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Ancient records show that humans have been preoccupied by Thanatos (death) - strong evidence of this is found in how religious we were/are (the majority subscribe to a few religions with promise of an eternal & happy afterlife in paradise).

What does this mean? It means only one thing, Thanatos is persona non grata. We don't want death and like Transhumanism espouses, would like nothing better than to abolish it. Death is a bug.

On the flip side, a finite lifespan seems necessary in a world with limited/finite resources. The biosphere has a carrying capacity in terms of space and resources and without mortality life would be unsustainable (the biosphere would collapse). This is only one reason why, as paradoxical as this sounds, death is good for life (as we know it). Death is a feature.

Question: Is death a (i) feature or a (ii) bug or (iii) both or (iv) neither? Why?

P. S. I've, for simplicity's sake, excluded Achlys (misery) from the discussion (happiness is also a sine qua non). If the reader finds it necessary to bring up the issue of pain/suffering feel free to do so.

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    You do realize that setting up two different senses in which a question can be asked and then asking it without specifying the intended sense makes the question ill-formed and the asking pointless? You might as well ask whether lime is a fruit or a building material.
    – Conifold
    Jan 1, 2023 at 12:15
  • Gracias for the feedback. How should I improve the question then? I can edit it with valuable input from you.
    – Hudjefa
    Jan 1, 2023 at 12:35
  • Why edit? You already answered your own question in each of the two senses, so what is left to ask?
    – Conifold
    Jan 1, 2023 at 12:40
  • Should I delete the question? 🙂 It's just that people treat death as a bug (the field of medicine is, inter alia, about preventing/postponing death) and yet, as demonstrated in the question, death is a feature, as of the moment absolutely necessary to avoid catastrophic population explosion. That said, I can see a better solution take form.
    – Hudjefa
    Jan 1, 2023 at 13:47
  • If you are hoping for "one right answer" there isn't any. Let's say mortality is necessary to sustain the biosphere. So what? It isn't like the biosphere was designed with a goal of sustaining it, it just evolved. We talk about bugs and features in intentional designs, not in natural occurrences. Some believe that life was, indeed, designed by a Creator. Then the question makes sense, but death is a feature for other reasons, like punishment for sin. People can equally talk about mortality in subjunctive mood: if they were designing life they'd leave death out. So it is a bug. And so on.
    – Conifold
    Jan 1, 2023 at 14:49

3 Answers 3

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I always find it amusingly parochial in time and place, when people assume everyone everywhere has alwats been terrified and horrified by death.

Consider Día de Muertos, a legacy of Nahuatl attitudes to death (a group that included Aztecs. Also the Brazillian Candomble worship of Boa Morte, Our Lady of Good Death, which involves recognising the relativity of death and is rooted in African religious traditions. I would relate Aztec human sacrifice, & pre-European Subsaharan African slave trade, to far less predictable weather cycles (eg El Nino/La Nina) than other regions, and so widely varying ecological carrying capacity of humans. That made for cultural pressure to accept sacrifice and slavery as part of a cycle, as the Canaanite Moloch seems to have had human child sacrifice to by parents who couldn't afford taxes, and debt and conquest slavery by the Hebrews (many wars are driven by existial threats to a community, so conquest can often be linked in the Ancient World to reduced ecological carrying capacity, just like sacrifices in response to bad harvests).

Kali, as a necessary part of the cycle, keeping other forces in check including slaying demons, and granting moksha, spiritual awakening.

The Daoist Taiji, with yin as necessary, to make space for creation and becoming (although also the founding Qin emperor's life-shortening pursuit of immortality).

In Greek mythology, consider the Aeneid, and the metaphor of entering the land of the dead by offering a golden bough - arguably by taking a place in the lineage of making art that transcends time (see Yeats last verse of Sailing To Byzantium). Also consider what we know of the theology of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which both Plato and Aristotle undertook, and seem to have been about recognising our place in natural cycles, in relation to Olympian Demeter and Cthonic Persephone, in relation to the harvest.

Until modern times most religions have focused on cyclical aspects of cosmology. Many look towards being reborn. And I describe religion in general as preoccupied with symbolic immortality, in this answer: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

Buddhist philosophy seeks the Middle Path, between an eternal soul, and everything we are finishing with our physical death. The focus of modern culture on individualism and self-gratification puts our culture on the latter end of that spectrum with a picture of our concerns finishing at death; Christianity especially as influenced by Boethius and his Stoic ideas, focuses on the afterlife above improving the world. Our actions do have repercussions after our deaths, we inherit things and ideas, and we have stewardship, and we pass things forward. Recognising that, is key to making peace with death.

Freud posited the Death Drive, which subsequently has been associated with Thanatos, as the converse drive to Eros. I would identify Nietzsche as grappling with the Death Drive in his discussion of 'overgoers', and with the role of symbolic immortality with his picture of the Ubermensch. You may like this answer on these: Trying to Understand Quote by Nietzsche

Biologically, immortality is a massive obstacle to evolution, and very few animals have such bio-indefinite mortality, indicating the lack of net advantage. It should be compared to apoptosis, as a mechanism to manage tumour formation. From the perspective of Multi Level Selection, death is absolutely not a bug, at species level.

We all must die, so getting reconciled with that is necessary even for the biologically immortal (brain transfer/recording involves becoming a new kind of being, I'd argue, and even then finite). In Buddhist philosophy this is linked to accepting The Three Marks of Existence as inescapable, especially impermanence. Only then can we awake, to the true nature of things.

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    Superb answer mon ami, superb. I didn't realize that Mors could be celebrated and perhaps even courted for its own sake. That was an eye-opener for me. There are good reasons for doing so as mentioned in your answer. So, as I thought, immortality is biologically undesirable/problematic i.e. it's a feature. Much obliged for the links and your time. It'll take a coupla days to go through all of them. Have an awesome day mate.
    – Hudjefa
    Jan 1, 2023 at 16:22
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Whether you consider death to be a feature or a bug depends on your point of view, and either way it is just an opinion. Death is the product of evolution. The world is full of organisms that reproduce then die, so presumably that is a more successful recipe than reproducing and not dying.

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  • That's a good answer. Thank you. I would appreciate it if you could go into some detail why you think it's "a more successful recipe"
    – Hudjefa
    Jan 3, 2023 at 1:44
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From an evolutionary perspective neither. Features and bugs are intended and unintended behaviors relative to the engineer. According to the theory of evolution, no designer exists, so death can be neither. From a physicalist perspective, you are anthropomorphizing processes where neither agent nor intention is to be found, except in sloppy or poetic thinking.

Entropy is an inevitable outcome in physical systems, and while organisms and life in general creates an imbalance in energy to overcome it temporarily, organisms, like all physical systems do not escape it entirely. The explanation of death is that both the phenomena of life and death are labels for transitions in the dispositions (SEP) of physical states, and embody categories of the mind. From a metaphysical position like merelogical nihilism, there isn't even life, only particles-configured-as-life. So, the question really is what are your metaphysical prejudices?

So, from a theological position, arguments abound that death is a feature, but from a scientistic standpoint, without agency, this isn't remotely a tenable view.

EDIT RE: COMMENT

I'm only looking for a scientific explanation for mors. –  Agent Smith

You'd be better off on Biology SE if you want details. But, a quick framing: higher-organisms, like humans, start off with a zygote. The zygote has nucleic acids that construct molecules that enable chemical pathways necessary to sustain the life and division of cells. Unfortunately, the structure of nucleic acids and the division of cells isn't a perfect process. Entropy affects both, and while apoptosis and corrective mechanisms exist to keep the processes functioning, inevitably, the degradation in the various systems means the DNA and division admits enough errors that the processes stop.

And for a species, that might be a good thing, since younger organisms are more efficient and resilient, to have older organisms expire means less competition in a species which gives a species a greater chance of self-perpetuation both in terms of resources and predation. Think of DNA and its processes as constantly adapting to environmental pressures by evolving mechanisms of cellular propagation. Simple organisms don't have the adaptations, so they fail for simple reasons, and complex organisms have more than can go wrong. The end results is that organisms ultimately succumb to entropy.

Even the longest lived organisms, be they fungi, plantae, or animilae (some of which live over 1,000 years) succumb. Now, is death a given? It seems to me that conscious processes hold the capacity to undo any cellular failure in the long-run, so that human may someday not be subject to mortality, but that requires societies to persist long enough. Perhaps it's just not in the cards for humanity to exist that long because of political and economical factors.

And since you have a flair for the dramatic with a creative use of language. Perhaps humans will continue to beat entropy until the end of the universe. Maybe we will increasingly move towards a transhumanistic model, and discover that the crafts witnessed by Commander David Fravor are elements of a system of life that has spread around the local cluster of our Milky Way, and embraces every new species that transcends its planet with the advanced computation and manufacturing to become space-faring, and maybe such a culture is one of millions scattered through the Milky Way, most growing and integrating with the occasional conflagration between competing systems. And while mors continues here and there, the net gains in life move irreversibly towards exhausting the matter and energy of the universe itself.

But then we're speculating and have moved out of certain knowledge. :D

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  • That's a good answer. I'm only looking for a scientific explanation for mors.
    – Hudjefa
    Jan 3, 2023 at 1:47
  • Added response to text.
    – J D
    Jan 3, 2023 at 16:37

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