Should we be fearing death?

Epicurus, National Roman Museum, photo by the author
Epicurus, National Roman Museum, photo by the author

Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus)

Death is one of the major issues in human life, to put it mildly. Because we are blessed and cursed with self-awareness, we know we are mortal, so one of our problems is how to deal with the prospect of our own demise. A lot of religious and philosophical thinking as well as, lately, scientific research, has gone into this. Seneca famously wrote that the point of philosophy is to learn how to die, since death is the ultimate test of who we are. And things don’t seem to have changed much in that department over the past two thousand years.

Recently, Richard Pettigrew, a philosopher at the University of Bristol, has written two intriguing essays for the Oxford University Press blog on whether death harms us. Which seems the sort of paradoxical question that only philosophers can possibly be interested in. And yet, Pettigrew’s take is worth considering in some detail.

He begins with Epicurus, naturally. According to that Ancient Greek philosopher, the best thing we can do in life is to reach ataraxia, a tranquil state of mind. In order to get there, we need to get rid of two things: pain (physical, emotional) and fear. And a major source of fear, for Epicurus, is the thought to dying.

So how does one get rid of the fear of death? The same way we help people get rid of fears of things that cannot actually hurt them, like buttons. (Yes, there is such a thing as fear of buttons.)

The crucial step, then, is to realize that death cannot actually harm you. If there is no afterlife (a possibility that Epicurus discounted), then you are simply not there to experience your death, and experience is needed for actually feeling anything and therefore being harmed by it, according to Epicurus. Yes, you can experience pain during the process of dying, but that’s not the same as death, and — unlike death — it is temporary.

Pettigrew, however, doesn’t buy a formally reconstructed version of Epicurus’ argument. He agrees that the form of the argument is good (it is valid, as logicians would say), but he thinks his major premises don’t work (making the argument unsound, formally speaking).

In order to show this, Pettigrew provides counter-examples: for instance, we can fear the long lasting damaging effects of climate change on our children and grand-children, something that will occur long after we are dead. Or we can fear the emotional distress that our demise will bring to people who love us.

These counter-examples aim at undermining the first premise of the Epicurean argument, that it is rational to fear only things that can harm you.

I don’t find Pettigrew’s counter-examples very convincing. I do not fear the long-term effects of climate change, though I am certainly worried about them, and concerned about the effects they may have on my daughter’s quality of life. I think to call these instances of fear is to engage in ambiguity of language.

Pettigrew then goes after the second major premise of the Epicurean approach, which deals with the definition of harm. Something can harm you, according to Epicurus, only if it can cause suffering, pain, anguish, and the like.

Pettigrew doesn’t buy this either. His first counter-example is of someone building a ugly structure right in front of your house, thus affecting your view. This, he says, surely harms you, yet there is no suffering involved. But, he continues, this is analogous to what happens when you die: death deprives you of valuable moments and experiences and emotions you might have otherwise have had. This is harm, but not suffering.

Again, however, I’m not convinced. This second attack on Epicurus also seems to be predicated on ambiguities of language. To begin with, the owner of the house with a now obstructed view may actually suffer — not just financially, but emotionally — from the new situation. Moreover, while losing a magnificent view is an unqualified harm, it is not at all clear that if you live longer than a certain time you will enjoy positive emotions and experiences. Your life may turn miserable because of old age, illness, loss of loved ones, etc.. In those cases, then, an early death even has the possibility of becoming a net positive.

By the end of his first post, however, even Pettigrew agrees that the sort of counter-examples he brings against Epicurus — even if they work — are insufficient to explain the sort of “halting existential terror felt in the pit of the stomach” that so many people feel when contemplating their own death. In his follow up post he considers one possible source for such existential terror: “I fear death, you might think, because the fact that I will die robs the things I do in my life of their meaning or their value or their worth.”

Pettigrew than goes on to argue that if you hold to such a view you are mistaken, because it relies on a strange concept of meaning, the idea that something has meaning only if it contributes to a larger project. If that project — whatever it is — gets interrupted by our death, then it follows, on this view, that the whole of our life was pointless.

But it is easy enough to come up with all sorts of things we do and find meaningful even though they are not parts of any larger project. I am writing this during a weekend spent with friends on Fire Island, near New York. I am enjoying the beautiful weather, the fine wine and food, and especially my friends’ company. I know perfectly well that this will all end on Sunday night, but that knowledge doesn’t make the weekend meaningless. Indeed, if anything, it makes it even more meaningful, precisely because it is limited in time.

(There is a large philosophical literature arguing that it is death that makes life meaningful, which means that not only we should not fear death, but we should embrace it as the very reason why it is important that we do what we do while we are alive.)

There are plenty of more weighty examples than my weekend on Fire Island, but the general idea is the same: “much of what gives value to our lives is not any activity, such as thinking through a philosophical issue or connecting my life to that of my friend, but a way of being. … Much of what we do in life – spending time with friends or family, taking in the beauty of the natural world, writing, reading, campaigning, or eating seafood – we value for its own sake.”

So, concludes Pettigrew, the thought of dying, and the consequential fact that we will no longer be able to enjoy all those things, may be cause for sadness, but not for existential terror.

I completely agree with Pettigrew on this, but also think that there is a more basic, and actually obvious, source for said existential terror: being afraid of death has clear evolutionary advantages, as it probably kept a good number of our ancestors alive in the first place (at the least, alive long enough to find mates and generate offspring, which is all that matter evolutionarily). Of course, now that humans have developed a better understanding of how the world works, including a more balanced take on death itself, there is no longer a need for the evolved sense of terror. We can deal with death, including our own, a bit more calmly and rationally.

But here is where Epicurus comes back to bite us: if we want to overcome irrational fears we have to reflect on it and gradually convince ourselves that they are, indeed, irrational, moving toward altering our emotions accordingly. This is the premise of cognitive behavioral therapy, and it works (on koumpounophobia, too!). And the best reason for not being terrorized by the prospect of our own death is still the Epicurean one: that we will not be there when it happens. Once we understand this, we can grant Pettigrew’s point that thinking about our death justifies sadness, but not fear. But Epicurus never argued that we shouldn’t be sad about the prospect of someday leaving this world. Only that we should not be afraid of it.

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145 thoughts on “Should we be fearing death?

  1. Socratic,

    Yes, I understood what you were arguing, but since I’m no relativist, I think the anger that led to Nazism and Trumpism is an objectively unqualified bad. Mandela’s getting over his anger and working toward positive change, instead, is an example of an objective, unqualified good.

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  2. I think lumping Trump and Hitler together is basic ignorance.
    Trump represents a very inchoate, unfocused frustration of a large, disparate aspect of society that isn’t particularly focused or organized either.
    While Hitler represented a very focused, tribal rage that resulted in the equivalent of a societal volcano in the center of Europe.
    To simply lump them together, in order to paint Trump as black as possible, with no thought for the actual forces vented through them, only signifies one’s own seemingly shallow parochialism.
    Presumably supporting a status quo lining up behind Clinton, with no real regard to the very real social, political and economic fractures being generated throughout the world by a fairly stagnant and increasingly belligerent American “Exceptionalism,” that is fronting for history’s largest ponzi scheme.

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  3. “Mandela’s getting over his anger”

    But Mandela had to have the anger first, right? It is how he was able to transform it and direct (and others anger too) toward a constructive end that made it a force for good, right?

    Hitler and Trump [a] do the same thing, but direct the motivating force of anger toward self-aggrandizement and destruction.

    Anger produces energy and sometimes resolve. It’s how it’s used and controlled the counts. It is dangerous.

    [a] It’s not even clear to me that Trump is as sincere as to be angry himself. He is exploiting and exciting the anger of others.

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  4. Synred,

    I see no reason why Mandela *had* to be angry to feel the injustice. But regardless, the Stoic point is that anger itself is destructive, so in order to be constructive you have to get over it and channel your energy in more positive ways. Which is precisely what Mandela did. And it worked.

    Brodix,

    It isn’t “ignorant” to compare Hitler and Trump. Of course they are different people and movements, but for the purposes of this discussion they share an important similarity: they are successful because of the anger of their followers.

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  5. Thanks Socratic, it was broadcasted by Nova/PBS as well! And it has generated a significant torrent of hate tweets from string theorists. I must be doing something right…

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  6. Massimo,

    That paints with a very broad brush. It also questions the legitimacy of the sources of anger of Trump’s followers and by not addressing them, only serves to further isolate and therefore add to them.

    Maybe if the problems of the Weimar Republic had been addressed in a fashion that hadn’t left Germany feeling quite so isolated, Hitler may never have happened.

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  7. Massimo:

    It seems to me that it was the whole arc Mandela’s life ‘overcoming anger’ that was so constructive. The anger (at injustice) was the trigger, but he did something constructive with it, he didn’t just ‘mediate’ it away nor did he just scream at the (metaphorical) TV screen.

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  8. Socratic: Templeton money is why Massimo and I have a show on BloggingHeads. And it is also the reason why my university was able to have Brian Leiter — a vehement atheist — come give a talk on our campus.

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  9. Dan’s last comment invalidates all criticism of Templeton funding. I’m kidding I’m kidding! it totally doesn’t at all. Templeton funding is a plague and not necessary for anything good, including atheist speakers, which are good, but do not require or desire any Templeton funding.

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  10. My neighbour’s mom is way hotter than his wife, so problem solved, unless it is unethical to lust after my neighbour’s mom. (She is widowed and I’m divorced) All good?

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  11. Also, what if your neighbours are swingers and down for an exchange. How about we quit getting our ethics from the Bible?

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  12. Garth,

    Plenty of atheists have partaken in Templeton’s money, including, recently, yours truly.

    I am cautious and weary about doing that, but the fact remains that Templeton: I) funds a lot of things for which there would otherwise not be any funding; and II) has by now a proven track record of non-interference with its grantees. Which means that a priori rejection of Templeton is beginning to look very much ideologically based, and increasingly less rational.

    If you neighbor’s mom is widowed and you are divorced I don’t see any ethical problem. But you are mistaken if you think this is Bible-based reasoning. We were talking about virtue ethics, which is an entirely different tradition from Biblical deontology.

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  13. Massimo:

    Maybe Templeton will turn out to be like the Jesuits in fostering rational enquiry. I hope so, but be very careful. If they truly think theoretical physics will find ‘God’ they’re likely to be disappointed.

    I doubt Templeton would fall for my ‘bible in pi’ project though I can guarantee it’s there in multiple copies and languages. There might be other rich suckers out there … My retirement money could use a little boos… ( l. Maybe I could run it SETI at home. I could sell an app and con the little people as is more traditionally done by religion.

    God is after all powerful, all good and all knowing and “he needs money” — and needs to prove his existence by find his word in pi.

    Finding God in Zero? Well the Catholics have three.As I recall the Hindu’s with lots of gods invented zero, right? The Moslems with only one spread it about …

    The Unitarians have a very strict doctrine — “One God at Most!”

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  14. garthdaisy: You have no idea what you are talking about. Templeton was the only funding source we could get to support our speaker program. And Templeton is the only funding source Bob Wright could get for MOLTV, aside from private donors.

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  15. Isn’t Templeton a ‘private donor’?

    I’m reminded of what happened when my left-wing, near pacifist advisor had contract from the Office of Naval Research ONR) [Don’t worry this comes out well for people taking money from organizations they disagree with].

    The ONR was known as a very good supporter of research esp. particle physics. They almost never interfered once they had given you a grant (unlike DOE micromanagement). But for my advisor the CIA did.

    He was invited to a conference in Russia in cold war times. NRL paid for him to go. The only thing they required of him was the standard ‘trip report’ on what you did, the value to your research, etc.

    Before he left some mysterious guys in suits showed up in his office (well the suits is not so relevant, everybody wore suits then). They wanted him to report on whatever and whoever at the conference. He figured they where CIA and told them “I won’t spy.”

    They went away.

    He came back from Russia. Wrote his travel report and sent it off to ONR;

    A few weeks later the CIA guys show up wanting to debrief him He refuses. They kept coming back. What could they think the Russkies would have spilled at a public physics conference?

    Anyway at some point he said to them “You know I wrote a travel report for ONR?”. They said, “Yes, but they won’t give it to us!”.

    He reached up on his bookshelf and gave them a spare copy. He never heard from them again. Apparently not cooperating with CIA didn’t do him any harm in the eyes of ONR!

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  16. Massimo,

    Coveting your neighbour’s wife is a biblical reference and a biblically founded moral idea. I say there is nothing wrong whatsoever with coveting your neighbour’s wife. It’s perfectly natural. Marriage and monogamy is not. These are biblical religious culturally enforced institutions.

    Lets say I’m married and I discover I am extremely attracted to my new neighbour’s wife. Instead of assuming this desire is inherently bad or evil and denying it or suppressing it I don’t make such judgement and I just let it play out. I allow myself to fantasize about my neighbour’s wife and perhaps one day I even flirt with her and she flirts back. Then she reveals that her and her husband are swingers in an “open relationship” and she asks if me and my wife have ever thought about swinging or having a “modern relationship.” I tell her that I have thought about it but I’m not sure my wife would be into it. She tells me to ask my wife what she thinks because “you might be surprised.” So I do ask my wife and it turns out she’s really into it but was afraid to raise the idea because it’s so against social norms people keep such fantasies hidden from their peers and loved ones. But now I find out she’s into exploring an open sexual relationship and we venture ahead and it is wonderful and enriches our lives increasing our overall pleasure and that of our new neighbours.

    I would never have known this wonderful world was open to me if I had suppressed the very natural desire to covet my neighbour’s wife. This is what I am getting at when I point out that the example you are using of “coveting they neighbour’s wife” is a biblical/cultural norm that people think of as automatically bad due to cultural pressures, not because it actually is bad. Given that humans are naturally not monogamous (neither women nor men are naturally monogamous) perhaps the norm of marriage ands monogamy is what needs to change, not our natural desire to be promiscuous.

    The facts are clear, at least 80% of men cheat and 70% of women cheat. Are 75% of us horrible people? Or are our biblical institutions out of touch with reality? I’m guessing the latter.

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  17. Garth,

    No, the idea of not coveting your neighbor’s wife is not limited to the Bible, it’s found in plenty of other traditions, including the Stoic one.

    The reason your desire is “bad” (not “evil”) is because it causes you mental disturbance, like an my unfililled desire. It also makes it more difficult to resist it.

    Look, this really isn’t rocket science. There is plenty of good psychological research that suggests that overcoming cravings is far better than resisting them. (And no, sorry, not going to do your research for you, you can google just as fast as I can.)

    Nobody is saying that 75% of people (those who cheat) are “horrible,” you keep using hyperbole to make your points. But that doesn’t mean cheating is something good, to be indulged in. And I hope I don’t have to explain why.

    As for your scenario, enjoy your fantasies men, they are (mostly) harmless.

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  18. Hi Garthdaisy,

    I can hear the refrain in my head:

    “We’ve got you now! This proves that you’re one of the selfish spawn of those Utilitarian bastards, who themselves are only vile bastardizations of the arguably respectable Epicureans. Given your “swinger” admission, you can now be termed nothing less than “Hedonist”!

    Of course no one here will stand behind such a statement publicly, and I don’t mean to bum you out. I do consider your point quite valid however, but doubt that many of the so called “moral” will back me up. Massimo obviously has not. Furthermore even if he were to, you know quite well that philosophers have no generally accepted understandings of reality — this would simply be his beliefs over the beliefs of others. Given that “ought” can’t exist without “is” (as you wisely counsel), then why not forget the “ought” altogether and simply focus upon the “is”? That’s where I’d have you consider my own amoral subjective total utilitarianism. I believe that this concerns REality rather than MORality. So is everybody happy with that foursome? Well then good for everybody, and to the exact degree of their promoted happiness! But then what if someone isn’t happy about it? Then bad for everybody? No, then bad for that specific subject, and to the exact degree of his/her unhappiness. But then as far as the happiness of the whole goes, this will be represented by its aggregate utility over a given unit of time. In a conceptual sense this presumed description of reality truly is quite simple. Our mental and behavioral sciences do not yet accept it however, and I suspect because morality (which isn’t yet understood as a product of empathy and theory of mind utility) seems to encourage us to deny what’s real regarding good/bad existence. I presume this is why our “soft sciences” continue to do so poorly.

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  19. Philosopher Eric: You should read B.F. Skinner’s “beyond freedom and dignity.” You sound like a crude version of the thesis he is presenting there. He too was obsessed with making everything “scientific” and ignoring all the subtleties — and thereby, the realities — of human life, on behalf of an advanced psychological science, for the ultimate purpose of making everyone happy.

    Of course, unlike you, he was a hugely important professor of psychology who substantially advanced our understanding of conditioning and who spent a career teaching and doing research at Harvard. Still, he could provide you with some more rigorous ammunition than the sort of stuff you’re posting now.

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  20. Thanks Daniel,

    I actually have a psychologist friend who has been extremely influenced by the ideas of B. F. Skinner. He and I discuss these issues when he has time for me. My last submission to him actually included me going through Wikipedia and marvelling at how well Skinner’s ideas conform with my own. Of course beyond lots of reading, “the easy button” is to demonstrate the full nature of my ideas to those who are already quite versed in associated fields, both to get their assessments, and perhaps even their interest. I’m certainly looking for partners. Though not yet 50, I’ll at least be blogging about this stuff for the rest of my life.

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