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.

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms. 

The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:

Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].

The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel. 

The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

The Death of Maggie Roche

Oh, hell. Maggie Roche of the folk rock vocal group, the Roches, died of cancer on January 21, 2017. She was 65.

I didn’t see that before. Maybe there was too much other news that day. Actually, there was. It was the day of the big Women’s March and the day after a certain presidential inauguration.

The New York Times printed a nice obituary, which includes remarks from her sister: 

She was … too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent…. She was smart, wickedly funny, and authentic — not a false bone in her body — a brilliant songwriter, with a distinct unique perspective, all heart and soul.

“Speak” is one of her songs. She wrote the words and music:

The time has come for me to speak
Uh oh the time has come
And while the silence picks on me
I pray to not be dumb

So I am hunting for the words
Just wait til I find some
I need some syllables do you
Know where to get them from

When I am in my house alone
My speeches take a week
But from my lips when you are near
A sound will seldom leak.

There’s that feeling when someone younger than you dies and you think, well, after all, she was X years old.

Death is the ultimate form of escapism. The internet has nothing on death.

Your Doctors Might Kill You But Going to the Dentist Will Be a Breeze

Two pieces of medical news caught my eye this past week.

First, according to the New York Times, physicians at the highly-respected University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are going to start putting selected patients to death. Not through improper care, but on purpose.

The idea is that patients who come into the emergency room on the brink of death because of a life-threatening injury will occasionally have all of their blood replaced with freezing salt water. That means their hearts will stop beating and their brains will stop working. They’ll be dead.

This will be done in order to give surgeons more time to do their job. Instead of having a few minutes to address the gunshot wound or other injury, they may have up to an hour to operate before the patient suffers brain damage. The medical staff will then resuscitate the patient by replacing the cold salt water with nice warm blood.

This procedure has been successfully used on animals like pigs and dogs, but never before on a person. The hospital is planning to perform Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation (EPR) about once a month for a couple of years before reaching a decision on its effectiveness.

One might think that killing your patient is a clear violation of the medical maxim: “first, do no harm” (primum non nocere). But since the patients in question will already be in cardiac arrest, and very likely to die anyway, and since the kind of death they’ll suffer is expected to be temporary and should give them a much better chance of surviving their injury, it isn’t clear that the doctors will be harming anyone, at least in the usual sense.

Perhaps a more troubling issue is that patients being subjected to this kind of procedure won’t be in a position to give their consent. They’ll already be unconscious. So the medical center has publicized this new procedure in and around Pittsburgh and given prospective patients the opportunity to opt out if they choose. But the default setting in case you’re ever shot or stabbed in western Pennsylvania and end up in the UPMC emergency room will be to receive EPR (and possibly meet your maker), if you are a suitable candidate.

The other news that caught my eye is that researchers in England claim to have come up with a new treatment for tooth decay. The procedure is called Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralisation (EAER). Dentists will use a very small electrical current to accelerate “the natural movement of calcium and phosphate minerals into the damaged tooth”. In effect, your tooth will heal itself with some encouragement from your dentist. The procedure wouldn’t require an anesthetic, drilling or a filling (and dentists would become more popular people).

It isn’t clear from the article in the Guardian how long it will take to fix a cavity this way. In an ideal world, your cavities could be repaired through EAER at the same time your gunshot wound was repaired through EPR. But that probably won’t be possible for a few years yet.