[quote author=“Epicurus”]Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in the world, at one time people shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with all speed through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life? It were easy for him to do so, if once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not.
I too find it hard to decide, partly because how I feel changes with my frame of mind. I mostly dislike the thought of being separated from my family, and of all the “unfinished business, things I want to see, do, learn, etc. And I agree that a mythology that promises this separation need not happen is attractive, but I don’t find myself desolate without such comfort. The quote from Epicurus is quite appropriate, and resonates with a lot of similar ideas I’ve found in Buddhist philosophy-no point in tarnishing the moment with anxiety about the unknowable future. I certainly think fear of death, as well as the unknown in general, is a major reason people cling to religion even when reason suggests its explanations are likely untrue. It’s important, as we try to promote a more rational way of looking at mortality, that we have compassion and understanding for those whose fear leads them to superstitious examples, and that we honestly examine our own feelings about the matter. Good question!
[quote author=“George Benedik”]I agree with the “unknown in general”. I wonder if we fear death simply because we don’t understand it. I think it is the “forever” part we find difficult to comprehend. I would find it equally (if not more) terrifying if I was to live forever.
These are both interesting concerns. I agree about the “fear of the unknown”, since it may contain unseen dragons. But is death really “unknown”? Insofar as we are naturalists, in the old tradition stemming back to ancient Greece, we do know death: it is endless, dreamless sleep, basically.
Other philosophers have made the claim that eternal life would itself be terrifying. Certainly it would if we could not be assured of happiness or pleasure ...
[quote author=“dougsmith”]But is death really “unknown”? Insofar as we are naturalists, in the old tradition stemming back to ancient Greece, we do know death: it is endless, dreamless sleep, basically.
I can imagine a dreamless sleep. I cannot, however, imagine an endless one.
Of course, humans are remarkable in their ability to fill the unknown with their imaginations. Since it is difficult, or frightening, to truly grasp the cessation of our own awareness, we imagine this continuing after physical death, and then we fill in the details according to our particular cultural mythology. Sometimes the details are clearly not comforting, but I think there are social, political, and historical reasons for that. I think the origination of the myths are both attempts to explain and, primarily, to comfort. Death is unknown in a visceral sense, if not an intellectual sense. We’ve experienced, in a way, the absense of our conscious before birth and during sleep, but not the permanant cessation of our consciousness after death.
Sleep is not, I think, a very accurate metaphor in that it dampens the fear by likening death to something we aren’t usually afraid of and both experience and long for regularly but which is in reality quite different (and of course it glosses over the whole decomposition thing). I think we use it, as opposed to a more direct comparison to actual dead people and animals, which most of us are familiar with, to comfort ourselves rather than really come to grips with the nature of death and its implications. (Not that I’m implying that is your intent, Doug, but I think that’s the effect of employing the metaphor.)
Endless life is, again, a product of our imaginations, but since life as we currently experience it is familiar, it is easier to fill in the unknowns about an endless life by imagining something akin what we already experience, only better-absence of suffering and fear, etc. Except for those pesky philosophers who conjure up Tithonus to scare us into thinking about everything! :wink:
Interesting, Brennen, and I certainly appreciate that you (as a doctor) will have more first-hand experience with death and dying than we.
But I must say that dreamless sleep is the most pertinent metaphor I’ve ever heard for death. It’s true that it glosses over issues such as decomposition, as you say, but those are issues for the survivors, not for the dead person, who is no longer around.
The point, as Epicurus says so well, is that death is an absence of consciousness, of awareness. We do “know what that is like” in the brute sense that we know what it’s like to go to sleep and wake up, and by inference we know what it’s like not to be conscious.
(Yes, I know, it’s paradoxical to say we “know what it’s like not to be conscious” ...)
Put it another way, some people die in their sleep. It might well be that they never woke up, and that there was no difference to them between their state of sleep and of death ... no conscious difference I mean, of course.
It’s true that it glosses over issues such as decomposition, as you say, but those are issues for the survivors, not for the dead person, who is no longer around.
You’re right, there is an important distinction between the issues death presents for the living and the dead. I agree it presents essentially none for the dead since, as far as we know, they don’t have any awareness or existence to speak of.
Trying to understand what dying is like before it happens is probably not very productive, though I understand why we want to. Sleep implies something about the subjective experience of death, or at least the moment at which consciousness ceases. Maybe that implication is true, but how can we tell? Are NDEs useful? If so, they seem quite different from the ordinary experience of going to sleep.
And, as you say, my perception of death from the outside is heavily colored by my daily experience with it. I euthanise animals by, literally, putting them to sleep first with anesthetics, but I no longer find any significant resemblance between sleep and death in terms of external appearance. The visible and tactile characteristics of even an very recently dead animal are manifestly different from one that is sleeping even to (at least my) casual observation (and I suppose person, though I’ve only personally seen dead humans after they have been “processed” for exhibition).
I also have, as part of my work, almost daily exposure to people witnessing the death of a loved pet. The reactions run the gammut from casual lack of real concern (the very rare “It’s just an animal.”), to calm acceptance of the natural life cycle, to firm religious convinction (especially given to children who are presnet, the “Going home to God” consolation). Granted the intensity of the experience is likely different when another human is involved, but I suspect the basic nature of the experience is the same. The issues death presents to the living, then, seem to be about loss of an important relationship, guilt about perceived failings in the relationship which can no longer be remedied, and physical suffering during or before dying. At least at the moment of separation, people don’t verbalize a lot of anxiety about the “unknown,” so you may be right this isn’t an especially salient issue in terms of fear of death.
I wonder what influence, generally, the lack of regular exposure to death and dying for most of us in the developed world has on our attitudes towards it, and our religious predilections? I’m sure that’s been studied and written about somewhere. I certainly feel familiar with death, but I still wouldn’t mind avoiding it myself (with all the usual caveats about what I’d like instead). It is not rational to feel anxiety about something which I will not, ultimately experience for more than a few moments, and which I can’t realistically avoid anyway. But sometimes I still do.
Good post again, Brennen. I would like to press a bit more on this difference of death for the survivors as versus the person doing the dying.
We do fear the deaths of people close to us, for very rational reasons. We love them, enjoy their company, at times require their help and advice. Their death involves difficulty and pain for the survivors in many complex ways. Certainly, a dead person has no close relationship to a sleeping one for the ones who remain alive ... although in that case, the better metaphor would be the person in the persistent vegitative state, who is basically as good as dead to his or her loved ones.
And then when the person is gone, we often have the odd feeling that they remain alive; objects and places visited together appear to be infused with their presence, we may even hear their voices at odd times, as Richard Dawkins said he used to hear voices of his parents. None of this, of course, is in any way at odds with a naturalistic worldview. It is all produced by the brain. But it is no less painful and difficult for that.
The issue that I think started off this thread, the deeper philosophical issue, however, deals with our own death. Why do we fear our own death? Should we? What is death like? FWIW, I don’t think issues of near death experiences (NDEs) are relevant. They are likely due to the effect of certain chemicals on the brain, chemicals released when the person is near death. Once death occurs, of course, these chemicals would cease to have their normal function in the brain. Then “dreamless sleep” is as close as we can get ...
There was no way I could vote in this poll because the choices were too narrow.
At 76 I see myself as a short term phenomenon nearing the end of its existence. I’m aware of it so the last choice doesn’t fit either. However, as much as I enjoy living and do what I can to prolong the experience, when I die I (my mind) will cease to exist so there will be no consciousness, positive or negative.