Is Death Necessary? [1]

by Harvey Jackins

Today many people are using Re-evaluation Counseling to regain their original human outlook and abilities. In the process they discharge and become free from much fear, fear that has been attached to a great many objects or subjects. Fear of high places, fear of suffocating, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of crowds; all these fears are familiar to human beings in their usual distressed condition.

The person who persists with counseling over a long period of time, however, the person who joins with the growing group of those who are seeking to recover their human heritage as completely as possible, at some point faces and addresses his or her fear of death. It seems that every human child has at some time confronted the actuality and possibility of death. This leaves a quantity of fear on every individual.

Sometimes this fear is “buried” in the person’s mind and is kept below awareness. Sometimes the person becomes obsessed with the thought of death. Such an obsessive fear may take the form of irrational preoccupation with avoiding dangers or it may become a danger-seeking type of pattern, the “death-wish” compulsion which has preoccupied many psychologists in the past.


This fear can be discharged, and it often is to a large extent. It is of great advantage to the individual to do so. People who discharge their fear of death will reap many benefits just as from the discharge of any other painful emotion. They become more alert, more aware, more intelligent. They function better in present time.

There usually remains a residue of fear and distress. A client may say, “Well, I’m certainly not preoccupied with dying any more and I can see one has to put one’s attention on present time, but if I think about it very much, it still upsets me. It doesn’t make sense to me that people have to die.” The wise counselor refrains from offering any platitudes or soothing viewpoints. The counselor who says, “Well, we all have to go,” is of no assistance to the client at all, nor is it any better to remind her or him of the Great Hereafter, or the Pastures in the Sky, The Last Round-up or any other euphemisms for the projected notion of a life after death on some non-physical level. The words the client seems to need at this point to completely shake off the fear of death or of dying is the confident word from the counselor that she or he doesn’t have to die, that death isn’t inevitable.


Few counselors up to now have made this assertion with much confidence because the inevitability of at-least-physical death has been such a truism in our culture. “Only two things are sure, death and taxes.” “We all have to go someday.” The Rubiyat says, “And he who husbanded the golden grain, and he who flung it to the winds like rain, Alike to no such aureate earth are turned, As buried once men want dug up again.” Some ultimate democracy is continually being ascribed (and not only by the poet) to the “inevitable” state of death.


Let us be very brave and actually dare to ask the question, “Is death so inevitable or necessary as we have assumed it is?” Many people will have intense feelings that this question should not be seriously discussed, but feelings are, after all, just feelings. Intense feelings can hardly justify avoidance of discussion or speculation. It may be true, as a student of mine once said, that a great deal of organized religion would lose its reason for being if we were ever to conclude that death is avoidable. Yet people who take their religion rationally are not likely to flee from discussing the question for that reason. If religion has a value, it must have a better value than being a comfort against inevitable disaster, there must be something more meaningful in it than a mystical reassurance against the fear of death. To speculate on the possibility that death is unnecessary is not really going to endanger anyone.


At first glance the evidence would seem to confirm the inevitability of death. All multicellular living creatures, both plants and animals, seem to have a built-in death mechanism that brings their individual existence to a close. A redwood tree lives a few thousand years, some insects live just a few days, but each living complex seems to come to an end. Most individual single-celled creatures die also.

Further, the very existence of life seems to be dependent upon the phenomenon of death. All creatures nurture themselves on the deaths of others, often simply by treating the others as prey, as food to be consumed. Even in the case of the green plants who make their own food and ultimately food for all the other creatures, the death of other plants and animals returns nutrient material to the soil or water which makes possible the plant’s growth. We human beings exist on the top of a pyramid of life in which all forms below us consume those below them and in turn furnish food for the ones above them.

Actually, the evolutionary emergence of humankind was certainly dependent on a situation involving the death of living creatures. Only the death of the individual plus the continued existence of the individual’s descendants has made evolution possible. Continual turnover of individuals is necessary for mutations to occur, for new forms of life to appear, for simple creatures to give rise to more complex creatures.


In this sense one can say that death has been useful and necessary in the development of living creatures. Only this turnover has allowed life to develop into the complex forms with which we are familiar, with whom we are associated and from whom we are descended.

Individual living creatures other than human beings are unable to create new and better responses to new environmental situations within their individual lifetimes because each must operate on an inherited list of responses which it cannot improve in any creative sense but which can only be damaged or warped in some way. Given the mechanism of the death of the individual, however, and the proliferation of its descendants, then it is possible for improvements to occur in new generations. It becomes possible for life to evolve and assume the complex forms which it has reached.


Sometime in the past, rational behavior finalIy evolved. Members of our species have this ability (in far greater amounts than we have previously been able to use). We can come up with new responses to new situations without waiting for the slow mechanism of mutation and evolution to produce such new responses. Individual human beings are able in their lifetimes (in fact every instant of their lifetimes) to flexibly create a new, accurate response for each new situation which they face in their surroundings.

At this point, is death necessary? Does the death of the individual serve any useful purpose in the development of life’s greater ability to take charge of and master the environment?


I think we will have to say no. As far as our observations have shown, individual humans are capable of coping with and mastering any situation which they are likely to confront as long as they are able to function in a human way on their own inherent rational nature.

Human individuals in favorable circumstances have shown evidence of this. The longer they live, the more they learn, as long as they are functioning well. The wiser they are, the more valuable they are, the better they can live.

What human beings are good at, at being human, at coping with the environment in a variety of masterful ways, seems to improve with experience and wisdom, with the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Aging and death have interrupted this process for all human beings in the past but not to any useful purpose.


It will be argued that death is still necessary, that aging and death are still useful to humans as a race because “there comes a time when it is good to die,” “it is good to grow old.” It is certainly good to grow wise, good to acquire new experiences, but it is not good to age in the usual sense of having our bodies lose their effectiveness in functioning. Given the distresses of a bad old age, death is extolled as a merciful release, but this does not at all justify the combination of aging and death. If aging could be avoided, then death would lose its justification.

Again, it will be pointed out that we “lose our faculties” as we grow older, we become senile, we become too difficult, we’re a burden on others. We will be told that there will be a time for us to “go home to our heavenly father” who (it is assumed) has either infinite patience with our senile behavior or has the mechanisms on hand to remove it and deal with it.


These injunctions are ridiculous in the light of what we have learned about Re-evaluation Counseling. The mental decrepitude, the increasing amount of irrational behavior which we associate with old age is simply the pile-up of distress patterns. We already know that this pile-up is completely unnecessary, that it can be reversed and can probably be avoided for the generations of the future. We can stay rational and not be the victims of this mechanism. We can avoid the distress recordings accumulating on us from our experiences of distress that we have not been allowed to discharge.


Suppose we are granted all this. Suppose it is agreed that, knowing what to do, we can free ourselves from distress and prevent distress experiences from accumulating on children. If it is granted that we would be better and better people if we could live forever then are we caught in a tragedy? With the possibility and the capacity for immortal life are we to be denied it because of the physical mechanism of aging and death which we apparently share with all other complex creatures?


Here we must speculate, but I think we can speculate with intelligence. My guess is that the mechanism of aging and death can be eliminated. We bear it around with us as a kind of inherited anachronism, inherited from pre-rational ancestors and ill fitting our own rational nature. Few if any human beings ever live to a natural old age. Even allowing the present biological mechanisms of aging and death it seems quite plain that most human beings die, not for “natural” reasons but because of the accumulation of distress patterns with the resulting physical deterioration. “Psychosomatic” ailments certainly comprise the vast majority of human illnesses, and these ailments, taking over the human, have a lot to do with aging and death as we presently endure them.

There are many indications that if counseling is applied thoroughly to remove and prevent the distress recordings from accumulating upon a person, that a “natural” old age would not begin for a human being until past 100 years. Perhaps a “natural” time of death would be in the 130s or 140s. We are not alone in speculating to this point; the increased life expectation which modern health measures have brought to the population is in evidence all around us.


If we apply counseling fully and the aging and death mechanism persists, then will we simply age and die at a later date than we are presently used to? Must we still accept physical mortality? Can we have a prolonged but still only a limited life? Here, too, I think we can say, probably no. We should be able to become physically immortal.


The process of aging and death seems to be a built-in part of the pattern of development of individual complex creatures. It is infinitely varied from species to species, from kind to kind, even from individual to individual. Aging happens to the complex organism. It does not operate on individual cells nor on single-celled creatures.

Look at the fact of the existence of the cells of our bodies which are presently alive. Each is composed of living protoplasm, a very dynamic material. Each is the direct descendant of another cell which divided into two to produce the present living cell and another one. Each forbearer of the cells living at the present time had living forbearers, who, in effect, were the same cell. The two cells formed by the division of the single cell are actually the same protoplasm as the original. The descendant cell is essentially the same cell as the one which gave rise to it. In this sense, every cell in our bodies has been alive for well over a billion years. It has been continually alive since life first began on earth.


How can this be? In a sense all protoplasm has been alive, has been functioning as living material all through this period of life’s existence, being divided into new cells in each generation of cells. It must have been alive ever since life began or it could not be alive now. If there had been any break in the continuity of that protoplasm’s existence as living material it would not be here today.

So every living cell in our body has been continuously alive for a vast period of time, has lived throughout the existence of life on earth. This living material has not aged and died over a period of a billion years or so. Why must it inevitably age and die in a few more years? Is there some magic timetable that must operate to allow it to live over that period of time and then snuff out its existence on our death date?


Of course not. What happens in the aging and death of individual complex creatures is simply that the internal conditions in which the cells of the complex creature live change so that instead of reproducing faster than they are worn out (which now happens in our youth and growth period), or at the same rate as they are worn out (which happens in our brief stable maturity), the cells do not reproduce and divide as fast as they are worn out, as fast as they are used up by the complex processes of the whole organism.

Aging seems to be primarily a process of running short of cells. The cells do not divide rapidly enough to produce new ones at a rate sufficient to keep vigor. The tissues run short of cells, they waste, they perform their functions poorly and at some point the complex interactions of the tissues break down and death occurs.

Why do the cells stop reproducing themselves at a rate sufficient for continued physical vigor of the individual? Necessarily because something in the environment of the cells has changed. Some environmental condition of the inside of the body of the human has altered to interfere with their capacity to reproduce at a rate to maintain vigor.


Altering of the environmental condition of the inside of the body is something we already know a great deal about. We correct all sorts of minor lacks or imbalances in the internal body environment. The person with diabetes takes insulin so that the tissues can function. The person with heart disease of a particular type takes another kind of medication that repairs the lack in the environment. Hormones and pacemakers, plastic valves and glucose are regularly inserted into human bodies. With the current advances in biochemistry and the present rate of progress in determining the structure, function, and interaction of the various materials which make up the human chemical system it should not be very long at all before information is available as to exactly what these changes and conditions in the internal environment of the body are that produce the aging process which culminates in death. Once it is determined the correction of it should swiftly fall within the capacity of human knowledge and ability.


We already know of striking examples of recovery of youthful appearance. Certain rejuvenations are accomplished by tissue transplants or injections of certain hormones. Sometimes the appearance of rejuvenation is presented by the development of certain malignancies in glandular organs of the body. The malignancy, apparently as a side effect, produces certain chemical substances that interrupt the process of aging and give at least some of the effect of renewed youth and vigor.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that with the acquisition of more knowledge humans may have within their grasp the possibility of indefinite physical existence. The possibility probably exists of remaining a healthy vigorous mature person for an indefinite period of time, for preventing the aging process from occurring and, incidentally, for preventing death, which is at present the usual culmination.


Will we then grow tired of living? Will we do foolish things to bring accidental death upon ourselves? Certainly we will not if the problem of human aberration is successfully grappled with and solved. It is enjoyable to be alive except where distress patterns obscure this zestful enjoyment of living.

When distress patterns are eliminated from humanity as a whole, when they are gotten rid of and are prevented from occurring in our children, then there is no evidence that we would find continued existence anything but an increasing pleasure. The ability to cope with the environment and to be aware of it and enjoy it seems only to increase with our experience and knowledge.


What about overcrowding? What about the population explosion? Will we be standing on each other’s shoulders, alive but miserable through overcrowding? There is not any real indication of this. The careless increase in population that has occurred sometimes and is at present occurring in so many parts of the world seems to be no more than the momentum of the previous desperate struggle of the human race to produce enough descendants for the species to survive in the face of the threat of disease, disaster and the irrationalities of war.

Gains in public health and medical knowledge have removed much of the threat against which large families were a defense. We are seeing a surge past what seems to be a useful rate of population growth in many places only because tension and ignorance prevent people from quickly understanding that new conditions no longer require breeding at a high rate for the species to survive.

Yet even though all people everywhere are at present still distressed, already the beginning of rational restraint on population increase appears wherever there is any leisure and security. When we have security and are well-to-do, our birthrate drops. There apparently is nothing in the human make-up that forces us to reproduce faster than our good sense would tell us is correct. We just have to have the chance to use that good sense. We have to have enough security, enough information at our disposal, and we can be trusted to come to a wise decision on our rate of population growth.


What about the social idiocies of war and capital punishment as sources of death? Even in our present distressed conditions humans are reaching social judgments for their elimination. Certainly the rational humans of the future will not participate in such ghastly nonsense.

What then of the “sacred” notion that people must die “so that they can go to a blessed hereafter”? Well, the existence of a blessed hereafter has been seriously questioned for a long time by rational people. The notion of some kind of life after death on other than a physical plane seems to have arisen only through dreams of the dead interpreted as their “spirits” visiting the dreaming person. This and the notion’s role as a comfort to people who fear a death they intuitively dislike and feel is wrong is quite sufficient to explain why the concept of a non-physical life-hereafter ever came into being.


I think perhaps there is another reason, too. Is it not likely (being as wise and brilliant as we are coming to realize people are) that in some intuitive way we have always known that death was a mistake, that our nature was actually such that death should not occur to us? Is it not possible that gods were invented by humans in an effort to project their own real nature outside of themselves and outside of the obscuring aberrations so that it could be kept in mind as a goal? “Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Is it not likely that the idea of immortality put forward on a spiritual plane and in a mystical sense has been a projection of the correct idea that we really should be immortal? Has the notion of immortality been embraced because, being rational, death no longer becomes us, serves no useful purpose? Has “immortality” in a religious sense been an intuitively-put-forward goal leading us to the point where our knowledge and control of the environment would enable us to actually put an end to physical death and bring physical immortality to the human race?


How long need it be before research puts this knowledge at our disposal? Will all of us presently alive die physically and only hope that our grandchildren will be the possessors of this immortality which we came too late to achieve? I think not. Actually the key question has been the realization of the artificial nature of human aberration, the unnecessary and acquired nature of human irrationality. Now that we have this out in the open the technical facilities of biological science are such that it is reasonable for those of us now alive to set as a goal the achievement of physical immortality for ourselves.


Certainly, I would guess that if resources, financial and otherwise, on a scale such as were poured into the Manhattan Project for the discovery and construction of atomic bombs, were to be turned to the question of human beings’ permanent survival, we would not have many years to go before a major breakthrough would be made. Immortality could become the possession of us up-till-now “mortals.”

[1]  First published in 1965.






Last modified: 2023-04-15 09:24:12+00