Vincent Barry is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Bakersfield College, having taught there for thirty-four years. He received his M.A. in philosophy from Fordham University and has been a successful textbook author. In his college textbook, Philosophical Thinking about Death and Dying, Barry carefully considers the question of the relationship between life, death, and meaning.
Is Death Bad? – One of Barry’s main concerns is whether death is or is not bad for us. As he notes, the argument that death is not bad derives from Epicurus’ aphorism: “When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not.” Epicurus taught that fear in general, and fear of the gods and death, in particular, was evil. Consequently, using reason to rid ourselves of these fears was a primary goal of his speculative thinking. A basic assumption of his thought was a materialistic psychology in which mind was composed of atoms, and death the dispersal of those atoms. Thus death is not then bad for us since something can be bad only if we are affected by it, but we have no sensation after death and thus being dead cannot be bad for us. Note that this does not imply that the process or the prospect of dying cannot be bad for us—they can—nor does Epicurus deny that we might prefer life to death. His argument is that being dead is not bad for the one who has died.
Epicurus’ argument relies on two separate assumptions—the experience requirement and the existence requirement.[i] The experience requirement can be summarized thus:
- A harm to someone is something that is bad for them.
- For something to be bad for someone, it must be experienced by them.
- Death is a state of no experience.
- Therefore death cannot be bad for someone.
The existence requirement can be summarized thus:
- A person can be harmed only if they exist.
- A dead person does not exist.
- Therefore a dead person cannot be harmed.
As we will see, counter-arguments attack one of the two requirements. Either they try to show that someone can be harmed without experiencing the harm, or that someone who is dead can still be harmed.
One noted philosopher who attacks the Epicurean view is Thomas Nagel. In his essay “Death,” Nagel argues that death is bad for someone who dies even if that person does not consciously survive death. According to this deprivation theory, death is bad for persons who die because of the good things their deaths deprive them of. However, if death is bad because it limits the possibility of future goods, is death not then good in limiting the possibility of future evils? So the possibility of future goods does not by itself show that death is bad; to show that one would have to show that a future life would be worth living, that is, that it would contain more good than bad. But how can any deprivation theory explain how it is bad for us to be deprived of something if we do not experience that deprivation? How can what we don’t know hurt us?
In reply Nagel argues that we can be harmed without being aware of it. An intelligent man reduced to the state of infancy by a brain injury has suffered a great misfortune, even if unaware of, and contented in, his injurious state. Nagel argues that many states that we do not experience can be bad for us—the betrayal of a friend, the loss of reputation, or the unfaithfulness of a spouse. And just as an adult reduced to infancy is the subject of a misfortune, so too is one who is dead. But critics wonder who it is that is the subject of this harm? Even if it is bad to be deprived of certain goods, who is it that is deprived? How can the dead be harmed? There apparently no answer to this question.
And there is another problem. While the deprivation argument may explain why death is bad for us, it follows from it that being denied prenatal existence would also be bad. Yet we do not ordinarily consider ourselves harmed by not having been born sooner. How can we explain this asymmetry?
Epicurus argued that this asymmetry could not be explained, and we should feel indifferent to death just as we do to prenatal existence. This sentiment was echoed by Mark Twain:
Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume when the opportunity comes.[ii]
In reply, deprivationists argue that we do not have to hold symmetrical views about prenatal and postnatal experience—claiming instead that asymmetrical views are consistent with ordinary experience. To see why, consider the following. Would you rather have suffered a long surgical operation last year or undergo a short one tomorrow? Would you rather have had pleasure yesterday, or pleasure tomorrow? In both cases we have more concern with the future than the past; we are less interested in past events than in future ones. Death in the future deprives us of future goods, whereas prenatal nonexistence deprived us of past goods about which we are now indifferent. For all these reasons Barry concludes that death is probably bad and a fear of death rational. But does death undermine meaning?
The Connection Between Death and Meaning – Tolstoy and Schopenhauer claimed that death makes life meaningless; Russell and Taylor believe that death detracts greatly from the meaning of life, and Buddha argued that death undermines the good things of life. All thought death conflicts with meaning in some sense. Opponents argue that death makes life meaningful. No matter what side they are on, all these thinkers believe that death is the crucial element for determining the extent to which life is, or is not, meaningful.
While there are many arguments that death makes life meaningless, there are also many philosophical arguments, in addition to religious ones, that death makes life meaningful. These latter arguments all coalesce around the idea that death is necessary for a life to be truly human. They take a variety of forms.
- Death as necessary for life – There is no development in life without death. Death is happening to you because the universe is happening to you; while you live you are slowly being destroyed. The universe produces life through death so that, while death may be bad for you individually, it is good for the whole.
- Death as part of the life cycle – Without the life cycle, our experience of being human would be altered. Death is the goal of life, we are programmed to die; it is part of the continuum of life.
- Death as ultimate affirmation – Facing death we realize the ultimate value of life; so death has meaning in revealing this value. In addition, life is valuable because it is fleeting, fragile, and temporary.
- Death as a motive for commitment and engagement – Without the finitude of life we would be less motivated to do worthwhile things, and besides immortality may be boring.
- Death as a stimulus to creativity – Some argue that the nearness of death focuses them to be creative as never before. Others argue that death literally promotes creativity, which emanates from our desire to overcome mortality.
- Death as socially useful – Death is necessary to limit overpopulation. Many disagree, arguing that if we lived longer or were immortal we would worry more and be more concerned about the world we live in.
In opposition to all those who think death does or does not give meaning to life are those who argue that life has or lacks meaning independent of death. In other words, they argue that life gives or does not give meaning to death, thereby turning all our previous considerations upside down. But how does a life give or not give death a meaning?
Death and the Meaning of Life – Barry argues that things close to us provide clear answers about meaning—caring for our families, our work, or some cause that is important to us. But when we move to the larger picture and ask about the meaning of everything, we are perplexed. Some speculate that individuals are related to something larger, like a god or a universal plan of which they are a part, and that this gives their lives meaning; others that they create or discover meaning in the world without positing a supernatural realm. Such views, as we have seen, are divided between theistic and non-theistic positions. The main problem with the former position is that most contemporary philosophers doubt religious stories are true; the basic problem with the latter is that we are probably mistaken when we imbue an indifferent universe with meaning. Even the notion of progress is insufficient to ground meaning. Such concerns lead Barry to re-examine nihilism.
As we saw previously there are multiple responses to nihilism—we can reject, accept, or affirm it. Yet none of these responses appear adequate; the challenge of nihilism cannot be fully met. Where does this leave us? Barry concludes that though life has no meaning in the objective sense, it still can be meaningful subjectively; it still can be worth living. While persons differ as to how to give their lives meaning and value, Barry maintains that all meaningful lives are examined ones. And that is why the life of Ivan Ilyich lacked meaning—he had not examined his life or his death. Meaningful lives are those that include deep thinking about death and dying. So it seems that death is at least good in this regard. As Barry puts it:
Yes, an individual life can be worthwhile even though life itself may have no ultimate meaning. But only if that life is examined, still resonates the venerable admonition of Socrates borne on the face of the dead Ivan Ilyich—which is to say, only if that life includes philosophical thinking about death and dying.[iii]
Summary – It is uncertain if death is a good or bad thing. The connection between death and meaning is that thinking about death can make a life subjectively meaningful.
[i] John Martin Fischer, ed., The Metaphysics of Death (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 15.
[ii] Charles Neider, ed., The Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York: Perennial, 1990) ch. 49.
[iii] Vincent Barry, Philosophical Thinking About Death and Dying (Belmont CA.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007), 250.