Three events towards thanatophobia. The first I can’t remember. The second is death itself. Two cold corpses, soft like clay, laid out on stainless steel. The third is birth. Something tumbling, something inside. Little thing, tiny, tiny, warm thing.

The fear of death, as opposed to the fear of dying, is widely considered to be irrational. Hence, phobia. Epicurus, for example, argues (to paraphrase) that since we are not around to experience death, there is nothing to fear “death is nothing to us”. This isn’t at all comforting! It seems to give the very cause of anxiety, the prospect of non-existence, as the very reason to not be afraid.

Don’t be afraid of non-existence, because you’ll not exist!
Don’t be afraid of bears, because bears can eat your meaty legs!

Epicurus is right though to recognise that the state of death is something special, in that it has a great appetite to swallow things whole. Like the whole of being. Death is the multiply by zero of the human condition. No thing is big enough to plug that greedy belly. Epicurus touches on something else though, there is something different about death, something that makes it less like a scary bear. As a negation of experience, it is not painfil, it is not a negative experience in itself.

Keep living, is the message, keep living because death is just an end. Kagan argues that the fear of death is irrational because fear is an emotion with certain properties, and since the fear of death does not entail those properties (e.g the object of fear is painful or bad or there is uncertainty about death, since there is none), then fear is not an appropriate response. Kagan also argues that suicide is not a rational act because of the uncertainty of life, and a presumption that existing is better than not.

I think Kagan misses that little something about death that Epicurus touches. In the first instance, the fear of death is not in the uncertainty of its coming, but very much in the certainty of it, and there isn’t anything here that seems to contradict a common sense understanding of fear. Fear seems to be a perfectly rational response to a known negative experience. So, his main concern is that, like Epicurus, death is not a negative experience. And almost certainly, it isn’t negative. But it is undesirable in the sense that as a living, situated and embodied creature, and moreover, a subject with a sense of self, I want that sense of self to continue, without end. It is undesirable as a future state, and it is in that sense, sure I am not afraid of being dead… once I’m dead. I’m afraid that I will no longer be alive at some unknown, but inevitable and actual point in the future.
In the graph below. No, wait. Look at the graph first. Just look at it.


In the graph above, we have the positive and negative values of life (y-axis, measured by whatever system you chose) mapped over time (x-axis). Death comes at the far right, after a life of ups and downs. The fear of death does not come from the experience of what happens off the graph, but that there is an off the graph. The fear isn’t that the blue line plummets indefinitely and unendingly onwards, but that it just stops. The argument that fear is not an appropriate response doesn’t seem justified since it seems to make assumptions about what the individual having thanatophobia is actually afraid of.

Kagan’s second argument, that suicide is irrational, is based on a utilitarian calculus of positive and negative experiences over time. In short: since we can never be sure of the overall state of life, it isn’t rational to off oneself since in hindsight the negativity of the present may seem worthwhile.


In this case, there does seem to be a case against the rationality of suicide. Had the individual killed themselves at the suicide line, then they would have missed out on the overall positive experience of life. Even if everything seemed bad all the time, this argument amounts to a kind of “you’ll never know” argument.


Life might start off great, and then go to the shit, but at no point would you be rationality allowed to say “Heck, enough is enough!”, even if life never had a period of any positive experience, even if positive experience was completely cut off from possibility. There might be a temptation to say here, look, shit is fucked and fucked up, why wouldn’t it be rational to cut your losses and make an escape into the big black? The problem with this response is it still assumes that death is some kind of check-out wizard that totals up your purchases before ending everything. I think this response needs to be rejected because the special thing about death is that it is more cataclysmic than these accounts give it credit for. These accounts assume that death permits the accumulation of experience to pass on after the mortal threshold is crossed.

Death doesn’t perform an end-of-life evaluation to see whether ending it at any particular point is rational. This is because the special nature of death is that not only does it stop experience from accumulating, it negates the accumulated amount.

Now look at the graph below!


In the graphs before the graph above, life had an end point, and at that end point there was a cumulative value of how good (or bad) the whole thing was. But that isn’t how the game works. Death not only brings the accumulation of experience to a halt it returns the cumulative value to zero. It isn’t that I die and have a whole bunch of experiences that I can reflect upon and enjoy for eternity, with the restriction that no others are added to this haystack of wonder. No, the cumulative value is nullified. I am no longer around to comprehend the previous experiences, their net worth is zero. So, on the left hand graph above we see the amount of experience we have in life increasing to the point at which death occurs. Then it is a straight drop back to nothing. Why is this? Because death not only negates the accumulation of experience – it negates the very possibility of reflecting upon those experiences. This means that an argument that is based on the utilitarian calculus of positive and negative experiences is problematic, since it only accounts for the state of being during life, not afterwards. Since there is no state of being after life (by definition) the sum of the calculus is inevitably zero, regardless of the utilitarian sum up to the moment of death.

This is what is feared. And this is why Kundera speaks of the Lightness of Being – everything is taken off us at the end. We have no burdens to carry regardless of what we do. Likewise, the heaviness of being is in that these experiences are all we ever have. There is an irrational leap (thanks Kierkegaard!) – not only do I know that my choices are ultimately going to accumulate to the same end (for myself and for all experiencing creatures) but I am also compelled to act as if I don’t know. The desire for experience, choice, life, whatever is alien to me in the sense of being alien to the reasoning self that I prioritise as that which constitutes “me”. The upside of this disjunction is freedom. Condemned, I have little to lose, nothing can confine me but the cage that has no outside. The downside(!) is the disavowal of the possibility of meaning – an absolute nihilism.

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