Why Should We Not Feel Anxiety About Death?

Death can only harm in the anxiety it creates in life. That is to say, treating death as consciousness of one’s annihilation creates apprehension in the minds of the living. One should not treat death as consciousness of his annihilation, but annihilation of his consciousness. In doing so, the anxiety created due to the understanding of death as consciousness of one’s annihilation is destroyed. Death is not harmful in itself–meaning that Death is not harmful in death, where “death” is the state of annihilated consciousness, and “Death” is the point which marks the ceasing of life. So, Death is not harmful in death, but we make it harmful in life. However, when death exists, life does not. Therefore, death cannot be harmful in life, because it does not exist in life to do harm. The anxiety we feel about death is self-created. Logically, we should not feel anxious about death.

Before birth, we were nothing. We did not exist. Death is the same state of nonexistence. The dead do not care that they are dead, because they do not know that they are dead. They are not conscious of their ceasing to exist–they don’t exist to be conscious of their non-existence. If when we are dead we do not care that we are dead, and are incapable of caring (therefore there can be no exceptions allowing someone to care that he is dead) then why do we care in life that we are going to eventually be dead?

Say there are sheep waiting to be slaughtered. They stand in a line. Planks on either side of them fencing them in, spaced just far enough apart to fit their bodies. A gate at the front. The gate opens. The first sheep steps forward. The gate closes. The second sheep moves toward the closed gate, and watches the slaughter of the other. He is next. And the sheep stay in line. The gate opens again and he walks through. And is slaughtered.

The sheep do not struggle. They do not try to escape. They have no concept of death, and therefore are not affected by its imminence. It didn’t matter to them before their death, it didn’t matter to them while they were waiting to die, and it doesn’t matter to them after their death, because after their death there was no “them” to whom it could matter.

Humans do not greet death like sheep to the slaughter. Humans fear death. Humans worry about death. But what is there to worry about? We fear something we don’t know. We fear it because we attribute negative qualities to it. But we do not know about death. The only way to know death is to experience death. And if one has experienced death, he is no longer “one,” and therefore cannot fear. Why would the idea of not existing in the future differ from the idea of not existing in the past in the sense that we feel anxiety toward this future, yet no anxiety toward the past?

When we treat death as consciousness of our annihilation, we do not treat death as a state of nothingness. It may be argued that one does not want to die because: “I like my life, and I’m not ready to stop living yet.” Let me expand this argument. I like my life. Therefore, I do not want to die:

Premise: 1) I like my life.

Therefore:

Premise: 2) I do not want to die.

Premise: 3) When I die I will no longer have my life.

Premise: 4) When I die, I will no longer have what I like. (1) (3)

Premise: 5) I do not want to die because I like my life. (2) (1)

Premise: 6) I do not want to die because I will no longer have what I like. (5) (4)

In death, one is nothing. So:

Premise: 7) In death, one is nothing, and when I die I will be nothing.

8) In death, I will no longer have what I like. (4)

9) When I am nothing, I will no longer have what I like. (7) (8)

The problem arises when humans treat this (9) as a consciousness of their annihilation–that is, consciousness of their state of nonexistence–of not having a life. However, the state of “nothing” must be treated as annihilation of consciousness. When one is nothing, there is no person from which the attachment to life can come. The argument here shows that one is attached to life in life, and cannot be attached to life in death. Death does not play a role in the argument about attachment to life, nor does death in turn have any effect other than in the apprehension we feel about it in life. As Epicurus said, “[death] is relevant neither to the living nor to the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist,” (4.125).

“I’m not ready to stop living yet, so I don’t want to die.” The word “ready” implies a state of being in a living human. The first part of this argument has to do with life. The second part–the “therefore”–“so I don’t want to die,” does not follow from this. “As a living human I am not ready to die.” When one is dead, one cannot be in this “ready/not ready” state, or any state other than nonexistence. The state of being ready to die has nothing to do with being dead.

Any premise that we give reflects only those events, thoughts, emotions, etc. which occur in a state of living. From that, no conclusion may follow about the state of being dead. The state of being dead cannot follow from anything at all. It just is. It is a complete lack of existence. Nothingness cannot follow from a premise loaded with “something.” It would be like dividing by 0.

Try to imagine an empty, spaceless universe. This is not possible. It is possible to imagine an empty universe, but not what it would be like for a universe to have no space. Space is what allows objects to exist. To experience something, one needs space. If there is no space, the experience does not exist. For example, there is a room. A man is sitting in that room. The man can sit in that room because there is space for him to sit in that room. If there were no space in that room, there would be nowhere for that man to be. If the room began to shrink, the space would get smaller. It would begin to implode on the man. As it gets smaller, the man leaves, because he no longer fits in the room. It continues to get smaller, having less space, and eventually, when there is no space left, the room ceases to exist. The man cannot have the experience of sitting in a room that does not exist. So, space is a precondition for experience.

This can be applied to death. In death, there is no experience. It is the imploded room. The living man is outside of the imploding room. If the man were to remain in the imploding room, he would, as the room ceased to exist, cease to exist with the room as well. Therefore, as there is no room, i.e. no space, and no man, there is no experience for that man to have. He does not experience death. The man, in life–the physical body that he is, “outside” the imploding room–can have sensory experience. In death, there is no sensory experience. No physical body consciousness. No consciousness of death.

As Epicurus states, the fear of death arises from the “lack of sense perception which occurs in death, as if it were relevant to [those fearing death],” (2.81). There is no space in the imploded room, and therefore no way to have sensory experience. As death is like the imploded room, there is no sense experience or perception, and therefore the fear that arises from this notion is irrelevant, because one cannot and will not experience a lack of perception. From this, Epicurus continues: “…death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience,” (4.124). We are nothing before birth, and we are nothing after death. Sense experience occurs only between these two points.

If all good and bad consists in sense experience, we can say that the good of Heaven and the bad of Hell consist in sense experience. However, Heaven and Hell are not part of the physical world, but part of the spiritual world. Since sense experience does not exist in death, the question arises of the validity of the notion of Heaven and Hell. Does eternal bliss or torture truly await human souls, if all good and bad consist in sense experience, and Heaven is said to be good, and Hell is said to be bad? Our physical selves–which have sensory experience–are not what ascend to Heaven or descend to Hell.

Christian mythology says “of course there is no body in death–it is the soul that lives on.” Christian mythology also teaches that there exist a Heaven and a Hell–either to which the soul goes after Death. Everlasting anguish awaits those souls who are condemned to Hell, and everlasting bliss lies ahead of those souls bound for Heaven. Hell is described as a place where fire does not cease to torment the damned. Fire is a physical substance. Fire is the oxidization of a combustible material. Fire is a chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel when the fuel is heated to its proper ignition temperature. Heat is energy. There are many different kinds of energy–all explained by physics.1 So fire is a physical thing. It does not belong in Hell, the spiritual world. We cannot merge this physical object with the spiritual world.2 So our concept of Hell does not make sense–it is flawed, and in essence, our concept of the afterlife is flawed. Yet we are reluctant to deduce and accept its illogicality.

One of the ways in which we demonstrate this is by saying that “it’s figurative – it’s symbolic of the pain we have caused God in our sinful lives–in rejecting him–and it is his judgment that our souls should live for all eternity in the absence of God, as we have rejected him in our lives–it is the absence of God’s grace that is Hell.”

From this I gather that if Hell is figurative, Hell does not exist. So, if we are not meant to take it literally, and the Bible is a collection of figurative stories created in attempt to set rules for “the right way to live, and this is what will happen if you don’t live this way,” then I should not take it literally, but regard it as a code book, written by good, wise men–the contents of which have become convention, and evolved into a system of belief based not on knowledge or understanding, but based on the very lack of knowledge and understanding that required it to be written. That is, it is actually a moral code that was needed for the establishment of a civilized society. It is a book of faith.

We have stated that Hell is figurative. There is no reason to believe that Hell is the only thing that is figurative in Christian mythology. So, the argument is: Hell is figurative. Hell is one aspect of the afterlife, Heaven is the other. Heaven equals Hell, in the sense that it is a destination for the soul–the idea which we have rejected as figurative. Heaven is figurative as well. Because Heaven and Hell are concepts which comprise the afterlife, and Heaven and Hell are figurative, the concept of an afterlife is figurative. There is no afterlife. There is nothing, as the beginning was nothing.3 A skeptic adamantly thinking that death is something that warrants worry may object that death is not, in fact, like the beginning. How is this so, if nothing is nothing, and nothing equals nothing? That is, nothing implies lack of something, and before there exists nothing, and after there exists nothing.

When salt is dissolved in vinegar, it undergoes chemical change. The chlorine from the salt (NaCl) will combine with hydrogen in the acetic acid (HC2H3O2 –> C2H3O2- + H+). Acetic acid is the weak acid in vinegar. The result is weak hydrochloric acid (HCl). This is a chemical change. It cannot be changed back to salt and vinegar.

Like salt dissolving in vinegar, we cannot be separated, or turned back to what we were preconception–i.e. before the chemicals combined. Once we are conceived, and are alive, we cannot go back to the nothing that we were before–the nothing that never existed, because we cannot be separated back into what we were in the nothing before conception. We will be in the nothing of death as the changed chemical–a new substance, that cannot be made into nothing.

I can refute this argument in multiple ways. First, in pointing out that nothing is described as a state of being when it is said “the nothing that we were.” This would be an invalid argument, because no state of being applies to nonexistence. Instead of this though, I will use the argument itself to disprove itself. I draw a contradiction. The argument was explained in terms of physical chemistry–chemicals–which are really the substance of life (biochemistry).

We have established the fact that life is very much not death. Physical chemistry cannot be used to explain death. There is no physical world of death. And if one were to argue that this is not the case, I bring him back to the point then that the afterlife would be said to be physical, and in that case, I would ask the question: “Then why fear death, if it is a physical life, as it is in this life that you live now?” However, the arguer is basing his discussion on Christian mythology, in which human reincarnation is not addressed.

It is said in Christian mythology that there is an afterlife–an eternal life which is brought about by death. The afterlife consists of Heaven and Hell. Epicurus says that the fear of death may arise from the “suspicion that something dreadful might happen, such as the myths tell about…” (2.81). The “something dreadful” that the myths tell about is the idea of one tortured eternally in Hell after Death. If one believes that he is going to Hell–going to be tortured interminably, then he is likely to fear death, though the fear of Hell is not necessarily a fear of death itself, but a fear of eternal suffering after Death.

However, his belief that Hell exists is based not on knowledge or understanding, but faith. It is not wise to speak of something we do not know. For example, the reason the believer feels compelled to speak of Hell stems from his apprehension about death. He uses the afterlife–an eternal life–to explain and ease the worries that he feels about no longer living at some point–in the same sense that he attributes other inexplicable things to God–e.g. miracles. For the believer, it is more comforting to know there is a possibility of going to Heaven or Hell then to be completely uncertain about what is to happen. For the believer, the unknown is unacceptable–a greater torment than an unfortunate truth. So he believes in Christian mythology to explain his mind out of darkness.

We have a temptation to exist. The temptation arises from existence itself, because only now that we exist do we anticipate our end. The fear of death lies in this anticipation–which is unnecessary because at the point of Death, there is nothing harmful present. Epicurus explains that “there is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life. For that which while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely anticipated,” (4.125). If the temptation to exist arises from existence itself, then we should infer that we will not be tempted to exist when we do not exist. This can be affirmed by our preexistence, during which we felt no temptation to exist. This can be applied to post-existence as well. Our troubles should be eased with the knowledge that we will not be conscious of our nonexistence, and will feel no temptation to exist after we cease to exist. The temptation to exist arises in the present. It is now–when we exist–that we harbor this feeling of needing to exist. It can be argued that that is exactly what matters, and that is exactly the origin of this anxious anticipation. If the “now” is what matters, and we care now about our death, then in death, in that “now” when we are dead, it won’t matter. So, our fear lies in anticipation of something that will not matter to us when it is present. So, this apprehension is futile, and does no good, but limits our ease in life, as Epicurus says, “[fear of death is] some irrational condition, hence [in] not setting a limit on their dread [by not viewing death as nothing, humans] suffer a disturbance equal to or greater than what they would suffer…” (2.81).

Let us assume that (as in death), in life we do not have a temptation to exist. This is difficult to imagine, as it would ask to separate our minds from a seemingly innate attachment to life. Assume we possess no temptation to exist. Assume we have no concept of death. There would be no “end of the line” to wish to avoid. We would just keep on living, every day, as though there were no question about the future. Assume it is the past that is ahead of us instead of the future. We can see the past, therefore it is in front of us. What is behind us is death, and we cannot see it. We do not know that it is running after us everyday, trying to catch us, pulling us down into the dark of its shadow. So the future is behind us, and we base our expectations on what is ahead–our past experiences, events, observations, etc. We live daily, only aware of what we have experienced–life. With no underlying awareness of, and therefore no underlying fear of death, Death–the point at which we cease to exist–is nothing. We run along a line, and are swallowed once death catches up to us, but it is as though nothing happened. Until the very second of our Death, we go on living with no mental turbulence related to death. We are never cognizant of this death. It is as though we just move forward and hit a brick wall. There is a complete disconnect between life and death. When life is there, death is not. When death is there, life is not. There is no transition, there is no awareness, there is no effect of death, there is no hindrance in life in anticipation of death. It is just another event–one that ends the possibility of all other events, because it is the end to our consciousness. It is like the point at which we fall asleep. It happens instantaneously, and we are not aware of it, and while we are asleep we don’t think about it–don’t care about it. And it is only in waking that we say “it was a night during which I did not dream.” While asleep, we do not think “I am not dreaming.” While in death, we will not say “I am not living,” and there is no return from death in which to say “I was not living.” There is no possibility of it becoming manifest that we are not living.

And yet, even if we accept this logic, we generally do not want to die. It seems that logically we should not worry about death. But is our understanding of what is logical correct?

“Should” means nothing. It does not indicate the actual case of the past, present, or future. The greater problem, though, with the logical conclusion that we should not worry about death, lies in the philosophical uncertainties that lie within logic itself. What makes us follow the laws of logic–what makes them true–can be attributed to something about the way we understand logical language.

The validity of a logical law is based in the truth table for its connectives–and, or, if/then, not, etc. A truth table–a mathematical table used in logic to compute the functional values of logical expressions on each of their functional arguments–is associated with these connectives. A truth table can be used to tell whether a propositional expression (using a connective) is logically valid–i.e. true for all input values that conform to the logical law. In trying to explain the truth table for “and,” we wind up using the connectives, so we need connectives with already logical forms. We can say, for the truth table for “and,” “if both p and q are true, then p and q is true,” but in saying “if both p and q are true,” we used the connective “and” which we were trying to explain. It would be like defining “a blue object” as “an object that is blue.” For example, the validity of modus tollens, if P then Q , and ¬Q, therefore ¬P is based in the truth table for the connective if/then. What defines the correct truth table for a connective?

A theory known as the Implementation Theory says that we define a logical connective by defining a truth table, which is stipulated. I can stipulate this truth table because the logical laws have no empirical content. The stipulation cannot be right or wrong. Logical truths are mandated by their truth tables, and we are compelled to follow them as “logical primitives.” Logical laws are analytic, meaning we can know them a priori. So for example, in knowing modus tollens a priori we can stipulate a truth table, which allows us to implement a truth table to the connectives. So, with this theory, we don’t run into the problem of using connectives to explain connectives.

However, if we stipulate these truth tables, they are, like dictionary definitions, void of empirical fact. We say logical laws are known a priori, which only means that the logical law is self-evident to itself–it does not mean it is self-evident in itself, so we need to use reasoning to get around to the a priori law. Taking this into consideration, do we really understand logical language in the required way? If we stipulate these truth tables to explain a priori logical laws (which are not immediately apparent to us, but arrived at through reasoning which is based in our observations and experiences), how can we follow these logical laws as the true logical laws, and not simply laws which we follow because they were made to conform to what we know about the world? There are truths of the world–actual truths–and then “truths” of the world of our perception, which are true only from our human point of reference. The truths may or may not be the same. For example, the human population seems to agree on what the color “blue” is. It is a truth that in pointing to something that is has the quality of that particular color, it would be called blue. This is a truth of our perception, because we perceive it as the color blue. If we were to be told however, that it was actually, in truth, green, then the actual truth and the truth that we perceive differs. What truths we give to logic is based on the truths of our perception, which may or may not be actual truths. So logic as we know it may or may not be logic as it actually is. Therefore, logic is just another stipulation, void of empirical facts. In attempt to logically conclude that we should not feel anxious about death, the problem arises that our conclusion may not be based on an actual truth.

Though this is an objection that cannot be disputed, the question remains: Even if our understanding of logic is flawed, why do we trust our limited understanding of death to come to the conclusion that death is something worth worrying about? If logic is a projection, indeed a stipulation, then the logic that we project should be in our favor. We project it. We create it. Why do we create it in such a way that could either cause or fail to ease our anxiety? This itself is not rational, which fails to conform with the idea of humans as rational beings. We must use what we know, and we know the logic of this world–the world of perceived truths. The concepts addressed have been explained using the logic of this world, because the concepts are concepts of this observable world.

The conceived concept–our notion of death–is based not on understanding, and brings about fear. It is our capability to understand, and the fact that the knowledge required to understand is unattainable, that brings about our fear. If we are not to trust logic to lead us to an understanding as to why we should not fear death even if we cannot understand it, are we left to destroy our lives in anticipation?

Trying to understand is what first brought about the notion of Hell, which in turn instilled fear of death in those who are driven by faith. It is through explanation that we have come to fear. In trying to explain something we know nothing about, we create a reason to fear. The unknown instills fear in itself. By creating an answer based on this unknown, there is no way to avoid fear, as it is part of the unknown on which we base our arguments. The most acceptable answer is that one should not fear death because one does not know death, and will never know death, and thus the very thing they fear they will never encounter consciously. For the believer who is made to think there is an afterlife, he is a man of God simply in this act of faith, and it would go against Christianity to say that a man who welcomes God in his life will be subjected to the absence of God in his death.

There are three essential points that we must accept. First, we must accept that in death, we are nothing. From this we know that we will have no sense experience in death, and as such, we are no longer part of the physical world. Second, the afterlife is a concept we have created to deal with the idea of death, because we fear death. Yet, out of this concept came the notion of Hell, which further instilled fear in us. If we remember our first essential point, that we are no longer part of the physical world in death, and that we are nothing in death, then death cannot harm us. There is no reason to fear Hell. Third, we have a temptation to exist that seems to override our rationality. If we accept that there is an end, but apply our first and second points to this, we conclude that there is an end, but it is nothing, it is not harmful, and we will not be affected by it because we will be nothing. We conclude that we should not feel anxiety about death. The only way death can bring us harm is in our own minds–when we feel apprehension or fear. Death itself does no harm. This is the claim made by Epicurus : “The worst disturbance occurs in human souls,” (2.81). It can be concluded that treating death as consciousness of one’s annihilation causes an unnecessary disturbance in our minds, and it is logical to treat death rather as annihilation of one’s consciousness. If the three essential points are taken into consideration, and death is treated in the logical manner, no harm would be done. I.e. we would not harm ourselves by feeling anxious about death. We are capable of eliminating the mental disturbance Epicurus cites, by realizing that death is an annihilation of one’s consciousness and nothing more.

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Potential energy: chemical, mechanical, nuclear, gravitational, electrical.

Kinetic energy: radiant, thermal, motion, sound. These are physical, observable energies.

2 The supposed impossibility of merging the spiritual and the physical can be debated at length. Here I base my argument on the conclusion that it is not possible, as it seems apparent and widely accepted that one cannot access Heaven or Hell when one is alive.

3 Assume “nothing” here implies lack of existence. We do not assume here that “nothing” is simply a word with a definition that I stipulate, which can be manipulated. I could say “nothing” and mean “something,” if I am to stipulate a definition. For argumentation’s sake, we will follow linguistics as it is, and accept that “nothing” is more than just a word, but we will take “nothing” to mean “emptiness,” as opposed to: there is Nothing to worry about, meaning it is Nothing that we should worry about, where Nothing is a noun, which can be substituted with Mary–it is Mary that we should worry about–and can imply the same thing that we should worry about. This is not the case–“nothing” here is not a noun.

References

Epicurus, Inwood, B., & Gerson, L. P. (1994). The Epicurus reader: Selected writings and testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett.