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Is it rational to fear death?


To: Francis W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 24 July 2007 11:05

Dear Francis,

Thank you for your email of 15 July, with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

I enjoyed reading this dialogue, which raises a number of interesting questions.

Asked to explain the fear of death, David offers Darwinian evolution. We are programmed by evolution to survive. The problem with this is that evolution isn't the least bit interested in individuals. They are merely disposable survival machines for genes (see Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'). Fruit flies live for just one day - long enough to reproduce.

The explanation would have to be along the lines of 'evolutionary baroque' - features which we retain which have no survival value, like the shape of our ears. It is easier to 'build' a human being which always fears death, than to build one which conveniently ceases to fear death when it is no longer able to reproduce, even though this would confer a survival advantage on your close relatives who share your genes (because you would be happy to sacrifice yourself to save them in a threatening situation).

So that's one possible explanation. However, if that were true then it does not count as an argument for the rationality of fearing death, any more than the argument that evolution has programmed the human ape (which left the trees in order to hunt other animals on the open plain) to enjoy fighting and killing. Suppose we had strong evidence that human aggression is part of our biological nature. Then a philosopher who believed in the rationality of pacifism would argue that it is our duty as rational beings to resist our natural impulses. A similar argument could be put forward about the 'natural' fear of death.

So what about the arguments? The argument of Epicurus focuses only on the question of the fear of 'death as such'. As Thomas Nagel argues (in 'Mortal Questions') it would still be perfectly reasonable to wish to live a longer life rather than a shorter one, because the things that fill life - love, friendship, pleasure - are good in themselves irrespective of the fact that life must eventually come to an end.

It is interesting (as you point out) that the Bible records Christ's fear at the moment when he faced death, while Socrates faces death with complete equanimity. Both believed that they were going to survive the 'death' of the body which is an extremely good reason for not being afraid. Maybe Socrates' belief was stronger - at that moment - than Christ's? Or could there be another explanation?

Even if we have 'immortal' souls, however, we are still finite. Anything finite has limits. There can be no 'for ever' for a finite being. But another thought that occurs to me is that no-one can ever be in a position to make a true statement about 'for ever'. This implies future infinite time. To be dead is to be dead forever. If you are resurrected in a hundred million years time, you didn't really 'die'.

What is Wittgenstein talking about when he compares life to the extent of the visual field? The visual field is limited, and yet we don't (cannot, as a matter of logic not merely a matter of empirical fact) see its limit. However, the analogy is not with 'seeing' death. Sometimes you can see death (when it stares you in the face, the terrorist waving his pistol, the bus bearing down on you in the middle of the road). What we cannot 'see' (because it is not there to be seen) is the state of 'being dead'. This sounds very similar to Epicurus, but I think that Wittgenstein is here expressing his 'solipsistic' tendency. My world is the only world I can know or conceive. That makes you a mere character in the story of my world, so far as I am concerned. How this 'coincides with pure realism' (as Wittgenstein claims) I find hard to see.

(In my book 'Naive Metaphysics' I argue that we have to recognize the existence of two worlds, the world of 'I' and the world of 'not-I' and that neither of these worlds can be 'reduced' to the other. This has important consequences for our view of death.)

Did Morgan 'die'? Faced with the prospect of a brain wipe or lethal injection (both equally painless) most persons would choose the brain wipe. But isn't this irrational? As you point out, 'I', or my 'consciousness' no longer exists in either scenario. The 'Morgan' who shuffles out is not a 'zombie', merely mentally subnormal. However, he is just 'another person' so far as the old Morgan is concerned.

So, yes, I agree with you that life is good and therefore it is rational to wish for it to continue. What I have tried to bring out in the Morgan story is that there is another, more 'metaphysical' fear lurking which is the 'fear of death as such', which is really nothing more than the terror at the thought of our own finitude. Maybe not all persons have this fear, but for those that do, philosophical arguments might serve as some kind of help or consolation.

All the best,