June 2008

On death and deluded philosophers

Today I listened to The Philosopher's Zone The only good philosopher is a dead one, where philosophy professor Simon Critchley starts out interesting and finishes up telling us how he values death. It's an unconvincing argument, typical of those who have grown so accustomed to the inevitability of death that they create strange rationalizations in support of it.

Simon says:

"because we've bought certain myths propounded by, say, medical science, and belief in technology and things that our children and grandchildren will live forever, and the idea that, y'know we can experience a life without limitation, but a life without limitation would be awful"

He goes on to claim that immortality "would be the worst form of captivity" (and uses Gulliver's Travels, a book of fiction, to support his claim). I might agree with him if enforced immortality was something that anyone else was advocating, but he's presenting enforced immortality as the only option to our limited lifespans and then arguing against it. It's a straw man argument.

How can a philosophy professor, writing a book about death, ignore the bleedin' obvious alternative: immortality as a choice? What is wrong with having the choice of when to die? To me that would be infinitely better than what we have now.

Now we are subject to the capricious whim of mortality, knowing that at any time someone we love could be snatched away from us, or we from them. A kinder world gives me control of my own power switch. When I have no more dreams to follow and have nothing to offer my friends, then I still might not want to switch off, but that choice should be mine.

Simon says, "so to be free is to die."

Let's look even closer at that oft-used idea that it's only through constraints that we can express freedom. Does that mean that every extra constraint that we impose on a being adds to its freedom? Does every constraint that we remove make a person less free? Was the invention of flight something that made man less free by removing the vertical constraint?

This freedom through death idea is a weird distortion of the very concept of freedom. What freedoms do we get from the unmovable constraint of death that we wouldn't have if we were given the choice of when to die? None that I can see. Our very limited lifespan doesn't create interesting challenges that make life more meaningful, it just limits the scope of interesting challenges we can consider attempting. It limits our freedom.

Epicurus: "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us."

Me: "Death is the ultimate barrier to my personal plans. It should be avoided at all costs."

Death is to be feared as one would the biggest obstacle to one's plans, hopes, and desires. Death is a catastrophic loss for those who rely on your experience. It is to be feared as a source of intense pain for those you love.

Since the potential death of a friend is a valid source of fear for me, why should I not fear my own death on behalf of my friends?

Death is an enemy. It causes pain and limits our freedom. Let's work towards controlling it. Philosophers who think it adds to our freedom have deluded themselves.