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Is it rational to fear death?


To: Foo W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 1 April 2008 12:04

Dear Foo Weng,

Thank you for your email of 20 March, with your fifth essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

Congratulations on completing the required course work for this program! I will be sending my summary report along with your Pathways Certificate to the Secretary of the ISFP, who will then forward these to you.

As you make clear in your essay, the question depends on our understanding of the nature of fear and also on our conception of what it is to die, or to be dead.

Fear is natural, and a capacity for fear is arguably part of a human being's equipment for survival. The first question, before we even discuss death, would be about the necessity for fear. It could be argued that a person who had mastered fear would be stronger and more effective than a person who was subject to fear. Both would take appropriate action when faced with a threatening situation, but the one who has mastered fear arguably would cope better because they were able to think more clearly, and act more decisively.

In that case, one who has mastered fear will not fear even death. If it is not necessary, in this sense, that we should experience the unpleasant side-effects of fear, then a 'rational' person would seek to train themself to overcome all fear. Fear itself is 'irrational'.

However, the question isn't really about how we cope with fear. The question is what attitude we should take towards the thought that we will one day be no more.

As you say, we learn from a variety of sources that death is or can be a 'painful event', and this is something which anyone would view in a negative light. But this is merely a contingent aspect of death. Some persons die peacefully in their sleep. Suppose you knew that tonight you will go to sleep and never wake up, what reason would there be for viewing this as something to be feared?

Again, we need to distinguish. As you point out there are some who believe in an afterlife, and the possibility of infinite suffering is one to dread. This is the point underlying Pascal's famous 'Wager'. Even if you think there is only a very small probability that you might face an afterlife of infinitely extended suffering, that is sufficient to motivate you to obey the teachings of religion and embrace belief in God, 'just in case'.

But what if you definitely believe there is no afterlife, but just nothing? How can the sheer replacement of something (my life) by nothing be something to fear, or view as something bad?

It is remarkable that most human beings have no problem with sleep. Imagine that we came across aliens who did not know the meaning of sleep. They are perpetually awake until the very moment when they die. The prospect of loss of consciousness (say, brought about by an unfamiliar drug) albeit temporary would strike them the way that death strikes us, as a terrifying 'loss of self'.

One point that is sometimes made (see, e.g. Thomas Nagel's discussion in 'Mortal Questions') is that life contains good things, or the potential for good things -- personal relationships, things we enjoy and so on -- and that death implies that we will no longer have these enjoyments. We are all familiar with the experience of disappointment of missing something that we would have enjoyed, e.g. old the Clint Eastwood movie on TV. The prospect of being dead is the prospect of missing all things one would have enjoyed had one still been alive. But, of course, the striking disanalogy here is that when you're dead you don't 'miss' anything.

Despite thinking about this problem on and off for many years (since writing my original article, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?' I still find this whole problem deeply confusing and unsettling.

Maybe we shouldn't take for granted that we know what it is for someone (possibly oneself) to die and then be dead. Death may be something which we observe happening to every species of biological organism, yet there is a sense in which we can never establish conclusively that a person is dead -- beyond any possibility of resurrection. To be dead is to be dead forever, and 'forever' implies an infinite length of time, not an easy concept to get one's head around.

All the best,