The Paradox of Surviving Death

The finality of death and its utter conclusiveness to human life is a source of great apprehension for mankind. Death is almost universally feared and dreaded by humanity. At a biological level, man is hardwired to avoid mortal danger and demise at all costs. When confronted with life-threatening situations, humans experience physiological alterations. There is a general arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. The pulse quickens, the animal begins to sweat, blood flow and energy allocation to the muscular system is increased, all in the interest of escaping imminent demise. Humanity is so obsessed with evading death that the question naturally follows: is it possible to survive death? To do so would be seemingly paradoxical. Death is the period to the end of the sentence of one’s survival. Death, the act of dying, of one’s organ systems shutting down, the complete cessation of all the functions of an organism, is not only inevitable, but seemingly inescapable. How could one survive death? It seems that the definition of death itself precludes the possibility of one’s survival. And what if it were possible to survive death? Is immortality an enviable trait? Given man’s proclivity for the avoidance of death, it would seem to naturally follow that the prolonging of life is desirable. Attaining immortality then, or indefinite life, should hypothetically be the pinnacle of man’s desire. But is there a caveat? Alternatively, is it possible that the elongation of one’s life is only beneficial to a point? Is there a limitation to man’s capacity to live a fulfilling life over heightened periods of time? In a literal sense, it is not possible to survive death due to the fact that a functioning mind is contingent on the presence of a living body, and human bodies inevitably deteriorate. While it could be argued that immortality is attainable by staying “alive” in the memories of others, or perhaps having a lasting impact on your surroundings, that is not immortality in the sense of a persisting consciousness. Even if it were possible to survive death, immortality would be a curse.

The main arguments

Foremost, it is vital to condition this argument with a strict definition of what it means to be “alive”, or to survive. One may take the phrase “surviving death” to mean all manner of things. Surviving death in a figurative sense could entail living on vicariously through the memory of others. Another figurative definition of surviving death may involve an individual having made a lasting impact, for better or worse, on their surroundings. However, these definitions do not allow the sustaining of an individual’s consciousness. Death still unavoidably annihilates the individual, and therein lies the definition of survival employed for the purpose of this argumentation: survival is the preservation of one’s present psychological continuity. Given this definition of survival, it is altogether outside the realm of possibility to survive death. The preservation of a psychological continuity is contingent on a functional human anatomy to support the biological construct of the mind. However, the human physiology deteriorates without fail given time, resulting ultimately in organ failure and death of the body. With the death of the body comes the death of the mind. Thus the conclusion of one’s psychological continuity, and annihilation of the self. Therefore, given the inevitable cessation of human biological functions, and the death of the mind, it is impossible for an individual’s consciousness to persist through the act of dying. Death is inescapable, and final. This line of reasoning bears similarity to the classical argumentation of Russell, who likewise contends that along with the death of the brain, comes the destruction of one’s personal identity, and therefore death.

The second element of the posed question grapples with the notion of immortality. Immortality would seemingly be desirable to man, as eternal life grants man his urgent desire to escape the clutches of death. However, due to the impossibility of the notion of immortality, few take pause to consider the practical implications of what life would entail for an immortal being. An immortal being, given its indefinite lifespan, would live to experience everything. In the relative short term when considering the lifespan of a creature for whom life does not end, the immortal would outlive all of its friends and family. The immortal would live to witness the death and destruction of all things it holds dear, and be stranded without the solace of reunion in death. In the long term, abstractly speaking, there are a finite number of experiences to be had in this corporeal world. Although there are seemingly infinite experiences to be had from the perspective of humans confined by a lifespan of seventy to eighty years on average, an immortal living tens of thousands of years is an entirely separate issue. Eventually, life would become a monotonous act of repetition for an immortal. Immortality, if possible, would be torturous. The apathy and boredom that would plague such a cursed creature would make its life hellish. In all likelihood, an immortal would cease to care for any fleeting, living creature. Everything would be temporary relative to the immortal and therefore insignificant. Ironically, an immortal would more than likely crave death given sufficient time.

Objections and counterarguments

There is substantial subscription worldwide to belief systems that posit the existence of an immortal, immaterial soul that in essence is the self. This belief in the dichotomy of the human body and soul dates all the way back to Ancient Greece and the philosopher Plato. Plato asserts that by man’s universal, intrinsic understanding of abstract concepts such as good, justice, and evil, there must exist a realm of unchanging realities from which man’s understanding is drawn. Therefore, Plato postulates that, upon death, given extensive reflection on these virtues, one’s soul can join this enduring plane of the ideals and live on eternally. Building on this topic of the immaterial soul, Jacques Maritain contends that given the body-soul dichotomy, the destruction of the immaterial soul is impossible. To destroy an object is to break it down into its composite parts, but the immaterial soul is a self-sustaining unity, a simple substance, unable to be reduced into individual components. Therefore, the death of the body does result in the separation of the body and soul. But, while the composition of the body is broken down into its fundamental elements, the soul is unyielding. The soul cannot be annihilated, and instead persists despite the death of the physical body. Therefore, one’s self is preserved beyond death through the security of an immortal soul, meaning it is possible to survive death.

In regards to the issue of immortality, the case can be made that, although true immortality would be torturous, the luxury of choosing one’s own date of expiration would indeed be desirable. When confronted with the possibility of death, a young man feels affronted by the notion that his life may end preceding the fulfillment of his Earthly desires. However, confront an old man with the possibility of death, and he may welcome it with open arms, either having fulfilled his Earthly desires or being more than ready to escape from the troubles of this mortal coil. Man’s desire for immortality is misplaced, as true life unending would be damnation. Agency over the point at which one may die is the true prize offered by immortality. One can avoid untimely death and live unconstrained by a fear of it if granted immortality. And when it comes time to die, when one has experienced all they wish to experience, and outlived all of their compatriots, one may elect to do so.

Refuting the counterarguments

There are a multitude of problems brought up by this rebuttal to the finality of death. Most obviously, the existence of an immortal, immaterial soul is a treacherously dubious notion at best. There is no evidence indicating the existence of such a soul. Instead, it is exceedingly likely that the contents of one’s self, the recollections and routines which constitute a person, are data stored in the anatomy of a quantifiable brain. Not some manner of unfathomable ghost inexplicably piloting a human frame. Secondly, even if there were to exist an immortal soul, the survival of that soul does not necessarily indicate the persistence of any level of consciousness. In other words, assuming the existence of an immaterial soul, that soul persisting through death does not indicate with any amount of certainty that one’s psychological continuity will persist alongside it. The continuation of one’s psychological continuity is a predefined condition in the context of this work of surviving death. Therefore, an immaterial soul persisting beyond the death of one’s body can be dismissed as a possible refutation on multiple grounds. First, that the immaterial soul has no reasonable basis in fact suggesting its existence, and second that if the immaterial soul were to exist, such a soul still fails to enable one surviving death. Man’s admiration for his own intellect and his fear of death result in the baseless, desperate notion of the possibility of immortality or an undying soul.

This alternate application for immortality of agency over the point at which one dies escapes the crux of life unending, but in doing so simultaneously ceases to fit the definition of immortality. An individual possessing the characteristic of immortality cannot die. Therefore, an immortal being could not elect to expire at a certain point in time. Even supposing that an immortal could choose to perish at any given time, therein still lies a serious conundrum. The mere fact that a condition of immortality being desirable is that an immortal must be able to choose if and when they should die, disqualifies immortality or permanent undeath as an enviable trait. Ultimately, the notion of immortality fundamentally conflicts with human desires, as the manner in which humans engineer their lives and desires is defined by an approximation of one’s own lifespan. Immortality is incompatible with mankind as we know it, and if an individual were to be made immortal, they would either resent their very existence or cease to be human.


Sooner or later, everyone dies. When death inevitably comes, it is inescapable. Survival of death is completely outside the realm of possibility. With death comes the annihilation of the body and mind, and therefore the self. One’s psychological continuity is dependent on the existence of a living biology, and the human anatomy decays without fail. In order to remain in the same psychological continuity after death, the existence of an immortal soul separate the body would be necessary. However, there is exceedingly little evidence to suggest such a soul exists. Instead, it is far more likely that man is exactly as he seems, a creature of flesh and blood, bound to Earth for a brief stay. It is only man’s vanity that leads him to even suggest otherwise. Further, even if such a soul were to exist, it would still be within the realm of possibility that upon death one’s psychological continuity would cease, despite the survival of the soul. On the notion of immortality, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that an immortal man’s existence would be hellish. Such a man would outlive all things of importance to him, and exceeding the bounds of an average human life by inconceivable margins, eventually come to experience all things to the point of utter monotony in repetition. Life would cease to have any meaning for the immortal. Immortality conceptually can be forgiven if implemented as a tool to gain agency over the point at which one dies, but once again this invariably highlights that unending life is not a covetable trait. It can be concluded that immortality is at a basic level at odds with mankind’s desires. It is impossible to survive death, and mankind should be thankful. For the alternative would be a damned existence of wandering the Earth, utterly alone, without any care for fellow mankind, and in complete boredom. 

07 July 2022
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