Humans and Mortality

July 2, 2019
Death is a source of inspiration, fear, grief, and love. It makes us think about the finite nature of things. The concept of finiteness shapes human nature in a very special way.

Humans are the only species that understand that there’s a finite end to life. Humans even created an entire discipline to study the finite nature of man, called philosophy. We spend a lot of time reflecting on death. It seems like it’s our awareness of mortality that pushes our reflections on our day-to-day actions and decisions to a transcendental level.

Borges, in his story The Immortal, tells the story of a man who lives forever. At one point in the story, this man runs into Homer, who’s also immortal. After the encounter, he thinks: “I said goodbye to Homer at the Tanger doors. I don’t think we said goodbye”. Two immortal people have no need to say “goodbye”. There’s no “end” that would be an obstacle for that possibility.

Because human beings are aware of their mortality, they’re precious beings because they infinitely value each instant that they’re alive. Their finiteness gives value to every single moment.

A person at the end of a tunnel.

Human Beings Tossed to Earth

As we said above, each instant of your life is unique because your path forward is a path towards death. It’s like human beings were just tossed into a world in which their historical, social, and family situations are already a given. Does that mean that your life is predetermined?

Martin Heidegger, the most important existentialist philosopher of the 20th century, believed that the awareness of our finite nature makes having authentic thinking extremely desirable. Inauthentic thinking is irreflexive and doesn’t help you live a full life.

Human Beings and Inauthentic Thinking

To get a better understanding of what inauthentic thinking is, picture this common situation. You get into a cab, the radio is on, and the taxi driver starts telling you about the news that she’s listening to on the radio. She tells you her opinion on the subject, which you could have inferred based on the radio station she’s listening to.

Heidegger believed that repeating others’ ideas and opinions without reflecting on them is inauthentic. The taxi driver (just an example) isn’t reflecting on what she’s saying. Instead, she’s just repeating other people’s opinions.

For Heidegger, an inauthentic life is when you live your life in the outside world. Thus, your life is reflective and unaware of its mortality. When humans are aware of their mortality, they’re interested in having their own thoughts and making their own decisions.

An inauthentic life is unaware of its mortality.

A woman contemplating mortality

Human Beings and Authentic Thinking

Man comes from nothing and will return to nothing. Your condition as a human being (deeply present beings heading towards a future) makes you think more about possibilities than realities. You’re your possibilities, and the possibility above all possibilities is death. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do with your life. You’ll still die eventually. Mortality is a constant companion to us all.

People who choose an authentic life do so thanks to the anxiety that thinking about death causes. What does it feel like when you think about nothing, about ceasing to exist? They make their decisions knowing that lives are unique and any moment could be your last. They would know that no one can die for them and that death is only a moment to transcend all others.

  • Saña, Heleno (2007). «la filosofía de la desesperanza». Historia de la filosofía española (1ª edición). Almuzara. pp. 202-3.
  • Homolka, Walter y Heidegger, Arnulft (editores) (2016). Heidegger und der Antisemitismus. Positionen im Widerstreit. Herder. 448p.