Saturday, May 16, 2009

Life, death, and immortality

Living & Dying

The fear of death is a common fear. It can take two different forms: a fear of oblivion or a fear of the afterlife–if the afterlife is perceived to be unpleasant.

On the standard atheistic outlook, our consciousness is extinguished at death. This raises the question of whether the atheist has reason to fear death.

Some atheists frankly admit their fear of death. But other atheists, like Epicurus and Lucretius, say man has nothing to fear from death since the dead experience nothing at all.

In addition, some atheists, making a virtue of necessity, say our mortality is what gives life meaning. Conversely, immortality would be an interminable bore.

Of course, an orthodox Christian doesn’t believe that consciousness terminates at death. But, for the sake of argument, let’s examine the secular response to death on its own grounds.

Existence & Experience

Is it true that experience is a precondition of a deprivation? That unless you are in a position to consciously experience a deprivation, then it’s no deprivation to you?

While this may seem intuitively plausible, it’s easy to come up with some counterintuitive examples. Suppose a happy, healthy 20-year-old is wheeled into the ER after an accident. The accident has left him in a coma.

But with good care he will make a full recovery. He will revert to being a happy, healthy young man.

But suppose you pull the plug while he’s in a coma. By pulling the plug,you terminate his life.

Have you deprived him of anything. On the Lucretian, Epicurean view, he suffers no deprivation since he cannot experience the consequences your action. Indeed, he was already unconscious. All you’ve done is to extend that condition indefinitely.

Of course, most folks, including the comatose patient, would not agree with that assessment! By taking his life, you robbed him of his future happiness. The opportunities he would otherwise enjoy.

Likewise, suppose a young man, in a fit of depression, commits suicide. On the Lucretian, Epicurean view, he suffers no deprivation since, once he’s dead, he cannot experience any sense of loss.

Again, most folks wouldn’t agree. We tend to view premature death, by accident, illness, or suicide, as tragic precisely because the young man (or woman) had his entire life ahead of him. He missed out on so much that life has to offer. His inexperience is the nub of the problem. Now he’ll never have a chance to do this or that. And, by taking his life, he can never make up for lost opportunities.

Indeed, on the Lucretian, Epicurean view, there’s no reason to avoid death. No reason to avoid premature death. No reason to avoid murder. You can’t harm someone by killing him–since he cannot experience the result of your action. He can experience the moment before death, but once he’s dead he can’t remember that event.

So whatever initial plausibility the Lucretian, Epicurean view may enjoy is quickly lost as soon as we consider some obvious and important counterexamples.

What response is available to the Epicurean? Well, he could bite the bullet. He could say these counterexamples beg the question. They don’t prove that death is a misfortune for the decedent. The only show that many people feel that way. But, of course, that assumes the very point at issue.

And how should we respond to that?

i) When the question at issue is the fear of death, then feelings matter. Thanatophobia is a feeling. A deep-seated, emotional state. Like love or joy or anger.

Simply telling someone he shouldn’t feel that way doesn’t make the feeling go away. So it doesn’t solve the problem. You might as well tell a teenage boy that he shouldn’t have a crush on that girl in the front row. Saying so doesn’t change how he feels.

ii) Moreover, feelings are morally significant. They may often be an unreliable guide in decision-making, but for better or worse our emotional states are either appropriate or inappropriate. As such, the fear of death cannot be dismissed so easily.

iii) Furthermore, there’s more at issue than the bare feeling. Than a groundless feeling. For these counterexamples have a logical foundation. They appeal to counterfactuals. Lost opportunities.

No, the decedent can’t experience all these lost opportunities, but that, of itself, is a total deprivation. A counterfactual deprivation is still a deprivation. And, in this case, the deprivation couldn’t be more all-encompasing.

Meaning & Mortality

What about the further argument that mortality is what gives meaning to life? One can think of illustrations which lend an air of plausibility to that claim.

Suppose a close relative is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suppose that, before his diagnosis, I took my relative for granted or even resented him (or her). And the feeling was mutual.

But now that his death is no longer a distant prospect or practical abstraction, we value our time together in a way that was never the case when we seemed to have all the time in the world.

Does this successfully illustrate that mortality is what makes life meaningful? No.

i) It wasn’t terminal cancer that suddenly made an otherwise worthless life worthwhile. Rather, terminal cancer simply shocked the patient and his relatives into the realization of how precious his life always was.

ii) Moreover, the insight which this experience creates is one which only the living can appreciate. Death deprives all parties of that experience. Fleeting goods are good insofar as we can anticipate their occurrence or remember them after they have passed. But that’s a viewpoint which only the living can share or entertain.

Passing the Time

Would immortality be an interminable bore?

i) There are some folks whose only goal in life is to experience everything just once. They read a book once. See a movie once. See a mountain once. See a cathedral once. Have one child–or, at most, one son and one daughter. They live for novelty. For folks like that immortality could well be an interminable bore.

Likewise, an atheist contrives subjective meaning for his life by setting artificial goals. But what happens when he achieves all his goals?

ii) Apropos (i), I think the atheist is half-right. It’s quite possible for immortality to be a crashing bore. Not immortality in general. Not all kinds of immortality. But certain kinds of immortality. And that strikes me as an excellent way to punish some evildoers.

iii) Even in this world, there are certain pleasures that many or most folks seem to find inexhaustible. For example, visual beauty has great staying power.

iv) Likewise, it’s possible to get tired of something after a while, let it lie fallow, then return to it with renewed interest.

v) Likewise, various things can be interesting or uninteresting at different times of life. Something may have no appeal to us at one point in life, but be appealing at a later point in life when it resonates with our maturing experience.

vi) Moreover, it’s not a case of just doing the same thing every single time, as if you spend all your time doing the very same thing. You can vary your activities.

vii) Furthermore, there’s a circular quality to the objection. For one thing, if the only way to make life meaningful for ourselves is to pose artificial challenges to overcome, then life ceases to be meaningful when we run out of challenges. But that conclusion derives from an atheistic premise.

For another thing, mortality itself makes us more impatiently goal-oriented than we would naturally be. If we thought we had all the time in the world, we’d be more inclined to take life as it comes, without trying to structure our time to the same degree. Rather than imposing our itinerary on life, life would supply the itinerary. There are so many things to discover and to savor. We could afford to take our time.

viii) An atheist may object that even if some joys seem to be inexhaustible in this life, we might get tired of them after a million years or so.

That’s hypothetically possible. However, that objection cuts both ways. To say that immortality would be a crashing bore is, itself, an extrapolation from our earthly, mortal experience. If you can extrapolate from earthly boredom to justify your claim that immortality would be deadly dull, then you can just as well extrapolate from the opposite sort of experience to justify the claim that immortality would continue to be full of interest.

ix) Furthermore, a Christian doesn’t view the afterlife as merely an extension of existence in a fallen world. Depending on whether you’re heavenbound or hellbound, the afterlife will either be better or worse than life here-below. A Christian expects the afterlife to be a signal improvement.


  1. Steve, when I get to heaven, I will be grateful to have time to read all the books I've never gotten to read on earth. On the other hand, you seem to have already read everything. (I imagine that you've got some advanced "one-click" kind of capability with Amazon -- instead of buying with one-click, you just have them shipped to you as they are published. Given that you are from Seattle, I imagine that you have already made your software fortune, and are now spending your time helping where you perceive you can have the greatest impact on earth: spending your life in the service of theologians and would-be theologians, and sharing your considerable knowledge and thought processes with as much of the world as you can.)

    Of course, it seems as if new (and better) books will continue to be published in heaven, too.


    "Given that you are from Seattle, I imagine that you have already made your software fortune..."

    Yes, I'm the brains behind Bill Gates. He's just a figurehead.

  3. I believe Steve is also the mysterious third Steve (along with Jobs and Wozniak) who co-founded Apple Computers.

  4. steve you said that you are more bookish than nerd, how many books do you read per week, and how many books have you read in your lifetime ,are you catching up with rushdoony?