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Is it rational to fear death?


To: Katherine A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 6 September 2006 12:02

Dear Katherine,

Thank you for your email of 31 August with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?'

In January 1991 my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and was given six months to live. She died in November that year. I vividly remember her birthday party in August, when there was a sense of celebration that she had managed to hang on past the six month mark. But there was no doubt that she was going to die soon.

My paper, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?' originally given to the University of Warwick Philosophy Society in 1993 was largely a response to that experience. For the first time, the prospect of my own death became 'real'.

Your thoughts are very much along the main lines that people who are more reflective think about death. We recognize that there is a difference between our death and the manner of our dying. Even if the manner of our dying was painless - e.g. passing away peacefully in one's sleep - the prospect of death as such still has the capacity to cause feelings of dread. Why is this?

I can only speak from my personal experience. I do feel this dread. At the same time, I can see that this feeling is somehow inappropriate or irrational. As Epicurus said, 'Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.'

As you point out, death robs us of pleasant things we might have experienced had we been alive. I missed the party because I had a paper to write. This was a matter of regret, especially when I learned afterwards what a great time everyone had. Now imagine one is dying and the party is tomorrow. I'm sorry I'll miss the party, but that is nothing to inspire feelings of dread or fear.

Unit 6 on personal identity gives a clue to the particular 'strangeness' about the idea of looking forward to a time when I will not exist. As I park my rare classic car, I worry that it might be stolen during the night. When I look out of the window the next morning I am relieved to see it is still there. Do I feel a similar kind of feeling when I wake up to realize I am still here? Does it make any sense to consider that I might be wrong? (e.g. GK was killed during the night and a simulacrum programmed with GK's memories).

Recently, the thought occurred to me that the very notion of 'death' is problematic. If I die, then I lose consciousness and never regain it. What is 'never'? I could lose consciousness for a thousand years but still like Rip Van Winkle or Methuselah regain it. To be dead logically implies non-existence for an infinite length of time. But do we grasp what is meant by 'infinite time'?

At the end of your essay, you ask the question, 'Will we be remembered?' This raises the question why we care how things will be when we are not here, not just in a general way but specifically in the way that these things relate to us. I can worry, for example, whether global warming will bring on a new ice age in 100 years time, but this is not a worry which relates to me, except insofar as it might affect my unborn grandchildren. On the other hand, worrying whether - or more pointedly, how - I will be remembered is about me, and yet not something that can affect me in any way. Can a man (as Aristotle asked) be 'harmed' after his death?

Lots of questions, but not many answers!

All the best,