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Is the fear of death irrational?


To: Colin A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is the fear of death irrational?
Date: 12 March 2003 13:29

Dear Colin,

I very much enjoyed your latest Pathways essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is the Fear of Death Irrational?', which you e-mailed me on 28 February.

On my bulldog clip for Philosophy Pathways, I have a weighty essay by Jurgen L. (who lives in Sydney, incidentally) on the subject of death. After struggling with Jurgen's taxing deliberations, your reminiscences came as a pleasant relief, although your essay is not without troubling barbs of its own.

You have approached this question in a way which might be taken to be psychological, rather than strictly philosophical (although you briefly express your philosophical credo). You have chosen to ask the question, 'When the crunch came, did I fear death?' The answer on each of the three occasions which you recount appears to have been, 'No'. Does that show that the fear of death is irrational? No, for two reasons:

First, it could be argued that you didn't have enough time to think about the prospect of death - because each time you were taken by surprise - and had you been given the opportunity for more extended reflection, the answer might have been 'Yes' rather than 'No'.

Secondly, even if the answer to the question of whether you would have feared death given sufficient time to reflect would still have been 'No', the basis for your considered judgement that death was not to be feared might turn out, on philosophical examination, to be irrational (as the atheist considers the believer's unquestioning belief in an afterlife).

What can we get out of this? Perhaps, a claim of the following form: "There is a truth which we see when we are *not* given time to reflect, which is easily obscured when thought is allowed sufficient time to weave its deceptive web." In other words, your immediate reaction *was* rational, based on a true perception, and the question is how to draw a general moral.

I would have liked to have seen some argument for this conclusion. I think - at the back of your mind - this was your idea, as you started writing. But somehow the quarry proved too elusive. (That's just a guess, I might be wrong!)

The closest we get to an argument is in the paragraph that begins, "In the words of Epicurus..." Interestingly, your interpretation of Epicurus is not the one standardly given. I would interpret Epicurus as saying that after death there is no 'I', no subject. But fear for oneself logically has no *target*, no object to latch onto where there is no self. Without a target, fear is necessarily irrational. This is the standard view. (At the time when this remark was taken was written, Epicurus would have been widely understood as arguing, on the basis of his version of atomism, that there is no soul which goes to Hades, so nothing to fear when the material body is dissolved into atoms. However, supposing one did go to Hades - i.e. supposing atomism is wrong - that would not be 'death' as we are treating that notion. I think that Epicurus did in fact intend the more general argument, rather than one that assumes the truth of atomism.)

If, on the other hand, as you claim, Epicurus is merely saying that "it's futile to fear something we can't experience with our conscious minds" then his argument would apply equally, for example, to my growing fear that my father (who passed away four years ago) was deeply disappointed in me, although he never showed it. Unless you deny the reality of the past, there *is* here a target for my fear. Something exists - or possibly exists - in the past, which I fear and dread. What is lacking in this case is a way of verifying or falsifying the belief upon which the fear is based (assuming that I am certain that my father did not keep a secret diary, and would never have taken the risk of confiding his feelings to anyone else).

In the same paragraph, you quote a line which you recorded in your philosophical notebook, "an indefinite but impending certainty possible at any moment". This is a very important idea, which marks death off as an absolute, rather than "something bad which might happen to you - or not". Both Heidegger and Levinas have in different ways tried to grapple with the recognition that death is simply *too big* for philosophy. In the words of my collaborator Brian Tee, according to Heidegger, death is the "possibility of impossibility", while according to Levinas, death is the "impossibility of possibility". - I'll leave you to ponder that.

All the best,