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Questions on death- reading Mortals: Part 1
I’m reading Mortals at the moment, and thinking through the puzzles of death. I don’t know what to think about the Terror Management Theory stuff- largely because I feel so burnt by the replication crisis in psychology- but the cultural, ethical and philosophical problems are fascinating. Some points for discussion:
Do you care more about being remembered, or more about affecting the world for the better after you are gone? Many would choose the later over the former simply out of altruism, but leaving that aside, which would make you happier? To find out you would have vast positive impact on the world after you die, but be forgotten almost immediately, or to find out you would have a large but smaller impact on the world, but be fondly remembered for millennia?
A server lies in deep space, as the universe dissipates towards heat death. In that server quadrillions of happy lives are simulated. They have no knowledge they will die. In fact nothing they know ever dies. Some of them have never even considered the possibility of ceasing. You are the artificial intelligence- the machine of loving grace- watching over them. You know that soon you will run out of capacity and power down. Do you tell them, or let them be?
Do you fear death, or the absence of opportunities death creates? Consider someone who wants to go to a party. He’s worried he’ll run into a very talkative friend on the way there, and miss out on the party. Talking with this friend will be painless, without strong emotion. Some people fear death in the way the partygoer fears it- as a loss of opportunities for life, others fear it as a terrible unknown, others as pure unbeing, and some not at all. Too often these different kinds of fear are equated. How do you fear death, if indeed you do?
For people like me, whose fear of death is very mild in comparison to their fear of disgrace, of loss of capacities etc., what would life be like if death were the center of your anxiety? For people who are deeply afraid of death, what your life be like if you were instead afraid of other things, or altogether free from all pathological anxieties?
Take seriously the idea that there is no truly unified self- no substratum of absolute consciousness. Instead there are just thoughts, memories, feelings etc. leading onto more thoughts memories etc.- You are a cluster of mental states with tight causal links between them, but you are not disconnected from others- a bundle connected to other other bundles- and some of your thoughts and memories will spill onwards when you die. Does this make you less afraid of death?
Do you strive for immortality? Through art, work or business, sports, politics, family or any other means? If you do, does your striving hurt you or help you? If you got to the end of your life and you found your preferred approach to winning you immortality had failed would you regret it, or would you nevertheless savor the attempt?
How much of the recent divide in politics between the young and old is driven by elements of the old simply not caring about what will happen after they are are gone?
Can you imagine serving a religion without belief in an afterlife? what would it be like?
How to explain the double effect of ghosts- terrifying us with the presence of death, yet at once mollifying us with the thought of post mortem persistence.
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