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Pathways to Philosophy


Is It Rational to Fear Death?

by Geoffrey Klempner

'Do not go gentle into that good night: Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'

Just to get our minds focused on the subject, alongside those frequently quoted lines from Dylan Thomas I would put the following refrain from a song by the Blue Oyster Cult:

'Seasons don't fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun and the rain. We can be like they are.'

Or consider this from Jack Kerouac Visions of Cody:

'All you do is head straight for the grave: skin covers the skull awhile. Stretch that skull-skin and smile.'

I do not find these thoughts edifying. They fill me with terror. I remember when I was four, a girl down our street who was a couple of years older than I pointed to a hearse and told me that inside the wooden coffin there was fire. I was frightened, and also sad. I imagined someone saying, 'It's time to get into the box now,' the way one might say, 'It's your bedtime,' or 'You must take your medicine.' With the tenderness of a parent tucking a child into bed, they would close the lid and seal it. Then the heat would be turned up.

Why does death terrify us? I can only speak as a philosopher. It is my professional duty to diagnose irrationality whenever it occurs; or, at least, the more interesting cases. When the irrationality is in me, the question becomes especially urgent. Now there are three particular reasons for taking an interest in the subject of death. First, whether logical thinking is capable of altering one's attitude to death is a test — perhaps the ultimate test — of the practical relevance of philosophy. There is a great danger here, of course, of romanticizing the subject: Socrates courageously grasps the cup of hemlock, while his friends weep. If practical value was the test of the truth of a philosophy, that is all the proof one would need. What interests us is rather the quality of the proofs of the soul's indestructibility that Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates. The second reason is that inquiring into the meaning of death is the most direct approach I know to the fundamental questions of metaphysics. I would not expect you to automatically agree with that statement. It is very rarely that one will find a discussion of death at the beginning, or at the centre of a work of metaphysics, rather than tacked on at the end. (Heidegger's discussion of 'Being towards death' is a notable exception.) The third reason is in a way a combination of the first two. Whether I have what it takes to live by my philosophical conclusions concerning death is a test of my seriousness as a philosopher. This is no side issue, this is the main thing. If I can't believe my own arguments, then I am in deep trouble And I have to tell you, they are not easy to believe.

It is generally agreed that the reasons Socrates gives in Plato's Phaedo for not fearing death are bad ones, and I shall not dwell on them. I have nothing to fear, according to Plato, because my essential self, my 'soul' cannot be destroyed the way a body can. (One can still raise the question whether there is not some degree of moral evil which would be sufficient to 'destroy' a soul, in which case immortality would not be guaranteed: but Socrates is quite sure that he is in the clear.) If death, in the sense of a permanent cessation of my consciousness, does not really happen, or at least can be avoided with certainty, then I have nothing to fear from death as such, and indeed, if Socrates is right, plenty to look forward to. A bad argument that is sometimes used against theories of immortality is that the permanence of my soul does not solve the problem of my non-existence before birth, or, rather, before the time — whenever that was — when my soul first came into being. However, this confuses horror at the thought of something with the fear of it. There are many things which horrify me but I do not fear, either because they have already happened an are not expected to happen again, or because if they are still to happen, it will be to persons other than myself or those I care for. (I shall be arguing for the stronger conclusion that it is irrational either to fear one's own death as such or to feel horror at its prospect: I believe it is rational to fear the death of those we care for; not for their sakes, however, but for our own.)

Until someone thinks up a convincing argument for immortality, then the the only rational thing to do is accept that we all have to die sometime. This does not go without saying. Suppose someone offered, fora modest fee, to keep your head in a cryogenic freezer after your death, a growing number of people have been doing in the United States. (Why just the head? Because — as one of my students pointed out to me — it's cheaper than freezing the whole body.) You may well think, on purely scientific grounds, that those who do this are foolish. Still, if there is just the logical possibility that your personality could be revived — by, say, copying your brain patterns onto living material — you might just think twice. In doing so, you would have no less an authority than the philosopher Daniel Dennett to back you up (Consciousness Explained Harmondsworth 1991 p430). Even so, this would leave you at the mercy of contingent events. There would arise the chilling possibility of a new kind of 'murder': the destruction of the last surviving blueprint of your brain.

Given that death must come sooner or later, surely, one might argue, it is irrational to wish to avoid that which cannot be avoided. But if one subtracts the desire to avoid death, then fear, understood as a manifestation of the urge to 'fight or flight', loses its basis. — That is a valid argument, as far as it goes, but its conclusion is strictly limited. It would still be possible to be gripped by anxiety or deep foreboding at the thought of one's inevitable demise. Nor has it been shown that the desire that one should die later rather than sooner is in any way irrational. However, I am going to make things difficult for myself. I shall argue that none of the attitudes referred to is a legitimate attitude to hold in the face of the prospect of one's death as such. Nor can the desire that death should come later rather than sooner be justified. It is irrational to entertain any feelings whatsoever, a fortiori any negative feelings, towards the certain prospect that my consciousness will permanently cease, even if that prospect is one that faces me within the next few seconds. I shall look at two other arguments to a similar conclusion, one deriving from Epicurus and the other from the early Wittgenstein. Whatever you may think of any of these arguments, surely nothing less will do. If the potentiality for my non-existence is not something to regard fearfully 'as such', then it is irrelevant to me how much time will elapse before that potentiality is actualized.

The two little words 'as such' make all the difference here. Of course there can be good reasons for wanting to go on living. Suppose I want to see the new Clint Eastwood film this evening. If I have a fatal accident on the way to the cinema, I shall not be able to see the film. It follows that I should, on pain of irrationality, desire to go on living, at least till then. You might retort that if I'm dead, I'm not going to miss anything: I shall not have to undergo the painful experience of failing to obtain the object of my desire. But that is a fallacious argument. My desire was not, 'to see the new Clint Eastwood film, provided I'm still alive'. What I wanted had no such implicit qualification. I simply wanted that event — my seeing the film — to happen. By no means all the things one desires to happen entail one's being alive. Most of us I am sure would want there to be an end to hunger in the world. That is something that, for all we would dearly wish to see it, may well not occur in our lifetimes. But insofar as any desires that we hold involve our being here to enjoy an experience or participate in some activity, then we must also — at least in the absence of any stranger, countervailing desire — want to live.

It is also true that evolution by natural selection has provided each of us, as it has provided the rest of the animal kingdom, with an 'instinct for survival'. It is natural to desire to go on living, and unnatural to fail to have this desire, or to desire that one should die. More accurately, what Richard Dawkins calls the principle of 'gene selfishness' requires survival purely as a means to an end. That our 'natural, desire to remain alive continues long after we have become infertile, or have anything to contribute to the continuation of our genes through the help we can give our close relatives, is simply an accidental by- product of the most efficient design. However, even if the instinct for survival were universal, which there is some evidence to doubt, it would not carry any weight at all when it came to the question whether such a desire is rational, that is to say whether it can be justified. As in the question of our 'reasons' for altruistic behaviour, one has to distinguish the question of fact, what it is that actually motivates us, from the question of justification; in this case, whether there is any way of proving that on pain of irrationality one ought to take steps to ensure one's survival. That these are different questions is shown in cases where the desire to go on living is overridden by other, stronger considerations: for example, the soldier who gives his life to save his Platoon. That is something one can understand even on the assumption (which I believe to be false) that all action is motivated ultimately by self-interest. He wants to go on living; like a good Aristotelian, he wants further chances for living the 'good life'. But now in the midst of battle with his comrades in peril he knows that there is no longer any such chance. If he fails them now, he would 'never be able to live with himself'. So he chooses, with full rational justification, the path of self-sacrifice.

What I have conceded here is the rationality of the desire to go on living as a hypothetical imperative, in Kant's sense. Given that there are certain things that you want, you ought also, on pain of irrationality, to seek to preserve your life, at least until those desires are satisfied. One interesting question is whether there can be a non- hypothetical argument for self-preservation, a 'categorical' imperative to go on living. Wittgenstein once noted that 'if suicide is permitted, anything is permitted'. For those who share that view, arguments from 'self- interest' however broadly that notion is understood, will not work. While acts of heroic self-sacrifice may well be permitted by the Kantian moralist, and might even on occasion be mandatory, the sheer fact that life has become an unbearable burden can never justify killing oneself. In what follows, however, what I have to say remains unaffected by whether or not the necessary argument against suicide can be found.

It is rational to want to live. Life is generally a good thing because of the things that fill it, and, other things being equal, a longer life is better than a shorter one. The question whether it is rational to 'fear death as such', by contrast, turns on whether any negative feelings that one might hold towards the sheer prospect of a permanent end to one's consciousness could be shown to be a relevant, or even an intelligible consideration. Those of us who like to think of ourselves as 'philosophers' might well be disposed to deny that such a thought is intelligible without any further argument. I think that this has something to do with the fact that arguments against the rationality of fearing death are so deeply a part of the philosophical tradition — to the extent that imperturbability in the face of death has become inseparable from the popular conception of 'the philosopher'. But I would remind you that many persons — and I include myself — do not just want to live; they are scared of dying. Simply not being around to get the things that one wants, for example, seeing the latest film, or watching one's children grow up, or enjoying peanut butter on toast for breakfast tomorrow morning, is not a proper object of fear. Here I am making a logical point. Fear is always fear of something in some sense positive: for example, fear of being left alone, or fear of hunger, or even just fear of the unknown. Death is not, admittedly, like any of these things. What I seem to fear is rather the very fact that there is an end. Around every corner, another street and yet another has always beckoned. One day I shall turn to face a blank wall.

Poor Epicurus. History remembers him as the philosopher who said that the fear of death is based on a false belief in an afterlife, and the pain one might suffer there. As the author of the article on Death in the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy soberly notes, 'Death terrorizes us, not because we fear it is painful, but because we are unwilling to lose consciousness permanently' (p308). Epicurus' actual words (quoted just a few lines earlier!) are, 'Death is nothing to us ... It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.' Any religious sceptic could have made the point about an afterlife. Epicurus gives an argument against the fear of an end to life which deserves serious attention. All fear for ourselves has as its object things that might happen to us. But if we really die, that is not something that happens to us, something we go through. At the very moment of death, I am not around to suffer it. The argument is not easy to refute. I believe, however, that it does rest on a non-sequitur. The first premiss, that fear for, or on account of oneself can only be fear of things that might happen to one proves too much. It seems perfectly intelligible that I could fear that after my death my philosophical reputation will be destroyed by hostile critics. The destruction of a reputation can only metaphorically be described as happening to' a person who existed in the past (it is certainly not something which 'happens to' his or her mortal remains, though if there must, in a literal sense, exist a subject to which the destruction of a dead person's reputation 'happens', these would be the only candidate). If this is a legitimate fear, as it appears prima facie to be, then no reason has yet been supplied why I should not, purely for my own sake, fear to contemplate a future without me in it, even though the coming to pass of such a time will not be something that happens to me.

One reason for fearing to contemplate a future from which I am absent is that I believe my departure will make the world worse in some way: for example, if there are persons — a nation, or a family — that depend on me. However, that merely adds a more or less disinterested dimension to the reasons already given for wanting to live, and says nothing about the fear of death as such, the terror at the thought that there is an end. It is for my own sake that I fear my end. How can we make sense of this? One possible interpretation of my fear is the thought that, willy nilly, the world will go on without me. It is as if it wouldn't be so bad if everything stopped when I did. You might well find that thought rather unpalatable. You may also recall Wittgenstein's pronouncement in the Tractatus that 'at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end' (6.431) 'What comfort is that?', one wants to ask. (Think of those second-rate science fiction films where a mad scientist plots to blow up the whole world and himself with it — a genre.) On reflection, it becomes clear that the problem for Wittgenstein is not so much the fear of death but rather the comprehension of its possibility. For the solipsist, for someone who believes that all there is is the world of 'my possible experience', there is no departing from the world. I have come to think that Wittgenstein has actually hit on half the truth. But the consequences are very different, as we shall see shortly.

There are in fact two very different senses in which one's 'end as such' might appear as an object of fear or foreboding. This can be brought out if we look at Nietzsche's revival of the Stoic doctrine of the 'eternal recurrence':

This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, in the same succession and sequence ... The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!

Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science §341

Nietzsche makes a great deal of the burden of the thought of endless repetition, with its attendant fatalism; but to me that is not the main message. It is rather the way in which Nietzsche's doctrine serves as a thought experiment to distinguish the the realization that there is an end to the story of one's life from the acknowledgement that the process of living and experiencing will itself come to an end. To say that the story ends means that there is an absolute limit to my personal projects and ambitions, and also to what I can do to make up for things I regret having done or mistakes I have made in the past. We strive to improve ourselves, to make things better or put things right, but all such striving seems ultimately in vain. Perhaps only an exceptional individual — and one who is also fortunate to die at just the right time — could place that final full-stop with a relish, knowing that the story is complete and cannot be improved upon. For those who lack the courage or conviction to follow Seneca's recommendation of a well-timed suicide, there remains the consolation that even when the tale is left tragically incomplete, or is spoiled by an unnecessary or pointless continuation, still a story needs an end — otherwise it becomes a soap opera.

Yet even when one has finally brought oneself to accept — with protest — the necessity and inevitability of finitude, there is still something else to fear. A book can be read, and enjoyed, again and again. The prospect of a total loss of memory can only enhance one's sense of anticipation: every reading will be just like the first. But what if the first reading is also the last? My life resolves down to this, these experiences, these memories. My life is mine now, but one day it must inevitably become the possession of others. They can tell and retell the story, or what they know of it, but what is that to me? For my part, it seems that the stuff and substance of my life in all its colour, the value to me of all that I am and all that I have done, is reduced to dust by the fact that one day all this will be no more. That my life will continue to have meaning and value for others after I am gone is no consolation for such a loss. For whatever my life may be for others, it can never be this. Whatever meaning my life has for me, the person actually living it, as opposed to its significance for others as a source of enrichment or novelty in their lives, or after I am gone as an inspiring or amusing 'story', that meaning goes when I go, and nothing of this remains. — The condemned man casts a last, lingering look at his shabby possessions, grey walls, the rough furnishings of his cell, as if they were the most beautiful things he has ever seen. He sees something he did not see before: the beauty of all existence. But it is too late. In a few minutes, this beauty will be gone. That this will end is what I fear. People may or may not remember Geoffrey Klempner, and what I have done; but after this has gone it will be as if it had never existed. Yet it is here now, and will be taken away, no matter what I do. As I speak these words, the tape is running out. Memory grasps at experiences as they pass by, yet in the end must let everything go. — That is, no doubt, a very metaphysical fear. Many are not aware of it at all, until they are very close to death. For others, there are more immediate distractions; the agony of dying, bitter regret at a life wasted, or a fatigue that surrenders itself gladly into oblivion. That it is not felt by everyone at all times, however, makes the metaphysical fear of death no less real. Real it may be, but for all that, it is, I shall argue, illusory.

— o 0 o —

What is this? What does that word mean, uttered with that peculiar emphasis? I would say that it is the difference my being here makes to someone with such-and-such attributes being here — no matter how exhaustively those attributes are specified; the difference my talking to you makes to some person's talking to you, irrespective of how that person is described, or indeed who that person is taken 'to be'. It seems that in addition to all the 'natural', i.e. physical ways in which death might come — through old age, accident, disease or violence — the thought that what is essential to my survival is this raises the possibility of a new, and more terrifying form of death: in a moment, without warning, this could flicker out, never to reappear, and no-one would even notice the difference. There would be someone — a 'real' person, we may suppose, not a zombie — talking to you, just as before; but that someone would not be me. My essential 'I' could die in mid-sentence, and there would not even be the slightest pause to indicate to you that anything untoward had happened. Nor would the new, substitute 'I' to which my own 'I', in dying, gave birth have the slightest suspicion that its memories and sense of identity were illusory.

Is this a soul? The flip side of the belief in a soul that survives the death of the body is substituting, for a relatively predictable contingency, one that is utterly unpredictable. Perhaps my soul will survive my body, perhaps not. A soul that God has given or created, God can take away or destroy at any time. An uncreated soul that for no reason at all just popped into existence — like matter out of black holes? — can just as easily pop out of existence. Both Locke and Kant have interesting things to say about the soul idea. Locke is pragmatic. Personal identity is a 'forensic' concept. All we are interested in is who to praise or blame, reward or punish. Suppose a person's 'soul' were replaced every morning by a numerically different soul bearing the very same memories. That would not matter in the least to us. Equally, someone who by some freak cosmic accident acquires the character and memories of Hitler is Hitler. He is disposed to think and act in every way like the original, and is every bit as dangerous. While we hesitate to 'punish', he secretly laughs us to scorn. Generations of students have learned how to refute Locke, but that is not my interest here. Suppose Locke is right. When I wonder whether this will be here a minute from now, I am not speculating about the existence of some unknowable metaphysical substrate, the ghostly container of all my qualities of character and memory. The substrate could change and still be this. Or it could remain the very same while this flickered out.

In the 'Paralogisms', Kant makes a similar point about the continuity of the Cartesian soul, this time in relation to his notion of the 'transcendental unity of apperception'. All that belongs essentially to the 'I' can be grasped in terms of mental action, the essential task that the 'I think' has to perform. Something is immediately given; but that something only becomes an object for a subject when thought interprets it as the perception of material particulars inhabiting a unified spatio- temporal world. What thought does is 'synthesize': imagination and judgement combine to draw a picture of a world as it would appear to a perceiving subject that, in the course of its travels, gained unrestricted access to every nook and cranny. The world is the world of 'my possible experience'. The unity of function is all that matters: to infer from that the unity of a mental 'substance' that does the function is to fall into Descartes' illusion of interpreting the necessary unity of perception as the perception of a unitary subject. Kant argues, just like Locke, that a series of mental subjects, each taking over where the previous one leaves off, would work just as well, would produce the very same phenomenon of 'self'. Locke's ghostly mental substrate becomes Kant's unknowable 'noumenon', the thinking subject as it is, not for experience or thought, but 'in itself'. The numerical 'sameness' or 'difference' of noumenal subject (if one will permit, as Kant does, this temporary transgression of the bounds of sense in talking of numbers) in no way affects the continuity of this. Yet there is a question of continuity which Kant avoids, even though it is staring him in the face: what this is is my world, the world of my possible experience. Surely my world could cease, even while the world remained unaffected? In the world, there would be a person giving a talk just as I am to you now, only this, my world would be absent. What is it then that keeps my world going? Am I not balanced over a precipice, into which I might fall at any moment — without even needing to be pushed?

There is, of course, a solution to this problem which may have occurred to some of you. There is no this. To be sure, there is GK, the person talking to you; and there is also something that it is 'like to be' GK, to use Nagel's phrase, something that, given the facts about the nature of subjectivity, GK knows in a special way, though given his proneness to self-deception and mood-swings is far from being a reliable authority about on every occasion; while others can get to know it with more or less difficulty, and one or two persons know very well — on occasions too well for comfort. That is all. Posit GK, and you have posited 'what it is like' to be GK, in just the same sense as you have posited each of GK's physical attributes. Take 'what it is like' to be GK away, and you either have a 'zombified' GK or nothing, depending on your view about the possibility of zombies. The idea that there is something indescribable 'given' to me, apart from all that forms the potential subject matter of public discourse, which is the 'real essential I', and which could either be present or absent while leaving all the rest unaffected, is sheer nonsense. — Well, I don't agree.

How could one prove the existence of this? What would count as a proof? Suppose this doesn't exist: then what? I have already admitted that whether or not there is this — not some 'this', but this 'this', my this — makes no difference to you, 'my' audience. Even if I could 'prove' something to myself, what would that prove to you? So let me just assert, without proof, what is to count as a proof here. How things may or may not be with me, or indeed with any person other than each one of you, your individual selves, is not your concern. As the solipsist says in reply to the facile objection that there would be no point in arguing if she really believed her own theory, 'Just think about your own case, and forget about me.' As to what sense we are to make of any conclusion that we succeed in 'agreeing' on, let us cross that bridge when we come to it.

You might call my argument, 'proof by counterfactual intuition'. If you share my intuitions concerning what might have been the case, then you must either accept my conclusion — as it applies to your own selves — or be faced with an incoherence in your own system of beliefs: a so-called 'illusion' that you are incapable of sincerely thinking to be a mere illusion. Call it if you like a 'problem to be solved', refuse to draw a conclusion: then you will at least permit me to draw mine, and others theirs. To participate in the dialectic, you must take a position, if only for the sake of argument.

It is possible to get oneself into the mood of being amazed that there is anything at all: just to think that there is a world where there might have been no world; not just any world but our world with its particular attributes, in the place of other worlds with other attributes. It is the ultimate, seemingly inexplicable, brute fact of objective existence. A lot of philosophy has flowed under that bridge. But counterfactual intuition tells me that that is not all there is. For in our inexplicably contingent world with all its contingent attributes, including the attribute of containing the individual GK, there might have been no I, no this. There is a possible world which differs only from the actual world in not containing this. I cannot offer any further explanation of how I am able to conceive of this difference except that it seems indubitable, unquestionable. My being here appears to me as an ultimate, inexplicable, brute contingency on top of, or besides the brute contingency of the world's being here. Were I to ask God why I am here, no answer could satisfy me, for no matter what reasons were put forward why the world is a better place for having GK in it, I should still want to know why GK had also to be I.

I am glad I am here. I am glad that the world is the GK-world with this in it and not the GK-world without this. It is strange to think that in the other world GK utters exactly the same words, feels exactly the same mixture of gratitude and complacency. Obviously, I cannot doubt his sincerity, yet for all that we are not two of a kind. Though it is initially tempting to think of the other GK having another 'this' just like mine, only lacking the 'thisness' of my this — a temptation to which I succumbed in talking earlier of my old 'I' giving birth to a new 'I' — the temptation must be resisted. This cannot be any 'kind' of thing, such as a 'this-substance' or 'soul'. This-substances would be just another class of objects, in addition to physical objects. With the inventory of existents thus enlarged, one could run exactly the same counterfactual argument as before. How many different 'this-substances' are there available to be the 'I' or 'this' of my opposite number? Let us be generous and say infinitely many, each with its own peculiar, unique but indescribable quality of 'thisness'. But just as I can think of a GK who is not I inhabiting the very same physical world, possessing the very same physical properties, so I can grant him the very same non-physical properties, however they might be construed, including a soul, a this-substance, qualitatively indistinguishable from my soul. This is not any kind of substance or thing but rather a perspective, a standpoint in relation to things. And each of us must think of our standpoint as necessarily unique. — Just as there can be only one now, so there can be only one this.

The trouble, as we have seen, with this singular, egocentric standpoint is that it appears utterly precarious. With no substance of its own to carry it along, to give it, as it were, some inertia or momentum, it seems completely arbitrary and accidental whether or not it survives from one moment to the next. I think that if that were the case, then one would indeed have good reason to live in constant terror. It would be little comfort to know that one would never see death coming. If a sniper is on the loose, it is hardly reassuring to be told that by the time the sound of the rifle reaches you, you will already be dead. But it is just here that one is deceived by a powerful illusion. Suppose one asks, Just what is it that 'appears' precarious? I have this sense of something having been with me a long time, which could slip from my grasp at any moment. The very statement of my fear, however, already betrays confusion. What is the 'something'? what is 'my'? The something I fear to lose is all this: my world, my self. It now seems I should have said that I had a sense of my having 'been with me a long time'. Yet that would make sense only if I might have 'been with me' only a relatively short time, which seems absurd. It is, admittedly, a sobering truth that GK is two years into his fifth decade and feeling his age. But suppose now one asks, How would things appear if I, that is to say this, had 'been with me' only a very short time, say, a week, or, better, one second? — I am asking a rhetorical question.

This sounds like the point Locke and Kant were making, but it isn't. They were each making a 'verificationist' claim — not in a pejorative sense — against conceptions of what is essential to a self that render its identity undeterminable in principle. Locke says don't worry that you can't track the invisible mental substrate or container, just concentrate on its contents. Kant diagnoses the fallacy that leads us to think that we can have direct, unmediated knowledge of the mental agent that does our thinking and experiencing, when in fact we have merely fallaciously inferred back from the a priori conditions of experience, conditions which hold regardless of what the subject ultimately is 'in itself'. What we, by contrast, are now in the process of discovering is that the this, the thing I have called my 'essential I', as a reality constituted by its own appearance, as a 'standpoint' and not a 'substance', is glued to the now.

I once wrote: 'My subjective world, as a reality constituted by its own appearance, only appears to continue; and that appearance itself is something which neither "continues" nor "fails to continue", for in itself it is nothing. My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than that very moment.' — That is close enough to what I want to say, if one will allow that when one is talking about metaphysical absolutes, choosing the appropriate words is merely a matter of preferring one form of nonsense over another. I am not altogether happy about saying that it is 'as if' my world had never existed. Does it make sense to say of the present moment that it is as if it had never existed? But let that pass. If I have a 'new' thought, it is that my world, or what I started off calling this, seems to occupy a 'timeless present' analogous to that traditionally ascribed to the Deity. Wittgenstein once wrote, 'Eternal life belongs to one who lives in the present.'

The point was recently put to me in discussion that, far from assuaging one's fear in the face of death, I have merely substituted a far greater terror: that my life is a constant process of dying, that nothing lasts and every moment is the end. My reply was rather superficial, and something to the effect that, 'At least that is something one can get used to,' and in any event, there is 'nothing that counts' as acting on this terror, as there is with those who would go to any lengths to ward of their inevitable demise. — I wonder if that is correct.

© Geoffrey Klempner 1993

Read to a meeting of the University of Warwick Philosophy Society 15th February 1993