Facing death with Epicurus

James Warren is to be complimented for writing a thorough and persuasive book on Epicurean thinking about death. In Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics, Warren offers a detailed review of Epicurus’ view that “death is nothing to us.” His treatment of Epicurus’ critics should be considered a success for the following three reasons. The author has a genuine understanding of  the Epicurean philosophy with all its nuances. Second, unlike many philosophers, Warren devotes a lot of time to presenting the arguments of Epicurus’ critics in their most charitable form, sometimes even raising novel potential objections, before refuting them. Finally, although the author allows for the possibility that the human fear of death may be hardwired, and even an evolutionary advantage, he stands out among other philosophers in not have a strong desire to refute Epicurus, a trait that negatively affects a lot of the literature on Epicurus.

Because the Epicurean view on the fear of death is often misunderstood, the author distinguishes and reviews four interpretations of the argument in the first chapter, Fears of Death:

1. The fear of being dead.
2. The fear that one will die, that one’s life is going to end.
3. The fear of premature death.
4. The fear of the process of dying.

In the following three chapters the author thoroughly reviews three different themes in the Epicurean tradition: the argument that death cannot be a harm because if we do not exist we cannot  experience the deprivation of things that life offered, the argument that since we do not consider the period before we existed as a harm we cannot claim that the period after we exist is a harm, and the argument that death cannot be premature or prevent a person from having attained a complete life. The chapter on premature death is of particular interest to life extensionists because it discusses the issue of immortality  from an Epicurean perspective, briefly contrasting Bernard Williams‘ argument against immortality with the Epicurean tradition.

Because Warren ultimately does not find Epicurus’ critics persuasive, he devotes the final chapter to the question of what living an Epicurean life would imply. An important reason for exploring this issue is to explore the argument that even if the Epicurean view on death is correct, it would lead to consequences that few are willing to accept or are highly impractical. The author singles out two issues: would it be incoherent for an Epicurean to write a will (as Epicurus himself did) and the desirability of prolonging one’s life.

Most reasons for executing a will are rejected as inconsistent with the Epicurean tradition but a notable exception is made for a line of reasoning that finds a rational reason for writing a will in the value of strengthening one’s relationship with friends during life:

…the knowledge that a friend will leave certain items in a will to another may ensure the continued assistance of this future beneficiary during the remaining period of the testator’s life. The beneficiary reciprocates in advance, as it were, for the goods which he has been pledged and will receive when the other dies.

This argument in favor of writing a will may have broader implications. If an Epicurean has reason to be positively involved with the fate of people who may be still alive after him, a related argument could be made that he could also be concerned about future generations because of the effect of overlapping generations. If such an argument is possible, the Epicurean view that we can neither experience good nor bad things  after we cease to exist can be reconciled with dispositions such as protecting the environment or contributing to causes that do not have a chance to succeed during a person’s lifetime. By doing so we are signaling our disposition to cooperate, reap the benefits of cooperation, and respect justice as mutual advantage.

If we should not fear death, why prolong life? Here Warren is at greater pains to reconcile Epicurus-style reasoning and a wish to remain alive. But as the author admits, perhaps one obstacle for such a reconciliation is the “highly debatable” Epicurean view that pleasure cannot be increased beyond the absence of pain, a view that seems to be at odds with both  personal introspection and empirical observation. It  may not be  incoherent to believe that death cannot be a harm but prolonging a life that is an (overall) positive experience is desirable.  Some variants of this argument, however, would run into the objection that comparing the value of existence and non-existence is nonsensical because the latter cannot be experienced. As a matter of fact, the obvious point that death cannot be experienced is one of the central tenets of Epicurean thinking. Does that just leave the Epicurean with the position that he “will simply continue to live with no sufficient reason  either to kill himself or to want to survive until tomorrow?” It is clear that this issue would benefit from some smart analytic thinking. Further benefit may be obtained  by seeking an answer to the question why the “intellectualist stance on the emotions” that informs Epicureanism  seems to contradict human psychology as it has evolved.

Famous preserved body parts

The website TopTenz recently published a list of the Top 10 Most Famous Preserved Body Parts. The list includes Galileo’s finger and Albert Einstein’s brain. As has been discussed on this blog before, the preservation of human brains (no matter how frivolous the intention) raises a number of important questions about the nature of death and the possibility of  future resuscitation. The brain constitutes the physical basis of the person and, under ideal conditions such as prompt vitrification, preserving the brain is akin to preserving that person.

Not mentioned in this list is the strange fate of the brain of Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy. It is claimed that parts of Mussolini’s brain are contained in a box together with his remains in a tomb in his birthplace Predappio in Italy. In his travel diary “They Stole Mussolini’s Brain (Well, Almost),” industrial musician Boyd Rice published a hilarious account of his visit to Predappio and involvement in an (ultimately abandoned) attempt to steal Mussolini’s brain.

Further reading:

Albert Einstein’s brain and information-theoretic death

Also on TopTenz:

Top 10 Researchers who Experimented on Themselves

Edvard Munch's Death in the Sick Chamber

Edvard Munch’s painting “Death in the Sick Chamber” (1895) portrays death as expressed through the survivors. A striking aspect of this work is that all the people in the room do not console one another and are physically and emotionally isolated.

In “Modern Art and Death”, Carla Gottlieb writes:

….the faces are contorted, not in mourning for a beloved lost member, but in fear of the unknown which has just swallowed the deceased, fear for themselves who are eventually to meet the same fate. In this agony, each person is alone; each survivor turns away not only from the dead but also from the other participants in the scene. Faced with death, the family bonds fall apart, revealing their superficial character. Thus Munch experienced death as dissolving family ties…

The accompanying black and white lithograph evokes an even bleaker atmosphere, as can be seen in the sunken eyes and grim mouth of the woman facing the viewer.

Munch shows the destabilizing and alienating effects of death. Although the people in the room seem to be at a loss how to proceed in life, there is closure. In cryonics such closure is not available. Cryonics also destabilizes the fabric between people because some may survive and others may not. The idea of cryonics can also produce guilt about loved ones who died and never got the chance. These factors, and not just technical feasibility alone, may explain why cryonics is so unpopular.

Arthur C. Clarke’s The Last Theorem

As mentioned in a previous contribution, Arthur C. Clark was no stranger to cryonics. The famous science fiction author once stated in a letter in support of cryonics, “Although no one can quantify the probability of cryonics working, I estimate it is at least 90% — and certainly nobody can say it is zero.”  And although he did not choose cryonics himself, he has left a large legacy through his novels and it is exciting to read that together with Frederick Pohl (author of the cryonics novel ‘The Age of the Pussyfoot’) he collaborated on a last novel titled ‘The Last Theorem’.

Teaching children about cryonics

How do you teach a child about something that is so far “unproven”?  How do you bring up the subject of cryonics and how it may allow someone to be reanimated in the future?

I am a cryonicist, I’ve been a signed member for years, I’m also a mother, social activist, environmentalist and author.  I teach religious education at my church, and I volunteer in my children’s schools.  My book “21st Century Kids”, set in the year 2008, is about two children who ‘die’ now but are cryonically preserved and then reanimated 200 years in the future.  The book deals with how they view the society then, and how that society views them.  The book is of course science fiction, but it is based on things that scientists see as possible now.  When I talk to an eager classroom of 9-& 10-year-olds at a school about my book, I read passages out of it that are exciting and imaginative like the nano-tech and simulated artificial reality parts, but I also make sure the subject of cryonics comes up.  I’ve talked with dozens of classrooms, and hundreds of children at my own church about cryonics.  I know how hard it can be, death is a reality—it is a fear for children, or it is a sadness when someone they loved died—they may think that person is in heaven, and they will see them again–when cryonics comes up, the children become animated sharing stories, and what they think.

I love children for their open-mindedness.   Of all the children I’ve talked to, many have said cryonics sounded neat or cool—I even had a few say they were going to tell their parents they wanted to sign up for cryonics.  I’ve amazingly heard back from several parents over the past few years, asking me for information.  I give them cryonics magazines, and talk with them about life insurance and how easy it is to set up—the importance of being signed if something unexpected happens so you don’t have to be a ‘last minute case’ and I go over the basics of just what cryonics is with them.  This blog piece would turn into a book if I listed all the things I say and children ask—but I’ll go over a few of my ‘sound bytes’.

I tell children that some people choose cryonics because they’ve seen studies that showed cat brains have been preserved at colder than ice temperatures for several years and had normal looking electrical activity when re-warmed and given new blood, but we can not yet re-animate the whole body and all of the organs.  I say that there are scientists right now looking at how to better preserve organs for humans in hospitals, like when a person in a hospital in Texas needs a new kidney, and a person in California who has a kidney that would match, dies—how to get that kidney to the person in Texas fast enough, through ultra cold transport and planes.  I say cryonicists also like that some children have been born and grown into healthy adults after having been preserved cryonically as embryos. This makes them think that the procedure might work on a whole human someday.   I tell children that I, and my own children (usually the kids I’m talking to know one of my three kids) are signed up for cryonics, and when we die–like if a car accident happened tomorrow—we will be preserved, and most importantly our brains will be preserved in case scientists in the future figure out how to get it running again.  I say that even if they don’t, scientists from now are very interested in the mummified Egyptian bodies from over 3 thousand years ago—and have even been able to better understand some diseases now by looking at the diseases the mummified bodies had, and how those diseases have evolved since then.  I say that my body will be donated to science, and that if my brain is not made to have full awareness after several hundred years then I hope that some things can be learned by the future society about the preserved bodies from now.  Kids want to know how long I think it would take to work, I say I think over 500 years—and say that it would be likely to work if society, technology and medicine keep advancing as they have over the last 500 years.

It is hard to predict when talking with a group of children, where the talk will go—I ask them questions, like if they know something their great grandparents didn’t have a hundred years ago, we end up talking history and then talking about what could be.  Children sometimes bring up very sad stories about someone dying, and I say yes even with cryonics when someone is dead—they are gone from now, to us and their family is sad, they don’t know if they will ever see them again.  I’ve had the heart wrenching experience of an 11 year old talking about how his dad died of cancer, and I’ve had a few children in the 5-7 range who share about a grandparent who died and how much they miss them.  I empathize with their loss.  I say to children that  I believe their loved one is in a better place, that many cryonicists too want to go to a better place they believe in, like heaven—and they think they some day will, but if cryonics works they’ll have more time here on Earth to do good deeds—to try to help with some of humanities problems, before they go on.  It is hard to talk about death, but children will share deeply as they have their own fears about death and that gives me solace, the section about cryonics is deep, is profound but we always move on.

Children like the idea of cryonics, but they also like to talk about “future weapons” they see on T.V., and each group I talk to always brings up space travel.  Cryonics is a short part of our conversation, and wherever our conversation goes I try to keep it exciting and to stimulate their imaginations.   Having a group of children to speak with about futurist issues at a school or a church and covering cryonics is a lot of fun, and I always try to stay sensitive to what other parents might say when their children tell them what they ‘learned that day’.  People wonder if I talk differently with my own children, and the answer is not really.  Sure we make more jokes about “if cryonics works then….”Or if doing something dangerous joking “make sure I’m preserved if…” but in the end, I say the same things to them that I would to a group of children that are not my own.  Cryonics is not proven, it is just a chance, it would be fun if it worked and some of the research into it can help people now and I’m proud to be a cryonicist.  I tell my children that I’m happy that they are too. I also tell my children that I hope that after they are adults and choose partners in life to start their own familes with, that their families will also be cryonicists.

In the end, I’d encourage other cryonicists to share their views with children they know—they could even present “21st Century Kids” to a group of children, or simply give it as a gift, or read it to kids they know.  Teaching kids about cryonics is simply sharing what could be, it is not giving false hope—but hope that is based on science and studies that show it could work someday. Even though I share about cryonics with many adults, I have the most fun teaching children about it, and I hope you too get to engage in fascinating conversations about the future and how it could be, with a wide-eyed eager child who is in awe with life.

Feedback on this article is encouraged at the Immortality Institute forum.

H.P. Lovecraft's "Cool Air" and cryonics

In “Heritage of Horror,” Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi writes that Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air” “anticipates cryogenic research.” We can forgive Joshi the common mistake of writing “cryogenics” when he means “cryonics,” but how much cryonics is there really in Lovecraft’s “Cool Air?”

“Cool Air” (1926) tells the story of a struggling writer who has secured affordable housing in a converted brownstone on West 14th Street in New York City to devote himself to “dreary and unprofitable magazine work.” Around three weeks pass when an incident in the room above introduces the reader to the character of Dr. Muñoz, whose “complication of maladies” requires an environment of constant cold. When the main character experiences a sudden heart attack, his initial repugnace for the eccentric doctor changes to admiration when Dr. Muñoz is able to offer him relief with a suitable combination of drugs.

Dr. Muñoz, we learn, is the “the bitterest of sworn enemies to death, and had sunk his fortune and lost all his friends in a lifetime of bizarre experiment devoted to its bafflement and extirpation.” He believes that “will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself, so that if a bodily frame be but originally healthy and carefully preserved, it may through a scientific enhancement of these qualities retain a kind of nervous animation despite the most serious impairments, defects, or even absences in the battery of specific organs.” As the story develops we learn about the doctor’s own (increasing) need for a cold environment to preserve his bodily frame.

Just as in cryonics, Dr. Muñoz employs cold to prevent decomposition. And decreased temperatures confer increased benefits in slowing down the rate of decomposition. In cryonics these benefits of low temperatures are exploited by reducing the temperature of the patient to a point of complete metabolic arrest. At the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees Celcius) biological time stands still for all practical purposes.

But what is remarkable about Dr. Muñoz’s approach is that he reaps the metabolic advantages of induced hypothermia without these temperatures preventing his mind from functioning. Dr. Muñoz seems to be unusually “alive” at ultra-profound, or even, high subzero temperatures! Because the EEG of a human brain becomes flat below 20 degrees Celcius, some other process must be involved, perhaps the “incantations of the mediaevalists, since he believed these cryptic formulae to contain rare psychological stimuli which might conceivably have singular effects on the substance of a nervous system from which organic pulsations had fled.”

Unless Dr. Muñoz’s treatment induced profound changes in the body’s biochemistry that allowed it to operate at much lower temperatures, his philosophy of life seems less “materialistic” and coherent than that of Lovecraft’s other enemy of death, Herbert West. Lovecraft never anticipated the practice of cryonics in a systematic fashion, but if Dr. Muñoz and Herbert West could have put their brilliant minds together, the benefits of cold temperatures could have been reaped to induce metabolic arrest in anticipation of future resuscitation of the “dead.”

Iceland's Blue Lagoon, skin aging and psoriasis

The practice of balneotherapy, also known as water treatment or spa therapy, has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, especially amongst those with skin diseases such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Salts, minerals, and bacteria particular to certain geothermal springs in various locations throughout the world have long been touted as having beneficial effects on skin, including significant reductions in lesions associated with psoriasis.

Of particular interest is the Blue Lagoon on the peninsula of Reykjanes in Iceland. A heating plant was built on the penninsula in 1976 to take advantage of naturally occurring geothermal activity. The Blue Lagoon was formed when hot water was discharged into an adjacent lava field. The lagoon water has an average temperature of 37°C, a pH of around 7.5, and a salt content of 2.5%. One of the plant workers with psoriasis began bathing in this new lagoon and his condition was greatly improved; this led to an instant and quickly growing interest in the healing potential of the Lagoon amongst sufferers of many types of skin diseases.

The Lagoon’s unique chemical and bacterial composition is found nowhere else in the world. The chemical composition of the Lagoon is (in mg/kg of Lagoon fluid): SiO2 137, Na 9280, K 1560, Ca 1450, Mg 1.41, CO2 16.5, SO4 38.6, H2S 0.0, Cl 18500, and F 0.14. The Lagoon waters also contain coccoid and filamentous blue-green algae not found under similar conditions anywhere else.

Early studies of the Blue Lagoon’s effect on both diseased and healthy skin has proven that bathing in the lagoon, and particularly applying the Lagoon’s white silica mud to the body, results in a significant reduction — oftentimes complete elimination — of even the most severe symptoms of psoriasis. Recent research published by Grether-Beck, et al. shows that these beneficial effects are not limited to diseased skin, and in fact the lagoon waters and mud have an anti-aging effect on healthy, normal skin.

While these initial studies demonstrated a beneficial effect of the Blue Lagoon on the skin, it remains to be discovered exactly what properties of the fluid and mud confer this benefit. In their recent paper, Grether-Beck, et al. prepared silica mud and microalgae extracts from Blue Lagoon mud and water samples to study their effects on in vitro epidermal keratinocytes and dermal fibroblasts (i.e., skin cells) as well as in vivo effects after topical treatment in healthy volunteers.

Since skin conditions like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis are characterized by reduced skin barrier function, and keratinocyte differentiation is a key component in determining the quality of the skin barrier, it is interesting to note that silica mud extracts stimulated expression of keratinocyte differentiation markers, as did both algae types, albeit to a lesser extent.

Extracts from silica mud and Blue Lagoon coccoid and filamentous algae also significantly inhibited ultraviolet (UV) radiation-induced metalloproteinase-1 (MMP-1) expression, which was associated with a concomitant inhibition of UV-induced interleuken-1 (IL-1) and IL-6 expression. Additionally, Blue Lagoon coccoid and filamentous algae extracts significantly upregulated expression of Collagen 1A1 (COL1A1) and COL1A2 in dermal fibroblasts — two genes which are critically involved in collagen synthesis.

Upregulation of keratinocyte differentiation markers was associated with a significant reduction in transepidermal water loss of treated skin areas in vivo; COL1A1 and COL1A2 expression also increased in treated skin after 4 weeks of treatment.

While such research is exciting, further investigation of the effects of the combination of Lagoon chemicals and bioactive molecules is necessary for a complete understanding of the therapeutic potential of the Blue Lagoon. Additionally, some data about the longevity of its beneficial effects on skin is warranted as well.

Medical tourism to the Blue Lagoon is growing. In 1994 Blue Lagoon opened an outpatient psoriasis clinic (renovated in 2005) with two dermatologists and three nurses on staff. Treatment consists of twice-daily dips in the Lagoon, during which silica mud is applied to psoriatic lesions, and UVB treatment in a phototherapy cabinet. Blue Lagoon skin care products can be purchased in Iceland, Nordic capitals, and online.

Consideration of the vanity and shortness of man’s life

Before the scientific conquest of death became a serious topic of conversation, philosophers, writers and poets had to resign themselves to the inevitable demise of the individual in this world. Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), the “Shakespeare of Divines,” gave poetic expression to the brevity and fragility of life in his The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651), parts of which later were used by the experimental / folk project Current 93 in the lyrics of The Dream of a Shadow of Smoke:

A man is a bubble, (said the Greek proverb), which Lucian represents with advantages and its proper circumstances, to this purpose; saying, that all the world is a storm, and men rise up in their several generations, like bubbles descending a Jove pluvio, from God and the dew of heaven, from a tear and drop of rain, from nature and Providence; and some of these instantly sink into the deluge of their first parent, and are hidden in a sheet of water, having had no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die: others float up and down two or three turns, and suddenly disappear, and give their place to others: and they that live longest upon the face of the waters are in perpetual motion, restless and uneasy; and, being crushed with a great drop of a cloud, sink into flatness and a froth; the change not being great, it being hardly possible it should be more a nothing that it was before. So is every man: he is born in vanity and sin; he comes into the world like morning mushrooms, soon thrusting up their heads into the air, and conversing with their kindred of the same production, and as soon they turn into dust and forgetfulness – some of them without any other interest in the affairs of the world, but that they made their parents a little glad and very sorrowful: others ride longer in the storm; it may be until seven years of vanity be expired, and then peradventure the sun shines hot upon their heads, and they fall into the shades below, into the cover of death and darkness of the grave to hide them. But if the bubble stands the shock of a bigger drop, and outlives the chances of a child, of a careless nurse, of drowning in a pail of water, of being overlaid by a sleepy servant, or such little accidents, then the young man dances like a bubble, empty and gay, and shines like a dove’s neck, or the image of a rainbow, which hath no substance, and whose very imagery and colours are fantastical; and so he dances out the gaiety of his youth, and is all the while in a storm, and endures only because he is not knocked on the head by a drop of bigger rain, or crushed by the pressure of a load of indigested meat, or quenched by the disorder of an ill-placed humour: and to preserve a man alive in the midst of so many chances and hostilities is as great a miracle as to create him; to preserve him from rushing into nothing, and at first to draw him up from nothing were equally the issues of an almighty power. And therefore the wise men of the world have contended who shall best fit man’s condition with words signifying his vanity and short abode. Honour calls a man “a leaf,” the smallest, the weakest piece of a short-lived, unsteady plant. Pindar calls him “the dream of a shadow:” another “the dream of the shadow of smoke.” But St. James spake by a more excellent spirit, saying, ‘Our life is but a vapour,’viz, drawn from the earth by a celestial influence; made of smoke, or the lighter parts of water tossed with every wind, moved by the motion of a superior body, without virtue in itself, lifted up on high, or left below, according as it pleased the sun, its foster-father. But it is lighter yet. It is but appearing;a fantastic vapour, an apparition, nothing real; it is not so much as a mist, not the matter of a shower, nor substantial enough to make a cloud; but it is like Cassiopeia’s chair, or Pelop’s shoulder, or the circles of heaven, fainorena, for which you cannot have a word that can signify a vernier nothing. And yet the expression is one degree more made diminutive; a vapour, and fantastical, or a mere appearance, and this but for a little while neither,the very dream, the phantasm, disappears in a small time, “like the shadow that departed; or like a tale that is told, or as a dream when one waketh.” A man is so vain, so unfixed, so perishing a creature, that he cannot long last in the scene of fancy: a man goes off, and is forgotten, like the dream of a distracted person. The sum of all is this: that thou art a man, than whom there is not in the world any greater instance of heights and declinations, of lights and shadows, of misery and folly, of laughter and tears, of groans and death.

H.P. Lovecraft and the science of resuscitation

H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West is a man of science, not superstition. Following Ernst Haeckel, he believes that “all life is a chemical and psychical process,” that the soul is “a myth,” and that “unless actual decomposition has set in, a corpse fully equipped with organs may with suitable measures be set going again in the peculiar fashion known as life.” Not satisfied with conventional medicine, West devotes his life to creating a solution that will restore artificial life after death. Like many biomedical researchers would find out after him, the same solution can have different effects on different species. But what West is really after is reanimation of humans. And reanimation of humans requires experimentation on humans.

West does not only anticipate the future science of resuscitation, but also the phenomenon of selective vulnerability of certain brain cells because we know that West fully realized “that the psychic or intellectual life might be impaired by the slight deterioration of sensitive brain-cells which even a short period of death would be apt to cause.” As a consequence, his corpses cannot be “fresh” enough. Artificial resuscitation turns out to be a step towards bigger things when we learn that West has ventured into the area of “warm” whole body preservation (suspended animation) by creating a “highly unusual embalming compound” that keeps the body fresh for future resuscitation efforts. Still not satisfied, the “materialist” West moves on to prove that there is nothing special about the brain when he attempts to create mental life by pharmacologic modulation of nervous tissue in a decapitated body. One can only guess what direction West’s research would have taken after these bizarre experiments. Science is hard, but for this medical student of Miskatonic University, resuscitation, suspended animation, and stem cell research are all in a days work.

The greatest mystery in Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” is that West succeeds in reanimating anything at all. Injection of West’s solution is not followed by artificial circulation, which makes one wonder how such a solution can confer such profound benefits.