Category Archives: Book Reviews – Philosophy

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 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 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 reconciles 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 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’ 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 expelled 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 the salient theme of Setiya’s book.

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 his thoughtful book.

Summary of “The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton

The Consolations of Philosophy

Alain de Botton’s book takes its title from Boethius’ classic of the same name.

In his book, de Botton explores the ideas of different philosophers in order to show that philosophy can offer practical advice about unpopularity  (Socrates), poverty (Epicurus), frustration (Seneca), inadequacy (Montaigne), heartbreak (Schopenhauer), and difficulties (Nietzsche).

Socrates was unpopular enough to be put to death but we can take comfort in the fact that he is still remembered, not his accusers. We can also take comfort in knowing that the injustices we face probably pale in comparison to those he endured.

Epicurus taught us that most of the best things in life, like friendship and knowledge, are free while magnificent wealth and power rarely satisfy. As he put it, “when measured by the natural purpose of life, poverty is great wealth; limitless wealth, great poverty” (70)

Seneca taught us that “what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like.” Thus “our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground rules of existence.” (83) But if we are prepared for the worst we will be less frustrated when bad things happen.

Montaigne taught us not to expect too much from ourselves because we are all ridiculous creatures. We feel inadequate largely because “conventional portraits” of ourselves “leave out so much of what we are.” (128) What is left out is that we are all primates who, despite supposedly noble ideas, spend most of our time caring for our bodies.

Schopenhauer said that the real foundation and purpose of romantic attraction and love is our biological drive to preserve the species. This knowledge helps comfort a broken heart because it shows that only biology has been temporarily thwarted. And it is a gift when pain yields knowledge.

And Nietzsche taught that misfortune is better for us than good fortune; we learn from obstacles and difficulties: “fulfillment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that could tear [us] apart.” (230) What makes us feel good is not always good for us while what makes us feel bad is not bad for us. Joy may be proportional to the suffering one endures.

In short, even if we are unpopular, poor, frustrated, inadequate, heartbroken, or encounter difficulties, we can still live good lives. I recommend this book. I admire de Botton’s efforts to make philosophy practical and accessible. It is an easy and fun read which reminds us that thinking is a constitutive element of a good life.

Review of Aaron James’ “Surfing with Sartre”

Aaron James, Professor of Philosophy at UC-Irvine, has written a new book, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning. It addresses major questions in philosophy from his unique perspective as both a philosopher and former surfer. James argues that the surfer mentality offers a unique perspective on philosophical issues because:

Surfers often have a certain natural lightness about being, about the meaning of their personal existence. Those more at sea existentially can certainly appreciate the surfer’s good fortune. And it is hard to dislike people so thoroughly enthralled by living … Surely most of us could learn to live lighter, by sliding over life’s problems. (4)

 One of his salient themes is that “what the surfer knows suggests that we should … get used to an even more leisurely, surfer-friendly style of capitalism, in which we all work, but a lot less …” (5) He claims that working less is an ethical imperative because work “as we now practice it emits gases … that are steadily warming the planet. So … as long as we do something less consumptive of ecological resources than working … we contribute to society by making the climate change problem a little less terrible … ” (6-7) Leisure activities are thus “a new model of civic virtue. The real troublemaker is the workaholic, whose labor-intensive striving makes the problem of global warming worse …” (8)

And these issues are of profound ethical importance: “If climate science is even roughly correct … would it be morally okay for us to further enrich ourselves in work, without limitations, if many billions of living or future people are thereby put at grave risk of profound injury? Or are we obliged to adapt?” (8) Would it really be so hard to work less, and enjoy life more he wonders.

While most of us derive a sense of self from our work, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Protestant work ethic nurtured capitalism, but now we should reject both and use our time more productively than for destruction of the ecosystem. This is the main point of the book, that the surfer mentality is “on the right side of history.” (9) We should adapt our lifestyles to a changing planet.

The book devotes most of its pages to the surfer mentality’s insights regarding philosophical problems, using Sartrean philosophy as its foil. Key insights include that: 1) being in the moment provides more comfort than material possessions; 2) we should choose the surfer mentality; 3) intense pleasure and self-transcendence can be experienced by being in the flow; and 4) a hyper-competitive society destroys humanity and nature. This leads James to state:

In a more leisurely capitalism, we’d have a less competitive way of life … and we’d spend more of our time getting attuned, living from love, practicing for its own sake, and transcending status preoccupation for a happier contentment. (288)

The book’s epilogue relates its insights to the question of life’s meaning. But he changes that question to: “What are the meanings, plural, of life. If that’s the question … then we just enumerate the many different ways life can have meaning … Friendship. Worthy projects. Creative activity. Music. Surfing. Nice parties. Or whatever … ” (292) James rejects the view that there must be one meaning to explains all these multiple meanings. So for James the meaning of life “can be nothing more than the various ways life is meaningful to us …” (292) The hard part is choosing from the many ways that life can be meaningful.

Of course, this analysis ignores the question of the meaning of the cosmos itself. But even if we could discover such a super meaning—say the super meaning was to enjoy an eternal feast in heaven—then we could just ask about the meaning of heaven. Maybe we would like heaven, maybe we wouldn’t. But independent of our answer to the question of universal meaning, James points out that there is already plenty of meaning in life.

Still James admits that many people won’t be satisfied because they want to be “part of something bigger ….” (293) Here he recommends that we just add that meaning to our list, and connect our daily activity with that meaning: “being part of a collective enterprise could never be more than one source of meaning among many on a long list … So our list of meanings can grow longer … to cover big parts of history.” (295) In fact, “… many of our activities would come to seem much less important to us if we came to know that an asteroid would destroy the planet soon after our death.” (298) So being part of history is already an important part of meaning in our lives.1

Considerations about the future are connected with James’ concern about the destruction of the biosphere.

We living people are enjoying the carbon-based prosperity party. And though we’ll be dead before our emissions completely befoul the global ecology, if we don’t take rather dramatic steps to control their production, our story will be one of having indulged in the feast and skipped out on the check, without paying our bit, let alone helping with the dishes.

This really would not be cool. It would be a gross human failure, or, if you will, a great stain, or sin. (299)

Capitalism has produced great things, yet it encourages the self-interest that contributes to the destruction of the planet. So should we continue to enjoy the party and despoil the environment, or live a more leisurely, happier lifestyle? The sun’s light and heat brought us a planet teeming with life, but we now trap its heat in our atmosphere. Will we continue to bury our heads in the sands, or will we make a heroic effort to change things and save the world for future generations? Let’s hope we do the latter.

James’s book is carefully and conscientiously crafted and deeply thoughtful. I would like to thank him for his contribution to the philosophical literature.

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1.  The philosopher Samuel Scheffler made a similar point about our concern for future generations.

Review of Andrew Stark’s, “The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death”

Andrew Stark’s new book, The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death, addresses those who disavow belief in an afterlife. So what consolation might these non-believers find when confronting death? Stark argues that traditionally there are “four distinct ways of persuading us to accept, maybe even appreciate, the fact that we will die.” (1)The book investigates and defends of each of these four consolations. (Stark knows that science may eventually defeat death, but he says that for most of us alive today that won’t happen soon enough—perhaps not for centuries.)

The first consolation says that “death itself is actually a benign or even a good thing.” (2) Many have made such an argument. For example, Epicurus famously said that when we are alive death is not present, and when we are dead we are not alive to suffer from it. Consolation arises from understanding that we never encounter death. In addition, most existentialists claim that only if we are aware of our finitude we will feel the urgency to make the choices that define a true self. If we dawdle we won’t create our selves, so death is essential for having a self. And Buddhism tells us there is no self, so death is really nothing. If the self is just conscious experiences, then those will continue on in others after we die. So these disparate philosophies all share the idea that death is basically benign.

The second consolation states that “within mortal life as it is, we can acquire all the intimations of immortality we could ever desire.” (3)The idea is that all the good things of death’s alternative, immortality, are available now, so death doesn’t deprive us of anything. Most importantly, we want to preserve the contents of our consciousness, and we want to help shape the future. But we have consciousness and we can shape the future now. So, even if we were immortal, we wouldn’t gain anything that we don’t have now, or so the argument goes.

The third consolation states that “immortality itself would actually be an awful fate … ” (4) For example, if we have memories of all our experiences,  then we might become bored after having done and seen everything. But if your oldest memories slowly vanished, and your character continually changed, then it would be as if you were periodically dying and being reborn, which is like being mortal. Now suppose your immortal self retained its memories and character, and continual novelty eliminated boredom. Yet then you might find that your self became antiquated as time moved on. And, if your memories and character continually disappear, then that hardly seems like an enviable immoral life. Perhaps we’re lucky we don’t have to be forever.

The fourth consolation claims that “life, with its losses, is itself nothing but an intimation of death.” (6) In other words, life already gives us all the bad things we associate with death, so death isn’t worse that life. For example, we dread leaving behind all the people and things that we love. But we lose homes, keepsakes, places, comforting ideas, and people we love throughout life–goodbyes are part of life. Of course death also means that our own consciousness vanishes, but that happens when we sleep too.

Stark begins his discussion with two aveats. First, he will discuss whether death is a good thing for relatively healthy people who have lived a normal lifespan of about 80 years, not whether death might be a welcome relief to suffering. And second, he won’t discuss whether lives of two hundred or two thousand years are bad; he is talking about an endless life, or at least one long enough to feel that way to the person living it. With these caveats in place the rest of the book explores whether the four consolations are sufficient.

Stark rejects the first consolation—death is benign, good for us, nothing to us—because Epicurean, existential, and Buddhist notions of self all deny “the reality that cries out for consolation; we are selves who move inexorably through time … while the moments of our lives flow incessantly through our fingers … back into the past.” (95) Rejecting these conceptions of self, he necessarily rejects the consolations they offer.

He also rejects the second consolation—mortal life provides the good things that immorality does. Technology might allow us to record our entire lives for others to view, or we might learn to be so connected with others that the continuation of their lives provides comfort. But none of this is enough. For “to believe that our mortal selves and mortal lives could even begin to give us the good things that their immortal versions would, we have to pretend that those selves and lives are bare shadows of what they actually are. We have to pretend that they are already half-dead.” (147)

Stark agrees that even the best immortality scenarios are unappealing, so he finds solace in the third consolation. Dissolving in time, subsisting in time, uniting with time, or uniting with a great ocean of being—none of this satisfies. For we “unavoidably see our selves as moving forward relentlessly in time … while the experiences of our lives flow remorselessly backward in time …” (189) So mortality is a blessing after all, if for no other reason than that immortality seems like a curse.

At this point in the text Stark addresses the issue of optional immortality, where we could live forever, but could opt out if we wanted to. But he rejects this option. If immortal life were so bad that we would want to opt out, wouldn’t that mean that such a life wasn’t a good one? Of course most mortals think their lives are worth it even they will end unpleasantly. But, according to Stark, option immortals would end their lives because they were bored, their memories prevented them from experiencing novelty, or for other reasons that made immortality unbearable. Stark doubts that option immortals would, in retrospect, value a life that had become so pointless that they wanted to end it.

Stark now investigates the final consolation—that life already gives us all the bad things that death does. Every second we move forward in time while the moments of our lives slowly slip away from us. It seems we are losing our lives every moment. But, surprisingly, he says this comforting because the alternative is being immortal and watching others die. And if events persisted longer then, when they ended, the grief over their loss would be greater than if events and experiences were more fleeting. Summarizing Stark says, “these two features of mortal existence—that our selves move together relentlessly into the future while the events of our life ceaselessly disappear into the past—are finally what bar life’s losses from ever resembling death’s. And while that fact doesn’t console me about death, it does console me about life.” (225) In short, it is good that life is fleeting.

Stark now reiterates that immortality isn’t desirable—we would either grow bored, if we remained the same, or our selves would die continually by always changing—and in this he finds consolation. As he concludes:

Either we die or we are immortal. And either our selves move relentlessly forward in time while the moments of our lives slip continually backward out of reach, or else we gain the capacities to stop moving forward in time and to keep the precious moments of our lives from flowing backward in time beyond our grasp. Of all the possibilities, none is better than the one we have. We die, and our selves move inexorably forward in time while the moments of our lives ineluctably vanish into the past. In fact, it may be the option that contains the least amount of death.

At that most fundamental level, the bundle of ego and anxiety that dwells within me feels consoled about our mortal condition. Not cheered. But consoled. I—you, we, humankind—got the best deal imaginable. (231)

Reflections – I am a transhumanist who has argued vehemently that death is an ultimate evil and that death should be optional. ( I have written almost 50 posts on various aspects of death.) So it is hard to put aside some of my preconceived ideas, and give Stark’s book a fair hearing. But I have tried. Still, while I find many of Stark’s arguments puzzling or unconvincing, there is a big problem with the book that undermines its basic argument.

The book suffers from a shocking lack of imagination. If we must either die or live forever, and if living forever is terrible, then dying is preferable. That’s his argument in a nutshell. But his conceptions of immortality are so limited. He offers but a few immortality scenarios which compare unfavorably with dying, when we cannot even comprehend what immortality might be like or how many immortality scenarios there may be. So yes, dying is better than living forever in hell or being infinitely bored, but there are an infinite number of other possibilites, many now unimaginable.

His argument against optional immortality perfectly displays this lack of imagination. Somehow the lives of beings for whom death is optional would be so bad that they would be better off without that option. Really? He feels so good about life transitoriness that he doesn’t even want the option to live longer? If he were given a death sentence and were otherwise healthy, he wouldn’t want the option to have the order rescinded? I doubt it.

People who reject the option of not dying also suffer from a lack of imagination. Since they don’t think they can have it, they reject it. This is an example of “adaptive preferences,” when you adapt your preferences to what you can get. I can’t get a date with Scarlett Johannson, so I say I don’t want her anyway. I can’t get a billion dollars, so I say I don’t want it anyway.

Death is like having a time bomb strapped to your chest; it will eventually go off, we just don’t know when. Actually its worse since we might die quite slowly. So, you really don’t want the option of having it turned off, even if you have the option of setting it off yourself if you get tired of living?

Here’s one thing you can bet your life on. When an effective anti-aging pill becomes available at the drug store … it will be popular! When the dying are given the option to take a shot which makes them completely healthy, many will take the shot! 

Finally, this lack of imagination reveals itself most clearly in the book’s final lines. It is hard not to choke when reading: “Of all the possibilities, none is better than the one we have … I—you, we, humankind—got the best deal imaginable.” This is Leibniz’ assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds without Voltaire to lampoon it. But I can. Stark simply can’t believe dying and the loss it entails is “the best deal imaginable.” The only way to honestly draw this conclusion is if you can’t realistically imagine anything better. But I can. And so can many others.

Summary of Samuel Scheffler’s, Death and the Afterlife

In his recent book, Death and the AfterlifeSamuel Scheffler offer two imaginative thought experiments in an attempt to understand our attitudes toward death and meaning.

In the first, the doomsday scenario, we are asked to imagine that we will live out our normal lifespan, but that thirty days after our deaths an asteroid will destroy the earth and all life on it. Needless to say most of us would find this a depressing prospect, independent of the fact that we would not die prematurely. Scheffler argues that this shows that the lives of others who live on after we die, what he calls the “collective afterlife,” matter more to us than we ordinarily think, and that our individual survival matters less to us than we normally suppose.

In the second, the infertility scenario, we again live out our normal lives but must do so with the knowledge that the species is infertile. With the last human death, humanity dies out. Scheffler argues that this knowledge would demoralize us, undermining our attempt to live happy lives. Again we see that the collective afterlife is more important to us than we usually realize.

Scheffler then contrasts the relative calm we feel about the fact that all those now living will one day be dead, with the horror we experience thinking about either of the above scenarios. This suggests that the fact that we and those we love won’t exist in the future bothers us less, than that some unknown people won’t exist in the future. As Scheffler says:

the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love. . . . This is a remarkable fact which should get more attention than it does in thinking about the nature and limits of our personal egoism.

MARK JOHNSTON REPLIES

But is it true that we really care more about the existence of potential people than the survival of our loved ones? This idea was challenged in a piece in the Boston Review by Mark Johnston entitled, “Is Life a Ponzi Scheme? Johnston asks us to imagine that the population of our tribe is half of humanity, and our tribe is also infertile. Would we really prefer the death of our tribe if we knew that the remaining half of humanity will repopulate the planet to its previous levels in a few generations, and then all of them will die a few generations later? Johnston thinks most of us would answer no to this question, and that his thought experiment belies Scheffler’s claim that we care more about unknown future persons than our present loved ones.

Johnston also argues that it is not just any future for humanity that matters to us, but valuable ones. Thus a future in which gangs fight for cosmic space or we are food for aliens is not better than one in which we perished altogether. Johnston prefers we perish rather than suffer such fates. This leads him to consider whether our lives have meaning: a) if humanity has a future or; b) only if humanity has a valuable future. The problem with either of these is that if value depends on the future, then value will eventually be undermined—since the universe will ultimately end.

To avoid such a depressing conclusion Johnston advises us to value our lives now rather than holding them hostage to some future. And we should not be demoralized by the thought of our own or humanity’s death: “The kind of value that properly calls forth joy is not something that waits to be validated by the collective life to come. As a consequence, we already live in a rich ecology of value that surrounds us here and now, no matter what happens in the future.”

MESSERLY REPLIES

I challenged Johnston’s views in my recent book: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific PerspectivesThere I argue that what I call complete meaning is not possible without both individual and collective immortality. That is not to say that mortal beings can’t live meaningful lives, just that such lives would be completely meaningful only if they possessed both infinite quantity and quantity—only if they didn’t end. In my view, this is possible because future technologies may make death optional and grant us immortality if we so choose.

This argument for immortality provided by future technologies is buttressed by Scheffler’s insight that we care about future people. We care about the future because without it life is (nearly) pointless. Johnston is right that without a future there is little meaning to life. But if there is a valuable and meaningful future—made possible by science and technology—then acting to bring about the future gives life meaning. As for the eventual death of the universe, this is uncertain given considerations of the multiverse and the possibility of powerful, advanced intelligence determining the fate of the universe.

Without the prospect of a good and lasting future for our descendants, there is little or no meaning to our present lives. And that is what Scheffler’s thought experiments so beautifully and artfully illuminate.

Death and the Afterlife