Confrontations With The Reaper Lecture Notes from the 107th Diogenesis Lecture on 2022/3/27 • Read time 9min In antiquity, philosophy was considered preparation for death. There is an assumed inevitability to death that places a finality or limit to all the projects you could ever hope to engage with, and while I will try to give a very broad-strokes overview of the long body of literature that has been generated on the topic of death throughout the history of formal philosophy, I will end by attacking its assumed inevitability. As a grounds for this attack Deniz Cem Önduygu says, "Let me put skepticism about induction to good use: I don't think I’ll die." But we'll address objections to the inevitability of death at the end of the lecture. So what is death? It's bad to define things by negation; defining red as 'not green' doesn't really narrow down if red is actually blue or yellow or some other color. So, defining death as 'not alive' would be equally bad, as rocks would then be experiencing death despite never having lived. It's better to define death as the cessation of life and a standard definition of life is "a chemical system that uses energy to keep itself from reaching chemical equilibrim," as this video on the death of a cell says - https://youtu.be/ibpdNqrtar0. But these definitions are very sterile and don't help us frame the obviously larger meaning we import on the death of more complex life. This sentiment is evinced by questions like, "Is there a meaning to death?" When we ask for meaning we are not asking for a definition, we are not asking how death happens, we are asking why. Why did this particular death have to happen? Or maybe we ask if death has a broader purpose for all life? Socrates, at the end of his trial, right after receiving the verdict of the death penalty says, "In court, as in warfare, neither I nor anyone should contrive to escape death at any cost. On the battlefield too, it often becomes obvious that one could avoid death by throwing down one's arms and flinging oneself upon the mercy of one's pursuers. And in every sort of danger there are many other means of escaping death, if one is shameless enough to do or to say anything. I suggest that it is not death that is hard to avoid, gentlemen, but wickedness is far harder, since it fleeter of foot than death." He is saying here that death is not something you should worry about avoiding, a much worse fate than death would be to continue living a bad life. He goes on to say, "I suspect that what has befallen me is a blessing, and that those of us who suppose death to be an evil cannot be making a correct assumption... let us also reflect upon how good a reason there is to hope that death is a good thing. It is, you see, one or the other of two things: either to be dead is to be nonexistent, and a dead person has no awareness whatever of anything at all; or as we are told, the soul undergoes some sort of transformation, exchanging of this present world for another." Here he is saying that either nothing happens when you die or there is an afterlife. Socrates continues, "Now if there is, in fact, no awareness in death, but it is like sleep - the kind in which the sleeper does not even dream at all - then death would be a marvelous gain. Why, imagine that someone had to pick the night in which he slept so soundly that he did not even dream, and to compare all the other nights and days of his life with that one; suppose he had to say, upon consideration, how many days or nights in his life he had spent better and more agreeably than that night; in that case, I think he would find them easy to count compared with his other days and nights - even if he were a great king. If death is like that, then for my part I call it a gain, because on that assumption the whole of time would seem no longer than a single night." Socrates' claim here is that if nothing happens when you die then it is simply like a deep and eternal night's sleep, something quite peaceful or neutral in his view. "On the other hand, if death is like taking a trip from here to another place, and if it is true, as we are told, that all of the dead do indeed exist in that other place, why then, gentlemen of the jury, what could a greater blessing than that? If upon arriving in Hades, and being rid of these people who profess to be 'jurors', one is going to find those who are truly judges, and who are also said to sit in judgement there - Minos, Rhadamanthys, Aecus, Triptolemus, and all other demigods who were righteous in their own lives - would that be a disappointing journey? "Or again, what would any of you not give to share the company of Orpheus and Musaeus, of Hesiod and Homer? I personally would be willing to die many times over, if those tales are true... I could spend time questioning and probing people there, just as I do here, to find out who among them is truly wise, and who thinks he is without being so." I'm skipping some of the text here but he says closer to the end that, "You too should be of good hope in the face of death, and fix your minds upon this single truth: nothing can harm a good man, either in life or in death." Socrates is famously agnostic about everything, as he is here, saying that he does not know what will happen when he dies in the next couple of days, but that whatever the outcome is, it would not be an unpleasant one. Fortunately for Socrates, Christianity had not been invented yet and so he didn't know there was a supposed afterlife that resulted in infinite torment. Before moving on to the stoics, I just want to note that the trial of Socrates is full of nice little insults and by Socrates saying death will actually be quite pleasant he is telling the jury that they have rewarded him rather than punished him. What do you guys think so far? The stoic's and even some of the hedonist's views of life were that if you reached a point in life where you were as happy as possible, then you knew the rest of your life would not be as good and you've basically peaked. They argued that at this point you should kill yourself, think of this as, "It's good enough to die for." I want to reference our very own Dimorphique here, as she has said, "What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying." Of course Dimo meant something more like if you love your child then you would die for that child, but I think this applies in a general sense as well - if you love life, then you would die to attain the kind of life you love, for yourself or for others. Seneca was a famous stoic philosopher in the Roman empire and worked directly under the emperor Nero as his advisor. After a few years Nero became insane and accused Seneca of knowing about a plot to assassinate him and told Seneca that if he really believed his stoic philosophy he should kill himself. Seneca, who by all historical accounts was innocent of the accusation, complied and really killed himself with his wife also committing suicide with him. His last words to his wife were, "Why cry over this one moment when the whole of life calls for tears?" There are notable cultures in history that believed in a view of 'honorable suicide', the biggest example being the feudal Japanese samurai caste. There's a lot we can say about that and other cultures with ritual suicide, but if I were permitted to inject my personal view here, it would probably be that there's no ultimate justification for suicide in the face of what's called consequentialist uncertainty, but in scenarios where you know you have a guaranteed short time to live anyways and that short time would be guaranteed to be immensely insufferable, a careful suicide may yet be honorable. This does not apply to anyone young and healthy. But what do you guys think? On the topic of an afterlife, and while ignoring a lot of the wholly unrigorous religious views of an afterlife, you could look to something like holographic universe theory in theoretical physics and their supposition that information is never created or destroyed, even complex information like that of your life, as a suggestion that there is some kind of eternal life. However I think the Lutherans have probably figured something out that seems obvious in retrospect, which is that when asked about an afterlife they respond with it being just like a before- life. Just as you don't recall anything before you existed, surely you would have no phenomena after you stop existing. I thought I was being clever here by reversing the roles and giving a secular argument for an afterlife and a religious argument for no afterlife. My personal view is that even on an emotional level it makes more sense that when you die you are dead and you don't go somewhere else, which is precisely why it hurts so much when someone you know dies. They are really gone, there is a countable loss in the list of things in the universe. My notes from here on out were not prepared and only give the general outline of the topics discussed. - Dying for something versus dying for nothing. - Death in war and the honor/glory of sacrificing yourself or others; the Just War theory. Zizek on Suzuki: the Japanese military during WWII advocated for Zen Buddhism among its officers. Their reasoning was that if you were ordered to stab someone to death, and if you remained in the 'illusionary self', then you would feel responsible. But if you are enlightened by Zen Buddhism you know there is no substantial reality, you become a neutral observer of your life, everything is just a flow of phenomena, and you tell yourself that it is not that you are killing this person, but in the cosmic dance of phenomena your knife is floating and the enemy's body happens to fall upon it. Longevity escape velocity and what the pros+cons of living forever would be.