Hi everyone, it’s Nicolas. In this episode we will be talking about a rather joyful subject: death. We’re going to ask ourselves what death actually is, it’s not as straightforward as it seems, but more importantly whether we need to fear it and whether we should try to push back against it.
So there are a bunch of other important subjects we should ideally get to before we do this one but, first off it’s not crucial right now, and second we’ll get to those in greater detail later in other episodes.
Still, I’m gonna get started by talking briefly of that which we are not really going to talk about. Before talking death, it is true that we should try to find out who exactly is going to die. It may seem easy at first glance but it actually isn’t. Are we our molecules? The information represented by our memories? Our personality? Two of them? All three? What change is one change too many? Is death some binary thing or more like some sort of continuum?
Answering right away is tempting but there are a lot of thought experiments which put our preconceived ideas in doubt. And not just a bit. We’ll get back to all this later, to the ancient dilemmas like Theseus’ ship, or the more recent versions like the problem of teleportation. We’ll also see the identity implications of modern physics with parallel universes and the idea of the infinite. And even simple and mundane stuff like just growing up or banging one’s head. OK, the connection there isn’t obvious right away but yes there is one and it challenges our conception of identity, who we are, and therefore who is doing the dying and how.
Alright, I think we can safely ignore all this for now and focus on death intuitively and from a personal perspective, which I believe is ultimately the right answer. We’ll see why. So death, intuitively, is when people forever cease to be self aware and can no longer have subjective experiences, a mental life.
This simplified definition implies that we ignore the possibility of some afterlife. Not necessarily because there isn’t one, that too we’ll get to in due time, but simply because it is a false death. If we’re still around after, we’re not really dead, we’ve just gone on a little trip and we’ll be able to keep having fun or being bored, apparently not to death, somewhere else.
So the afterlife is moot. Maybe, maybe not but it doesn’t change much of anything for our discussion. Those who do believe in some everlasting life after death do not really believe in death at all. This is a whole other discussion.. and here we’ll imagine the alternative.. that is to say that it is possible for our consciousness to disappear fully forever. Death, the real deal.
Ok so is this death really a problem? Instinctively yes, since we seemingly do pretty much anything we can to escape it. The survival instinct runs so strong that it easily leads to excesses we would never have thought ourselves capable of. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. Those who give it their all to survive have better chances of reproducing than those who just don’t quite give a shit. And so pretty quickly we end up, in nature, with only organisms that do give a shit.
But from a logical standpoint we are confronted with a bit of a paradox. I believe the first philosopher to clearly talk about it was Epicurus when he said: “death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here, and when it comes, we no longer exist”. Or, a bit simpler but less eloquently put, when people die, people disappear. We in fact cannot live in death. Death is not suffering, it’s not the desire to come back to the land of the living, and unfortunately for suicidal people, it’s not even a form of deliverance.
So why seek or avoid death? Death is nothing. It does not exist. A parallel here is that of the time before our birth. Nobody ever regrets or rejoices over the period before one’s birth. This period does not exist for that person. He did not exist. He was not in pain. He did not wish to be born. He wasn’t in peace. He wasn’t. There was no he.
It is no easy thing imagining nothingness. Imagining the void. At the very least we imagine absolute blackness, a color.. and thoughts that go with it. Maybe a little bit of boredom or serenity, at least we imagine silence. In any case, when we try to imagine nothing we always imagine a little something. And therein lies the problem. Even knowing what death from a subjective perspective is, we can’t help but draw a mentally and emotionally incorrect picture. We imagine being there pondering it when in fact no, there won’t be a “we”.
When we try to avoid some outcome it is because we believe it painful. We avoid spending too much money today to have enough to eat tomorrow. Because we know that being hungry and not knowing when we’ll be able to eat next is somewhat less than pleasant. Life is full of compromises and those compromises all aim to balance pains and pleasures, over the longer term. That too we’ll get back to later.
The important thing here is precisely to realize that death presents a rather sharp limit to this calculations. It is important to take the future into consideration.. up to the time of death. After, as we’ve just seen, the future ceases to exist. It has no importance to oneself. It still is important to others but not to oneself. From a strictly personal point of view, whatever happens after one’s death does not matter. Neither the good nor the bad do.
We might then be tempted to deduce that death is some neutral event which is neither to be feared not to be hoped for. Except that no. This conclusion is I would say logical based on what we’ve talked about so far. But in truth this is an incomplete vision which leads to an erroneous conclusion.
Ok let me explain. Humans, and I’m guessing most other animals as well but humans for sure, do not live in the present present. We live in some sort of present also comprising the past and the future. At every moment, we have in mind our currently relevant past experiences, as well as a mental representation of the consequences of our hypothetical future actions. This is how we get to decide not to burn everything at the casino. We remember the stories of people who became homeless doing just that and we picture ourselves ending up similarly gambling ever more, or instead cutting our losses and heading home to have a drink toasting to a night not spent on the streets tonight.
We are almost always in some multi-dimensional plane extending from the past to some hypothetical future. However we’ve just seen that death is the absence of any future. And without the third component we are left unable to think and prefer one path over another. Again, this is almost incomprehensible but in reality, jumping from the cliff has no consequences for oneself. It is the end of consequences. Considering death as neutral is considering this jump as a meaningless decision, which isn’t preferable to that of staying on the edge looking at the sea.
And yet it seems rather absurd. This conclusion, although logical, clearly goes against our intuition. Looking at the sea is good. Disappearing forever is somewhat less good. It’s not just neutral. As will often be the case at FILIAPOLIS, we will be giving our intuition the benefit of the doubt. Here we’re all about practical philosophy, not just abstract stuff which leaves us even more lost than we were at the beginning. And intuition exists for a good reason. It can fail us but generally it produces a good starting point.
If we intuitively believe that disappearing is obviously not as good as looking at the sea there might be some grain of truth somewhere in there. Looking at the sea is a positive experience.. no longer existing is not some negative experience, it is no experience at all. And there we have two things which in and of themselves are not comparable. And precisely, rather than comparing them let’s ask ourselves whether maybe there might nonetheless be a reason to prefer one action over the other.
And I do believe so. Not some objective reason but a subjective one. Is it better to look at the sea or to look at a mountain? It depends. It depends on people, it depends on circumstances. It depends on many things but it is first and foremost a personal decision. Subjective. The only tool allowing us to discriminate between the two is a profoundly subjective tool. That of the pleasure or pain caused by the viewing of one or the other. If pleasure is greater looking at the sea, then all things being equal, it is this action we need to take instead of looking at the mountain.
It isn’t some objective reason which would grant mountains or seas some superiority no matter who’s looking. No. What we have here is a desire, coming from someone, and motivated by a specific biological configuration and past experiences which push people to sometimes want to look at the sea sometimes look at a mountain and sometimes neither one nor the other.
The same goes with our desire to live, to keep having experiences. Not because objectively superior to the lack of experiences. Existence is not objectively superior to the void. But because living beings generally desire to keep on being, without further justifications being necessary. No more than we require a justification for preferring vanilla to chocolate.
And this may be where Epicurus is mistaken. He is right to say that we should not be fearing death in itself. That it is nothing and that we will never encounter it. It’s true, undeniable. But it nonetheless runs contrary to our ambitions. It is to escape because it represents an obstacle to obtaining what we really want. More experiences. If death really were nothing, not even an obstacle to realizing our desires, we would never have any cause to avoid what threatens to kill us. But just like any other obstacle we must avoid it, escape it, go over, under or around it.. well anything except accept it. Not because the obstacle is bad in and of itself but by virtue of what it prevents us from reaching.
Of course we could think of this as obvious. Maybe but I think that wanting to combat death for the right reasons is essential. Because the implications of this reasoning become all the more interesting considering the big questions to come. Those we will all soon be confronted with in a very personal and urgent manner, and for which the answers require a deep understanding of death.
I am of course thinking of the recent advances which make it likely that the human race will soon, for the first time in the history of earthly life, be able to control its biological destiny to the point of eradicating aging and preprogrammed death. The personal and social implications are far beyond anything humanity has had to contemplate up until now.
It’s a fascinating topic and we have just merely scratched the surface. Man needs no justification to want to live, and death is only a problem insofar as it represents an obstacle for those who desire to keep on existing. This is what we saw today. But in upcoming episodes we will be tackling the main objections, practical, moral and philosophical, to the bringing about of a world without aging.
A slightly more controversial topic but one for which the conclusions are inescapably derived from the difficult if intuitive one that we reached today.. and I’m looking forward to taking you there.
Thank you for this bit of time spent together, subscribe to be notified and see you very soon.
Published 2016-05-24. (death, aging, life extension, longevity)