Scratching at Oblivion
Updated: Feb 16
“When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.”
- Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.
1. Realisation: Death is Not
As a child, I never fully bought into the idea of an afterlife. Even when I was still technically a believer, I intuitively felt that death meant the immersion into nothingness, into an eternal oblivion. Like many children, this was a thought that scared me. Not existing is not an easy thing to wrap your head around, let alone accept. So, for many years, I did what most people do; I implicitly accepted that this is what death means, but tried not to think about it. Like most people I occasionally entertained alternatives to the non-existence theory of death ( in my case, these were non-dualism and eternalism) but I never fully managed to internalise these notions to the point they became stabile beliefs.
Then a realisation gradually hit me, like a hammer falling slowly but determinately over a period of time; each hit further embedding a notion into my mind, until finally, its true implications fully dawned on me. Death is not just the negation of consciousness. Death is ultimate negation of all meaning, and therefore, all shame, all regret, all remorse, all need for achievement, legacy or happiness.
In order for this idea to make sense, one must discount all notions outside of scientific materialism. One must presuppose that consciousness is finite and created only by the circumstances of the body and brain, and that no supernatural entities or forces exist that have any bearing on the survival of consciousness after death. Well, if you believe that, if you believe that consciousness only exists in the brain and ends when the body dies, then the logical conclusions is as follows:
All human consciousness is finite. Therefore, all products of human consciousness are also finite. All of language, art, culture, politics, social systems, history, memory etc. is destined for irreversible annihilation due to the nature of entropy and the unstoppable progression of time. When each of us die our memories & identities are erased. This will inevitably culminate in the death of the species and the final silencing of human awareness. Beyond that, the nature of the cosmos (as we currently understand it) ensures that all life is similarly headed for oblivion. The current consensus is that the universe will eventually end in a heat-death, which would entail the demise of all life as we know it.
If one accepts these scientific premises, then the ultimate negation of all meaning is a natural consequence. There is no final tally or testimony. There are no ultimate witnesses. All human action exists only in the moment, and is remembered only briefly afterwards. All of human history passes in the blink of one indifferent, cosmic eye. All human records are destined to be left unread. The people die, the culture dies, the language dies, the species dies, and then life itself dies. Nothing about this existence of ours is inherently meaningful. All meaning is relative/relational. For something to matter, it must matter to someone. The nature of death, of time, of entropy means that ultimately there will be no one left to derive meaning from our lives, be it wonder, horror, judgement or bewilderment.
This perspective reveals that all the metrics by which our society judges success and happiness are just flimsy fabrications. No amount of careerism, clout-chasing, flaunting of status, wealth, achievement or happiness will save you from oblivion. Everything is destined for nullification. Furthermore, all hierarchies of meaning that are imposed by this society are self-serving stories that attempt to elevate someone’s subjective search for meaning above that of someone else. This pursuit will always be in vain; no action can be made inherently, metaphysically worth more than any other. All meaning exists only as life momentarily experiencing life. Beyond the scope of the living assessing themselves and each other, meaning does not exist. As a consequence, all lives only have meaning when they are lived or beheld. In the end, there is no difference between a happy life, a tragic life, a successful life, a wasted life, a selfish or selfless life. All is equal in the void.
This realisation nullifies any self-deceptions about posthumous legacy or judgement. All that exists, exists now. Whatever meaning you pursue to make this existence bearable must matter to you now, because the future does not exist, and when it does you might not. The rules we live by are really the rules of a social game, one in which we all agree to feign the existence of inherent meaning and resist the metaphysical implications of transience.
Given that, what do you do? Of course, there is always the option of quitting the game. Whatever grief that might bring, you will not know it, and soon, neither will the grieving. However, if this existence is all we get, why give in to the absence of meaning and just throw it away? In a sense, you have nothing to lose nor gain by playing along. Any pain or pleasure you experience is only temporary. Nothingness is the invariable destination. There are some things that you can do with this existence. You can make yourself useful. You can faff about selfishly. In death there is no difference. Regardless, If you do partake in the game, you will be forced to play by its rules.
My personal strategy is to keep in mind that all meaning is relative/relational; whatever you do should probably have some meaning to someone now. There is no point in thinking about fame or glory after death, cause there is nothing after death; there is a brief stint of misremembrance and then there is void. So whatever you do, try to make sure it is meaningful to someone now. If you choose to withhold present meaning from yourself for the sake of the unformed future, then you should probably make sure you find the act of withholding meaningful. Regardless, there is no penalty for engaging in meaninglessness. Death flattens all highs and lows.
2. On Action and Creation.
Realising the true implications of finality can have considerable consequences for how someone might view their actions/work. If you find the act of doing/creating meaningful by itself (pleasurable, satisfyingly challenging, whatever) then this realisation will enhance the meaning you derive from your work. Ditto if you find the act of sharing your work meaningful. After all, its only meaning exists in the present, in its creation, its completion, its contemplation by yourself or others. Whatever meaning is found in it, is unique and irreproducible. It cannot be diminished by greater or lesser meaning that is found elsewhere, because all meaning exists only in the eye of the beholder and is made metaphysically equal in nullification.
Problems arise when the meaning that emerges from doing/creating becomes merely the means to an end. When meaning is not derived from the action/creation itself but from its desired after-effects. For example, if you, as a creative, create primarily to receive validation, acclaim, adoration, then your source of meaning becomes the whims of an amorphous group of individuals whose true takeaway from your work will be entirely ephemeral and ineffable most of the time. If you create something primarily for the sake of achieving professional success, then you are willingly imposing upon yourself the artificial hierarchies of meaning constructed by capitalism, market/cultural/social trends. This is a precarious pursuit to say the least.
If meaning is derived from the anticipation of a long-term goal rather than from the pursuit of that goal, then meaningful action/creation is withheld from oneself for long periods of time. In my experience, gratification can be effectively delayed; meaning cannot. You cannot continuously engage in actions you find meaningless solely for the promise of future meaning without opening yourself up to things like dissociation, derealisation, alienation, burn-out, depression etc. As a rule, one should always attempt to derive meaning from one’s actions in the present. Anticipation is not good enough. The only reason to do something is because the doing itself is meaningful to you and/or others in the present. The anticipatory meaning derived from future contingencies exists only hypothetically. It has the power to retroactively nullify the meaning you derive from past actions when the desired future does not arrive.
3. Conclusion: Personal Recalibration
The realisation that death/the finality of consciousness renders all meaning temporary and relative is one that must be internalised carefully. Much like the non-existence of free will, it is an idea that you cannot hold carelessly without endangering your mental health. In order to stay sane, we must believe that we have free will, just as we must believe that our actions have meaning beyond whatever meaning is subjectively ascribed. To internalise the aforementioned realisation consistently can send one into various schools of philosophical thought, such as optimistic nihilism, pessimistic nihilism, existentialism, absurdism etc. If handled productively, it can be extraordinarily beneficial and liberating.
Our current society is one of many pressures and demands. In work we are pushed to be as quantifiably successful as we can be, i.e. make the promotions, achieve the higher wages, get the status, the honorifics, the wealth etc. Realising the finality of existence forces us to interrogate the meaningfulness of these things. Do we find our jobs meaningful? Do we find careerism meaningful? From where exactly do we derive our meaning? It is the work we do? Is it our role in our workspace? Is it the ability to provide for our family? Is it the challenge of pursuing professional growth? Is the anticipation of immaterial/material rewards? Realising that society’s meaning does not have to be our own allows us to discover what we personally find meaningful and reframe our actions, maybe re-contextualise our choices.
This recalibration can also be done for how we experience our leisure. Society conceives of leisure similarly as it does of work; there is a hierarchy of meaning, a socially imposed set of expectations and markers for success and failure. Social media is presently used to enforce FOMO and social trends in consumption and relaxation. Contemplating the nature of death & the relativity of meaning exposes societal metrics as entirely arbitrary and cynical.
The value of a life is not increased or decreased by certain experiences. The contemporary conception of happiness as a semi-permanent state of complete contentment is a cultural and commercial fiction. Its achievement/pursuit is not a meaningful metric to measure a life's objective merit/fulness. There is no such metric. It is up to us to discover what activities/pursuits we find personally fulfilling and meaningful. Ultimately, none of it has any bearing on the sum of our life, which due to the nature of universal finality, is unknowable.
In conclusion: considering death as a universal state of unavoidable non-existence leaves it to us to find our own meaning during our brief moments of living. It confers on us a profound responsibility to consider our actions as unique irrevocable events laden with irretrievable batches of meaning; meaning that is scattered across countless intangible presents and will be obliterated by the impermeable silence of oblivion.