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The Lucretian Symmetry Argument (Part One)

John Danaher

Ethical Technology

February 15, 2013

Death looms large for most of us, even if we try not to think about it. But should we be worried at the prospects of our eventual demise? Should we do everything we can to avoid it (e.g. by opting for cryopreservation)? Or should we approach it with indifference and equanimity?


Complete entry


Posted by Rick Searle  on  02/17  at  08:47 PM

This is a really interesting argument, John.

What I wonder though is whether Lucretius is really making a point about the relationship between death and suffering. What he seems to be saying is that death is ultimately a “good” in that entails the absence of suffering and want- the same lack of suffering and want experienced before birth.

The future bias might cancel out here because the only choice available outside of non-being is suffering. Therefore we can look on death as a sort of “good.”

Posted by CygnusX1  on  02/18  at  05:02 AM

“1) The state of pre-natal non-being is not bad for us.

(2) Post-mortem non-being (death) is the same as pre-natal non-being, in all important respects.

(3) Therefore, death is not bad for us.”

Unfortunately this logic falls at the first fence since these non-existence states are neither “good” nor “bad” for us, then they are equally “not good” for us either? Back to square one?

Argument for “Ignorance” of any pre-natal/post-death experience can be used to “ease suffering” caused by fear and anxiety of death, and moreover, there are many other more therapeutic and beneficial arguments and rationale to overcome these fears, especially including the theosophical. Yet these arguments do not solve the dilemma “is death bad for us”?

However, “Premature death” IS bad. So the dilemma is now to decide what we reject as unacceptably premature?

Posted by CygnusX1  on  02/18  at  05:32 AM

1. Extensive suffering is often used as argument for euthanasia. Yet this by no measure makes death acceptable nor “good”.

2. Physical and psychological suffering, including anxiety and fear of death, CAN be mitigated and even overcome with deliberation, tenacity and enterprise.

3. Assuming suffering is mitigated, death will never be acceptable even after n+years, using the same rationale that premature death is not acceptable for us now, here today?

4. There can be no logical argument to justify death/demise as good where existence may prevail?

5. The Universe and biological evolution perpetuates life forces and copying of species DNA with great accuracy as existence is deemed logical as compared with non-existence?

Posted by CygnusX1  on  02/18  at  05:48 AM

To add further emphasis to point 5 above

6. By the same measure that impartial Universal forces perpetuate existence over non-existence, despite of any preferential thinking bias, Human, (and intelligent machine), minds may yet apply the same determination and logical argument for continued existence over demise and non-existence?

Posted by Rick Searle  on  02/18  at  09:05 AM


I am not quite making the argument that suffering can be a justification for death, but this is one way to read Lucretius, and indeed is the stance taken by two of the world’s major religions-
Hinduism and Buddhism- where the problem isn’t death as is the assumption in Western culture, but constant rebirth. Fear of this suffering, or even the constant low level suffering or I should add dread at the weight of the mundane, seems an at least intuitively valid argument and seems to add a new element into the future orientation element in John’s piece.

I would add to suffering as in pain the weight of sheer boring mundane behaviors that lie in weight for those who would live forever.
Or, how many times would an immortal brush her teeth?

Posted by CygnusX1  on  02/18  at  11:13 AM

@ Rik

Sorry, my comment was in response to the questions posed from the article. However, your comment still does not justify death as “not bad for us”?

I think you have it wrong with your summation of eastern philosophies also. Indeed the goal is to escape samsara, yet neither of these advocate “ultimate death” and demise, nor suicide as means to mitigate suffering.

Buddhism advocates understanding and mitigation of suffering through dispassion and rejection of clinging and grasping, (wants, needs and emotion), however nirvana/nibbana does not equate to nihilism, and is not pursued by quickening of death.

Hinduism philosophies advaita, Vishishtadvaita, and dvaita which comprise most forms followed today do not advocate total demise nor euthanasia either, with advaita closest to Buddhist contemplation of emptiness, and the latter pertaining to eternal bliss and union with godhead.

All of the above rely on the attainment of enlightenment, for which “premature death” is obstruction.

Posted by Rick Searle  on  02/18  at  06:17 PM


Oh, I have no desire to get into the minutiae of Buddhist or Hindu religious philosophy, but I think you have missed out on some important details.

Original Buddhist thought towards the question of suicide has some resemblance to the thoughts on suicide that were held by the stoics, that because life and the individual are not the ultimate value, suicide might sometimes be the courageous and proper thing to do.

In the early extant Buddhists scriptures, the Pāli Canon, the Buddha lauds the suicide of one person, Chana, as enlightenedand seems sympathetic to the suicides of two others- Godhika, and Vakkail. 

In terms of Hinduism, there we find the idea of prayopavesa, which is essentially suicide through fasting. This practice is reserved for only the highest religious persons who have shed all social obligations.

Both these Buddhist and Hindu concepts make sense within the frame of reference their faiths provide. Namely, that the goal of the individual is not to continue to exist, but to escape the cycle of birth-suffering and death. 

Both acknowledge the danger of making suicide a generally acceptable principle including the reality that people who are in an emotionally heightened state might see such an option as an easy escape from their pain, and who because of those who love and depend upon them will suffer from such suicides they discourage it. Instead, suicide is reserved for only those who have reached the highest spiritual state, and are free of social dependents. 

I think the meaning of Lucretius’ thoughts on death cannot be properly understood without keeping this something similar to the Buddhist or Hindu view as regards to the close relationship between life and suffering in mind. If you read Lucretius’ Of the Nature of Things you will see that he thinks the reason we fear death is that we imagine (while alive of course!) what suffering we will undergo when dead when, even to go so far as all the good things we will miss out on when not here, but if we looked at it squarely we would see death entails no suffering at all- indeed the end of all suffering. 

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