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Fear of death and the nature of the self


To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Fear of death and the nature of the self
Date: 13 November 2001 18:11

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 29 October, with your final essay for Possible World Machine, 'Can any conclusions about the nature of the self, or the nature of personal identity be drawn from a philosophical examination of our fear of death?'

Thank you for your thoughts about Martin O'Hagan. Philosophy made a difference to his life, which is proof enough that philosophy makes a difference in the real world.

What is the issue about death? You are right that the question concerns the difference between subjective and objective death. The first and foremost question is how this relates to the *fear* of death as such. I agree with you in contrasting the fear of death as such with the things we regret that we will miss, owing to the fact that we shall no longer be here to enjoy them.

Then you have a go at trying to express just what it is that we fear when we fear our death as such: "...the source of the fear of death lies in the anticipated loss of the 'thisness' of consciousness and of my reflexive awareness of the thisness. By the very nature of this loss it is clear both that I won't experience it and that I can't imagine 'what it will be like' - because it won't be like anything - and yet, paradoxically, both these factors seem to figure very largely in the fear."

You mention the curious fact that we are able to face the fact that there were aeons of time before our 'thisness' came to be with equanimity. Yet one thing that cries out for explanation here is why we do not fear falling asleep every night. Our precious 'thisness' slips away. We do not fear, because we make the confident prediction that the 'thisness' will return the next morning. But *whose* 'thisness' is this? One thing that the thought experiments about duplication show is that there is nothing stronger, in reality, to constitute bonds of identity than a physical cause and effect process - howsoever this is realized - leading to psychological continuity of a certain kind: continuity of my memories, character etc. But how can this be right? *Any* process of cause and effect is as good as any other. Sleeping through the night and waking up next morning is one reliable way of preserving continuity of character and memory. Another is having a whole body scan, destroying the body and constructing a duplicate (or a hundred duplicates).

The alternative, then, is to accept that the 'this' does not continue. It 'constantly dies and is reborn'. I wish I understood what that meant (it is my official view!) but I don't. However, you go on to suggest that 'my own personal history disappears, but as a property of the universe it continues and is re-individuated somewhere else.' The question this raises is, Why should the thought that my this-stuff might be reconstituted to form another self at at another place and time, be any more reassuring than the thought that the atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen etc. that constitute my body might, some time in the future, form the body of another self?

It is interesting that you mention evolutionary theory. The fear of death that we have been discussing - the fear of the loss of my 'thisness' - is very much a metaphysical fear. We did not evolve to be metaphysicians. We evolved to feel pain when our bodies were damaged, to have a natural sense of self-preservation. The aim of this (from the gene's point of view) is not to preserve us indefinitely from untimely death but only to keep us going long enough to reproduce (and play our part in guarding our offspring from harm). Now, if that is really the full and complete explanation of our fear of death, then I do not see that the talk of the 'this' plays any essential part. Or, rather, what it suggests is that talk of the loss of 'thisness' is just a philosophical rationalisation for a more basic emotion which we share with non-human animals.

All the best,