The fear of death is a normal, natural, instinct that we all have. Without it, we’d end up doing all kinds of reckless things that most of us avoid. Some people claim not to fear it, but I suspect that all of us, when we’re honest, retain that fear to one degree or another. After all, we’re all descendants of billions of years of ancestors that were naturally selected for their survival instinct, their aversion to death. It wouldn’t make sense for us not to be afraid of it. Evolution has effectively programmed it into us.
The Religious View
You may find comfort in religious beliefs that you’ll eventually be in a better place, assuming you’ve lived life right or maybe had the correct beliefs.
Many skeptics think that religion is based on the fear of death. Most scholars and anthropologists would argue that it’s far more complicated than that, but it’s hard to ignore the role that death and purported afterlives have in modern religion, and it’s worth noting that one sign archaeologists use to judge when religion began among ancient hunter/gatherers was when they started burying their dead.
Regardless, if you’re a believer, you have some comfort in your belief that this life is only a prelude to bigger and better things.
But what if you’re not religious? The comforts of believers aren’t much help if you harbor doubts or lack belief altogether. Is there any comfort that you could take based on a secular viewpoint?
As it turns out, Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher and founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy, covered this ground over 2000 years ago. Epicurus was one of the clearest thinkers in the ancient world. His philosophical outlook seemed to presage modern science closer than many of the other thinkers of the time.
Epicurus pointed out that death is simply non-existence. You didn’t exist before you were born and you won’t exist after you’ve died.
If you’re like me, when you first contemplate this non-existent death state, you imagine it like being in some lonely empty suffocating darkness with no sight, no voice, and no hope. However, this assumes that you’ll still be able to experience sensations such as being in darkness or lacking hope. If you think about it, there’s more reason to believe that, subjectively, it’ll be more like a dreamless sleep that you’ll never wake from. An eternal rest, which while preventing any new experiences, will also be free of any anxiety, pain, or boredom.
Indeed, you visit this state every night. In the early hours of the night, you sleep in a dreamless state, without consciousness. (The dreams come toward the end of the night in REM sleep.)
Death is non-consciousness. It is, subjectively, an eternal dreamless sleep that you awaken from at birth, visit every night, and return to at the end of life.
“I don’t fear death. I was dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and didn’t suffer the least inconvenience from it.”
—Mark Twain (although probably mis-attributed)
“Although the time of death is approaching me, I am not afraid of dying and going to Hell or (what would be considerably worse) going to the popularized version of Heaven. I expect death to be nothingness and, for removing me from all possible fears of death, I am thankful to atheism.”
“I was not; I was; I am not; I have no cares.”
The nothingness Asimov referred to is, in some aspects, like the state of nirvana sought in many eastern religions. Nirvana is supposed to be a state where the self disappears with freedom from fear, anger, craving, and suffering.
Of course, nirvana also generally includes being enlightened and at one with creation. Nirvana requires following an arduous spiritual practice and, if you fail, you continue on with a cycle of rebirths, but the nothingness or eternal rest I’m talking about comes for free and, if none of the religious predictions of an afterlife are true, is effectively every sentient creature’s birthright.
Less To Worry About?
Other thoughts that might provide some solace is to contemplate the problems we’d have to deal with if we could live on indefinitely.
To begin with, there’s probably some nasty payback coming to our species for how we’ve treated the environment. We probably won’t have to deal with the worst of it in our lifetimes, but the big problems may be looming for future generations. We’ll also never have to deal with the eventual limits of population growth and Earth’s ability to provide resources. Of course, this can be anxiety inducing when we think about our posterity, but that’s a whole different topic.
Looking further down the road, we won’t have to deal with the inevitable natural extinction events that seem to come periodically in Earth’s history. We’ll almost certainly never have to personally deal with a large asteroid strike, massive volcanic eruptions with global effects, apocalyptic earthquakes, or any other number of events that become more probable as the years pile up.
We’ll never have to deal with the sun’s increasing intensity that is expected to eventually boil away Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, or with it later expanding up into a red giant before it collapses into a white dwarf, making the solar system uninhabitable. We’ll never have to deal with the long decay and heat death of the universe.
We’ll also never have to deal with eternal boredom. Many of us get bored in our current life. Can you imagine trying to find something to do after millions years when you’ve learned everything, known everyone, and done everything a thousand times over? After billions of years? Trillions? It’s easy to see boredom eventually becoming a type of hell. And saying that we’d be modified not to feel boredom would only mean that it wouldn’t really be us anymore. The ability to end our existence might become the most important mercy we could have.
While I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have the willpower to pass up eternal life if I could get, there is some solace in knowing that I’ll never have the associated problems that would come with it.
The fear is death is not something we can ever completely eliminate, at least not without cost to our sanity. But pondering what it really is, something that our subjective selves will never experience, can provide some comfort in that fear, even if you can’t believe that there’s anything afterward.
For a longer treatment on this concept, you might enjoy this paper.
- Epicureanism and Diet (turtlesallthewaydownblog.com)
- A 2300-Year-Old Antidote to Stress (jeremiahtillman.wordpress.com)
- Fear Not (kristagorman.net)
- The Change of Seasons & the Eternal Return (albertamao.wordpress.com)
- The Epicurean Life (belindaseaward.wordpress.com)
- Epicurus and Cicero on Friendship (deamicitia.wordpress.com)
- The Action Bronson Diaries: Epicurus the Homie (mangoprism.com)
- The Art of Living and the Art of Dying are the Same (vinitadhondiyal.wordpress.com)
- Life After Death: Alleviating Death Anxiety Through Religious Belief In The Afterlife (abcorlin.wordpress.com)