Talking Through A Fear of Death

by jesseduffield 6 min read26th Dec 2019No comments

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Epistemic Status: semi-stream-of-consciousness effort to talk myself through how I really feel about death.

After waiting in line for what feels like a lifetime, I finally get the chance to talk to the Oracle about something that’s been bothering me.

Me: I’m afraid of death

Oracle: Good for you

Me: How is that good? Not only is death objectively terrifying, the fact I’m terrified of it is itself a psychological harm that may well linger throughout my life

Oracle: First of all, is death really objectively terrifying? Is it a coincidence that after millions of years of humans evolving to survive at all costs, all humans have an innate fear of death? If it was evolutionarily advantageous for you to try and get yourself killed, maybe death wouldn’t seem so bad. Putting your strong inbuilt bias for survival aside, why do you take your fear of death any more seriously than other arbitrary fears you’ve inherited from evolution, for example, asking out a girl. Chances are you’ve feared that situation more than death at some point in your life, and afterwards, whether it went good or bad, I can’t imagine that you would have reasoned that the fear really was proportionate to the stakes. Surely you’ve realised that humans often have very strong fears towards things that aren’t that bad.

Me: Well obviously the fear you feel towards some outcome is rarely going to match up with the actual outcome because our brain has to make an approximation of just how bad that outcome is and how much more our lives will suck after it happens. That doesn’t mean fear is unreliable. And even if I’m afraid of something because I’ve evolved that way, that doesn’t change anything. If I’m afraid of burning my hand on a flame because I’ve evolved that way, I should still try not to burn myself because I’ve also evolved to actually experience pain when my hand is burnt and that’s an experience I want to avoid.

Oracle: But fear of death is the exceptional case here because you won’t actually get to experience the other side. You certainly haven’t evolved to feel anything after death because what good would that do you when you’re dead and immobile. Your brain is making an attempt at simulating what it would be like to still be conscious but be without a body and without time and space, and that is indeed scary, but you don’t need to worry about ever going through that, because you won’t be there. You’ll never actually experience not being alive, all you’ll ever know is life. The years after your death should scare you as much as the years before your birth, which I assume don’t scare you at all.

Me: But even if I frame death in that way, I’m still afraid of my experiences being discontinued. I enjoy waking up in the morning and learning things and doing things, and I enjoy thinking, and even sometimes interacting with other people. Death marks the end of that, and it’s the end of that for a long time. Other people will continue having experiences while I do not, and that sucks.

Oracle: Do you really enjoy life so much that you care when it ends? There are things you can do right now to reliably increase your longevity by a few years, namely exercise and caloric restriction, and I suspect you don’t do either of those very often. Exercise is unlikely to make you decide that you don’t like getting up in the morning, and caloric restriction can be a challenge, but not so much that you decide life isn’t worth living anymore. If you really only cared about the continuation of your experiences, why not make these lifestyle changes now?

Me: I don’t care when it ends, I care that it ends. Trying to increase longevity is just kicking the can down the road. What’s an additional 5 years of my life compared to an eternity of being dead?

Oracle: But you’re forgetting, you’re not going to be around for that eternity, so it shouldn’t matter to you.

Me: Well the universe will continue to exist whether or not I’m there. If I have grandchildren it certainly does matter what happens after my death.

Oracle: Even so, I suspect that part of your concern here is that you will be dead while others will still live. Lets say that you died via some event that kills all life in the universe forever. Would you mind that you were dead then?

Me: Assuming I don’t have any descendants at that point, I would be slightly more okay with that scenario. I would prefer to only die if it means everybody else has to die as well.

Oracle: Now you’re thinking of life as a resource in a zero sum game, and you’re allowing that framing to influence your fear of death. Another evolutionary adaptation that’s skewing your perspective.

Me: Yeah but like I said before if it’s evolution all the way down I don’t really consider that to be a ‘skewed’ perspective, unless the only non-skewed perspective is where absolutely nothing matters and I don’t care about anything, which is not going to happen anytime soon because I don’t have the motivation to go and spend forty years meditating on the impermanence of life.

Oracle: Okay. Let me try a different approach: if you were forced to live for an eternity, would you be afraid of that?

Me: Depends what kind of eternity. If it’s hell, obviously I would be afraid of that. If it’s heaven, I’m in.

Oracle: But what exactly do you think you would be doing in heaven?

Me: Something along the lines of an adventure that never ends where I’m alternating between innocent fun and meaningful challenges of some kind, with some doses of social interaction sprinkled inbetween. There would be minimal physical pain, and wherever it arises it’s not so bad in the broader context of what I’m doing, and there would be very little psychological suffering, especially of the existential kind that I currently experience when I think about death.

Oracle: But you do realise that no matter what your life is like, big existential questions can still be posed and given that we’ve already established you get depressed thinking about existential questions, there will always be a risk of existential dread, which if unresolved in this case, will last for eternity.

Me: Firstly, I think you’re underestimating the ability of heaven to be so mentally stimulating that it leaves no time for thinking about existential questions. Secondly, if I have all of eternity, surely that’s enough time to resolve existential questions in a satisfying way. Thirdly, if existential questions are intractable problems that I’ll never get a satisfying non-depressing answer to, I can just ask upon my admittance into heaven to be lobotomised specifically in the domain of existential pondering so that I never think about these things.

Oracle: Wouldn’t it concern you then that this person going around having adventures in heaven wouldn’t truly be you but a different person with a sufficiently different personality as to not wonder whether life has meaning? How much of your personality would need to be thrown away to stop you from asking that question?

Me: Good point, I would prefer if it was really me out there, the me that’s here right now. Maybe in heaven when you ask whether life has meaning you just get a result of ‘obviously it does!’ and that’s satisfying.

Oracle: But again, that’s going to require some sneaky brainwashing to make you satisfied with the answer.

Me: But by your own logic, isn’t a fear of brainwashing just an evolutionary adaptation for us to want to retain control over our choices and our identity? What if it’s folly to worry about something like that.

Oracle: But if you’re comfortable being brainwashed enough to fundamentally change your personality and therefore your identity, why does it matter to you whether you go to heaven or if some other random person goes in your stead while you die and cease to exist? Aren’t those two things equivalent?

Me: With enough of a personality change, yes. But surely it doesn’t take that much of a personality change for a person to stop asking depression-invoking existential questions. Consider the fact that I wasn’t asking existential questions when I was in primary school. But it was still me.

Oracle: Was it really still you? If you were told that primary school you was going to go to heaven and you were going to die and cease to exist, would you be cool with that?

Me: No.

Oracle: So clearly it’s a big enough difference.

Me: Well there’s more than just existential pondering that distinguishes me from my primary school self.

Oracle: Even so, it’s worth asking yourself whether you truly identify with that person, rather than just seeing them as a separate individual who you happen to inherit a lot of memories from. If it’s the latter, that means that before you die, you’ll probably have changed enough personality wise that the person who ends up dying, whether ceasing to exist or by going to an afterlife, won’t actually be you, and you’ll have already ceased to exist somewhere along the line as your personality transitioned.

Me: Well that’s a relief, so not only will I die and cease to exist, I won’t even know it’s happening and in my wake will be an impostor inside my body who continues to maintain all my relationships as if they were his own.

Oracle: Well I mean from the perspective of primary school you, you’re currently the impostor maintaining all his relationships as if they were your own. The relationships that have lasted till now, at least.

Me: Well primary school me can fuck off, I don’t care. I’m here now.

Oracle: Have I at least convinced you that your fear of death is unwarranted, given that none of the alternatives are actually that good either?

Me: Yes, although we’ve forgotten an additional possibility. What if I was granted immortality, and given the choice to kill myself whenever I wanted. That way if the existential questions got to me and I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d have an exit strategy.

Oracle: But aren’t you concerned about the whole shifting identity thing?

Me: Well we’ll add the stipulation that my identity and personality won’t change from now onward.

Oracle: But then how will you grow as a person?

Me: I won’t. If lack of growth is the cost for retaining my identity and therefore my life, growth can fuck off.

Oracle: Growth can take place on the level of emotions, thoughts, actions. You’ll be applying a severe limitation here.

Me: Yeah I suppose so. Alright so we’ve established there is literally no way for me to get what I want on an existential level even in a best case immortality scenario and for that reason I can stop thinking about it so much.

Oracle: Exactly.

Me: Hey I think I’ve just permanently resolved all existential questions on my mind. That means we don’t need to brainwash me in a heaven scenario because I’m already satisfied! Let’s go back to talking about heaven.

Oracle: Next in line, please!

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