What, if anything, is the purpose of death? And pain? First, about the death:
According to NeoDarwinian, macroevolutionary theory, aging and death by old age are the result of an evolutionary ‘downward adaptation’ to the survival rate due to predation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senescence#Evolutionary_theories). In other words, the chances of a given organism to survive in face of predators has a typical maximum, so that the organism’s microbiological investment in the maintainance of its youthful vigor typically ceases after a certain span of its life. It expects not to survive predators’ attempts beyond a certain mean age, so it has evolved to not maintain its youthful vigor beyond that mean age. This ‘downward’ evolutionary adapation to predation then guarantees that the organism eventually dies of old age if it continues to escape all predators (including microscopic predation and infection).
But, the evolutionary theory about the reason why an organism is guaranteed eventually to die even if it escapes all predation seems exactly therein to admit that this guarantee of death is caused primarily by non-living forces, such as radiation. In other words, it seems the evolutionary explanation for the possibility of death-by-old-age admits that the loss of youthful vigor may first-and-always be caused not by a downward adaptation in face of the typical predation survival rate, but by a combination of direct negative forces of the non-living environment and the organism’s own already-imperfect ability to maintain its microbiological integrity.
If this is true, then predation is a late-comer to the relation between life and death: Predation is merely a mechanism for maintaining the health of both prey species and predator species, by the clean-up of a prey population and the challenge to the predator population. Evolutionary naturalists already admit this. So, they admit that death without predation would result in a continual decline of all species, by a continual increase of septic conditions. An ecology that involved death but no predation would be unstable and even chaotic, and so would fail to provide for the maintanance or stable increase of a species, and thus prevent the flourishing of life on Earth. It would mean the explosion of death-by-septiology, punctuated by the occasional short-term explosion of a species. At least a jungle is stable by all its internal predatory competition.
Now I shall discuss the pain. Afterward, I shall return to discussing the death, with a special focus on the moral and ethical implications of the evolutionary explanation of the existence of death.
Pain appears to have a constructive purpose for the individual organism. But, it may be reasoned that death has no such purpose.
Of course, if pain had no purpose, then it would be arbitrary: having no connection either to what we are or to what we do. But, clearly, some instances of our own pain are the result of having done things that compromise our physical integrity. So, it can be reasoned that the purpose of pain is to motivate the individual organism to avoid having its integrity compromised.
But, we can ask a profound ethical and moral question about pain: how much of the arguably unnecessary pain in the world is due ultimately to the arrogance of individual organisms?
From a purely ‘naturalistic’, if not evolutionary, view, the existence of the possibility of pain has a practical purpose in terms not only of the survival of the organism, but of the best interest of the organism as a member of a mutually beneficial community of organisms. But, in face of an environment of competition over ultimately ‘edenically’ inadequate resources, the organism’s actions ultimately are vain in terms of itself: death is its end.
But, if pain has an evolutionary purpose, that purpose seems to be a short one given the inevitability of death. So, the question is, if pain, that is, the possibility of pain, has an evolutionary purpose, then does death also have an evolutionary purpose? It is possible to reason that the answer to that question is yes.
But, if evolutionary theory is correct in its assumption that reproduction of organisms is the central reality of life, then it can be argued that death has no purpose in terms of an individual organism, nor even in terms of any community of organisms, but merely in terms of the reproduction of organisms.
But, there can be a profound moral and ethical problem suggested by the theory that the purpose of death is for the maintanance of reproductive capacity of organisms: that human dignity is not defined in terms of the human individual, nor even in terms of the human community, but only in terms of the reproductive opportunity of those human individuals who, by whatever means, actually find that opportunity.
This is a profound ethical problem because it may appear to justify any and every means by which a human individual may strive for the opportunity to reproduce.
But, if death has no naturalistic purpose in any sense of naturalism, then, from a purely naturalistic view, death presents a profound puzzle on every level of the human reasoning by which pain is supposed to have a naturalistic and even evolutionary purpose. Is death a phenomenon that stands outside the purview of evolutionary naturalism?
In a life involving pain, often even our own pain, the point of knowing what is good, and what is true, is so that we recognize the good, and recognize the true, regardless what form it takes, or regardless what else is accompanying it. In other words, the point of being intelligent is to see, and learn from, the underlying patterns which only goodness and truth can have.
“In a world that knows evil, an all-powerful god responsible for all creation must be evil. That interpretation is unavoidable and certain.”
But, what is this thing called ‘evil’? And, what about it that, given its existence, proves that an essentially good, essentially omnipotent/self-existent, and essentially omniscient being does not exist? It seems to me there is no free lunch in terms of any philosophical position on any controversy: any position we take has some kind of unwanted cost. If the ‘subjective’ self, which so thinks it appreciates the ultimate objectivity of its experience of pain/evil, originated essentially from non-life, then how objective really is that ‘sense of evil’? Answer: not objective at all, so that there would be nothing wrong with causing pain to any life which is not our own, if to do so serves merely either to rid ourselves of some pain or to increase what we might ever think of as our own best interest.
It seems to me there is a certain pattern of truth in the traditional Christian doctrine of the origin of this ‘evil’ called pain. Even if the details of that doctrine are taken as myth, it can be reasoned that what that doctrine itself may seem most essentially to presuppose is a certain very wise purpose. In fact, the pattern which I see developed in that doctrine may be thought simply to trace the common development of the conception of evil which each human being goes through from the moment of their conception. The details of that doctrine might be introduced by the following three stages of narrative:
The first stage: Without importing any concept of evil to the concept of God, it is possible for the concept of God to include the power to create genuinely free, eternal selves which experience no ‘subjective’ evil as consequence of possibly deciding to think to become greater than God by doing what is impossible to be done: that the creature can become its own creator and thereby make God useless. Some of those creatures decided to think so contrarily.
The second stage: God does not immediately retract His original creature’s nature, either by killing the now-contrary ones or by creating in them the potential for ‘subjective’ pain as natural consequence for thinking-and-acting contrarily to what is true. Instead, God creates a lesser kind of free-self creature, complete with a proper home (Earth), and forces the now-bad individuals of the original kind of creature out of the home which God had made for the original kind of creature. These bad individuals, finding it pathetic on the part of God that God even created these lesser creatures, and being jealous that these lesser creatures have a home, naturally head straight for that home to try to convince these those pathetically inferior creatures to do something which is contrary to their own proper design as a means of proving for their own selves in the most ‘powerful’ way as to whether God is a bumble-head, so that, if successful in so convincing these inferior creatures, these bad individuals of the superior creatures might prove that God is a bumble-head for even having created these inferior creatures.
The third stage: God anticipates that attemptation, and, in know the possible result, makes it easy for these bad individuals of that superior kind of creatures to ‘pick off the target’: by deliberately contriving the most trivial, least-damaging instance in which those inferior creatures may have opportunity to fall to the attemptation to think-and-act contrary to what is true. The ‘rest is history’—except for one, New Adam, born of a virgin, who lived as any mere man must who is conceived in death, but who lived also as any such man ought, which no man but him could, and so he alone had to live it as celibate, and die proving who He is (Worthy), and thus who we are: unworthy.
But even apart from that three-stage narrative, the simple fact seems to be that, whether there is a God or not, any one of us, given all we ever wanted in all our selfish instances in which we truly wanted mainly for ourselves, would have become what some merely find opportunity to develop the habit of remaining despite contrary forces: spiritually blind, socially tyrannical, and rationalistically murderous.
You see, the worst tyrants in history are simply ourselves, just with the opportunities to get mainly what they want for themselves from others. A competitive organism which is too successful in obtaining its own interests is an organism that is an abberation in terms of the mutual benefits which organisms may find in each other.
So, Jesus was and is the safest boat in the sea of human depravity. Maybe Jesus never existed. Or, maybe he was just someone like any one of us but around whom some of us constructed a myth. But, if he is just a myth, then he sure seems to so many of us to be a profoundly enlightening one. And, not just because he died, but because, according to the ‘myth’, he rose again to life and thereby proved that death need not be the end.
Some people do not understand death, nor do they understand their own thinking in regard to God. So, when they think of God dying, they think it means that the primary category of being has ceased to exist.
If your logic would that nothing is primary aside from the principle of non-contradiction, then your logic is that not even death is primary or final. But, aside from such ‘logic’, if death is not final, then something must be primary which can nevertheless experience death without losing its own primary ontology: something must be alive by virtue of itself: neither non-living, nor subject to a death-beyond-its-own-power-to-become-alive again.
There has to be a primary object of knowledge, else the logical principle of non-contradiction has no basis outside the identity of a thing, or of a thought. Now, if the thing at issue is the identity of God, then, to my way of thinking, either God is the primary object, or God can die. So, if you assume that God is the primary object, then you are being consistent with yourself to deny that God died. But, the semantics is subtle if all you focus on is either death or God, because you have to get a grip on as to what sort of thing it is that is presupposed by death, and then on as to what is the correspondence between God and that sort of thing.
Consider paint on a door: A door is a primary object when compared to the paint on the door. Death is like all the paint flaking off. So, the paint dies, but the door does not die. Different creatures are like different colors of paint, and human beings are red. The door become red, and still remained a door. But, in so far as the red paint all flaked off, the door experienced a loss of being red. I trust that you begin to get the point.
So, if, in addition to the assumption that God is the primary object, you assume that death is applicable only to non-primary objects, then the words ‘God experienced death’ can mean only one of exactly two things: One, a contradiction of the identity of God as the primary object; or, Two, that God took on the experience of a non-primary object: God became red. The basic error is in thinking of death, and the sort of thing presupposed by death, as a primary condition and object respectively. They are not primary. Only God is primary. So, God really did experience death, by first becoming red.
So, the depth to which we try to objectify our existential experience of evil is merely a reflection of the depth to which we hold the good and the rational to be at once objective and transcendent.
The very standards of good-and-evil by which the existence of God is rejected as impossible are rendered epistemologically impotent if God really does not exist. If it were true that God does not exist, and, thus, that there is no universal source of right and wrong, then the argument from evil would be invalid in any case: there could be no possibility of constructing a rational argument against causing untold suffering to any number of fellow creatures if such suffering means only that oneself and one’s own species lives well.
So, to appeal to the argument from evil as proof that God does not exist is like using the tools and materials for building a house to tear down an existing house, and then, since there is no house there, concluding that a house is an impossible kind of object. Maybe God is an impossible, irrational object. But, if God is an irrational object, then what really are the tools and materials that went into building that object? In short, if the concept of God does not have an ultimately good purpose, then the evil of pain and death are ultimately without purpose.
Apart from viewing the indifferent cosmos as most essentially pro-human, the denial of the existence of God renders human beings as essentially no better than animals. So, to the extent that humans view animals as having no inalienable rights, such as in regard to the human need to eat meat, and such as the acceptance by humans of animal cruelty against animals as the admirability of ‘an integral part of Nature’s way’ and ‘survival of the fittest’, atheism has no objective standard by which either to deny that any kind of violence by humans to humans is anything but part of ‘Nature’, or to assert that the simple killing of humans by some higher life form is an abomination against ‘Old Mom Nature’. Hello, evil space aliens.
Those who object to God’s typical inaction with regard to human conflict and human plight feel that if God were truly good and truly omnipotent, then God would be stepping in every time injustice is done to one person or group by another. But, no ‘descendent of Adam’ is essentially more moral than the worst known tyrants in history, else we must explain their tyranny as the product of an essentially lesser and immoral kind of being which merely looks like us. The simple fact is, no tyrant in history was born practicing the evils he is known for. The simpler fact is, every naive tyrant-in-waiting will, if opportunities fully allow it, strive for his own peace to the detriment of his fellows. This means that no ‘descendent of Adam’ is as good as he thinks he is during his days of being the underdog.
Lack of opportunity to succeed tyrannically in our own selfish interests means only that we tend to focus on how we may best live by practicing self-restraint, if not genuine humility. This is what gives us our sense that we are essentially more worthy of God’s intervention than are murderous tyrants, when, in fact, we all, including tyrants, are entirely unworthy in face of a truly good God. The shepherd boy David understood this long before he became King of Israel, which is a key reason why God called him the ‘apple of my eye’. There is no more beautiful, or admirably grief-stricken, poetry than some of the Psalms written by David. The humble grief in knowing oneself has done the least injustice to anyone, no matter what they’ve done to you, should be so admirable. Humility is admirable. Even God himself is humble: he never ‘plays God’.
Some people do think that God has, on occasion, ‘played God’. But, many of those people deny that God ever actually existed. It might seem they are then implying that it is logically impossible for themselves to be worthy of the instruction of pain, even of death. But, we all die anyway, which either means death has no purpose, or its purpose is truly profound.
But, by all means, feel free to disagree. That’s why your mind is your mind and not mine. A person has a mind of his or her own, which is why it is his or her mind: because it is. No one can really think contrary to the way they do think whenever they do think a certain way. And, they think a certain way pretty much always. That’s what thinking is. So, by all means, disagree with whatever it is that you do, in fact, disagree with. I say more power to you, even if you feel you have good reason to despise the way I think. Just know that I have my own mind. I couldn’t get rid of it if I wanted to. And, I don’t want to. So, for now, the best we can do is agree to disagree. And, without regard for that, to be friends. I’m just me. So, what I believe about all this ‘deep’ stuff, about pain and death, is almost nothing to me by comparison to simply being a person who adores people as such (and, I don’t include me in ‘people as such’ because, to me, I’m just me.)