Monday, June 20, 2011

The Fear of Dying

Professor Costica Bradatan published an excellent piece in the NYT this weekend, and as a philosophy nerd I simply have to share it.  But Professor Bradatan's subject isn't metaphysics or epistemology, it is death.  Money quote:
There is a point beyond which philosophy, if it is not to lose face, must turn into something else: performance. It has to pass a test in a foreign land, a territory that’s not its own. For the ultimate testing of our philosophy takes place not in the sphere of strictly rational procedures (writing, teaching, lecturing), but elsewhere: in the fierce confrontation with death of the animal that we are. The worthiness of one’s philosophy reveals itself, if anywhere, in the live performance of one’s encounter with one’s own death; that’s how we find out whether it is of some substance or it is all futility. Tell me how you deal with your fear of annihilation, and I will tell you about your philosophy.

Furthermore, death is such a terrifying event, and the fear of it so universal, that to invite it by way of faithfulness to one’s ideas is something that fascinates and disturbs at the same time. Those who do so take on an aura of uncanny election, of almost un-human distinction; all stand in awe in before them. With it also comes a certain form of power. This is why, for example, one’s self-immolation (meant as political protest) can have devastating social and political effects, as we saw recently in Tunisia, when 26-year-old Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire. This is also why the death of those philosophers who choose to die for an idea comes soon to be seen as an essential part of their work. In fact their deaths often become far more important than their lives. Why is Socrates such an important and influential figure? Mostly because of the manner and circumstances of his death. He may have never written a book, but he crafted one of the most famous endings of all time: his own. Any philosophical text would pale in comparison.
Bradatan makes a very serious point here.  I once read a philosophical paper (I can't remember the title or author, or I'd give full credit here) which argued that there are multiple different fears which make death and dying so terrifying for most people.  Those fears included the fear of the process of dying, the fear of judgment, and the fear of annihilation.  Each of these is completely understandable, but let's take a moment to unpack them.

The fear of the process of dying is obvious - death involves organs shutting down, and the processes of life ceasing.  It's perfectly natural to presume that there's going to be some pain, perhaps even excruciating pain, involved.  To provide a very personal example, take the case of my grandfather, who died a year and a half ago from an catastrophic stroke.  He collapsed and was, essentially, dead when he hit the floor.  The suddenness of it was brutal.  But, despite that, I distinctly remember feeling a measure of relief at the funeral.  Relief that Grandpa hadn't been made to linger in pain and misery.  Similar sentiments were expressed aloud by other mourners.  We humans may naturally fear death, but part of that is apprehension of the area between "alive" and "not alive."  The shorter the interval between the two states, we seem to acknowledge, the better.

Fear of judgment is a different matter.  Partly, I would argue, it's a matter of people being programmed from very early ages (in most cases) to believe that there is an omniscient, omnipotent being who can and will pass judgment on everyone without exception after they die.  This serves a few purposes.  First, there's the obvious position that religion, by hypothesizing a universal judgment after death, promotes good behavior here on Earth in order to avoid punishment or attain paradise in the hereafter.  But more subtly, it appeals to the innate desire for justice that most humans seem to have.  Whether or not you believe that "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice" (and I have very serious doubts about that sentiment, much to the dismay of my Hegelian friends), there is an appeal to the idea that, in the end, all accounts will be settled, and all wrongs made right.  This yearning for just deserts to be given out is always overheard when theists confront atheists.  "If there is no God, then it doesn't matter how bad you are while you live.  You could be as bad as Hitler and just kill yourself before you got punished, and nothing bad would ever happen to you."  It feels good to imagine that Hitler and other evil humans are in Hell, eternally suffering for their misdeeds.  But knowing that others are suffering for their sins requires one to believe that the same fate is possible for oneself, hence the fear of judgment.

Finally, the trickiest one.  The fear of annihilation isn't talked about like the process of dying and the possibility of judgment.  In fact, it's rarely talked about at all, and the philosophers who have done the best job of addressing the fear of nothing beyond this life tend to be, well, not very uplifting.  Certainly the nihilists have their thoughts, as do the existentialists.  Personally, I think Sartre and especially Camus do the best job of confronting the fear of annihilation.  The Myth of Sisyphus is probably the most frank discussion of death and nothingness in an indifferent universe that can be found.  Even theists, fearing that their faith is misplaced, worry over the possibility of a great nothing beyond this life.  Kierkegaard gave serious thought to that sentiment, as did Pascal (although I share Hitchens' disgust for Pascal's hucksterish and disingenuous Wager, which laughably presents the issue of God's existence in the same way a used car salesman would, i.e. "What do you have to lose?").  We don't want to believe that the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov was right and that all that awaits us beyond the grave is death.  But the possibility is there, and this is what Bradatan is addressing.  Our response to our natural fear that there is nothing, simply nothing, after our short lives end, is the defining characteristic of our personal philosophy.

Consider some possible responses to this fear.  Sincere theists, for instance, deny it with faith.  They honestly believe and positively assert that there is something more beyond this life.  Most atheists (myself included) are agnostic on the question of what happens after death - we simply do not, and by definition cannot while we draw breath, know what happens after we die.  But, having no evidence to suggest otherwise, we must at least prepare ourselves for the eventuality that there is only nothingness, which is exactly what there was before we were born.  It would be very curious if there were some sort of eternal state of being which extended forward in time but not backward.  But the very idea of anything being eternal is scientifically and metaphysically absurd.  Even the stars in the heavens will eventually burn out.  The universe itself will end, whether by heat death, a big rip, or a big crunch, all of this reality will pass away, albeit in a very, very, very long time.  It makes no sense to me to say, without any evidence, that I could somehow outlive the universe that I am a part of.  This is why I tend towards the existentialist branch of thought when it comes to annihilation.  I don't at all share Sartre's Marxist leanings (which he himself realized were in conflict with his individualistic philosophy), but I do agree with him that, at the very least, I need to live with the assumption that this is the only shot at living I am going to get, and I had better make the most of it.

That being said, I don't want there to be nothingness.  Who could?  It's not really possible to escape the fear of nothingness, because the mind simply recoils at the thought.  At best, it's extremely difficult for our minds to comprehend our own nonexistence.  Speaking personally again, I find the thought of never again seeing my wife, of a separation from her for all time, to be one of the most awful possibilities my mind can conceive.  It does not comfort me in the slightest that if I am annihilated, I will not be conscious and aware of that separation from her.  If wishing an eternal afterlife into existence could make it so, then I wouldn't have to worry about it, because we all would have wished it into existence.  But, if there's any point of philosophy that has really stuck with me, it is the existentialists' argument that the universe is coldly indifferent to its inhabitants.  It is neither malevolent nor benevolent in its workings, it simply is what it is, irrespective of how we feel about it.  Sometimes the dealer tosses you aces, and sometimes the dice come up snake eyes.*  There's no right or wrong to it.

That's my answer to Bradatan's challenge.  I concede, it isn't a happy one.  My wife sometimes confronts me on the subject of philosophy, and she has a valid point.  The gist of her argument is this, "Thinking about things like nothingness and the end of life clearly isn't making you happier.  So why not think about something else, or change your mind?"  My response is always the same: "I can't."  On this score, I concede I envy the very religious.  They may be deluding themselves, and they may be believing on no evidence whatsoever, but self-deception usually has the benefit of making the individual happy.  On some level, I would be very comforted it I could believe that there is a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient father-like God to spare me from nothingness after I die.**  I'd be a lot happier if I could believe that my wife and I could be together for all time.  I don't think anything would make me happier.

But I can't.  Nor can I simply not think about it.  In my mind, at least, I have to think about it.  Mortality is inevitable.  It's coming, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.  I'm certain about very few things in this life, but the fact that it will end is one of them.  The best I can do is remain agnostic about what happens after that end, and at least prepare myself for the potential for nothingness.  And, more importantly, live my life to the fullest possible extent, because I have no reason to believe I will get a do-over.

*Holy mixed metaphor!

**On another level, I'd be a lot less comforted if that God were as dictatorial as his followers say he is.

H/T: Sullivan.

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