Woody Allen's favorite question.....
May 19, 2012 12:25 PM   Subscribe

Is death bad for you?

Bonus from the writer: Philosophy of Death: A Philosophy 176 Lecture
posted by lalochezia (95 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
PS: Unlike most places, the comments section in article well worth reading....
posted by lalochezia at 12:25 PM on May 19, 2012

Only if it's permanent.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:31 PM on May 19, 2012

I dunno. Ask a corpse.
posted by jonmc at 12:33 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not like it's the end of the world or anything...
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:34 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard it's pretty lethal.
posted by daniel_charms at 12:37 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:43 PM on May 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is living good for you?
posted by empath at 12:44 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm looking forward to it, just to prove all the Christians wrong! Of course, if they aren't wrong I am screwed. For fucking eternity.

That doesn't much seem fair.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:45 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I disagree with the initial premise.
Story 1. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship that is leaving for 100 Earth years to explore a distant solar system. By the time the spaceship comes back, you will be long dead. Worse still, 20 minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between the Earth and the ship will be lost until its return.

Story 2. The spaceship takes off, and then 25 minutes into the flight, it explodes and everybody on board is killed instantly.

Story 2 is worse. But why?
At face value, both stories are equally bad. Story 1 may even be worse, depending on your disposition. If you're particularly anxious or pessimistic, you may spend the rest of your life imagining infinite variations of your friend encountering all sorts of space-hardships like being enslaved by an evil alien race, or perhaps going space-crazy while stranded alone on a far away planet.
posted by the jam at 12:46 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

This reads like a high school AP term paper.
posted by Gator at 12:49 PM on May 19, 2012 [17 favorites]

No, but let me tell you about taxes...
posted by Fizz at 12:52 PM on May 19, 2012

Any discussion like this is in desperate need of some *cough* soul-searching about what exactly is meant by these words, "I" and "you". If nothing else, the fuzziness about life's beginning and end that we can never quite seem to resolve might be a clue that these words are serving to whitewash over a much more serious philosophical problem
posted by crayz at 12:52 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

All dead, or just mostly dead?
posted by smirkette at 12:54 PM on May 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

Is death bad for you?

No, but the absence of death--immortality--is.

Far before the sun consumes the Earth, it's statistically almost certain that you'll be involved in an incident that imprisons, confines or immobilizes you--permanently. Buried under the ground during an earthquake or collapse of a building. Dropped into the middle of the Pacific by a ditching plane or overturned boat. Buried alive due to a coroner's error. Imprisoned by an evil person or totalitarian government with no possibility of discovery or escape. Trapped in machinery in a remote location . . . The possibilities are almost endless.
posted by Gordion Knott at 12:56 PM on May 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

It isn't bad. It just isn't...
posted by Skeptic at 12:57 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Death is bad for you because it destroys your agency in the world.

To clarify this, it's helpful to ask what living is. It's not just having as much fun as possible. You can think of living things, and most particularly humans, as optimization engines which act on our surroundings in the furtherance of various goals. These goals are defined most fundamentally by our emotional responses; that is our "design." But humans can have very abstract and long-range goals too. As we satisfy our simpler short-range goals we tend to form ever more complex and longer-range goals. In another lexicon this process is called the "Maslow Hierarchy." The absence of such goals is a mental state we call "clinical depression."

And death is bad because it cancels any chance of ever realizing more of your goals, of having agency in the world around you, of climbing another optimization hill. After death you can do nothing more to make the world look the way you'd prefer, to increase the number of people who know your name or like you or even fear you, or have any other effect. It all will spin out and you won't even find out how it comes out. You only get to know your story up to that moment you die.

Death makes life a story whose ending you will never know, which is why it is bad.
posted by localroger at 1:01 PM on May 19, 2012 [21 favorites]

All joking aside, and having now read the article and the comments, I get the feeling that there's something missing from Kagan's argument, that it's overly-simplistic.

I'm not enough of a learned philosopher to make a decent rebuttal, but if nothing else the article doesn't even touch "fear of destruction of the self / Ego", or "fear of the unknown" (what lies "on the other side"). Those fears might not be "answers" to the question of why we think death is bad, but they're certainly existing and well-known concepts relating to death, and deserve to be part of the conversation. As Kagan mentions, those fears may be moot once we're dead...but while we're alive, they certainly come into play!

That said, I haven't read the second link...but this article doesn't especially make me want to go to the effort.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:02 PM on May 19, 2012

Death sucks. I say this as someone who is increasingly losing friends and associates to cancer, suicide, and other various and sundry happenstances.

Am am just too fucking attached to this earth, and life, to be OK with anyone's death, including my own, right now.
posted by Danf at 1:05 PM on May 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Of course death is bad for you. And Lucretius was wrong - or at least, he came up with a dumbass puzzle. Don't know if he actually held to that view, or if it was just a topic to spur discussion.

Nonexistence before birth doesn't matter because there's no You thinking at that time. But the moment you start feeling and remembering, You exist, and death becomes an issue. It isn't bad for you because of the loss of potential lifespan or future experiences, it's bad because you stop thinking, feeling and remembering. This is why we have the concept of brain death. The body can go on living and experiencing things (like the feel of bedsheets and sunlight on the skin) but there's if there's no one left inside to think about and remember the feelings, we say they're dead. And that's bad.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:05 PM on May 19, 2012

If I don't exist, how can being dead be bad for me?

WTF? Is this the premise of the article? Of a book?
posted by Dasein at 1:09 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

And that's bad.

Good and bad are mortal moral concepts. Death is "bad" only insofar as it signifies the end of life. There is really no way to posit anything objective beyond that without involving yourself in circular reasoning.
posted by phaedon at 1:11 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

It depends how painful the process is
posted by kenchie at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm just replying to her initial question. "Why is death bad?"

It's bad because to exist (that is, to think and remember) is a fundamental precondition for anything with a nervous system. (If not, then there would be no point in our existing in the first place.) Therefore, death is a violation of that precondition and thus, bad.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The notion that we will die is probably both good and bad for you, but actually being dead is neither.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:19 PM on May 19, 2012

I couldn't read through the whole immature blabber of the article. So maybe I missed some points after half-way. Or some comments.
During the last decade, I've lost my grandfather, my stepmother, my father and my grandmother, and several of their close friends and my mentors and professors. I can't find a single example of someone who didn't care about death. My dad was a fervent atheist, and he was certainly not into dying. My grandmother had accepted death, but still, she was not comfortable with dying. My more Christian relatives and friends who were expecting heaven were the most unwilling to die, and I don't blame them, since they were the ones with the most giving relationships. We are here to live. We are meant to engage with life and the living and we keep on making plans and having dreams, even when we know we are dying.
Accepting death is not at all about denying the terror of death. Death is awful.

That said, accepting death can make death easier for your family and friends. If you have that energy and generosity, it is an amazing gesture. If someone you know dies peacefully, please recognize the immensity of that gift. But don't expect it, from anyone else, or from your self.
posted by mumimor at 1:21 PM on May 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

Sorry for the spam, but I've got a better way of expressing the idea in my last post:

To say it doesn't matter if someone is dead is the same as saying it didn't matter that they were alive. If life has value, then the end of life is a loss.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:31 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

We are here to live.

The Who said it more succinctly: "Hope I die before I get old."

Death is a problem for the living. When you're dead, you're dead. Make the most of the time you have.
posted by three blind mice at 1:33 PM on May 19, 2012

Don't let the prospect of death worry you.

I promise you that you'll get over it.
posted by mule98J at 1:41 PM on May 19, 2012

Uh, death is the limit of things that are bad for you. Mathematically speaking ;)
posted by biochemicle at 1:41 PM on May 19, 2012

Um, yes?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:45 PM on May 19, 2012

posted by Winnemac at 1:46 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe the title should be, "Is Your Own Death Bad For You". Or we could RTFA.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:50 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Death is bad for you because it destroys your agency in the world.

With that goes the assumption that you actually have much (if any) agency in the world. Debatable proposition. In any event, ascribing values like "good" or "bad" to death, instead of accepting that it's as much a part of life as life itself, just increases the overwhelming fear surrounding it. Which gives it that much more power over us.

Thinking that we have all that much agency is absurd when most of what agency in life we do have is spent dreading death, denying it, scrambling to escape it, medicating ourselves or enslaving ourselves to addictions to better pretend that it doesn't exist, and praying to deities to spare us and our loved ones its ravages.
posted by blucevalo at 2:04 PM on May 19, 2012

The thought of eternal life in any - I mean any - form, is infinitely terrible. I wish Christians could get this. I'd respect them so much more if they could.
posted by Decani at 2:12 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Eternal life would be wonderful, and truly moral.

After reading the article about five times, I've finally cooled down enough to see that Kagan sort of agrees with me about death being bad, at least if her "modest existence requirement" is taken into consideration. But I still find all this talk about "schmoss" ridiculous. Why would it be logical to feel bad about the time before birth in which one never existed at all?
posted by Kevin Street at 2:16 PM on May 19, 2012

Decani, as an Aubrey de Grey fan, I'd take the risk. And with the problems Gordion Knott's comment earlier, I'd have an infinite amount of time to claw my way back out to daylight. Sure, it'd be boring when the heat death of the universe approached, but it seems likely that that would be stronger than any elixir's power anyway.
posted by imperium at 2:18 PM on May 19, 2012

Next issue...

Have you ever looked at your hand? No, dude, I mean like REALLY REALLY looked at it, all close and stuff?
posted by briank at 2:19 PM on May 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

Eternal life would be wonderful, and truly moral.

I'm going to take a widl guess here and say you're under 35 years old.
posted by Decani at 2:28 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Can't possibly read this, due to crippling existential terror.
posted by TypographicalError at 2:31 PM on May 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

Life and death are benign. It's the awareness of them that really messes a person up.
posted by M Edward at 2:34 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

TypographicalError here ya go, some poetry for you:


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin

I quote this evey 6 mos or so on MeFi, so apologies for repetition....
posted by lalochezia at 2:36 PM on May 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

Is death bad for you?

well, there's only one way to find out, isn't there?
posted by pyramid termite at 2:41 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tell you what. I'm not going to die, and I'll let you know how that goes.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:42 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Truly living forever would probably hinge upon the answers to two questions:

1. Can life exist without matter?

2. Is the universe open or closed?

Surviving the heat death of the universe (and by doing so, prevent that event from occurring) might be possible for some incredibly long lived intelligence that went about gathering energy into one place again. This would require some finesse, because you'd have to get started long before irreversible entropic dispersion became a possibility, but it's not impossible.

The big fly in the soup, however, is baryonic decay. In roughly 1037 years all the protons will have decayed to energy, everywhere in the universe. There won't be any more matter. Any matter that exists after that point will have to be synthetic, and making it will require energy, thus hastening heat death. So the immortal is kind of screwed, if he or she is still made out of matter.

But intelligent life that exists solely as energy, or flaws in spacetime, black holes or whatever could live on a lot longer. Maybe many times longer than the age of the universe up to that point. Something will probably happen, though, because something always does. The immortal will screw up the balancing act and lose all energy to entropy, or the vacuum will decay, or some weird quantum crap will start a new Big Bang. In the end the only really safe thing to do would be to escape the universe entirely and find a new, young one.

And to do that, the universe needs to be open. If it's closed we're stuck in here for the duration, and we won't last any longer than it will.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:47 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Death is just nature's way of telling you to slow down.
posted by crushedhope at 2:48 PM on May 19, 2012

I'm going to take a widl guess here and say you're under 35 years old.

Nope, older. And I think about dying every morning and evening these days. But so far the logical argument is to keep going.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:50 PM on May 19, 2012

And that was the day when Metafilter got high.
posted by Nomyte at 2:56 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I confess I didn't make it through the article. But I think living forever would be worse than death, and would eventually get quite dull. I don't think of death as a tragedy - it's as natural as birth in my opinion (when done properly). Death is the only thing that gives life meaning.

So is it bad for me or anyone else? No. But it would be good to get on with the living ASAP.
posted by nowhere man at 3:03 PM on May 19, 2012

Well, this conversation has certainly brought me closer to it.
posted by bicyclefish at 3:15 PM on May 19, 2012

It's worse than the chicken at Treski's restaurant?
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 3:31 PM on May 19, 2012

To put it less glibly, one can say that humans shouldn't live forever, but who is to say exactly how long one should live? Humans have lots of ways of life. The lives we lead now are different from the lives our ancestors led as short as a century ago. People halfway across the world from us live differently from us. Who is to say that we couldn't adjust our expectations to accommodate longer and longer (and longer) lifespans?

For example, all but one of my immediate relatives died before reaching 70. My paternal grandfather died before I was born. My maternal grandfather suffocated from untreated asthma when I was in third grade. My maternal grandmother was in her early 60s when she was visiting some relatives in the country and was killed by an apparent heart attack, minutes after the paramedics had assured her than she was OK and left. My father lived into his 40s before his uncontrolled lupus defeated him. Now suppose that my experience was typical of everyone in this conversation. Would we say, "Man, living past sixty? That's crazy old! I wish I'd die before I got that old."

By comparison, my current supervisor, who is the same age as my mother, is spending the weekend with her 97-year-old grandmother. That seems incredible to me. In fact, a lot of my peers and immediate elders have surviving grandparents. To them it seems quite normal. The prospect of reaching that age doesn't seem to faze them.

If sixty-year lifespans are your "normal," 90 seems miraculous. And if you're active and hale into your 90s, I'm sure you wish you could live to 120. And the argument proceeds from there. I doubt there's a point anyone can identify past which life loses its appeal. Unless you've lived into your fourth century and can attest to a sudden loss of the wish to live, I think it's safe to assume the contrary.

The simple truth is that societies adjust. One can imagine ghoulish scenarios of tragically long-lived people who outlive their children and grandchildren and lead decrepit lives devoid of meaning. That's terrible. But a life of infirmity and isolation is terrible at any age, whether it's 30 or 100. Instead, imagine a more positive scenario in which average lifespans grow decade by decade without deterioration in quality of life, 50 becomes the new 30, 90 the new 50, and so on. Those people will lead very different lives and have enormously different notions about age. But it seems very likely that they will find their experience absolutely normal.
posted by Nomyte at 3:33 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

With that goes the assumption that you actually have much (if any) agency in the world. Debatable proposition.

Unless you are a prisoner, homeless person, or starving refugee, you have enormous agency over your immediate surroundings. You have most likely secured a space for yourself which you have filled with artifacts and decorated to your satisfaction. You are probably involved in an elaborate dance with the rest of society to balance resource distribution in a way that gives you and people you care about the means to do other things. You can probably decide among a wide variety of choices what to eat next, whether to use public or personal transportation to go see a show or visit a shopping venue or just watch the sun set at a scenic point. You are probably making plans about more distant travels for vacation, careers and retirement, and donations to charities you care about so that they can take the pooled contributions and implement plans beyond your means.

Of course there are no guarantees, and there's a hostile universe and 7 billion other human beings whose plans will often conflict with yours. Having agency doesn't mean you always get your way, but it does mean you have at least some influence. Death removes this. You will never find out if the charity to which you donated succeeded in its goals, or was subverted and corrupted from within. You will never find out what happens to your family beyond a certain generation if you decided to reproduce yourself. You won't be able to help them should they be in need, or offer them advice. Eventually, unless you are really well known, pretty much everyone will forget that you even existed.

Even though I wrote one of the canonical stories about how much it would suck to live forever, it's kind of silly to argue that death is anything but a catastrophe for the individual it happens to, even if it's necessary in a larger context for life to go on.
posted by localroger at 3:33 PM on May 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

A zen priest was asked "what happens when you die?"
He said "I have no idea."
The asker retorted "how can you say that? You are a priest!"
"But not a dead priest."

To get to the article, I think it is reasonable, given the assumption that consciousness ends with death, that getting upset over death (as opposed to dying) is kind of silly. However, not wanting one's consciousness to end makes perfect sense. What if something neat happens tomorrow?

And getting upset over other people dying makes perfect sense. Once they are dead, they can't do cool stuff anymore. Since I like cool stuff, this bothers me. While there is no functional difference between someone leaving forever on a spacecraft and someone dying, since people don't currently leave forever on spacecraft, that's not a very helpful thought experiment.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:40 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Articles like this one make me question the injustice of giving Socrates the hemlock chalice.
posted by belarius at 3:41 PM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

In the dialogues about Socrates' death Plato quotes him as saying that death is not nearly as frightful as disgracing myself. Socrates was a bigger man than I am yet because I would still much rather disgrace myself than die even though I can appreciate the ideal.
posted by bukvich at 3:48 PM on May 19, 2012

And that was the day when Metafilter got high.

what if, like... Jean Paul Sartre had never written Being and Nothingness, man
posted by ninjew at 3:56 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think immortality could be awesome if you didn't *age*. Like, if you could pick the age you most enjoyed being and just stay that age, physically, while gaining life experience and wisdom (one hopes) as time passes, I can think of many many ways that would be great. I mean, what if I die before Avengers 2 comes out?!

I'd also like to learn to play a bunch of instruments and speak a lot of languages.

(Also, put my money in long-term, low-yield investments. When your future isn't so short, patience will reap lots of fun toys.)
posted by tzikeh at 4:09 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, Gordion Knott, we've all read Cracked's coverage of the subject.
posted by Apocryphon at 4:30 PM on May 19, 2012

I'm still trippin out on whether we see the same colors.
posted by cj_ at 4:37 PM on May 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I find Kagan's style extremely irritating.
posted by polymodus at 4:43 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think many of you who take yourselves to disagree with him aren't actually disagreeing. Kagan's question really seems not to be whether your death is bad for you, but in virtue of what is it that your death is bad for you. We all know that death is a Bad Thing. But what makes it so?

The style does seem a bit too conversational and meandering. I suspect this is because he's attempting to reach a wider audience than he would when writing for a journal. There are pros and cons.
posted by voltairemodern at 4:59 PM on May 19, 2012

Is death bad for you? What if we're all just, like, brains in a jar, dude? Man, Doritos are good, who came up with Doritos? Like, the idea of Doritos? Ever look at the stars... on WEED?
posted by DecemberBoy at 5:21 PM on May 19, 2012

. Kagan's question really seems not to be whether your death is bad for you, but in virtue of what is it that your death is bad for you.

Sure, but if I want a proper wank I can find better sites for that.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:23 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sure, but if I want a proper wank I can find better sites for that.

I hesitate to ask what you're doing here, then.
posted by voltairemodern at 5:26 PM on May 19, 2012

What if reading Kagan's article lead to people killing themselves? Would Kagan be OK with that? Because if death isn't bad for you, he ought to be fine with it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:55 PM on May 19, 2012

To be fair he (thought Shelly was a she for some reason) isn't saying that death isn't bad for you. He's trying to get people to think through why death is bad.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:57 PM on May 19, 2012

Argh, double negative! Looks like my grammar is going first.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:59 PM on May 19, 2012

To be fair he … isn't saying that death isn't bad for you.

Unless this sentence has been edited from its original form, it contains no double negatives.
posted by Nomyte at 6:02 PM on May 19, 2012

I recommend actually reading Thomas Nagel's "Death," which is in his book of essays called Mortal Questions. The article's treatment of the essay doesn't do it justice.
posted by John Cohen at 6:27 PM on May 19, 2012

The dead only know one thing. It is better to be alive.
posted by Senator at 7:05 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I confess I didn't make it through the article. But I think living forever would be worse than death, and would eventually get quite dull. I don't think of death as a tragedy - it's as natural as birth in my opinion (when done properly). Death is the only thing that gives life meaning.

No one's stopping you! Do it to it.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:02 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Postmortal is a pretty good dystopian novel about the discovery for a cure for death (or, aging, anyway). Not that we mortals have been all tingly about living forever, well, forever. It just happens to be more about the societal consequences rather than the personal ones.

Birth, youth, middle age, old age, death (in the usual order of things, post-penicillin). Ya got a problem with that? Why? It is the human condition. Questioning it is moot, academic, adolescent, whatever you want to call it.
posted by kozad at 8:13 PM on May 19, 2012

Oh look, it's one of those discussions where the question is too poorly defined to have a correct answer.

Death is bad for you just so long as you ascribe value to continued life. Perhaps you can't conceive of a situation that would make you stop wanting to live, but I think it's pretty common, and not just among the sorts of people we'd recognize as "suicidal".

I get the impression that the article was trying to establish what the basic self-interest of a conscious being is wrt. death, but I don't think that's actually possible. For all X, someone wants X; it's the general case of Rule 34.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:38 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

And Lucretius was wrong

Oh my God, you have no idea. I didn't know just how wrong someone could be about things until I read Lucretius.

There is one point in De Rerum Natura where he argues -- in all seriousness -- that the sun isn't much bigger than it appears, because, as anyone can see, fire doesn't look smaller when you see it from a distance.
posted by moss at 9:24 PM on May 19, 2012

Death is not bad, and it's silly to think so. This argument about not being able to see your favorite charity succeed or whatever is silly. You'll be dead. Imagine you scoop yourself a giant ice cream cone, which you're really looking forward to eating. You go to take a big bite, but have a massive heart attack and die. That you didn't get to experience the pleasure of eating the ice cream isn't a bad thing, it's just a thing.

The argument in the article arrives at death not being bad several time, but Kagan attacks the conclusion as a sort of reductio ad absurdum without really showing how the premises fail. Her final statement of "this is what I believe, but there are still problems" basically says, "this is what I believe, but I have no convincing arguments for it."

Finally, if death is bad, I assume you're all vegetarians? And vehement protesters of Roe v. Wade?
posted by papayaninja at 10:11 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

(I also jumped on the Shelly Kagan is a woman bandwagon, for which I apologize.)
posted by papayaninja at 10:13 PM on May 19, 2012

Metafilter: Let's call it "schmoss."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:32 AM on May 20, 2012

So here's the deal. The thing that sometimes makes me want to get my head frozen — not that I especially think freezing my head will grant me immortality or anything; I'm just picking one of the many possible Pascal's Wagers — ahem. the thing that sometimes makes me want to get my head frozen isn't that after death I won't know how the rest of the story turned out, it's that death represents the obliteration of the part of the story that I already know. Without permanence, or at least memory, nothing is — but worse than that, nothing always was.

To put it another way: so the question that sparked off Heidegger's thought was "why is there anything instead of nothing at all?" Death's answer to this question is this: just you wait!
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:33 AM on May 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, Gordion Knott, we've all read Cracked's coverage of the subject.

While the most recent version of this was certainly in the oft-quoted Cracked piece, it's a line of speculation (not a very original one at that) with a long pedigree in science fiction.
posted by Gordion Knott at 4:09 AM on May 20, 2012

Dying doesn't scare me that much - if everybody else can do it, so can I.

(Quote from a radio interview with Danish author Dorrit Willumsen. Quoted from memory; the English translation is mine.)
posted by WalkingAround at 6:01 AM on May 20, 2012

Is death bad for you?

Depends. Whose?
posted by hand at 7:53 AM on May 20, 2012

Death is just fine, thanks. Being stuck with the defective perception of linear time, that's rough
posted by Redhush at 8:41 AM on May 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Suppose we've got a fertility clinic that has some sperm on hold and has some eggs on hold. Perhaps they keep them there frozen until they're ready to use them. And they thaw a pair out in, say, 2025. They fertilize the egg, and eventually the person is born. That person, it seems to me, can correctly say that he could have come into existence earlier.

Here's the mistaken essentialism that underlies the problem with most questions about death. What can it possibly mean to identify the egg with the person, except in causal terms, unless we are claiming the existence of some underlying and immutable essence or soul? Questions about death usually seem fairly meaningless to me, as they don't tend to recognise it as just the most dramatic of a variety of ends that happen to us during the course of things. The notion that I am in any meaningful way the same essential person I was when I was five (say) seems to me to get the problem of self and identity the wrong way around. I am identifying myself with him, not he with me. I stand in an intimate causal and social relationship to that person, but I don't understand how to conceive of him as any more alive than if he'd been run over and killed aged six.

I do have memories of being five years old, of course, but on the other hand I have memories of things that have been proved to my full satisfaction never to have happened. I'm not sure that there is a real distinction between the two. The memory doesn't seem to be retained, but rather reproduced. The presumption of any essential identity between the past howfar and the present one seems pretty shaky to me. This isn't to deny the existence of the self, but I think it does suggest that the self is both contingent and transitory.

It seems inevitable to me that I will stop existing whether I live forever or die tomorrow. If that's the case, then the only thing that can possibly be bad for me is to live badly now.
posted by howfar at 10:14 AM on May 20, 2012

The memory doesn't seem to be retained, but rather reproduced.

But haven't you ever experienced deja vu? I've had lots of occasions where I've felt a strong emotion without knowing why, and only realized later that something in the environment or circumstances had triggered a memory. Many memories are recalled in a fragmentary or unconscious form that we may not even aware of, which suggests that actual information is coming back from somewhere.

It's almost never eidetic, and there is no doubt a certain amount of reproduction or rewriting going on, since people can recall the same event in wildly different ways. Certain memories are emphasized and rewritten to fit with our desires, but oddly enough it's near the end of life that clear recall often comes back. Talk to any senior citizen about the past and they'll regale you with detailed stories full of names and dates and verifiable detail.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:50 AM on May 20, 2012

Many memories are recalled in a fragmentary or unconscious form that we may not even aware of, which suggests that actual information is coming back from somewhere.

Maybe. It is certainly possible that there is a more rigid encoding of the self through memory than my account suggests. That would, in turn, suggest that death is more different to the process of development in life than I am suggesting, but I don't think it is fundamentally opposed to my perception of selfhood as historical, causal and contingent. It would be interesting and useful to look more closely at the research, however. I have to say that deja vu as a subjective experience doesn't persuade me much. When I was younger, I used to get regular strong episodes of deja vu, lasting between seconds and minutes. It seemed to be much more to do with my mental state at that time than any correlation with past experience. Of course there may be a "true deja vu" that differs from what I experience, but even then, how significant such deep memories might be to determining selfhood at any point in time is a matter for research and discussion.

Talk to any senior citizen about the past and they'll regale you with detailed stories full of names and dates and verifiable detail.

This is another area where I'd be very much interested to see the research. People may get more certain of the details of their early lives as they age, and more focussed upon them, but I really don't know if they actually become more accurate in their recall. One problem is, of course, that details actually grow less verifiable over time. Still, I'm sure there is stuff out there for me to look up.
posted by howfar at 12:14 PM on May 20, 2012

"We all believe that death is bad."

I have little hope for an article that starts out with such generalised assumptions.

Death is death. Why does it have to be good or bad?
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 3:08 PM on May 20, 2012

You judge this author and yet you believe yourself qualified to make sweeping statements about soup. Hypocrite lecteur!
posted by howfar at 4:41 PM on May 20, 2012

Goddamn philosophers. Bring on the zebra crossings.
posted by gingerest at 5:02 PM on May 20, 2012

A lovely quote about the subject from Kahlil Gibran:

"For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink form the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance."

Having had two near-death experiences: one, nearly drowning; one in a jailhouse beating, I must say, in both instances, all fear left my consciousness, and I truly experienced the most peaceful, sublime sensation.
posted by lometogo at 5:14 PM on May 20, 2012

they say death is the new thirty
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:16 PM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is one of the hardest questions there is. I haven't heard a response yet that is remotely satisfying. This is a good article; thanks for the post.
posted by painquale at 11:20 PM on May 20, 2012

And if you're active and hale into your 90s, I'm sure you wish you could live to 120.

My grandmother turned 100 this year. She is still healthy and active, but she did not expect nor plan to live this long. Who does? All her friends are dead, she outlived her husband by over three decades, and as of last year, one of her sons, too. I'm not so sure your statement about what people wish as far as longevity is true for even a majority of people who live that long. My grandmother said more than once to me recently that she has lived too long, although she is not depressed. But trying to make plans for where you will live and so forth at a century old is not always as simple as it may seem. She moved last year, but only with a great deal of assistance and paring down of possessions once again. She said she wished she knew how much longer she would have to live, because planning for the next phase would be so much easier. I know for a fact she feels lucky to have had such a full life with a loving family, but the same would have been true if she died 15 years ago (which was her longest estimate before then, about the age of 85), and she positively does not want to live to 120.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:34 AM on May 21, 2012

I feel like the sad thing about the scenario where the friend dies in a crash after take off is that you can no longer console yourself for your loss of them by imagining what amazing experiences they are having out there in space.

Extending this, I tend to be an optimist about life, and so I imagine that the longer one lives, the more wonderful things one experiences. Therefore death is a loss, because one loses out having more of those experiences. Obviously the person who dies doesn't EXPERIENCE the lack of the further good experiences, but his/her friends mourn them on his/her behalf. That's why potential people don't get sympathy for not existing, because we don't manage to imagine their lives to the same extent we can imagine those of our actual friends and family. And it's also why extension of life is better than shifting of life to an earlier period.

Of course, it also means I would happily choose immortality if I could.

Some people I know would not, and they are usually less optimistic about life than I am. They don't look at it as a series of wonderful experiences with some negative stuff in between, but rather a series of terrible experiences with some positive bits here and there. Glass half empty/glass half full.
posted by lollusc at 5:31 AM on May 21, 2012

Interviewer: I'm not sure I would want to live to be 100.

Centenarian: That's because you've never been 99.
posted by localroger at 1:23 PM on May 21, 2012

To write badly, always use a lot of italics. It's so much easier and it seems like you're talking to me. If I were eighteen. And a stoner.
posted by sfkiddo at 10:32 PM on May 21, 2012

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