On Fearing Death

Many of my philosophical interests stem from my fear of death. For instance, I’ve thought a lot about the philosophy of religion, because there’s a central part of me that wants God to exist. I want God to exist because I want heaven to exist. And I want heaven to exist because I want to go there. I don’t want there to be nothing after I die. Nothingness scares the heck out of me.

Philosophers have talked a lot of death. Lucretius, for example, argued that it’s irrational to fear death because post-mortem nonexistence is analogous to pre-birth nonexistence, and since we don’t fear the latter, we shouldn’t fear the former. This is referred to as The Symmetry Argument.

I have found this to be unconvincing, because fear is a forward-directional emotion. I fear death because it’s in the future. I don’t fear things in the past.

Let's take going to the dentist as an example. Now I fear going to the dentist. In fact, I’d even say that I have a phobia. So if I have a dentist appointment next month, it's a certainty that I’m going to be afraid of it. But this doesn't mean that I’d be afraid of the last time I went. Of course I wouldn't be. It already happened! So even if post-mortem nonexistence is the same state as pre-birth nonexistence, the fact that death is in the future makes the difference.

Assuming that Lucretius’ argument fails, it means that it’s not irrational to fear death. But from that it doesn’t follow that fearing death is rational. So is it? I think so.

Fearing death is rational because it’s rational to fear things that are bad for you. And death is bad for you. (There’s a technical distinction between death as a state and as a transition, but I’m going to leave that out.) The reason why I think death is bad for you is because it robs us of future goods. If I die today, it means that I won’t continue doing philosophy and experiencing all the other things that I think are good.

However, I do think that death could be good for someone. Like if you’re a captured spy and you’re going to be slowly tortured to death, then killing yourself may be good for you. What determines if death is good for you or not is how it would affect your total amount of well-being. Your total amount of well-being is determined by your total positives minus your total negatives. What a positive and negative looks like depends on what theory of well-being you adhere to. Anyway, if dying at a particular time lowers your total amount of well-being compared to what it would be if you were not to die, then death is bad for you. Likewise, if dying at a particular time raises your total amount of well-being compared to what it would be if you were not to die, then death is good for you.

In my case, since my life is going well, death would be bad for me. Thus, I don’t want to die today or tomorrow. I don’t want to die for a really long time. That said, I may live till the day when continuing living would lower my total amount of well-being. If that day comes, then death would be good for me. And perhaps on that day, I’ll stop fearing it.

Morality and Religion

One of the reasons why I’m not Christian is because I disagree with its sexual ethics. Recently, I’ve been thinking about whether or not my objection to Christian sexual ethics gives me a sufficient reason to reject Christianity. I’m thinking yes, and the argument goes something like this:

  1. Arriving at a moral judgment after good philosophical reasoning provides a person with a sufficiently legitimate reason to believe in that moral judgment.
  2. I have arrived at the following moral judgment after good philosophical reasoning: Sodomy is morally permissible.
  3. Therefore, I have a sufficiently legitimate reason to believe that sodomy is morally permissible. This follows 1 and 2.
  4. It's rational for a person to reject a religion, if the religion advocates for a moral position that opposes the person’s moral judgment that she has a sufficiently legitimate reason to believe in.
  5. Christianity advocates for such an opposing position.
  6. Therefore, it is rational for me to reject Christianity. This follows from 4 and 5. 

Graduate School and Mental Health

I consider myself to be a mentally resilient person. Failures and setbacks don’t really get to me, and when they do, I bounce back reasonably fast. That said, I have to admit that grad school has significantly tested my limits. In the past four and a half years, I’ve gotten so many rejections from journals and conferences that I’ve seriously doubted my worth. It got so bad that I went to see a therapist. And it now seems like I'm not going to find a job this year, even though I applied to over 70.

That’s right. I applied to more than 70 jobs and none of them want me.

That’s a hard reality to accept. Of course I knew the job market was tough before going into the program, but I still feel incapable and hopeless. To be clear, I tried my hardest. I have never tried so hard at anything in my entire life. Moreover, I did everything I was supposed to do and then some. But it still wasn't enough.

One of the worst parts of this whole thing is that you’re competing against your friends, which creates internal emotional conflict. On the one hand, you want them to succeed, so you’re happy when they publish an article or get an interview. But, on the other hand, you want a job, so it’s simultaneously disheartening to hear their successes. It’s come to the point where I don’t want to look at their CVs, because I’m afraid of what I’ll find.

What's unfortunate is that mental health issues are not talked about enough on an official level. Perhaps it’s because people aren’t that open about their mental struggles or perhaps it’s because philosophy departments just don’t know how to deal with it. I don’t know. But I do know that I don't feel like I can discuss this topic with any professor in the department. I feel like it'd be crossing some professional boundary.

Having said all this, I don’t regret going to grad school. Despite all the hardships that I've endured, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do with my life. I love philosophy, and I really want to be a professor. So I guess I’ll just keep going, hopefully with my head up.