About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

On death

This is actually part of my "In Praise of Idleness" series, but since the other postings are getting few responses, possibly because people think they all related to the idle topic of idleness, I'm trying a different strategy. Surely people are interested in death? :-)

Anyway, Russell wrote an essay (in 1928) entitled "Stoicism and mental health," in which he tackles the issue of death and how to deal with it (I wrote a longer essay on the same issue, using another piece of writing by Russell as the starting point. My essay was published by the University of Tennessee Library, together with a companion piece that looks at death from the point of view of a religious believer. Both essays are available from yours truly as pdf.)

Russell suggests that there are three common attitudes toward death, all of them problematic. (1) Don't think about it. But as he points out, we know from basic psychology that avoiding to think about emotionally charged issues (e.g., sex) isn't either healthy or successful. (2) Think about it all the time. Not psychologically healthy either, since it turns into an obsession, and because we can't really do much about the issue at hand (we can act as to postpone death as much as possible, but so far nobody has managed to avoid it completely). (3) We can try to believe that death isn't really death, just the beginning of something better. According to Russell, while this is the most common take, most people don't really believe it. He reports a story by F.W.H. Myers, who asked someone during a dinner conversation what he thought would happen to him after death. Eventually, the other answered: "Oh well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn't talk about such unpleasant subjects." (I'd like to add that genuine belief in the afterlife can, although of course doesn't have to, lead to a rather callous attitude toward life -- including acceptance of injustice in view of a future reward, or even the willingness to give up one's own life by slamming airplanes into skyscrapers, etc.)

What then? Being a philosopher, Russell suggests that the best approach to the issue is the same that one ought to use with any such delicate matter (such as pain, reversals of fortune, etc.): stoicism. As Bertrand puts it, "It is best to think with a certain stoicism, deliberately and calmly, not attempting to minimise its importance, but feeling a certain pride in rising above it." Not an easy path, but then again, who said life was going to be easy?


  1. There is a fourth way to look at death (and a fifth, sixth and so on I assume), that is so unashamedly plain and naive that it has to be valid in the end: it’s the end of independant existence as a being. Some may say though, that I’m a victim of escapism when I say that, because, they may conclude, only evil hedonism will result from that viewpoint. Doesn’t a shift of focus from death to life imply a fear of death? But I sincerely think that a life without an end, a concluding markpoint that ends your statement of life, is the real nightmare. An eternal life will be very ,very, very long indeed. In fact it will be so long that you will experience every imaginable emotion (if you don’t experience anything your existence has surely ended), not once but over and over again. You will feel a hero over and over again, and an outcast, over and over again. You will experience pain infinite times. Or infinite pleausure infinite times. You will be trapped in a repeating sequence of deja vuh. And that while the living have to cope with physicalistic unforgivefullness in the 'real' world without your aid. Thank god he invented death for disbelievers and hope for believers.

  2. Firstly, I would much rather prefer living forever (and remaining healthy) than not existing at all. I think that the idea that this would be bad thing is just a convenient excuse to make death more acceptable. And secondly, I'm not sure that we can grasp our own none existence, which is why we try to avoid discussing and thinking about it. It's like looking into a mirror and trying not to see yourself.

    As for trying to avoid death, check out this thought provoking article by Nick Bostrom.

  3. I totally agree with David. If you were told you are going to die soon, would you rather have a day or a year to live? Well, apply induction to your answer and you'll see that eternal life would be a much better alternative than death. Nobody likes death, and nobody really believes in an afterlife (unless they are insane, lile suicide bombers). What could possibly be wrong with living for ever? Stoicism is commendable, but deep down we all agree with Woody Allen: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it by not dying!". Nick Bostrom and others believe that we should devote more efforts and resources to research into life extension. I cannot think of any reasonable objection to such an endeavour.

    Massimo, I thank you for your Rationally Speaking columns and now for your blog. We sorely need the voice of reason to be heard.

  4. The choice isn’t between eternal life or not living at all. Of course I want to have a long and healthy life. But to cling on to the dream of ‘no end’ hasn’t any rationale or empirical basis in this universe.

    Most of us accept that trees, birds, fish, stars have an end. On what basis should we make an exception for human kind? The only thing that you accept this way is the end of the rest of the world. Doesn’t feel like acceptance to me.

    I accept that there is an end. I don’t want it soon. I don’t want it in a while. I don’t want it at all. But I accept that it is inevitable. It’s not the wanting that makes hope real, whatever might be the amarican way of thinking. I live my life knowing that it will end some day, not counting on a trapdoor to infinity.

    The other point I was trying to make is that there is a fundamental problem with the logic of eternal life. When eternal life is of a dynamic nature (i.e. there is some noticeable form of change over time) in a (large) finite amount of time we must become either god or nothing at all. The former possibility sounds like despair to me, the latter I call ‘end’. When eternal life has no dynamic nature it is static, which seems utter boredom to me. So, again, there is no rationale. On one thing we do agree though, that there is no grasping of what is after physical death. Why should we, we don't exist when we might need the answer.

  5. Don't think about it.

    If you don't think about sex, you'll face the consequences while still alive. So, I agree that not thinking about sex wouldn't be a wise thing to do.

    But, if you don't think about death, well, you'll die.

  6. The good thing about death is that you don't have to worry about it after it happens. I agree with Russell - you need to accept that the end will come, and stoicism is the most rational response. On the other hand, rational people can find ways to believe that death isn't really death. If you equate your existance with your DNA, you can point to your children as your immortality or more broadly, the continued existance of humanity. It all depends on how you define your self.

  7. I would much rather prefer a Epicurean
    style of living. Enjoying moderate happiness and friendships througout this life. Furthermore, I would conclude that the way to avoid negative thoughts on death is to realize that death is nonexistence. Prior to your birth, you didn't exist and it wasn't a horrible experience.


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