Earlier Birth and Later Death
John Fischer

04 April 2005

Interesting show on Schopenhauer.

Here is a way of thinking about our commonsense asymmetric attitudes toward prenatal and posthumous nonexistence.  Lucretius' "mirror-image" claim seems plausible if you think of these periods purely negatively, just as experiential nothingness.  But if you think of them "relationally", i.e., as experiential blanks that are deprivations of the goods of life, then one can understand the commonsense asymmetry in our attitudes as a special case of the commonsense preference that, other things equal, our pleasures be in the future.  That is, holding everything else fixed, I prefer my pleasures in the future rather than the past, just as I prefer my pains in the past rather than the future.  Since death deprives me of future pleasures whereas prenatal nonexistence does not, it is not surprising or irrational that I care more about my death than my prenatal nonexistence.

For an early sketch of this idea, which builds on thought-experiments of Derek Parfit, see Anthony Brueckner and John Martin Fischer, "Why Is Death Bad?", originally in Philosophical Studies, and reprinted in Fischer, ed., THE METAPHYSICS OF DEATH, Stanford University Press.

A small point about pessimism: typically it seems to function at least in part as a defense mechanism, seeking to protect the individual from disappointment.  This of course resonates with the Buddhist idea of reducing one's desires....

Comments (2)


Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 5, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

"Lucretius' 'mirror-image' claim seems plausible i

"Lucretius' 'mirror-image' claim seems plausible if you think of these periods purely negatively, just as experiential nothingness."
Thinking of death, people sometimes have the intuition that experiential nothingness is a possibility. But is it? Like John Fischer, I've used Parfitian thought experiments in investigating this in "Death, Nothingness and Subjectivity," originally published in the Humanist and reprinted in The Experience of Philosophy, Kolak and Martin, eds. Online at http://www.naturalism.org/death.htm.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 5, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

"I prefer my pleasures in the future rather than t

"I prefer my pleasures in the future rather than the past, just as I prefer my pains in the past rather than the future. Since death deprives me of future pleasures whereas prenatal nonexistence does not, it is not surprising or irrational that I care more about my death than my prenatal nonexistence."
I don't want to disagree exactly but I'm not sure this captures some of the angst which a lot of us feel (or I certainly do) when thinking about death. It might explain why so many people subscribe to some form of life-after-death based religion or other; the notion of real, actual death (as in, the end of existence) is so horrifying to contemplate that we instinctively turn from the dread it provokes.
I'm not religious myself but I thought it might be worthwhile to mention that the terror of death is what finally settled the matter for Wittgenstein. Ray Monk's biography is generally wonderful but of particular relevance here are Wittgenstein's experiences during war - he found that the urge to survive becomes so supervenient, so overpowering that it simply consumed every other thought in his head. The seeming immediacy of death was driving him to despair until he shook it off somewhat by adopting a belief in God.
What am I saying? I'm not saying that God is a necessity but I'm saying that God seems to be a fairly common reflex action when faced with 'the void' - if there is a God there is 'meaning' external to us and in most religions there is even a continuance of 'us' after death. 'God as an intelligent being' could be partly explained by the idea that we find it very hard to imagine a world sans mind - if our own is gone perhaps for the picture to be comprehensible we automatically create a higher mind to dodge the issue.
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