Fearing the Reaper or What Happens After You’ve Been Reaped

When the philosopher Bryan Magee died in 2019 at the age of 89, The Guardian described him as a polymath, compulsive communicator, best-selling author, award-winning broadcaster and, for a decade, a member of Parliament. He was best-known for bringing philosophy to a popular audience on radio and TV. YouTube has more than 20 interviews he conducted with leading philosophers in the 1970s and 80s.

In his book, Confessions of a Philosopher (1997), he says something I think is very odd:

… the prospect of extinction terrifies me (p. 484).

Earlier in the book, he describes a midlife crisis:

The realization hit me like a demolition crane that I would inevitably die. This fear, when it came, was not an ordinary fear or anxiety but was hyper-vivid and preternaturally powerful….I felt — as I imagine a lot of the people who have confronted firing squads must have felt — engulfed by mind-numbing terror in the face of oblivion (pp. 240-241).

The prospect Magee is referring to is the possibility that when he dies, he will cease to exist. His body may still be in one piece, but his “self” will have vanished. He’d experience no life after death, no existence as himself in any way whatsoever. As the Munchkins required of the Wicked Witch of the West, Magee would be legally, morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, reliably and really most sincerely dead.

Why would anyone be afraid of being dead, of no longer existing? I understand the fear of dying. Various kinds of death, especially the lingering and painful ones, are scary. It also makes sense to be afraid of what might happen to whomever or whatever we leave behind. Regretting that we’ll never experience or do certain things is natural, although that’s not really fear. It’s also understandable to be disappointed that you won’t experience eternal bliss in heaven, assuming you think that’s a possibility. But those aren’t Magee’s concerns. He is simply afraid that he will no longer exist — at which point his fears, regrets and disappointments will all have vanished.

I think he fears what Epicurus described 2,500 years ago in his “Letter to Menoeceus”:

Death is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not, and when death is, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain.

Epicurus thought that “the fear of death arises from the belief that, in death, there is awareness”. But Magee seems to have been afraid that he would no longer be aware of anything.

His fear of extinction is tied up with his idea of “the self”. He isn’t certain, but he’s fairly well convinced that he has a “self” that is somehow separate from his body. He doesn’t call it a “soul”. He thinks his self makes decisions, moves his body around and is morally responsible for his actions.

Yet he agreed with David Hume that his “self” is not something he actually perceives. This is part of Hume’s famous discussion of the self in A Treatise of Human Nature:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.

Nevertheless, Magee is pretty sure he’s got a self and he’s very afraid that his self might no longer exist when he’s dead.

As for myself (not “my self”), I’m pretty well convinced that you and I are biological organisms, alive enough and sufficiently complex enough to be conscious, but that when our lives end, our consciousness ends too. People who have thought about it a lot haven’t been able to agree on what makes us the specific people we are, what makes me myself and you yourself. It’s not as simple as having a certain set of parents or memories or DNA. It’s what philosophers call the problem of “personal identity”, of being a “self”. I don’t think the problem has a solution that fits every circumstance. Most of the time it’s clear who a person is, but there are difficult cases. A person’s identity (is that Bryan Magee?) can be hard to establish. If you disagree, the article on personal identity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is 9,000 words long. It begins:

Personal identity deals with philosophical questions that arise about ourselves by virtue of our being people (or, as lawyers and philosophers like to say,Β persons). This contrasts with questions about ourselves that arise by virtue of our being living things, conscious beings, material objects, or the like. Many of these questions occur to nearly all of us now and again: What am I? When did I begin? What will happen to me when I die? Others are more abstruse. They have been discussed since the origins of Western philosophy, and most major figures have had something to say about them. (There is also a rich literature on the topic in Eastern philosophy….)

The topic is sometimes discussed under the protean termΒ self. β€˜Self’ is sometimes synonymous with β€˜person’, but often means something different: a sort of unchanging, immaterial subject of consciousness, for instance…. The term is often used without any clear meaning and shall be avoided here.

I’m not sure what Magee meant by his “self”, even after reading his whole book. Whatever it was, the thought of it disappearing bothered him a lot. Unlike Magee, what scares me is that we might still be conscious after we die. I’m with Epicurus on that: “the fear of death [which is different from how we die] arises from the belief that, in death, there is awareness”. I hope he’s right when he says “when death is, we are not”. When I’m done here, I want to be done.