Fear of death

Mason asked:

Why isn’t death something one suffers from?

Helena asked:

Is it for the best that people eventually die?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m going to answer Mason’s and Helena’s questions together because they both concern the problem of our fear of death. (See my article Is it rational to fear death? and my YouTube video What is death?)

The short and boring answer to Mason’s question comes from from the Greek philosopher Epicurus: ‘Death is nothing to us … It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.’ To ‘suffer’ from something (e.g. a bee sting, an amputation) you need to be alive. Death as such, as opposed to the process — possibly long and agonizing — of dying isn’t something you suffer because at the very point where death begins, ‘you’ are no more.

So far as the danger that Malthus predicted of the world population increasing at a geometric rate is concerned, it is very definitely a good thing that people eventually die — good for everyone else on the planet! But how can it be ‘good’ for you? Wouldn’t you prefer to live forever if you had the choice? That’s Helena’s question.

Thomas Nagel has written a very good essay on this in his book Mortal Questions, 1979: ‘Death’ (posted at stoa.org.uk).

One question that Nagel considers that has gripped me is the seeming paradox of the unappealingness of the thought that I might just go on for ever and ever, and the desire, at any given time, to go on living. Let’s say I’m convinced by the argument that life would get extremely boring and repetitive after, say, a thousand years. I would not want to live as long as that. And yet, as each new day begins, I sincerely hope that I do not die today.

In practice, as the centuries wear on, and you become increasingly aware of your miserable finitude and the limits of what you are able to achieve given your limited powers, the depression would increase to the point where you felt impelled to kill yourself. The maths of this situation (which is parallel to a thunder clap, or tearing a piece of paper) has been well researched: it’s called catastrophe theory. The point is that when you do finally turn the gun on yourself, you don’t do so for a ‘reason’ (which has existed possibly for hundreds of years). You just finally snap.

But what about this claim — possibly contentious — that even granted immortality, I am a limited being with limited possibilities? Surely (this is a point that has been made to me) if we are going into the realms of magic, and immortality is a magical notion (you even survive the death of the universe and the birth of a new universe!) then why couldn’t you magically acquire greater and greater intellectual powers, so that you were fully able to make use of your indefinitely extended life span?

Imagine what you like. The question is, are you imagining YOU? Are you still there, or has something over time taken your place (and perhaps fondly preserves your memories, as one keeps faded photographs in a family album). The god-lie entity that exists now, after hundreds of thousands of years, isn’t you. ‘It’ merely remembers another being’s ‘memories’, the being that you were.


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