Shelly Kagan's Lectures on Death: Lecture 18 Transcript

March 29, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.


Let me turn to one more trouble or problem or puzzle for the deprivation account. And this particular puzzle arises whether or not we accept an existence requirement, whether or not we accept a bold existence requirement, a modest existence requirement, or no existence requirement, because we're going to deal with somebody who actually does exist at some time or the other, namely you or me. This is actually a puzzle that some of you may have written your paper on, because it's the puzzle about Lucretius, the puzzle that Lucretius gives us.

It's not a direct quote, but Lucretius basically says, look, most of us are upset and anxious at the fact that we're going to die. We think death is bad for us. There'll be this period after my death in which I won't exist. And the deprivation account helps say why that's bad, because during this period of nonexistence, you're not enjoying the good things in life.

Fair enough, says Lucretius, but wait a minute. The period after you die isn't the only period during which you don't exist. It's not the only period in which if only you were still alive, you could still be enjoying the good things in life. There's another period of nonexistence. It's the period before my birth. I think I've just switched the timeline here, but all right. Imagine this is the period before my birth. Just like there'll be an infinite period after my death in which I won't exist, and realizing that fills us with dismay, there was, of course, an infinite period before I came into existence. Well, if nonexistence is so bad and by the deprivation account it seems that we want to say that it is, shouldn't I be upset at the fact that there was this eternity before I was born?

But, says Lucretius, that's silly, right? Nobody's upset about the fact that there was an eternity before they were born. In which case, it doesn't make any sense to be upset about the eternity after you die of nonexistence.

Well, Lucretius doesn't offer this as a puzzle. Lucretius offers this as an argument that we should not be concerned about the fact that we're going to die. Most philosophers aren't willing to go with Lucretius all the way to the end of the bus, bus route. Most philosophers want to say there's got to be something wrong with that argument someplace. There's got to be some--

Well, what are the possibilities here? One possibility is indeed to just agree with him, right? Nothing bad about the eternity before I was born. So, nothing bad--of the eternity of nonexistence. So nothing bad about the eternity of nonexistence after I die. That's one possibility, to agree with Lucretius.

Second possibility is to say, look, Lucretius, you're right. We really do need to treat these two eternities of nonexistence on a par. But we could turn it around. Instead of saying with Lucretius, nothing bad about this one, so nothing bad about this one, maybe we should say instead, something bad about the one after we die, and so something bad about the one before we were born. Maybe we should just stick to the deprivation account and not lose faith in it. The deprivation account says it's bad that there's this period after we die, because if only we weren't dead then, we would still be able to enjoy the good things in life. Maybe we should say, look, similarly then, when the deprivation account tells us it's bad that there's this period before we come into existence, when we don't exist. Because if only we had existed then, we'd be able to enjoy the good things in life. Maybe Lucretius was right, we have to treat both periods the same. But he's wrong in thinking we shouldn't think either period is bad. Maybe we should think both periods are bad. Well, that's a possibility.

What other possibilities are there? Another possibility is to say, Lucretius, you're right, there are two periods of nonexistence, but there's a justification for treating them differently. They're asymmetrical in a way that makes sense from the point of view of what we should care about.

Well, it's easy to say that. The puzzle--most philosophers want to take that last way out. They want to say there's something that explains why it makes sense, why it's reasonable, to care about the eternity of nonexistence after my death, but where that doesn't apply to the eternity of nonexistence before my birth. And then the puzzle is to point to a difference that would justify that kind of rationally asymmetrical treatment of the two periods. It's easy to say it's okay, it's reasonable to treat them differently. The philosophical challenge is to point to something that explains or justifies that.

Now, a very common response is to say something like this. Look, consider the period after my death. I'm no longer alive. I have lost my life. In contrast, the period before my birth, although I'm not alive, I have not lost my life. I have never yet been alive. And so, of course, you can't lose something you've never yet had. So what's worse, this answer suggests, about the period after death, is the fact that death involves loss, whereas prenatal nonexistence does not involve loss. And so, the conclusion comes, and now we see why it's okay to care more about that one than this one, the one after death and the one before birth. Because the one after death involves loss, and the one before birth does not.

Very, very common response, but I'm inclined to think that can't be an adequate answer. It's true, of course, that this period involves loss, because the very definition of "loss" is, you don't have something that at an earlier time you did have. So this period involves loss. But the period before birth does not involve loss, because although I don't have life, I haven't, previous to the period, had life, so I haven't lost anything.

Of course, there's another thing that's true about this prenatal period, to wit, I don't have life and I'm going to get it. So I don't yet have something that's going to come in the future. That's not true about the post-life period. I've lost life. But it's not true of this period that I don't have life and I'm going to get it in the future. So this period involves loss.

Interesting. In fact, we don't have a name for this other state, where you don't yet have something that you'll get later, but you don't yet have it. Let's call that, not loss, let's call it "schmoss," okay? So during this period, there's a loss of life, but no schmoss of life. And in this period, there's no loss of life, but there's a schmoss of life. And now we need to ask, as philosophers, why do we care more about loss of life than schmoss of life? What is it about the fact that we don't have something that we used to, that makes it worse than not having something that we're going to? It's easy to overlook the symmetry here, because we've got this nice word "loss," and we don't have this word "schmoss." But that's not really explaining anything, it's just pointing to the thing that needs explaining. Why do we care more about not having what once upon a time we did, than we care about not having what once upon a time we will?

Well, there's some other proposals that we might make. A couple of them have actually been sketched in some of your reading. So for example, Tom Nagel [Nagel 1979], in his essay on death says, look, here's the difference. It's easy enough to imagine--and indeed for there to actually be a possibility of--my living longer. Suppose I die at the age of 80 and if I didn't die, then I'd continue living 90, 100, what have you. There it is. It's still me. When you imagine me with an earlier--rather with living longer, you're imagining me living longer. To use the vocabulary that we introduced in thinking about some of Plato's arguments, we might say although --suppose I die at age 80--that's a fact about me, it's a contingent fact about me. It's not a necessary fact about me that I died at 80.

Suppose at 80 I get hit by a car. It's not a necessary truth about me that I got hit by a car. I could have not gotten hit by a car, and lived to the ripe old age of 90 or 100. When you die is not an essential feature of you, so it's easy for us to think about the possibility in which I live longer. But, says Nagel, when I try to imagine what would the alternative be, if I'm going to be upset about the prenatal nonexistence, we have to imagine my being born earlier. I was born in 1954. Should I be upset about the fact that I was born in 1954 instead of 1944? That's the analog of being upset about the fact that I die in whatever it is, 2044 instead of living to 2054.

Nagel says, but look, when you try to think about the possibility in which instead of being born in 1954, I was born in 1944--and for the rest of you, you've got to plug in your own birthdates--Nagel says you can't do it. The date of my death is a contingent fact about me. But the date of my birth is not a contingent fact about me. And by birth we don't really mean when I came out of the womb. That could be changed, perhaps by having been delivered prematurely, or through Caesarean, or what have you. We really mean the time at which I come into existence. Let's suppose it's the time when the egg and the sperm join. That's not a contingent moment in my story. That's an essential moment in my life story.

How could that be? We say, couldn't my parents have had sex earlier, 10 years earlier? Sure they could have. But remember, if they had had sex 10 years earlier, it would have been a different egg and a different sperm coming together, so it wouldn't be me. It would be some sibling of mine that, as it happens, never got born. But if, had they had sex 10 years earlier, some sibling would have been born. That's not me being born earlier. Different sperm, different egg makes for a different person. So you can't--you can say the words, "if only I'd been born earlier," but it's not actually metaphysically possible. Well, it's an intriguing suggestion, but I think it can't quite be right, or at the very least, it cannot be the complete story about how to answer Lucretius' puzzle.

Suppose we've got a fertility clinic that has some sperm on hold, and has some eggs on hold, in the sperm bank, in the egg bank, what have you. And they keep them here frozen until they're ready to use them. And they thaw them out in whatever it is, 2020. And then the person's born. Of course, he could go back. He could look back and say, if only they had put my sperm and egg together 10 years earlier. That would still be me. After all, very same sperm, very same egg, makes for the very same person. So if only they had combined my sperm and egg 10 years earlier, I would have been born 10 years earlier. Well, so Nagel's wrong in saying it's not possible to imagine being born earlier. In at least some cases, it is. Yet, if we imagine somebody like this, somebody who's an offspring of this kind of fertility clinic, and we ask, would they be upset that they weren't born earlier? again, it still seems as though most people would say, "No, of course not." So the Nagel answer doesn't seem to me to be an adequate one.

Well, there's another possible answer. This is Fred Feldman's answer, also in the one of the papers that you've read. Fred Feldman says--Nagel's a contemporary philosopher, Fred Feldman's a contemporary philosopher. Feldman says, when I imagine--suppose I get killed by the bus in 2044, and if I imagine if only I hadn't died then, what is it that we imagine? We imagine instead of living 80 years, living 90 or 95 or more. We imagine a longer life.

But what is it that happens when I say, if only I'd been born earlier? Well, says Feldman, you don't actually imagine a longer life, you just shift the entire life and start it earlier. After all, suppose we just said--especially if I had asked you this question before setting all of this up--but if only you'd been born in 1800. Nobody thinks, "Oh, if only I'd been born in 1800, I'd still be alive. I'd be 200 years old." You think, "Oh, if I'd been born in 1800, I would have died in 1860, 1870, 1880," whatever it is.

When we imagine being born earlier, we don't imagine a longer life. Nothing better about having a life earlier, according to the deprivation account. But when we imagine not dying when we actually die, we say, "If only I died in 2050 instead of 2040," it's not that we imagine having been born later. We don't shift the life forward. We imagine a longer life. So, Feldman says, no wonder, no surprise that you care about the nonexistence after death. Because when you imagine that being different, you imagine a longer life. But when you start thinking about the nonexistence before birth and you imagine that being different, you don't imagine more goods in life, you just imagine them taking place at a different time.

Well, that's an interesting possibility, I suppose. It doesn't seem to me--again, that it's got to be--maybe it's part of the story, but it doesn't seem like it's going to be the complete story. Because we could imagine cases where the person just thinks, look, if only I'd been born earlier, I would have had a longer life.

Let's suppose that next week astronomers discover the horrible fact that there's an asteroid that's about to land on the Earth and wipe out all life. So here it is, it's going to come on January 1, 2008. And there you are, at whatever your age is, 20 years old, 21 years old, on January-on December 31, 2008 thinking, I've only had 20 years of life. If only I'd been born earlier. If only, instead of being born, whenever it was, I'd been born 10 years earlier, I would have had 30 years of life instead of 20 years of life. That seems perfectly intelligible. So it does seem as though, if we put our head into it, we can get ourselves into thought experiments where we say, yeah, don't just shift the life, make it longer. But instead of making it longer in the post-death direction, make it longer in the pre-birth direction.

Again, you can imagine somebody saying, "Yeah, and when we do that, we should feel the same." It doesn't really matter which direction it goes. So symmetry is the right answer after all. When I think about the asteroid example, I find myself thinking, huh, maybe symmetry is the right way to go here. Maybe Feldman's right, that normally we just shift instead of extending. But if I'm careful to extend, maybe that really is bad that I didn't get started sooner and have a longer life in that direction.

Well, here's one other answer that's been proposed. This is by yet another contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit. Parfit says, it's true that when I think about the nonexistence after I die, that's loss, whereas the nonexistence before I'm born, that's not loss, that's mere schmoss. And it's true that we need an explanation about why loss is worse than schmoss. But we can see that this is not an arbitrary preference on our part, because in fact, it's part of a quite general pattern we have of caring about the future in a way that we don't care about the past. This is a very deep fact about human caring. We are oriented towards the future and concerned about what happens in it, in a way that we're not oriented and concerned about what happened in the past.

Parfit's got a very nice example to bring the point home. He says, imagine that you've got some condition, some medical condition that will kill you unless you have an operation. So fair enough, you're going to have the operation. This will allow you to live your life. Unfortunately, in order to perform the operation, they can't have you anesthetized. You have to be awake, perhaps in order to tell the surgeon "Yeah, that's where it hurts," whatever it is. Sort of like when the dentist pokes and says, "Does this hurt? Does that hurt?" So you've got to be awake during the operation and it's a very painful operation. We can't give you pain killer, because then you won't be able to point out, does this hurt, does that hurt, and so forth and so on. Since we can't give you pain killer, all we can do is this. So, you'll be awake during this, basically being tortured. You'll be awake being tortured. It's still worth doing it, because this will cure the condition, so then you'll have a nice long life.

Since we can't give you pain killers and we can't put you out, all we're going to do is, what we will do is this: After the operation is over, we'll give you this very powerful medication, which will give you short-term, sort of very localized, amnesia. You won't remember anything about the operation itself. So you won't have to at least to dwell upon these horrible memories of having been tortured. Those will be completely wiped out. Okay, so painful operation. You're awake during it. After the operation, you're given this thing that makes you forget whether you've had the operation, anything about the operation at all. And that the preceding 24 hours will be completely wiped out.

So you're in the hospital and you wake up and you ask yourself, "Huh, have I had the operation yet or not?" Don't know, right? Because of course, if I haven't had it, no wonder I don't remember it, but if I have had it, I would have been given that temporary sort of localized amnesia. So of course I wouldn't know whether or not I've had it. So you ask the nurse, "Have I had the operation yet or not?" She says, "I don't know, we have a couple on the hall today who are, some of whom have had it and some of whom are scheduled to have it later today. I don't remember which one you are. Let me go look at your file. I'll come back and I'll tell you." So she wanders off. She's going to come back in a minute or two. And as you're waiting for her to come back, you ask yourself, what do you want the answer to be? Are you indifferent, or do you care whether you're one of the people who's already had it, or somebody who hasn't yet had it?

Now, if you're like Parfit, and for that matter, like me, then you're going to say, of course I care. I want it to be the case that I'm one of the people who's already had the operation. I don't want to be one of the people who hasn't yet had the operation.

You might say, how can that make any sense? Your life's going to have the operation sooner or later. At some point in your life history, that operation is going to have occurred. And so there's the same amount of pain and torture, regardless of whether you're one of the people that had it yesterday or one of the people that's going to have it tomorrow. But for all that, says Parfit, the fact of the matter is perfectly plain, that we do care. We want the pain to be in the past. We don't want the pain to be in the future. We care more about what's happening in the future than we care about what's happening in the past.

That being the case, no surprise we care about the nonexistence in the future in a way we don't care about the nonexistence in the past. Well, that may be right as far as explanation goes, but we might still wonder whether or not it's any kind of justification. The fact that we've got this deep-seated asymmetrical attitude towards time doesn't in any way, as far as I can see, yet tell us whether or not that's a justified attitude. Maybe evolution built us to care about the future in a way that we don't care about the past and this shows up in lots of places, including Parfit's hospital case, including our attitude towards loss versus schmoss, and so forth and so on. But the fact that we've got this attitude doesn't yet show that it's a rational attitude.

How could we show that it's a rational attitude? Well, maybe we'd have to start doing some heavy-duty metaphysics, if what we've been doing so far isn't yet heavy-duty enough. Maybe we need to talk about the difference between--the metaphysical difference between the past and the future. The past is fixed, the future is open, the direction of time. Maybe somehow we could bring all these things in and explain why our attitudes towards time make sense. I'm not going to go there. All I want to say is it's not altogether obvious what the best answer to Lucretius' puzzle is.

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