One of the ideas I hear a lot when someone dies is that “it was his time to go” – as if fate or God dictated the time of a person’s death. Now, I understand that this belief has a certain emotional appeal when someone dies, so it’s not something I’m going to argue about in that circumstance. But, it does bother me from a logical standpoint. If we really sit down and think about this rationally, I think it can be shown that (in general) people are not “fated” to die at a particular time. What would it really mean if each person has a time to die?
1. Geographical and historical differences in life spans are due to “fate” or “God”, not external factors like medicine, diet, sanitation, or safety.
In the real-world, life-spans appear to be correlated with access to health care and sanitation. The world map shows life-expectancies by nation. (Green is 67 years or longer. Yellow is 60-67 years. Red is 40-60 years. Black is less than 40 years.)
Apparently, “fate” or “God” decided that people in less-developed nations die much younger on average than people living in developed nations.
Historically, lifespans have also been much shorter. Even a few hundred years ago in Europe, diseases killed a lot of children before they reached adulthood, and lots of women died in childbirth.
|Humans by Era
||Average Lifespan at Birth (years)
|Pre-Columbian North America
|Early 20th Century
|Current world average
Admittedly, life-expectancy numbers are skewed by high infant morality, but adult mortality was also higher than they are modern times.
The existence of these differences should be puzzling for anyone who thinks that fate or God determines the time of our deaths.
2. If fate or God determines the time of our death, then, logically, we shouldn’t be concerned about safety or health. If you want to smoke or skip the seat-belt, it shouldn’t matter because the time of your death has already been determined. Disease isn’t the cause of death, but merely a tool used to bring about death at the appointed time. If we correct any of these problems, then we should expect something else to bring about death, instead. These actions should have no effect the average lifespan within a society:
* Finding a cure for a disease
* Reducing gang violence
* Preventing the spread of HIV with condoms or abstinence
* Getting a vaccine, an antibiotic, or going to the doctor
* Increased sanitation (leading to a reduction in water-borne illness, such as cholera)
* Quitting smoking
* Increased safety on work sites, such as mining or construction
* Increased automobile safety, including seatbelts, crash-test standards, etc
Of course, we don’t believe any of this is actually true. We do believe that eradicating smallpox saved lives, that sanitation leads to fewer cases of cholera and reduced mortality. When the panama canal was being built, it was discovered that mosquitoes transmitted malaria. It’s very evident that the death-rates of panama-canal workers dropped significantly when they controlled the mosquito populations.
3. If the time of our deaths is predetermined, then we cannot blame people for actions that cause death. Murderers are merely acting as tools to bring-about death at the appointed time. If the murder hadn’t killed that person, they would’ve died from some other cause. Hitler cannot be blamed for the deaths of tens of millions (both in the holocaust and the war). The 3,000 people who died on 9/11 would’ve died anyway. “Fate” decided it was their time to die. And, it’s not your fault if you drive drunk and kill someone. That person would’ve died regardless.
Therefore, we cannot blame murderers or reckless behavior for causing the deaths of others. In fact, it would be pointless to spend time and money tracking down murderers – because doing so will not decrease the number of deaths in a society. The whole idea of tracking down a killer “before he kills again” is nonsense if each death is predetermined.
Now, I realize that someone could argue that there are human-caused deaths and “fated” deaths. This would allow them to condemn the murderer or the reckless driver. (Although, I’d bet there are plenty of people killed in drunk-driving accidents where people say, “it was their time”.) In general, I think people tend to use the “fate” or “God” idea when the death is outside any reasonable human ability to prevent it. If that really was the case, it should be pointless to find cures for diseases, and the geographical/historical gaps in life-expectancy should be perplexing (at least when those deaths are not caused by humans).
Of course, once you abandon the idea that God determines each person’s lifespan, and realize that people’s deaths occur for mundane reasons (rather than unknowable divine ones), it raises the question: “Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent death?” I have an answer to that, but it isn’t one theists are comfortable with.
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