Fearless in the Face of Death
Fearless in the Face of Death:
Buddhist Detachment, Epicurean Equanimity, and Contemporary Immortalism
By Gregory Jordan
Abstract: Buddhism and Epicureanism combat the fear of death by accommodating the emotions to the reasonable certainty of death. Contemporary immortalism (which includes projects such as life extension, cryonic suspension, and universal immortalism) argues that scientific and technological solutions to the problem of death can be found, thus questioning the inevitability of death. Buddhist, Epicurean, and contemporary immortalist approaches to death and the fear of death are explored, compared, and contrasted.
Death and the fear of death were prominent among the problems considered by many ancient religions. Buddhism and Epicureanism, in particular, proposed rational solutions to the fear of death, solutions which required counter-intuitive emotional assessments of the human condition and the nature of death. Buddhist and Epicurean solutions to the fear of death attempted to accommodate the emotions to the reasonable certainty of death. These solutions depended upon the assumption that death was inevitable.
In recent times, a kind of immortalism has arisen which challenges the assumption of death’s inevitability. Expectations about future advances in science and technology have raised the prospect of combating death itself by rational methods. This contemporary immortalism does not assume the inevitability of death and sees the fear of death as both a logical warning and a problem to be solved. Questioning the inevitability of death disturbs the ancient rational solutions to the fear of death found in Buddhism and Epicureanism.
For one swept to old age / no shelters exist. / Perceiving this danger in death, / one should drop the world’s bait and look for peace.
– Tripitaka. Sutta Pitaka, Samyutta Nikaya, Sagatha Vagga, Devaputta-samyutta, Uttara Sutta (2,19)
Early Buddhism was concerned with the problem of all types of suffering, especially the suffering caused by aging and death. The desire for immortality was recognized:
In beings subject to aging [and] death . . . the wish arises, “O, may we not be subject to aging [and] death.” . . . But this is not to be achieved by wishing.
However, the inevitability of death was explicitly assumed:
It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, and subject to disintegration from disintegrating.
Even if people could extend their life spans significantly by rare techniques, they would still grieve over the deaths of their less-long-lived loved ones.
Even if a person lives a century / – or more – / he’s parted / from his community of relatives, / he abandons his life / right here. . . . seeing the dead one whose time is done, / [think,] “I can’t fetch him back.”
For Buddhism, the root of all types of suffering, including grief and fear of death, was the desire for unchangeableness in a world in which all things were continually changing. Human beings themselves were seen as examples of constant change, part of a continuum of causes and effects which constituted the world.
People feared growing old and dying, according to this perspective, because they wished to stay the same. However, the very understanding of one’s self as an unchanging entity, a single spirit or soul seems to be an error, since one continues to change throughout life, even from one life to another.
If self is defined as an entity that persists unchanged through time, and if there is no unchanging self that persists across time, then there is no self, and selflessness is the genuine nature of the human condition. If this is so, then belief in an unchanging self is a delusion. If people cling to belief in an unchanging self, and if they desire such unchanging selves, then they will inevitably be frustrated by change, and this frustration will cause them to experience anguish.
For this suffering, Buddhism proposed the cure of detachment. Detachment embraced, as it were, the chaos and flux of change in the universe, finding joy in the very lack of desire for the universe to be otherwise. If people realized that they were not unchanging selves, and if they let go of their desire to be unchanging, then causes and effects could change around them, and change them, without causing them suffering. This detachment from one’s self and all other objects of desire entailed letting go of the desire to have those things stay the same and letting go of the desire to have those things stay in the same, attached, relation to one’s (nonexistent) self. According to Buddhism, this detachment eliminated the fear of death.
And who is the person who, subject to death, is not afraid or in terror of death? There is the case of the person who has abandoned passion, desire, fondness, thirst, fever, and craving . . . Then he comes down with a serious disease. As he comes down with a serious disease, the thought does not occur to him, “O, those beloved sensual pleasures will be taken from me, and I will be taken from them!” He does not grieve, is not tormented; does not weep, beat his breast, or grow delirious.”
Buddhism accepted the prevalent traditional belief in reincarnation, but, perhaps surprisingly, reincarnation did not solve the problem of fear of death. Reincarnation could not prevent the frustration of the desire for unchangeableness, since it led to separation from an old life, new suffering in a new life, and a new experience of aging, dying, and death. In fact, reincarnation prevented the release from suffering that even death as total annihilation might provide. Thus, for Buddhism, reincarnation was a problem not a solution.
According to Buddhist thought, perfect detachment from self eliminated intentional action, which depended upon the perception of selfhood and the valorization of selfhood. The elimination of intentional action in turn eliminated the causes of reincarnation — the regular consequence of intentional actions. Thus, detachment eliminated future birth (reincarnation), and by extension, future death.
With the arising of birth there is the arising of aging and death. With the cessation of birth there is the cessation of aging and death.
Therefore, the remedy Buddhism proposed for emotionally accepting the inevitability of physical death was detachment, and the remedy it proposed for endless future physical deaths (by reincarnation) was also detachment. Detachment was thus the price of overcoming fear of death in this life, and it was also the price of preventing any future deaths in future reincarnations.
Did Buddhist detachment depend upon a sleight of hand in denying the existence of the self? The criteria of eternity and identity (everlasting unchangeableness) were the grounds of being for many ancient ontologies. But it is possible to understand selfhood differently, as a dynamic, evolving, continuous pattern.
Buddhist scholars seem to have recognized this, because they saw reincarnation not as the preservation of an unchanging soul, but rather as the provisional transfer of some ever-changing elements. Later sects of Buddhism developed the concept of “mind-stream” to handle the continuity of patterns in the chain of causes and effects associated with a person. This allowed Buddhists to refer to the progression of an individual through many changes within one life and across many reincarnations. This mind-stream, then, was eternal and unchangeable as a pattern, but it was not eternal or unchangeable as manifested in a particular self in a particular life. It was the particular self in a particular life which was subject to change, and it was this change which caused suffering.
Was Buddhism making a virtue of a necessity? Things do change, and people change over time. Accepting this fact of life would seem to be the reasonable course of action. A critical assumption in the framing of the problem here was that humans desire unchangeableness. Detachment as a solution depends on a presumed choice between two options, (1) chaotic change that destroys our attachments and frustrates our desires, and (2) an unattainable, pure, and eternal unchangeableness. Surely, however, many people do not desire pure unchangeableness, but rather reasonable control over the circumstances of their lives. They wish things to change, but only in certain ways. For example, we may want our friends to grow and mature, but we do not want them to sicken or die. We may want our bodily appearance to vary in beauty, but not to become ugly. It is possible to be happily attached to a continuity which changes in ways we like, by desirable variety, or by desirable progress and evolution – that is, changes which relate one instant of life to another, or one form of a self to another, in a positive and desired manner.
Detachment during suffering eliminates suffering, but detachment during enjoyment would seem to eliminate enjoyment. Is attachment necessary for enjoyment? If one enjoys something, one will reasonably wish it to continue so that one can continue enjoying it. It is not always the case that enjoyment will continue, but if it does, the desire to have the source of it continue is entailed. If one subtly separates enjoyment from the desire to continue enjoyment, provisional and temporary enjoyment is possible, but detachment means accepting an end to enjoyment, if the source of enjoyment must end. This subtle resignation confronts the emotion of frustration with the reasonableness of accepting the inevitable.
Buddhist detachment was a solution to the problem of death, grief, and fear of death which concluded that release from pleasure was necessary for release from suffering, and that an abandonment of pleasurable attachments is necessary to quell the suffering caused by the eventual, inevitable loss of all the sources of pleasure which constitute our lives.
You have persuaded me to laugh at [death].
– Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda, fragment 73
For Epicureanism, fear was a central cause of human suffering, and fear of death was perhaps the strongest fear. In the Tetrapharmakos, a four-sentence distillation of Epicureanism, fear of death was explicitly repudiated: “Death is not to be feared.” (Warren 2002, 7).
Upon what basis did Epicurus repudiate fear of death? In a famous passage, Epicurus asserted,
Death is nothing to us, . . . because so long as we are existent death is not present and whenever it is present we are nonexistent. (Strodach 1963, Letter to Menoeceus 125)
That is, since conscious awareness ends with death, the state of death cannot be sensed or experienced by any person. From this statement, the implication is often drawn that the state of death cannot be considered a form of suffering or misfortune for a person who has died. But Epicurus’s point here may actually have been stronger than that.
By saying that life required real presence, he could conclude that life was the only possible state of existence for a human being. Life was the only possible field of concern for human thought and action, and death was impossible for sentient, aware persons to experience. By what at first seems a specious trick of definition, Epicurus conferred immortality on all humanity. This existential immortality combated the fear of death and thus in turn conferred equanimity upon the mind.
Is this equanimity reasonable? In everyday life, we must calculate how we are to preserve our lives and thus in some way we may take measures to avert death if we can. The Epicureans granted this much as preserving the good of life. The Epicurean was supposed to cultivate physical health in order to maintain life (Strodach 1963, Letter to Menoeceus 128).
[The wise Epicurean] . . . spares no effort in all those opportunities which can bring something better, in the expectation of living longer. And he takes particular care of his health and having considered illnesses and death he vigorously undergoes measures to ward them off.”
Epicurean equanimity was supposed to combine with such efforts to make a long life possible to enjoy.
In what sense, however, can one preserve life without regard for death? Presumably, any method to prevent death would work by preserving life. Combating death and perpetuating life seem to be two sides of the same coin. If Epicureans worked to preserve and prolong their lives, what would be gained by not fearing death, by adopting the attitude that “death is nothing to us”?
Epicurus’s definition of life put one’s own death beyond one’s notice and concern, because it involved one’s nonexistence. Even if one made plans for the future, these plans could never be frustrated because at the moment of death the plans would disappear at the same time as the one who made the plans.
Nevertheless, one would have no reason to try hard to preserve or safeguard one’s life if one did not attend to the phenomenon of death. The Epicurean who “considered illnesses and death” in order to “ward them off” perhaps had in mind an abstraction of death from the example of others who had sickened and died. But if “death is nothing to us” then one’s own death cannot be a possible concern. I may be aware that others sicken and die, and I may know how to prevent sickening and dying, but if “death is nothing” to me, then I am experientially immortal and so I will have no reason to take steps to ward off my own death. Although I can, practically, preserve my life without fearing death, I have no motive for doing so if I do not attend to the possibility of my death.
If Epicureanism was compatible with taking precautions to effectively prevent certain states that could cause death, how could the state that actually causes death be treated differently? What confers upon it a special status?
We fear things that we can avoid, and Epicureanism had a prominent concern with avoiding bad things that could be avoided. Still, the Epicurean language was careful – it is not the possibility of death that was not to be feared, but death that was not to be feared. The state of death must follow a failure to prevent possible death. What good, then, does it do us to believe that “death is not to be feared” if we already pursue the rather common-sense practice of attempting to avoid possible death?
The answer is that Epicureanism assumed the existence of a final failure to avoid possible death, resulting in a state of death. This death existed, for others and also for ourselves: “Whenever [death] is present we are nonexistent.” Death is “nothing to us” in an emotional sense, that it is of no concern to us because we will not experience it. But it can have emotional meaning to us even if we do not experience it (by being dead or by avoiding being dead), if it is a possibility that we can avert. Our deaths can be important to us as states of affairs that we endeavor to avoid and prevent. But our deaths should be “something to us” only if we can effectively avoid and prevent them. Epicureanism seemed to grant that we can postpone certain possible deaths, and that we should. But those possible deaths are the exact possible deaths which we will not only be able to avoid, but that we will, in fact, avoid. The only reason for postulating a death that we should not fear would be the existence of a death that we will not be able to avoid, and that we will not avoid. If we could be certain that all deaths could be, and by our own efforts would be, avoided, then we would have no use for Epicurus’s remedy.
Epicureanism assumes mortality, the existence of an inevitable death, in order to assess it as a state of unconsciousness and nonexistence for the person who has died. It is this phenomenon, this unavoided death, which is evaluated emotionally as “nothing to us.” We may be aware of many possible deaths in our lives, and assess them as dangerous threats which we can avoid by our own efforts. These possible deaths are not “nothing” to us, and yet they are reasonable pretexts for fear.
Fear involves an emotional assessment of circumstances which may be dangerous. Fear is not useful to us if fear fails to enable us to avoid danger. However, fear is reasonable and useful if we are uncertain whether we are facing an avoidable or an unavoidable danger. Epicureanism then must assume that some possible death, at some point in one’s life, will result in an actual death, in order to assess that the fear of this actual death is unreasonable and useless.
The Epicurean remedy was thus an attempt to adapt the emotions, by reasoning, to the inevitability of death. If a death is avoidable, it is reasonable to fear it, and so be motivated to endeavor to avoid it. In such a case, it is the possibility of death which is the object of awareness and concern. A possible death that can be avoided is not “nothing” to us. Epicureanism does not explain how we can distinguish between an avoidable and an unavoidable death, and so it cannot be clear to us which possible death will result in our actual death (which we have no reason to fear) and which possible death will be successfully averted by our own efforts (which we should fear so that we can be motivated to avert it). If we assume every possible death we encounter in our lives, that is, every deadly danger, is one we can resolve satisfactorily by our own effort, then we must reasonably fear every possibility of death. This is the most reasonable way we can best preserve our goods, including our lives.
However, Epicureanism assumed that there would certainly be an unavoided death, which we might not be able to identify in advance, which was what should be “nothing” to us, and which should not be feared. This implied that we would certainly fail to avert one possible death, and that we must someday lose all our goods, that is, our lives. Thus, for Epicureanism, freedom from fear of death was bought at the price of assuming the inevitability of death.
Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable. . . . Mobilize the scientists, spend the money, and hunt death down like an outlaw.
– Alan Harrington, The Immortalist (1969)
The rational approaches to death and fear of death in Buddhism and Epicureanism assumed the inevitability of death, but then suggested ways one could look upon this eventuality with detachment or equanimity. These approaches were not necessarily opposed to the possibility, or desirability, of prolonging life by ordinary care for one’s body, using existing medical practices, and avoiding unnecessary dangers. However, neither Buddhism nor Epicureanism took into consideration any possibility of indefinitely prolonging life.
The last hundred years or so, however, have seen many dramatic advances in medicine and biology. Scientists have begun exploring the causes of aging and methods for intervening in them to slow, stop, or even reverse aging (Panno 2005). It now seems plausible to wonder if extremely advanced medicine and biotechnology of the future might be able to prevent aging or all natural causes of death. Nanotechnology (Drexler 1986) and new methods of freezing (Pichugin et al. 2006) may give new support for the idea of cryonics.
Developing and implementing scientific and technological strategies to prevent and reverse death may be considered the goals of a renewed, contemporary immortalism. Contemporary immortalism’s novel approach is to try to combat the problem of death and fear of death in the most direct way possible — by eliminating it. Contemporary immortalism includes a diverse variety of specific projects, but among the most noteworthy are life extension, cryonic suspension, and universal immortalism.
[In the future] all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard.
– Benjamin Franklin, letter to the scientist Joseph Priestly in 1780
Life extension includes a wide variety of dietary and medical interventions to increase lifespan – for example, calorie restriction (Delaney and Walford 2005; Masoro 2002) or calorie-restriction mimetics such as resveratrol, antioxidants, phytochemicals, comprehensive nutritional supplementation, and scrupulous diagnostic and preventive health care – in addition to following the usual recommendations of weight control, exercising, healthy habits, and risk-avoidance.
These practices, in themselves, do not constitute immortalism if the aim is only to lengthen life or increase the quality of life. Contemporary immortalists, however, pursue life extension in order to live long enough to take advantage of the more effective medical technologies which they assume will exist in the future, thus allowing them to extend their lives even further, and so on until the time when lifespan can be extended indefinitely (Kurzweil and Grossman 2004, 14-32; De Grey 2005). Then, the only danger of death would be by accident, a danger which might also be avoided by additional future technology.
The fact: At very low temperatures it is possible, right now, to preserve dead people with essentially no deterioration, indefinitely. . . .
The assumption: If civilization endures, medical science should eventually be able to repair almost any damage to the human body, including freezing damage and senile debility or other cause of death.
Hence we need only arrange to have our bodies, after we die, stored in suitable freezers against the time when science may be able to help us.
– Robert Ettinger The Prospect of Immortality
It is possible, in some cases, for death not to be avoided, but also not to be permanent or irreversible. The notion of temporary death confounds traditional definitions of death, which associated it with a permanent condition. Since the invention of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), over two hundred and fifty years ago, the understanding of death as the cessation of certain vital functions such as breathing and heartbeat has had to accommodate the fact that these vital functions, once stopped, can be restarted under the right circumstances. Today many cases of “death” can be reversed by a variety of methods – mouth to mouth resuscitation, cardiac pulmonary resuscitation, vasopressin, defibrillators, and so on – and, as medical technology advances, more cases of death are being reversed all the time. Death is now even medically induced in some cases, because it can be so reliably reversed.
However, a particular death is usually considered reversible only if the technologies to reverse it already exist and only if they are employed in a short, controlled amount of time. Since it seems likely that new technologies for reversing death will be invented in the future, contemporary immortalists have argued that it would be best to preserve those patients whose deaths cannot be presently reversed, in case their deaths might be able to be reversed by future medical technologies. Such resuscitation would depend upon preserving a patient for an indefinite period of time, as well as developing more advanced medical technologies in the future. Cryonic suspension is the practice of preserving the “dead” by freezing (Ettinger 1964; Drexler 1986, 130-46; Immortality Institute 2004).
Humans admit nature to be a blind force even when they regard themselves as part of it and accept death as a kind of law and not as a mere accident which permeated nature and become its organic vice. Yet death is merely the result or manifestation of our infantilism . Death can be called real only when all means of restoring life, at least all those that exist in nature and have been discovered by the human race, have been tried and have failed. . . . Mortality is an inductive conclusion. We know that we are the offspring of a multitude of deceased ancestors. But however great the number of the deceased, this cannot be the basis for incontrovertible acceptance of death because it would entail an abdication of our filial duty. Death is a property, a state conditioned by causes; it is not a quality which determines what a human being is and must be.
– Nikolai F. Fedorov, What was man created for? The philosophy of the common task.
If it is true that science and technology will continue to advance indefinitely, then it must follow that future technologies and the feats possible by them may at some point exceed even our wildest imaginations. As Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ It is unclear, then, for contemporary immortalists, where to draw the line of hope, and some have concluded that there is, in fact, no reason to draw a line at all. Science in the future might reveal ways by which people from the past could be brought back to life, even if their bodies were not preserved by means such as cryonic suspension.
Universal immortalism is the belief in the possibility and desirability of developing material technologies advanced enough to bring back to life all those who have ever lived. The technologies that would be required for such a feat, such as universe simulations, wormholes in space-time, parallel universes, or time travel, are certainly much more remote and hypothetical than those of either life extension or cryonic suspension.
Universal immortalism, however, is the form of contemporary immortalism that can address the problem of grief over loved ones who have died without being physically preserved. It can also suggest a way to act on the ethical concern for human beings in the more distant past whose lives, even if they have long since been forgotten by people today, were in their time just as important to them as our lives are to us. All those who have ever wished to live longer, who have had enough sense of the possibilities of their own lives extending into the future, may be considered to have suffered by being limited to finite life spans. In this train of thought, if it were possible to extend lifespan indefinitely, even beyond the lifespan of this universe, it would be unethical not to try to share this lifespan with all people who have ever lived.
Although contemporary immortalism sets forth future scenarios, these still remain possibilities rather than certainties. Contemporary immortalism, then, combats a basic source of fear – the phenomenon of death itself as a physical and mechanical problem, while at the same time introducing reasons for at least two new fears: (1) the fear that immortalist technologies will fail to develop at all, even though they are theoretically possible, and (2) the fear that immortalist technologies will develop, but fail in particular instances (for example, one’s own case).
For example, life extension might be theoretically possible, but the technologies to extend lifespan indefinitely might never develop because of lack of funding, lack of political support, and so on. Also, life extension practices might work, but not well enough for some individuals to live long enough to use medical technologies for indefinite life extension.
The Effort of Immortality
Life extension, cryonic suspension, and universal immortalism all propose methods of combating the fear of death by combating death, yet all of the contemporary immortalist proposals require incredible effort and dedication to research and development. Is life really worth this much effort?
From a Buddhist point of view, to live is to suffer. Longer life means longer suffering, since aging, grief, and death are only some of the examples of suffering we experience in life. Buddhist detachment is part of a larger strategy against suffering, not just death and fear of death. But surely in a calculation of value that includes the value of pleasure and happiness in life as well as suffering, eliminating the suffering caused by aging and death must be significant.
Buddhist detachment is not ascetic in the sense that it finds fault with concern for the health of one’s body. But if one is not attached to one’s life, there can be no reason to introduce suffering for the sake of extending that life forever. The Buddhist remedy for suffering caused by death is not to restore life, but to cultivate detachment from life.
And how, monks, does one not yearn for the future? He thinks: “I may have such form in the future” but brings no delight to bear on it. He thinks: “I may have such feeling . . . such perception . . . such formations . . . such consciousness in the future” but brings no delight to bear on it. That is how, monks, one does not yearn for the future.
However, the entire purpose of detaching one’s self from one’s life was to avoid the suffering that would be caused by losing it. If it were not certain that one would lose one’s life, then the purpose of detachment would be put into question and it would become possible again to consider that it might be valuable to suffer in order to live.
Epicureans might also have questioned the value of suffering in order to extend one’s life. Even if Epicurean equanimity grants preserving one’s goods (in this case, one’s life), still life extension invokes a notion that longer life is of greater value than shorter life, a notion which Epicureanism vigorously denied.
Infinite and finite time afford equal pleasure, if one measures its limits by reason.
Epicureans invoked a large set of arguments against the value of longer life so that the frustration of the desire for a longer life would not make fear of death reasonable. For example, it was argued that pleasure had natural limits; that once the maximum of pleasure had been attained, there was only variety of pleasures; and that indulging in insatiable desires was unreasonable.
It would be impossible within the space of this paper to fully treat these arguments, but in general it will be noted that the assumption about the inevitability of death was also key here.
Bodily pleasure seems unlimited, and to provide it would require unlimited time. But the mind, recognizing the limits of the body, and dismissing apprehensions about eternity, furnishes a complete and optimal life, so we no longer have any need of unlimited time. . . . When the end of life approaches, [the mind] does not feel remorse, as if it fell short in any way from living the best life possible.
Epicurean equanimity depends upon the mind’s recognition and acceptance of the “limits of the body,” including the “end of life.” A desire for infinite variety of pleasures and infinite duration of pleasures is insatiable only if its object is, in fact, unattainable. But it contemporary scientists are not agreed that lifespan must be limited. It is not even clear that the capacity for pleasure is strictly limited. Epicurean equanimity depends upon the notion of “the best life possible,” and thus upon the entire theory of what is possible and what is impossible.
In addition, Epicureans typically denied that the future would contain any novelty.
Do you expect me to invent some new contrivance for your pleasure? I tell you, there is none. All things are always the same.
This argument seems fairly weak. Even by ancient standards, the variety of specific changes observable throughout a person’s life must be reasonably considered as novelty, even if not very marked or significant novelty. If, as Epicureanism maintained, the universe was eternally old, all arrangements of atoms would endlessly recur, however this would not be apparent to any individual who was not eternally old, because that person would not have experienced all the arrangements of atoms.
Contemporary science holds that nature itself can produce novelty through emergence and evolution, and contemporary technology has advanced and produced many “new contrivances” indeed. Historically, along with the growing perception of significant progress in human affairs has come a concomitant frustration with limited lifespan, with the inability to live long enough to see a better, or at least very different, future. In the context of expectations of the future, the human lifespan has come to be seen as a limit on the ability to enjoy and understand the world.
Even though Epicureanism argued that there was no novelty in the world, it was still prepared to combat the notion that a life could be considered incomplete because of premature death. In order to feel as though one might die prematurely, or live an incomplete life, one would have to grant physical reality to a life not lived, to time not experienced, which is impossible by the Epicurean framing of the problem. Whatever experiences one will not experience are not one’s experiences; they do not form part of one’s life. Therefore, by definition, no one’s life can actually be curtailed in any way. The length of a life is whatever length it is found to be by the limits of experience.
However, we do not form our emotions on the basis of experience only, but also on the basis of expectations about the future. If we do not know for sure whether or not we will live or die, then a possible death could be imagined as cutting short a possible life. If this doubt cannot be resolved in any way, then any emotional assessment is useless.
It should be borne in mind, then, that the time to come is neither ours nor altogether not ours. In this way we shall neither expect the future outright as something destined to be nor despair of it as something absolutely not destined to be. (Strodach 1963, Letter to Menoeceus 127)
But to be perfectly in doubt about the resolution implies an inability to affect the outcome. If we are faced only with possible futures about what is destined to be and what is destined not to be, then our emotional assessment is irrelevant – we cannot affect the outcome and thus our emotions are useless to motivate us to effectively bring about a desired state of affairs. Epicurean equanimity rejects both expectation and despair as useless, but it also rejects fear, which is the emotion which could motivate us to do what we must do in order to stay alive.
The Need for Eternal Life
Epicureans might have argued that the desire for life extension is an “unnecessary” desire.
All desires which create no pain when unfulfilled are not necessary; such desires may easily be dispelled when they are seen as difficult to fulfill or likely to produce harm.
If we accepted this argument, we could conclude that the desire for indefinite lifespan is an unnecessary desire, since when it is unfulfilled (if a person dies), there is no pain. If extending lifespan indefinitely required the slightest pain, it would thus detract from the overall happiness in a person’s life. Thus Epicureans must argue against life extension even if life extension were merely “difficult to fulfill,” let alone impossible.
However, surely necessity must be judged from the vantage point of the living, since the dead have no vantage point – the dead are nonexistent, according to Epicureanism, and so they need nothing and desire nothing. It does not matter, then, to the dead if they experience no pain when they are dead; what is important to the living is the life they stand to keep if they do not die.
While we are still alive, and as long as we think we might be able to avert death, our longer life and its greater happiness are still real possibilities. Once the possible loss of life becomes real in death, those who stand to lose something become nonexistent at the same moment that the thing which they stood to lose, the longer life, is also found to be nonexistent. However, while we are alive, if we do not know whether or not a particular danger will surely result in our deaths, then life and death are both real possibilities, and we are faced with choices.
Our emotions analyze circumstances with regard to our safety or danger. We do not only desire the things that we desire while we are alive; we also desire to be safe from deadly danger – that is, we desire to stay alive. It is this desire which leads us to try to avert deadly harm and loss of life, and to seek the pleasure and benefits available from a longer life. This desire could be considered an unnecessary desire only if death were inevitable, so that we could speak of conditions obtaining when the desire is not fulfilled.
If it is not certain whether or not the desire to stay alive will be fulfilled or unfulfilled, then in such a case the desire to stay alive cannot be judged necessary or unnecessary because of lack of information about the future. If we knew that this desire enabled future life, then it would have to be judged necessary because its fulfillment would be the precondition for the existence of a being about whom it could be predicated that there is happiness. What is central in the Epicurean argument against the necessity of desiring to live indefinitely is the pessimistic assumption that death is inevitable. This argument would be valid only if an actual end of life were approaching, and only if one were absolutely certain that this was the inevitable end.
The Need for Resurrection
Epicureans might also find it difficult to be concerned about those in the past who have died. If the dead are nonexistent, then they could not be an object of concern. Their desires and their ambitions to continue living died with them. Although the living can care to live, the dead are without cares; therefore, the dead cannot be raised to satisfy them or for their sake.
The ethical basis of universal immortalism seems to be the common responsibility of human beings to each other, or concern for each other, regardless of how they are separated in time or space. According to modern physics, the past, while practically inaccessible, is not “nonexistent” in the absolute sense. If time is a dimension, then the past exists in a timeless sense, just as much as the present. “So long as we are existent death is not present” – but if death merely interrupts part of our lives (as it would in both cryonic suspension and universal immortalism), then discontinuity in life must be acknowledged even if death is not. If resurrected persons were to look back on their lives before the discontinuity of death, they would reasonably judge themselves to have been “existent” at that time.
Therefore, we cannot, in the terms of Epicureanism, judge the dead to be nonexistent unless such a resumed life will never take place. Everyone who will exist again in the future can be an object of our ethical concern. If we are not certain whether or not the dead will be resurrected, then we could not decisively dismiss the dead as nonexistent. The resurrected dead may experience the resumption of their lives as the absence of death, but the gap in their lives will be the consequence of death on their lives and their existences. Death will not be “nothing” to them, and the dead in that case would not be “nothing” to us. Epicurean equanimity depends upon rejection of the possibility of resurrection. If it were possible to be resurrected after death, then the possibility of missing this resurrection would be a reason for fear, and this fear would motivate one to do whatever is in one’s power to be resurrected.
Buddhism, Epicureanism, and contemporary immortalism all confront the problem of death and the proper emotional reaction to death. Buddhism and Epicureanism assume the inevitability of death and thus work to adapt the emotions to that phenomenon, modulating the natural and spontaneous human tendency to fear death into a calm detachment or serene equanimity that extends throughout life. The inevitability of death is not only a fundamental assumption of these religions; in both cases, the inevitability of death is one of the main starting points for a train of logic which developed many of the distinctive beliefs of both religions. Given that death is inevitable, how should we handle our fear of death?
Contemporary immortalism uses the resources and methods of modern science and technology to approach the same question from a novel direction. In the traditions of empiricism and progress, it responds to the problem of death by hypothesizing, developing, and promoting rational, scientific, and applied technological methods to combat death as a natural phenomenon. Contemporary immortalism thus revisits one of the fundamental assumptions of both Buddhism and Epicureanism, namely, the inevitability of death.
For contemporary immortalism, the Buddhist and Epicurean approaches could be cast as forms of resignation and fatalism. If we do not lose our lives, then we will not suffer from being separated from them. If we will not suffer separation from our lives or the lives of our loved ones, then we do not need to be detached from them. If we have a future, we do not need to be detached from it, and yearning for the future will not be frustrated or result in suffering. Rather than equanimity, contemporary immortalism might suggest, what we need now is an urgent research program. The Epicurean approach that “neither begs off from living nor dreads not living” (Strodach 1963, Letter to Menoeceus 126) would lack the confidence and vision necessary for the technical development of physical immortality.
For many religious traditions, beliefs about death and solutions to the problem of death and fear of death lie at or close to their cores, comprising some of their most valued beliefs. Contemporary immortalism’s goal of eradicating the physical phenomenon of death obviously has profound consequences for all the religious traditions which assume the inevitability of death. Until now, religions have arisen within, and defined themselves by, a human condition which has always included mortality. Contemporary immortalism challenges the very nature of that human condition.
Cetron, Marvin, and Owen Davies. Cheating Death: The Promise and Future Impact of Trying to Live Forever. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Clarke, Arthur C., and Stephen Baxter. The Light of Other Days. New York: Tor, 2000.
De Grey, Aubrey. “A Strategy for Postponing Aging Indefinitely.” Studies in Health Technology and Informatics 118 (2005): 209-19.
Delaney, Brian M., and Lisa Walford. The Longevity Diet. New York: Marlowe & Co., 2005.
Deutsch, David. The Fabric of Reality. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of Creation. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986.
Fedorov, Nikolai Fedorovich. What was man created for? The philosophy of the common task. Selected works translated from the Russian and abridged by Elisabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto. N.p.: Honeyglen Publishing/L’Age d’Homme, 1990.
Ettinger, R. C. W. The Prospect of Immortality. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.
Gruman, Gerald J. “A History of Ideas about the Prolongation of Life: The Evolution of Prolongevity Hypotheses to 1800.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 56 (1966) pt. 9.
Immortality Institute. The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans. Buenos Aires: Libros en Red, 2004.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking, 2005.
Kurzweil, Ray, and Terry Grossman. Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Rodale. 2004.
Lobo, Francisco, S. N. “Phantom Energy Traversable Wormholes.” Physical Review D71 (April 13, 2005) 084011.
Masoro, Edward J. Caloric Restriction: A Key to Understanding and Modulating Aging. Boston: Elsevier, 2002.
Merkle, Ralph C. “Molecular Repair of the Brain.” Cryonics (January 1994): 16-31, (April 1994): 20-32. Also available at http://www.merkle.com/cryo/techFeas.html.
Panno, Joseph. Aging: Theories and Potential Therapies. New York: Facts on File, 2005.
Pearce, David. The Hedonistic Imperative. http://www.hedonistic-imperative.com.
Perry, R. Michael. Forever for All. U.S.A.: Universal Publishers, 2000.
Pichugin, Yuri, Gregory M. Fahy, and Robert Morin. “Cryopreservation of Rat Hippocampal Slices by Vitrification.” Cryobiology 52 (2006): 228-240.
Strodach, George K. The Philosophy of Epicurus. Northwestern University Press, 1963.
Tandy, Charles, ed. Death and Anti-Death, Volume 1: One Hundred Years After N. F. Fedorov (1829-1903). Palo Alto, California: Ria University Press, 2003.
Tipitaka: The Pali Canon. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/canon.
Tipler, Frank J. The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
Walford, Roy L. Maximum Life Span. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983.
Warren, James. Epicurus and Democritean Ethics: An Archaeology of Ataraxia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.