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Is it rational to fear death?


To: Max T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 19 April 2002 13:33

Dear Max,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 April, with the fifth and final essay for The Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

Well done for completing the program! I will be air mailing shortly your certificate and my summary mentor's report. I do hope that you will consider continuing your studies with another program.

There is a lot in this essay. Let me first discuss - in order to put it to one side - the idea that showing that the fear of death is irrational involves showing either that it is immoral (morally irrational) or imprudent (prudentially irrational).

Suppose that there are fears of this form. For example, the fear that there is no afterlife. This might be said to be against what God commands us to believe, or against what it is in our own best interests to believe. However, it could be argued that the rationality or irrationality of belief is judged in relation to evidence, not in relation to its practical benefits.

Consider another example: the fear that our side might lose the war. (In the Britain of WWII it was considered a crime to 'spread gloom and despondency'. I think it might have even been on the statute books.) There might be considerable evidence of a real danger that we will lose. However, if we believe that God is on our side, or alternatively if we acknowledge for prudential reasons that it is better not to succumb to this fear, does it follow that the fear is irrational? Yes, if we believe that God is on our side, because the thought, 'we will lose' contradicts that belief. No, if we merely accept that it is better for our cause if we do not succumb to the fear.

How we acquire the fear of death is another consideration that needs to be put aside. There are many beliefs which we acquired, not by rational reflection, but by believing what we were taught when we were too young to reflect critically. But that's all water under the bridge. The question whether a particular belief is rational depends on whether, on critical reflection, it is rational to continue to believe it. The same applies to fear. Say, I fear walking under ladders because my mother feared it. Now, I am able to make up my own mind. But it is possible that the superstition is too deeply rooted for me to give up the fear, which I recognize to be irrational. On the other hand, my fear of fire is rational despite the fact that not putting my hands near a flame was drummed into me long before I was in a position to verify whether it was dangerous or not.

This takes us back to Socrates and Epicurus both of whom, as you rightly note, try to show the absurdity of the fear of death.

If, as you claim, neither Epicurus nor Socrates have succeeded in making a conclusive case, if their arguments 'depend on their own philosophic stance' - whether atomism and the Epicurean hedonism, or the Socratic/ Platonic view of the soul as akin to the forms - then the question remains whether an alternative argument demonstrating the absurdity of the fear of death can be given. Any such argument, however, is bound to involve some 'philosophic stance' so it would be hardly fair to rule out any demonstration of the irrationality of fearing death on that ground alone.

The argument I would give depends upon the considerations about personal identity discussed earlier in the program. Let's go with Epicurus and accept a materialist view while rejecting the 'Epicurean' view that 'one should retire from life as a guest after a satisfying meal'.

In other words, let's accept that I exist only so long as a certain material structure exists. The 'I' in the present looks forward to a time when the 'I' might, or might not exist and the latter possibility is the thing to fear, because of the loss of things and enjoyments I hold dear. Epicurus says that this is irrational but that is only because he holds particular views about what constitutes 'the good life'.

Suppose you are told by a doctor, 'Here is some bad news and good news'. The bad news is that tonight you will fall asleep and pass away peacefully within one hour. The good news is that we have built a perfect replica of your body. Its brain will be programmed with your brain program, which we will upload during that hour. So you will wake up tomorrow morning unaware that anything has happened.'

No enjoyments will be lost. The life MT leads will have the same quality as the life MT would have led. If that is not 'death', then consider the following variation on the story. 'The good news is that we will upload your brain program, but this doesn't always work,' or, 'We intend to upload your brain program, provided we can get sufficient funding to complete the experiment,' or, alternatively, 'To maximize the chance of success, we will be uploading your brain program into a hundred replicas.'

The idea that 'I' might be there, or not there in the future is the thought which I find absurd. Sure, we can say with confidence that 'MT' might or might not be there, or that lots of 'MT's might be there, but that's not what the fear of death is about. The fear is the fear that it is *I* this sense of self that is here, now, that will not be there, then.

What I would question is whether the 'I' in this metaphysical sense is the kind of thing that can 'either continue or cease to continue'.

All the best,