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Rationality of the fear of death


To: Marcus S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rationality of the fear of death
Date: 28 April 2004 09:37

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for your email of 19 April, with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, entitled 'The Rationality of the Fear of Death.'

I liked your discussion of the 'before me' and 'after me'. Interestingly, my emotional response to the idea of the 'before me' is different from yours. You see -- or rather, you feel -- the before me being essentially good. This is 'proved' by the fact that it 'brought me into existence'. To me, the thought of the sheer contingency of one moment of conception, one place, one time amongst billions fills me with a sense of dread - a different, perhaps less urgent dread than the thought of my eventual extinction admittedly. There is no goodness or badness -- just sheer is-ness.

This connects with a statement you make in paragraph 5. 'If the fear of death is universal (and it is), then the fear of death is rational. Any characteristic that human beings exhibit across culture and time must necessarily follow from their essential nature.'

In recent times, sociobiology is a discipline which promises a simple way to generate values from facts. Ethics is 'proved' by its survival value, 'good' and 'bad' are defined in terms of what fits the requirements of human evolution or survival. Perhaps stated in such bald terms, you would not agree with this. However, consider this version of your statement:

'If the fear of human deformity is universal (and it is), then the fear of human deformity is rational. Any characteristic that human beings exhibit across culture and time must necessarily follow from their essential nature.'

I wonder what would you say about the Elephant Man?

I would not be in the least surprised if a plausible account could be given, in terms of evolutionary theory and 'gene selfishness', of why human beings with severely deformed features inspire fear. But this fear is irrational, not rational.

The question I would ask first is what exactly is the *object* of the fear of death? Epicurus was the first philosopher to raise this troubling question. When you run a way from a snake, or flinch when you see someone who is severely deformed, there is an object which you can focus on, distance yourself from. But death, qua sheer non-existence, is not an object. 'Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.'

I am not totally satisfied with Epicurus' solution. Even if we accept that my death is not an object, and therefore a fortiori, not a possible object of fear, it remains the case that death deprives us of objects. It is surely rational to *prefer* not to be deprived than to be deprived, to prefer to live a longer life (other things being equal) than a shorter one.

My own solution -- which at times, I must say, I find very difficult to *believe*, but that's another matter -- is to question our conception of 'I' and its identity over time. There is one, perfectly good sense in which you and I survive and persist through time, are able to look towards the future and prefer one possible future 'for ourselves' to another possible future.

Yet when we reflect on the sheer contingency of our being, it seems that that is not the 'I' that is in question. This is a concept I have struggled to express. The 'I' that I am talking about is not MS or GK but the 'I' which senses the 'sheer contingency of its existence', whose existence has no explanation, no rhyme or reason. It is here, now, but if it were not here or now nothing would be different from the way things are now.

In a non-I world, there would still be MS and GK corresponding with one another.

The sheer terror of the thought of death is not explained in terms of mere 'preference' of life over death, not even very strong preference. I believe that it is ultimately a metaphysical, not a natural terror, and that it is based on the recognition of the contingency of 'I'. The fear is irrational -- or so I have argued -- because the 'I' in question which is neither MS nor GK has no identity over time, and only something which continues can cease to continue.

- Well done for completing your first Pathways program! Your Pathways Certificate and report will follow soon.

All the best,