When we are, death is not; when death is, we are not.
Some say people hold to religion because of its comforts. A superficial way of thinking given religion's moral demands and the fears it inspires. It was precisely such fears for which Epicurean materialism was prescribed as anodyne.
Materialism has its comforts too. Will you then say that people believe it because it is comforting?
Materialism has its comforts but it also renders human life meaningless. That goes on the debit side of the balance sheet.
Herewith, a rumination on death with Epicurus as presiding shade. The following two propositions are both logically inconsistent and yet very plausible:
1. Being dead is not an evil for anyone at any time.
2. Being dead at a young age is an evil for some.
Obviously, the limbs of the dyad cannot both be true. Each entails the negation of the other. And yet each limb lays serious claim to our acceptance.
(1) is rendered credible by Epicurean reasoning along the following lines. It is reasonably maintained that bodily death is annihilation of the self or person. Now in the absence of a person, there is nothing to possess properties, experiential or not, such as being conscious, being dead, being nonexistent, etc. We are assuming that a person's corpse cannot be the subject of the putative state of being dead. When I am dead and thus nonexistent my corpse will continue to exist for a time. (Assuming my end doesn't come in the form of 'vaporization.') But I am not my corpse. My being dead is not my corpse's being dead, for it is not dead: only what was once alive can properly be said to be dead, and my corpse is never alive. I am dead, if I am, not my corpse. So my corpse cannot be the subject of the putative state of my being dead. And anyway my being dead will obtain at future times when my corpse will not exist. So for this reason too my corpse cannot be the subject of the putative state of my being dead.
There is, then, no subject of being dead if death is annihilation. Since there is no subject, there is, strictly speaking, no state of my being dead. A state is a state of something in the state, and in this case nothing is in the state. It follows that the 'state' of my being dead cannot be an evil state. There is no such state, so it can't be evil -- or good, or anything. It furthermore follows that being dead cannot rationally be feared -- or looked forward to either. 'I'll be glad when I'm dead 'makes as little sense given the cogency of the Epicurean reasoning as 'I'll be sad when I'm dead' or Warren Zevon's 'I'll sleep when I'm dead.'
Support for (2) has its source in a widely-accepted intuition. Suppose a happy, healthy, well-situated 20 year old full of life and promise dies suddenly and painlessly in a freak accident. Almost all will agree that in cases like this being dead (which we distinguish from both the process and the event of dying) is an evil, and therefore neither good nor axiologically neutral. It is an evil for the person who is dead whether or not it is an evil for anyone else. It is an evil because it deprives him of all the intrinsic goods he would have enjoyed had he not met an untimely end.
It is not quite the same for the 90 year old. One cannot be deprived of the impossible (as a matter of conceptual necessity), and the older one gets the closer the approach to the nomologically impossible. (I assume that there is some age -- 150? -- at which it become nomologically impossible for what could reasonably count as a human being to continue to live.) So one cannot employ the same reasoning in the two cases. If we say that the being dead of the 20 year old is bad because it deprives him of future goods, we cannot give the same reason for the badness ( if it is badness) of the being dead of the 90 year old. Someone who lives a life that is on balance happy and healthy and productive and then dies of natural causes at 90 or 100 is arguably not deprived of anything by his being dead.
The problem, then, is that (1) and (2) cannot both be true, yet each is plausible.
Epicurus (circa 341-271 B.C.) wrote the following to a disciple:
I understand from you that your natural disposition is too much inclined toward sexual passion. Follow your inclinations as you will provided only that you neither violate the laws, disturb well-established customs, harm any one of your neighbors, injure your own body, nor waste your possessions. That you be not checked by some one of these provisos is impossible; for a man never gets any good from sexual passion, and he is fortunate if he does not receive harm. (Italics added, Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, trans. R. M. Geer, Macmillan, 1987, pp. 69-70)
Had Bill Clinton heeded this advice, kept his penis in harness, and his paws off the overweight intern, he might have left office with an impressive legacy indeed. But instead he will schlep down the centuries tied to Monica like Abelard to Heloise -- except for the fact that he got off a lot easier than poor Abelard.
Closer to home is the case of Robert Blake whose lust led him into a tender trap that turned deadly. He was very lucky to be acquitted of the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakeley. Then there was the case of the dentist whose extramural activities provoked his dentist wife to run him down with the family Mercedes. The Bard had it right: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
Most recently, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has secured himself a place in the annals of libertinage while wrecking his career. Ah, those sophisticated Frenchmen.
This litany of woe can be lengthened ad libitum. My motive is not Schadenfreude, but a humble desire to learn from the mistakes of others. Better that they rather than I should pay my tuition in the school of Hard Knocks. Heed me, muchachos, there is no more delusive power on the face of the earth than sex. Or as a Turkish proverb has it, Erkegin sheytani kadindir, "Man's devil is woman." And conversely.
1. Death is annihilation. (Materialist assumption) 2. A harm is a harm to someone or something: for there to be a harm, there must be a subject of harm. (Conceptual truth) 3. Nothing is a subject of a harm at a time at which it does not exist. (Plausible principle) Therefore 4. No dead person is a subject of harm. Therefore 5. Death (being dead) cannot be a harm to one who is dead.
Assuming that (1) is accepted, the only way of resisting this argument is by rejecting (3). And it must be admitted that (3), though plausible, can be reasonably rejected. Suppose I promise a dying man that I will take good care of his young and healthy dog. But I renege on my promise in order to save myself the hassle by having the dog euthanized. Epicurus in hand, I reason, "There is no harm to my friend since he doesn't exist, and there is no harm to the dog because its transition to nonexistence will be quick and painless. Caring for the dog, however, is a harm to me. Sure, I will break my promise, but on consequentialist grounds, what's wrong with that?"
Thomas Nagel would disagree and call my reneging "an injury to the dead man." ("Death" in Mortal Questions, Cambridge UP, 1979, p. 6) For Nagel, "There are goods and evils which are irreducibly relational; they are features of the relations between a person, with spatial and temporal boundaries of the usual sort, and circumstances which may not coincide with him either in space or in time." (p. 6) Death is such an evil. Being dead is a circumstance that does not temporally coincide with the decedent. In other words, a thing can have properties at times at which it does not exist provided it once existed. (Few if any would claim that a thing can have properties at times at which it does not exist if it never existed. And so it is not an evil for Schopenhauer's never- existent son 'Will' that he never existed.)
A Nagelian rejection of (3) is respectable and plausible as a means of turning aside the Epicurean argument. But it is scarcely compelling. For the Epicurean can simply insist that there are no relational harms. After all, there is something metaphysically murky about maintaining that a person who is nothing is yet the subject of a harm or injury simply on the strength of his having once existed. If you are now nothing, then you are now nothing: why should your once having been be relevant?
So it looks like a stand-off, an aporetic impasse. The considerations for and against (3) seem to cancel each other.
One consideration in favor of (3) is presentism, the doctrine that the present time and its contents alone exist. If the present alone exists, then past individuals do not exist at all. If so, they cannot be subject to harms. A consideration contrary to (3) is our strong intuition that harms and injuries can indeed be inflicted upon the dead. The dead may not have desires, but we are strongly inclined to say that they have interests, interests subject to violation. (The literary executor who burns the manuscripts entrusted to him; the agent of Stalin who deletes references to Trotsky from historical documents, etc.)
Are there nonexistent objects in the sense in which Meinong thought there are? One reason to think so derives from the problem of reference to the dead. The problem can be displayed as an aporetic tetrad:
1. A dead person no longer exists. 2. What no longer exists does not exist at all. 3. What does not exist at all cannot be referred to or enter as a constituent into a state of affairs. 4. Some dead persons can be referred to and can enter as constituents into states of affairs. (For example, 'John Lennon' in 'John Lennon is dead' refers to John Lennon, who is a constituent of the state of affairs, John Lennon's being dead.)
Despite the plausibility of each member, the above quartet is logically inconsistent. The first three propositions entail the negation of the fourth. Indeed, any three entail the negation of the remaining one. Now (1) and (4) count as data due to their obviousness. They are 'datanic' as opposed to 'theoretical' like the other two. Therefore, to relieve the logical tension we must either reject (2) or reject (3).
To reject (2) is to reject Presentism according to which only temporally present items exist. One could hold that both past and present items (tenselessly) exist, or that past, present, and future items (tenselessly) exist. Such anti-presentist theories break the two-way link between existence and temporal presentness: what is temporally present exists, but what exists need not be temporally present.
But another option is to reject (3). One could adopt the view of Alexius von Meinong according to which there are items that stand jenseits von Sein und Nichtsein, "beyond being and nonbeing." These items have no being whatsoever. Meinong's examples include the golden mountain (a possible object) and the round square (an impossible object). His doctrine was misunderstood by Russell and generations of those influenced by him. The doctrine is not that nonexistent objects have a mode of being weaker than existence, but that they have no being whatsoever. And yet they are not nothing! They are not nothing inasmuch as we can refer to them and predicate properties of them. They are definite items of thought possessing Sosein but no Sein, but are not mere accusatives of thought. A strange view, admittedly, and I do not accept it. (See my A Paradigm Theory of Existence, Kluwer 2002, pp. 38-42.) But distinguished philosophers have and do: Butchvarov, Castaneda, T. Parsons, Routley/Sylvan, et al.)
So Meinongianism is a theoretical option. The Meinongian line gives us a way to answer Epicurus. For Epicurus death is not an evil because when we are, death is not, and when death is, we are not. The point is that at no time is there a subject possessing the property of being dead. When I am alive, I am not dead. And when I am dead, I do not exist. It is not just that when I am dead I no longer presently exist, but that I do not exist at all. (Presentism seems part and parcel of the Epicurean position.) And because I do not exist at all when I am dead, I cannot have properties. (Anti-Meinongianism is also part and parcel of the Epicurean position: existence is a necessary condition of property-possession.) But then I cannot, when dead, have the property of being dead, in which case there is no state of affairs of my being dead. And that gives us a deep ontological reason for denying that death is an evil: if there is no state of affairs of my being dead, then there is nothing to possess the property of being evil. (Note that it is not the property of being dead that is evil, or me the individual, but the putative state of affairs of my being dead.)
As I read Epicurus, his position on death, namely, that being dead is not an evil for the one who is dead, requires both Presentism and Anti-Meinongianism. If that is right, then one can answer Epicurus either by rejecting Presentism or by accepting Meinongianism.
Anti-Presentism breaks the two-way link between existence and temporal presentness, while Meinongianism breaks the two-way link between existence and property-possession. The anti-presentist faces the challenge of giving a coherent account of tenseless existence, while the Meinongian owes us an explanation of how there can be items which actually have properties while having no being whatsoever. Epicureanism maintains both links but flies in the face of the powerful intuition that death is an evil.
A good solution eludes us. And so once again we end up in good old Platonic fashion up against the wall of an aporia.
A reader suggests that the "Epicurean argument leads to nihilism. Why live if death is not an evil to you? (assuming there is no one to grieve you)."
In Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus makes the point that death is ". . . of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist. It is therefore nothing either to the living or the dead since it is not present to the living, and the dead no longer are." (125)
If this is the Epicurean argument, then I do not see how it leads to nihilism, if 'leads to' means 'entails' and if nihilism is the view that life is not worth the trouble. The Epicurean point is not that death is good but that it is axiologically neutral: neither good nor bad. This follows from his assumption that ". . . all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death." If being dead were good, then I think one could reasonably infer nihilism. For if being dead were good, then being alive would be either bad or neutral, both of which are forms of nihilism.
But the Epicurean view is that being dead is value-neutral whence it follows that being alive is either good or bad, and only one of these is nihilism. Therefore, the Epicurean position does not entail nihilism.
It is worth noting that the historical Epicurus had a therapeutic end in view: he wanted to relieve us of our fear of death. This soteriological motive is at the back of his claim that death is nothing to us. Because it is nothing to us, we have nothing to fear from it. So if you accused him of nihilism he would probably respond with au contraire or rather the Greek equivalent. He would probably say that his purpose is a life-affirming one. His aim is to make men happy by removing from them the fear of death.
To clear Epicurus of the charge of nihilism is of course not to pronounce his position probative.