Comments on the book YOUNIVERSE by Robert Ettinger

Robert Ettinger‘s book Youniverse: Toward a Self-Centered Philosophy of Immortalism and Cryonics is a book containing many insights and deep thoughts, yet has such an informal writing style that many readers might not take it seriously. I know of no other work of philosophy in which the author begins a sentence with “Anyway,”. Ettinger writes that the first cryonics-related organization was founded “in 1962 or 1963, I forget which”, then says “Why don’t I look it up?” and justifies himself by reference to a Woody Allen movie. This is not the kind of writing one expects from a philosophy treatise.

Ettinger may not take himself too seriously, but he is even more dismissive of most of the world’s foremost philosophers and religious figures. The writings of Aristotle are called “ramblings”. In describing William James’s statement that James was only able to understand Hegel while under the influence of nitrous oxide, Ettinger notes how appropriate it is that nitrous oxide is also called laughing gas. Ettinger wrote that “Rousseau has been extravagantly praised, and not only by himself”, but dismisses Rousseau as unoriginal, incoherent, not profound, and frequently wrong. Ettinger describes the philosopher G.E. Moore as being “definitely confused as well as confusing, abounding in contradictions and non-sequiturs, sometimes substituting assertions for arguments.” Ettinger often seems himself guilty of the last accusation. He faults Isaac Asimov for the “absurdity” that without the “saving grace of death” the rigid views of the old would prevent further progress — but leaves a critique of Asimov’s argument “as an exercise for the reader”. Ettinger writes that “Paeans of praise have poured from the pens of platoons of panting pundits” concerning Godel’s Incompleteness theorem, which he dismisses as a linguistic trick associated with the failure of physics to correspond identically with formal (mathematical) systems. By finding the quote from Wittgenstein “I don’t know why we are here, but I am pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves”, Ettinger has massively deflated my respect for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Ettinger describes the modern “self-styled bioethicist” as a “new type of vermin or parasite” whose major accomplishment has been to create “the illusion of looking down on people far above them.”

Ettinger wrote that “fear of God” is generally really fear of parents, neighbors, and a lifetime of conditioning. He says people too readily submit to tradition rather than use reason. To be “normal” is to have the same delusions as the neighbors. He says loyalty “is frequently a worthy habit”, but sometimes nothing more than an unjustified habit. Ettinger says faith is arrogant certainty in the absence of evidence, which ultimately “boils down to sacrificing your integrity for a bit of comfort”. To Ettinger it is obvious that non-human animals have consciousness and feelings, and that a God that disregarded the suffering of animals on the grounds that animals have no soul “would have less compassion than the average human”. Like many physicists, Ettinger seems accepting of the idea that time and the universe began with the Big Bang, but wonders where God would be before He created time and the universe. Ettinger can make no sense of an omniscient, omnipotent God creating people who need to live their lives to prove whether they deserve Heaven or Hell. Ettinger says that a benevolent God would forgive the skeptics, who should therefore have no reason to compromise their integrity and disbelief.

Ettinger’s irreverence extends to the legal system. Frequent use of appeals courts and split decisions in the Supreme Court are given as evidence that laws are unclear or that bias is pervasive. He describes juries as “ignorant, stupid and readily swayed by irrelevancies and by histrionics”. In connection with the adversarial system, Ettinger wrote “All lawyers are frightening, and specialty litigators are terrifying. Some firms are said to keep their lead litigators chained in a tower room and fed raw meat until needed.” I asked Mr. Ettinger what his beloved son (a lead litigator at a prestigious law firm) had to say about the law chapter, but I got no definitive response.

As the book title YOUNIVERSE implies, Ettinger believes that “me-first” and “feel-good” are the only possible basis for conscious motivation. He also states that a person ought to want whatever will maximize future “feel-good”, and that people do not always want what they ought to want. Ettinger believes that “figuring out what we ought to want is the primary problem of philosophy”. He says that a main aim of YOUNIVERSE is to debunk the views that values are arbitrary or externally given.

Ettinger challenges the claim of David Hume that “You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'”, and — like Ayn Rand with her Objectivist Ethics — he does so by reference to values being rooted in biology. Ettinger disparagingly dismisses Rand’s views as narcissism, “me generation”, and “looking out for number one” without explaining how this differs from “me-first”. Rooted in biology, Rand makes survival the basis of her ethics, rather than “feel-good”. Ironically, Ettinger writes more approvingly of Nietzsche’s self-centeredness, although Ettinger faults Nietzsche’s belief in the importance of power over other people as a core value. (Ettinger notes that Nietzsche believed Russians and Jews, rather than Germans, would be the “master races” of Europe.)

I disagree with the arguments of Rand and Ettinger for deriving “ought” from biology. Biology dictates that animals value food and water, but many humans have committed suicide by refusing food and water. To assert that such people are “wrong” and did not do what they ought to have done would be attempting to externally impose values upon them. Ettinger could argue that such people were acting in such a way as to maximize their satisfaction — “me-first” and “feel-good” (he gives the examples of a woman rushing into a burning building to save her baby, or “saints” who gain personal satisfaction from ascetic service to others). But by that argument they were wanting what they ought to want. The point Ettinger seems to be making is that people should not allow others to impose their values upon them — should not be driven by guilt, social pressure, the need to conform. But if people are driven by these motives, they are nonetheless still maximizing their satisfaction. Ettinger might say that such people are acting without integrity by not being true to themselves, but why should people be blamed for valuing the opinions of others and for this being important to them? If it is “impossible to be motivated by anything other than self interest, because motivation means what is important to the self”, then the word “ought” is inappropriate. If “me-first” and “feel-good” are the only possible bases for conscious motivation, then the word “ought” is inappropriate. The only reason that people fail to want what they ought to want is because of matters of fact, not matters of value — people failing to appreciate the consequences of their actions in the context of their values.

The issue of determinism and free will is a subject about which I have thought, read, and written about considerably (see A Case for Free Will AND Determinism ), yet I found Ettinger’s chapter on this subject impressively thoughtful and informative. I mostly agree with Ettinger’s views, about which we are both very much in the minority. I won’t say much about the issues or insights I gained in the determinism chapter, but I will comment on how he applies determinism to cryonics. Ettinger notes that “determinism is very nearly equivalent to” conservation of information, which implies that any human who ever lived could be reconstructed without having been cryonically preserved — except that there may never be adequate computing power.

Although I can conceive of retaining my personal identity in the total absence of any memories that I have, I nonetheless find the idea hard to relate-to. I am even less comfortable about the idea that the essence of my personal identity is feeling. Ettinger has firmer opinions on these subjects than I do, but I sense that his emphasis on feeling as the essence of personal identity contradicts his admonishments about the use of reason against intuition, tradition, and conditioning.

Ettinger skims over the subject of ischemic damage in cryonics, and I think he is wrong to say that “cryothermic damage will in most cases be the most difficult to reverse”. Freezing damage is like broken pieces that are nonetheless intact, whereas ischemic damage is like dissolution or decomposition of structure. Nonetheless, I cannot quantify my argument in terms of “most cases”. I think Ettinger is wrong to cling to the word “immortality” as meaning “indefinitely extended life” when its literal meaning is “eternal life”. His use of the word “immortality” presents cryonics as an alternative to religion rather than an extension of medicine.

Although Ettinger acknowledges that death will mean an end to suffering, he sees a number of disadvantages, including
“…it’s hard to enjoy life when you’re dead.
…daisies are prettier when viewed from above.
…you can only vote in Chicago.
…you need extra strength deodorant.”
But mainly, “Life is better than death because it is more interesting.” (For my own views on the subject, see: Why Life Extension?)

In his lifetime of reading Ettinger has collected numerous notable quotes, and these gems are liberally sprinkled throughout YOUNIVERSE. Some of my favorites include “‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ presupposes that you love yourself” (Miguel de Unamuno), “The greatest part of our happiness depends on our disposition, not our circumstances” (Martha Washington), and Will Rogers’s WWII suggestion for getting rid of German U-boats: “Boil the Atlantic Ocean. How do we do that? Hey, I’m just an idea man, I leave the details to the engineers.”

Ettinger also has a chapter called “Misunderstandings” which deals with his insights into a wide variety of subjects. Indicative of my “anti-intellectual” bias, is the fact that my favorite is Ettinger’s observation that torque (force X lever arm length) has identical units to work (newton-meters), despite the fact that work and torque are completely different. He offers no solution or explanation, however.

A consequence of Ettinger’s informal writing style is that there is much autobiographical material throughout YOUNIVERSE. But the last formal chapter (I am not counting the Appendix) is explicitly autobiographical. He says “I have perhaps a few thousand admirers, hardly any of whom give me much thought or attention”. Ettinger speaks of his loneliness in having experienced the loss of all his friends and family of his generation, and that there is nobody left whom he wants to impress. Indicative of Ettinger’s world-weariness is his quote of a comment made by his brother that all of life is “killing time and amusing oneself while waiting to die”.

Ettinger’s final comments concern his plan to have a pre-mortem “jolly wake” with music, speakers, toasts, and other festivities prior to a suicide intended to improve the conditions of his cryonic preservation. Ettinger notes earlier in the book that “many people are more afraid of seeming cowardly than of facing danger”, which is why suicide with an audience of friends and family would boost his courage. The last line of the chapter reads “If I never wake up, my last experience will have been better than most — a very brief comfort, to be sure.”

Although there are some cryonicists who believe that Robert Ettinger would be the perfect cryonicist to win sympathy for voluntary self-euthanasia to improve cryopreservation, I am not one of them. How can you justify voluntary euthanasia in a non-terminal person when there is no way of knowing how many years of life that person could be expected to live? How can you justify voluntary euthanasia for ANYONE not suffering from a terminal disease, or expect the public to be sympathetic to voluntary self-euthanasia under these conditions? Even for terminal cryonics patients, I would not be to eager to see a public association of cryonics with self-euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Cryonicists would be accused of taking advantage of mentally-compliant sick and elderly people for monetary reasons, which would lead to even more cryonics-unfriendly legislation.

And there are practical problems, not the least of which is the danger of autopsy. Many cryonicists, myself included, cling to life tenaciously — much more tenaciously than the average person. I would find it very difficult to euthanize myself or have myself euthanized. The ideal situation is when death is nearly certain to occur within a week. But this is the condition in which standbys are typically initiated, not the condition in which standbys fail to occur. Heart attack is a common cause of death, and this is most often unexpected. Most cryonicists who receive standby are people dying of cancer, and whose slide toward death is along a more predictable path. The ability of cancer victims to euthanize themselves would make the standby process easier, but that would have no effect on reducing the number of cryonicists who deanimate without standby, despite having arranged for standby. There are no convincing arguments that simplifying self-euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide will lead to the majority of cryonics cases having greatly improved cryopreservation by significantly reducing the number of cryonicists deanimating under unfavorable conditions.

Five important empiricist philosophy books

Most contemporary philosophers and social scientists have little interest and understanding of logic or the physical sciences and  therefore have little to offer to those who want to understand the philosophical aspects of knowledge. The following five books have been written by thinkers who have a great respect for science and the importance of empirical observation. With the exception of one book, no 21st century thinkers are featured to ensure that hype is not mistaken for importance.

(1) Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (1951) is one of the best 20th century books on philosophy. The author shows how speculative and rationalist philosophy has been gradually replaced by the natural sciences. Writing from a consistent empiricist perspective, Reichenbach proposes that the lack of progress in philosophy is due to philosophers asking themselves questions that could only have been answered by the experimental method and the tools of modern logic. In the chapter about induction Reichenbach answers David Hume’s skepticism about causality and proposes a pragmatic justification of induction.

(2) Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936) is a classic and accessible exposition of logical positivism (or logical empiricism) by an English philosopher. Logical positivism is a school of thought in philosophy that is strongly shaped by the advances in physics and mathematics and seeks to eliminate metaphysics and meaningless statements from philosophy. Like most other philosophers in this tradition, Ayer kept refining his views throughout his life but always remained committed to the objectives of the original Vienna Circle.

(3) Rudolf Carnap was the most important exponent of logical positivism but his writings are of such an abstract and technical nature that most fellow philosophers and scientists are only familiar with his early popular statements of the positions of the Vienna Circle. A notable exception to his demanding work is his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (1966) which is based on a seminar Carnap taught on the philosophy of the physical sciences. This book is not only valuable for its rigorous treatment of the philosophical foundations of physics but also represents a good summary of the views of the late Carnap.

(4) Bertrand Russell is among the most popular philosophers of the 20th century and had little reservations about speaking his mind on topics ranging from atheism to marriage. Unlike most philosophers that work in the analytic tradition, Russell had a great interest in the history of philosophy which would find its destination in his monumental and rich A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Russell attempts to treat the thinking of most philosophers he discusses with respect but the mindset of a logician and scientist is ever present, making this book one of the few available histories of philosophy from a (sometimes reluctant) empiricist perspective. The book does suffer from Russell’s highly subjective approach in some chapters, notably his rather melodramatic treatment of Friedrich Nietzsche.

(5) Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) is not a book on philosophy but the general approach that informs his book about the role of chance in life and markets is informed by a thorough skepticism about our claims to knowledge. As a “skeptical empiricist” Taleb stands bemused at the urge of humans to seek and detect patterns everywhere and our illusions about control. Taleb’s work received a lot of well deserved attention after the 2008 financial crisis but his distinct epistemological views still receive little attention.

Richard Dawkins on fashionable nonsense

The Dutch psychologist Piet Vroon once opined that philosophy has lost much of its relevance because it  has lost touch with the (natural) sciences. Although philosophers associated with logical positivism and critical rationalism made great efforts to discipline the practice of philosophy by encouraging logical thinking and verification (or falsification), so far their efforts must be considered a failure, as evidenced by the fact that their scientific perspective is usually classified as just another school of thought within contemporary philosophy. A symptom of this development is that we often see the word “philosophy” substituted for “opinion.” It should not be surprising, then, that many life extensionists are greatly skeptical of disciplines like bioethics. As a general rule, when all is said and done, and the “learned” rhetoric has been dissected, there is not much left other than the philosopher’s personal opinion.

This 2007 review by Richard Dawkins’ of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont  reminds us how much pretentious unscientific nonsense is circulating among “intellectuals.” Although the examples of continental philosophy that Dawkins discusses represent the extreme regions of academia, a lot of philosophy and “social science” that is dominating contemporary intellectual debate, and informing public policies, is still miles away from the disciplined approach to science that thinkers like Alfred Ayer and Karl Popper advocated in their writings.

Whereas the natural sciences have mostly remained sane because of the strong link between experimental science and practical applications, such mechanisms are often absent in the social sciences.  And to the extent social science is “applied,” the question of what constitutes success is (necessarily) arbitrary. This situation is further aggravated by the fact that many social scientists and philosophers are sheltered from market mechanisms and real accountability.

Scientific skeptics have sometimes been criticized for focusing too much time on phenomena such as parapsychology, astrology, tarot reading and UFOs at the expense of more widely shared superstition such as mainstream religion. Similarly, concerned scientists tend to focus on fashionable nonsense such as postmodernism and  post-structuralism at the expense of more widespread ideas such as the epistemological problems in most social science or the extreme “blank slate” view of human nature that informs most public policy. Most people may not believe that astrologists can predict the future, but we seem to have fewer problems when similar claims to knowledge are expressed by social scientists and economists.

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.

The secular case against immortality

In 2003 George Hart published an article called “The Immortal’s Dilemma: Decontructing Eternal Life” , making a secular case against immortality.  Hart mainly uses logical arguments and provides a fair amount of room to address a number of possible objections to his position. In a nutshell, Hart considers two variants of immortality, one without the option of termination and another with this option. The former is argued to be undesirable (a position that most life extensionists would agree with) and the latter is impossible because of the (logical) inevitability of a deathwish among immortals:

“Personal immortality poses this dilemma: without the termination option, we will face infinite periods of time when we will wish we could terminate our immortality; with the termination option, we will eventually and inevitably face a period when we will exercise the termination option and thus put the lie to our supposed immortality.”

In his 2004 article “Deconstructing Deathism: Answering a Recent Critique and Other Objections to Immortality,” mathematician, cryonics activist, and author of “Forever for All,” Mike Perry, reviews a number of arguments against immortality and those of George Hart in particular. Perry does not find Hart’s position on the inevitability of an executed deathwish persuasive. Perry also takes issue with Hart’s position on personhood and the memory and information requirements of immortals.

One aspect that seems to be prevalent in philosophical arguments against immortality is the alternate use of personhood and boredom objections. When it is argued that immortality does not necessarily have to be boring, critics of immortality answer that an unending life with infinite experiences necessitates demands on  memory information storage that will undermine the requirement that immortality is only meaningful if it is experienced by the same person. Alternatively, when an unchanging personality is assumed, it is argued that boredom will inevitability occur. But the choice between loss of personhood or boredom may not be necessary if personhood is not defined in such a “dogmatic” fashion but allows for both psychological continuity and meaningful identification with the past. As Perry notes:

trying as we are to anticipate the possible future before it happens, and how we will deal with our problem of memory superabundance when many new options should have opened up. In that hopefully happy time a “science of personal continuation” should have taken shape to properly deal with the matter. Nay-sayers like Hart try to discount any such prospects once and for all, based on today’s perspectives with their inevitable limitations.”

Toward the end of the article, Hart’s personal position on immortality becomes more pronounced and his reasoning less careful. Hart speculates that it may be “that only a finite life can be meaningful because only a finite life can be a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Death is what frames our life, and only a framed life can have meaning.” But why life can only be meaningful when it is perceived as a story with an ending instead of a never ending story remains obscure. Toward the end of the article , the author becomes even more blunt when he states that “life is meaningful when it is lived; that is enough. To ask for more is almost greedy.” But this argument is proving too much and would undermine any case to prolong life by scientific means, including conventional medicine. Hart is too fine of a writer to mean this. So how long is too long?

Although arguments against immortality should be evaluated on their philosophical merits, it is often not hard to detect the person behind the argument. As discussed before, this issue is particularly present among writers who stress the issue of boredom and stagnation in relation to immortality, employing a one-dimensional and unimaginative view of life and experience in order to make the case.

When discussing the (logical) inevitability of a deathwish among immortals, Perry further notes that “the rather morbid dwelling on a putative, recurring death-wish suggests that Hart may not be so happy with his own life,” as evidenced by statements such as:

“In theory you can imagine without contradiction what it would be like to be alive for a trillion or even a trillion trillion years from now. This thought experiment creates its own horror, one that is mind-numbing and nauseating.”

Perhaps secular “pro-death” philosophers believe that the case against religion is strengthened by debunking one  of the reasons people believe in the supernatural (the promise of immortality). But this would be throwing away the baby with the bathwater. If scientific means will become available to extend the maximum human life span, there is no a-priori reason why secular thinkers should not rejoice in that development, just as we are now embracing advances in medicine to heal and prolong life.

Although speculation about how immortality may affect human psychology can be intriguing, our limited  knowledge about the universe and lack of empirical observations of actual immortals make this a highly speculative affair, leaving much room for injecting personal feelings and wishful thinking. These feeling can be negative, as evidenced by the life extension cynics, or meliorist in nature, as expressed in the writings of Mike Perry:

“Clearly there are many possibilities, but I conjecture that personality types capable of and desiring very long survival will not be so varied or inscrutable as to baffle our understanding today. Instead they should basically be profoundly benevolent, desirous of benefiting others as well as themselves, and respectful of sentient creatures in general. They will acknowledge that enlightened self-interest requires a stance with a strong element of what we would call altruism. They will be intensely moral, but also joyful in the exercise and contemplation of their profound moral virtues—for an element of joy will be essential in finding life worth living, even as it is today. These joyful, good-hearted beings, then, will be the types to endure, and will refine their good natures as time progresses, so as to increasingly approximate some of our ideas of angelic or godlike personalities, as endless wonders unfold to their growing understanding. “

Few philosophers against immortality argue that today’s lifespan is too long. Which again raises the question, how long is too long? Ultimately, such an answer can only be answered empirically by the individuals who will live a much longer lifespan than those living today.

Mike Perry – Deconstructing Deathism: Answering a Recent Critique and Other Objections to Immortality

Death is nothing to us

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.