Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Is the Fear of Stopping Justified?

As is often the case, I’m writing the first paragraph before having read the entire essay, which I usually use when a snarky opener occurs to me and I decide to write it down before I forget. This time it’s because the essay’s opening pages ask whether it’s reasonable to fear death, and I want to register in advance my prediction that the argument for death secretly being a good thing is probably going to be one of those dumb arguments where someone desperately tries to self-delude themselves into being okay with something they’re not okay with.

Now, it’s worth noting that evolutionary forces would make us fear being removed from the breeding pool no matter how obviously superior death was to life. For example, imagine that Heaven verifiably existed and you could Skype with people there whenever you wanted and various scientific experiments had proved to every non-crazy person’s satisfaction that it wasn’t any kind of hoax or illusion. When you die, there is undeniably an afterlife, but the trip is completely one-way, with only video calls being able to go back from Heaven to Earth. If that suddenly happened to the world we live in right now, then it might indeed cause mass suicides as people had no reason not to go there. Our fear of death has evolved around the death we actually experience, and suddenly introducing a far more transparent vision of what happens after death would change our behavior. If that was what we had evolved with, however, we would evolve to fear Heaven in almost exactly the same way we fear regular mysterious death, because Heaven’s out of the breeding pool. Every baby born of people on Earth would be born of people who stuck around long enough to have kids. Genes that encourage people to go straight to Heaven at soonest convenience would become scarce, cultures that raised people not to fear death would become extinct and cease propagating their memes.

So “is death something we should fear” is a legitimate question, for the same reason we should question all instincts that are clearly useful to propagating our bloodline and culture. Such instincts will always remain strong regardless of whether they’re useful to us, and can continue on inertia for a long time after they’ve ceased being useful. Instincts once useful to survival and reproduction don’t disappear because they’ve stopped being useful to those ends, only when they become detrimental to those ends.

With that said, this essay makes the assumption that death is a total cessation of all sensation and being, that death is pure nothingness. This isn’t an unreasonable starting point, because a significant fraction of people believe this and the argument over whether it’s true is a completely different topic of discussion. More people reveal a belief that death is cessation than will admit as much, in fact, which we can tell because people react very differently when speaking of the dead than when speaking of people who’ve moved to another country, and did so even before the rise of the internet made it easy to communicate back and forth across large distances. Someone who believes with certainty in an afterlife should react to someone’s death the same way as someone who’s going to be out of touch for a couple of years or even decades, but much fewer people actually behave this way than claim to believe with certainty in an afterlife.

The problem is that if death is cessation of being, then almost any argument that it is good or even neutral is deluded. With few exceptions, any system of morals is better served by living (or afterliving) adherents than by a lack of being. There’s a few exceptions, for sure: If you’re a utilitarian and also believe that to live is to suffer, then a state of feeling (and being) nothing would be an improvement. And yet, utilitarians who claim to believe this rarely become anime villains who go around killing people all the time in order to reduce the suffering of the world, despite the fact that presumably they would have no qualms evading capture via suicide if they were ever cornered.

People who claim to believe such radical things as “death is a blessing” reveal through their non-radical behaviors that they don’t actually believe these things at all. They might have convinced themselves, but a belief that doesn’t inform behavior isn’t really a belief, it’s a fashion accessory.

So when this essay presents the Epicurean view that happiness is the absence of pain, and death is the absence of everything, therefore death is eternal happiness, the answer is that this is stupid, because obviously it is possible to be happier than a mere absence of pain leads to. It happens all the time. And Epicurus and his followers committed suspiciously few suicides and murders for people who claimed that death brought about eternal happiness.

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