May 15, 2012

Is death bad for you?

Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan asks a question that should be of interest to both radical life extension advocates and utilitarians who argue that we should bring as much life into the universe as possible: Is death bad for you?

Much of Kagan's argument is derived from an interesting question posed by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who wrote, "So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more." In other words, non-existence cannot be said to be a bad thing in-and-of-itself. But Kagan aptly notes that this issue is much more complicated than that:
Moreover, there are a lot of merely possible people. How many? Well, very roughly, given the current generation of seven billion people, there are approximately three million billion billion billion different possible offspring—almost all of whom will never exist! If you go to three generations, you end up with more possible people than there are particles in the known universe, and almost none of those people get to be born.

If we are not prepared to say that that's a moral tragedy of unspeakable proportions, we could avoid this conclusion by going back to the existence requirement. But of course, if we do, then we're back with Epicurus' argument. We've really gotten ourselves into a philosophical pickle now, haven't we? If I accept the existence requirement, death isn't bad for me, which is really rather hard to believe. Alternatively, I can keep the claim that death is bad for me by giving up the existence requirement. But then I've got to say that it is a tragedy that Larry and the other untold billion billion billions are never born. And that seems just as unacceptable.


Lincoln Cannon said...

Here are some of my thoughts on Kagan's related work:

flappah said...

I do get the billions, billions, billions nr of combination argument, however, and I understand this is purely an academic point of reasoning, aren't we limited to the number of genetic possibilities instead of the combinatory result? And since there are something like 3 billion base pairs in the human genome and each basepair can be stored in 2 bits, isn't this equal to a maximum of roughly 12 billion varieties of humans? And the majority of that probably can't even exist since it is an invalid combination of base pairs. So 7 billion probably guarantees you there's somewhere in the world an exact copy of oneself only to differ because of different environmental stimuli!

Unknown said...

Is death bad for me?

Only while I'm still alive.