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View Full Version : Some considerations on death, existence, and Antinatalism


Speaking Mute
11-14-2013, 04:23 AM
Having recently finished Ligottie's Conspiracy and reviewing Benetar's arguments and some threads here, I just wanted to throw out a few thoughts on death that might interest others. I'm not putting forward any sort of master argument or critique, so my observations will not be consistent if taken together. They also do not necessarily represent my own beliefs.

1. It's common to equate death with non-existence, but this is quite problematic when we turn to the meaning of "exists". Whatever we mean by this word, it's deeply connected to our notions of truth and reality. To say that Napoleon no longer exists because he's dead places him in the same category as Smurfs, square circles, and other fictions. Dead or alive, so long as we deem someone as being a part of our reality it follows that we should classify them as existing and possessing attributes. This has some odd consequences - for instance, death, as a state of being, could be like other states of being even if it's a cessation of awareness.

It should also be pointed out that Epicurean-style arguments that death is value neutral rest on the assumption that death is non-being. So long as we take the dead as existing, we can reasonably attribute them a good or bad condition, and possibly even happiness or sadness. This follows from the fact that we often deem the living unaware of their general condition - indeed, many Pessimists argue that people are oblivious to their actual misery. So, all and all, death as a cessation of awareness does not offer the same logical "free pass" as death as non-being; even without traditional notions of the afterlife, death might be more complicated than oblivion.

2. Benatar and others argue that because the unborn do not exist we must assume that their state of (non)being is value neutral. Furthermore, the idea that the unborn might want to exist is taken as a patent impossibility. Again, however, we run into problems when we consider existence from a logician's perspective. Here the issue is that we often grant attributes to non-existent entities. Usually this is brought up regarding the meaningfulness of fictional creatures like Smurfs (and Pegasuses), but it should be noted that scientific hypothesis seems to require non-existent entities possess attributes as well - 11 dimensional strings may or may not exist, but a great deal of research is dedicated to finding their properties so that we can confirm or disprove their existence. So let us carry this over to unborn humans. Benatar (and Ligotti) both recognize that the majority of humans have a desire to live, and that this desire has a biological foundation. Given that, non-existence aside, unborn humans possess the same biological attributes as those that have been born, we can reasonably conclude that the majority of unborn humans possess a desire to live. This argument can also be recast inductively, so that one needn't get involved in metaphysics, but I think the inductive variant would be much weaker since we wouldn't be attributing anything directly to the unborn.

Anyhow, I apologize if this has all been said before. I try not to be redundant, but I have not read through every post here on the listed topics.

Druidic
11-14-2013, 07:17 PM
Speaking Mute, your thoughts are interesting.

My own perspective is that consciousness is a process and not a thing; and thus when the individual components cease to function consciousness too ceases. I don’t regard the Self as illusory though that too is a process. Remember the Zennish story of how no man can cross a river twice? Well, it’s true enough but that doesn’t make the river imaginary. The sense of a physical body (oneness), the continuity of memory and the genetic traits we possess (some would also include environmental) create a series of I’s circling around something rather predictable; that’s our Self. It’s the river…despite the number of conflicting and changing I’s of our personality.
Napoleon (in my view) no longer exists and though he may be a real historic figure for us his own ‘state’ is simply the oblivion of the unborn. It’s as if he never existed…as far as his consciousness is concerned. It’s gone.
Now I’m not arrogant enough to believe these things are any more than my personal opinions. I believe them because they make sense to me, it’s that simple.
But it is fascinating to contemplate the possibility of some sort of existence beyond death. In “The Call of Cthulhu” there’s an interesting line: God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. It almost makes me wonder if Lovecraft sometimes indulged in such speculations. Not seriously, of course, but just playfully: he was far too much a materialist to treat such notions in any other fashion. Judging from that sentence, however, Lovecraft’s speculations may have been appropriately gloomy. No 72 virgins in his Universe.

Possibly, we know very little about Death. But, on the surface, it seems like the simplest thing. You just stop working.

qcrisp
11-14-2013, 08:30 PM
God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe.

Oblivion, in a sense, would let humans off too lightly in the Lovecraft universe. Stoicism would become possible. I think the restlessness of death is, in a sense, projected from the madness of what is known of life, in the Lovecraft (our?) universe.

The question of life after death has come up as recently as can be in some correspondence I've had, part of my reason for interest in this thread. For some reason 'literal' versions of an after-life are problematical to what might crudely be called 'thinking people'. But why are they problematical? Presumably, because they echo this life, which is what 'literal', in this case, means.

If the oddness of this life is not brought home by the fact we find it unbelievable as something that could happen again, elsewhere, then I don't know what can bring it home.

I recently read a book called Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. He claims to be fairly representative of the mainstream British Christian. There's a part where he talks about the afterlife, and he balks somewhat, declining to express straightforward belief in it, instead saying that he believes in life before death and that he has no desire to play a harp on a cloud for eternity, but that, nonetheless, "more can be mended than you imagine". We rely on mystery here, or else it is simply inevitable. Or else, again, we find our own lives too 'literal' to be able to support any credulity for the idea that they can repeat in any recognisable way (after death).

In all this, it interests me that people from opposite sides of a particular belief can so often be saying the same thing.

Talking of human life, Spufford writes, "Every one of our voyages ends in disaster. Every ship of our is the Titanic."

I've heard exactly the same sentiments expressed by an antinatalist.

Murony_Pyre
11-14-2013, 11:22 PM
Speaking Mute, your thoughts are interesting.

My own perspective is that consciousness is a process and not a thing; and thus when the individual components cease to function consciousness too ceases. I don’t regard the Self as illusory though that too is a process. Remember the Zennish story of how no man can cross a river twice? Well, it’s true enough but that doesn’t make the river imaginary. The sense of a physical body (oneness), the continuity of memory and the genetic traits we possess (some would also include environmental) create a series of I’s circling around something rather predictable; that’s our Self. It’s the river…despite the number of conflicting and changing I’s of our personality.
Napoleon (in my view) no longer exists and though he may be a real historic figure for us his own ‘state’ is simply the oblivion of the unborn. It’s as if he never existed…as far as his consciousness is concerned. It’s gone.
Now I’m not arrogant enough to believe these things are any more than my personal opinions. I believe them because they make sense to me, it’s that simple.
But it is fascinating to contemplate the possibility of some sort of existence beyond death. In “The Call of Cthulhu” there’s an interesting line: God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. It almost makes me wonder if Lovecraft sometimes indulged in such speculations. Not seriously, of course, but just playfully: he was far too much a materialist to treat such notions in any other fashion. Judging from that sentence, however, Lovecraft’s speculations may have been appropriately gloomy. No 72 virgins in his Universe.

Possibly, we know very little about Death. But, onwho the surface, it seems like the simplest thing. You just stop working.

Wasn't it Herodotus who said this?

I just checked it was sage Heraclitus.

Murony_Pyre
11-14-2013, 11:26 PM
Speaking Mute, your thoughts are interesting.

My own perspective is that consciousness is a process and not a thing; and thus when the individual components cease to function consciousness too ceases. I don’t regard the Self as illusory though that too is a process. Remember the Zennish story of how no man can cross a river twice? Well, it’s true enough but that doesn’t make the river imaginary. The sense of a physical body (oneness), the continuity of memory and the genetic traits we possess (some would also include environmental) create a series of I’s circling around something rather predictable; that’s our Self. It’s the river…despite the number of conflicting and changing I’s of our personality.
Napoleon (in my view) no longer exists and though he may be a real historic figure for us his own ‘state’ is simply the oblivion of the unborn. It’s as if he never existed…as far as his consciousness is concerned. It’s gone.
Now I’m not arrogant enough to believe these things are any more than my personal opinions. I believe them because they make sense to me, it’s that simple.
But it is fascinating to contemplate the possibility of some sort of existence beyond death. In “The Call of Cthulhu” there’s an interesting line: God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. It almost makes me wonder if Lovecraft sometimes indulged in such speculations. Not seriously, of course, but just playfully: he was far too much a materialist to treat such notions in any other fashion. Judging from that sentence, however, Lovecraft’s speculations may have been appropriately gloomy. No 72 virgins in his Universe.

Possibly, we know very little about Death. But, onwho the surface, it seems like the simplest thing. You just stop working.

Wasn't it Herodotus who said this?

I just checked it was sage Heraclitus.

And furthermore:

“All things are a-flowing,' sage Heraclitus says, but a tawdry cheapness shall outlast all [our] days.”


― Ezra Pound

Speaking Mute
11-16-2013, 03:18 AM
Speaking Mute, your thoughts are interesting.

My own perspective is that consciousness is a process and not a thing; and thus when the individual components cease to function consciousness too ceases. I don’t regard the Self as illusory though that too is a process. Remember the Zennish story of how no man can cross a river twice? Well, it’s true enough but that doesn’t make the river imaginary. The sense of a physical body (oneness), the continuity of memory and the genetic traits we possess (some would also include environmental) create a series of I’s circling around something rather predictable; that’s our Self. It’s the river…despite the number of conflicting and changing I’s of our personality.
Napoleon (in my view) no longer exists and though he may be a real historic figure for us his own ‘state’ is simply the oblivion of the unborn. It’s as if he never existed…as far as his consciousness is concerned. It’s gone.
Now I’m not arrogant enough to believe these things are any more than my personal opinions. I believe them because they make sense to me, it’s that simple.
But it is fascinating to contemplate the possibility of some sort of existence beyond death. In “The Call of Cthulhu” there’s an interesting line: God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. It almost makes me wonder if Lovecraft sometimes indulged in such speculations. Not seriously, of course, but just playfully: he was far too much a materialist to treat such notions in any other fashion. Judging from that sentence, however, Lovecraft’s speculations may have been appropriately gloomy. No 72 virgins in his Universe.

Possibly, we know very little about Death. But, on the surface, it seems like the simplest thing. You just stop working.

...however, nothing I said hinges on consciousness surviving death. What you are saying is that death cannot be "like anything" for Napoleon or anyone else because only a conscious, functioning brain allows a physical object that elusive quality variously referred to as " the inner world", "subjectivity", or "likeness". However, ff you're sympathetic to such a quality existing and you believe that the mind is matter and nothing more, then I suggest you consider Panpsychism. Panpsychism contends that all objects - animals, plants, and inanimate objects - possess an "inner world". This view is often misunderstood as stating that all objects posses a degree of consciousness - but Panpsychism has a much more refined view of consciousness. Consciousness is an amalgam of memory, beliefs, factual knowledge - "propositional content" and it's manipulation - whereas the "inner world" of our experience also contains "non-propositional content" like color, pain, bitterness etc. Consciousness is just the the brain running a program like an ordinary computer, but "what it's like to be us" (to use Nagel's terminology) is an extension of the "inner world" that all objects possess. To say this another way, the brain thinks, and hence "makes" consciousness, but the brain does not "make" color or pain for us - we experience color and pain because we literally are eyes and nerves, and color and pain are "what it's like" to be eyeballs and nerve bundles.

This would mean that death is not simply a void or absence; many aspects of our subjectivity would continue even if we were not aware (in the cognitive sense) of it because the matter composing our body continues. Maybe upon the body's dissolution there would be an "ultimate" oblivion - but then we come back to my point that Napoleon still exists. Whether we say that Napoleon "exists" or that he is "real", the underlying idea is that Napoleon remains a cohesive logical entity after his death. That is, his dying didn't change any facts about him; he was born in France, was routed at Waterloo, etc. I take this as a basis for Napoleon retaining his objecthood after his death and physical dissolution, and see this objecthood as raising the possibility that it's "like something" to be dead Napoleon, and that this differs from the "likeness" of being dead Alexander etc.