Why Death Might Not Be As Bad As You Think It Is

by Tim Sommers

Facing immanent death, his friends and followers inconsolable, Socrates, according to Plato, attempted to console them.

He called fear of death “the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown,” adding that “no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.”

In other words, (i) death should only be feared if it is known to be bad; (ii) no one knows that death is bad; therefore, (iii) death should not be feared. The problem with (i), of course, is that some of our greatest fears, of the dark, for example, are fears about the unknown. Maybe, we should be afraid because we don’t know.

But Epicurus argued. “[D]eath is nothing to us, since everything good and bad lies in sensation, and death is to be deprived of sensation… [W]hen we are, death is not, and when death is present, then we are not.” So, (i) after we die, we no longer exist (or have sensations); (ii) Nothing is bad without being bad for someone who exists (and has sensations). Therefore, (iii) nothing can be bad for us after we die. Of course, (i) depends on already believing that we cease to exist at death, which seems obvious to me, but clearly a lot of people disagree.

But back to Plato. He had a better argument than “we don’t know”. Here it is. (i) Death is either like a peaceful, dreamless sleep, which is a good thing; (ii) Or death involves joining a permanent community of heroes and philosophers, which is also a good thing. Therefore, “Whichever of these it is, death is a good thing.” Now, the “permanent community of heroes and philosophers” bit is very culturally specific, so let’s adjust (ii). Replace the “permanent community of heroes and philosophers” with whatever you think the after life is like. Or we might just say that if death is more than a peaceful sleep, it involves something new and, hopefully, interesting, or at least not terrible. But this has a problem similar to the one that bedeviled Socrates’ first argument.

Consider the following story from Stephen King. When Stanley Kubrick was making “The Shining”, which of course was based on a King novel, Kubrick used to call him often to discuss how it was going. One night, Kubrick said to King, “Well fundamentally, it’s an optimistic story.” King says he was taken aback. “How is it optimistic?” “It’s a ghost story,” Kubrick said, “All ghost stories are optimistic, because it means that there is life after death. Isn’t the thought that there is something waiting for us after we die optimistic?” King replied, “It depends on what it is.”

The contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that death is bad for those who die, not because of anything that happens after that, but because it deprives them of living longer which, on the assumption that their life is worth living, would be good for them. We might think, well, more life might be better, but if you have already had some good living, maybe death isn’t so bad. But Nagel can respond, if more is better and less is worse, then less is bad – and that is why, no matter how good a life you’ve had, death is bad.

The Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius, author of, “De rerum natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), argued that human life is book-ended by non-existence. We did not exist before we were born. We will not exist after we die. We do not lament our non-existence before we were born, yet we bitterly lament our non-existence after we die. Why are we so much more concerned with the one than the other?

Lucretius might say to Nagel that where our life is still worth living, it is a shame that it has to end, but why be more upset about that than about the time we might have lived if we had been born earlier? Maybe you think that it is impossible for us to have been born earlier, for some reason; e.g. our being born is in the past, while (hopefully) our dying is in the future, anyone born earlier would not (by definition) be us, etc. But is it really a modal question? That is, is it really a question of what’s possible? This is too complicated to get into, but I would say that from the point of view of a third-party observer, looking at a life as a whole, after death, off-hand it doesn’t seem to be any more possible for us to have gone on living past the point we died, than it is to have been born earlier. I’m just not sure. But I want to move past this to make a related, but (to me) more compelling argument.

This is not an argument that death is not bad. This is the titular argument that death is probably not as bad as you think it is. I think it’s a different argument than Lucretius’, but it might not be. I leave it to you. (Comments always welcomed.)

I think it helps to start by understanding four-dimensionalism, even though I think we can drop four-dimensionalism again at the end. Four-dimensionalism is the view that persistence through time is just like extension through space. Your relationship to your earlier and later selves is that you are all temporal-parts, or time-slices of, a being that extends across time, from moment to moment, in much the same way it extends across space. On this view, the universe is a four-dimensional block and if you could get outside that block and look back, there’s a sense in which everything has already happened. (That’s just a metaphor, of course, since it’s not clear that we can even make sense of the idea of being “outside” time and space – even though some people think God is.)

Anyway, Einstein’s general relativity seems to imply a kind of four-dimensionalism. Some people think he was referring to that when, upon the death of his friend Michele Besso, he wrote a letter of condolence to Besso’s family that said that while Besso

“…has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

On the one hand, some argue that this is not Einstein’s considered view. It was written in grief to one of his best friend’s family just prior to his own death. On the other hand, whatever Einstein’s view is, it seems that one could argue that four-dimensionalism, all on its own, provides the materials for an argument that death is not as bad as we think. But here’s a simpler way to go.

Even if four-dimensionalism is not literally true, we are still, in some way, extended through both space and time. Spatially we can only be in one place at the same time. And we have limited abilities to move about and, so, are unable to ever go to most places. Certainly, there is only so much time that we have to go so many places. Surely, most of us lament, this to some extent – that we won’t ever go everywhere – or at least to some specific places we’d have liked to have gone, but who says, “It is the greatest tragedy of human life that I am spatially limited.” On the other hand, of our temporal limits, people often say things like “It is the greatest tragedy of human life that we all have to die; i.e., are temporally limited.”

However, there’s no obvious reason why we should care more about being temporally limited than we do about being spatially limited; and so (most people?) should probably think death is less bad than they do now – only as bad as our inability to be in more than one place at a time or to go everywhere we want to. (Of course, you could react to this argument by coming to believe that being spatially limited is much worse than you previously thought it was, i.e., that it is actually as bad as death. One person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens. (See below.)

Is this just Lucretius’ argument again? His comparison is between pre-birth and after-life. This new argument turns on the difference between the reaction in general we have to being temporally, as opposed to spatially, limited – so I think they are different. Again, death is no worse than being unable to go everywhere we want to go during our life. In fact, depending on your view of time and space, it may literally be the same limitation that we only perceive to be different because of our limited view of the world; for example, if four-dimensionalism is true. That seems to me to make death less bad. What do you think? Do any of these little syllogisms move you? I think they move me. A little. Either way, I give the great Roman stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, Seneca to his friends, the last word.

“It takes all of our life to learn how to live, and – something that may surprise you more – it takes just as long to learn how to die.”

(1) A brief post-script on the phrase, “One person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens,” and how it applies here. Here’s modus ponens. If x is true, and x implies that y is true; then y is true. If being spatially limited is not that bad, and if the fact that being spatially limited is not that bad implies that being temporally limited is not that bad, then being temporally limited is not that bad. Here’s modus tollens. If x implies y, and not y; then not x. So, if being spatially limited is not that bad implies that being temporally limited is not that bad; but being temporally limited is that bad; then, it’s not the case that being spatially limited is not that bad.

(2) What about how our death can be bad for others? I started with Socrates consoling his followers about his imminent death. One thing that might have struck you as odd is that his consolations – and for that matter everything I’ve written here – are all about how our death is bad, or not so bad, for us. But it seems insensitive in the middle of a plague that has killed over 800,000 Americans not to acknowledge that it also matters greatly that our death, or anyone’s death, can also be bad for other people. In Socrates defense (and mine), it seems to make sense that, in addressing the badness of death, we have to start with why it is, or isn’t, bad for the person dying. For example, if death isn’t bad for the person dying, even if you will feel bad because you will miss them, you hopefully won’t feel as badly if you think that death is not as bad for them as you might previously have thought. The consolations of philosophy may be thin gruel to some, maybe to most, and the way philosophers talk about, for example, death may seem insensitive. But speaking for myself, I really do feel less afraid of death because I see it less as a singular sorrow and more as just one of the many unavoidable limitations we have as human beings. And that’s a good thing, right? About my own death, I am more concerned about how it will affect others because I feel that death is so much less bad for me than I fear that others might think it is. And I have some small, unrealistic hope that having seen these arguments, you and they will feel a little less badly about death, too. Theirs’s, yours and others.