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Death: an inevitable reality?

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

A few days ago, a student wrote to me, recommending that I discuss death: something we all know is a reality which nobody can deny. Let me define death, as the termination of metabolism in the human body so that it ceases to function. The heart stops beating, the brain stops working and all normal processes of life come to standstill.
The question philosophers, founders of religions, kings and emperors, businessmen, sportsmen, workers — all pose to themselves from time to time is the following: is there a purpose of life and what happens when we die? As far as we know, only human beings reflect about the purpose of life and about death. Other living creatures are too concerned about their survival. The survival instinct is inherent in all forms of life, but for human beings who can think and reason and remember the past and so on, death has always been the ultimate challenge to their intelligence and power.
The biggest appeal of religion is that in one way or another, it offers hope of an existence beyond physical death. That is why a belief in God or some Supreme Spirit or Supreme intelligence is common to all cultures. Some societies are obsessed with such concerns and strive to their utmost to connect salvation in the hereafter with life on earth.
When I was young, I thought death is something for others, something which will happen to me far away in time. Now at 71, I do think about it more often, but I am not afraid death. Or so I believe. I would like to live to be over a 100 years old, like my paternal grandparents, but would prefer to die quickly instead of suffering a slow, painful death.
What I know for certain is that in the last 100 years or so, longevity has increased dramatically. People live longer, healthier lives, more babies survive and thus the world population has been increasing, which in the long run can be a big problem.
All this has been possible because of improvement in healthcare, better medicines and improving diet and lifestyles. Have miracles or religious mantras made any difference except in some psychological sense? That can be discussed and should be discussed because without proper information, no contribution to knowledge is possible.
However, how long will I live is not in my control — more or less, though some people want to decide to finish a painful and meaningless existence, and I think that is their choice. The prevailing ethical thrust is that life should be preserved at all costs and not destroyed. That limits individual choice on this matter.
Of course, one would like never to break the link with people one loves and cares. All the friends and other wonderful people one has come across make life enriching and rewarding. The fact however is that, one day that linkage is going to break and nothing can prevent that from happening. That is the saddest aspect of death. When one wants to live it is because of all the associations which one cherishes and treasures.
The most central question people seek an answer to is whether there is life after death or not. Frankly speaking, only religion can answer that question. Science, experience and observation do not verify that conclusively. It has to remain a matter of belief and faith.
Before writing this op-ed, I watched some videos about people claiming reincarnation happens. Panels of doctors, scientists and academics gave examples of it happening. How reliable are their studies, mostly done in the United States? One can always be wonder. What they seemed to say was that such things happen to very few people and it is not a general experience or claim.
The above discussion on death is based on historical evidence and contemporary experience. However, things may change in the future. I also watch videos of projections about advances in science and technology for the year 2050. I learnt that by that time, the length of life would extend to 120. Cancer will be eradicated and many other fatal diseases as well.
Not only that, but it will be possible to save memory, and thus death would become obsolete and meaningless. However, reproducing a body which will never decompose may take much longer. If that were to happen, death in the sense of memory being disrupted would not only be overcome but it will continue in a body which may also be renewable and thus forever.
By 2050, robots will be taking over many tasks now performed by human beings. The amusing thing and good news are that people will partner with robots instead of only human beings. Just as same-sex marriage is now getting acceptance in parts of the world, a relationship with a robot will initially be a novelty but then become simply another choice. That would transform sexuality and increase infinitely freedom of choice. There is of course, the danger that robots may become too intelligent and start defining and determining the lives of human beings.
Alas for people like me, that future is too far away, but children born now may come to live in a very different world. All this would be possible if, as we say in science, ‘All other things remaining the same’. By that I mean, if human beings do not destroy one another in wars of religion, sect and nationalism using nuclear weapons and other instruments of mass destruction. Ultimately, it all depends on how human beings use their intelligence.
For many of us reading this, it is sad that we will not be around in 2050. Death is a reality and for us, the story will be over sooner or later. However, we should not fear death because when we are dead we would be free from the worries of the living.