As far back as I can remember, the notion of death has been (I guess in some degree it still does) keeping me awake at nights in extreme terror. Even if I couldn’t clearly identify what it was I was afraid of, it seems very natural to be afraid of a compulsive end to everything forever. At a point, I started to think, read, and systematically learn about death and fear, which gradually eases my pain. I was especially inspired by professor Shelly Kagan at Yale University and his open lectures on philosophy of death. I would be very happy if this piece can bring even the slightest relief to anyone who has the same feeling I have. (However, if you never felt the same way, my suggestion is that close the page immediately and never come back, but if the little curious goblins in your head nudges into read on, I will not be responsible for your loss and don’t say I didn’t warn)
Is it rational to be afraid of death? Why would people be afraid at all? Or asking again in a more “quantitative” manner: under what conditions would the existence of fear be reasonable and rational? There are at least three fundamental prerequisites of fear: it is not that people cannot be afraid if the prerequisites are not met, but it is that the fear is irrational and uncalled for, and these unhealthy and irrational fear are pathologically categorized as phobias.
First and foremost, the subject of fear must be something bad, something that decreases people’s utility or happiness. It is irrational to be terrified if someone is offered a free ice-cream cone — — — the fear doesn’t make sense unless he has diabetes / he is currently on diet / he is a maverick who does not enjoy ice-cream / he has ice-cream phobia. However, if someone is anticipating a potential fail in one of his major course which could lead to delayed graduation time, which is undesirable in most cases, his fear might be justified.
Second, the subject of fear must have a non-negligible chance of happening, or the length of fear must be proportional to the likelihood of happening. For example, I do not wake up every morning in fear that some outer space aliens will abduct me and torture me to death today: it is surely a bad thing that greatly decreases my utility, but the chance of that happening would be negligible, thus my fear is negligible, if it exists at all.
Third, the formation of fear must involve some kind of uncertainty, and this uncertainty is what distinguishes fear from other negative feelings like sorrow, resentment, anger, regret, and sadness. It is irrational to be afraid of something that already happened or is sure to happen: as there is normally no uncertainty attached to it. Most successful horror movies (especially Asian), in order to scare their audience, do not mainly characterize the ghost, instead, the empty rooms, the moving curtains, the dimming candles, the approaching sounds created an atmosphere that lead audience to anticipate something bad and imagine for the worst, the uncertainty here generates fear. If I were to watch a horror movie for the second time and I remember what happens in the movie, fear is uncalled for as I don’t
Now, does death meet these prerequisites of fear? To answer that, first
“Could it be the pain during the process of dying that we are afraid of?” Indeed, pain is bad and the degree and form of pain could be uncertain. However, rational fear towards this pain must be proportional to the possibility of a painful death and the degree of pain. As we mentioned, it is irrational to be afraid of being tortured by aliens, so what are the odds of a painful death in this civilized world. Although some diseases could give us a hard time in our last days, we have pain medication and before-death care which reduce the pain to an acceptable degree. Lu Xun, a revolutionary Chinese thinker and writer, wrote that “it is more painful to live than to die”. Granted, he lived in an undesirable period of Chinese history, but the pain of living never left us. For example, the physical pain due to birth-giving or the mental pain due to lost of loved ones could very well be equal, if not more, to the pain before death. Therefore, the extent of fear of before-death pain should not be more than the fear of birth-giving or losing someone important. In another word, the essence of pain before death, is still pain, and is not significantly distinguishable from other forms of pain in terms of intensity and possibility. Thus, the fear of this specific type of pain should not be concerned too much.
If not pain, a more common misunderstanding is that “could it be the state of being dead that we are afraid of?” For physicalists like me, it is irrational. In a physicalistic view, there is nothing bad, nothing uncertain about death as death means the end. People would draw the false equivalency between absence of good and bad. However, the absence of something does not mean the opposite. I’ve heard a common excuse for those who refuse to be inspired by “no pain, no gain” that “no pain sounds like a gain to me”. But NO! No pain is no pain, and gain is a different thing. Doing nothing wouldn’t cause you pain but it does not bring you gain. For those who do believe in afterlife, fear of death is uncommon that their religion / believes often have some specific rules to follow in order to avoid the pain. For those who are afraid that their sinners will come back at them in hell, my suggestion to ease the fear is to behave while they are alive and talk to a clergy and “be forgiven for their sins” I guess.
Therefore, the fear of death is not a justifiable emotion, as the death is nothing essentially bad and the death is a predictable and unavoidable resolution of life. Now when I think about it and savor the pain I’ve goon through, maybe it is never the notion of death that I hated, instead is the notion of “dying (relatively) early and not having enough time to live” that I hated. Compared to so colorful a world to experience, human’s life always felt so short. Some justifiable emotions might include sorrow, sadness, pity, regret, and most importantly, anger, which will be discussed next time.
刘波波. 2009. Zen and Meditation. Northeastern United Publication.
Shelly Kagan. Yale Open lecture on Philosophy of Death.