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, 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 term self. ‘Self’ is sometimes synonymous with ‘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.

Free Will and the Unmoved Mover

Steven Nadler is an expert on the 17th century philosopher Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza. He was interviewed for the Elucidations philosophy podcast in 2017. Here he talks about Spinoza and free will:

Spinoza had a very idiosyncratic conception of freedom: idiosyncratic because of the larger metaphysical picture in which he discusses the issue of freedom. Remember that for Spinoza, we are all modes, or in God or nature—and so human beings don’t have this kind of ontological autonomy that we ordinarily think that things have. We are no different from other parts of nature….We are governed by nature’s laws, and this is just as true for our states of mind. Our mental states, our emotions, our passions, our acts of volition, our imaginations—even our intellectual thoughts—are all bound together by the laws of nature, just as much as our bodies are.

Spinoza does not think that there is such a thing as freedom of the will, … in any sense in which all things being the same, one could have chosen otherwise than as one did. So if you are looking for the kind of freedom that gives you independence from the causal determinism that governs most of nature, you’re not going to find that in Spinoza. What freedom does consist in, for him, is a kind of spontaneity, or self-governing autonomy. Not ‘spontaneity’ in the sense of uncaused events—there are no such things (for Spinoza) in nature—but, in a way, very much like a Kantian autonomy, where the things you do, the choices you make, the decisions you make, the goals you pursue follow not so much from how you are affected by other things—that’s passivity—but from your own knowledge of what’s really good, and what is in your own best interest….

Maybe the most precise way to put it is: it’s the difference between being acted on and being active. We’re always active to some degree, because we are always striving. That’s sort of our core essence, for Spinoza….

Things strive to maintain themselves. Other things strive to maintain themselves. Sometimes they come into conflict and these strivings push against each other. We as a part of nature are always being impinged upon by other things, and we’re always being passively affected by the objects in the world around us. But because we’re also striving ourselves, we’re in a way pushing back. And so, our lives are a struggle between being acted upon, and being active, or acting. The more free we are, the more active we are. The more we are determined by things outside of us, the more passive we are, the more we are in bondage to the world around us.

So, according to Spinoza, we are only free in the sense that we can do what we want to do, especially if we have good reasons for doing so. This is what philosophers call “compatibilism”, the idea that everything that happens — including human behavior — is caused by something else, yet we are truly free if nobody has a gun to our head and we decide for ourselves what to do.

I think what Spinoza and others call “free will” feels like free will but really isn’t. In order for an action to be free in the purest sense, there has to be a gap between what’s happened before (even the prior state of your mind) and the choice you finally make. You choose to do something – possibly after a great deal of deliberation – but nothing causes you to make that choice, other than your own free will. The result is that you truly could have chosen otherwise.

This is what Aristotle called the “unmoved mover” or “prime mover”. He thought of it as the primary or first cause of all motion in the universe. The unmoved mover moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. To have free will in this pure sense, each of us has to be an unmoved mover.

Are we? It’s hard to believe that we are.

Ethics as a Serious Game Again

Monday’s offerings at Three Quarks Daily included “Is Moral Equality a Christian Ideal?” by Tim Sommers. Mr. Sommers concluded that equality has a widespread, longstanding status as an ethical ideal not reserved to Christianity. Here’s part of his conclusion:

Moral equality is not based on the obviously false claim that we are all alike – or equal in every way. Nor is it based on the claim that all humans possess some ineffable, transcendent something that we got from God. It’s based on the idea that there is at least one morally relevant way in which we are alike that qualifies us for equal treatment (or treatment as equals) in certain ways.

…. Here’s why I think this is worth writing about. I think people, even smart people (maybe, especially smart people), give in to an easy cynicism about moral notions in general, and equality in particular. For example, I received an otherwise smart and insightful comment on a prior article that began, “Rights are clearly imagined.” Well, I don’t think that’s clear. I don’t believe that the hard-headed, realistic thing to think is that moral concepts are imaginary or wishful thinking or a hangover from religion that we are still recovering from. I think cynicism about right and wrong and equality is the last thing we need right now. So, keep in mind, that morality and moral equality are not somehow less realistic concerns simply because they are more abstract and complicated. Maybe, it will help to recall that Hobbes says that the basis of human equality is our ability to murder each other in our sleep. That seems like a realistic concern.

Reading this made me think about what I wrote a few days ago: “Ethics as a Very Serious Game”. Here’s a much shorter (and possibly clearer) version of what I wrote, now in response to Mr. Sommers:

Would it be helpful to think of morality as a set of rules, so that instead of saying things like “breaking a promise is wrong” we’d say “don’t break a promise”? The question whether moral rules are imaginary or wishful thinking wouldn’t arise. We don’t worry about the rules of chess or baseball being imaginary or wishful thinking. They’re the rules. The origin of the moral rules would still be an interesting question (religion was certainly involved), as would whether the rules should be changed. Since morality isn’t as organized as chess or baseball — there’s no official rule book — we could still argue about what the rules are and whether we should obey them.

The metaethical question whether moral judgments are true or false would kind of fade away. The statement “three strikes and you’re out” is true in baseball. The statement “breaking a promise is wrong” isn’t true simpliciter. It is, however, true in morality.

He responded to what I wrote, mainly wondering why we should be moral if what I wrote is true. All I’ll say about that now is that whatever reasons we have for paying attention to morality can’t themselves be moral reasons. Giving a moral reason for paying attention to morality would be going around in circles. Some other justification would be needed, like “God wants us to behave that way”, “society benefits from people being ethical”, “you’ll be a happier person” or “it’s just obvious that we should be ethical”. The answer might also be the one Ring Lardner once expressed: “Shut up, he explained”.

Ethics as a Very Serious Game

What are we doing when we say that an action is morally right or wrong? That’s one of the questions philosophers try to answer when they do “metaethics”. In metaethics, the question isn’t whether a particular action, like stealing candy from a little kid, is right or wrong. That’s a question for ethics. Metaethics concerns the nature of ethical judgments themselves. Is an assertion like “stealing candy is wrong” true or false, or is it more like saying “Hey everybody, don’t steal candy!”

Here’s part of a metaethical article by a University of Miami philosophy professor named Richard Chappell. It’s from a series of articles he wrote about the highly influential British philosopher Derek Parfit:

J.L. Mackie famously objected that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities… of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Parfit seeks to defang such metaphysical qualms by denying that objective values (or normative properties more generally) would have to exist “in the universe” at all. Nor do they exist in some separate, ghostly Platonic realm. That is still to treat them too much on the model of concrete objects that exist in space and time. Instead, Parfit suggests, abstract entities like numbers and objective values exist in a “non-ontological” sense. True claims about numbers and values are as true as true can be, but—Parfit insists—these truths “have no positive ontological implications.” This is Parfit’s Non-Metaphysical Cognitivism in a nutshell.

Parfit thus hopes to secure the best of both worlds: the objectivity of robust non-naturalist normative realism, without the ontological costs. Whether this is a coherent position is, unfortunately, less clear. Parfit claims that abstract entities “are not a kind of entity about which it is a clear enough question whether, in some ontological sense, they exist, or are real, though they are not in space and time”….

Some skeptics have thought that objective values would be more problematic than other abstract objects. Mackie supposed that they must be imbued with a kind of magical motivating force…. [Parfit responds that] normativity is causally inert: it marks what truly ought to be done, but it cannot push us to do it. Their causal inefficacy makes Parfit’s non-natural properties more metaphysically innocent (being compatible with the principle that physical effects can only stem from physical causes), but perhaps more epistemically puzzling.

If abstract objects cannot causally influence physical objects such as our brains, how can we possibly know anything about them? … Parfit suggests that the necessary truths of logic, mathematics, and philosophy are self-evident in the sense that full rational understanding of the claim in question gives one sufficient justification for believing it: no causal interaction or external evidence is required.

To appreciate that 2+2=4, or that pain is bad, you don’t need to run a scientific experiment to better reveal the causal structure of the world (and indeed, doing so wouldn’t help). Once you’ve acquired the relevant concepts, you just need to think clearly. Not all self-evident truths are so obvious as these examples, and we are all fallible, imperfectly rational beings. So people may disagree about what is truly self-evident, and sometimes get it wrong. But the core suggestion is nonetheless that careful thinking may see us right (and at any rate is the only hope we have, so we might as well give it our best shot).

Non-cognitivists hold that our moral judgments express (something like) desires rather than beliefs. The early emotivists claimed that “murder is wrong” meant, roughly, “Boo to murder!” Contemporary expressivists and quasi-realists are more sophisticated, but Parfit notoriously dismissed their developments as mere window-dressing for a “bleak view” that is ultimately “close to Nihilism”. For Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover.

It can be difficult to pin down the disagreement between realists and expressivists, however. For expressivists can affirm normative truths (given a minimalist theory of truth, on which “it’s true that murder is wrong” is just to affirm that murder is wrong). And they can even affirm objective, stance-independent normative truths, for they can affirm norms opposing murder without condition. The affirmed norm thus negatively evaluates murder even in those possible worlds in which the expressivist comes to adopt pro-murder norms.

So we cannot straightforwardly assert that only realists can hold murder to be objectively wrong, independently of their attitudes. Expressivists may endorse that same norm. They, too, can disapprove of their pro-murder counterpart. And of course even the moral realist could have counterparts that believe murder to be good. So: what’s the difference? Parfit insists that moral truths are true in a way that goes beyond minimalism. He isn’t just re-affirming his preferred moral norms, but claims that some norms are right in a way that goes beyond merely affirming them.

Of course, if expressivists insist on reinterpreting this claim as just yet another norm affirmation, then I’m not sure how to stop them. But it does seem clear enough that there’s a distinctive claim here that the rest of us can grasp, even if they refuse to admit it!


I’ve been thinking about metaethics off and on for more than 50 years. I’ve never thought metaethical questions are easy to answer. But after reading Professor Chappell’s article, it all became clear! Eureka!

No, actually, that’s a lie, but I did reach a tentative conclusion.

I think ethics is like a game, a very serious game. And ethical statements can be true or false in the same way statements about the rules of a game are.

Chess is a game. Some people take it extremely seriously. Chess has official rules:

The rules continued to be slightly modified until the early 19th century, when they reached essentially their current form. The rules also varied somewhat from place to place. Today, the standard rules are set by FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), the international governing body for chess [Wikipedia].

If ethics is like a game, does it have any official rules? According to some people, it does (see The Bible), but I think it’s more like chess before people accepted the creation of a governing body. Everybody who played the game correctly in the 17th century agreed that the queen could move in any direction, but not everybody everywhere handled promotion the same way (that’s when a pawn is replaced by a more powerful piece).

So, like the statement “the game always ends before a king is taken” is true in chess, “everything else being equal, keeping promises is the right thing to do” is true in ethics. “The queen can only move in one direction” is false in chess, while “it’s fine to make random people suffer just for the hell of it” is false in ethics.

There are obviously big differences between ethics and chess. Ethics is practiced or  “played” much longer than chess and by more people, apparently in every culture. There is more disagreement about what’s permissible in ethics than in chess. Everybody who plays chess thinks it’s a kind of game; very few people think ethics is (although that will depend on how many people read this blog). The scope of ethics is much broader than the scope of chess; what’s at stake is usually more serious in ethics; we engage in ethics to get along with other people or be a good person or maybe go to heaven, not to have fun, pass the time or defeat an opponent.

But like in chess or baseball or roller derby, rules aren’t “discovered” in ethics. This is a controversial idea. Quoting the article above, “for Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover”. Parfit and other “ethical realists” think ethical rules weren’t created by human beings; they were discovered, as if they existed independently, waiting to be found.

I don’t think ethical rules or norms were discovered. Scientists, mathematicians and detectives make discoveries. You make a discovery when you find your keys. You could make a discovery about the rules of chess by looking in a chess book. But the rules of chess weren’t “discovered” the same way the Pythagorean theorem or the chemical composition of water were. The rules of chess developed through the years as people decided how the game should be played. Some rules were probably discarded; others were added; some were revised. I think ethics works that way. Ethical rules or norms were developed over thousands of years as people decided how to live, in particular, how we should behave toward each other. Chess was presumably improved when its rules changed, when it became true that chess is played a certain way. People’s behavior was presumably improved when ethical norms changed. It became true that ethical people behave in certain ways.

Philosophizing Naturally

Science used to be called “philosophy”. More specifically, it was called “natural philosophy”:

From the ancient world (at least since Aristotle) until the 19th century, natural philosophy was the common term for the study of physics (nature), a broad term that included botany, zoology, anthropology, and chemistry as well as what we now call physics. It was in the 19th century that the concept of science received its modern shape, with different scientific subjects emerging, such as astronomy, biology, and physics…. Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) reflects the use of the term natural philosophy in the 17th century [Wikipedia].

It makes some sense, therefore, that well-known physicist Sean Carroll decided to promote “natural philosophy”. This is from the transcript of one of Prof. Carroll’s podcasts:

… One of the bonuses of my new job here at Johns Hopkins is that I got to choose my own title. My title is Homewood professor, but then Homewood professor of what? … Knowing that I would both be involved in the physics department and the philosophy department, I thought it would be fun to call myself a professor of natural philosophy….

Back in the day, before we had separated out something called science and something called physics from philosophy, people like Isaac Newton or Galileo would have been considered to be philosophers. [He then mentions the full title of Newton’s Principia] …There’s a certain kind of philosophy and a certain kind of physics that really, really overlap, that are almost indistinguishable from each other, asking the biggest questions about, what is the world? What is it made of? Where did it come from? Why does it exist? Those kinds of things that really intersect with more down-to-earth physics questions like, “How does quantum mechanics work? What is fine-tuning in cosmology?” Things like that.

After reading that, I came upon an article from Quanta Magazine: “Inside the Proton, the ‘Most Complicated Thing You Could Possibly Imagine’”. Here’s how it starts:

The positively charged particle at the heart of the atom is an object of unspeakable complexity, one that changes its appearance depending on how it is probed….

High school physics teachers describe them as featureless balls with one unit each of positive electric charge — the perfect foils for the negatively charged electrons that buzz around them. College students learn that the ball is actually a bundle of three elementary particles called quarks. But decades of research have revealed a deeper truth, one that’s too bizarre to fully capture with words or images.

“This is the most complicated thing that you could possibly imagine,” said Mike Williams, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In fact, you can’t even imagine how complicated it is.”

Reading further made me want to do some philosophy:

The proton is a quantum mechanical object that exists as a haze of probabilities until an experiment forces it to take a concrete form. And its forms differ drastically depending on how researchers set up their experiment. Connecting the particle’s many faces has been the work of generations. “We’re kind of just starting to understand this system in a complete way,” said Richard Milner, a nuclear physicist at MIT.

As the pursuit continues, the proton’s secrets keep tumbling out. Most recently, a monumental data analysis published in August found that the proton contains traces of particles called charm quarks that are heavier than the proton itself.

The proton “has been humbling to humans,” Williams said. “Every time you think you kind of have a handle on it, it throws you some curveballs.”

There are two things here that don’t sound right. First, what is a “haze of probabilities”? Physicists (and philosophers) disagree about what exists when we refer to a quantum entity. Is there something relatively substantial underlying it that we can’t (yet) identify? Or is there nothing there except “probabilities” that become real or substantial when we do a measurement (or when some other quantum entity interferes)? Speaking philosophically, it makes no sense that probabilities exist in some sort of “haze”. A probability is a possibility. How could a possibility exist without anything to separate it from other possibilities? Why would a possibility be in one place (say, Switzerland) as opposed to another (perhaps Johns Hopkins)? Most physicists would reply that I just don’t understand the quantum world. Unfortunately, according to physicist Richard Feynman’s well-known remark, neither do they:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take [this] lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

But, Prof. Feynman, going down blind alleys from which nobody has escaped is something philosophers do! That’s what they do most of the time! In this case, however, instead of going down the alley, we might suggest that “exists as” be replaced by “appears to be” or perhaps “manifests itself as”: the proton manifests itself as a haze of probabilities.

This brings me to the second thing that doesn’t sound right. The Quanta article says “the proton contains traces of particles … heavier than the proton itself”. The author meant “more massive than” rather than “heavier than”, but putting that aside, how can something’s contents be more massive than the thing itself?

The original study published in Nature says it this way:

Both light and heavy quarks, whose mass is respectively smaller or bigger than the mass of the proton, are revealed inside the proton in high-energy collisions.

It would be clearer to say that when measured, the proton has a certain mass, but when heavy quarks are measured outside the proton, their mass is greater than the proton’s. That’s certainly puzzling, and obviously justifies further investigation, but it’s not as contradictory as saying the proton’s contents are more massive than the proton.