Monday, March 23, 2009

Thoughts on the fear of death

March 21, 2009

By Andy Ho

A NEW YORK girl aged seven recently underwent 23 hours of abdominal cancer surgery and recovered enough to be discharged - without her spleen and pancreas. One can live without the spleen but pancreatic secretions will need to be substituted with drugs for life.

In a five-day operation here seven years ago, Jamuna was separated from her Siamese twin, Ganga. The Nepalese infants were conjoined at the top of their heads with their brains entwined. Ganga succumbed to pneumonia last July while Jamuna still has a palm-sized patch on the top of her head that is covered only by skin. A knock there could kill her, so she was back here recently for more surgery and will be back again next month for even more surgery.

We resort to the most extreme of measures to keep at bay death which, intuitively, seems to be the worst misfortune that could befall any one of us. But is this instinctive fear of death rational?

In his Letter to Menoeceus, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus argued to the contrary - ' nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.' Hence he deduced: 'It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.'

For Epicurus, pleasure and pain defined good and bad respectively, so the happy life was one with no pain and fear. Since death meant we cease to exist, there would be no pain, so logic dictated it should not be feared.

This is largely also the argument that Simon Critchley makes in his 2008 work, The Book Of Dead Philosophers. He surmises: 'The philosopher looks death in the face and has the strength to say that it is nothing.' He thinks that we should cultivate a similar indifference to death by emulating how philosophers - Western, Chinese and Islamic - died.

Yet it is one of his exemplars who amply demonstrates how vacuous the Epicurean attitude may be. After Italy's liberation in 1944, George Santayana, who had left Harvard University to live in Rome, was found by American soldiers. When a journalist asked how he felt about the war, his infamous reply - 'I know nothing. I live in the Eternal' - exposed how ghastly the Epicurean perspective could turn out to be.

At any rate, most of us do feel that death is a bad thing. Since 1970 when New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel published his seminal seven-pager entitled simply Death in the journal Nous, thinkers have resorted to his idea that death is bad because it deprives us of the good things in life. It deprives us of the opportunity to have nice experiences and complete our life projects. This attitude to death stands opposed to the Epicurean one.

At the wake for a 40-something friend who had succumbed to pancreatic cancer recently, I mulled over these things. While many comforted his family that 'he is suffering no more', some of his friends lamented that he should have died so young. So death was both good and bad at the same time. How was that possible? He had been in high spirits up till the time he was diagnosed with cancer. He was happily married and his children were doing well in school. Having been just promoted to a top corporate position, he had mapped out new projects to take his company in an exciting new direction. Though the cancer was brewing inside and death was, unbeknownst to him, just a year away, he was happy and contented at that point in time. Epicurus' notion that 'death is nothing to us (for) when we exist, death is not present' would have been accurate of my friend then. Death does not affect us at any single point in time while we are still alive, and it is irrational to fear it.

But the overall quality of his life as one continuous story was diminished by his premature death. Now he will not complete his projects, see his children grow up, or grow old with his wife. Death did diminish his welfare even at that point of his greatest success because it cut short their value in the overall scheme of his life . Thus it would seem that death can affect us at any single point in time while we are alive. Epicurus was wrong and it is rational to fear death.

Of course, context matters. For one thing, the achievements of different individuals differ. Mozart accomplished so much in his short life that his achievements would have discounted a lot of the badness of his death at any point in his life. Not so if you are not Mozart.

For another, different factors matter at different stages of one's life. For a nonagenarian, his life's projects are likely to be completed, so death would not be bad for it cannot significantly impact his life's trajectory any more. For a child of seven, though, many are the potential projects ahead. So it would be rational to fear a child's death.

Daedalus (meaning 'cunning worker' in Greek) was the man who built wings so he and his son Icarus could fly. As Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings melted and he crashed to earth. Daedalus is a weekly column on the triumphs and challenges of science and technology.

[I agree with the "Death takes away the opportunity to enjoy the things that life offer" argument. One of the things I think about is that I never made roast pork for my father. I only learnt how to make that after he had passed away. But now all my family (who wants to) has tried. But I do not agree with the "Premature death takes away one's quality of life". If one is at one's productive years, is in a relationship, and has responsibilities, then one's passing diminishes the quality of life for those who are dependent (whether by free choice or not) on one - a widowed spouse, a parent less for a child, partners in life or business or passion. And for the very young who has all their life (except that they don't) and the potential of that life ahead of them, a premature death ends the hopes and potential of a young life. But like Epicurus said, for the dead, it does not matter to them for they exist no more.

So when we are old, we should not fear death. It is the gateway to the next phase of our consciousness. And when we are young we should not fear death because it is incomprehensible to us when we are that young. It is when we are adults with responsibilities that we should fear death, for our non-existence has an impact on all those around us that depend on us and love us. Or one can choose to live such that one's premature passing shall not matter beyond a sad comment, and a wistful note.]

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