Why You Should Not Kill Yourself

This is my argument against suicide: it will not save you. Most religions don’t think highly of it, but that’s well understood and I don’t want to dwell on that too much, because I think that a lot of people who kill themselves have doubts about faith. I assume this because there are many people in my life who I know have suicidal thoughts, and they say they have nothing to live for; that their existence is purposeless (sometimes they also say that to live is suffering — that it is too painful to continue living, and this message is for those people also). In fact, if you have religion, it is giving you some kind of reason to live — they all do. That is one of their functions.

For those of us who do not have great faith, then, why continue living? That is a question which weighs very heavily on some people, and it is a hard question to answer positively when life is full of suffering and regret. Yet I say that the only way you can reasonably answer that question is because, if you don’t have an answer yet, then you haven’t figured out what you are really asking yet. The question assumes you can just stop “living;” that by dying, you can cease being a conscious entity, and also cease feeling all conscious experience (including pain and suffering). But you don’t have to be one of the faithful to doubt whether that really is what happens when you die. In fact, I think it is easy to prove that this is almost certainly not what happens when you die, and it is that certainty that I believe should compel people not to kill themselves above all else. It will not save you.

It is helpful to actually review what happens to your consciousness when you die. First of all, you appear to lose it. Or rather, it might be more accurately stated that if you manage to come back from the dead (yes, there are people who have been revived from clinical death thanks to modern medicine), it is highly unlikely that you will remember anything about the experience, because the parts of your brain that form your memories were not functioning. The unfortunate problem here, for people seeking relief through suicide, is that consciousness can occur without memory. It is perfectly possible to be conscious and not remember the episode: it is possible to drink heavily, black out, and wake up the next morning none the wiser. This forgetfulness does not mean you did not experience everything that happened that night, however. You were there; you lived that moment. The fact that we do not see any evidence of consciousness unfortunately does not mean it is absent.

The problem is that we don’t understand what consciousness really is. A person who destroys the parts of their brain which are commonly associated with consciousness has destroyed the correlate of their consciousness, but not the consciousness itself — how could it, since we don’t actually know what it is? Some people would like to argue that consciousness IS certain parts of the brain, but aside from the technical difficulties of determining what special kind of structures could lead an otherwise unconscious bunch of neurons to become conscious, you then have to believe that some special material structures — parts of the brain — are actually capable of feeling. They experience the color “red,” for example — a type of conscious phenomenon that is often called “qualia.” How does becoming conscious enable matter to experience this entirely subjective “qualia?” The fundamental problem is that there is no connection between this qualia, which is the root of the suffering and/or indifference which might drive a person to consider suicide, and the physical world as understood by science. The only thing you can really say is that it must be assumed that all matter can experience qualia — that this is a property of matter — but that this experience is not obvious except when a conscious brain can express its experiences to another. As far as the idea of escaping via suicide goes, this is a big problem, because it means that even if a person dies and becomes unconscious, they will not cease experiencing things. One might hope that the experiences of a pile of unconscious molecules would be better than those of a depressed person, but we really don’t know. In any case if they cannot suffer, it is also unlikely that they can experience any kind of positive emotion either, including relief, release, or happiness. Nothing that a suicidal person wants out of death seems likely to occur.

But, some people desperate to escape their lives might insist, perhaps that’s all wrong, and by some process not really understood yet, your experiences really do end with death. Some people are probably willing to risk going through eternity as an indifferent pile of atoms because they think there is still a good chance that they will get lucky and simply cease to be upon death. Unfortunately, I do not even think the gambling odds are good. You, whatever you are, were created through, near as science can tell, some natural occurrence. Every event from the beginning of time that led up to you, standing precariously on top of its preceding cause like blocks in a jenga set, was an event that had some non-zero probability of occurring. That makes you, whatever you are, an extremely, extremely unlikely thing — certainly stupendously rare. But — and this is important — not impossible. This certainty (certain because of the fact that you ARE, in fact, here) means that, combined with the nature of the universe as best we can understand it, you will never have an ultimate end, no matter how many times you die.

Allow me to explain. Since you do exist, and since as far as we can tell there is no reason to think time will ever stop marching on, and since even the origin of the universe which gave rise to your existence is an event with a certain non-zero probability of occurring, if you are not religious then you must accept that science tells us we will live the same life again and again and again. At some point in the infinitely long progress of time, against a backdrop of however many universes it takes to get there, you — exactly as you were in this life — will be born, do everything you did in your past, and come to this exact moment, reading this exact article. This, if all the science above is right, would be a mathematical certainty. As for the countless years between now and then, you would not have been conscious to experience them, and the moment from one life to the next would be nothing at all. It would be like the difference in time you experience at the beginning and end of a sleep or a coma. A conscious person goes in, loses consciousness, and comes out the other side. It is the same person, as far as their experience can tell.

A person might say that if their memories are gone, then perhaps they are not really the same person anymore. A person who argues that way would happily tell you that if you do not remember what you did in your drunken spree before you passed out, then you were not really you last night — in fact you were a totally different person, with a different set of memories. Odd, but very well, maybe it’s true; it still doesn’t save you. If you are mathematically reincarnated like we imagined above, then whether you remember your past life or not, you will be there to experience all the suffering you wanted to avoid again. Everything you did that night of drunkenness was still done, and still experienced by a person who at the time was you. They only ceased being you after the fact — so you couldn’t escape any of the suffering during that time.

This kind of eternally recurring existence, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, seems depressing in its own right. Sure, maybe we can’t escape this horrible cycle by killing ourselves, but at least suicide would seem like a natural response to such a situation? Unfortunately (or perhaps now we can say fortunately?), it is highly likely that a person considering suicide is doing so because of a real medical problem concerning their brain chemistry, made worse because of unnatural stresses in modern life, neither of which can be construed as natural states of being.

So then, perhaps there is nothing to be done. Perhaps we must suffer all through eternity, again and again in the same ways? The glimmer of a true escape from such a place of conundrum and stymie lies, I think, in the fact that suffering is a qualia — it is our subjective experience of existence, and it does not seem to be very dependent on the deterministic universe in which we exist. However unfair it may be, it seems likely that the only permanent escape from suffering would be to learn to experience our suffering differently — as something other than suffering: learning, art, or perhaps love, but most importantly whatever the former sufferer wants it to become. As escapes go, it seems like the only one that’s real.