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Dawkins and the “We are going to die” -Argument

Consider the following passage from Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people…”

"...In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?"


As Steven Pinker points out in his recent book, this is a rhetorically powerful passage. It is robust, punchy and replete with evocative and dramatic imagery (“the sand grains of Arabia”, “unborn ghosts”, “teeth of these stupefying odds”). Indeed, so powerful is it that many non-religious people — Dawkins included — have asked for it to be read at their funerals (click here to see Dawkins read the passage at public lecture to rapturous applause).

While I can certainly appreciate the quality of the writing, I am, alas, somewhat prone to “unweaving the rainbow” myself. If we stripped away the lyrical writing, what would we be left with? To be more precise, what kind of argument would we be left with? It seems to me that Dawkins is indeed trying to present some kind of argument: he has conclusions that he wants us to accept. Specifically, he wants us to be consoled by the fact that we are going to die; to stop whining about our deaths; to stop fearing our ultimate demise. And this is all because we are lucky to be alive. In this respect, I think that what Dawkins is doing is analogous to what the classic Epicurean writers did when they tried to soothe our death-related anxieties. But is his argument any good? That’s the question I will try to answer.

I’ll start by looking at the classic Epicurean arguments and draw out the analogy between them and what Dawkins is trying to do. Once that task is complete, I’ll try to formulate and evaluate Dawkins’s argument.


1. The Epicurean Tradition
There are two classic Epicurean arguments about death. The first comes from Epicurus himself; the second comes from Lucretius, who was a follower of Epicureanism. Epicurus’s argument is contained in the following passage:
 

Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer 
(Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus)


The argument is all about our attitude towards death (that is: the state of being dead, not the process of dying). Most people fear death. They think it among the greatest of the evils that befall us. But Epicurus is telling us they are wrong. The only things that are good or bad are conscious pleasure and pain. Death entails the absence of both. Therefore, death is not bad and we should stop worrying about it. I’ve discussed a more complicated version of this argument before, in case you are interested, but that’s the gist of it.

Let’s turn then to Lucretius’s argument. This one comes from a passage of De Rerum Natura, which I believe is the only piece of writing we have from Lucretius:
 

In days of old, we felt no disquiet... So, when we shall be no more — when the union of body and spirit that engenders us has been disrupted — to us, who shall then be nothing, nothing by any hazard will happen any more at all. Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that Nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead.


This argument builds upon that of Epicurus by adding a supporting analogy. This analogy asks us to compare the state of non-existence prior to our births with the state of non-existence after our deaths. Since the former is not something we worry about; so too should the latter “count to us as nothing”. This is sometimes referred to as the symmetry argument. This is because it argues that we should have a symmetrical attitude toward pre-natal and post-mortem non-existence. Some people think that Lucretius adds little to what Epicurus originally argued; some people think Lucretius’s argument has its own merits. Again, this is something I discussed in more detail before.

I won’t assess the merits of either argument here. Instead, I’ll just highlight some general features. Note how both arguments try to call our attention to some “surprising fact”: the centrality of pain and pleasure to our well-being, in Epicurus’s case (this might be less radical now than it was in his day); and our attitude to pre-natal non-existence, in Lucretius’s case. Then note how they both use this surprising fact to reorient our perspective on death. They both claim that this surprising fact has the implication that we should not join the masses in fearing our deaths; instead, we should treat our deaths with equanimity.


2. Dawkins’s and the Argument from Genetic Luck
My feeling is that Dawkins is trying to do the same thing in his “We are going die”-passage. Only in Dawkins’s case the “surprising fact” has nothing to do with conscious experience or our attitudes towards non-existence prior to birth, it has to do with the improbability of our existence in the first place.

So how should we interpret this argument? Look first to the wording. Dawkins seems to be concerned with those who spend their lives ‘whining’ about death. He thinks they don’t fully appreciate the rare ‘privilege’ they have in being alive at all, particularly when they compare their ordinariness to the set of possible people who could have existed. He tells them (actually all of us) that they are the “lucky ones” because they are going to die, not in spite of it.

This suggests that we could interpret Dawkins’s argument in something like the following form:

 

  • (1) If we are lucky to be alive, then we should not be upset by the fact that we are going to die.
  • (2) We are lucky to be alive.
  • (3) Therefore, we should not be upset by the fact that we are going to die.



How do the premises of this argument work? Let’s start with premise (1). The implication contained in the premise is that we should be grateful for the opportunity of being alive, even if that entails our deaths. This suggests that the argument is an argument from gratitude. He is telling us to be grateful for the rare privilege of dying. The problem I have with this is that gratitude has a somewhat uncertain place in a non-religious worldview. Gratitude is typically something we experience in our relationships with others. I am grateful to my parents for supporting me and paying for my education; I am grateful to my friends for buying me an expensive gift; and so on. If we think of our lives as being gifts from a benevolent creator, then being grateful, arguably, makes sense. But Dawkins is, famously, an atheist. So he must be relying on a different notion of gratitude. He must be saying that we should be grateful to the causal contingency of the natural order for allowing us to exist. But this seems perverse. The natural order is impersonal and uncaring: it just rolls along in accordance with certain causal laws. Why should we feel grateful to it? This same natural order is, after all, responsible for untold human suffering, e.g. suffering from natural disasters, viral infections, cancer and other unpleasantries. These are facets of the natural order that we tend not to accept. In fact, they are things we generally try to overcome. Why should we feel grateful for being plunged into a life filled with suffering of this sort? Couldn’t it be that death is one of the facets of life that we should use our ingenuity to overcome?

Now, I don’t want to be entirely dismissive of this line of argument. Michael Sandel and Michael Hauskeller have tried to articulate a secular, non-religious sense of gratitude that might fit with Dawkins’s argument (though I have my doubts). And I also don’t think that rejecting gratitude should lead us to resentment either. I don’t think resentment toward the natural order is any more appropriate than gratitude. Indeed, I suspect it may even be counter-productive. For example, if we take up the suggestion at the end of the previous paragraph — and think that we should use our ingenuity to overcome death — I suspect we will end up being pretty disappointed. That’s not to say that efforts to achieve life extension are to be rejected. It’s just to say that it’s probably unwise to make them hinge upon which you hang all your hopes and aspirations. I tend to favour a more stoic attitude to the natural order, which involves adjusting one’s hopes and desires so that they are reconciled with the likelihood of death.

I think these criticisms point toward the untenability of Dawkins’s argument — at least insofar as it attempts to console us about our deaths. But for the sake of completeness, let’s also consider the second premise. Is is true to say that we are lucky to be alive? Dawkins probably spends more time addressing this issue in the passage. He uses an argument from genetic luck: the set of possible combinations of DNA is vastly larger than the set of actual people, including you. Your particular combination of DNA is just a tiny, tiny slice of that probability space.

I would be inclined to accept this argument. I don’t doubt that set of possible people is much larger than the set of actual people. The question, of course, is whether all members of that set are equiprobable. Dawkins seems to think that they are. Indeed, he seems to adopt something akin to the principle of indifference when it comes to assessing the probability members of that set. Is this the right principle to adopt? I’m not sure. If one accepts causal determinism, then maybe my existence wasn’t lucky at all: it was causally predetermined by the previous events. It could never have been any other way. Still, I don’t the fact (if it is a fact) of causal determinism affect my probability judgments in relation to other, potentially causally determined, phenomena, like say national or state lotteries. So it probably shouldn’t affect my judgment in this case either.

In other words, I think premise (2) is okay. The real issue is with premise (1) and whether luck entails some change in our attitude toward death. As I said above, I don’t see why this has to be the case. 

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John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.



COMMENTS

Not normally a big fan of Dawkins but I can dig what he is saying.
We should pay more attention to the statistical miracle that we are here than the fact that we will not be. At least some of the fear of death originates with the anxiety of what it will be “like”. This is a psychological error- death will be for us what it was “like” before we were born. None of which entails that we shouldn’t maximize our time here and all of which, as John points out, was said by the Epicureans.

Also here:

http://utopiaordystopia.com/2013/12/21/an-epicurean-christmas-letter-to-transhumanists/

It’s not just about you, it’s not just a first-person observer experience, it’s about other people dying too. It’s about people you care about. My opinion the whole article beggars question on how death is to be beaten, if it ever is?

If the multiverse theory turns out to be true, there are other complications. If we weren’t born in this world we would have been born in another. All the millions who were never born um, they will have been born in other worlds. Luck and gratitude don’t come into it.

And let’s not get started on ‘quantum immortality’. If it’s true, then death is very much a misfortune, no God or supernatural agency required.

To embrace h+ they would need to distance themselves from some of their current beliefs, and the prospect scares them. At least that’s my take on it.

I think it’s more that their beliefs give them a sense of meaning in their lives. They know what to think, and they know what to do about it. Disturbing their belief system means disturbing the basis on which they think about issues and decide what to do. I don’t blame them for being scared.

By the way, I think Dawkins is doing something similar when he insists we are going to die. Until it became clear that radical life extension might be possible it’s what we all thought, irrespective of whether or not we took comfort in religious beliefs about resurrection etc. I suspect that Dawkins finds the idea of radical life extension disturbing, and I suspect Rick does too. For me the choice is not between paying more attention to “the statistical miracle that we are here” (whatever that means) or “the fact that we will not be”, it is a choice between seeing efforts to make radical life extension a reality more as an opportunity or more as a threat. Those who see it as a threat would, IMO, do better to explain why they see it as a threat than lecturing those of us who prefer to see it as an opportunity about the necessity of accepting death.

“My opinion the whole article beggars question on how death is to be beaten, if it ever is?”

Just been at a three-day symposium addressing precisely that question. So people are on it, spud100. But having read the article now (previously was just responding to comments), I do agree that the article is somehow missing the point, in the sense that it shares a grave error that Dawkins is making, namely in attempting to establish with rational argument how we should feel. That’s just not how feelings work. We fear death because we have inherited a survival instinct that makes us fear death. No rational argument about statistical miracles or whatever is going to change that.

Dawkins is also somewhat shamefully using straw-man tactics when he complains (one might say “whines”) about people “whining” about death. Some of us are doing more: we are trying to do something about it. I can certainly accept that in the vast majority of futures I cease to exist as recognisably me at some point within the next few decades. Perhaps “vast” is too strong a word, but I’d certainly want pretty steep odds to take a bet on that not happening. But this technology will become available eventually (unless civilisation collapses first), so those who find this disturbing had better put as much effort coming to terms with that as they tell us to put into coming to terms with death.

In any case, there is nothing to stop me feeling gratitude, and still want to live as long as possible. Dawkins is a formidable populariser of science and critic of religion, but he falls short as a logician.

@instamatic
Not really sure how much family/dynastic concerns play a role. To some extent, in some cases, I guess, but in reality different people are going to have different reasons for believing what they believe, religious or not. And the issue of attachment to belief (for the reasons I’ve given) seems to be so fundamental to human reasoning that I am inclined to go with that, at least as a default.

Yes to all of this, and especially: “Dawkins writes certain things for effect. Only a simpleton is thoroughly consistent.”

Still, I wonder a bit what Dawkins actually wants to achieve by exhorting us to thank our lucky stars instead of whining about death, and whether he has even really thought about it. I almost get the impression that he is expressing an essentially aesthetic reaction to the radical life extension movement, and if this is the case then he might still do well to disentangle his emotional response to the things some of us come out with and the actual objective issues.

And this takes me all the way back to the nature of morality, and the extent to which morality itself is an aesthetic response to human behaviour (and the options one has available). Does Dawkins actually have a moral objection to radical life extension and the efforts some of us are making to accelerate it? If so, what is it exactly? Is our alleged lack of gratitude seriously what he is objecting to? If so, is it really such a big deal? Or does he think the idea is actually dangerous, as Fukuyama has declared transhumanism in general to be? If the latter, then he might as well come out and say so, and explain why.

“(Multiverse? Hard one to figure)”

One of the problems with the multiverse idea is that it challenges our notions of causality. If every possible world exists as part of the multiverse, then what does it mean for one thing to cause another? Clearly there is some structure between these possible worlds marking some of them as “past” while others lie along multiple future paths, but what then does it mean for actions (or thoughts) in the present to “cause” those future scenarios? They exist already.

What we can say is this: whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can see correlations with past situations. In the situation where this comment has been posted, there will be a past situation in which I hit the “submit” button. Will I have “changed the world”? Not really: the world changes anyway. But the decision I make about whether to hit the submit button is clearly correlated with the future scenarios we find ourselves in.

Right now, it seems overwhelmingly likely that I will hit the submit button (why wouldn’t I?). But when precisely? Every second that I delay shuts off from available futures those scenarios in which I hit it earlier. And when I do hit it, that will shut off from our available futures those where I wait a bit longer.

Indeed, and if they don’t put their faith in the Lord, they will shut off from available futures those in which instead of burning in hell they enjoy everlasting bliss. What they (and we) need to understand is that those bridges are burning anyway. Nothing stays the same.

I want to make clear that I do agree (with Dawkins, Rick et al) that acceptance of death is important. I don’t agree life extensionists foam who at the mouth and cry, “Deathist!” every time anyone suggests that death is anything other than Totally Unacceptable. I think this is unhelpful.

But this is not where the focus should be, and in this I think Dawkins is wrong: not because there is something philosophically wrong with his argument but because he’s focusing on the wrong thing. Rather than whining about people whining he would do better to get to grips with the fact that radical life extension will one day - and perhaps quite soon - become a reality. How does he feel about that? I would really like to know. Or does he really think it isn’t going to happen?

Also, let’s be blunt but fair: 73 is an advanced age to be really receptive to new ideas. Not saying for a moment that Dawkins is no longer capable of assimilating them, but it would be more than understandable if his initial reaction is a (more old-fashioned and boffinish) version of wtf.

Indeed, if someone had come along and suggested to me that we were going to defeat aging ten or so years ago, I might well have responded along the lines of what Aubrey calls the death trance: it’s unfeasible so must be undesirable; it’s undesirable so must be unfeasible. What sold it to me was the more general transhumanist narrative of accelerating technology and its implications - and latterly, to be honest, just getting to know some of the people trying to make it happen. Never underestimate the power of our need to belong.

One reason I focus on Dawkins (apart from the fact that he’s the subject of this article) is that if we could convince him to be more open to the idea, that could actually have quite a large impact. I really don’t mind people talking about risks associated with radical life extension - in fact I welcome it - but it is kind of annoying to see people as famous and credible as Dawkins essentially poo-pooing it. I almost find it irresponsible.

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