Review of Setiya’s “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide”

Kieren Setiya is a professor of philosophy at MIT. I just finished his Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. Here is a brief review.

As we approach midlife, even the most successful among us wonder what we have missed and if our achievements are enough. Setiya begins with some general advice. He reminds us that missing out on things is part of life and that lost opportunities probably look better in retrospect. We can reconcile ourselves with the past by remembering that previous mistakes played a role in our subsequent achievements. Moreover, if we could change the past we might find the present would be worse. What we have now is likely better than what we conjure up in our imagination.

Setiya’s reflections on death are particularly thoughtful. He takes no comfort from Epicurus’ argument against fearing death. Instead, he accepts the deprivationist claim that death is bad because being dead deprives us of the good things of life. 

Now some people gainsay such worries, arguing that we should care no more about not existing after death than we now do about not existing before death. But, as he points out, those situations aren’t symmetrical. While most of us want to live indefinitely into the future, almost no one wants their lives extended indefinitely into the past. We prefer a day of suffering in the past to an hour of suffering in the future; we prefer an hour of pleasure in the future to a day of pleasure in the past. Death is no mirror of prenatal nonexistence.

Others claim that death is really good for us because immortality would be boring, hopeless, or meaningless. But for Setiya, people who say such things either really want to die or deceive themselves. He thinks it’s the latter—they adapt their preferences to what seems inescapable.  

Setiya notes that the desire for immortality isn’t always selfish—we want others not to die too. We see that they have a value that we don’t want to be lost. Think about how you don’t want your children to die even long after you’re gone. We can also apply this same logic to ourselves. We are valuable and hope that our lives aren’t extinguished either.

Philosophy can’t completely comfort us regarding death, but it helps us to see immortality as an unattainable superpower. (He doesn’t address or isn’t aware of various scientific ways we might defeat death.) Armed with this insight, we can still want the best for ourselves and others but reconcile ourselves to letting go. In short, we can accept mortality without denying life’s value.

(I don’t find Setiya’s conclusion satisfying. The fact is that happy, healthy people almost never want to die and are despondent upon receiving a death sentence. People cry at the funerals of their loved ones, accepting death only because they think it’s inevitable. I doubt they would be so accepting if they thought it avoidable. Consider that, after all the books and knowledge, memories and dreams, cares and concerns, faces and voices, then suddenly … nothing. Is that really desirable? No. Death should be optional.) 

I do find Setiya’s response to Schopenhauer’s mistrust of desires convincing. Schopenhauer argued that if you don’t have desires you’re bored but if you have them you’re miserable because you can’t ultimately satisfy them. For Setiya this implies that when we complete a project or reach a goal we have lost that which gave meaning to our lives. Yes, we can find more projects, but if we approach goals this way we are always trying to rid ourselves of what is good about the process of completing them. This insight leads to Setiya’s salient theme.

The real challenge is coping, not with the past or future, but with the present. Rather than chasing happiness that lies in the future, we should be content now. Here Setiya offers a strategy based on the distinction between telic and atelic activities. Telic actions aim at terminal states like finishing a book or building a statue, while atelic ones have no end but are valuable in themselves. When we complete the former we check them off our list and are done whereas the latter we do for their own sake. (Put another way, telic activities correspond to instrumental goods while atelic ones correspond to intrinsic goods.)

Setiya advises us to spend more time in atelic activities such as going for walks, conversing with friends, parenting, enjoying nature, or meditating. Even if you enjoy telic activities, try “to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project.” Otherwise, we are driven by projects that we don’t enjoy. In that case, completing our projects eliminates any meaning they had. However, if we enjoy the process of what we’re doing right now, then engaging in that process is itself rewarding.

Even if we want to eradicate suffering or otherwise improve the world such telic activities are given power by the atelic pleasure we derive from living in the present. We want the future to be better, but we should want the present to be better too. Thus we would be wise to adopt a more atelic orientation.

This is a simple but powerful insight. We shouldn’t always be chasing some happiness or contentment in the future, which will likely be followed by another chase. If we don’t find that inner peace now we aren’t likely to find it later.

I thank Professor Setiya for writing his thoughtful book.

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7 thoughts on “Review of Setiya’s “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide”

  1. Very interesting… this essay inspired in me a different way of thinking about death. I have always considered immortality to be undesirable because, after some period of time, one must become bored. However, this essay incited me to ask, “What if I could live for, say, another hundred years?”

    That brings up all manner of interesting ideas. There are so many things I want to get done before I die: books to read, books to write, software to design, lectures to give, a forest to rejuvenate — I could easily keep myself busy for at least fifty more years. That prospect is appealing.

    But then the matter of aging intrudes. What kind of body will I have during the next century? The same one I have now? A younger one, perhaps? An even older and more decrepit one?

    Sure, it would be fabulous if I could go through the next century with the body I had when I was 25. I was at the peak of my mental and physical strength. I would love that!

    On the other hand, what would it be like to stay in this same house for a century, married to the same partner, simply repeating what I do now? If I had the body of a 25-year old, wouldn’t I get sexually bored with my wife? Where does that lead? Would I get bored with all sex? I mean, how many orgasms can you have before you reach “Been there, done that”?

    But my greatest worry comes from a suspicion I have about the human brain. Yes, we lose mental function because neurons die — but there’s another process going on. I won’t go into the details here, but it can be ruthlessly paraphrased as “learning fills the brain”. After all, our brains are not blessed with infinite capacity. Nor do I believe that our brains are capacious enough to permit me to continue accumulating experiences and learning for more than a century. Perhaps the brain’s internal garbage collection procedures (primarily dreams) are sufficient to keep some capacity available by throwing away older memories. But I don’t see any evolutionary benefit to such a capability.

    An observation that supports this is that old people seem set in their ways. If they can’t keep up with the times, doesn’t that suggest something about the brain’s ability to learn? I see it most in myself when confronting new computer technologies. Sorry, I came of age with computers during the microcomputer revolution. I still remember many of the machine opcodes from the 6502 processor of the early 1980s — A9 and F0 and B5. I can tell you what those mean — and my knowledge is utterly obsolete.

    I grow frustrated with modern computers. Sure, they’re immensely powerful, but they’re not as understandable. Back in the good old days, I could use software tools to look inside a computer and see exactly what it was doing. Nowadays, the computer has layers and layers of systems piled one atop another, and I cannot penetrate beyond the outermost layer. In 1982, I knew everything there was to know about the Atari 800 computers. I do not exaggerate; I had the workings of that machine burned into my brain. Nowadays, I have difficulty just know WHAT a piece of software can do, much less HOW it does it.

    Are my experiences with computer technology representative of life in general? Will it change so much that I won’t be able to comprehend the world? That’s a really scary proposition!

    And of course, I see human society spiraling down to self-destruction, so maybe I don’t want to be here when the shooting starts.

    I don’t know.

  2. “This hour was a tad better than the previous hour,” “this day was a tad better than the previous day,” “this year was a tad better than the previous year.” Without having a word for it, as I’ve entered middle age, I have sought an atelic state of indefinite, slight improvement.
    The transhumanist goal might be to induce this sensation of casual optimism in our brain architecture.

  3. There are two separate subjects in your article. First there is the fact of death and our response to it and then there is the subject of the midlife crisis and how to deal with it.

    Our views and responses to the fact of death really depends on how we are looking at it. If we look at it from the point of view of an ego or a belief in a separate entity we call ‘I’ then it is really terrible and attempts to show its value are, perhaps, no more than pretences in the face of what is inevitable. But there exists another vantage point of looking at death and life in general; it is called non-judgemental awareness in Buddhist literature. From this vantage point everything is happening out there and even the emotions surrounding the fact of death, no matter what they are, are happening out there. The experience is akin to being warm at home while a cold storm is raging outside. This awareness is not entangled with what is being observed and thus is a better way at understanding the nature of what is happening such as the fact of death and the emotions surrounding it. But this way of looking at life is not natural; one needs to discipline oneself with constant practice until it becomes second nature. A close analogy is training oneself to think critically which is a skill we are not born with which we know is a much better way of look at what is presented before us to think about.

    Now I will turn to the problem of the midlife crisis. The midlife crisis is the recurring feeling of the futility of everything one does which comes to people between forty and sixty years of age. I don’t know how effective Kieren Setiya’s technique of increasing atelic activities and concentrating on the atelic phases of telic activities because still one is conscious that he/she is doing this in order to overcome the crisis. This may feel somewhat artificial. Besides, every atelic activity will eventually come to an end; what then? Always have another activity under one’s sleeves to jump into?!
    It is wanting to get rid of the feeling of futility which is the problem. Again, with non-judgemental awareness of the sensation of futility in the body as it arises it will just come and pass away like everything. One might, instead, experience curiosity and calm which is different from when one was trying to get rid of it.

    In “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, Daniel Dennett introduced the concept of the universal acid as a metaphor for a powerful idea or a process that eats through about everything and leaves in its wake complete transformation. Non-judgemental awareness is such a process which, if acquired as a skill, will eat through the wrong ways of handling feelings and emotions which arise from our fears, desires, hates and wrong thinking and will leave peace and calm and a better intuitive understanding of the nature of our experiences in its wake.

  4. I too like the atelic emphasis. And I like your connection with transhumanism.

  5. Would take a long essay to respond to all your good questions. Overall I’d say that you might go to Humanity+ and read their justifications for wanting super longevity, super intelligence, super morality, etc. That might help overcome many of your “this won’t work objections.” But once you say you’d like another good healthy hundred years the next stop is wanting immortality. And if its boring you can check out, you’re aren’t trapped there. I have a number of essays about this. As to your final point about the not being able to comprehend the new world I wrote a speculative, not deeply thought out piece about this here:

  6. Really like the atelic emphasis. And also the TH goal of creating minds that are more mindful.

  7. Setiya discusses Buddhism quite a bit in his last chapter. He rejects the idea of no self and seems to place his views as being similar to mindfulness but not the same. He doesn’t specifically mention NJA, as best as I can remember, but I’d guess, from the tenor of the book, that he would be skeptical of our ability to be NJA. I could be wrong and would have to reread it to be sure.

    thanks for the comments.

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