14. November 2008 · Comments Off on Facing death with Epicurus · Categories: Arts & Living, Death · Tags: , , , ,

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.

19. October 2008 · Comments Off on Death is nothing to us · Categories: Death · Tags: , ,

The idea that death gives meaning to life is widespread but does not reflect careful reasoning, and is often a  desperate rationalization of human mortality. As a consequence, life extensionists have not been at great pains to defeat “pro-death” arguments. A (secular) philosophical position that is harder to refute is that we should not fear death because we cannot experience it. This is the classical argument of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.):

Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

Many philosophers have felt uncomfortable with such reasoning and have gone  out of their way to refute it. This should not be surprising since humans are “hardwired” for survival. An outlook on death that seems strongly at odds with our evolved survival instinct is bound to be challenged. Epicurus’ position on death has further been challenged as nihilistic. For example, if death is not bad because it cannot be experienced by the person himself, on what moral grounds should we refrain from killing a person, provided the method is instantaneous and the individual in question is not known by others who can mourn his death?

In the collection “The Metaphysics of Death,” many contributors feel pressed, sometimes venturing into fairly obscure arguments, to refute the Epicurean position. But as Stephen Rosenbaum points out in his contribution “Epicurus and Annihilation,” the position of Epicurus on death is often misunderstood.  Epicurus did not argue that we should not fear the process of dying or the prospect of dying.

One can prefer life over death without committing to the view that death is bad for a person. Although our survival instinct usually prevents us from looking at it in such a way, in real life we have an ongoing “choice” between life or death. Although death cannot be experienced as being bad, we generally have good reason to prefer life over death, provided life is experienced as positive or has the potential to become positive. Although life extensionists would prefer to have stronger arguments against the Epicurean view on death, a preference for good experience over no experience can do the work just fine.