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Is it rational to fear death?


To: David T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 21 August 2007 11:25

Dear David,

Thank you for your letter of 11 August with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

This is a very good essay – possibly your best – which covers many aspects of our fear and dread of death and the process of dying. I particularly liked your focus on the social aspect of our fear of death: 'We go through the motions at the same time avoiding the actual subject of death further encapsulating it in fear and dread. Convention then presents us with the grave yard, often a mixture of the unkempt and pristine. Drafty and cold. It is a fearful thought that one day your remains may reside in such a place eventually to be forgotten!'

The social avoidance of the subject of death is a topic which the philosopher Martin Heidegger discusses at length in Being and Time. For Heidegger, 'authentic' existence requires that one fully grasp that to be a human being is to be a 'being towards death'. Death – our necessary temporal finitude – defines our possibilities, gives shape to human freedom, without which we are nothing.

I have to admit that I had forgotten that Plato discusses the immortality of the soul in the Republic. The fullest, and most often discussed treatment of this question is in the dialogue Phaedo where Socrates spends his last day evaluating various arguments for the immortality of the soul with his close friends. I remember once answering an essay question, 'Plato is concerned to prove the indestructibility of the soul rather than its immortality.' The strongest case for this assertion comes from Republic, where the soul escapes destruction so long as it continues to occupy itself with virtue and avoid vice.

Unit 15 contains elements from my longer paper, 'Is it rational to fear death?' which is archived on the Wood Paths site The main aim of that paper is to focus on the fear of death as such, leaving aside the fear of the process of dying, or fear of the unknown. However, it is a legitimate question to ask whether this distinction can be made. When someone is afraid, the precise object or content of the fear does not necessarily make itself manifest. If you ask the dying man exactly what he is afraid of, he would not necessarily be able to give a coherent explanation.

In reality, it is impossible to 'factor out' the aspect of fear of the unknown, from the fear of one's sheer non-existence, or the 'loss of personal identity' as you put it. Pascal famously relied on the unquantifiable aspect of death for his argument for belief in God. As we cannot totally discount the possibility that there may be a heaven and a hell awaiting us, given that the span of a human life is insignificant in comparison with infinity, it is rational to act as if it were certain that each of us will eventually face Judgement Day.

The best response to this is Russell's. On being asked what he would say to God if he found himself at the gates of heaven, Russell said, 'You should have given me better reasons for believing in you.' Pascal's 'wager' is precisely that, a hedging bet rather than an argument for belief.

It was thinking about Pascal's Wager which led me to the thought (which you won't find in the above paper) that, for finite beings, no comprehensible definition of 'death' can be given, for the simple reason that for A to be 'dead' implies that for all infinite future time t, A is not alive at t. But who can get their head around infinity?

What is so dystopian about Aldous Huxley's depiction in Brave New World of 'easy' medically aided death? I find this difficult to answer. At the present time, we already employ many medical aids to make the process of dying less horrific, both for the subject and the subject's friends and family. The dying patient is often drugged up on heroin, or knocked out with tranquilizers, anything to avoid the agony of death. Is it the thought that death is such an important event that it ought to be agonizing?

All the best,