I’m going to die. What else is there to be afraid of?


Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition. (Blaise Pascal. Penseés #434)

Ah yes, the  Human Condition. I come from religious folk and have watched both of my grandparents die. My mother had a close call a couple of years ago, and experienced visions of Jesus while lingering close to death. And as we have all heard by now, death in our time is a sanitized, hospitalized affair. Not the daily intrusion that it was for most of the history of humanity. But the fact that we don’t have a hands on experience of death every day doesn’t diminish our awareness that the most momentous event of our life is yet to come.

We all would like a peaceful death; preferably one that comes to us in our sleep. Sleep being our natural metaphor for death, it makes sense that drifting off while already half-way there would be most desirable. Death is rationalized in multitudinous ways, not least of which is our species’ propensity for metaphysical fantasies: heaven, nirvana, rebirth and so on. I do not wish to insult my religious friends, but even these theories fail to provide much comfort if one contemplates their actual implications. Whichever “destination” we are bound for, it ought to be clear that the being that will be after death will not be the being we are now in any intelligible sense. What am I without body? You really have to go a long, long way with Descartes to make any sense of such a proposition.

A majority of the human population believes in some kind of life after death. Can billions of people be wrong? Of course they can, and almost certainly are. I am not of the view that it is irrational to subscribe to such beliefs. Beliefs are choices based on evidence. The evidence may be spurious or suspect, but when weighted against the consequences of an incorrect choice it is not surprising that many will take the “safe” route and accept the beliefs that posterity and culture have bequeathed them. With the death problem now safely partitioned, one can get on with the business of living. That approach seems perfectly rational to me. What has one lost? (This is the essence of Pascal’s famous wager; much maligned as a cynical ploy and routinely taken out of context).

For those of us who find the evidence lacking–and there have always been atheists among us–death must be understood differently. We are tempted to be flippant about it. “I didn’t exist before I was born, and it didn’t bother me. Why should it bother me to die?” they say. But it can’t be dismissed so easily.

Real contemplation of what death actually is to a self, to me or to you is a mind-bending exercise. How does one conceive or imagine the cessation of the self while one yet exists? This is where things break down. A being can’t conceive of its non-being. Whatever death is as an “event” it will not be one that any of us actually experience, for death is the absence of experience, sensation and being itself.

Yes, some of us say, as I have said many times, it’s not death we’re afraid of, it’s dying. I don’t find that very satisfying though. Of course I fear pain. (We can all be grateful to live in an age that has palliative care). Death is something more than dying. After all, when one is dying there is always the hope of a cure or a miracle.

Which brings me back to ontology. For those who equate brains and minds there is no existential question to address. The hunk of meat that is you decays and the epiphenomenal ephemera of a self evaporates. If that is so, what was lost? That’s a worthwhile question for philosophy in my view.


13 thoughts on “I’m going to die. What else is there to be afraid of?

  1. 1)’What about Bob’ is one of Bill Murray’s finest movies, in my opinion, equal to ‘Lost in Translation’, and surpassed only by ‘Groundhog Day’.

    2)The question of ‘self’ takes center stage here – in what sense is I a self – in what sense is I the same self today as I was when i was ten years old – is there a sense in which my self overlaps with some other self or selves – ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together’ (from Beatles song ‘I am the walrus’) – Buddhists have spent considerable time on questions like this

    3)The final words spoken by Beelzebub in ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man’, by G.I. Gurdjieff:

    “The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant again into their presences a new organ … of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can now destroy the egoism completely crystallized in them.”

    Gurdjieff’s prescription (assuming his fictional character is serving as his mouthpiece, which seems likely in this instance) is not just for the perfunctory intellectual awareness of our mortality and that of everyone we meet, but for actually FEELING it instead of running away from feeling it. It’s the difference between knowing by rote the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and living according to its principles wholeheartedly, as best you can. I’ve been reading ‘Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive’ by Larry Rosenberg. A part from the beginning was printed as an article in the Shambala Sun:


    In that article, Rosenberg states Buddha’s Five Contemplations:

    1. I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
    2. I am subject to illness. Illness is unavoidable.
    3. I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.
    4. I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
    5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions. Whatever I do, for good or for ill, to that will I fall heir.

    Speaking of aging being unavoidable, a very theistic viewpoint is taken in the following poem, originally in Persian –

    OLD AGE Rumi

    Why does a date-palm lose its leaves in autumn?
    Why does every beautiful face grow in old age
    Wrinkled like the back of a Libyan lizard?
    Why does a full head of hair get bald?
    Why is it that the lion’s strength weakens to nothing?
    The wrestler who could hold anyone down
    Is led out with two people supporting him,
    Their shoulders under his arms?

    God answers,

    “They put on borrowed robes
    And pretended they were theirs.
    I take the beautiful clothes back,
    So that you will learn the robe
    Of appearance is only a loan.”

    Your lamp was lit from another lamp.
    All God wants is your gratitude for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I want to say a bit more –

      1)I don’t LIKE the poem by Rumi, particularly – it makes it sound like God could have made things otherwise, but chose not to – and even that He is emotionally needy (He WANTS your gratitude) – but I think it’s instructive to consider that Rumi’s poem and Buddha’s Five Contemplations are basically different formulations of the same aspect of the Human Condition

      2)I know a string of pronouns from a ‘nonsense’ Beatles song is not an argument – neither is the following, but it is a metaphor

      consider the relationship of the fingertips with each other, and with the hand

      at the fingertip level, each is separate

      but at the hand level, each is part of a higher-order entity


      • The Gurdjieff quote is very good. I practiced Buddhism for a number of years in my 20’s and as you point out, contemplation of one’s death is strongly recommended in certain meditation practices. I gave up on Buddhism because 1) I couldn’t keep up the meditation practice 2) I became skeptical of the goal of the practice.

        You made so many good points I need to take them one at a time.

        1) I actually prefer ‘What About Bob’ to ‘Groundhog Day’ but they’re very close. Hard to believe, but I still haven’t seen ‘Lost in Translation’. Thanks for the reminder.
        2) The ‘identity problem’ has never seemed that interesting to me. What is interesting and is more fundamental to the idea you bring up is the nature of time and its relation to human beings. That’s the whole subject of Division II of Heidegger. But it makes no sense to me–yet. So, the interconnectedness thing is interesting. I have seen it for years, going back to my Buddhist days. But I’m not sure what it means exactly. The hand metaphor is useful, but if each finger is a ‘self’ what is the hand? It can’t be the sum of the selves. When it comes to human beings, I believe that any collection of them is lesser than the sum of its parts. Have you read David Chalmers? He flirts with the idea of panpsychism. If that idea is correct, then it changes the importance of your metaphor. My conclusion that the sum of any collection of human beings is lesser than the individual would be incorrect. But I think you need some kind of panpsychism to make the claim that the hand is a higher-order entity (again, presuming that each finger represents a conscious self).


    • You are the same self you were at age 10 in the sense that there is probably a chain of custody leading back from the present to age 10, and beyond by at most 10 years. There are ways other than death that that chain of custody can be broken, and that (in my book if no other) is the Fate Worse Than Death.


  2. reply to Abonilox sept 25 2014

    Speaking of movies Bill Murray appears in, I recently saw again “Moonrise Kingdom”, which I enjoyed very much. Bill’s role is not the largest – in fact, it might be that he has fewer lines than Bruce Willis – but it is a worthy vehicle. It’s definitely a more fun movie than Lost in Translation.

    I haven’t read David Chalmers. I agree with you that if the hand/finger metaphor is applicable, it implies panpsychism or something like it. In Miller Analogies Test format,

    Finger:hand :: person:higher order entity which person is part of, whether they know it or not

    Perhaps you have heard of the Medium Lobster, who formerly posted at Fafblog!

    “The Medium Lobster is a higher being from beyond the boundaries of space and time. From his perch atop ethereal dimensions whose heights defy mortal comprehension, all of reality as you know it is laid out before him like so many ants at a summer picnic. To your limited perception, he appears to be an ordinary lobster, neither especially large nor particularly small. To your limited perception.”

    It might be something like that. Jacob Needleman, in his book An Unknown World, which I just finished reading this week, recommends the discussion of the metaphysical thought of Gustav Fechner in chapter 4 of William James’s A Pluralistic Universe. I intend to read this – having already attempted to start at chapter 4, I now plan to begin at the beginning of James’s book.

    During the 20th century I heard Bill Bruck, then a psychologist on the faculty of Marymount University, Arlington, VA, describe three tenets of the mystical perspective:

    1)The Universe is here on purpose

    2)Human beings have, or could have, some connection with this cosmic purpose

    3)Some people are better than others at perceiving how to serve this purpose, and it is to some extent a learnable skill

    Could it be true? How would I know? But I do know that, for me, that kind of thinking definitely produces a warmer, fuzzier feeling than the idea that life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


    • The Abonilox (not me) comes from the same place as Medium Lobster I think. It’s confusing.

      Anyway, I’m replying to both comments here.

      First, I’m really glad you keep coming back. As I’m sure you know this blogging stuff is no fun if nobody comments. Although I know a few bloggers that troll themselves.

      So I love Wes Anderson movies, or at least I loved the Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. Bill Murray’s parts may be small but I can’t imagine those movies without him.

      OK, so on to the topic at hand. Now that you’ve brought it up I think I am ready to write a full on post about Mysticism. It’s rattling in my brain at this very moment. I am not against it at all. And that warm fuzzy feeling you’re getting, you might want to have the doctor take a look at it.

      Just kidding of course. Here’s an interesting question that maybe has some loose connection to the question you posed to Nozik (or maybe not): Is the effect produced by a belief on the believer relevant to the validity of the belief? I wouldn’t dismiss that idea out of hand.


      • At first glance, obviously not – and yet, in practice….And now we find ourselves wandering in the general direction of Bokononism – as our friends in Wikipedia kindly tell us,

        >>Bokononism is a religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut and practiced by many of the characters in his novel Cat’s Cradle. Many of the sacred texts of Bokononism were written in the form of calypsos.
        Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”<<

        I wouldn't be surprised if Vonnegut intends to remind us of the Pragmatism of Charles Sanders Pierce and William James. the latter of whom I have already mentioned in this thread.

        Bokononism has a specific term for the "higher order entity which a person is part of, whether they know it or not" – this is a KARASS. And it also has a term for an illusory "higher order entity" which does not actually exist – GRANFALLOON. Since all the tenets of Bokononism are lies, why does one need to distinguish between KARASS and GRANFALLOON? This could be one of Bokonon's implied koans.


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