Death and Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 15, 2009 in General Atheism

downes

Jill Lawless writes:

He spent his life conducting world-renowned orchestras, but was almost blind and growing deaf – the music he loved increasingly out of reach. His wife of 54 years had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So Edward and Joan Downes decided to die together.

Ebonmuse summarizes:

…the two of them traveled to Switzerland to seek the aid of the assisted-suicide group Dignitas. At Dignitas’ clinic, they each drank a lethal dose of sedatives, fell asleep and died peacefully, hand in hand.

Edward and Joan were atheists, and there was no funeral.

I think their death is more courageous, dignified, and beautiful than most deaths. They accepted death and chose to do it their way, rather than clinging to each last thread of diminished life in pain, fear, and mental deterioration.

When it is clear to me that I have little left to contribute to the world, that I will mostly be a burden, that my body or mind will quickly deteriorate, then I want die of my own choosing. I want to die making a statement. Or maybe I will go skydiving without a parachute. Or maybe I will submit to a useful scientific experiment that will unavoidably result in my death. If possible, I want to die on my own terms.

I do not fear my death, for there is no experience to fear after death. I will not wake up in hell. Nor will I wake up in heaven to worship a supreme dictator forever. I will not miss living, for I will not exist.

What I do fear, a little, is dying the “normal” way. I do not like the thought of spending so much time in pain and confusion, in hospitals. I do not like the thought of being a burden to people who love me. I do not like the thought of using up so much money just to keep me (barely) alive. I do not like the thought of rapidly losing my mental acuity.

Death is the end. That’s the way it is, and it’s okay. It can even be beautiful, as it was for Edward and Joan.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

josef johann August 15, 2009 at 7:06 pm

The problem I’ve always had with this argument is the idea that there is nothing after death, is supposed to be enough to make us not fear death. But it’s not that I fear some sort of painful experience after death. I wouldn’t grieve any less at the loss of a young child if someone told me they didn’t fee pain when they died, and I wouldn’t grieve because I think they are in some new place where there is suffering. That they aren’t alive anymore is trajedy enough.
 
Living is a big enough deal that we shouldn’t want it to end and should rightly fear its end.

  (Quote)

drj August 15, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Wow, interesting post… especially since I just started listening to this course lecture on death (instructed by Shelly Kagan) today.
 
Its funny… there’s the old saying “There are no atheists in foxholes”… but I always imagined it the other way.  Even when I was religious, I imagined that if I were in a life or death situation, there would be a tremendous fear that I might not be right about what comes next.

  (Quote)

Matt M August 16, 2009 at 1:24 am

Living is a big enough deal that we shouldn’t want it to end and should rightly fear its end.

 
I don’t think death itself is something to fear – but rather that we’ll die before we’re able to experience all the things we want to.

  (Quote)

Lorkas August 16, 2009 at 6:45 am

josef johann: Living is a big enough deal that we shouldn’t want it to end and should rightly fear its end.

I’ve only quoted the last bit of your comment, but I’m sort of responding to the whole thing.
 
First, no one has claimed that you shouldn’t greive when someone dies. It’s appropriate and good to greive for the loss of a loved one. However, it’s unhealthy to have a paralyzing fear of death, which is, if the atheists are correct, quite peaceful. It is better to go with dignity than to experience prolonged suffering and the complete deterioration of your mental and physical self.
 
In short, it’s okay to fear dying, but there is an appropriate amount of fear. It’s healthy, for example, to have enough fear of snakes to avoid putting your hand near one’s mouth, but it is unhealthy to have a paralyzing fear of snakes that makes you run into another room screaming when you see a picture of a snake. Making up stories so that you can pretend that death isn’t an end is just a mechanism to avoid growing up and dealing with the issue of death.

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 16, 2009 at 7:07 am

Ditto with Lorkas.

  (Quote)

mikespeir August 16, 2009 at 9:26 am

As an atheist, I am far, far less afraid of death than when I had “an assurance of life eternal.”

  (Quote)

Rick August 17, 2009 at 7:06 am

 

josef johann: … I wouldn’t grieve because I think they are in some new place where there is suffering. That they aren’t alive anymore is trajedy enough.   Living is a big enough deal that we shouldn’t want it to end and should rightly fear its end.

I assume josef_johann meant [not suffering]. Otherwise that’s some serious Schadenfreude!
 
On that assumption, I wanted to call into question why everyone assumes that (a) suffering is bad, and (b) after death, it will cease. For (b) I’ll assume a consciousness of sorts survives after death; otherwise the conjecture is meaningless.
 
So why is suffering bad? It’s certainly not a pleasant sensation, but as any athlete can tell you, the sweetest rewards come after the most strenuous exertion. And according to Camus, the act of suffering (i.e. living) for Sisyphus is what makes life living. Without suffering or pain, there would be less motivation to learn from one’s mistakes or improve one’s condition.
 
Secondly, why does death necessarily preclude more suffering? Supposing there’s an impenetrable barrier hindering communication between the living and the dead, why do we suppose anything about the afterlife? There’s nothing to base it on beyond the wild hopes and speculations we’ve developed during this lifetime.
 

  (Quote)

Lorkas August 17, 2009 at 7:24 am

Rick: I assume josef_johann meant [not suffering]. Otherwise that’s some serious Schadenfreude!

What? Perhaps you should go back and reread what he says: he’s just making it clear that his grief isn’t because he thinks someone is suffering, but simply because they aren’t alive anymore. It wouldn’t make sense to grieve for someone who’s in a new place where there is no suffering.

Rick: Supposing there’s an impenetrable barrier hindering communication between the living and the dead, why do we suppose anything about the afterlife?

Sure, there is an impenetrable barrier in communication between things that exist and things that don’t exist.

Rick: On that assumption, I wanted to call into question why everyone assumes that (a) suffering is bad, and (b) after death, it will cease. For (b) I’ll assume a consciousness of sorts survives after death; otherwise the conjecture is meaningless.

1) Atheists aren’t committed to assuming all suffering is bad, but I do conclude that gratuitous suffering is. Torture is bad, even if you become a better person in the end because you were tortured. Hell is certainly bad, because there isn’t even an opportunity to become a better person and get out of it, so your objection that suffering makes us better people is pretty irrelevant to this particular question. Very Nietzschean of you to say this, though.
2) We assume that suffering ends after death, because don’t assume, as you do, that “a consciousness of sorts survives after death.” That isn’t exactly something that you can assume so much as a proposition that you’re going to need to support with some evidence.

  (Quote)

Rick August 17, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Lorkas: What? Perhaps you should go back and reread what he says: he’s just making it clear that his grief isn’t because he thinks someone is suffering, but simply because they aren’t alive anymore. It wouldn’t make sense to grieve for someone who’s in a new place where there is no suffering.

2) We assume that suffering ends after death, because don’t assume, as you do, that “a consciousness of sorts survives after death.” That isn’t exactly something that you can assume so much as a proposition that you’re going to need to support with some evidence.

After rereading josef_johann’s post, I think I misread it in the first place. Thanks for pointing out my error.
 
As for 2), I made that assumption to point out how ridiculous the idea is that a consciousness [that survives beyond death] is for whatever reason in a suffering-free condition. It is ridiculous and of course backed by no shred of evidence to assume:
that something of the individual (besides a corpse) remains beyond death,
and that somehow the condition this soul – for lack of a better word – finds itself in is actually free of suffering.
 
So from an atheistic standpoint I have to agree – it’s bogus to assume souls and whatnot. But to make my point that perhaps more clearly: in the thought experiment in which consciousness survives beyond death, but with an impenetrable barrier to communication, it’s still wild conjecture and nothing more for the living to assume that suffering doesn’t exist wherever the soul might find itself, a mere desire of survivors that conditions ‘on the other side’ are better than the ones we live under.
 
Of course, if you don’t assume that consciousness evades death, then what use is it to talk of suffering? One cannot experience non-existence. Every time I hear someone mention a departed ”so-and-so is no longer suffering,” I think how much better the sentence would have been had the person omitted that last word.

  (Quote)

josef johann August 25, 2009 at 9:59 pm

(As I have no javascript blockers active, I’m gambling on the comment box actually functioning properly for this comment.)
I regret not coming back to this comment section after my first comment. I didn’t anticipate all these responses. Quoting, lorkas:

However, it’s unhealthy to have a paralyzing fear of death, which is, if the atheists are correct, quite peaceful.

Fortunately I haven’t said anything about a paralyzing fear of death. Luke said “I do not fear my death” and I’ve heard many people say this, often with reference to the famous Mark Twain quote about being dead billions of years before having been born. It’s that position that I think is incorrect. I think pain and regret, etc. are perfectly appropriate, healthy feelings, even if you are powerless to stop it.
Furthermore (perhaps this position of mine is closer to what you, lorkas, mean to criticize), I think so long as it is true that death is bad we ought not attempt to believe it is anything other than bad, even if believing so were harmful to us (though I don’t think it is ultimately harmful even if the feeling itself is).
And, though Luke has not said so here and I am not claiming he holds this position, one corollary I frequently hear is that people would rather die than live forever, or for some very long amount of time. This is absurd.
It would be better for people to live than to die. The fact that people die when it would be better to live makes death a moral problem (one that it would be best to solve, if we can), and we have moral reasons for wanting to live as long as possible if we can find some feasible way of bringing it about. Finding ways to not fear death, I think, represents a withering of an important moral capacity that instructs us to appreciate life, fight to preserve it and enables us to combat superstitions (such as the one that 80 years is the “right” amount of time for people to be alive) that would lead to morally poor choices.

  (Quote)

josef johann August 25, 2009 at 10:02 pm

god damnit. No line breaks. Am I the only one who is mislead by the double-spacing in the comment box into entering one line break rather than two?

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 26, 2009 at 6:19 am

josef,

No, you’re not the only one. :) Sorry, I’m not a coder, so I can’t easily fix such annoyances.

You’ve said that positions like “I don’t fear my death” and “I’d rather die than live forever” are “incorrect.” But these are both statements of desire, like “I desire ice cream.” Why do you suspect a statement of desire is incorrect? That would mean that the people who say they don’t fear death and that they’d rather die than live forever are simply lying about their own desires.

I really don’t fear my own death, though it will be disappointing when I know that I can’t engage this amazing universe much longer. And as for me, I would love to live forever. That would be awesome.

  (Quote)

josef johann August 26, 2009 at 1:10 pm

luke,
 
First, I’m impressed and appreciate your taking time to respond to a comment in a week old thread. Forgive my long winded reply, but I think this issue ties in to a larger problem I’ve been thinking about in desirism about how desires can materialize in the first place.
 
I don’t think anyone is lying about what they desire, but I do think the desire to live a shoter rather than longer life, all else being equal, is in some sense incorrect. A person can be ignorant of a state of affairs that, if they knew better, they would desire very strongly. I won’t desire ice cream until I discover ice cream. Then,  after discovering its enjoyable taste I might say “I desire ice cream.” Then, after discovering I am lactose intolerant I might revise that and say “I don’t desire ice cream.”
 
But before and after each revision, my desire or aversion was directed toward an identical state of affairs (in each case my physiology was the same: I enjoy the taste of ice cream no more or less than before, in each case I am no more or less lactose intolerant than I was before). What changed was how much light was the light under which they were considered (in that successively more light is cast each time.) These different desires can’t all be the best evaluation of the identical state of affairs.
 
Which is to say, a desire appears to be preceded by an evaluative process, a running of the state of affairs over your palate and coming to a determination as to whether you do in fact judge it to be desirable.  A desire must consist in something that moved us from indifference to desire, something besides relations to other desires (the fact that we can have contradictory desires and must choose between them on the basis of whether they promote other desires, suggests to me that desires somehow pop up prior to a consideration of their relations to other desires, otherwise they would not be contradictory).
 
That “something” typically taken to be an intrinsic value (I have such things as pleasurable tastes, the feeling of happiness, etc. in mind). I can already see your response comment with the objection to intrinsic values. Believe me, I make this point in full consciousness of the intrinsic values objection, which may yet win me over. My answer to this is that things like “sweetness of taste” are no more or less intrinsic than is green or middle C, which certainly exist in some sense even if they aren’t intrinsic. If you want to say an experience of pleasure can be too complicated to make analogy to a single color or sound, but that it is something over and above those things, I can concede that this is true, but that it is nonetheless consists in a combination of such things than then open us up to an enjoyable experience. (I’m prepared to elaborate on this if necessary.)
 
I’ve said too much for one comment, so to summarize, (1) desires are preceded by an evaluative process, (2) if that process is to be possible at all, desires must consist in something to be evaluated besides their relations to other desires  (3) the components of the experience which are judged to be desirable are no more or less intrinsic than the color green or the sound of middle C. (4) Just as there is a correct answer to whether an image has green in it, there is a correct answer to whether  an experience consists in those things that make experiences desirable.
 
I recognize that point (4) may seem absurd, because it entails things like “the desire to have chocolate cake” can be wrong, or that prioritizing the desire to listen to Joanna Newsom over the desire to listen to Third Eye Blind can be correct. I think this is true, and again, I’m prepared to elaborate on it if necessary.

  (Quote)

josef johann August 26, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I always manage to get something wrong.
 
“What changed was how much light was the light under which they were considered” should read: “What changed was the light under which they were considered”

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 26, 2009 at 3:48 pm

josef,

For starters, I deny (1). Many of our desires are programmed by evolution and culture, without us evaluating them at all.

Or have I misunderstood you?

  (Quote)

josef johann August 27, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Another time, I suppose.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment