Should we be afraid of death?

Below is an article by the humanist philosopher Peter Cave on the question of whether or not we should be afraid of death:

‘When death is there, we are not; when we are there, death is not.’

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Reason is not opposed to emotion. Although we may rationally recognise that death is utter annihilation and inevitable, we may well have feelings about it – and rightly so. At a certain stage – perhaps with sufferings and indignities of age and illness – death may be joyously embraced as welcomed release. More usually, thoughts of our death and learning that others have died, particularly those close to us, cause distress. We grieve at the loss of a lover. She has lost her life; we have lost a close friend.

Religious believers may be fearful of Judgement Day; at least humanists lack that worry. Indeed, there is a classic humanist argument that obviously we ought not to fear death. In the first century BC, Lucretius, Roman poet, philosopher and follower of Epicurus, offered:

‘If the future holds travail and anguish in store, the self must be in existence, when that time comes, in order to experience it. But from this fate we are redeemed by death, which denies existence to the self that might have suffered these tribulations… One who no longer is cannot suffer, or differ in any way from one who has never been born…’

Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe

Lucretius’s pithy yet forceful argument rests on a simple truth: to experience anything at all, you must minimally be a subject of possible experiences. Unlike being in a dreamless sleep – when you are still a subject who could experience things – in death, you are no subject at all; there is no longer a ‘you’.

Humanists accept that death brings no experiences to fear or, indeed, to welcome; yet they may also accept that death is troubling. Our death means that our projects may fail: the planned Amazonian trip is aborted; we never learn to play the violin. No more will there be romantic hopes, party invitations, and sounds of ocean waves for us. We may regret such losses to come. We may regret never knowing whether the whale is saved, whether peace arrives on Earth, whether the trees that we planted flourish into the next century.

Death deprives us of much. Of course, that deprivation will not be experienced by us, so does it matter? This is where we need to realize that what matters is not just a matter of what we experience. Not all things that are harmful to us affect our experiences. I may be betrayed, mocked behind my back, my privacy violated by a Peeping Tom, yet I never learn about those actions. Ignorance may be experiential bliss, yet have I still not been harmed by such happenings unknown to me? Is my life really going well? Reflect: were I to find out, I should be distressed at what I found out about.

What matters, the above examples suggest, is our interests, reputations, projects – and they persist even when we are no more.

‘To be dead is to be a prey for the living.’

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

The dead may have their reputation ruined, projects halted, deathbed wishes ignored. Such actions show a lack of respect. We typically feel that we ought to respect the dead; perhaps that sustains the thought that disrespect can be harmful, even when the disrespected no longer exist. Of course, events can go the other way: people’s reputations may be enhanced in death.

Humanists thus recognise that it is important how we treat deceased people, without needing to believe in ghosts or souls looking down, checking what we do.

Humanists also find meaning within mortal lives; after all, even an endless life could only have meaning were that meaning found within it.

‘All the things we value, however rare, however small, that give point or meaning to our lives — the friendships, loves and absurdities; those soundscaped memories entwined with shared passions and glances that magically ensnare and enfold; the intoxications of wines and words… — do indeed all cease to exist… yet that they, and we, existed at some time remains timelessly true.’

Peter Cave, Can a Robot Be Human?, The Big Think Book

That should remind us that how we live – how well we treat others and ourselves – matters. In fact, death should encourage us to value life all the more, in view of life’s transiency; a transiency that, I suggest, possesses a touch of eternity.

Question: Is death something to be feared?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK