of our nature because they come with our DNA. We inherit our instincts from our ancestors, and our species inherited its instincts from our ancestor species, all through the DNA.

Living organisms don't necessarily have these instincts. They have them or they don't. Those that do will more likely live to transmit them to their descendants, which explains why their descendants will exist to have them to begin with.

Organisms that don't have these instinctive behaviours are more likely to die, and rather quickly in fact simply because the natural environment is usually a very aggressive place to be. Thus they will likely die before they could reproduce and will therefore likely not have any descendant, which explain why few organisms lack survival instincts.

Thus, through the aggressivity of the environment, nature will tend to select within the organisms that are alive at one moment, the DNA of only those organisms that have the necessary instincts to survive. Nature is a sort of photocopying machine that makes a few errors here and there.

This is for organisms with a brain, but a similar reasoning could be made about organisms that do not have a brain. The behaviours of a plant or of a unicellular organism are much simpler and can therefore be the result of simpler mechanisms within the organism. Sometimes, the organism is so simple that it has no DNA, only RNA (viruses).

You could also see cells within multicellular organisms as having their own set of behaviours, driven by their own inherent mechanisms.

You could also see atoms as organisms that are more resilient and are more likely to be "born" from random noise in the environment. They can "survive" without a brain, without DNA, without much except the specific properties of atoms, all natural properties to be sure, and properties that keep them "alive", at least long enough that we can notice them, and indeed long enough to allow life to appear, from random noise in a sufficiently large population of atoms.


However, it takes nothing of these moments after death, so it would be the same if they had never existed. Suffering, on the other hand, inflicts pain on it, which it has to endure during its lifetime.

You are treating suffering and pleasure asymmetrically here. It also takes nothing of the suffering moments after death and also pleasure has enduring effects during its lifetime.

To me what keep you really alive is ignorance (I recently gave a similar answer here). The fact that you didn't experience all the possible actions, means that you cannot rule out that some experiences will result in immense amount of pleasure. It's worth living to explore.

  • Yes, but I struggle with the equation of joy and suffering. The moment someone hits you in the face, it hurts, no matter how much good you get in the same moment. So there must be a mechanism that is stronger than anything bad that can happen to the individual in life. Otherwise it would be the equation: I don't take anything with me, neither joy nor suffering, and therefore less pain is better than more pain, which should create an instinct to avoid this by escaping life and its suffer. Finding sth suberb may not be a driver in animals, where e.g. rational thinking is partly limited
    – 0x30
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 9:15
  • 1
    The second paragraph makes this such a cool answer. Thanks for not also giving some "man's primal nature" answer, which isn't interesting and just furthers my existential dread. This one is actually quite nice.
    – minseong
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 16:28
  • 6
    @0x30 : Your transition "joy nor suffering, and therefore less pain is better than more pain" represents a common asymmetry in your argument. You sometimes mention joy and suffering as relevant to experiences, then promptly ignore joy, in the context of your quote, that more joy is better than less joy, and that either joy and suffering offset each other, or there are two running totals, one for joy and one for suffering, making your "equation" not as simple as minimizing one total. Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 20:25

OP's question sounds similar to the argument for nihilism. If we don't take anything with us, what's the point of living at all? Let me offer the following observation.

I propose that Nihilism has it precisely backward. “Nothing has meaning because everything ends” is the wrong way round. I propose everything has meaning or value precisely because it ends. There exists an infinite time and space on either side of our lives, during which we don’t exist. But at this one, precious moment in space-time, we do. We think/laugh/dream/suffer/live for this brief moment. We make meaning. If we or our loves/pleasures/trials were infinite, they would be unchanging. I posit that the finite nature of things which Nihilism points to as proof of meaninglessness should be seen as that which gives meaning. “Listening at the shores of the great silence” seems an apt description of perceiving the quiet on either side of our lives, or anything really. All that came before the thing’s creation, and all that comes after its dissolution.

To OP's original question "What is the motivation (to keep living)" - how about altruism? Leaving things better than you found them. You may end, but others don't when you do. You get this opportunity to change things. Sure, there is a cost in suffering, just as there is value joy, but we pay costs for things all the time if we deem them "worth it."


First, you are treating Joy and Suffering asymmetrically.

You don't take anything with you. Your Suffering and your Joy are gone.

Using Joy as a proxy term for "anything good" and Suffering as "anything bad", we get:

During your life, more Joy is better than less Joy. So you seek Joy. All else being equal, living for more gets you more Joy.

During your life, less Suffering is better than more Suffering. So you seek to avoid Suffering. All else being equal, living for less gets you less Suffering.

These are symmetrical arguments. In order to claim "life is bad" you must break this symmetry. Maybe as a being, you are incapable of experiencing Joy, and what Joy it experiences is merely a reduction in Suffering. Such a being may decide it wants to end its existence.

Second, you are implicitly placing your unit of moral decision on the individual. A culture doesn't end with the death of an individual, there is no known hard limit (just a probabilistic one) on the end of human culture as a whole. From the "perspective" of human culture, existence beyond the end of a human has value.

The same holds for a species; from the "perspective" of the species, the suffering of an instance of the species is unimportant.

Beings that strive for an early death and don't reproduce don't perpetuate their species, so beings that live long enough to reproduce are those that exist, assuming reproduction with any amount of fidelity.

That species may become extinct -- almost every species has -- but every species around today are ones that came from other species and have not yet gone extinct.

You can continue to recurse upwards -- from individual, to family, to herd, to species, to genus, to life itself. As far as we can tell, life is required to ask the question "why should we keep existing", so the anthropic principle means that life that continues begats genuses that continue that begats species that continue that begats herds that continue that begats family that continues that begats individuals that continue, and only if such a chain exists and sustains long enough and in ways that end with intelligence will something exist that asks "why exist instead of not exist".

Why exist instead of not exist? Because you are asking that question.

Only beings with a recursive stack nearly infinitely deep of things existing instead of not existing can manage the complexity to ask that question.

This stretches down to the laws of physics having a universe existing more than an eye-blink, with chemistry-like processes that have time to act, with an arrow of time, and a myriad of other things required for that question to be stated.

It isn't surprising that, given that question is asked, the answer is "it is a habit", in that everything around such a question asker is busy existing instead of not existing, and this pattern of existing instead of not existing has been repeated down to the very bones of the physics that being is embedded in.

Third, the choice to continue to exist or not is asymmetric. Once you have chosen to not exist, at our current level of understanding, that is the end. If you choose to continue to exist, it is usually very easy to change that decision (there are extreme cases where it gets difficult, and people often prepare and avoid those). So a being concerned about possibly boundless suffering and hoping for boundless joy can continue to explore reality, and when it finds suffering and expectation of same to grow too large, and future expectation of joy to collapse, it can stop existing.


The instinct to live is primal in every lifeform, expressing as mastery of environment and basically power.

Mastery of environment is the base drive. Once it is operational, survival follows without further volition (whence, who is the "master"?). As the base drive, the drive for mastery can be tricky : It is largely unconscious and has a flip-side: obsessive, tenacious problem-solving, OCD, repetition compulsion.

How mastery of environment crosses into territorial invasion hints at how life drive & death drive are aspects of the same. Freud wrote about the repetition compulsion and Thanatos, the death drive. Derrida took Freud's theories further in The Postcard, specifically in the essay To Speculate--on "Freud", an extended commentary on Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In the essay Derrida concluded that Freud's death drive is the flip-side of the life drive, which is the same as Nietzsche's Will to Power, if you'll excuse my heavy simplifications.

Here is a quote from To Speculate--on "Freud".:-

Now, if such a drive for power exists, if it sees itself attributed a specificity, then it indeed has to be admitted that it plays a very original role in the most "meta-conceptual," "metalinguistic," precisely the most "dominant" organization of Freudian discourse. For it is indeed within the code of power, and this is not only metaphorical, that the problematic is lodged. It is always a question of knowing who is the "master," who "dominates," who has "authority," to what point the PP [pleasure principle] exercises power, how a drive can become independent of it or precede it, what are the relations of service between the PP and the rest, what we have called the prince and his subjects, etc. The "posts" are always posts of power. ...

In its autoheterology, the drive for postal power is more originary than the PP and independent of it. But it equally remains the only one to permit the definition of a death drive, and for example an original sadism. In other words, the motif of power is more originary and more general than the PP, is independent of it, is its beyond. But it is not to be confused with the death drive or the repetition compulsion, it gives us with what to describe them, and in respect to them, as well as to a "mastery" of the PP, it plays the role of transcendental predicate. Beyond the pleasure principle—-power. That is, posts. But even so, we will not say, despite the transcendental function to which we have just alluded, beyond the death drive-—power—-or posts. For it is equally the case that everything described under the heading of the death drive or the repetition compulsion, although proceeding from a drive for power, and borrowing all its descriptive traits from this drive, no less overflows power. This is simultaneously the reason and the failure, the origin and the limit of power. There is power only if there is a principle or a principle of the principle. The transcendental or meta-conceptual function belongs to the order of power. Thus there is only différance of power. Whence the posts. Beyond all conceptual oppositions, Bemächtigung indeed situates one of the exchangers between the drive to dominate as the drive of the drive, and the "will to power."

(The Postcard, 1987, pages 404-405)

My comments are echoed in Robert Trumbull PhD dissertation, online here:

Derrida, Freud, Lacan: Resistances

The death drive ... is Freud’s attempt to envision a force present in the living, but antithetical to life, a drive opposed to the drives that sustain organic life. At the same time, Freud views this death or destruction drive as a type of aggressivity central to the formation culture. Tracking Derrida’s thinking on the death drive across his work, I demonstrate how this figure and the notion of “life death” it suggests come to be at the center of Derrida’s engagement with Freud. Through close readings of Derrida’s work, I trace how he reads Freud’s writing against itself, locating there something Freud himself does not entirely think through.


An important point that contributors so far have not raised is that we survive because of an inbuilt (i.e. subconscious) mechanism to survive. Any species that lacks this property can expect extinction. Therefore like many evolutionary characteristics, it is arguably not there for any reason except that those who didn't have it are dead.

  • Evolution is the key here. We live because we had ancestors who were selected for the desire to live. This trait is surely not a given: There always have been and always will be people who lack the desire to live. The selection process on them is usually pretty unforgiving, and their chance to produce offspring which also lacks the desire to live is zero for serious cases. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 10:36

This is a matter of perspective.

We tend to think of ourselves as separate from others. I am me, an individual being; you are you, another individual being. Although that's true, it's not the full story.

Think of your body for a moment. At this exact moment, there are billions of living beings being born, developing, multiplying, and dying. If a bacteria in your gut could think, they might ask the same questions: "Why am I here? What's the point of doing this? Are there any prizes in the end?"

We all are parts of a being (Gaia). Although every individual part will eventually be replaced, hopefully the being itself goes on.

Even if you never have kids, your presence outlives you in every person you interacted with. Sooner or later, the molecules currently in your body will mix with the molecules currently in my body, and for short while we'll be joined as a part of the same thing. If we end up in another living being, we can call that reincarnation.

From what we know, life is extremely rare. Let's do our best to keep the flame going, and hopefully enjoy the process.

If you haven't read yet, I highly recommend the post Religion For The Non-religious. I think it explains many of these spiritual concepts in a way people like us (i.e. physics/maths/IT people) can grok.


There have been many proposals for a fundamental human drive put forward here. I am reminded of a lecture I attended some years ago by the philosopher and literary critic George Steiner (who died in February this year), in which he said that he disagreed with Freud's view that sex (or sexuality) was the fundamental human drive, and argued that curiosity was a stronger motivation. I would suggest therefore that the answer to the question of why individuals stay alive, even if it involves suffering, is that, compared with death, life is interesting.

  • And surely sexual curiosity then is the fulfillment of human existence. I very much like where that line of thought leads :-). Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 10:38

Reality tends to emergently create systems with various functions. If a system happens to attain a function of self-preservation, it is likely that it's going to keep itself intact as long as it's possible, with copying/spreading its principle of organization being a part of this endeavor.

The parts of the question about taking something with you or suffering are totally irrelevant. What makes you think that there was ever a point in taking anything with you?

As long as something serves as an asset to keeping up the system going forward, it can be attached to the system, and having it has a meaning. When the system loses its structural integrity and disintegrates, then none of these assets are going to keep their value, so there is no point in having them anymore -- there are simply going to be no points of a meaningful attachment, let alone attempts of the system to maintain the attachment.

In the question you also totally misinterpret suffering as being a discouraging factor for a system to keep existing. Suffering is, on contrary, a sign that there is a functional problem that threatens the system integrity. In itself it is nothing more than a signal, and it's intended to create a charge that polarizes the system to energize it so that it can focus all its available facilities on removing the cause of that suffering. And since the system already has the trait of beeing keen on preserving itself, it simply acts in the only way it knows -- responding to the suffering by attempting to prevail over it. So, if anything, suffering helps the system to survive. It reveals the nature of the system and the means to preserve it.

Hence life continues until it doesn't.

However, since the reality and the systems it creates are very complex, there are multiple variations of states possible where a system might have a glitch, such as an unsolvable suffering problem, usually due to some irrecoverable damage. In this case the system is experiencing a suffering it cannot ever fix. Though it might seem that the system then can be terminated because it has no more "meaning", that's a logical fallacy. Because though it might lose some functions on some levels, the other levels might be untouched and still keep posessing the quality of life and self-preservation. This is the reason why a depressed human does not die immediately, though its mental functions are experiencing problems. This is the reason why an organ failure does not necessarily mean an immediate death. This is the reason why we keep terminally ill people on life support. Inertia of living and its distribution.

Life is going to continue as long as it can, because it's the only thing that it's capable of. And it would not exist in the first place if it was not true.

You are asking those questions because your thinking facility has encoutered the problem in its calculations. However, this is only a very tiny part of what comprises you as a living being and all the other systems are still functioning properly and are not asking the same question. The thinking facility though, might either forget about it (distance), get overwhelmed by the problem (lockdown), keep thinking about it and make some philosophy (consumption) or link and integrate it with the deeper direct experience (mysticism). So you may observe that though a part of your mind is enterntaining itself with these ideas, trying them out and how they feel, most likely it is going to find a way to work with this in a way that would allow to continue all the other life in the most extent possible.

Whatever happens, life is a part of the reality and the reality always tries to preserve energy minimums in every point of itself. No system or structure is ever formed if it's not more optimal than its absense, increasing the entropy. Life is formed and maintained in the same way -- just like anything else -- because it is the optimal way of organizing certain matter and its energy exchange in the given circumstances.

So, approaching the question itself now, "what is the motivation of all living individuals to stay alive", the answer would be: the motivation of an individual does not play a role here, all the polarities that keep the life flowing for it are created and maintained without its participation. The "individual" is by definition a system unit and therefore abides in the overall system behavior that transcends the individual. It is great and joyful when the individual is capable of handling all the problems and maintaining an integral state on all of its conscious and unconscious levels, keeping the suffering at bay, and finds a way to communicate with the overall system in the most confirming way. Nothing more was ever required or granted.

  • 1
    Nice. I would also stress that the existence of "an individual" is only illusory. So: "motivation of 'an individual'..." (with quotes). Since there is only a single unitary reality (how could there be anything else?) then the only "real" point of view is that of reality, oneness. All other points of view are ultimately flawed, including that of the supposed individual. The only "way out" is to realize that the illusory individual's point of view is ultimately not real. "You" are not that unreal "individual"; you are and can only be "the reality". This is called non-duality.
    – jrw32982
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 20:25
  • @moderator- Don't care much for the question, but love all the answers. My one line answer to the OP would be; In a world with no God, where human beings have evolved to deal as a species with the challenges of owning a life, 'Pessimism is not an option'!
    – user37981
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 3:35

There's a lot to unpack in this question alone:

So why does it endure suffering in any form instead of striving for an early death and one-time suffering, and thus cease any effort that costs energy?

Just because living "costs energy" doesn't mean that it costs "too much", or that one's life is incapable of generating enough energy to pay this cost. I don't stop buying food because it costs money. I make money to cover the cost. Life has many cyclical routines that make it seem like a zero-sum game, which it may be, but that doesn't negate the physical and emotional forces that cause us to generally prefer life over death. Pain, attraction, grief, and other intense sensations are signals that encourage us to live and value life. Reasons or motivations can provide post hoc justifications for these sensations, but without any language or logic, we still experience these sensations just like our relatives in the animal kingdom.

There are millions of people living in conditions that we would consider suicide-inducing, but they continue to perform the basic functions of falling in love, raising children, learning skills, exchanging goods and services, etc. Their biology tells them to act in a way that attempts to ensure survival, and they can listen without trying to rationalize the feeling. Religions have evolved to play a helpful role in providing reasons for unanswered questions. This is especially handy if you don't have telescopes, hadron colliders, and laboratories to explore the depths of the material world.

In safe, comfortable parts of the world with very few biological stressors, one's mind often attempts to become the commander of the mind-body relationship. If the mind is not considering the feelings and signals of the body, the body can be demoted to a useless meat-machine, and this can become a recipe for poor health. (Obviously the opposite can also happen where one's physical desires take over and cause one to act totally irrationally.)

The reason we have medical institutions to help treat depression, suicidal thoughts, and self harm is because of our deep inclination that life has meaning. Even if this meaning is a total illusion and only manifests as a set of arbitrary electrical signals in the nervous system, you can still experience the meaning as a positive sensation. If you close yourself off, intoxicate constantly, and just lie in bed all day - the sense of meaning will dissipate. If you go outside, get exercise, expose yourself to challenges, and socialize with others, the sense of meaning will increase. This suggests to me that we have the capacity to generate meaning and motivation for ourselves with our bodies.

Full disclosure: I say this as a hard determinist with no supernatural beliefs.


Why should an animal/human/whatever live at all? The individual uses its lifetime only to kill time and fill it with pleasant moments before it gets erased. However, it takes nothing of these moments after death, so it would be the same if they had never existed. Suffering, on the other hand, inflicts pain on it, which it has to endure during its lifetime.

I suggest that most people have at least some good memories and feelings from some time in their life. There is a well-known phenomenon described in psychology as intermittent reinforcement. It can be used in order to get people addicted to fruit machines for example.

A win in a fruit machine is made dramatic. It is accompanied by lights sounds and music. Coins are emitted noisily. There is an optimum frequency for these wins to get a punter hooked. Interestingly the actual monetary reward need not be high - just the frequency is important.

The same effect is used very effectively in animal training.

Life is pretty good at approximating this reinforcement schedule. People who get rewarded consistently and constantly usually get bored with life, may become bored or depressed and may become sensation seekers. However most humans are constantly striving to re-experience the good things that happened in the past; affection, fun, joie de vivre and so on. They also strive (often totally unrealistically and even unconsciously) to achieve their childhood dreams, e.g. to be a princess and marry a handsome prince.

It is surprisingly difficult to lose these long-held desires. Talent shows are testimony to this. You will occasionally see middle-aged non-successful people who still think they could be a ballet-dancer or entertainer. Counselling/psychotherapy sessions often reveal that such childhood dreams haven't fully been released.

What about bad experiences? Here is where superstitious reasoning may surface. Because life is a succession of good and bad experiences, it is "logical" to suppose that, when something bad has happened, the next thing to happen will be good. The opposite is also true. Thus many people live their lives relying on hope - an ideal future.

Of course there are people who really do have pleasant lives. To these people, the eventual death of a loved partner can be devastating especially after decades together. The only reason for them to continue becomes compassion for their children and grandchildren.

I could say a lot more about this but I have to stop somewhere. Also I have not cited sources. However terms I used may easily be discovered online. You may be interested in reading about operant conditioning.


Where there is life there is hope (anon). The converse is true!

When people lose hope, they become depressed and may indeed commit suicide.


Dopaminergic impulses cause action toward self preservation and avoidance of pain/death. For example,


The new study establishes for the first time that dopamine is central in causing behavior related to the avoidance of specific threats. The work was published today in the journal Current Biology.

"This study really advances what we know about how dopamine affects aversively motivated behaviors," said Joseph F. Cheer PhD, a professor in the UMSOM Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology and the study's corresponding author. "In the past, we thought of dopamine as a neurotransmitter involved in actions associated with the pursuit of rewards. With this new information we can delve into how dopamine affects so many more kinds of motivated behavior."


Before answering your main question let us discuss your three assumptions and find the coherence of each.

(I don't know which of my following questions make you think. Please don't misunderstand if it seems more in number.)

There is nothing after death, only black. No heaven, no hell, no rebirth.

Was there nothingness before birth also? If 'Yes', why people differ from each other? Or which force makes them different? If 'No', is there a chance of rebirth in any sense?

Regarding the question above, is there a possibility of any other colour or 'colour of colourlessness' or 'colour of infinity'? When there are so many Suns always in this universe how come darkness after death? If we are approaching darkness each moment, why great saints use the word 'enlightenment' instead of 'endarkenment'?

What about the cause of infant prodigies? Which force causes the transfer the genes from one person to another? That force must be either from within or without, or neither -- which transcends both, right?

So we don't take anything with us after death and therefore don't remember our life.

When some people reach some new places they feel as if they had been there before. Why?

Life includes suffering for each individual.

Only very few humans think about this totality of our life always, don't they? Also, the people who feel so try to liberate them from suffering by different ways they like, don't they?

So, not any one of your assumptions is coherent. Please try to understand the behavioural tendency which influences the present behaviour of a person.


Verse 5 of the 3rd chapter of the Bhagavad Gita gives the hint for clearing your doubts. The two videos in the first two links given below would be enough for you to get a very good explanation to your doubts.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNOXPCAmzi8

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63ciosZ2WHg

  3. https://www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org/chapter/3/verse/5

  4. https://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/h_motivation.asp


Something of an extended comment here. It says nothing about whether you should or do value anything. Instead, it suggests that while there may not be any intrinsic reason to value life, a wide class of motivations do lead to an instrumental reason to value life.

Note that you just need to have some motivation to take any action at all, whereupon a motivation to live then arises. Indeed, if you are dead then you cannot do anything. (Survival is "instrumentally convergent": many different utility functions will value survival, because without survival those utility functions cannot be satisfied.)

Note also that the mere existence of a motivation to live does not imply that life is the rational choice. There may be other motivations to end life as well as the motivations to live. (For example, you might feel that chronic pain raises the cost of life to a point above what you are willing to pay, notwithstanding the fact that life would allow you to do things that you wanted to do.)

Of course, this says nothing about whether you should value anything at all, or whether you do value anything at all. It's merely a claim that if there is something you value, then there should be a motivation to survive so that you can create/protect/experience that value. Exceptions exist, of course: e.g. if you value something unusual and your death would further the satisfaction of that value. But most things which people value aren't like that.

A bit more speculative and unauthoritative musing follows.

Relevant is the fact that people do tend to welcome death more as they age, and I certainly don't grok why, but I gather it can be modelled basically as three effects:

  • over time losing the sense of valuing things;
  • over time feeling more like the resources you consume could be better put to use by others; and
  • actively negative aspects of life building up (e.g. chronic illness and pain).

In the first case, one loses "the motivation to take any action at all", so the above argument that "survival is motivated" ceases to apply. In the second case, one is motivated in one of those unusual directions which is actually more satisfied by one's death. In the third case, the motivation towards life becomes outweighed by countervailing motivations in the opposite direction.


This answer would be based on an indian/ vedantic perspective, but nevertheless I hope would give a fitting reply.

Your concern is a good one, but if you carefully observe your own assumptions, you in fact are in search of eternal pleasure / happiness. For, if otherwise, you would not have valued pleasure anymore than suffering (like a machine) and the question would not come. The 'black out' which you assume is actually a positive aspect. It is your own ignorance of the 'black out' that makes you think the state useless. In fact the pleasures in themselves are not worthy of appreciation but are preferred relative to suffering. So, the startling point is that the pleasures are more valued and prized just because there is some feeling called suffering. If everything were pleasing then there would be nothing to compare, and then again it would same as 'black out'. Thus, a situation of 'black out' is nothing but the equilibrium reached out among the pleasures and sufferings and is in fact more natural.

The surprising fact is, we actually dont let this natural 'black out' happen out of our desire for pleasure. In the vedanta philosophy, it is implied that the 'black out' will happen the moment we stop desiring. Thus, even though the body may be alive, the 'black out' will occur once we stop desiring for reward in any form-either by obtaining pleasing things or by avoiding painful things. Of course, care must be taken to distinguish this 'black out' with the emptiness of a stone's existence. The main factor that distinguishes a stone's existence with that of a living organism is the inherent conscience. This conscience is the reason for later manifestations like irritability, locomotion, growth etc. It is an observation by some philosophers and saints that conscious 'black out' as you describe is in fact more stupendous than all the pleasures extant.

Thus, summarizing, the expectation of some form of reward is the reason for the will to exist in most organisms ( though it may take the form of instinct- as for this, there is a theory of involution proposed in indian philosophies). The moment your total being expulses desire, that very moment liberation or 'black out' occurs which need not be dreaded, for it is the natural state.


You lived long enough to ask this question here which indicates that you should be able to answer it by introspection.


You are absolutely correct in pointing out that life would be meaningless if we were to accept your list of assumptions. You would basically end up with nihilism and thereby remove any purpose in life. The only thing that would remain is enjoying ones remaining time on this planet to the fullest in any way, shape or form possible and maximizing ones pleasure. Nihilism also entails that there is no right or wrong, good or bad. The only thing that would become meaningful to man is ones lusts and desires.

But why would you go with this set of assumptions in the first place? Humans didn't create themselves, neither did the animals or any other created being for that matter. So there obviously is a creator who made us and who gave us purpose, meaning and a guideline by which to abide by. He didn't just create us and left us alone - he has sent many prophets who came with the same core message: to worship the creator, to accept his messengers and live a life that is pleasing to the creator. This life is a test - passing it paves the way for eternal pleasure and failing it entails the opposite.

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    "there obviously is a creator who made us": Somebody saying "obviously" or "by necessity" or "exclusively" is a trigger signal for becomíng deeply suspicious and look for the flaw in their argument. Reality and its interpretation and the conclusions we draw from those in turn to inform our actions are messy and ambiguous and prone to be shaped by the contingencies of our environs in time and space and society. Very few things are universally obvious or necessary. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 10:45

In order to expand on Speakpigeons answer and to go into the motives of thinking organisms and humans in particular, I would like to take a closer look at possible rational thought processes.

Although the assumption was made in the question that there is nothing after death, for many people it is and remains an assumption. Nobody can say with certainty that there is nothing after death, just as nobody can say that there is anything. This uncertainty makes people fear death and therefore prefer a life of suffering in certainty to an uncertain death.

Another aspect, which in contrast to the first one is not primarily limited to humans, is the how. No living being known to me is able to stop the functions of its body on demand and die in this way. Especially in the animal kingdom a suicide would most likely be connected with pain. In combination with the uncertainty of death and what comes after it, it is not a very tempting possibility to commit suicide and endure pain when one can simply go on living. Not to mention the consequences that a failed suicide attempt can have. The prospect of entering uncertainty with pain and the risk of failing and having to live on with pain does not sound very tempting. In order not to omit the questioner's point regarding the certainty that there is nothing after death, I would like to add that the prospect of throwing oneself into salvation with pain, while running the risk of not reaching the goal, still does not sound very tempting.

Also, the well-being of those close to one usually plays an important role in one's own decision making. The suicide may mean salvation for oneself, but it undoubtedly leads to suffering among relatives and friends. This form of empathy can also be a reason why one's own suffering is preferable to redemption through suicide.


We want to stay alive for the day we can actually start living.

"Mortals are immortals, immortals are mortals. Living their death, dying their life."
  -- Heraclitus, 450 BCE

I agree, I don't think we are afraid of death itself. Yet the existential dread is a fact of life. And so is the "human condition", a combination of chronic anxiety, depression, PTSD, impostor syndrome, etc. - a long list, and every item on it screams fear. That fear ruins our lives, and I'm not saying it lightly. Not only it prevents us from simply enjoying it. It might well be responsible for all evils we have had committed over the course of "civilization" history.

What can we be afraid of, so much so, we can't be botherred to live our lives? Or maybe that is it -- maybe the issue is with the way we live our lives. We feel that there might be something seriously wrong with it, but we are afraid to look. We are feeling powerless to change it, yet we can never make peace with it either -- and so we end up in denial. Well, almost.

Since we covering-up our capacity for change, it's not a solid cover. It needs to let something through... that empty feeling, like something very important is missing and we need to keep looking for it, to fill in that hole in our heart.

Maybe it's your destiny as a human being that is missing? Could that be, then, the real reason we are afraid of dying? Not the death itself, but giving up on the chance to experience what gives life its meaning?

It doesn't have this way. But we can't fix a problem until we face it. We need to stop leaving in denial first.

  • Interesting! First, as usual, the facts. Then, some logic. Out at the other end ... the answer ta the OP's query.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 9:45
  • Why thank you, Mr. Smith! Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 22:56

First, it is not a rational issue. From such perspective, there is no possible motivation.

It can be said that the second law of thermodynamics suggests that all systems tend to dissipation, which occurs constantly in nature. But such dissipation causes new systems with low entropy to get created. An individual is an example of a system with low entropy, that slowly increases entropy along its life and dissipates when it dies. Such cycle cannot be explained. There is no why answer to such cycle, therefore, there is no motivation for nature to create and destroy systems continually.

Second, reason is coherent with nature. Individuals rationally try to keep alive (keep low entropy), and perhaps the motivation for that is double: the pleasure of existence and the anguish of inexistence (Heidegger).

Therefore, there's a motivation for persistence (which final outcome must be the conservation of a systemic low entropy) because existing would provide pleasure (there are multiple debates on such subject), and a motivation to avoid inexistence (starting from our body: suicide is not easy, mainly due to pain; but also from reason: it is sad to leave the daily things that provide pleasure).

Existentialism is coherent with such idea, in the sense that existence is a decision, a decision which evidently implies pleasing internal needs, either physical or rational.

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