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Epicurus famously asserted that death should not be feared, with roughly the following argument:

  1. When we die, we no longer exist;
  2. Since we no longer exist, we can feel neither pain nor pleasure. Rather, we simple "are not";
  3. Therefore, there is nothing to fear in death, as death literally is nothing from our perspective.

Is this argument logically sound, though? In its brevity it seems to be leaving out a plethora of other considerations that can easily make death a very fearsome thing. For example, one may fear leaving behind one's family, being forgotten without a legacy, or one may fear "nothing" itself, as "not existing" is a fairly mysterious - and therefore possibly disturbing - notion itself. Or are the former not directly related to death, and is the latter illogical?

In response to one of the answers below, I thought it would be pertinent to clarify my main concern: assuming that in death there is no perception nor experience, what criticisms of Epicurus' argument remain? I appreciate the answer from the dualist perspective, but I was also hoping for something more scrutinizing of Epicurus' assertion that "if there is no experience in death, it should not be feared."

Have any authors written about this?

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    Death may be nothing to us, but it is also the loss of all of our potential future actions. So it is surely not nothing to the world around us. Anyone who could not fear death would already have abandoned active, or even passive, engagement in the world. – jobermark Oct 5 '15 at 19:05
  • See other answer below. His assumption is "fears" arise from and within "experience," therefore the absence of experience cannot be a rational source of fear. But fear is, by definition, an anticipation of something unexperienced, not the effect of an experience. – Nelson Alexander Oct 5 '15 at 19:05
  • OK, so no one who has never fallen 50 feet cannot fear heights. I think that is too lame even for a presocratic hermit. We constantly fear many things outside our experience. – jobermark Oct 5 '15 at 19:07
  • @Nelson Alexander. So by your "logic" if a crocodile eat one hand of you, and after some years you encounter another crocodile that is ready to eat your second hand then you will experience no fear because you are aware of such an experience? Please my friend... – John Am Oct 5 '15 at 20:08
  • Not at all. Of course we are dealing with experiences on the normal "fear" side of the issue. But logically what we are "afraid of" is not that which already happened to Captain Hook, but that possible second bite which is still anticipated. Epicurus refers to an eventuality which, by his own definition, is an absolute absence of all experience. Yet he maintains we can draw a logical inference as to whether or not to "fear" it. My point concurs with yours. Total absence of experience is not a logical basis for such judgments. – Nelson Alexander Oct 6 '15 at 12:47

11 Answers 11

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Yes, many authors have written about this. Shelly Kagan of Yale comes to mind. His famous class on Death should prove to be informative. He also wrote a book. Kagan cites many philosophers (many of which I forget) throughout the series.

Back to Epicurus; his argument is logically sound, except that you misrepresent the corollary. Philosophers that think death is bad think so not because there may be suffering in the afterlife (I don't know of any philosopher that argues this), but rather because life is precious. As a matter of fact, you could not believe in any sort of afterlife and still believe that death is bad. Losing something precious, is, after all, never a good thing. Whether bad things should be feared or not is another discussion.

FYI, Kagan disagrees. He thinks that death may be good (he provides several very clever arguments) and that even suicide is morally justifiable - a pretty controversial position.

A simple critique of the Epicurean position is the following:

Epicurus: When we die, we no longer exist;
Skeptic: What do you mean by no longer exist?
Epicurus: Our body ceases to function, blood stops flowing, our neurons stop firing, etc.
Skeptic: What about the soul?
Epicurus: It's destroyed.
Skeptic: How/why/what mechanism destroys the soul?
Epicurus: Well the soul is corporeal. It dies with the body.
And now our Skeptic unveils himself
Descartes: The soul you describe is nothing but an extension of the body. The kind of soul I'm talking about exists even after bodily death and is non-corporeal therefore cannot die in the first place.

So now we're at the mind-body problem. If you accept Epicurus' premise (and read what he has to say about the soul) you can circumvent this whole debacle. It's of note to say that most philosophers nowadays are not dualists and that Cartesian thought is a dying breed. Most, I think, would agree (at least in part) with Epicurus. Kagan certainly does.

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Also there is a similar discussion in the Shia Islam's resources which came in a dialogue between a religious leader, named Ja'far al-Sadiq, and an unbeliever of God and the Judging day. The religous leader asks the unbeliever something like this: "Why do you think people who believe in God and the judging day are dumb? If what you think is true and everything will finish up to nothingness with death then all of you the believers and non-believers would be the same, but if what they say about God and judging day is true then after death you would find yourself in a long journey never got ready for it before whereas they have got ready for it and can easily continue their way toward the uttermost joy ever after, and you will be regretful of the time you have lost here"

With respect to the above quoted question I think fear from death would persist as the first assumption that "When we die, we no longer exist" has just no guaranty!

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I don't think the sole purpose of having negative feeling is to stay alive, but it is necessarily considered 'bad' in terms of Epicurus' view on life (so pleasure is considered necessarily good, but he distinguishes between choiceworthy pleasures and those which are not - can lead to subsequent pains). For example, I want to get a dog to avoid feelings of loneliness but not necessarily that I want to avoid death, and Epicurus argues that pleasure is an absence of pain. Secondly, in death, he argues that we cease to experience any sort of sensation, good or bad, since death is the absence of life (and life the absence of death) and since life is necessary to feel anything, death (no life) is nothing to us. The point being, most fear death in realizing that yes, they will no longer be conscious but when they're dead, this loss of consciousness cannot be experienced and therefore, the fear of something you can't experience is in itself pointless. In terms of avoiding "becoming dead", we all know this is an impossible task, and to fear becoming non-existant is like fearing the time before our birth (symmetry argument that was made by Epicurean poet, Lucretius). It doesn't make sense to fear losing our consciousness (awareness of self and its surroundings relative to self) after our death, just as it is irrational to fear the non-existance before our birth. I hope that helps!

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and is the latter illogical?

i think in addition to the direct responses mentioned by David Titarenco there are indirect answers to this in many places. the basis of the argument is a negative definition of death, death as the absence or cessation of life. In contemporary French philosophy people such as Badiou have reformulated the notion of negation believing it to always possess productive, creative elements. Death according to this perspective could not be merely the "simple "are not""; and it's interesting to think about the logic of the argument if this formulation is accepted.

also the argument assumes that it's ok to be totally free of the capacity to feel pain. the link between the 1st and second premise is sound, but 2nd and 3rd premises is based on people being ok to accept

Since we no longer exist, we can feel neither pain nor pleasure. Rather, we simple "are not"

logically leading to the idea that there is nothing to fear. this however may be seen as the essence of what is frightening in death, and in a way it uses what is most terrifying in death as a justification for why it shouldn't be feared.

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I don't believe this argument is valid. If we no longer exist when we die, then a valid fear would be the fear of losing ones consciousness permanently.

Once one is dead however, then one cannot have negative feelings, but the purpose of having negative feelings when we are alive, is to avoid becoming dead and losing our consciousness.

Therefore if one's goal is to be conscious, then there is much to fear in death, if death means nothingness.

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There are various criticisms related to Epicurus' argument which do exist. However, there are not as of yet valid criticisms of the argument itself. Logically speaking, it is perfectly valid.

The implication of his argument is that one should not fear death, however literally all his argument is saying is that "death is nothing to us," which is perfectly true. You mention that one may fear leaving loved ones behind, but this is the same as fearing death, per Epicurus: They are both things that will never happen to you:

When you die, and no longer are with your loved ones, you are, by definition, no longer in existence. And therefore the loss of your loved ones is nothing to you, and has not and will not happen to you.

Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/menoec.html

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Harry S. Silverstein's paper "The Evil of Death" is the most comprehensive piece of literature on this subject. It discusses the Epicurean view and the commonplace understanding that death is inherently a "bad" thing for us.

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE. You could improve this answer by summarising the paper's position in one or two paragraphs. – Keelan Oct 17 '16 at 9:41
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Responding as humans rather than philosophers it is easier to conclude that Epicurus has disregarded the totality of the problem of death. By "fear" he must have meant the fear that only humans experience in relation to the awesome phenomenon of death. But one could conclude that it is not from the perspective of the "nothing" awaiting mankind that Epicurus should have considered the issue.

He seems to seek reassurance in the fact that the "nothing" to which we are destined (which cannot be experienced by humans) should level out what we may call the disadvantages of death. But it is as sentient beings, alive and normally content 'to feel' both the awareness of the self and what lives around it, that we experience the very human fear of that total annihilation. Therefore, his assertion that humans have nothing to fear from death because humans will cease to experience the 'death of all awareness and self-hood', or inability to regret anything, sounds hollow.

It is exactly the "nothing" awaiting humans, the loss of consciousness of absolutely everything that frightens human beings, and Epicurus's statement that there is nothing to fear from nothingness since we have ceased to feel even the specificity of this "nothing", sounds illogical. The fear and evaluation of this eternal "nothing" is living in the present and can induce the "fear" Epicurus hoped to dispel through his contested use of logic.

There is nothing reassuring in evaluating the issue from the perspective of "nothing" to reach out to the still sentient being.

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Epicurus's argument is illogical... though I may not have the precise terms to sort it out.

He is mixing an existential statement and an ontological state that are incommensurable, as if both were contained within "consciousness," yet one, death, is the assumed negation of consciousness.

While it may or may not be true that death is "nothing," this is not a state in which we can "not fear" it. Our very being simply cannot "be" in that state,hence we can never "know otherwise" or in any way transcend that existential state conditioned by fear.

The best we can do is aspire to a strained and artificial indifference.Epicurus cannot impart a "fact" whose premise is a consciousness of the absence of consciousness.

  • It's completely the opposite. We have absolutely no clue about "after life". If i say that after life their is a world full of elephants it is exactly the same with saying after life the soul persists. Of course it is illogical for religious people :-) – John Am Oct 5 '15 at 19:02
  • But is Epicurus being logical? No. He is basing his inference on an assumed knowledge of an "absence of consciousness," which you might argue is the shakiest possible foundation for any assertion. – Nelson Alexander Oct 5 '15 at 19:09
  • If i say "behind the sun there is nothing because no one has been there" this is illogical. If i say consciousness disappears with death this is logic itself. – John Am Oct 5 '15 at 19:09
  • He is caught up in a Kantian antinomy, so perhaps this is indeed "logic itself." But not knowledge. We cannot "know" there is a state of absolutely "no experience and knowledge." – Nelson Alexander Oct 5 '15 at 19:15
  • You have to freshen up your logic. Of course we do. It's one of the most common knowledges. Only living people can know and experience. Knowledge is not grounded on individual experiences and consciousness events. It's a historical, social gathering of interdependent relationships. – John Am Oct 5 '15 at 19:21
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If your consciousness is created completely by the interactions of molecules in your brain and nothing else, then it would seem that all that is needed for you to exist is something like your brain. It doesn't have to be the same molecules, as those can be exchanged and the functioning continues. It doesn't have to be your complete brain, as you continue to exist after a brain injury. You can lose much of your brain, all of your memories and the ability to form new ones, and still be conscious, even with a different personality. You can take drugs and experience vivid altered reality and consciousness. When you sleep you have altered consciousness/reality. Perhaps if we had sophisticated equipment we could completely alter your memories or give you the memories of someone else. You have had conscious states since you were an infant, possibly at times in the womb, so you don't need your memories or knowledge for you to be conscious. So I don't see if materialism is true what this thing is inside your brain that is uniquely you that cannot be recreated in another brain. If we recreated a living brain just like yours after you died, would you come back to life? How much would it need to be like your brain to bring some of your consciousness back? The universe is huge and goes on for a long time and there could be a lot of brains very similar to yours way in the future or in the past.

It is possible also according to special relativity that the universe does not have a privileged "now" or present moment of time that applies to the entire universe. The material of your brain is spread out in four dimensions of spacetime, with the past, present, and future all existing eternally. A block universe view. The universe is not annihilated every moment and recreated slightly differently each moment. It persists and your consciousness would exist with it. If that is the case, then it seems that you have a perfectly good functioning brain exactly like yours at this moment--which is in the past or and future of other moments--that always exists in the universe. It does not seem that you could ever be dead or nonexistent. Your body might not exist beyond your spacetime, but that doesn't mean you continue on in a state of nonexistence in the worlds of other people. You might go on in another universe too, if the multiverse view of quantum mechanics is right. Infinite copies of yourself. Omg. It doesn't seem that we could ever escape this bizarre existence thing. And we don't know that we haven't always existed in some form. If there is some sort of stream of consciousness that moves through lives, before this life it is possible that I might have experienced your whole life and you will experience mine after your life. I usually do not seem to have the (normally conscious) access to memories of other lives or the future, although I may have lived through it countless times.

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The only actual "problem" with Epicurus' argument that can be criticized is that it is 100% egocentric. Each and every other criticism (aside from other mind-body views) would look at the argument as though the person dying is leaving something behind. And from a egocentric perspective, this is perfectly fine - I don't care about what I leave behind, because it no longer concerns me.

But, if I'm sharing at least some percentage of an altruistic view, I can't accept such argument on the moral perspective - here the real criticism rises, showing the the criticism of Epicurus' argument isn't of its logic, it's of its moral premises. That is the only real criticism one can make on the argument.

protected by Eliran Sep 23 '18 at 0:34

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