Death and Existence

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, October 4th, 2009

1.0 Definition and Description of Death

1.1 Death is the the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism. Questions: What if some vital functions are operating, but others are not e.g., the heart no longer beats but through artificial pumping blood still circulates, the patient breathes etc. Questions: Are they dead or not? What about with working heart and lungs, but with a non-functioning brain? What about the possibility of non-biological mental consciousness (e.g., artificial intelligence). Will it be 'killed' when the power is turned off and 'resurrected' when turned back on?

1.2 There is no evidence that the mind survives after death. Nevertheless this is an extremely popular speculation in theology, whether it is through an afterlife (heaven and/or hell) or rebirth (reincarnation, transmorgification). Questions: Can the negative, that there is no afterlife, ever be proven? Can a metaphorical interpretation of an afterlife be considered; thoughts and deeds being remembered by others? Does this imply that fictional characters are in some sense 'alive'?

1. 3 Naturally, death occurs through senescence (aging) in most species; some species are theoretically immortal (e.g., through cell transdifferentiation) such as Turritopsis nutricula (a jellyfish). Others, like some fish, whales and turtles, have lived to over 200 without showing evidence of aging. Other factors which bring about an early death in humans include malnutrition, disease, or accidents resulting in terminal physical injury. In the animal kingdom, predation is a major cause and increasingly the destruction of ecosystems. Questions: Would more or less people suffer an early death with a lower level of technological and social development?

2.0 Is Death Harmful?

2.1 On an initial level, it may be assumed that death is harmful on the ground that living is a source of pleasure and happiness and death ends that source. However there are objections to this position.

2.2 Welfare analysis is based on a subjective, utilitarian comparison between potential events according to their probability and temporal consideration. A visit to the dentist may have short-term displeasure, but reduces long-term displeasure by a greater degree - and therefore is a positive. Questions: Is it possible for a subject to claim that the probable continuation of their life is less pleasurable than its cessation? If not, does that mean that you'd want to live forever?

2.3 Epicurus argued that death cannot harm us, because by reaching such a state the prospect of future harm is impossible as there is no subject to harm. Questions: Is it the concern of one's social reputation after death (c.f., Charles Dicken's 'A Christmas Carol') that can cause harm to us whilst we are living? Why should we care what people think of us after we are dead? Does the possibility of such a reputation limit one's involvement in life; is best to be forgotten than remembered?

2.4 Lucretius, argued that the state of death, i.e., non-existence, is not harmful. "Look back at time … before our birth. In this way Nature holds before our eyes the mirror of our future after death. Is this so grim, so gloomy?" The argument is that to claim that death is harmful is akin to claiming that our pre-existence was likewise harmful. Questions: Is it equally irrational, as Lucretius claims, to argue for more future life than past life? Can a 'forward bias' be justified?

3.0 Concentrating on Existence Instead

3.1 If death is an inevitable and symmetrical component of life then it is tragic (i.e., remorseless) and concerning oneself overly with it is irrational. Arguably the rational alternative is to concentrate instead on removing the causes of preventable death. The leading causes of preventable death, in millions (2001 figures) are the following: Hypertension (7.8), Smoking (5.0), High cholesterol (3.9), Malnutrition (3.8), Sexually transmitted infections (3.0), Poor diet (2.8), Overweight and obesity (2.5), Physical inactivity (2.0), Alcohol (1.9), Indoor air pollution from solid fuels (1.8), Unsafe water and poor sanitation (1.6) nb: 150 million die worldwide in total from preventable and non-preventable causes. Questions: What can be done, individually and socially, to reduce the number of preventable deaths?

3.2 Nietzsche argued, cryptically as usual, that is the quality of one's life that gives rise the quality of one's death: "Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange soundeth the precept: 'Die at the right time!'" In a collectivist orientation, Horace argued in a similar manner: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (It is noble and glorious to die for your fatherland). Anti-war poet Wilfred Owen extended Horace's claim with the words "...sed dulcius pro patria vivere, et dulcissimum pro patria bibere. Ergo, bibamus pro salute patriae" ("but it is sweeter to live for the homeland, and the sweetest to drink for it. Therefore, let us drink to the health of the homeland."). Questions: What constitutes a noble life? Does having a noble life mean that one can face death without fear?

3.3 Freud and Marcuse wrestled with the notion that there was a life-affirming instinct in the physical and mental world (Eros) that was countered by a destructive, and pathological distortion as death instinct (Thanatos). Following Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents", Marcuse argued in "Eros and Civilization" that death could become rationally accepted if society is transformed so that fear of the future lives of living is removed and human relations are naturalised. Questions: Do you agree with this hypothesis? What sort of society is Marcuse describing? Is it possible?