Friday, August 19, 2011

Is it rational to fear death?

To: Catherine B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 6 June 2004 11:35

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your letter, with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

This is a well-argued, articulate essay which succeeds very well in getting across the paradox of a death which we fear, even though we will not be there to experience it.

This is a problem which I have grappled with for a long time. I have tried to take the problem forward (the arguments in unit 15 are spelled out at greater length in my 1993 paper, 'Is it rational to fear death?' on the Wood Paths web site at

How would one criticise Epicurus' argument?

Consider the assumption that what is fearful about X, for some X capable of inspiring fear, is the experience of X. Is that necessarily true?

On the face of it, that assumption is false. We fear for things that might happen to our great great great grandchildren, or in future millennia.

However, this kind of example involves fearing X on another person's behalf. I fear for the effects of a nuclear winter, or the consequences of the greenhouse effect, on behalf of my great great great grandchildren, or humanity at large.

By contrast, when we fear our own death, at least part of this fear is on our own behalf. This is the fear whose rationality is being questioned. It is not irrational to fear for what might become of my wife and children after I am dead, because this is fear on their behalf rather than my own.

Here's an example. The loss of our reputation is something we may legitimately fear. This can happen while we are still alive. But it can also happen after we are dead, when we are not able to defend ourselves. If I suspected, or knew, that someone was 'out to get me' who was prepared to blacken my name after I had passed away, would this not be fear on my own behalf?

This looks like a valid counter-example to the assumption that 'what is fearful about X, for some X capable of inspiring fear, is the experience of X'.

Moreover, as we have seen, this fear is on my own behalf.

However, it may be objected that the example of reputation is a special case because it concerns *how others regard me*. So even if it is true, in a sense, that this is a fear on my own behalf, it is also true that it necessarily involves others.

By contrast, I could be the last person alive and still fear my death. The loss of all the experiences I would enjoy were I to remain alive is something I fear, not only on my own behalf, but also regardless of how others view me, or whether other people exist at all.


Well, you'll be glad to know that I have just refuted one of the main arguments in my 1993. An obvious point too. (I'll have to think about this some more. It is also possible that I have forgotten something that my former self remembered. That can happen too.)

It wasn't essential to refute Epicurus in order to put forward my own argument for the irrationality of the fear of death. If Epicurus' argument is valid after all, then it would be a 'double whammy' against the rationality of the fear of death. All the better.

(My argument, if you remember, is that the continuity of the 'I' over time is ultimately a sheer illusion: what does not continue cannot cease to continue.)

But let's look at the point you make about our natural survival instinct. This is what makes the argument against the fear of death so paradoxical. Even when we accept the argument we don't really believe it.

How necessary is the survival instinct, though? It would not be too difficult to envisage an imaginary scenario (on Mars, say) where the survival of one's genes (remember this is what drives evolution, the individual matters only so long as they are able to reproduce) actually required that one die. Far from avoiding death, Martians actively seek it at every opportunity, as this is the mechanism whereby they are able to spread their 'seed'.

So, what is natural is just a matter of fact. The facts might have been different, in another possible world, than they are in this world.

Alternatively, let's leave nature just as it is. All human cultures appear to have developed with the same awe and respect for death as something to be feared. It is true that the Ancient Greek hoplite wished for nothing so much as a 'beautiful death', but at the time this was seen as heroic, as an overcoming of one's natural fear. Imagine, by contrast, a totalitarian society which over hundreds of years has succeeded in indoctrinating its members with the belief that death is to be welcomed, the approach of death something to enjoy and savour. It is difficult for us to imagine what these people would be like. But it is a matter of contingent fact, just as before with the Martians, that we are not like these people.

All the best,