Friday, March 18, 2011

Is it rational to fear death?

To: Sue W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it Rational to Fear Death?
Date: 24 April 2001 12:25

Dear Sue,

Thank you for your e-mail of 13 April, with your fifth essay for the Possible World Machine, 'Is it Rational To Fear Death?'

I think there's a fair chance that you will be able to complete your Associate Diploma before going up to Lancaster!

You asked me to advise you on 'which of my essays to expand and submit to the Philosophical Society'.

Which four essays you select will depend upon how much enthusiasm you can muster for the different topics. They are all, potentially good enough. In fact, I would say that they are, or are very close to being, of Diploma standard already. Still, there is every reason to do the best you can, not least because your portfolio will be up on the Pathways Essay Archive for others to see! (My concern is not altogether altruistic. I have a personal and professional interest in keeping the materials on the Pathways web site up to the highest possible standards.)

It goes without saying that you should take careful note of my criticisms and suggestions. However, you are not required to agree with them!

As you have been working to a reasonable length, the essays will not require too much expansion. The thing to do is make whatever corrections or additions are needed to get the point across. Before you add things, ask yourself, 'Is this addition really necessary?' It is easier to make an essay worse through additions than it is to make it better.

Now let's look at this essay.

The first point I would make is that you have been deflected by Socrates' assertion that there is nothing to fear from a 'dreamless sleep' into overlooking what I took to be the main point of the question. The result is that you have tackled an altogether different question. (That's easily fixed: just change the title.)

Not many would agree that it is a 'wonderful gain' to be able to exchange this life for a perpetual 'dreamless sleep'. Moreover, for those who do not share Socrates' sentiment, it is not at all clear that 'a pain free and peaceful passing from life to death would seem to hold little to fear', as you remark on the last page. Surely, in your line of work, you must have met enough people for whom that thought does hold very real fear?

It takes some arguing, that a peaceful passing away ought not to be feared. Epicurus is credited with the classic argument for the irrationality of the fear of death as such. Death "is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us, but when death comes then we no longer exist." Yes, but if you have had a good life, then death will take away something good. Is that "nothing to us"? Unit 15 of The Possible World Machine gives my own views on this question.

The discussion of Heidegger is relevant to this question. Heidegger is saying, in effect, that it is only because of the fact of death that human existence has the potential to be meaningful. There is an article by the British moral philosopher Bernard Williams ('Reflections on the Makropoulos Case' in his collection 'Problems of the Self') where he argues forcefully for the view that human beings are simply not capable of facing the prospect of everlasting earthly existence.

However, the topic you have actually chosen to discuss has great philosophical potential, and you make some inroads in exploiting that potential. What does a 'person' have to be, in order to be the kind of thing that is capable of life beyond the grave? A disembodied 'soul' is the classic answer, but as you are correct to note, there are problems with that conception. There is not much a soul can actually *do* apart from a body.

That, of course, assumes that we have a coherent notion of the 'soul'. You mention Kant's criticisms. You say that Kant is prepared to allow that I 'cannot know that I myself am dependent on my body' (a reference would be appreciated!) Materialists would deny outright the possibility of a self that does not require a body. Interestingly, though, as Dennett remarks in his book 'Consciousness Explained', certain versions of materialism are consistent with the idea of a person acquiring a new body after they have died. If self is just a 'program' running on the human brain, then in theory you could upload the self program onto disc then download it into a new brain and body. (A number of contemporary philosophers, it should be noted, are extremely sceptical about this idea, e.g. John Searle.)

In other words, Swinburne's view would appear to be accessible to both the dualist and the materialist. The self stored on disc is not alive. To be alive, the self program has to be up and running.

There is a big difference between the Aristotelian and Cartesian models of the self. This is one thing that you should stress. The Aristotelian view of the mind or self as the 'form' of a living human body is much closer to the Swinburne/ Dennett point that a soul is non-functional without a body. In other words, there is a strong philosophical argument for the doctrine of bodily resurrection.

So, quite a bit of work to do here. However, if this is a topic that is important to you, then by all means include it in your Associate diploma portfolio.

All the best,

Geoffrey