Rant Number 566 9 December 2013
‘Sir, I am no more worried that after my death I shall no longer exist than I am about my non-existence before I was born.’ Thus spoke the infidel philosopher David Hume on his death bed to a concerned visitor.
This asymmetry is an ancient puzzle. If, as Hume and our gloomy secularist culture would have it, there is no afterlife but death is simply the end, non-existence, why don’t people fret about their pre-natal state of non-being, in the same way in which many still seem to fear their inevitable future demise, their post-mortem state? Other things being equal, non-existence is non-existence, no? Regardless of the time when it obtains. Much of a muchness. Both times are times during which you don’t exist. And yet, when did you last come across someone harrowing: ‘I am frightened! The thought of that yawning chasm of centuries stretching before my birth haunts me. I can’t bear it…’?
Before Hume, the Stoic teacher of Emperor Nero, Seneca (not much of an educator, obviously), wrote to his friend Lucilius to assuage his fears: ‘I have long experienced death…Before my birth. Death is non-being and I know already what that is.’ And, prior to Seneca, the Epicurean writer Lucretius had sought to redefine death as simple, harmless non-existence. ‘When you are, death is not. When death is, you are not. Hence death can be nothing for you to worry about.’
Pace Lucretius, Seneca and Hume, however, many continue to dread their putative non-existence after death, whilst not exhibiting similar worries about their pre-birth state. Why?
The analytical and atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has had a go. In a paper bluntly entitled Death, this smart thinker lays it down that it is good to be. Well, at least in the sense in which being alive is a necessary condition of having any kind of human experience, knowledge, fun, etcetera. He believes that you are lucky in having been born. Although the opposite ain’t true, he contends – it is no misfortune not to have been born. (Abortion not being the point here.) Now, the time after your death is a time the grim reaper robs you of. If death hadn’t got you, you’d still be alive, right? So death always entails some loss of an existence you could theoretically have gone on enjoying. Like the Queen Mum. Though she was 101 when she pegged out, she could have gone on till, say, 110, enjoying her hip flask, cucumber sandwiches, gossip and the like. Death deprived her of future joys to come, that’s the argument.
The same is not true, Nagel says, of time before the Queen Mum’s birth. Why? Because, had Elizabeth of Glamis had been born 100 years before, she would not have been…Elizabeth. She would have been another person. Someone else. So the time before you were born is not a time of which birth robs you of – unlike the case of death as we know it.
Do you dig the asymmetry? It is reasonable to fear death, non-being, because of the potential life & jolly japes you are going to lose. It is not similarly rational to feel horror vacui before you were born, as that kind of non-existence could never have been yournon-existence. There are then no exciting future possibilities your birth deprives you of. Happy?
Clear as mud? It gets worse. Nagel cites another sharp analytical philosopher, Robert Nozick. The latter proposed the following thought experiment. Imagine that human beings with a very long life span were generated out of spores or pods. Pods that had existed centuries before men’s births are actually triggered off. But now some geek finds a way of setting off a ‘premature hatching of these spores.’ Such people could then look forward to an exceedingly long life ahead. The funny thing is that then a person could think of himself as having been robbed of many years of previous existence – I mean, why wasn’t his birth triggered off years earlier? Why was he born so late? How many years of possible life has he been denied? He could sue the geek perhaps and get massive damages…lucrative idea, aaargh!
Too implausible sci-fi scenario, I surmise. Nagel himself speculates that the old puzzle may still be unsolved. We fall back on the plain, dull truth that it is life that acquaints us with the goodies which death takes away. Conversely, before there was life….capish?
One thing that this glum philosophical gang appear to share is unbelief. None of them likes the possibility that physical death may not be the end. Certainly Hume’s essay, On the Immortality of the Soul, argues against post-mortem survival. Lucretius was an atomist – for him life is a concourse, aggregation and disaggregation of atoms in constant motion. The soul too consists of fine but still material atoms. Once the atoms making up your body are dissolved at death, that’s it. Seneca believed in the soul as made of some subtle, ethereal substance. After death according to Stoic doctrine the soul rejoins the universal cosmic substance, the eternal reason. No personal survival then. Nagel and Nozick, the analytic boys, can look after themselves, although Nagel in a recent book seems to propose a sort of mystery at the heart of reality…God knows.
Here is the priest’s Gedanke Experiment. Imagine that Nozick, Hume, Lucretius, Epicurus and Seneca have not perished, as they expected and desired, but have actually found themselves somehow still existing in eternity. What would their reaction be? Would they be unhappy? Would they perhaps mutter, like Bertrand Russell: ‘Oh God, why did you not make evidence for your existence more cogent?’ Or would they, like David Hume, I am sure, just think: ‘This cannot be. It contradicts all my philosophy. I must be dreaming.’ And obstinately refuse to accept what he now perceives so overwhelmingly clearly?
It would just be like cussed Hume to do so.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli
Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Sunday, 8 December 2013
Posted by Seta at 23:48
Posted by Seta at 23:42
copy and paste...
Posted by Seta at 15:35
by clicking here: www.gibrahayer.com
► We will never leave the Caucasus says Putin in Armenia visit
► ARF Dashnaktsoutiun attend youth conference in Diyarbakir
► Hamazkayin's latest comedy - 100 images
► TODAY Sunday : Armenian Relief Society's (HOM) Sosse Chapter's 2013 Fair
► Liza Avakian in Cyprus for 25-year celebration of HOM
► Robert Fisk: After a century they are still being slaughtered
► Cyprus bids farewell to Glafcos Clerides
► Homenetmen AYMA Bowling Team's impressive run in Division 1
► A Debate: Problems of Armenian lunguage publications
► Gibrahayer Calendar
► Annual Christmas Ball on Saturday 4 January at The Lemon Park
► Latest issue: www.gibrahayer.com/index.php5?&page_id=245&path=245
Posted by Seta at 09:35
Saturday, December 07, 2013
Posted by Seta at 06:34