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The Badness of Death

A while back, I read Shelly Kagan’s Death1. I can also recommend his course of the same name. (Unknowingly, I named the title of this post the same as the title of a chapter in that book, but unsurprisingly it’s a pretty relevant chapter so I’m going to keep the title.) It’s a look at the phenomenon of death from a philosophical point of view, but it’s quite readable and the arguments are laid out very clearly.

A key thrust of the arguments, to oversimplify radically, is that if we don’t exist after death, then how can it be bad for us? This is the Epicurean perspective. Because death equals nonexistence, it cannot affect us. There’s also the classic puzzle from Lucretius. Why should we care about death, if the infinite period of nonexistence before our birth had the same character?

Kagan’s answer to each is something called the “deprivation account”. The badness of death, even if during it we don’t exist whatsoever, is that we’re being deprived of the life we could have lived. We cannot be deprived before our existence even starts, but while alive we know the end is coming, and so can contemplate a loss that’s not only non-contemplatable, but doesn’t exist in any significant sense (how can you lose what you don’t yet have?) This runs into questions of anti-natalism and so on, but given that we’re already here, let’s focus on other questions.

Kagan ends his chapter The Badness of Death with this:

Most centrally, what’s bad about death is that when you’re dead, you’re not experiencing the good things in life. Death is bad for you precisely because you don’t have what life would bring you if only you hadn’t died.

My intuitive sense is that death is much, much worse than this, and Kagan is being too abstractly philosophical here. Think of it as a matter of experience. Although of course I’m not sure what happens, it seems quite likely that dying is a process involving loss of all mental faculties, and sliding into a deep unconsciousness. We’re not just losing the greatness of the life we could have lived (we lose a piece of that any time we sit at home doing nothing instead of doing something valuable to us). We’re losing everything: all experience, memories, etc. The world has ended, never to return.

As far as I can reasonably surmise, non-experience is itself an experience. So much writing about this topic seems to me to go right up to the point of death, but doesn’t really consider what it feels like after. (Of course, this is a point about which I may be deeply confused. Without an experiencer, how can there be an experience?) What is being dead like 10 years down the line? Is it like sleeping for 10 years? It seems to me there must be some non-experience that fills that time.

I’ve read a few articles suggesting that our sense of time stops when we die because we no longer have any faculties, so we’d no longer have a way to keep track of time. Time itself clearly doesn’t stop though. What’s the difference? People also often say that time doesn’t exist while they’re sleeping. This is not my experience. Sleeping is not like a video game where you lie down in bed, press a button, and immediately wake up refreshed. The hours go somewhere.

I don’t have any firsthand experience of this, but I expect being in a coma or being knocked unconscious could have a very different character from sleeping, to someone keenly observant about the passage of time. What’s it like to sleep twenty years instead of eight hours? The more ridiculous proposition here seems to me to be “they’re the same”.

There’s also a potential qualitative difference here, not just the quantitative one of how much time is spent. While sleeping, your brain is still capable of doing things. In dreams, it’s even capable of having fantastic experiences! Death seems likely to be much “deeper”, however that presents itself.

The quantitative question is still supremely important though, especially when dealing with what, for all I can tell, seems to be eternal. I can remember sitting in my elementary school cafeteria when these kinds of thoughts hit me for the first time. I can’t recall exactly what I was thinking about back then, but I remember its character, and that has definitely stuck with me and colored my thinking. It’s a sort of feeling that something is wrong here that people aren’t discussing earnestly. It felt like there was nobody I could talk to. Adults would say things about not worrying, it’s natural, everyone’s in the same boat. None of those make it a good experience!

Anyways, I had recently learned about infinity, and was applying it to everything I knew. So much turns bad in infinite excess. Infinite jellybeans would fill the universe and turn it into a sugary ball of goop. Infinite knowledge means there’s nothing left to learn. And infinite time…

Infinite time can be seen as a bad thing even for lived experiences. You could literally read every book written, and once you finished, you’d have an infinite list of new books being pumped out by authors around the world to read. It’s hard to imagine an infinite time, of course, but imagine you were condemned to spend the next billion years doing something, and what you love most is reading. Even a hand-selected list of the most interesting books would quickly exhaust the corners of almost anyone’s patience.

There are far worse lived experiences than reading, as well, so infinite lived experience can definitely be a bad thing. At least there’s variety there. If I have to spend forever somehow, I’d rather spend it adventuring and reading and writing and socializing etc. etc. than unconscious.

To get a sense for infinity, you can try this trick. Imagine a long time period, maybe a million or a billion years. Double it and realize infinity is longer. Add another billion years—infinity is longer. Double it again, cube it, and multiply by a million. Infinity is longer. This is part of why eternity scares me—it never stops growing!

As an aside, what if the universe ends in a big crunch or some other event that stops time? How would being dead in a universe with a running clock be different than being dead in a universe with a stopped one? This is literally incomprehensible to me, so maybe it’s just a bad question.

I think death is something we don’t talk about enough, but I can obviously understand why. It’s not fun to contemplate. In most people’s philosophical calculus, it doesn’t do us much good to dwell on something inevitable either. Nobody is all that well-calibrated to deal with events that are infinitely bad. A culture that represses such talk is going to be more (superficially?) enjoyable to exist within than a culture that is open and honest about it.

This is also a case where I have an incredibly hard time separating emotion from beliefs, and no wonder. One of the key things any animal has to do in order to pass on its genes is to not die too early, so this kind of fear (or at least aversion) is strongly warranted and evolutionarily baked in. I wish I were better able to talk about these issues without being overwhelmed. The default mode here is just to avoid discussing the problem.

This is the key point of Being Mortal2: that we should talk about the end. Gawande is a doctor, but examines the differences he encounters between dealing with a typical patient’s death, and dealing with that of his own father. His message is a fairly mainstream one: prepare yourself, spend time with your loved ones while you can, be grateful for the time you do have, and come to terms with the end. At least he’s talking about it at all!

There are certain groups working on pushing death much farther from birth. Such organizations are typically focused on “increasing longevity”, but isn’t that the implicit goal of all medicine? Maybe there’s a difference in making that goal explicit? I remain cynical about there being much hope. The fullness of time is just far too full. Living a thousand years does seem better than living a hundred though.

People have been obsessed with immortality for as long as people have been obsessed with things. I hope I won’t go down the obsession route, but I would definitely prefer to live in a culture that’s working hard on giving everyone the longest, richest lives possible vs. giving up to inevitability and nihilism. We’re somewhere in the middle, so maybe a good place to start is talking about death more as a Really Bad Thing and doing less pushing out of mind. Humanity is really powerful, but only once we’ve decided to turn our efforts on something in full force.