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.


Since I haven't read what Mr. Critchley wrote I don't know if I am retreading his delusions, but what about the question of the effect of immortality on society. That is to say, if politicians, capitalists, dictators and strongmen never die, what are the odds that the society immortals wind up living in would be miserable? Not to mention very very crowded. Seems to me there might be a good argument for death in there somewhere (so long as it is someone else, of course).

I'm pretty sure Critchley didn't touch upon anything of that nature in the interview. He may have in his book.

Crowding and accumulation of power are real issues for immortality. Crowding is already a worsening problem - one that we need to solve regardless of life extension. While I agree that life extension can hardly help but make crowding worse, I can't bring myself to value death as a solution. I'm pretty sure making death optional would not result in everybody deciding to live for ever, but the space made by deaths together with development of new human life supporting environments might never be enough to satisfy the natural urge to raise children. Some (probably severe) reproduction limits seem inevitable.

Accumulation of power is a more subtle problem. At the moment, the ability to leave accumulated wealth to descendants is not a reliable way to pass on power indefinitely, because each new generation that grows up in privilege has a chance to squander the inheritance or fail to maintain it. Even with those shortcomings we still have wealthy families that wield disproportionate power. We live with this situation and fight large wealth with progressive tax laws (to very little effect), and fight establishment of tyranny by trying to empower all people (with varying degrees of success).

An immortal could accumulate wealth, power, and the skills to maintain them indefinitely. If a person does this in ways which are to the detriment of others, then we need to find ways to curtail the behaviour. This is a bug in our current society, not just the hypothetical future. The possibility of immortality merely stops us from sweeping it under the rug - ignoring the pain and relying on natural attrition to clean it up.