PHILOSOPHERS FACE DEATH:
Nagel and Scheffler on Existential Pessimism.
Nagel and Scheffler on Existential Pessimism.
By Fred Hallberg
For the Town and Gown Supper Club,
Cedar Falls, Iowa, October 21, 2014.
I. Introduction: Consciousness and despair.
The human talent for discursive reason has always been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it enables us to recall what happened in the past and to project what will probably happen in the near-term future. These capabilities have given us enormous power to manipulate and control events in ways that have made us the predominant creatures on this planet. On the other hand, this same set of abilities have made us aware that we have a natural span of life just like any other animal.
Consider my experience with pet dogs. Our pets generally age much more rapidly than we do, so we can see the process happening before our eyes. My last Yellow Labrador Retriever exhibited unmistakable signs of senescence when he became about 10 or 11 years old. We then “mercifully” had him put down. But humans also exhibit such a natural span of life. A Biblical Psalmist, writing perhaps 2300 years ago, observed this natural span of human life to be “Three score and ten years, or four score if you are strong.” (See Psalms 90:10.) Some two hundred years of strenuous effort devoted to modern medical research has pushed this naturally occurring span of human life upward by about a half dozen years. But the Psalmist’s early estimate has remained remarkably accurate over time. No one lives to be 120 or 130 years old.
This creates a problem for our efforts to live self-consistent and rewarding lives. We need to maintain a positive attitude toward our efforts and projects in order to live well. But the objective structure of our lives is that of a condemned prisoner on death row. There is no possibility of escaping our fated mortality. We will either die an early death by the functional equivalent of being run over by a big truck, or else we will die closer to the end of our natural life-span by becoming progressively more infirm and incompetent, until the biological functions of our bodies collapse entirely. How can we maintain an affirmative attitude toward our life projects in such a hopeless context?
II. Thomas Nagel on Why our Lives are Essentially Tragic.
Philosophers have attempted to articulate verbal solutions to this problem since the very beginning of our literary tradition. These attempts usually consist of efforts to show that dying is not all that bad, so we shouldn’t be especially concerned about it. I will make another such an attempt near the end of this paper, but I should warn you these efforts have, in the main, turned out pretty poorly.
Consider the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who wrote about 300 BCE, He argued that the good or bad in our lives consisted of our experiences of pleasure or pain. He also argued that our existence as a conscious being depends the detailed organization among the atoms of which we are composed. When we die these atoms will disperse, so we will no longer be identifiable or even be able to be conscious. When dead we will be feeling neither pleasure nor pain. Since we will be feeling nothing when dead, the dispersal of our atoms which death entails will be neither good nor bad for us. That is why the only consistent attitude toward our posthumous non-existence should be one of detached equanimity.
This is a nice try, but I have never met a person who felt reconciled to his mortality by such considerations. Thomas Nagel, a contemporary American analytical philosopher, has gone further and argued that such efforts at reconciling us to our mortality can never work, because dying is an objectively bad event. We are all fated to die. So an honest assessment of our basic situation requires us to admit that a bad end is in store for all of us. If we sometimes feel happy and carefree, that simply shows we do not fully appreciate our basic situation. The cheerful among us are simply self-deluded souls who are whistling their way past the graveyard. (See Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions, 1979, pp. 1-10.)
Nagel backs up his pessimism with what I believe are some pretty good arguments. His opening question is, “What is required to attribute good or bad fortune to an identifiable
person?” Good or bad fortune, for Nagel, is the realization or failure to realize our self-conceived positive projects. He shows this by asking, first, “How do I identify myself to another?” I identify myself by telling the other stories about my efforts at past positive projects which either succeeded or failed. Identification of myself also requires that I describe at least some of my current, and as yet unrealized, positive projects or efforts. Together, these narratives about my past and present positive projects will adequately identify who I am. Good or bad fortune then, consists either of my succeeding, or of my failing to succeed at such affirmative self-selected commitments or projects.
Nagel’s analysis has the advantage of clarifying certain puzzling issues about the goodness of being alive and about the badness of dying. Consider the problem of a completely painless death supposedly caused by a poisoned apple. The wicked witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, concocted such an apple, which when eaten by Snow White, would have caused her to go to sleep forever. If Epicurus were right about the good of living being the experience of pleasure, and the bad of dying being the experience of pain, feeding Snow White the poisoned apple would have been a morally neutral act. But we all know it would have been a terribly wrong thing to do. Were Snow White to have succumbed to the apple’s effects, she could never have completed her projects of knowing the love of the handsome Prince, and of living with him for ever after.
Nagel’s analysis also explains why the death of an animal is never tragic, the way the death of a human person usually is. Animals experience pleasure and pain, so an unnecessarily painful death is a bad thing for an animal. But a painless death is never a misfortune for an animal the way it is for a human being. That is why I was not guilty of doing harm when I had my faithful Labrador “put down.” As described above, misfortune requires identifiable persons as subjects, who have the linguistic ability to conceive and enact positive, life-constituting projects. No sub-human animals have such self-conceived life-constituting projects. So their deaths never constitute a tragic misfortune the way a human person’s death does.
Nagel even applies his analysis of what constitutes good or bad fortune for an identifiable person, to the issue of whether abortion is a misfortune for a fetus. A fetus subjected to a late term abortion may feel pain, like a dying animal. But an early term fetus does not have the nervous apparatus necessary to feel pain. Neither can it be the subject of a tragic misfortune, as can a fully functioning human being. It can not be the subject of misfortune, according to Nagel, because a fetus has neither a history of projects attempted in the past, nor a suite of projected but as yet unfulfilled future projects which would be shut down by death. Legislators and judges may claim fetuses are full fledged persons from the moment of conception. But they do this by a process of verbal legerdemain, in which they switch back and forth between the concept of physical identity appropriate to animals on the one hand, and the sort of active project-identity appropriate to self-conscious persons on the other.
III. Contrary Facts.
I find Nagel’s analysis of how good or bad fortune is assigned to an identifiable person to be surprisingly powerful and consistent. My problem is that his conclusions about the tragic character of our lives doesn’t comport at all well with my experience of how persons actually go through the dying process. I am now 79 years old, so you will not be surprised to learn that I have been quite close to more than a half dozen persons who have gone through the process of dying. So far as I could see, not one of them exhibited the existential anxiety and pessimism about their situation which would have been required to consistently own the awfulness of their death as analyzed by Nagel. Neither did they exhibit the signs of inauthentic self-deception attributed to cheerful people by existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. My elderly friends and relations did not complain that human life is a futile passion, as did Jean-Paul Sartre (See Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 1956, Part 4, Ch. 2, III.) Nor did they exhibit any desire to shake their fist at God, as did Albert Camus’ character of Sisyphus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (See Nagel, p. 22.)
Nagel does criticize Sartre and Camus for being overly dramatic and self-pitying in their expressions of existential pessimism. He says, by way of contrast, that strong and mature men should follow the more admirable example of the 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume was very clear about the verbal tricks by means of which many people hide from themselves the uncertainties and risks which continuously threaten their lives. Nagel implies most people are simply not strong enough to face up to such hard truths about the often meaningless contingencies affecting their lives. Some individuals like Hume are tough enough to live without such illusions. They simply play along with the illusions of common folk, but do not actually buy into them. They do not avail themselves of the cheap and easy comforts utilized by common folk, says Nagel, and they do not hide from hard truths about our vulnerability. That is why, according to Nagel, such thick-skinned persons are worthy of our respect.
Nagel is right about the exaggeratedly romantic and self-pitying character of Sartre’s and Camus’ attitude toward their mortality. But the same could be said of the detached and ironic life-style which he endorses. Why is it so admirable to live using an attitude of detachment as a kind of self-administered anodyne to protect against the pain of living? Isn’t the detached and ironic life-style of David Hume just as inauthentic as the attitude of simple denial which Nagel attributes to common folk?
IV. Are Common Folk Really Self-Deluded?
So while I acknowledge the logical force of Nagel’s arguments, his conclusions fly in the face of what are for me undeniable observational facts. Not one of my friends or relatives whom I have watched undergoing the process of dying, ever denied their time on earth would be short - a matter of hours or days at the most. Neither did they rage against God or the fates for having made them mortal. All managed to achieve, without evident effort or drama, what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has called the fifth stage of the dying process. They all achieved an attitude of affirmative acceptance toward their basic situation. (See Elizabeth Kulber-Ross, 1969, On Death
and Dying. The “five stages” of dying are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.) None of them verbally shook their fists at God, nor did they exhibit David Hume’s attitude of hard-shell and ironic detachment. (Although a couple of my relatives did on occasion drop off into a depression, from which they bounced back fairly quickly.)
This attitude of acceptance must not have been terribly difficult to achieve, or given the very common character of my friends and relations, it is doubtful they would have gotten there at all. Their apparently easy achievement of the “fifth stage” of the dying process suggest their situation must not have constituted the sort of terrible misfortune Nagel describes. Why not? Perhaps because their positive projects would not have been entirely obliterated by their soon-to-occur departure from the earth. But how could they depart without their projects departing with them?
V. The Secret of an Ordinary Person’s Good Death.
Suppose our projects are social in character, rather than being purely personal. If I am contributing to OUR projects, rather than exclusively to MY projects, there is no reason our common projects could not be continued in my personal absence.
This is where Samuel Scheffler takes the ball from Nagel and runs with it. Scheffler was a student of Nagel’s who taught ethics for many years at City College of New York. He wrote a book published last year, which was largely critical of Nagel’s views on death and dying. It was entitled Death and the Afterlife. Unfortunately, Scheffler himself became ill while his book was being completed, and he died later that same year (2013). Nagel then wrote a graciously positive review of Scheffler’s book for the January 9, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books.
Scheffler plays a trick on his readers with his title, Death and the Afterlife. He does not mean by “the afterlife” what we usually mean, namely, the life of immortal souls who have ascended to heaven to take their place among the communion of saints. What he means by way of contrast, is all those who are living after we are gone, who will be carrying on the myriad projects of maintaining and enhancing our society and its culture. He argues that little if anything we do would have meaning or value apart from our participation in such open-ended, community-enhancing, projects.
Consider the values embodied in the project of creating and supporting a family. Plato had an imaginary female wisdom figure named Diotima, in a dialogue called The Symposium, assert that young people who are grappling with one another in the throes of sexual passion, do not really know what they are about. They may think they are trying to possess the beauty of the other person, but what they are really grappling for is immortality. How so? The natural consequence of sex is reproduction, and by creating and nurturing children, a fertile couple is engaging in a project which plainly extends beyond the reach of their earthly existence. Biological parents are supported in turn by all those teachers, coaches, and other mentors who transmit the spiritual dimensions of a culture, such as its art, religion, science, and philosophy. Virtually everyone is engaged in such projects of cultural maintenance and enhancement, which extend across generations into the far future. None of these projects need end with the life of a particular self. (See Plato’s Symposium, Sections 204-207.) No wonder elderly persons on their death bed, who are surrounded by sober, grieving, children and raucous, carefree, grandchildren, so often exhibit an attitude of acceptance toward their situation. Most of the positive projects which have defined them as individuals will be very long lived, if not literally eternal. There is no reason to fear that the positive social projects to which they have been committed, are going to be quickly dispersed upon their death, the way the elements of their physical bodies are going to be dispersed. Such long-term significance for our socially relevant projects provides at least a partially effective antidote to the misfortune of adult death.
VI. Whence Existential Anxiety?
If what I have said in defense of Scheffler is correct, what are we to say about philosophers like Sartre, Camus, and Nagel when writing in their pessimistic moods? Scheffler’s claim is that their unhappiness with the basic structure of their lives is entirely self-created by a kind of narcissistic egotism. We must be careful not to identify certain arguments these writers float, and certain characters they create, with the writers themselves. Writers are always more than the arguments or characters they create. But the weight of the evidence in the case of Sartre is so strong that I think we can make the judgment that he suffered from a deep personal flaw. He seems to have been unable to become comfortable with emotional closeness to anyone, even with his life-long companion, Simone de Beauvior. (It was an open secret that he was never faithful to her.) Camus really does seem to be angry with God when writing The Myth of Sisyphus, but he showed he was open to other possibilities in his later work (such as his novel The Fall), and he may have died too young to have developed a way out of the pessimistic dead-end he portrayed in The Myth of Sisyphus. Nagel redeemed himself, in my view, by the way he treated Scheffler’s posthumously published book.
VII. Can Christian Immortality Provide an Effective Solution to Nagel’s Problem?
Why have I chased around the barn in search of a solution to the problem of existential anxiety and pessimism, when an answer supposedly lies right here in front of me? All I need do is to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior, and I will be granted a kind of immortality which is promised to remove the sting of death. (I Corinthians, 15:54-55). .
The problem for me is that the Christian doctrine of resurrection and immortality (especially as expressed in I Corinthians 15: 51-55) is shot through with conflicts and incredulities. First of all, are we talking about the BODILY RESURRECTION Paul describes in I Corinthians 15: 51-55, or which he describes even more graphically in 1st Thessalonians 4? Or are we talking about the sort of VISIONARY EXPERIENCES Paul lists as evidence for resurrection earlier in the same chapter (in I Corinthians 15: 3-8.)? But visionary experiences are usually accepted as evidence of immaterial entities such as ghostly souls, not of substantive, enduring, three dimensional objects required for bodily resurrection. I accept (at least grudgingly) that visionary experiences ought to be taken seriously as evidence of immaterial soul-travel resurrection, because such experiences cannot yet be explained by the physical sciences, and because they do not require belief in levitating material bodies. (For the difficulties involved in the attempt to explain consciousness by reference to the dance of the atoms in the void, see Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, and Galen Strawson, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature.) This failure of contemporary science to explain the existence of conscious action and experience provides a theoretical “gap” within which theologians are free to speculate about the intentional acts of immaterial entities. No such “gap” exists concerning our ability to explain the causal connections among material bodies. That is why I choke on claims about bodily resurrection. I admit this leaves me suspiciously close to the heresy of docetism (the belief that the risen Christ was a mere “appearance,” not a material reality). If honesty requires heresy, well then, I say so much the worse for orthodoxy. I do wonder, however, whether the more orthodox among us really do own up to how strange are their orthodox doctrines of bodily resurrection?
My deepest complaint about the more orthodox accounts about how the idea of resurrection is supposed to function as a solution to the anxiety and grief engendered by death, is a practical one. I do not believe it is capable, in practice, of solving the problem it supposedly addresses. Consider the situation of my older cousin who adopted an infant girl when he was middle-aged. He and his wife raised their adopted daughter for about 9 years. He then died suddenly and unexpectedly from a burst aneurysm. The girl had been very close to her father and was crushed by his death. I recall the funeral at our family church in a small community in Western Minnesota. She was sitting in the front pew with her mother and other family members. The somewhat bombastic minister gestured toward the sky, and said that God had taken her father away to be with Him in heaven.
She hunched down in the pew as if she had received a blow. She did not want her father to be taken away to heaven. She wanted him to be right there beside her, in the usual place where they always sat. If the losses engendered by death involves an intimate relationship with another, the loss of the other to someplace in heaven is just as devastating as the loss of the other to a material grave underground. The doctrines of individual resurrection and immortality provide no protection at all against such sources of grief among the living.
I conclude that the pain and grief engendered by death cannot be eliminated. But it can be significantly ameliorated among adults by their commitment to positive communal projects which can endure beyond their material existence. There plainly is an “afterlife” in Scheffler’s sense of that term, and our participation in it by means of our life-time social service activities is a kind of “project” which endures beyond our earthly existence.