Sunday, September 27, 2020

On Medium: The Most Telling Fear of Death

This article is about our fear that death undermines our self-image as persons, by demonstrating that we're really somehow just finite things.


  1. I remember, when I was about 14, my mother said that death had always seemed unnatural to her. She described it as a sort of miracle since it reduces something to nothing & this was why she believed in Jesus' promise that God would resurrect everyone in the millennium following his 2nd coming: if someone can exist one moment & then cease to exist the next then why not the reverse? At the moment I had no answer to her argument - it actually seemed pretty sound given her premise: that death makes something (a person in this case) into nothing. But inwardly the wheels began to spin in my head. By then I no longer believed in miracles. As far as I was concerned, all alleged miracles were either fables or magic tricks the likes of which David Copperfield performed at his shows. I thought: "If death wasn't a miracle, then it must be a trick. It only seems like the deceased has been erased from existence but in fact they must still exist somewhere, just as a prestidigitater's prop still exists."

    Your answer to this apparent paradox seems to to be similar to the Buddhist's: the self is an illusion so when it vanishes at death, nothing has been lost since it wasn't really there to begin with. But I can't accept this. My self is more real to me than anything I know of since it is the knower itself. A world of objects presupposes a subject. If I am an illusion, then so might be everything I can see, hear, & touch. We may not be able to see those who have passed on but, if we accept the premise that nothing comes from nothing, then logic dictates that they must still exist.

    1. The answer to the alleged miracle of something becoming nothing in death is the law of energy’s conservation. As I say in the article, things that seem to come to an end in nature are only transformed into something else. Entropy gives a single direction to processes of change, so that it would be easier for a person to become dust than for dust to become a person. Organic life, though, is anti-entropic, which is why the origin of life is still mysterious in science.

      I don’t attempt to solve the paradox in this article. What I say about illusions is, “Unfathomably, our subjective life as persons must be an illusion, a mass hallucination, a giant fraud.” The key word there is “unfathomably.” So I’m talking about how things seem, given the reality of death, even though we can’t understand how it could be so since, as you say, we also know we’re not mere illusions; as I say, “we can’t escape the more intimate acquaintance with our personality.”

      I don’t agree with the Buddhist’s claim that the mind or ego is an illusion in the sense of being unreal, but this all depends on what’s meant by “illusion.” The eliminativist and the dualist often talk past each other, because they mean different things by that word. Anyway, illusions may be real enough to make a causal difference, in which case their secondary ontological status is irrelevant. I made this point in my dialogues with Scott Bakker, where I pointed out that even a hallucination can be real enough, since it can cause the person to behave as if the image were real.

      What an illusion really is is an X that’s mistaken for a Y. So to say that the self is an illusion is to say we don’t fully understand what we are when we think of ourselves as, say, people or individual minds. I’m fine with saying we’re illusory in that sense (even though that sense becomes trivial, as we’ll see in a moment), because this is consistent with cosmicism and with Kantian realism. Everything else in the universe becomes “illusory” in that sense, as long as our understanding of those things is limited such that we have to distinguish between, roughly, the phenomenon and the noumenon. To know exactly what something is, such that your knowledge of it is perfectly adequate to every facet of that thing would require absolute comprehension of the universe, since you’d have to understand that the thing’s relation to everything else.

      If that’s what the Buddhist means by saying individuation is illusory, that nothing is really as independent as it seems, I think that point should be granted but it becomes almost a tautology about the limitations of human knowledge. The self would be no more illusory than a rock or a tree branch or a planet. If all of those things are “illusions,” we’re surely overusing that word. Moreover, even if our self-knowledge were incomplete, that doesn’t mean our self-image would be empty. We may understand ourselves well enough to get by in the world while thinking of ourselves as relatively independent and autonomous. Granted, that will entail suffering, but who says the purpose of life is to escape all suffering?

      In any case, even a naturalist says we’re really made up of molecules and quantum interactions we’re not acquainted with in introspection, so that would be another ordinary way in which our self-image is illusory, that is, incomplete.

    2. Great article, Ben.

      After I read it, a question came to my mind, which I'd like to share: If we were immortals, would our existential predicament be substantially different? By which I mean if our values, moral attitudes, our self-entitlement, etc. would suddenly become less empty and more 'real' so to speak.

      I don't think that would be the case. I'm curious what you think on the subject.

    3. Thanks. A standard response, as in the show The Good Place, for example, is that immortality is absurd because life would lose its meaning. This is meant to be uplifting, I think, since it implies we should be content with our finitude, the alternative being worse. Spoiler ahead in the rest of this paragraph, but In The Good Place, the immortal spirits of the protagonists in the afterlife eventually commit suicide after they spend eternity accomplishing everything they’ve ever wanted to accomplish.

      The thought of immortality, though, is a confusing one. If we imagine it as timelessness, immortality becomes incomprehensible since the notion of life happening outside of time is contradictory. But if we think of it as an infinite series of moments unfolding in time, the immortal body becomes supernatural and nonsensical, since time is defined in part by the law of entropy, which would require the body to break down.

      A more sensible ideal would be a mortal but very, very long life happening in nature, so the posthuman mortal would live, say, for billions of years, giving that person time enough to travel throughout the universe and to see and to do everything that’s possible. The experience would overload a human brain, so the posthuman would have to prune her memories or fan out in clones or record the experiences in a colossal supercomputer, or what have you.

      When that posthuman faces death, perhaps only when the universe itself comes to an end, her all-encompassing experience would make for the most fitting judgment on whether life is worthwhile. Only at that final juncture would the universe receive its validation or its adequate condemnation, and only such an all-knowing being might be able to accept death with no trace of delusion or naivety.

    4. Very interesting and thought-provoking response.

      I'll check The Good Place, seems like an intelligent and fun comedy-drama.

      Do you suppose that two of these quasi-immortal beings could theoretically arrive at two different, diametrically opposed, conclusions regarding the overall value of life?

      I certainly think it is possible, at least in principle. What I'm getting at is I can't see why the fact that we're finite things has a positive or negative impact on our ability to judge things as good or bad, pronounce moral judgments, or to say that life in general is worthy or not.

      How can a fact of the natural world – namely that we're mortals – impact our moral systems, values, ideologies, etc. when we know that such systems are artificially, human-made, structures projected onto the world?

      Granted, some of those systems blatantly lie about fundamental features of the world (case in point, religions, that posit the existence of supernatural events or factually incorrect statements about the age of the world, or things like that), but there are some ideological systems that don't fall into this (secular ones). They merely project values and ideology onto the world, and so, how can the world – as a total body of facts – agree or disagree?

      To me, a secular ideological view of the world, or any proposition concerning the value of the world, is akin to an interpretation of a Rorschach test. In the end, it can't get corroborated or invalidated by the spot of ink.

    5. I agree that a godless universe can’t agree or disagree with our interpretations of it, but that’s only a tautology. Our interpretations and reactions can nevertheless be more or less adequate or intellectually responsible under the circumstances. Religions fail to meet the standard of empirical adequacy, but they also fail in moral terms, because they make us shallow and dishonourably childlike. All of which an existential perspective appreciates. But that same perspective casts doubt on certain secular alternatives, or so I’ve written.

      Our finitude forces us to scramble and thus to make foolish mistakes and to fear our philosophies and moralities are parochial and futile. Plus, our finitude threatens us with the dread that all our labours are absurd, because death is the great equalizer. No matter how well or poorly we live, we all die. This means there’s no cosmic purpose of life; meanings must be imposed on the indifferent world, as you said. But those meanings can still be better worse, in the ways I’ve suggested. An immortal or long-lived creature would have a much greater depth of experience to satisfy not the universe’s standards (which don’t exist), but those of the imaginary God or cosmic judge, of the existential view from nowhere, of interspecies, philosophical objectivity which grasps the essence of both us and of inhuman nature.

      However, although we’re individually mortal and short-lived, we can indirectly acquire a long-lived perspective, by taking history into account. Collectively, we’re long-lived because culture passes experience on to future generations. The existential perspective takes all of those millennia of past experience into account, to arrive at the universal conditions of our predicament of being hyper-aware mammals struggling in the wilderness.

    6. Well, it's a tautology because the sentence that posits that the universe is indifferent to our value systems, follows from the one that states that the universe is godless, or meaningless in itself, as I understand it. If we agree on that premise, then I run into a bit of trouble when you say: "Our interpretations and reactions can nevertheless be more or less adequate or intellectually responsible under the circumstances."

      I presume that those 'circumstances' refer to objective facts of the natural world. But we've already stated that such a world is meaningless, hence, indifferent. So, the standard under which said interpretations or reactions are 'more or less adequate' and 'intellectually responsible', seems to me, must also come from us, not the universe or the world considered as a natural entity.

      So, according to this, what our finitude should provoke in us is subject to interpretation. Certainly, we may say that some interpretations are better than others, but that, in turn, would presuppose a sort of meta-interpretation, and so forth.

      On the particular subject of death, in my opinion, Epicurus summed it best when he said: "When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not". That's why the thought of death doesn't really bother me. But that is just my interpretation.

      I agree that we can acquire a 'long-lived perspective' through history and, also, philosophy, that adds 'depth' to that history. I think that awareness that you speak of is, ultimately, worth it. But, again, that is just my interpretation.

    7. Indeed, we can judge the superiority or inferiority of value systems only from a meta-perspective. It’s fashionable in “postmodernity” to say there’s no such perspective, but I believe existentialism and the alienated form of objectivity that’s comparable to what I’ve called the aesthetic stance amounts to such a depersonalized basis of rendering ultimate judgments. I have a few articles that will come out in the near future that will expand on this perspective, in addition to the numerous ones that are already on this blog.

      But the point here would be that while such meta-value judgments would come from us, not from the indifferent universe, they wouldn’t come from us in the subjective sense, from our personalities and biases. Instead, they’d derive from alienated objectivity, from the existentialist’s grasp of the conditions of our universal, human predicament. We dissociate from our subjective preoccupations when we recognize the absurdity of the world’s physicality, when we understand the thingness of everything, including us.

      That’s what Spinoza called the God’s-eye view; we can think of it as a kind of collective, mature mentality, a niche we discover as clever mammals and may share with other intelligent species. Just as mathematics may be the universal language of nature, so too existentialism gets at the universal problems of intelligent life. If we can issue meta-judgments, that’s where they’ll come from, from the existential stance after we’ve detached from our parochial concerns to take in the big picture. Which values, religions, and philosophies hold up in those existential, possibly aesthetic terms? That’s the question I’m raising.

  2. Wow, you've raised quite a question. I really don't think I can come up with a satisfactory answer. But I'll try to share some points I can think of, based on your previous answer and what we've already stated.

    When we take the 'big picture' into account and we divorce ourselves from our 'parochial' concerns as you said, I think the most honest philosophical stance is cosmicism/existentialism. I don't think there's any other. We can arrive there purely from an objective perspective of our predicament in the vast, infinite, cosmos.

    I don't think this is compatible with religions per se, because I think every religion, in one way or another, is a rejection of cosmicism/existentialism in different degrees, because ultimately they prefer comfortable fictions instead of the truth. I think they can survive alongside an existential perspective from a purely aesthetic stance, and we can judge them accordingly.

    Now, when it comes to the standard under which we judge things, aesthetically or otherwise, I really don't know what to say. Honestly. I mean, let's consider something from an ethical perspective. Let's suppose we encounter a truly nasty individual, a true sadistic and sociopathic person. Think a Hannibal Lecter or a Joker of sorts. My first impulse is to consider such an individual an abomination, I'm abhorred by his inhumane behaviour, lack of empathy, sadistic tendencies, etc. But then I pause and think, am I not being 'biased' when I think that way? Am I not projecting my personal views, my 'ideologies', about what is meant to be a good human being or person? Surely, from a purely objective point of view, such an individual is just a thing, acting and behaving according to his nature, and I would need a certain kind of artificial rules, of 'biases', to condemn his or her actions. I guess that those set of biases, so to speak, would be a creation of a culture or society, that would create a standard, or a norm which shapes human behaviour. Naturally, there could be, as it is in fact the case, different cultures, and so, different norms.

    Now, suppose that my condemnation of that sociopathic behaviour doesn't really come from the culture or society in which I live, but that it is instinctual. Well, then the 'biases' would come from my own nature, so to speak. From 'within'. I would be inclined to react with horror, whereas the other individual is inclined to react with delight.

    To sum up, in the existential terms you've posited, I think cosmicism is the only philosophically viable option, if we're being honest with ourselves. Religions could serve as a form of aesthetic pleasure. And when it comes to the standard of values that we should aspire to, I have no idea.

    1. When I said I was raising that question, I was being rhetorical. I meant that’s a big question I mean to raise in my writing in general. But I appreciate your input.

      I’m not sure cosmicism is a viable philosophical option so much as it’s the recognition of problems with naturalism. Cosmicism from HP Lovecraft followed along from Nietzsche’s nihilistic and relativistic interpretation of naturalism, in pointing out that godless nature is ultimately a horrific place; in particular, our species may be insignificant in relation to the potential for greater species. So I think of cosmicism as a philosophical starting point, as a challenge that requires a solution. Nietzsche gave his solution: affirmation of the will to power and adoption of aesthetic criteria for value judgments. But I think he was too close to social Darwinism and didn’t develop enough the aesthetic reconstruction of morality.

      I recently posted an article that addresses the question you raise, about how to think of evil. An ideal existentialist would remember we’re all born as innocent and helpless infants, and would perceive the continuity between that initial state and the tragic loss of that purity in adulthood. Compassion and pity would follow. But big-picture thinking is hard in the heat of the moment.

    2. What I meant by existentialism/cosmicism being the only viable philosophical option is that one or more rational beings, when confronted by the empirical knowledge we have of the universe (however limited this may be) must arrive at the existential stance propounded by Lovecraft, and other akin writers/philosophers, namely that "there is no recognizable divine presence, such as God, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence"(from Wikipedia).
      if they are being honest with themselves, by which I mean not invoking any access to a realm of experience that is not objective (i.e. metaphysical experience), then they must accept the aforementioned sentence as a fact. There's no other legitimate option.

      However, I think that it is certainly possible for two or more rational beings to arrive at different moral, aesthetics, political, perspectives when interpreting such a fact. Here, we have more than one option, so to speak. One example out of many : Carl Sagan, in his famous 'Pale Blue Dot' commentary, interprets the fact in a somewhat more optimistic way for the human race than Lovecraft does, but the bare fact is the same.

      I've read your piece about childhood innocence and morality and I found it inspiring, thank you.

    3. Indeed, we should accept cosmicism as a fact. I was just saying cosmicism isn't a complete worldview. We still have to decide what to do about those unpleasant facts.

      There are certainly multiple options. I try to narrow them down by saying they should be based on both cosmicism and existentialism (the two aren't equivalent).

      Carl Sagan would be closer to secular humanism, which I've criticized on this blog for being too science-centered, neoliberal (politically centrist) and potentially scientistic. But secular humanism is still far superior to any exoteric monotheism.