What are some criticisms of Epicurus' "death is nothing to us"?

  • Epicurus famously asserted that death should not be feared, with roughly the following argument:

    1. When we die, we no longer exist;
    2. Since we no longer exist, we can feel neither pain nor pleasure. Rather, we simple "are not";
    3. Therefore, there is nothing to fear in death, as death literally is nothing from our perspective.

    Is this argument logically sound, though? In its brevity it seems to be leaving out a plethora of other considerations that can easily make death a very fearsome thing. For example, one may fear leaving behind one's family, being forgotten without a legacy, or one may fear "nothing" itself, as "not existing" is a fairly mysterious - and therefore possibly disturbing - notion itself. Or are the former not directly related to death, and is the latter illogical?

    In response to one of the answers below, I thought it would be pertinent to clarify my main concern: assuming that in death there is no perception nor experience, what criticisms of Epicurus' argument remain? I appreciate the answer from the dualist perspective, but I was also hoping for something more scrutinizing of Epicurus' assertion that "if there is no experience in death, it should not be feared."

    Have any authors written about this?

    Death may be nothing **to us**, but it is also the loss of all of our potential future actions. So it is surely not nothing to **the world around us**. Anyone who could not fear death would already have abandoned active, or even passive, engagement in the world.

    See other answer below. His assumption is "fears" arise from and within "experience," therefore the absence of experience cannot be a rational source of fear. But fear is, by definition, an anticipation of something unexperienced, not the effect of an experience.

    OK, so no one who has never fallen 50 feet cannot fear heights. I think that is too lame even for a presocratic hermit. We constantly fear many things outside our experience.

    @Nelson Alexander. So by your "logic" if a crocodile eat one hand of you, and after some years you encounter another crocodile that is ready to eat your second hand then you will experience no fear because you are aware of such an experience? Please my friend...

    Not at all. Of course we are dealing with experiences on the normal "fear" side of the issue. But logically what we are "afraid of" is not that which already happened to Captain Hook, but that possible second bite which is still anticipated. Epicurus refers to an eventuality which, by his own definition, is an absolute absence of all experience. Yet he maintains we can draw a logical inference as to whether or not to "fear" it. My point concurs with yours. Total absence of experience is not a logical basis for such judgments.

    Again, as a physicalist, Epicurus claims there is no "mind or experience after death." Yet as a Stoic, he aserts some transcendental reasoning that accounts for this knowledge of events in the absolute "absence of all experience." Presumably, he has never died. Nor acquired this knowledge from someone who did. This is why I say below he falls squarely afoul of Kant's limits on the judgments of "pure reason" and offers a classic antinomy.

    @jobermark just wondered if theres any sense to say that death is nothing for us, but where death is we will be? maybe sounds to crazy

    @NelsonAlexander would totally like an answer from anyone !!! :)

    Where our death is we *won't* be, so we had better not have opinions on what happens there, or we will be disappointed about our lack of ability to encourage them to happen, while we are still alive. When we have a will to power and lack power, our will is thwarted. Epicurus and Gautama have a lot in common: an honest Epicurean, at peace with death, would first have to attain detachment, and die into nirvanna.

  • Yes, many authors have written about this. Shelly Kagan of Yale comes to mind. His famous class on Death should prove to be informative. He also wrote a book. Kagan cites many philosophers (many of which I forget) throughout the series.

    Back to Epicurus; his argument is logically sound, except that you misrepresent the corollary. Philosophers that think death is bad think so not because there may be suffering in the afterlife (I don't know of any philosopher that argues this), but rather because life is precious. As a matter of fact, you could not believe in any sort of afterlife and still believe that death is bad. Losing something precious, is, after all, never a good thing. Whether bad things should be feared or not is another discussion.

    FYI, Kagan disagrees. He thinks that death may be good (he provides several very clever arguments) and that even suicide is morally justifiable - a pretty controversial position.

    A simple critique of the Epicurean position is the following:

    Epicurus: When we die, we no longer exist;
    Skeptic: What do you mean by no longer exist?
    Epicurus: Our body ceases to function, blood stops flowing, our neurons stop firing, etc.
    Skeptic: What about the soul?
    Epicurus: It's destroyed.
    Skeptic: How/why/what mechanism destroys the soul?
    Epicurus: Well the soul is corporeal. It dies with the body.
    And now our Skeptic unveils himself
    Descartes: The soul you describe is nothing but an extension of the body. The kind of soul I'm talking about exists even after bodily death and is non-corporeal therefore cannot die in the first place.

    So now we're at the mind-body problem. If you accept Epicurus' premise (and read what he has to say about the soul) you can circumvent this whole debacle. It's of note to say that most philosophers nowadays are not dualists and that Cartesian thought is a dying breed. Most, I think, would agree (at least in part) with Epicurus. Kagan certainly does.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM