Thursday, 6 October 2016
Is it Rational to Fear Death?
"Most of us would admit that, at least in some way, we fear death. But what if we're making a mistake - a reasoning error? What if our fear of death is based on a misconception about death that, if corrected, would eliminate our fear?"
- Mark Berkson, Death, Dying, and the Afterlife
Many people, when asked, say they are not afraid of death - afraid of dying perhaps but not of death itself. I tend to disbelieve them. The religious mythologies and rituals, literature, and philosophies of all cultures from earliest times attest to the universal terror of death among our kind. In our own time, over a hundred years of deep psychology have confirmed that fear of death lies deep within the unconscious mind, hidden from day-to-day consciousness by various strategies of denial. Most of us don't want to talk or think about our own death at all. The deaths of others usually takes place at a remove from us, and we don't have any role in preparing a corpse for its funeral or burial.
It's easy to say now, safe in our home and absent any reason to think the end is near, that we are not afraid of death. But consider the following: imagine you are captured by some evil people and imprisoned in a small, sealed cell from which escape is impossible. After a while a note is slipped under the door saying that in one hour the cell will begin to fill with helium, killing you in matter of seconds. Do you seriously believe you would not experience fear during that final hour? Can you imagine that situation vividly enough to experience some fear right now?
Currently a group of White Rock philosophers is studying a video lecture course on death, dying, and the afterlife. The topic of a recent session was "Is it rational to fear death?" In a basic sense, the answer is 'no.' It is not rational to experience fear of death, since fear is an emotion, and no emotions are rational. They are passions - literally, things that happen to us. Emotions just come upon us whether we want them or not. The Greek philosopher Epicurus probes more deeply. Knowing that everyone feels afraid of death now and then, he asks: assuming death is the final and complete end of a person's life, can you give a good reason for fearing death? The question means: after careful philosophical reflection, is it rational to fear death? His argument goes something like this:
Death is nothing to us.
1) Let's assume what seems to be true about death from all that we can observe, viz. that death is the complete end of a person's life - no more sensation or any other experience.
2) Now the only thing that is bad for us is pain or suffering.
3) But when we are dead, there is no pain or suffering.
4) Therefore, death is not bad for us and hence is nothing to be feared.
Epicurus argues that it is not rational to fear death, and it is difficult to refute his reasoning. Accepting the argument, however, doesn't mean that you won't continue to be afraid of death. It is unrealistic to imagine that a single act of reasoning can dispel an instinct as deeply rooted in us as fear of death. Epicurus understood this and so advised his disciple in his famous Letter to Menoeceus to "Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us." We know that Epicurus, like most of the Greek philosophers of his time, regarded philosophy as practical wisdom as well as the pursuit of intellectual understanding. So he probably advised his students to reflect deeply and often on his argument that death is nothing to be feared. A daily practice of repeating and contemplating the Epicurean argument amounts to using philosophy as therapy. In our own time cognitive behavioral therapy takes a similar approach.
Lucretius, a later devotee of Epicureanism, offered a variation on the argument by pointing out that the infinite span of time that passed before our birth instils no regret in us, and therefore, the similarly endless time that will elapse after we die should be of equal unconcern. This is known as the symmetry argument.
Against these thinkers, contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel proposes the deprivation argument: death is bad because we lose (the memory of) every good thing that happened in our lives and all possibility of enjoying similar experiences in the future. He offers several thought experiments to support the argument. He asks us to imagine (1) a husband's betrayal by his wife that he never finds out about, (2) an author that writes a book that, after her death, is destroyed by a fire, and so nobody reads it; (3) an intelligent adult who suffers a brain injury that "reduces him to the mental condition of a contented infant." In each case, Nagel insists, the event is bad for the individual, even though he/she never experiences any negative feelings as a result of the event. In each case, a period of time in the person's life must be taken into consideration, not merely a moment of experience, as Epicurus thought.
Against Lucretius, Nagel argues that the pre-birth and post-death periods are not symmetrical, because the first is devoid of all value, whereas a person's life before death includes many good experiences as well as the expectation of additional goods in future years. Both of these are highly valued by everyone, and they are lost when a person dies. Therefore, to fear losing them - to fear death - is rational.
In the 20th century, some existentialist philosophers have sided with Epicurus with a slightly different take on the issue. They argue that when it comes to death, 'fear' is the wrong term. Fear in usual cases is fear of some object or event or situation - something specific like a charging rhinoceros. Remove the object and the fear is gone. Death is not like that. Soren Kierkegaard's word dread or Heidegger's angst is more appropriate, since death has no identifiable, specific features at all. Fear of death is really dread of the unknown, of our non-existence, which we cannot even imagine. There is no way to remove death understood in this way and so no way to free ourselves from dread. These philosophers agree with Epicurus that fear of death is irrational but disagree with his optimistic belief that rational contemplation can relieve us of that fear.
· Can one's belief that they are not afraid of death be trusted?
· Do you think both Epicurus and Nagel could be right or are their views mutually exclusive?
· If the existentialists are right, then isn't the modern trend of death-denial a rational response after all? Why not a comforting delusion rather than a depressing truth?