Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is it rational to fear death?

To: Harry D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 18 May 2005 10:03

Dear Harry,

Thank you for your emails of 8 April and 17 April, with your fifth essay for the Possible World Machine in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

Congratulations on completing your Pathways program! The arrangements for the Associate Award give students a maximum of eight chances to submit essays (around 2000-2500 words) for evaluation. This ensures a level playing field for all those involved. After that, it will be up to you to put together a portfolio of four essays for submission.

In working towards your essay portfolio, you can either tackle the same essay topic twice, or choose eight different topics. The former is the safest option, the latter will give you the chance of covering the most ground. Or you can try a combination of the two approaches. Your Pathways essays are one possible starting point, although you are free to choose new topics if you want to.

If there is a particular topic that you feel confident in writing about, you welcome to get to work on essay one straight away. Alternatively, before you start sending me work, you might find it a valuable exercise to a short proposal detailing some of the topics that interest you, together with relevant books/ articles that you have read, or intend to read. I will offer my comments and suggestions and we can take things from there.

Is it rational to fear death?

I liked your example of liking parties 'so much... that I usually do not want to leave' which is an excellent way of posing the problem of our fear of death. You will be aware of having left the party, and your feelings of being sorry to leave. On the other hand, if you die suddenly during the party, you won't feel a thing.

In your essay, you seem to have assumed the Epicurean view ('Where I am death is not, where death is I am not') according to which the only basis for fear of death is fear of what might happen in an afterlife.

You also raise the philosophical question what makes a fear 'rational' or 'irrational', in the context of Hume's theory of desires ('Reason is the slave of the passions').

Is Epicurus right? If you told someone at the party, 'You will never leave the party because you will die suddenly and painlessly some time before now and midnight', the chances are they would be scared witless. Epicurus' argument won't have the slightest impact. The question is, is this a case of irrationality?

I myself have my doubts about the sufficiency of Epicurus' argument (as you will see in this unit) but let's assume for the moment, as you do, that the argument is valid.

What makes a fear irrational? I have heard of someone being afraid of baked beans. On strictly Humean grounds, this is just a 'passion' just like any other. The fear of baked beans is a given fact. The question of rationality can only arise in respect means-and-ends reasoning. However, pace Hume, we do in fact distinguish between desires which are 'neurotic' or irrational and those which are not. Being afraid of baked beans, if it gets out of hand, can make you a suitable case for treatment. On the hand one ought, rationally, to be afraid of uncooked or partially cooked chile beans - which are highly poisonous. (30 minutes boiling is sufficient to render them safe to eat so I'm told.)

There would be widespread agreement that if life is for you a generally good thing, that is sufficient grounds for fearing death. But that is not enough according to Epicurus. If I eat uncooked chile beans then something bad will happen to me. If I die, nothing bad will happen to me because 'I' will not be there.

Death is accompanied with bad consequences - one's family being left to mourn, the projects you started not coming to completion, and it is perfectly reasonable to be concerned for this. The question is whether it is reasonable or rational to be concerned for the sheer fact of the absence of my subjective 'I'.

There is a deep philosophical problem here. On the one hand, there are many people (the majority, I would suppose) who would say that the ceasing to exist of 'I' is something to fear in itself, and apart from its consequences. You ought to mind, at the very least, if you are going to die suddenly at the party. Many people, if offered immortality, would be tempted. However, bad things turn out, at least there would be the prospect of things getting better in an infinite future.

But what is this 'I' that is here now but will or will not be there in the future? That is the question at the heart of this. Russell once put forward the sceptical hypothesis that the world might have been created five minutes ago, and me and my memories along with it. Seeming to remember that P does not logically entail that P actually took place. Suppose I told you that tomorrow, after the party, there will be a perfect cell-for-cell copy of HD who seems to remember being there. So there will be someone thinking HD thoughts in the future, only that someone will not be you. Again, for most people that would not reduce in any way their objection to dying suddenly at the party. But why, exactly? Why is it different if you do not die at the party but survive to remember it the next day?

What is it that ties the 'I' who remembers to the 'I' who was at the party? The only answer seems to be sheer physical continuity. The HD copy was made in a laboratory, whereas the real HD traces an uninterrupted path through space and time. But in terms of my subjective view, why should that make so much of a difference? My answer is - it doesn't. There is no difference. That is why the fear of death - as a fear that the 'I' will be extinguished - is irrational.

All the best,

Geoffrey