A Brief Layperson's Tour of the Philosophy of Nonexistence

It is taken as a tenet around here that involuntary death is a bad thing, and the process of getting to be dead despite your own wishes on the matter is arguably worse - it involves a great deal of ongoing suffering and pain as the body progressively fails. Greatly diminishing the incidence of death is one aim of the longevity science movement, achieved through the elimination of degenerative aging, the greatest cause of death. Can we say why being dead is bad, however? That is supposedly a harder job than declaring suffering to be bad and worthy of amelioration - though most philosophers fail to consider the economic costs of destruction, and in the end it should all come down to "I've decided I don't like it, and so I'll work towards doing something about it through progress in medical science." Reasons beyond personal choice are unnecessary, but here is a brief tour of some of the philosophy of death and nonexistence: "We all believe that death is bad. But why is death bad? In thinking about this question, I am simply going to assume that the death of my body is the end of my existence as a person. But if death is my end, how can it be bad for me to die? After all, once I'm dead, I don't exist. If I don't exist, how can being dead be bad for me? ... there's a puzzle raised by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who thought it a mistake to find the prospect of my death upsetting. Yes, as the deprivation account points out, after death we can't enjoy life's pleasures. But wait a minute, says Lucretius. The time after I die isn't the only period during which I won't exist. What about the period before my birth? If nonexistence is so bad, shouldn't I be upset by the eternity of nonexistence before I was born? But that's silly, right? Nobody is upset about that. So, he concludes, it doesn't make any sense to be upset about the eternity of nonexistence after you die, either. It isn't clear how best to reply to Lucretius. One option, presumably, is to agree that we really do need to treat those two eternities of nonexistence on a par, but to insist that our prebirth nonexistence was worse than we thought. Alternatively, we might insist that there's an asymmetry that explains why we should care about the one period but not the other. But what is that difference? Perhaps this: When I die, I have lost my life. In contrast, during the eternity before my birth, although I'm not alive, I have not lost anything. You can't lose what you never had. So what's worse about death is the loss."

Link: http://chronicle.com/article/Is-Death-Bad-for-You-/131818/

Comments

"When I die, I have lost my life."

Not at all. When you die, you no longer are. You have "lost" the potential to be alive in the future. But you cannot really lose that which you never had in the first place. Ergo, you have lost nothing at all. You simply are not longer.

It's the feeling of wanting not to die that produces the false and confabulated arguments like the one posited by the author. But in the end, that is all it is - a feeling.

"Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave." - Roy Batty, Blade Runner

Posted by: David at May 18th, 2012 7:06 PM

To me, the idea that this life is a flash of light between two eternal darknesses was truly terrifying. But then I came to the conclusion that this is the wrong way to conceptualise it. After all, I am alive now, when I was 'dead' before my birth, so perhaps 'I' will be alive again after my death somehow. Nature seems to be eternal and cyclical, constantly producing life after death in an endless cycle - it is we human beings who individualize it and draw this straight line from birth to death.

Again this runs into the mystery of consciousness. What is this 'I' that arises from matter and energy organised in a certain way in my body and brain? Or is it outside of the brain, and the brain is more like a filter? The theory of soul solves this issue at least theoretically, so I think that's what I'll go with here in the absence of alternative evidence.

Posted by: HR at May 19th, 2012 2:11 AM

Unfortunately, the soul argument simply pushes the uncertainty farther without any additional explanation. There is also the problem of how an immaterial soul is supposed to interact with a material brain without being detectable by instruments. And if indeed all thought and feelings have physical analogs, then adding something more is not parsimonious.

And yes, one could always make up stories to feel better about things, but the root of the suffering when thinking about death is this: one considers oneself a symbol of inherent value and possessing meaning, a symbol without which all other forms of symbolic experiences are impossible. Therefore, loss of oneself is a kind of irreversible symbol loss, which to a being that is mostly symbolic seems unbearable.

However, if one ceases to look at oneself as one 'thing' and looks at the patterns making up oneself individually, one's transience does not feel so bad any more. Moreover, if one really wishes to make up nice stories, here is a somewhat plausible one: I am a set of patterns that by their arrangements make models of other patterns and also models of themselves. And the universe at large can also be thought of as a set of manifold shifting and selecting patterns. Therefore, when the patterns comprising myself dissipate, the elements making them up will form yet other, perhaps even more complex patterns. And even if the universe experiences heat death trillions of years from now, perhaps more universes will spring out of nothing like this one may have done.

But I really don't like those kinds of stories. Why not just be in the current moment and acknowledge that that which is nothing at all does not have anything to lose if it ceases to be?

Posted by: David at May 19th, 2012 8:13 PM

We all wonder if there might be life after death or is it just the end of us when we die. Can this ever be proven? Have there ever been any scientific studies looking into the question of "is there life after death"?

Posted by: Jim Turner at May 20th, 2012 3:24 PM

@Jim Turner:

https://www.fightaging.org/archives/2009/05/lazy-immortality.php

Wouldn't it be nice to wake up and find that we were all immortal? That would save a whole lot of work, uncertainty, and existential angst - and we humans are nothing if not motivated to do less work. The best of us toil endlessly in search of saving a few minutes here and a few minutes there. So it happens that there exist a range of metaphysical lines of thought - outside the bounds of theology - that suggest we humans are immortal. We should cast a suspicious eye upon any line of philosophy that would be extraordinarily convenient if true, human nature being what it is.

https://www.fightaging.org/archives/2011/06/confusion-abounds-especially-when-religion-and-spirituality-become-involved.php

Religious beliefs are, unfortunately, delusions. It's just the same as any dream of lazy immortality - such as the possibility that you are software in a simulation, a brain in a jar, or one of infinitely many copies in a universe of many parallel worlds. You shouldn't live your life banking on being a brain in a jar, and you shouldn't live your life banking on a supernatural continuation of your existence post-mortem. All that these comfortable beliefs give you is the chance to feel good while failing to achieve the material, real-world goals that will give you a greater chance at a far longer life. It's grand failure, while pretending to succeed.

https://www.fightaging.org/archives/2011/01/the-simulation-argument-maybe-youre-already-either-immortal-doomed-or-dead.php

For all concepts of lazy immortality or variants on the brain in a jar, I think that the best course is to proceed as though what we see is what we get - assume we are in the real world, in these imperfect bodies, faced with real versions of these real challenges of aging and death. To do otherwise is to relinquish our potential, to lie back and relax whilst we are quite literally fighting for our lives

Posted by: Reason at May 20th, 2012 4:06 PM

I don't think religion or spirituality is by definition irrational. To the contrary, as science and reason progress, they seem to be uncovering truths originally attained through religion. Your definition of this being the only life is itself irrational, since as I said earlier, what we are made of is itself eternal - science has discovered that no energy is only destroyed, only displaced. Reincarnation therefore is a logical possibility, one which seems far more likely than this being the only life, a highly undesirable view. I doubt even if longevity is extended indefinitely, many people will take the offer - some may live a long time, but no one will want to live indefinitely in this form. We're not built like that.

I think however that focusing on the moment, as David said, is the right thing to do though, rather than worry about death in the future. And not just because it is distracting either - focusing on the present intently, as in meditation, actually allows one's mind to transcend time. This is key. As Wittgenstein said, "If we define immortality not as infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."

Posted by: HR at May 21st, 2012 7:05 AM

In response to HR's comment:

HR said:
"I don't think religion or spirituality is by definition irrational."

What do you mean by this statement? What do you mean by 'irrational.' What are you trying to show here? Even if something were not 'irrational,' (which I think that unsubstantiated beliefs are not) that does not automatically imply that it is true.

HR said:
"...what we are made of is itself eternal - science has discovered that no energy is only destroyed, only displaced."

First of all, we do not know that what we are made of is eternal. There may actually be a (very long) half-life of baryonic matter. Also, take a look at what Lawrence Krauss has to say about the ultimate fate of the universe. Second of all, even if all matter and energy were eternal, this does not imply that the things we are is therefore also eternal. If one takes oneself to be a collection of patterns made up of matter and energy, it is those patterns that make us what we are, not just the raw matter or energy themselves. Do you see this important distinction? Therefore, if the pattern dissipates, so do we. The raw stuff then goes on to make other patterns that are not us.

"Reincarnation therefore is a logical possibility, one which seems far more likely than this being the only life, a highly undesirable view."

While I won't say that anything is impossible (given a strange enough universe), there is simply no evidence for anything at all like reincarnation. Is this claim even testable? If not, it can simply be dismissed out of hand. Also, the claim that the belief that this is the 'only life' is undesirable has nothing at all to do with its posited veracity. Just because something would be nice if it were true makes it no more likely to be true. Saying otherwise would be engaging in magical thinking. I would hope that we have come a bit farther than that in this modern age of reason?

HR said:
" I doubt even if longevity is extended indefinitely, many people will take the offer - some may live a long time, but no one will want to live indefinitely in this form. We're not built like that."

I beg to differ, but it's actually irrelevant to my point. Let me ask you this: would you opt for a long and debilitating Alzheimer's disease over a healthy life in old age? If not, then you are pro-longevity, period. Ending up with longevity is simply a result of eliminating the diseases of aging.

Also, saying that no one would want to live indefinitely in one form another is a pretty bold statement, especially given the assumption that you probably do not personally know everyone who will ever live. Moreover, the point is not living indefinitely, but simply having the option of living in good health until such a time as one might choose to cease existing, if that ever actually came to pass. But my instinct is that the universe is so vast and modes of existence so many that that question would take a very, very long time indeed to come up.

Posted by: David at May 21st, 2012 1:55 PM

David:

With the first statement, I was really responding to Reason's previous statement that religious beliefs are delusions, and by implication are illogical. Logic and evidence is the only way we can possibly glimpse 'reality', so if religion and spiritual is considered to be rational, then it is real.

Secondly, energy cannot be destroyed, only displaced. This is one of the Laws of Thermodynamics, so if you are disagreeing with this, then you're opposing one of the absolute foundations of the field. I will explore the work of Krauss, but from what I have seen of him, his ideas seem highly speculative and more intended to sell books by being provocative rather than advancing realistic new science.

Third, let's explore this issue of 'patterns'. I do not think you realise the enormity of the statement you are making. This amounts to a 'patterns theory of consciousness'. When you say that we take "oneself" to be mere patterns, then you're attempting to solve the problem of individual self consciousness, of qualia, which is hugely tricky. The fact remains that there is no reason whatsoever why matter and energy should be conscious of itself. This is a huge problem in philosophy and science and has been for milennia, and we are still no closer to resolving it. Your materialist theory is fine, and accepted by many, but I personally think it's lazy thinking and jumping to conclusions based on the little evidence we have. I am open to the soul hypothesis, too, and I think there is actually much evidence behind it. If you're interested, read the book of the same name: The Soul Hypothesis.

Fourthly, I do not agree that it can be dismissed out of hand, or that it is 'magical thinking', or even desirable. Although not testable, I think something it so to be said for a compatibility of patterns. The theory of reincarnation is compatible with fundamental characteristics of life itself - its cyclicality, the constant renewal of life and death. Dismissing something out of hand just because it does not fit with the scientific method is, in my opinion, an extreme example of human arrogance.

Fifthly, I think you misunderstood that point. I am pro-longevity, and not just pro-longevity, but supportive of the radical extension of health and not just life. However, I doubt I would want to live for millions of years, and neither would most people. Maybe with an accompanying extension of life and exploration of the universe - not just physically, but in exploring different modes of existence - things would be different. Who knows.

Interesting discussion!

Posted by: HR at May 22nd, 2012 12:48 AM

@David: Scientific proof of life after death? Some.
1. Read blum's book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the search for scientific proof of life after death. Excellent review of the blind faith that materialists put in materialism. Also see Jeff Schwartz, MD, and his discussions on the limits of materialism (Youtube).
2. Attend IANDS meetings. I organized a support group for near death experiencers. They need support, have experienced a life changing experience. I wanted to help them. Changed MY life.
3. Investigate Remote Viewing. All the remote viewers I have known come to the same conclusion: You lived before birth, you live after death. The flash of light in the dark argument is faulty.

Life is a Rorschach. You see what you choose to see. NO ONE SEES LIFE IMPARTIALLY. It is impossible. See Jon Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind. You simply have to chose how you will distort your own perceptions. I chose to believe; others don't.

Finally, the whole question is based on the wrong premise. You cannot not exist. Rather, the question, is where are you better off? I am a head shrinker, a psychologist, a kind of scientist. Ha! As far as I see it, the only reason for me to extend me life (and I do a lot to achieve that) is not to prolong my own experiences (narcissism!) but rather to be of help and service. I know much, I have much to share.

Posted by: Dr Lynn Johnson at May 22nd, 2012 9:32 AM

In response to HR's post:

HR said:
"Logic and evidence is the only way we can possibly glimpse 'reality', so if religion and spiritual is considered to be rational, then it is real."

I still don't know what you mean by the statement that religious beliefs are rational. Would you care to explain this to me? Second of all, self-consistency alone in no way implies something actually existing in the world outside of minds. Take for example entirely self-consistent, self-contained mathematical systems that one can construct that have nothing to do with what we call physical reality. Just because one can make up a self-consistent explanation for something does not actually lend this explanation any credence. It must also be testable and, most crucially, falsifiable. If it is not falsifiable, then there is no way to test the claim.

HR said:
"Secondly, energy cannot be destroyed, only displaced. This is one of the Laws of Thermodynamics, so if you are disagreeing with this, then you're opposing one of the absolute foundations of the field."

No, I am certainly not arguing against the laws of thermodynamics. My point was that even if energy were eternal, which is most likely the case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics eventually leads to projections toward a heat death of the universe. Speculative? Sure, any claims about things trillions of years from now are speculative. But that is the best model we have now based on our knowledge of cosmology.

For a fun read, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_of_an_expanding_universe

HR said:
"When you say that we take "oneself" to be mere patterns, then you're attempting to solve the problem of individual self consciousness, of qualia, which is hugely tricky."

Why do you use the term 'mere patterns?' Patterns come in an almost infinite variety of forms, some of which are unique in the sense that they can make statements about themselves. For more on these, see Godel's incompleteness theorems.

"The fact remains that there is no reason whatsoever why matter and energy should be conscious of itself."

Says who, exactly? You may feel this way, but what is your justification for this feeling? It seems to me that you are coming to your conclusion by assuming the truth of your premise, which is a logical fallacy called 'begging the question.' I do not see a reason why matter and energy should not, properly arranged, be able to lead to the emergence of consciousness.

"Your materialist theory is fine, and accepted by many, but I personally think it's lazy thinking and jumping to conclusions based on the little evidence we have."

Lazy thinking? There is a TON of evidence from biology and neuroscience that cognition is based on physical processes. I do not believe that I need to start listing references to studies to have you believe this yourself. But I will if you ask me to.

HR said:
"I am open to the soul hypothesis, too, and I think there is actually much evidence behind it."

Would you care to reference some corroborated, peer-reviewed evidence for the existence of an immaterial soul? I am not satisfied with philosophical ruminations alone.

"Fourthly, I do not agree that it can be dismissed out of hand, or that it is 'magical thinking', or even desirable. Although not testable, I think something it so to be said for a compatibility of patterns."

If I imagine something to be true, and it seems to be self-consistent in my mind, but there is not explicit evidence for it outside of my mind, and I then go on and assume that it is ACTUALLY true outside of my mind, then I'm afraid I have just engaged in magical thinking. As I said earlier in this reply, the mere 'compatibility of patterns,' as you put it, is not nearly strong enough evidence for something actually existing, as one can contrive arbitrary and compelling explanations that have not actually been tested, or are indeed untestable.

"Dismissing something out of hand just because it does not fit with the scientific method is, in my opinion, an extreme example of human arrogance."

Anything that is testable can be examined using the scientific method, so if a soul hypothesis were testable, then it could be scientifically examined. The onus is on you now to come up with an experiment that can test for the existence of a soul. What you are really saying above is that dismissing something that is untestable is arrogant. I couldn't disagree more - I think critical thinking is quite humbling.

Indeed, this has been a stimulating discussion.

Posted by: David at May 22nd, 2012 1:14 PM

In reply to Dr Lynn Johnson:

"1. Read blum's book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the search for scientific proof of life after death. Excellent review of the blind faith that materialists put in materialism. Also see Jeff Schwartz, MD, and his discussions on the limits of materialism (Youtube)."

Perhaps you could cite some specific proof listed in these sources such that I could investigate further? There are limits to knowability, no doubt, as one can only rely on one's senses to perceive the (presumably) outside world. But as you may well be aware, science makes no positive claims on the nature of reality. It simply looks at the most likely explanations for observed phenomena. And if that's as far as we can ever go, I am quite happy with that.

"2. Attend IANDS meetings. I organized a support group for near death experiencers. They need support, have experienced a life changing experience. I wanted to help them. Changed MY life."

Sure, I have known people myself who have had near death and out of body experiences. But there have no actual studies done in the past in a controlled environment (that I know of) where these claims could be proved to be anything other than very real-seeming hallucinations, life-changing though they may have been. Do let me know if you have heard of such studies before. There is one that is going on right now:

http://www.nourfoundation.com/events/Beyond-the-Mind-Body-Problem/The-Human-Consciousness-Project/the-AWARE-study.html

They put images above hospital beds such that people who have out of body experiences could have a chance to describe them later on (usually people suffering from cardiac arrests and other major events). The results should be out this year, so I will keep checking up on this.

"3. Investigate Remote Viewing. All the remote viewers I have known come to the same conclusion: You lived before birth, you live after death. The flash of light in the dark argument is faulty."

Remote viewing has so far not been proved. If you don't believe me (and you shouldn't), check out the James Randi Foundation's prize of one million dollars for anyone who can prove their remote-viewing abilities by passing a battery of tests. If there are people who can do this out there, why haven't they snagged the million dollars yet? In all the tests that I am aware of, so-called remote-viewers did no better than chance. For a list of other prizes for proof of paranormal activity, check out:

http://www.skepdic.com/randi.html

I am not trivializing the emotions these people have about their so-called abilities, but I prefer truth to self-deception.

Posted by: David at May 22nd, 2012 1:36 PM

"I still don't know what you mean by the statement that religious beliefs are rational. Would you care to explain this to me? Second of all, self-consistency alone in no way implies something actually existing in the world outside of minds. Take for example entirely self-consistent, self-contained mathematical systems that one can construct that have nothing to do with what we call physical reality. Just because one can make up a self-consistent explanation for something does not actually lend this explanation any credence. It must also be testable and, most crucially, falsifiable. If it is not falsifiable, then there is no way to test the claim."

Reason stated before that religions are delusions. Delusions are commonly defined as beliefs that are inconsistent with reality, and - discounting, for the purposes of the argument, ways of knowing intuitively - our primary way of knowing reality is through logic and evidence. Science. An example of a religious belief in alignment with reason and evidence is the Kalam Cosmological Argument, showing God's existence through evidence of the Big Bang.

I don't think discussing the heat death of the universe is really relevant at all, since it is so far away in the future. The point I made was that the laws of thermodynamics are possibly a consistent basis for a theory of reincarnation.

"Says who, exactly? You may feel this way, but what is your justification for this feeling?"

Did you not read what I said? I stated before that this has been a major problem in philosophy, psychology and science for milennia - it's hardly only my personal opinion. Also, another important distinction is between cognition and qualia. Of course cognitive processes can be explained through brain processes, but that is not the point I was making. The fact remains is that what is called 'subjective consciousness', 'qualia', 'experience', cannot be explained by physical processes alone. Again this isn't my opinion alone, it's the biggest problem in science. If you're interested, read further:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

I will address the rest later, but are you saying that just because something does not fit with the scientific method it is false?

Posted by: HR at May 24th, 2012 1:22 AM

HR, sorry about the delay.

HR said:

"Reason stated before that religions are delusions."

If you mean that rational discourse leads to the conclusion that religious beliefs are delusions, I disagree. I think many religious beliefs are valid hypotheses that, lacking of real-world evidence, seem false.

HR:
"The point I made was that the laws of thermodynamics are possibly a consistent basis for a theory of reincarnation."

Please go into more detail. What is your theory of 'essence' and how such things survive the decomposition of a body. How does one's soul 'decide' on which object to inhabit next? How does it tie itself to one object rather than another? What about limb or organ transplants? If I donate you a kidney, do you now own a part of my soul? What about the brain? Which hemisphere of the brain is the soul tied to? How do you explain multiple personality disorder?

"Did you not read what I said? I stated before that this has been a major problem in philosophy, psychology and science for milennia - it's hardly only my personal opinion."

Indeed, but appealing to authority does not help your case one bit. At one point, most people may have thought that the Earth was flat. I will therefore repeat my question: what is your justification for the opinion that 'mere' physical matter or energy cannot in principle give rise to the experience or sense of consciousness - lack of knowledge about the brain and lack of human imagination notwithstanding?

"I will address the rest later, but are you saying that just because something does not fit with the scientific method it is false?"

No. I am saying that anything verifiable in physical reality is verifiable using the scientific method, whether in the method's current form or in some future form that would arise through self-correction of the method. Therefore, something outside of the purview of testability is an empty assertion - meaningless because of its unverifiability, and completely superfluous, such that it can be dismissed out of hand.

Posted by: David at May 24th, 2012 6:52 PM

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